Brooke Astor and her dachshund Freddy, circa 1981. Mrs Astor’s bracelet by Van Cleef & Arpels will be offered in Property from the Estate of Brooke Astor, © Norman Parkinson/Corbis.
NEW YORK - To be invited for tea at Brooke Astor’s apartment is akin to being summoned by Lady Grantham. Accept you must. The difference between these two forces of nature – one real, the other fictional – is that Brooke Astor was not at all imperious, unlike the uppity dowager played by Maggie Smith in the British television series Downton Abbey. Brooke was also infinitely more charitable. But make no mistake, she was every bit the grande dame.
The year was 1993. The season, autumn. The occasion: to become acquainted in advance of a black-tie evening gala at which Brooke was being honoured at The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Town & Country magazine. I’d been in my position as editor-in-chief for a little more than six months. I was 49; she was 91. But our forty-two year difference hardly mattered. Her youthful outlook and ebullience narrowed the gap.
Brooke received me in the library of her New York duplex, the very room decorated by her friend Albert Hadley, the surviving partner of the patrician firm Parrish Hadley. Dressed in a daytime suit – as if she were going out instead of staying in – she greeted me warmly, insisted I call her by her first name and motioned for me to sit in a chintz-covered club chair while she sat on the matching sofa. There she was, surrounded by all the things she loved best: her leather-bound volumes, her paintings and her two dogs, one of whom had recently bitten off the top part of her forefinger (so much for having loving pets).
Brooke Astor at home in her New York library, which was designed by Albert Hadley.
We chatted about books – an omnivorous reader, she was always involved in one or two at a time – about the Astor Foundation and about the “Generous American” award that the magazine was about to give her. The event was to take place at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was not only on the board but singularly devoted in many ways. She also was the benefactor of Astor Court, a replica of a Chinese garden where Buddhist monks came to meditate.
Ours wasn’t a long meeting but it marked the beginning of a lovely little friendship that lasted almost until her death in 2007 at the age of 105. That anyone could have lived so long, even in the 21st century with its aging population, is remarkable. But to have been born at the start of the 20th century and have lived such an extraordinary life throughout it is the stuff of memoirs. Fortunately, Brooke wrote two in her lifetime – one entitled Footprints and another called Patchwork Child. She also wrote two novels, countless poems and essays and was published in several national magazines, including Town & Country, House & Garden (where she was a features editor), Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
Brooke’s story is familiar to many of her admirers: She was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the daughter of a Marine commandant, John Russell, and his socially outgoing wife Mabel. They lived with Brooke variously in Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic and China – the last being where she made the deepest connection, to the point of learning how to speak the language and developing an abiding interest in the culture and in Buddhism. Brooke married young – at seventeen – to John Dryden Kuser, with whom she had a tumultuous marriage, leaving her with their only child. Her second marriage, to Charles “Buddie” Marshall, was far happier and lasted twenty years. When Marshall died suddenly of a stroke in 1952, she was heartbroken and adrift. Enter Vincent Astor, great-great-grandson of John Jacob Astor. Sullen, solitary and tall (he was six-foot-four-inches tall), Astor wanted gregarious Brooke all to himself and he got her, although she wasn’t altogether happy about catering to him and him alone. She frequently described their brief marriage – only six years – as “lonely.”
Brooke Astor celebrating her 100th birthday at the New York Public Library. © Don Pollard.
When Astor died in 1959, he put his wife in charge of the eponymous foundation he created in the 1940s. In a profound way, Brooke felt born again, ignited with a sense of mission. Consequently, she became one of New York’s most beloved philanthropists and its most incandescent socialites. She was adept at giving money away, took it seriously and never donated to any cause that she herself did not personally eyewitness.
On 24 and 25 September, Sotheby’s will celebrate that life at an auction, with proceeds going to many of Brooke’s favourite charities. Objects, furnishings, art and jewellery will all be on offer from her Manhattan apartment and from Holly Hill, her house in Briarcliff Manor, practically next door to Pocantico Hills, the Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, New York.
To those who spent time with Brooke in her homes, the items in the auction will evoke memories of private luncheons, dinners and casual visits. To the general public, they will offer a glimpse into a Wharton-esque world open to a privileged few.
I would never consider myself one of Brooke Astor’s intimates – not like those in her inner circle (Annette de la Renta, Barbara Walters, Vartan Gregorian, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and others). But we had several meetings and luncheons, always at her behest, all of them lively and fun.
One of the most memorable was in 1995 at the Knickerbocker Club on Fifth Avenue and 62nd Street (talk about Wharton-esque). Known to its members as the Knick, it was and still is a men’s club. The only way a woman can be a member is if her husband predeceases her. Even then, she has to be invited. Brooke took pride in being one of the few females in a male bastion. “Only twenty women are [members],” she boasted, “and they must all be widows. Right now, there are only nine of us.”
It was a frigid day in early March when we met at the Knick but she walked in coatless (“I left it in the car”), wearing a deep red Bill Blass suit and diamond, emerald and ruby earrings. Her hair was freshly coiffed and she look lovely despite having been ill all winter. “I’ve had a terrible time…six weeks in the hospital. They had to take me in an ambulance…my first time ever in an ambulance,” she explained. “This is my first week out. I went to the theater last night.” She saw How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and also managed to see – in this her first week out – a Molière play starring the British actor Brian Bedford. “He’ll be back in the spring,” she said. “I want to have him by for lunch or dinner. I’d like you to meet him if you’d like. Would you?” Of course, I would.
Brooke Astor by Cecil Beaton, 1956.
It was a chatty couple of hours during which she touched on many subjects. When we left the dining room, she asked if I’d mind walking down the flight of stairs (I’d have taken the elevator). When we got to the front door, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, “I really feel as if you and I are becoming friends.”
I was invited to dinner chez Astor the following June. She indicated on the invitation that the evening was “informal.” But Brooke’s version of informal was quite different from what we know today or even then. The men were, of course, in suits and ties; the women in their designer dresses, not a hair out of place. It wasn’t Downton Abbey but it was a modern approximation.
When not lunching at the Knickerbocker Club, Brooke often went to Mortimer’s (her regular table in the corner was roomy enough for the dogs to sit at her feet), and she also liked the far more posh Four Seasons restaurant, another place where the men outnumbered the women. We once went there together when she was in her mid-90s. Surveying the room, making sure she hadn’t missed anyone, she said, “I just adore this place. Everyone knows each other.” And from the nods and waves, they definitely seemed to know her. Eyeing Eleanor Lambert, the public relations maven famous for inventing the International Best-Dressed list, she asked how old I thought she was. “Probably in her late 80s,” I guessed, to which she remarked, ‘Why, I look younger than she does.“ Pause. “And I have never had a facelift,” she declared.
As usual, we moved from subject to subject. Most of the time, she would proffer an opinion and then ask mine. Sometimes she was critical, particularly of other women “She’s awfully bossy, don’t you think? Or, simply, “I don’t care for her.” At other times, she'd expressed concern: “Bill Blass is a sad man. He always seems so unhappy to me – and tired of designing clothes."
Brooke Astor always had something of value to say. She had opinions based on decades of experience and didn’t hold back from expressing herself, especially if it involved someone’s welfare. Emily Rafferty, president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, knew her as an active and vocal board member. Rafferty first met Brooke in 1976, when she joined the museum and when Brooke was a trustee emeritus, having served on the board since 1964.
It was in 1984 that Rafferty really got to know her. Even in her vaunted emeritus position, Brooke was on several committees and started the Chairman’s Council in 1984 with the board’s president, Douglas Dillon. “Brooke’s wings were wide,” Rafferty says with a smile. “Her munificence was everywhere. Without a doubt, she understood every aspect of trusteeship, was dedicated to the museum and committed to those who worked here. It didn’t matter who you were, she said a gracious hello to everyone.”
Brooke gave generously to the museum for everything from air-conditioning the Western European paintings department to helping to fund the Michael Rockefeller Wing for Primitive Art. One of her greatest contributions to the museum, however, was the smallest in size: the tiny Astor Court, an authentic replica of a 17th-century Chinese courtyard, furnished with early Ming furniture and landscaped to perfection. After a return trip to China in 1979 (she hadn’t been there since she was a young girl), Brooke was keen to bring a piece of China to New York. As if by magic, 30 Chinese craftsmen, all of whom she put up in a hotel, appeared and worked for 80-some days until the job was finished. Astor Court opened in 1980 and is considered the spiritual heart of the Asian galleries (which begs the question, was Brooke Astor their soul?). As if all these gifts to the Museum were not enough and to show her appreciation for the staff, Brooke instituted an annual lunch for all of the Museum’s employees and left an endowment that states that that luncheon should be held in perpetuity.
Commissioned by Brooke Astor, the Astor Court at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a detailed replica of a 17th-century Chinese courtyard.
Even more renowned than her luncheons were Brooke's dinners, particularly the ones she gave in someone’s honour. When Vartan Gregorian was named President of the New York Pubic Library, Mrs Astor promised a dinner for him and his wife Clare. She more than delivered on that promise, inviting the same guests as for a party she gave for President and Mrs Reagan. In Gregorian's memoir The Road to Home, the list goes on for two pages.
Gregorian says his relationship with Mrs Astor was “love at first sight.” The Astor Foundation gave $24.6 million to the Library. That’s a whole lot of love. She also tried to be generous to Gregorian himself. “She continuously wanted to give me things, including first editions. I always said ‘no, your friendship is enough.’ ”
Beyond her interests in the Museum, the New York Public Library, Central Park and many other municipal and cultural institutions, Brooke gave Astor Foundation money to schools, to playgrounds, to homeless shelters, much of which took her to some of the grittiest, most crime-infested neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. She did so fearlessly and dressed to the nines – no playing it down for her. “People expect to see Brooke Astor, not some dowdy old lady, and I’m not about to disappoint them,” she said. She never did.
When she was well into her 90s and practically a centurion, she stopped traveling abroad, rarely went out and spent more and more time in Holly Hill. But she kept in touch, usually after I sent her a note with the latest issue of Town & Country or something else I thought might interest her. Her responses were prompt, written on pale blue Tiffany stationery with a thin white and deep-blue border. The engraving at the top of the sheet bore only her address – 778 Park Avenue – not her name. She signed each letter “With admiration and affection, Brooke,” in blue fountain-pen ink. I treasure every one of those letters. Most of all, I remember so many of her pronouncements, uttered directly and without embellishment but always with a certainty that befits a truly grande dame and a great lady.
Once Gregorian asked her the secret of her longevity. She replied: “an optimist, be curious, read every night, don’t meet the same people all the time (sooner or later, they become lazy, boring and repeat themselves), don’t be a cynic, don’t envy or be jealous…spend some time in solitude in order to reflect, meet different people (young people), travel, and, if you are rich, adhere to the Gospel of ‘The Joy of Giving.’” Words to live by.
Pamela Fiori is the former editor-in-chief of Town & Country magazine and the author of several books, including A Table at Le Cirque, to be published in October.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]