Among the mysteries of the sinking of the Titanic, such as why the captain was speeding through a known glacier field and what happened to the bodies that went to the ocean floor, is how much its wealthiest passengers were actually worth.
The net worth contained in the doomed steamer’s first-class cabins—estimated to total as much as half a billion dollars—is a large part of the allure of the Titanic’s brief history. But financial reporting was practically nonexistent when the ship sank in April of 1912, and the first income tax was not enacted until the following year.
So while it’s generally accepted that John Jacob Astor IV was the richest man in the world when he went down with the ship, estimates of his personal fortune remain just that—estimates. “We have no data at all,” David Nasaw, a historian of the Gilded Age and author of a 2007 biography of Andrew Carnegie wrote in an email. “With no income taxes, there's no real evidence to go by as to how much he was worth.”
The most common figure given for Astor’s real-estate holdings is based on his bequest to his survivors. A prenuptial agreement gave his second wife and widow, Madeleine, who escaped on a lifeboat while still pregnant with the couple’s baby, a trust fund worth $5 million. His daughter Ava and the unborn child got a total of $8 million in trust, with the bulk of the fortune, $72 million, going to his son Vincent. These bequests amount to about $90 million—or $2.1 billion in 2011 dollars.
Then again, a New York Times article dated a few weeks after the accident takes stock of Astor’s legacy with a meticulous list of the real-estate holdings Vincent would receive. The Times’ reckoning is necessarily in very round figures—the most detailed sum is the $8,360,000 estimate for the value of Astor’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan; most of the other valuations are rounded to the nearest million. The article estimates Astor's entire fortune to be $150 million, which would put Astor’s comparable worth in 2011 dollars closer to $3.5 billion, calculated using changes in the consumer price index.
(The question of comparable worth is in itself a tough call. The website Measuring Worth gives three possible figures: historic standard of living, based on the CPI; economic status, based on the “prestige value” of the millions; and economic power, or "wealth relative to the total output of the economy." Astor’s $150 million in terms of its economic power would represent $58.7 billion in today’s dollars, according to the site.)
However you slice it, Astor was the wealthiest man aboard the Titanic by an order or two of magnitude. Contemporary readings of the wills of Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store, and Benjamin Guggenheim, a mining and smelting magnate, turn up some $8 million combined—or about $169 million today—though competing figures for both men’s holdings also vary enough to make these only vague guesses.
Those last moments before the Titanic struck the iceberg were the highpoint of the Astor fortune. John Jacob had inherited much of his wealth from his father, William, who in turn had gotten a big headstart from his forebears, whose money came from the fur trade after the American Revolution. (The original John Astor also dabbled in real estate and opium.)
At his death in 1959, Vincent Astor left his fortune to his wife Brooke, whose own death in 2007 ignited a five-year legal battle, settled only last month, over her son’s portion of her $100 million estate—or about $4.1 million in 1912.