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Philanthropist, social doyenne, symbol of WASP aristocracy, Brooke Astor was a New York icon.
This story first appeared in the August 14, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
And her longevity was as much a part of her immense legacy as anything. Astor died Monday afternoon at age 105 of pneumonia, according to Kenneth E. Warner, the attorney for her son, Anthony Marshall. Funeral arrangements were not completed by press time. But her tombstone, according to her wishes, will be inscribed with the simple but apt words, “I had a wonderful life,” her son said in a statement.
That life was the stuff of romance novels. She was tall (5 foot 7 inches), slender and vivacious. The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said she had “the look and spirit of a gamine.” She was married three times (once divorced, twice widowed), lived in exotic locales as a child and lavish ones later on, wrote two memoirs (“Patchwork Child: Early Memories” and “Footprints”) and two novels (“The Bluebird Is at Home” and “The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree”), was a magazine editor, had her poetry published in The New Yorker, spoke Chinese before she was 10 and never graduated from high school. She read English and French literature and loved to dance.
“Brooke was a great philanthropist, and a great lady, and we’ll not see the likes of her again,” said former first lady Nancy Reagan. “Brooke was very close to my entire family — I’ve known her since I was 14. In fact, when my mother died, Brooke told me, ‘I know no one can replace your mother, Nancy, but I’d like to try.'”
“No one will ever replace her,” said the social historian Barbara Goldsmith, a longtime friend of Astor’s. “She was unique because she had a broad vision and she was not at all interested in self-aggrandizement. She was interested in making things better for other people. Something she repeated at almost every speech was the advice her mother gave her: ‘Now Brooke, don’t ever get above yourself.'”
Her life would have seemed charmed to many, but the last few years of it were marred by a sordid squabble within her own family over her almost $200 million fortune that spilled into the public arena. In July 2006, one of Astor’s grandsons, Philip Marshall, alleged that his father, Astor’s only child, Anthony Marshall, was mistreating his mother and enriching himself at her expense. (See related article, opposite page.) A judge found the accusations of abuse to be unsubstantiated. However, Anthony Marshall and his wife, Charlene, relinquished their roles as co-executors of Astor’s estate — reported to be a $130 million personal fortune and a trust said to be worth $60 million left by her late husband, Vincent Astor — as part of a settlement. Her longtime friend, Annette de la Renta, became a co-executor of her estate, helping to ensure Astor spent the last year of her life — much of it spent at her 68-acre estate in Westchester, N.Y. — surrounded by her dogs, gardens and other things she loved.
As the city’s most influential philanthropist, Astor gave away almost $200 million to New York institutions and inhabitants over a 38-year period. The money came from the Vincent Astor Foundation, a trust established in 1948. When Vincent Astor died, in 1959, he left her in charge. His instructions were simple: Use the money “for the alleviation of human misery” and “have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.”
Until 1997, when she dissolved the foundation after finally disbursing all its assets, she did both. And in the tributes to her Monday, it was at times difficult to pinpoint which of her characteristics would be remembered most. Many pointed to her charitable work, others to her sense of humor and still others to her coquettishness.
“She was the biggest flirt I ever knew — even in old age,” said John B. Fairchild, former editorial director and chairman of Fairchild Publications and currently contributing editor at large to WWD. “I remember once having dinner in a restaurant where she was having dinner with Freddie Melhado and a group of other men and I said to her, ‘What are you doing with all those old men?’ And she shot back, ‘Show me the pictures of the young ones.'”
Aileen Mehle, also known as the columnist Suzy, recalled once calling Astor up for lunch and instead joking the duo go to a bar and pick up sailors. “She burst into laughter. I thought she would never stop. She was just adorable and she was a man’s woman. She was also a woman’s woman, but she just thought men were more fun. And she was absolutely a flirt. You don’t see too many of those anymore. I don’t mean she batted her eyelashes, but she certainly gave them 100 percent of her attention.”
“She was a great lady and made a tremendous contribution to our country and especially to New York,” said Henry Kissinger, who first met Astor when he was Secretary of State in the Nixon administration and later took a trip with her to the Middle East. “It was in 1981 or 1982. She was an enormous amount of fun to be with. We went to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Morocco. She was indefatigable.”
Her energy and enthusiasm were often greater than those of people half her age. As she approached 90, Astor said that she’d cut down on her entertaining, which meant she was giving a dinner for 20 only about once a month. At the time, Oscar de la Renta described her as “my youngest friend,” adding she had even done the lambada. “When we were down in Santo Domingo, she was very curious about it, so she tried it,” he said. “She was fabulous.”
Charles Masson, owner of Le Grenouille, where Astor dined regularly, recalled once visiting her in Maine. “We spent the entire time hiking. Now, I’ve run a few marathons, but she had such extraordinary energy it was hard to keep up. She was incredible.”
The secret of her stamina and longevity, Astor told W in 1991, was, “Discipline, in every way. You can have fun, but don’t eat so much, don’t drink so much. Flirt a little, but don’t get too involved.”
As for her youthful look, she admitted to once having had her neck done, but said, “Face-lifts are a mistake. People pull their faces so much that suddenly they’re all nose. And you can’t push your nose back or cut it off on the side.”
Two things that had changed since she was young, she noted, were people’s manners — and their willingness to talk about money. “In my day, how much money you had was not something you discussed.” At a dinner party, she added, “Even if you’re sitting next to two dreadful bores, you’ve got to be nice. They’re your hostess’ friends. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have put them there. People who like other people will always be nice.”
The real crux of the matter, however, as she put it, was that in recent years, “A lot of people here have lost their sense of humor. That’s why I like England. They’re still laughing there — at themselves, too. We don’t laugh at ourselves.” That’s not a problem Astor, who once described herself as having “the financial sense of a gnat,” ever had.
She was born Roberta Brooke Russell in Portsmouth, N.H., on March 30, 1902 — an Easter Sunday — the only child of Maj. Gen. John H. Russell, a Marine Corps commandant, and his wife, Mabel. Russell’s postings took him far and wide and young Brooke spent her childhood in Hawaii, Panama, Santo Domingo and Peking. From her father, she learned the value of self-discipline. Her mother taught her something else.
“It was my mother who sparked my interest in literature,” she told WWD in 1976. “She always read the best books and she got me interested in Stendhal. She told me that I should never come to the table unless I had something to say.”
Because her schooling was provided mainly by a succession of governesses, except for a year at a British school in what was then known as Peking (Beijing), and because her father’s peripatetic career kept her on the go, what she had to say was revealed mostly to her diary, a record she began keeping at the age of seven. She had a second brush with formal education when the family settled in Washington. She was enrolled in Miss Madeira’s, an elite secondary school, but was pulled out and taken to Santo Domingo. Astor recalled the occasion for WWD in 1991: “I revered Miss Madeira, but mother took me out when I wanted to learn Greek and Latin. She thought I would become a bluestocking — a bore and not attractive, someone who wouldn’t flirt at all.”
If it was Mabel Russell’s intention to marry her daughter off, she succeeded. The family returned to Washington and Brooke was invited to a Princeton University prom, where she met a wealthy young grad named J. Dryden Kuser. They married. She was 16. Kuser turned out to be a drunken lout who cheated on her, broke her jaw and then divorced her. He later had a forgettable career as a New Jersey state senator.
During the 10-year marriage, she began writing professionally, providing book reviews for Vogue. She also joined the boards of local charities. The union produced her only child, Anthony, who survives her, as do twin grandsons Alexander and Philip Marshall. When Anthony enlisted in the Marines, he took the surname of his stepfather, Astor’s second husband, because he admired him so.
That was Charles “Buddie” Marshall, a stockbroker. After her divorce from Kuser, Astor moved to New York and began exchanging letters with Marshall, whose marriage had also dissolved. They had initially met one morning while riding to hounds, each of them still married to their first spouses. They wed in 1932, then bought a house in Westbury, Long Island, and a penthouse at 10 Gracie Square in Manhattan.
Buddie Marshall, she wrote years later, was the love of her life, everything her first husband was not. They honeymooned in Europe, dined with the Cole Porters in Paris and bought a small castle in Portofino, Italy, where they summered with a red-brown dachshund named Fafner. She traveled extensively, wrote for Town & Country, did some editing for House & Garden and hosted a writing workshop whose participants included Arthur Krock of The New York Times shortly before he went off to head the newspaper’s Washington bureau and become one of its most powerful political columnists. After World War II, during which she served as a USO hostess, a Red Cross Gray Lady and an assistant in an army library, she became features editor of House & Garden. (In 1991, she contributed a piece to H&G about Fafner, and in her 90s wrote a series of articles for Vanity Fair. Aimee Bell, who edited her there, recalled Astor’s wicked sense of humor and, of course, her endless flirting with editor in chief Graydon Carter.)
The bliss of her second marriage was shattered on Thanksgiving Day 1952, when Marshall had a heart attack in the weekend home they had acquired in Tyringham, Mass. He died in her arms.
At around that time, Vincent Astor, then 62, was becoming a single man again. Within a year, he would become her third husband. He’d already been married and divorced and now his second marriage, to the former Mary Benedict “Minnie” Cushing, was breaking up. According to reports, Astor was a persistent pursuer of the widow Marshall, plying her with a flood of love notes, sometimes as many as five a day. He called her Pookie. They were wed in October 1953 and led quiet lives.
“We never saw anybody,” she told the Times in 1984. “We would have dinner together, all dressed up. I used to get blue when I thought of all my friends going out.”
He might not have been the most engaging of men, but Vincent Astor was, in the words of Derek Wilson, his family biographer, “a hitherto unknown phenomenon in America: an Astor with a highly developed social conscience.”
When he was 20 and a student at Harvard University, his father, John Jacob Astor IV, went down with the Titanic, leaving young Vincent some $200 million. Astor dropped out of Harvard and began to do something few of his forbearers had done: use his money for the public good. He sold off the family’s slum housing — the source of much of its money — and invested in reputable enterprises. He established the trust that was to be his legacy and Brooke Astor’s glory.
On Feb. 3, 1959, Vincent Astor died. Although he was married to Brooke Astor for less than six years, he left her his entire fortune: some $2 million outright, $65 million worth of investments and control of the Vincent Astor Foundation, whose assets were also close to $65 million. He had no children of his own, but others in his family bitterly contested the will. It was ruled valid and it changed Brooke Astor’s life — as well as the life of the city around her.
That she kept her donations within the five boroughs of New York was no accident. She felt that because the Astor fortune was amassed primarily through real estate dealings in the city, the money should be channeled back to the city.
Astor gave generously to what she called New York’s “crown jewels,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which received about $17 million, which helped create the Chinese Garden Court; the Rockefeller Institute, which got about $9 million; the New York Public Library, the biggest beneficiary, getting close to $30 million; the Pierpont Morgan Library, which received $2 million, and the Bronx Zoo, where she underwrote the Wild Asia exhibit. In 1982, the New York Zoological Society decided to name its baby elephant Astor in her honor, something she found funny. “Astor’s keepers tell me he’s the only elephant who stands on his head,” she said. That its namesake was a lifelong Republican appeared to be entirely coincidental.
In 1983, she resigned from the boards of most of the other high-profile institutions she was affiliated with to concentrate on the Public Library, then going through a fiscal crisis, which it weathered, thanks in part to her help. And she often set precedents with her giving. Bill Blass, for example, pledged $6 million to the Public Library in the late Eighties, citing her generosity as his example.
“When she waves her approving scepter over a social event, it is automatically blessed,” reported WWD.
Other institutions she supported included the American Museum of Natural History, New York University, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Morgan Library and the South Street Seaport.
Astor funds also found their way to grittier parts of town. They provided seed money to launch an attack on blight in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. United Neighborhood Houses of New York was granted $1 million in 1961 for a three-year project involving settlement houses in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Pocket parks, which Astor called “outdoor living rooms,” were developed in Harlem and the Lower East Side to brighten public housing that until then had all the charm of Attica cellblocks. The trust also supported such agencies as Coalition for the Homeless, the St. Francis Friends of the Poor and the Animal Medical Center.
Her philanthropic contributions garnered her many honors. In 1988, Ronald Reagan gave her the Presidential Citizen’s Medal; a decade later, Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Not content to sit and sign the checks in her Park Avenue apartment — or at Holly Hill, her estate in Westchester, or her home in Maine — Astor was a frequent visitor to the hospitals, homeless shelters and slums she tried to help. And for years she toured those areas in taxis, expressing immense pleasure when cab drivers would recognize her.
“She went to every place before she made a gift, no matter how obscure the place and no matter where it was in the five boroughs,” said Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library. “It might have been a residency for pregnant teenagers or a place that provided furniture for the disadvantaged. But she always went and she was always impeccably attired because that’s what she thought was expected of her. It wasn’t flashy or flamboyant; it was just good taste, the way she conducted herself and her business.”
As she explained to The New York Times in 1980: “If I go up to Harlem or down to Sixth Street and I’m not dressed up or I’m not wearing my jewelry, then the people feel I’m talking down to them.”
In the end, Astor was a living refutation of the oft-quoted adage attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “There are no second acts in American lives.” For 40 years, she was both New York’s most famous philanthropist and the undisputed queen of society — two roles that, as Andrew Carnegie’s wife could have told you, don’t always go hand in hand. That had more than a little to do with the Astor name and the money her third husband left her and his foundation.
But it also had plenty to do with Brooke’s charm, sense of humor and natural authority. Astor perhaps summed her life up best when, in a 1980 interview about her memoir “Footprints,” she described it as “the development of a foolish young girl into a public monument.” — With contributions from WWD staff
In Her Words
Brooke Astor was always eminently quotable. Here are some thoughts she shared with WWD over the years.
On sincerity: “I’ve learned to look for the way people think by the way that they articulate and the look in their eyes. A sense of humor and good manners are very important to me, particularly humor. Manners can be acquired easily enough. I’ve also found that many people who laugh loudly often have no sense of humor.”
On her age (in 1991): “I couldn’t care less about turning 90. Except I don’t like it when somebody wants to help me over every 2-inch curb.”
On longevity: “Discipline — in every way. You can have fun, but don’t eat so much, don’t drink so much, don’t go dancing so much. Flirt a little, but don’t get too involved.”
On cosmetic surgery: “Facelifts are a mistake. People pull their faces back so much that suddenly they’re all nose. And you can’t push your nose back or cut it off on the side. But I do think the plastic men are getting better.”
On New York: “I go out Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But I don’t see the same people. That’s the great thing about New York. You can meet any sort of person you want to. If I lived in Grosse Pointe [Mich.], I’d see 10 people. Here, I have hundreds that I know well. And I don’t have to belong to any particular group.”
On being a hostess: “I have definite ideas about entertainment. I believe in drawing out everyone on certain subjects before letting a party break up into smaller groups. My parties frequently start out as roundtable discussions.”
On socializing: “I do like to get out at night and talk to those who are good thinkers.”
On developing projects in low-income areas: “We like to work with young people. It was Lady Allen of Hurtwood who impressed me with the importance of playgrounds in a community. It seems that when you have nothing…there is a greater temptation to throw something through a window. I think there is a greater problem with young girls in a troubled community than there is with boys. Boys generally have a wider range of interests. Girls are usually interested in nothing more than attracting boys.”
On clarity: “My grandson has been through college, but he writes as if he has just come out of junior high school. It’s becoming more obvious that schools are not teaching children how to write. Michael Collins, the astronaut, was right when he said that communications between the Earth and the moon were better than the memos he had to deal with after coming back to Earth.” Her office at the time included numerous awards. One she took a perverse pleasure in showing off cited the Foundation “for Intelectual [sic] Achievements.”
On school buildings without windows: “There is nowhere to look. You might say that it prevents students from daydreaming. But daydreaming is very important for young people.”
On money: “Money is like manure. It should be spread around.”