Saturday, August 18, 2007

Farewell, Mrs. Astor (1902-2007)


Yesterday saw the memorial service of Brooke Astor, "The First Lady of New York," who passed away from pneumonia on Monday afternoon at age 105. Notables and average New Yorkers alike came to pay their respects and say their goodbyes to one of the most magnificent women New York or the world is ever likely to see.

Mrs. Astor was born Brooke Russell in Portsmouth, NH, on March 30, 1902. Her father, Maj. Gen. John H. Russell, took his wife and daughter with him to the places where he was posted: to Panama (where Brooke saw the Panama Canal being built), to Hawaii, and to Beijing, where the solitary child learned to speak Mandarin and spent much of her time in conversation with Buddhist priests. The Buddhists taught her, she said, to love trees and nature, and gave her a positive outlook on life as a whole. Her mother she credited with her love of learning, of reading, of improving one's mind. One would have been hard pressed to find a person better read that Mrs. Astor.

When Brooke Russell was but 16, she met J. Dryden Kuser, and despite not being ready, married him. Kuser was wealthy but abusive and ten years of unhappiness ensued, lit only by the birth of her son, Anthony. Mrs. Astor later said she was fortunate that he fell in love with another woman and left her. Two years later, she married Charles "Buddie" Marshall, the love of her life. They had twenty very happy years together until Charlie's sudden death in 1952 during a Thanksgiving Eve party at their country home.

Soon after, Vincent Astor, great-great-grandson and heir to the fortune of John Jacob Astor, approached her at a dinner party and informed her he intended to marry her. She was surprised, replying she hardly knew him. He said he would make her love him, and wrote her wonderful letters which finally won her over. The couple married in 1953. The marriage wasn't entirely rosy, Vincent Astor possessing a jealous nature and paranoid tendencies, isolating them from the society of other people, but they were by no means unhappy years either. Mrs. Astor later likened the time to a field laying fallow—a time of rest to prepare her for the busy years ahead. Vincent Astor died five and a half years later, leaving her a fortune of $60 million, and an equal amount for the Astor Foundation, which she was to helm, with the admonition, "You'll have fun, Pookie." Mrs. Astor said she had thought, how could she possibly, but he had been right.

Mrs. Astor ran the Astor foundation with vigor and a keen interest in every aspect of its operations. Not a single charity or project, but Mrs. Astor visited and researched it personally, to see that it was worthy of help, run by people who really cared. Though the original Astor fortune had been created in fur trading and shipping, the majority of it had been amassed through New York real estate. Accordingly, Mrs. Astor decided the money should be given for the most part within the five boroughs of the city.

Vincent Astor had wanted the foundation "for the alleviation of human suffering," and so it was. There are few institutions large or small within New York City that have not felt the touch of Mrs. Astor. From the smallest projects helping children, or the elderly to have medical care for their pets, to the grand institutions of the city like the Metropolitan Museum or the New York Public Library, the Astor Foundation was there. The Astor Foundation's indirect assistance was powerful as well—if Mrs. Astor had deemed it a worthy cause, other foundations would follow suit.

Mrs. Astor's interest was always in the people. She loved people. Not just the whosis and the glitterati—she had an interest in mankind. She was just as courteous and kind to a stranger on the street or the doorman of her building as she was to her friend the Queen of England. She loved to hold parties and attend them, she loved to dance, to flirt, to have involved conversations. She loved reading and writing, being herself an author of books as well as articles to magazines such as Vanity Fair. She said her regrets were few, but among them were not having read or written as many books as she would have liked.

The final few years of this magnificent, brilliant woman's life were a cause for sadness to her friends, such as David Rockefeller and Annette de la Renta. Mrs. Astor had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and was in poor health. Mrs. Astor's grandchild Philip Marshall brought suit last year against his father, Mrs. Astor's son Anthony Marshall, 83, for mismanaging Mrs. Astor's finances and depriving her of required medical and other care. JP Morgan Chase & Co. were put in charge of Mrs. Astor's finances, and her care was given to Mrs. de la Renta. Her friends think she was thankfully unaware of her son's betrayal and mistreatment. Mrs. Astor spent her final year at her country house of Holly Hill.

Farewell, Mrs. Astor.

"No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main; if a clod be washed
away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend's
or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
— John Donne, Meditation XVII.


Sources:
  • Interview with Mike Wallace, 1992 (60 minutes)
  • Interview with Charlie Rose, 1994 (Channel 13)
  • David Rockefeller interview with Charlie Rose;
         The Charlie Rose Show (16 Aug 2007, aired 17 Aug 2007)
  • Obituary by Marilyn Berger, New York Times, 14 Aug 2007.

 

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