Sunday, October 13, 2013

93. Brooke Astor, Aristocrat of the People

She loved her jewelry.  But that honey-colored hair,
is it dyed?  She said no; her friends thought otherwise.

      Philanthropist Brooke Astor burst into the news in 2006 when one of her grandsons filed a lawsuit accusing his father, her only son, of neglecting her care and exploiting her to enrich himself and his wife.  Brooke Astor, then 104, was suffering from dementia and anemia and other ailments, making her vulnerable to abuse.  Anthony D. Marshall, the son, denied the accusations, and the dispute stretched over many months, a bitter closing chapter in the long career of a woman who had come to be known as an aristocrat of the people and the unofficial first lady of the city of New York. 

     Brooke Astor died of pneumonia at her weekend estate in August 2007.  Her funeral at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street was attended by 900 people, including luminaries from the worlds of finance, the arts, and philanthropy, and Mayors Bloomberg, Koch, and Dinkins.  Her son was present and in a choked voice read a note that his mother had written to be delivered at her funeral:  “When I go from here, I want to leave behind me a world richer for the experience of me.  I want the creatures and the animals and the birds to be a little less afraid of human beings.  Death is nothing and life is everything.  I want to leave behind me a deeper sense of God.”  He then broke down in tears.

     Sadly, Anthony D. Marshall later faced criminal charges of mishandling her estate.  In 2009 he was convicted of grand larceny, and his attorney of forgery; both were sent to prison. 

     Prior to this I had known of Brooke Astor only vaguely.  So who was she and how did she come to be known as an aristocrat of the people and the city’s first lady?

     Brooke Russell was born at Portsmouth, N.H., in 1902, her father a major general in the Marine Corps, and later the Corps’ sixteenth commandant.  She remembered her childhood as secure and happy, albeit solitary, since she had no siblings.  Much of it was spent abroad, because her father’s career took him to distant lands.  At age 16 she met John Dryden Kuser, a New Jersey politician with a vast fortune that dazzled Brooke’s mother more, it would seem, than it dazzled her.  When he proposed, she reluctantly accepted, thus embarking on a tumultuous marriage that she later termed the worst years of her life, owing to her husband’s physical abuse, alcoholism, and adultery.  They were divorced in 1930.

     In 1932 she married her second husband, financier Charles Henry Marshall, the love of her life.  Twenty years of happiness followed, with life in a penthouse full of servants, dinners and parties, and a castle in Italy.  When her husband’s firm suffered financial reverses in the 1940s, they undertook to live more modestly, and she went to work as a features editor at House & Garden magazine.  In 1952 Marshall was suddenly stricken with a heart attack.  She found him lying on the floor, summoned a doctor, cradled his head in her lap; by the time the doctor came, Charles Marshall was dead.

     So far, viewers may wonder what all this is about, and rightly so, for Brooke Kuser/Marshall had yet to become herself.  That transformation began in 1953, when Vincent Astor, a grandson of the Mrs. Astor, and great-great grandson of old John Jacob, the founder of the Astor fortune, proposed.  Though hesitant, she accepted.  As her friend Louis Auchincloss, the novelist, remarked, “Of course she married Vincent for the money.  I wouldn’t respect her if she hadn’t.  Only a twisted person would have married him for love.” 

     She tried to make her new husband happy, for he was a very suspicious person who thought everyone wanted something from him, and was given to depression.  To alleviate the depression, she would sing to him or dance with her dogs, until she provoked a smile.  Still, she felt shut off, losing contact with her friends; in the end the couple were left alone.  She did, however, take an interest in his real estate and hotel empire and his philanthropies.  And when he died in 1959, she inherited some $60 million, and as much more for a foundation to alleviate human suffering.  “Pookie,” he had told her, “you are going to have a hell of a lot of fun with the foundation when I’m gone.”  She did, reinventing herself as Brooke Astor.

     “Money is like manure,” she said with a wink and a smile, quoting Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker.  “It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.”  Since most of the Astor money had been made in New York City real estate, she decided to spread her millions around in the city in the form of grants from the Vincent Astor Foundation to museums and libraries, boys’ and girls’ clubs, homes for the elderly, and other programs and institutions.  As a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library and Museum, the Rockefeller University, and other prestigious institutions, she spent much time in their board rooms, working with curators and other staff members, but from 1983 on she devoted herself almost exclusively to the New York Public Library, where she remained honorary chairwoman until her death.  Thanks to her, the Arnold Constable department store was converted into the Mid-Manhattan Library, and the Astor Court, a replica of a Chinese gentleman scholar’s garden courtyard of the Ming Dynasty, was created at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

     Me and Brooke Astor:  No, I never met her, never even glimpsed her in action.  But I have often visited the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Astor Court, sublimely unaware of whose largesse had made them possible, so I am in her debt.  The great attraction of the Mid-Manhattan Library is that, unlike the main library across the street, it lets you check out books.  And I have sat there reading or taking notes, in the company of restless teen-agers, and an older scholar whose innumerable scribbled notes were spread out in little piles on the table in front of him, so that any minor disturbance – a sneeze or a slight gust of air – would have sent what may have been his life’s work fluttering to the floor.  Fortunately, I never sneezed.  As for the garden courtyard, it is one of my favorite spots at the Met, since it brings alive for me the life of a Chinese gentleman scholar of earlier times.  I have also glimpsed that life in venerable scroll paintings of landscapes showing a scholar in his little house in the pine-clad mountains, while his invited guests, coming for tea, make their way up a path through the woods.  Nature, tranquility, a little house, friends: the formula for an ideal (or illusory?) existence.

Asian Art Gallery 217
The Astor Court, inspired by Brooke Astor, who had spent part of her childhood in China.  
Constructed by Chinese craftsmen using traditional materials, tools, and techniques.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

     But Brooke Astor had no intention of confining herself to board rooms and their denizens.  Considering it her duty to evaluate personally every organization seeking help from her foundation, she sallied forth in her chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz to visit churches and tenements and neighborhood programs throughout the city, to witness the ground-breaking of a playground in a Brooklyn slum, or the launching of a day care center in the impoverished South Bronx.  During these forays she was often treated to lunch on paper plates and plastic folding tables set up for the occasion, prompting her to exclaim over the “delicious sauces” – deli mustard and pickle relish. 

     On her rounds she gladly talked to anyone: a child at a computer, a library secretary or guard, a janitor at a branch library whom she thanked “for keeping this place so clean.”  No wonder that, at the institutions she visited, she made friends among the staff at all levels.  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art a burly black janitor once gave her a hearty hug when she stepped out of her limousine, and she returned the hug with gusto.  And her money often went to humdrum necessities that were never publicized, like air-conditioning or a staff lunch room, new windows for a nursing home on Riverside Drive, fire escapes for a residence for the homeless in the Bronx, a boiler for a youth center in Brooklyn, or small parks scattered around the city.

     During these trips around the city she wore white kid gloves, finely tailored suits or designer dresses, a hat in all weather, and a cashmere coat in cool weather; in her later years she carried an elegant cane.  “If I go up to Harlem or down to Sixth Street,” she explained, “and I’m not dressed up or I’m not wearing my jewelry, then the people feel I’m talking down to them.  People expect to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old lady, and I don’t intend to disappoint them.” 

     But at night, even into her 90s, she returned to the world of society – high society – usually as an honored guest at some black-tie affair, sporting designer dresses and jewelry, and seated to the right of the host at dinner, while flirting freely with every gentleman in sight.  Her apartment on the 15th and 16th floors of 778 Park Avenue had 14 rooms and 6 terraces.  An invitation to one of her luncheons or dinners there meant you had arrived at the highest level of society.  At her formal dinner welcoming President Elect Ronald Reagan to the city, the guest of honor dropped to his knees to find a diamond earring she had dropped under the dining table, and in so doing bumped into Walter Wriston of Citibank and Felix Rohatyn, the financier credited with saving the city from bankruptcy in the 1970s, both on their hands and knees hunting the same elusive earring. 

Her bedroom, giving a hint of how she lived.

     And yet, unlike her husband’s grandmother, the Mrs. Astor of the era of the Four Hundred (see post #88), she had no desire to be an arbiter of Society, was of that world and yet apart from it.  She appreciated those who helped her help others, but had a wicked eye for high society as a whole.  “Unlike Queen Victoria,” she said, “we are amused – we are always amused.” 

     She was slight of build and, in her last years, frail and thin, but she kept fit by swimming a thousand strokes on weekends and almost daily in the summer, even in the chilly ocean waters around her house in Maine.  Her hair remained honey-colored, and on meeting a member of the British royal family she captivated him with the announcement, “I am ninety-five, sir, and never had a facelift.”  (Bravo for her!  But her friends cast doubt on the assertion.)  Even into her 90s she loved to dance.  “When that music starts,” she said, “it enters my blood like a fever.”  Which this blogger enthusiastically applauds, having in his later, less inhibited years experienced that same kind of fever.  And I’ve seen photos of her dancing; it was no prim waltz or foxtrot, it was wild!

     A widow for 48 years, she could have married again but chose not to, though she admitted to a fondness for flirting.  An acquaintance once said to her, “Mrs. Astor, you’re such a beautiful woman, you must have had many lovers.”  “When I can’t fall asleep at night,” she replied, “I sometimes start counting them, but I’m asleep long before I get to the end of the list.”  Perhaps this was said with a wink and a smile.  One wonders if her philanthropic endeavors and active social life left room for any such adventures. 

     As age and infirmity overtook her, she remained at her Park Avenue  apartment, a recluse toward the end, unable to recognize friends and family.  In the litigation following her grandson’s suit against her son, gruesome stories emerged of overflowing wastebaskets, sofas reeking of urine, her pet dogs locked in a pantry, and the grande dame of New York society in rags, stumbling about in the once palatial rooms of her apartment.  The saddest of endings to a splendid life.

     Brooke Astor was always glad that she had not lapsed into the idle life of pleasure that her fortune would have permitted.  When she terminated the Astor Foundation in 1997, it had given away close to $195 million, mostly within New York City.  Her donation to a cause signaled to the big foundations that it deserved support; much larger grants often followed.  She had long since chosen the epitaph for her gravestone: “I had a wonderful life.”

     Brooke Astor combined glamor, wealth, savvy, patrician grace, and a gently wicked sense of humor.  Like Taylor Mead, her polar opposite (see post #91), she took herself seriously but at the same time could have a laugh at her own expense.  I never knew her, but I wish heartily that our paths had crossed just once, so we could exchange a wink and a smile.  But why stop there?  I’d love to have rubbed shinbones with her, to have heard her designer dress rustling and her jewelry clinking as she danced.  Yes, dance!  Brooke Astor and I could have danced up a storm.

     Congressional perks:  Members of Congress enjoy numerous perks, as for instance
  •            A private gym with a swimming pool and basketball court
  •            Private elevators, and a subway to get them the vast distances from their    office to the Capitol
  •            Free mailings
  •            On-site medical care
  •            Free parking at Washington airports
  •            A generous travel allowance
  •            Free dry-cleaning 

To my knowledge, none of these have been suspended during the shutdown.  Presumably they are essential services, vital to the health and well-being of the nation.

     Coming soon:  The Living Theatre (champions of freedom and nudity, and why I kept my clothes on).  In the offing: Quentin Crisp.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder