Irene Langhorne Gibson wasn’t the only famous person in her family. Her younger sister, Nancy (1879-1964), married Englishman Waldorf Astor, a viscount and one of the wealthiest men in the world, and she became known as Lady Astor. In 1919, she was the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in Britain’s House of Commons and became a fierce champion of the rights of women and the poor. In her maiden speech, Nancy, born into poverty herself, said, “I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves.” She was known to venture into slums to deliver rousing speeches.
She was beautiful, bright, and brash (or “heroic, hilarious, magnetically charming, and a bully,” as described in Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia, written by her great-nephew James Fox), given to outbursts that could be unpredictably funny or scathing, or both. Fox writes, “Most people saw immediately the comedy beneath the half-insults and provocations with which Nancy greeted people, shouting across the street, ‘I want that baby!’ ‘Buzzard’ or ‘goose’ were appellations of endearment. But not to everybody.” She spent much of her time “calming ruffled feathers” and writing apologies.
Among her most famous quips were those aimed at the anti-suffrage Winston Churchill, with whom she had a rocky friendship. Once, she reportedly said to him, “If I were your wife, I would poison your tea,” to which Churchill is said to have replied, “Madam, if I were your husband, I would drink it.”
Although Nancy’s father never permitted her to attend college, for which she resented him, she, like Irene, was allowed to attend finishing school. Also like Irene, Nancy was invited to visit Hollins. The Wyndham Robertson Library has two letters from her, dated November 7 and 18, 1932, respectively, written to President Joseph Turner. Both were written during a brief visit to Virginia to visit Nancy’s ill brother in Charlottesville. In the first, sent from Mirador, the family home in Greenwood, she writes: “It was very kind of you to ask me to come to Hollins, but I am afraid there is not much chance of my getting there. . . .” In the second, she writes:
Dear Mr. Turner:
I do not like holding out any hopes and there really is no chance of my coming. Every minute seems to get filled up and life is not half as pleasant as I had hoped it would be before I came!
Too many things to do. . . .