[6 June 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
In July of 2006, the story broke in the New York newspapers: Brooke Astor, the doyenne of the Manhattan social and philanthropic scene, 104 years old, was the subject of an embarrassing lawsuit. Her grandson was suing her son, his own father, over the quality of her care.
The woman who had once presided regally over New York society was suddenly cast as a frail victim, confined to only a few rooms of her Park Avenue duplex; deprived of new outfits and cosmetics; her favorite artwork sold; her trusted servants let go.
However one may view the idea of a multimillionaire reduced to the life of a millionaire, one can’t deny that Brooke Astor’s story is worth telling. Frances Kiernan, author of a well-received book on Mary McCarthy, has wanted to tell it ever since she first met Astor in 1999. She had originally hoped to write an authorized biography, but time passed and her subject withdrew into age and debility. Then, the lawsuit hit the news, and Kiernan decided to proceed on her own.
Brooke Astor might have been a character in an Edith Wharton novel. She even claimed to have met Wharton, whose home, the Mount, was near her home in the Berkshires. According to Kiernan, the meeting probably never happened (the two women’s time in the area did not overlap) and Brooke fabricated the story because she knew it was what people wanted to hear. It was the sort of thing she did.
She was born Brooke Russell to a good family with pretensions to better. Her first husband, Dryden Kuser, was a Princeton man and son of a self-made millionaire. They divorced soon after the birth of their child and she took up with Buddy Marshall, a more socially entrenched member of their set. That marriage lasted 20 years, until Buddy’s death from a heart attack in 1952.
Less than a year later, she married again, this time to Vincent Astor, scion of one of New York’s most prominent and wealthy families. Kiernan explains that the marriage was arranged by Astor’s second wife, who was intent on finding him a new wife before divorcing him. Brooke was her most accommodating (though not her first) choice. Vincent Astor died in 1959, five years after marrying Brooke, leaving her a fortune and the directorship of the prestigious Astor Foundation.
In the mid-1970s, New York was in its darkest days. The city was close to bankruptcy and its most cherished landmarks and institutions were languishing. Brooke used the Astor Foundation to revive New York. She dedicated herself to restoring the New York Public Library and the Bronx Zoo. She became an important board member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Rockefeller University. She helped lobby influential men to avert the city’s financial ruin.
She managed this not just because she was rich but also because she possessed the ineffable gifts of style and charm. In the 1980s and ‘90s, her heyday, she was present at every opening and gala in the city, perfectly turned out in a designer dress and hat, chatting about art, literature and politics on the arm of David Rockefeller or Henry Kissinger. The causes and institutions she championed flourished not because her donations were especially large but because her imprimatur enticed other benefactors to follow suit. She became the symbol of New York glamour and good works.
Without denying that Brooke Astor did an enormous amount for New York City, one wishes that Kiernan had probed the psychological complexity of her subject and the moral ambiguity of the social world in which she circulated. There is a whiff of sycophantism to this book.
(Of course, if Kiernan had asked tougher questions, her sources would have stopped talking to her and the invitations to fashionable parties would have dried up. One has only to recall what happened to Truman Capote when he published his expose of New York high society.)
Fortunately, we can read Edith Wharton if we want the inside story. In Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s fortunes sink, and she ends up killing herself rather than giving up a life of privilege. Brooke Astor’s trajectory seemed to go the opposite way, as each of her marriages improved her social status. But eventually, she too was brought low—presumably by a greedy son. There is pathos in this ending, but also a certain justice. If Astor’s son exploited her in her old age, she no doubt neglected him in his childhood. There’s a price to be paid for a busy social schedule.
Kiernan has titled her book The Last Mrs. Astor not only because Brooke Astor was the sort of larger-than-life personality we won’t see again, but also because the world over which she presided has disappeared. We have recently seen the deaths of Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley, members of the same gracious tradition of entertainment and philanthropy. They have been replaced by the brasher, glitzier Trumps and Hiltons.
The old elite was not morally superior to the new, but its members carried themselves better. If you want to know more about them, read Edith Wharton.
Paula Marantz Cohen, Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, is the author, most recently, of the novel Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs.