The Last Mrs Astor: A New York Story
This is the classic Vanity Fair magazine story. It has that combination of great wealth with a famous family brand name, in this case Astor – seriously Old Money by American standards because it was first made in the early 19th century – and a crime. In 2006, Brooke Astor, very old, grand, famous and philanthropic, a heroine of Old New York, was publicly removed from the care of her son Tony and his blobby wife, Charlene, because they were said to be milking her bank accounts and denying her essential care.
The old lady, deaf and Alzheimered, was stumbling about her huge apartment untended. Instead, Mrs Astor, still just alive at 105 as I write, was transferred to the care of her friend Annette de la Renta, wife of the famous Oscar, the clothes designer.
As William F Buckley, a neighbour in their grand Park Avenue building, wrote in August last year, ‘when did we last hear of a grandson petitioning the courts to remove from his father title to look after his grandmother?’
A great roster of names from the 19th-century and early 20th-century American Rich List crops up in this odd book. Odd because it’s written in an almost Edwardian, Wharton-ish style, echoing the style of the social rock pool it describes. Just how old-fashioned can American Old Money be?
It always sounds so much stodgier than its British counterpart. Every so often brighter sparks drift across when its subject has a bohemian-hostess moment in the 1930s and meets the Sitwells, Cecil Beaton, Noel Coward and Cole Porter, and the rest of the usual suspects of between-wars Ny-Lon life.
But most of the time she’s stuck with a collection of stuffed shirts with oversized houses. We get Rockefellers, Auchinclosses, Burdens, Cushings, Huntingtons, Wrightsmans and a chorus line of Wall Street broking families. The kind whose houses have been photographed and Social Register-ed since the 1890s – and on till your eyes cross.
Brooke Astor, born Roberta Brooke Russell in 1902, was initially unremarkable. Upper-middley by American standards, from an army family in Washington – her father retired a general after a peripatetic life doing things jobs like governing Haiti – but not part of the charmed circle of the super-rich or the Boston Brahmins.
The sex was bad – she was a virgin and he was Mr Wham-Bang – and he was unfaithful soon after. It sounds as though she was too, eventually, but characteristically she was more discreet – in her two books of memoirs, written in the 1960s, it’s all a bit veiled. They divorced ten years later.
Despite divorce, the Crash and the Depression, the future Mrs Astor doesn’t seem to have suffered anything remotely recognisable as deprivation at any point, and she was soon married to a nice older Wall Street broker called ‘Buddy’ Marshall (it’s like the Preppie Handbook, those upper-class Americans and their pet-names!).
She’d been having one of her discreet affairs with him when they were both married, so the book suggests, though once again, Frances Kiernan’s terribly polite.
So far, so achingly dull. But then Buddy died in 1952 and in 1953 she married an Astor, Vincent Astor, on what sounds like an arranged basis, because his wife, a Cushman, wanted to move on. Vincent was twelve years older, armed with one of the better strands of Astor money (because they don’t do automatic primogeniture like the British upper class, American big money can get surprisingly fragmented over a century) and a charitable foundation dedicated to ‘the alleviation of human misery’.
Vincent sounds pretty hellish too. Not as brutal as the first husband, nor as uncouth as the first finger-licking German immigrant Astor, John Jacob I, but nothing like as couth and stylish as, say, the assimilated English Astors. But Vincent did one hugely useful thing; he organised his money to leave half of it in trust to Brooke (then to bequeath to good causes as she saw it), and half to his Vincent Astor Foundation.
It was the making of Brooke Astor, the legend. Without it, her modest light would have remained permanently under a bushel. She’d moved from being a ‘sister of the rich’ to being a full-on member of the WASP plutocrat Establishment. Her husband’s legacy allowed her to move on to being someone in her own right.
By all accounts – and this otherwise rather genteel book comes alive here – Brooke Astor was a rather remarkable philanthropist. The Trust was hardly in the Ford Foundation or Rockefeller big money league but it was infinitely more focused, and faster on its feet, and very personalised.
When Vincent died in 1959, Brooke Astor took over as the de facto director and public face of the Trust. She made it her life for nearly 50 years, and developed an idiosyncratic way of doing things. The Trust focused on New York and made swift decisions from the heart. There were no massed ranks of good and great trustees or grey administrators.
The Astor office was Brooke, a director and a secretary. Mrs Astor believed in first-hand recces and responses. When an application came in from, say, the South Bronx or Bedford-Stuyvesant, she’d pitch up in the chauffeured limo, in couture, hatted and gloved, to see for herself. She’d recognised, at an instinctive level, that her style added value and visibility to whatever cause it was. And it showed she took the housing association or art collective seriously (a big lesson to today’s laid-back, street-styled, activist rich kids).
In Brooke Astor’s first year in charge, the Vincent Astor Trust gave away $3 million, more than in the eleven years since it’d been set up. Thereafter, the sums were bigger, the decisions bolder – the Trust would take the lead in helping, say, the New York Public Library or the Bronx Zoo ahead of the bigger battalions of plutocratic philanthropy.
This is an implicitly feminist biography because it shows how a socially rather conservative woman – staunchly Republican and Episcopalian – came into her own once she had put three husbands behind her, became financially independent and took on a stretching task.
Brooke Astor only became famous outside the charmed circle in her sixties and went on driving the Trust into her nineties. Journalists loved her as a survival of the old Park Avenue-and-Maine style into the dot.com and dress-down world. Philanthropy wonks acknowledged that her approach seemed to work, against the odds.
So when the story of the missing millions, the misappropriated emeralds and the doubtful codicils on the old lady’s will broke last autumn, it had an almost von Bulow quality. But high drama isn’t Frances Kiernan’s approach. A former biographer of Mary McCarthy – though you can’t quite imagine how she’d covered the sex angles there – she’s almost unbearably subtle.
Here and there she catches her subject out in an evasion or an elision, here and there she hints at adultery and hands-off motherhood. And she covers Brooke’s old age – the deafness, increasing incomprehension and mood swings – clearly but sensitively.
But these books are actually bought for the local colour – the rooms and clothes and language – which bring lost worlds back. And the last Mrs Astor could’ve done with a bit more of all that. If Graydon Carter had commissioned this book, it’d have been a lot more scenic.