Monday, August 13, 2007

Brooke Astor

Brooke Astor, who died at 105 Monday of pneumonia at Holly Hill, her Westchester County estate, was perhaps New York City's last grande dame, an all-but-extinct breed. Socialite, philanthropist, self-confessed flirt and expert charmer, she enriched the city she lived in with wit, style, and unstinting largesse.At the end of her life, the image of a woman bathed in good luck was marred by a public family squabble, when her grandson, Philip Marshall, sued his father, Anthony Marshall, accusing him of mismanaging her care. After several months, the headline-making dispute was settled out of court late last year, when a Manhattan judge ruled that allegations of intentional abuse were not substantiated.Born Roberta Brooke Russell in Portsmouth, N.H. on March 30, 1902, she came from she described as a "good family," but not one that enjoyed the extreme wealth she acquired much later in life.
She was the only child of Gen. John Henry Russell Jr., a Marine Corps officer whose work took him around the globe. Brooke passed her childhood in a range of foreign locales: China, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Hawaii. She briefly attended the Madeira School in McLean, Va., before dropping out to pursue her social life full-time."My mother was afraid I would learn too much and become a bluestocking," she told her friend, the late New Yorker writer Brendan Gill.She married her first husband, John Dryden Kuser, just after her 17th birthday. The alliance was a disaster. Kuser was an alcoholic who beat and abused her, finally insisting that they divorce in 1930 so he could remarry. "Our marriage was an unsound tree and there were many woodpeckers about," she wrote in "Footprints," her autobiography. She counted her relationship with Kuser (who went on to become a New Jersey state senator) as her one regret, notwithstanding the child it produced: Anthony, born in 1924.The young divorcee found an apartment at 1 Gracie Square in Manhattan and began to hobnob with such Jazz Age celebrities as Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Arthur Rubenstein, and movie-star sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish. She wrote book reviews for Vogue by day and partied by night.In 1932, she married the stockbroker Charles Henry Marshall, who by all accounts was the love of her life. They tootled back and forth between the United States and the small castello in Portofino, on Italy's Amalfi coast, that they purchased on their honeymoon. There was tennis with the poet Ezra Pound, whom she described in her memoir as "an extremely uncouth man with bright red hair and an enormous stomach." They also enjoyed conversation with the caricaturist Max Beerbohm and tea with novelist Evelyn Waugh. In New York, Brooke Marshall worked as an editor at House and Garden Magazine.That 20-year idyll came to an end on Thanksgiving day, 1952, when Marshall died in her arms at their country home in Tyringham, Mass.Within a year, the widow remarried, this time to multimillionaire Vincent Astor, grandson of Col. John Jacob Astor IV, who had gone down on the Titanic. Astor had a reputation as a sour and cantankerous depressive. "He had a dreadful childhood... But I think I made him happy," his wife told the New York Times in 1980. "That's what I set out to do. I'd literally dance with the dogs, sing and play the piano, and I would make him laugh, something no one had ever done before."When husband No. 3 died of a heart attack in 1959, he left her four homes and $67 million, plus another $67 million to the Vincent Astor Foundation, which she controlled. The foundation's charter defined its mission as "the alleviation of human misery," but Brooke Astor saw its purview more narrowly, reasoning that since the Astors had made their money in New York, it should be spent in New York. She took the helm with gusto, growing its endowment and dispensing nearly $200 million to such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pierpont Morgan Library, Rockefeller University and the New York Public Library.Manhattan's major intellectual meccas were not the only beneficiaries of the Astor inheritance. She also steered the foundation's money to youth services and public housing, designating large sums to prevent the deterioration of Bedford Stuyvesant. She supported historic preservation, saving swaths of old New York from the wrecking ball.She also gave smaller grants for, among other things, windows for a nursing home on Riverside Drive, fire escapes at a homeless shelter in the Bronx, and a new boiler at a youth center in Williamsburg. Because "old people tend to have old pets," she gave a $250,000 to the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan to provide free veterinary care to the companions of the aged and poor.Mrs. Astor, as everybody called her, made a point of visiting each potential beneficiary, which kept her out and about, dressed in designer finery, decked out in jewels, always beautifully coiffed. She relished her public role of benevolent dowager, and thrived on daily explorations of her adopted city."Imagine the fun of it," she wrote in the foundation's annual report for 1995. "I get into the car and head off to a part of New York that we haven't visited before, where we meet the determined and enterprising people who in their way contribute so much to improving the quality of life in our city. Sometimes I wish we could take busloads of people along with us to share in the pleasure of what we see and learn."The pleasure of giving on such a large scale came to an end in 1997, when Astor gave away the last of the foundation's millions and shut it down. Though others among the ultrarich -- Bill Gates and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance -- gave away far more than she had, it was the ever-gracious Brooke Astor who came to symbolize the glamour of noblesse oblige.Besides her son, Anthony, and her grandson Philip, Mrs. Astor is survived by another grandson, Philip's twin brother, Alec.

Can you imagine being a member of the high society in New York pre-WWII? Driving a Packard and listening to pre war Tommy Dorsey? What a trip that must have been. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt because

a) she made it past a hundred

b) she gave a shitload of money away.

My dad was about this age. It's always fascinating to read about how people lived back then.

1 comment:

Kent Hall said...

I'm pretty sure the Astor family fortune was gained a couple hundred yrs ago smuggling opium .
just a sidenote . Sorry, I don't mean to be a bummer . Although I bet you can trace almost any OLD money to illicit trade of some kind or other .

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