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Money is like manure; neither does any good unless you spread it around.

— Roberta Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor

The last of the great pillars of high society, the last connection to The Gilded Age, Mrs. Vincent "Brooke" Astor, worked assiduously against being labeled pretentious or aloof. She set a new standard for women of social stature that blatantly made fun of the old standard set by her peers, a list which includes names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie and Woodward. Brooke Astor's most famous achievement was divesting herself of the $200 million Vincent Astor Foundation, giving freely to causes large and small. No dowager hiding up high in her de luxe Fifth Avenue apartment writing checks on a Chippendale desk; Mrs. Astor visited each and every one of the benefactors of her philanthropy, prior to and after giving. She was as at home eating hot dogs with mustard and pickle relish off of a paper plate at a reception in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant district as she was nibbling caviar on toast at a crystal- and silver-set banquet attended by Presidents and other heads of state.
 

A Sophisticated Childhood

Roberta Brooke Russell was born on March 30, 1902 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Her father, Major General John Russell, was a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Due to her father's military assignments, she grew up in Hawaii, Panama, Santo Domingo and China, and became fluent in Chinese.

An only child, she grew up at times isolated, but in her memoirs remarked that she'd enjoyed the privilege of being exposed to so many foreign places and customs. She dropped out of an exclusive private school but later graduated the exclusive Holton-Arms School.
 

Married Early

Sources for this article disagree on exactly when she married her first husband, John Dryden Kuser; probably about 1918. A quote from Astor saying that Kuser had "promised her a wonderful life ... and a car when I was old enough to get a license" leads this writer to believe that she was merely 16 when she wed the grandson of U.S. Senator John F. Dryden. Kuser later became active in New Jersey politics.

She described her husband's abuse, alcoholism and adultery as the "worst years of my life." The marriage, which produced one son, was ended when Brooke filed for divorce in 1930, at the encouragement of her husband. An Astor biographer reported that she was a few months along in her pregnancy when Kuser broke her jaw in an alcoholic fit of rage. He demeaned her and constantly reminded her that he no longer had any feelings for her. She was outspoken later in life regarding her first husband's moneyed family: "The very rich think that they are never wrong. The arrogance of big money is one of the most unappealing of characteristics, and it goes very deep." This belief was one that shaped her thoughts about how she should behave in her later life, and she spent the rest of her days living a generous and decent life free from the pretense and sense of privilege she so hated.

Suffice it to say that there's more, but in the interest of brevity, let it merely be said that had any other woman endured what John Kuser put Brooke through, she'd probably have had a lot of trouble convincing herself to get married again.
 

Husband Number Two

Brooke managed to pick herself up, and brush herself off, and ended up discovering a kindred soul. She was to later write that her marriage to Charles Henry "Buddy" Marshall was "a great love match." Her son by John Kuser changed his name to Anthony Dryden Marshall at age 18, so enamored of his stepfather was he.

Again, sources for this article disagree upon whether it was because of financial misfortune on the part of Marshall or merely because she didn't want to be a member of "the idle rich" that she took a job at House & Garden magazine, where she became a features editor.

Sadly, her marriage to Charles Marshall was to end after only twenty years, at his death in 1952.
 

Mrs. Vincent Astor

Vincent Astor had not even divorced his second wife, Minnie, when he proposed to Brooke not even a year after Marshall's death. Much to the surprise of both of them, she said yes, qualifying that with the fact that she hardly even knew him. He agreed that yes, he hardly knew her, either, but that they'd grow to fall in love together. They were married in 1953.

A novelist who was also a friend of Brooke's stated "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." This was in a way true, but she fell hard for Astor, the oldest son of John Jacob Astor, a victim of the Titanic disaster. Astor had had a troubled childhood. It haunted him in adult life by a tendency to be anti-social, often depressed, and somewhat paranoid about other people. Oh, by the way, about the money. Vincent Astor was, at the time of their marriage, the twelfth wealthiest man in America, according to Forbes magazine.

Brooke and Vincent ended up getting along just fine. She assisted him with his financial empire and his business in hotels and real estate. She was appointed a member of the board of the Astor Foundation shortly after they were married. When he felt melancholy, she'd sing to him, and dance with her dogs until she elicited a smile.

Their marriage ended when Vincent passed away in 1959. She was left a few million in cash, millions more in investments, and control of her husband's personal foundation, the purpose of which was "the amelioration of human misery." Well, she did just that. She wrote "giving away money should be exhilarating" in her memoirs. She certainly was exhilarated; and she exhilarated the people of the City of New York as perhaps no other philanthropist ever had.

Pookie, you are going to have a hell of a lot of fun with the foundation when I'm gone.

— Vincent Astor

John D. Rockefeller III gave Mrs. Astor this advice: "The person who has control of the money should also be personally involved in the giving. It is a lot of work, but it's worth it." Whether it was an eight-figure gift to her favorite charity, the New York Public Library, the setting-up of a day care center in the impoverished South Bronx, or the ground breaking for a playground in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, Mrs. Astor was there. She always wore pearls, her signature white kid gloves, a tailored suit, and a hat no matter where she went. She never dressed down, stating that the recipients of her gifts wanted to see Mrs. Astor, "not some doddering old lady."

Indeed, her appearance was somewhat larger than life. She had to live up to the title of "First Lady of New York," after all. Her hair was always impeccably coiffed, she was always in shape (due to a regimen of swimming exercise that she pursued well into her 90s). She claimed (although it was doubted) that she'd never had a face lift.

In 1997 she liquidated the funds of the Astor foundation, giving out the last $25 million. She claimed she wanted to spend more time traveling and writing poetry. During the forty years she controlled the Astor fund, she gave away $195 million to New York charities, including the Bronx Zoo, social projects, and the Library.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton on January 15, 1998.

When asked why she didn't re-marry after Vincent Astor's death, she gave a number of explanations, the most humorous being that she didn't want someone around "to tell me it's time to go home at ten o'clock." Mrs. Astor enjoyed the night life, especially parties where there was dancing. She had a number of suitors, but refused them all.

Good friend David Rockefeller gave Mrs. Astor a gala 100th birthday party in New York City in 2001.
 

Trouble in Paradise

By the time she was 104, Astor had been hospitalized for anemia and Alzheimer's. Her son, Anthony Dryden Marshall, was her guardian and in charge of managing her affairs. On July 26, 2006 it became public that Astor's grandson Philip Marshall criticized his father's treatment of Astor. Philip's accusations had launched a full-scale investigation of his management of Astor's vast estate. Apparently, Marshall had not provided for the aging Astor, allowing her to live in squalor, and interfering with her medical treatment. The accusation was even made that her beloved dogs were kept away from her, locked in a closet in the estate where she lived out her final years, in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

One by one concerned parties came forward with news of malfeasance and unfettered greed on the part of Anthony Marshall. Charges filed against Anthony Marshall and Astor's Attorney, Francis X. Morrissey, Jr., on the first of August of 2006 included:

  • They tricked Marshall's mother, Brooke Astor, into thinking that she was broke and needed to sell an expensive artwork, one of Mrs. Astor's favorites, so Marshall could get a $2 million commission.
     
  • They conspired to increase Marshall's salary (without Astor's knowledge) from $450,000 a year to $1.4 million a year, and used much of that money to buy himself a second yacht.
     
  • Marshall used his mother's money to hire a captain for the yacht at $52,000 a year.
     
  • They hired a "social secretary" for their joint theatrical company paid for by Astor's money.
     
  • Morrissey forged, or caused to be forged, Mrs. Astor's signature on at least one codicil to her will.
     
  • Marshall outright stole two expensive artworks from his mother's Fifth Avenue apartment, which were later returned.
     
  • Marshall also helped himself to $600,000 of Astor's money to pay for the upkeep of her former Maine estate, Cove End, which he had given to his wife, Charlene.
     
  • Marshall gave himself $1 million in securities from Astor's portfolio in 2003 and failed to report the gift on tax returns.

The most grave of these charges, grand larceny, carries a sentence of up to 25 years. The matter is still pendente lite.
 

Farewell

And if you should survive to 105,
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive.
Then here is the best part,
You'll have a head start,
If you are among the very young at heart.

— Lyric from popular song "Young At Heart" by Carolyn Leigh and Johnny Richards
Reprinted from the death notice in The New York Times placed by the Rockefeller University (one of many).

Indeed, she was 105 when she died peacefully at her home in Briarcliff Manor on August 13, 2007. A horrible end, but perhaps for the best, her Alzheimer's had progressed to the point where she didn't fully comprehend what was going on vis-a-vis her estate. The estate is still being contested, and charges are still pending against her son and her attorney.

Brooke Astor chose her own epitaph, inscribed upon her headstone at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Sleepy Hollow, New York: "I had a wonderful life."

Apart from the hanky-panky going on vis-a-vis her substantial estate, political blogger and writer Madeleine Begun Kane was moved to write a wonderful tribute to Mrs. Astor, despite their political differences, after discovering that the website craigslist.com was offering two "tickets" to Astor's funeral, described as "16th pew from the front" for $500 two days before the rites (the offer appeared on the website; but was a hoax):

A generous lady named Astor,
Whose kindness will surely outlast her,
Is mourned far and wide
Since she recently died,
And nobody’s ever outclassed her.

"Ode To Brooke Astor"
By Madeleine Begun Kane
 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • 1962:  Patchwork Child: Early Memories. New York: Random House. ISBN 0679426876.
     
  • 1965:  The Bluebird is at Home. New York: Random House. ISBN 0679426876.
     
  • 1980:  Footprints. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. ISBN 038514377X.
     
  • 1986:  The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree: A Period Piece. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312905459.

SOURCES:

  • "(Today in Astor-ia) Anthony Marshall Accused of Greed, Bad Taste in Friends," edited by Chris Rovzar and Jessica Pressler, New York Magazine, November 28, 2007 http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2007/11/a_litany_of_charges_for_astors.html#more (Accessed 12/1/07)
     
  • "Brooke Astor, 105, First Lady of Philanthropy, Dies" by Marilyn Berger, The New York Times, August 13, 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/obituaries/13cnd-astor.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp (Accessed 12/1/07)
     
  • Mrs. Vincent Astor - Biography (anonymous) Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1480564/bio (Accessed 12/1/07)
     
  • Brooke Astor NNDB "Tracking The Entire World" http://www.nndb.com/people/173/000057002/ (Accessed 12/1/07)
     
  • "Brooke Astor, New York Society Doyenne, Benefactor, Dies at 105", by Peter Young, Bloomberg.com http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=amAecqKnnON8&refer=us (Accessed 12/1/07)
     
  • "Brooke Astor's 83-year-old son charged with changing her will" by Andrew Gumbel The Independent (UK) December 1, 2007 http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article3213019.ece (Accessed 12/1/07)
     
  • "Brooke Astor's Son Caves on Will Codicil" by Stefanie Cohen, The New York Post, August 24, 2007 http://www.nypost.com/seven/08242007/news/regionalnews/will_ful_son_caves_on_codicil.htm (Accessed 12/1/07)
     
  • "Selling Tickets to Brooke Astor's Funeral: Scam or Satire? by Mad Kane Mad Kane's Political Madness http://www.madkane.com/madness/2007/08/17/selling-tickets-to-brooke-astors-funeral-scam-or-satire/ (Accessed 12/1/07)

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