By Lili Eros-Sarnyai
Brooke Astor, “a quintessential New Yorker”, passed away August 14th at the age of 105 at her weekend estate at Holly Hill, leaving a gaping hole in the very fabric of the city. Kenneth Warner, the family lawyer, confirmed her death, citing the cause as pneumonia. News of her death dominated the headlines in a city replete with potential front-page stories as newspapers were filled with photographs and articles paying tribute to her greatness. Her funeral, scheduled to take place on Friday, is set to include the crème de la crème with the list of attendees reading like a veritable Who’s Who of the city’s elite.
The undisputed grande dame of New York high society, a beacon of elegance, grace and charm, Brooke Astor will be remembered as a determined socialite most distinctly characterized by her tireless charitable endeavors in the city. Her public persona was that of a humanist aristocrat with a generous heart; it seems almost unbelievable that she was not trueborn blue blood acting upon noblesse oblige.
Born into a middle class family with nothing remarkable about her initially, Mrs. Astor’s rise to her position as Manhattan’s unofficial philanthropic ambassador is truly remarkable. What is more, she did not have the smooth, pampered life that many people imagine is bestowed upon all wealthy and successful individuals. Her first marriage at seventeen to a wealthy Princeton student was defined by misery and ended eleven years later in divorce. Her second marriage, to the stockbroker Charles Marshall, the love of her life, lasted for twenty years, and so it was with a certain degree of hesitation that she agreed to marry Vincent Astor just a few months after her second husband’s sudden death. It was this final marriage that allowed Brooke Astor access to the bastion of culture and wealth that was and is the elite of New York society.
Following the death of Vincent Astor in 1959, Mrs. Astor, rather than retiring into the life of luxurious excess and repose which could have easily been hers given the enormous assets left to her, reinvented herself as the epitome of benevolence. She zealously set about disposing the $60 million bequeathed to her by her late husband towards “the alleviation of human suffering” in New York. Today the great cultural institutions of our city – in Mrs. Astor’s own words its “crown jewels” – The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Bronx Zoo, Carnegie Hall and most notably the New York Public Library, to which she finally devoted herself almost exclusively and where she remained an honorary chairwoman until her death. These are just a few of the countless institutions and organizations that benefited from her extensive altruism.
Never one to shy away from the more gritty realisms of New York, Mrs. Astor also supported less glamorous causes such as building boilers in youth centers, providing furniture for the homeless and raising funds for public school teachers. She was also involved in numerous organizations and community outreach programs helping New Yorkers from every walk of life, such as Lighthouse for the Blind, the Maternity Center Association, International Rescue Committee and the Fresh Air Fund.
An icon in her own right, Brooke Astor made her white-gloved way through the streets of Harlem with the same poise as she did through the café at The Plaza. She once remarked that “People expect to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old lady, and I don’t intend to disappoint them.” Indeed, many will remember her most for the élan with which she would make all her public appearances, impeccably attired in the perennial chic hat setting off a designer dress or exquisitely tailored suit. In the words of her good friend David Rockefeller, “She was quite at home with all sorts of people and handled her wealth with grace and sensitivity.”
Deservedly regarded as “New York’s First Lady”, Mrs. Astor gave away close to $200 million to causes great and small. While personal gratitude came in a constant flood, in 1997, one year after the closing of her late husband’s charitable foundation as well as her retirement, she was rewarded with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for a lifetime devoted to philanthropic work. This tribute, apart from the baby elephant named after Brooke Astor in The Bronx Zoo, was perhaps rivaled only by that of the New York Landmark Conservancy in 1996 when they designated her a living landmark; she remains as inseparable from the city as its very buildings.
Although she spent her days improving the city’s cultural heritage and helping those in need help themselves, even well into her 90s Mrs. Astor was a permanent fixture on the social scene. Her evenings were filled with the exclusive sparkle of diamonds and champagne glasses at gallery openings and sumptuous dinner parties hosted by influential and wealthy acquaintances. Draped in haute couture, she never missed a chance to impart her altruistic ideals, inspiring and encouraging others on her social milieu to charitable action.
Yet despite all of her wonderful philanthropic work, not even Brooke Astor’s name can remain untarnished in this day and age. For a woman who devoted the majority of her life to improving one of the greatest cities in the world, it seems inexplicably unfair that scores of people now primarily associate her with the family feud of 2006 when her grandson, Philip Marshall, launched a lawsuit against her son from her first marriage, Anthony Marshall, accusing the latter of looting and elder abuse. Eventually a settlement was reached, and Annette de la Renta, the wife of Oscar de la Renta and a longtime family friend, became Mrs. Astor’s primary personal carer whilst JP Morgan Chase & Company were designated her financial guardians.
Although the scandal certainly portrayed Brooke Astor in the light of the suffering dowager heroine, a victim of greed and selfishness, her true image lives on throughout the city: in the monuments that bear her name, in the buildings that were made possible through her generosity, and most importantly in the thousands of people whose lives she touched. “I had a wonderful life”, reads her epithet. The most we can do is honor her memory in agreement.