MRS. ASTOR TALKS ABOUT EDUCATION, GOOD MANNERS AND GIVING MONEY AWAY.
Byline: Christopher Sharp, April 1976
As Brooke Astor took the reins of the Vincent Astor Foundation in 1959, she had two intangibles to work with.
One was the financial worth of the foundation, which amounted to half of Vincent Astor’s estate. The foundation’s worth could not be pinpointed for years, since much of the estate was tied up in property having no assessed dollar value. The foundation’s money peaked to $113 million in 1972 after the property was sold and the money was transferred into the foundation.
The other intangible was the advice by her late husband to use the money “for the alleviation of human misery.”
“At that point, I had been the features editor for House & Garden, but I had no idea how to run things,” recalled Astor.
After some 18 years of picking and choosing — as well as inventing — causes and charities, Astor has been called a “genius” by some (such as Thomas P.F. Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and has been criticized by others for devoting too many resources for beautification projects at the expense of the poor and the ghettos.
From the hundreds of requests she receives each year for money going into projects, she has learned how to discern sincerity in a person, she says. “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….”
“It was my mother who sparked my interest in literature. She always read the best books and she got me interested in Stendahl. She told me that I should never come to the table unless I had something to say.”
Her father, John Russell, was an envoy to Haiti and to China. She learned to speak Chinese before she was 10. Her history has established a drive in her to stay close to “attractive, intelligent people. I do like to get out at night and talk to those who are good thinkers.”
The present market value of the Vincent Astor foundation is $70 million. Astor says she would like to find a good way to get rid of it all….
In Astor’s speeches — which she takes great pride in writing herself — the subject of quality and the lost quality of the present age is one of her leitmotifs. A life-long student of the art of writing and communicating, she has little patience for people who make no effort to achieve clarity.
“My grandson has been through college, but he writes as if he has just come out of junior high school,” said Astor. “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….”
She is flabbergasted by the new urban schools that are being built without windows. “There is nowhere to look. You might say that it prevents students from daydreaming. But daydreaming is very important for young people.
“There are a lot of things to become indignant about, but unless you have a checkbook there is not much you can do.”
For her efforts, Astor has an office that is filled with awards. One trophy she likes to point out cites her foundation for the stimulation of intellectual achievements. The work “intellectual” is spelled on the trophy with only two ‘L’s.
“I need another award,” she said, pushing her arms into her coat for an appointment for lunch, “like I need a hole in the head.”