If you ever wondered what would happen to Downton Abbey if every one of its inhabitants became an alcoholic, a recluse, or simply lost her mind, the story behind “The Astor Orphan” is one possibility. Rokeby, a decrepit 43-room, 198-year-old mansion on 450 acres of riverfront in New York’s Hudson River Valley, is the setting for Alexandra Aldrich’s memoir of her chaotic, unhappy childhood — from her elementary school days to her escape to the welcome discipline of boarding school — and while Rokeby’s upkeep is a constant struggle, it’s the entitled and unwashed heirs who turn the “big house” into a nut house. It’s not a pretty story.
Born in the early 1970s, Alexandra Aldrich descends from a long line of Founding Fathers, Whigs, and robber barons, the Astor family among them. But don’t confuse the grimy folks at Rokeby with their distant cousins, the wealthy New York Astors. The central problem facing the heirs to the Rokeby estate is money: There isn’t any left.
Alexandra’s grandparents came of age in the early 20th century and “caught the tail end of the old glory days.” Although her father, Richard Aldrich, attended boarding school and went on to Harvard, he possessed “too strong a sense of entitlement to do a single job day after day and take orders from others,” though, tragically, he “didn’t inherit the money to support that attitude.” Alexandra’s mother, Ala, had a more practical upbringing in communist Poland, but quickly adopted the laissez-faire approach to life endemic to Rokeby, content to feed her children discarded TV dinners — rejects from a local factory — rather than paying for groceries.
The book meanders through snapshots of Alexandra’s childhood among the many Aldrich heirs living on the Rokeby estate: White-knuckled drives with drunk Grandma Claire; her parents’ incessant bickering (“You’re a dirty swine!” was “a normal expression of spousal affection.”); a casual introduction to her father’s mistress and, eventually, his illegitimate (and unacknowledged) son.
“Surrounded by whimsical, unstructured people who did what they pleased whenever they pleased, I genuinely idealized a respectable and disciplined life,” Alexandra writes. This is a girl who reads her grandmother’s Talbots catalogs “not for the conservative clothing, but for the furnished backgrounds.” In her own family’s kitchen, “a ribbon of brown flypaper still plastered with dead flies from the previous summer” hung over the dining room table and everything “smelled of leftover cat food cans.”
Among the many disturbing episodes we learn about at Rokeby are a mysterious death that occurs at a summer party and the violent behavior of her father. He attempts to kill his mother’s dog by locking it inside a car parked deep in the forest (the dog was rescued). and regales visitors with the tale of how, as a boy, he’d accidentally dropped a heavy crystal ball on the head of a cleaning lady “while she was on her hands and knees scrubbing these front stairs. . . . She made a horrible groaning sound.” He seems to think this is funny; it’s unclear what Alexandra thinks. While these scenes are vivid they don’t add up to much except a pathetic tableau of unhappy people wandering through the remains of a family that once had a purpose.
The book ends at the point where Alexandra’s life presumably begins: her education away from Rokeby (paid for by a sympathetic Parisian aunt). Her mother is outraged: “Someone could come up with twelve thousand dollars for boarding school tuition, while all these years we’ve gone hungry!” she wails. “Because boarding school is more necessary than food in this family?”
Ultimately it’s just as unpleasant for the reader to spend time with these spoiled, deranged people as it must have been for Alexandra. “What’s so interesting about [my family], you ask?” a teenaged Alexandra muses in the book. “Although my family is directly descended from American aristocracy, my parents are rather . . . bohemian.” They’re also unkind, selfish, and boring. That’s the problem with aristocrats: They stop being interesting when they run out of money.
Buzzy Jackson is a research associate at the Center of the American West at University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.”