There is almost nothing about Alexandra Aldrich, a direct descendant of John Jacob Astor, our nation’s first multimillionaire, that gives away her aristocratic roots. She is shy and unassuming. She drives an old Subaru and wears ankle-length skirts that would be less at home in a four-star restaurant than they are in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights, New York, where she now lives. In a world of Paris Hiltons, Aldrich is not your typical heiress. Then again, your typical heiress doesn’t grow up dirt-poor in a storied, nearly two-century-old mansion.
“We were up in the third floor in this little apartment with the broken furniture,” Aldrich says. “It was like we were hidden away, swept under the rug.”
There’s no hiding anymore. In her memoir, The Astor Orphan (Ecco, $25), Aldrich gives a tell-all of her somewhat tormented and decidedly unprivileged upbringing at Rokeby, the 198-year-old mansion in upstate New York that her father and his siblings inherited. No money came with the estate, and her father, the property’s unpaid de facto caretaker, was patrician in spirit and refused to get a job.
A poor girl playing rich, Aldrich saw herself as “a guard of order” and would instruct her cousins on their family’s history. But Aldrich eventually abandoned this imperative. Perhaps it happened around the time that her grandmother nearly drank herself to death, vomiting up blood. Or maybe it occurred when her father took a French mistress.
In order to come to terms with who she really was, Aldrich would have to leave Rokeby—something she had only dreamed of doing as a child. She would later find that Rokeby’s pull was stronger than she had imagined.
As a child, Aldrich dreamed of living in a Communist country like Poland, where her mother had grown up. She craved rules and structure, which her parents didn’t provide.
In college, this search for self-definition brought Aldrich to Poland, where the Protestant studied Jewish law. “I was really drawn to the idea of a community that is very sheltered, and where everybody follows the same set of rules,” Aldrich says. “Judaism tells you exactly how to behave in every situation. The life is so prescribed, and that’s what I needed as a kid.”
Aldrich became an Orthodox Jew in 1998. With the discipline of her new religion, she finally felt free from Rokeby. Yet the past has a way of never letting us go.
In 2005, while embroiled in a custody battle, Aldrich moved back to her childhood home. She stayed at Rokeby for six years, during which, flooded with memories of her childhood, she pieced together her memoir.
The Astor Orphan, Aldrich’s first book, reads like a cross between Jane Eyre and Running With Scissors, which is to say that it contains more than a few unsavory details about her family. In many ways, the book feels like a child’s revenge on her family, but Aldrich denies any intention of that kind.
“Writing this book was about telling the whole story,” Aldrich says. “The part that I had to hide when I was growing up and the part that I wasn’t allowed to talk about.”
With the book’s title, Aldrich is alluding to the parental neglect she experienced as a child, but she’s also connecting herself with the Astor orphans, an eccentric cast of characters who lived at Rokeby before her.
“The free-spirited Astor orphans left us, their descendants, our legacy,” Aldrich writes, “the house, its history and contents, and a sense of entitlement and superiority.”
Aldrich, who works as a job trainer for mentally disabled adults, has no plans to move back to the house. The problem, she says, is that, like an estranged family member, the building reminds her of so many things she would like to forget.
“When you go to Rokeby,” she says, “the past takes over.”