Brooke Astor; Benefactor, Fixture of N.Y. High Society

Brooke Astor was a devoted backer of New York City's cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library.
Brooke Astor was a devoted backer of New York City's cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. (By Robert Mcelroy -- The Washington Post)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Brooke Astor, 105, a daughter of privilege whose marriage into one of America's oldest fortunes made her a mainstay of New York high society and philanthropy for five decades as she gave away about $200 million, died Aug. 13 at her estate in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. She reportedly died of pneumonia.

In recent years, she became an unexpected symbol of elder abuse while at the center of a custody fight between her son, former diplomat Anthony Marshall, and a grandson. The dispute involved Mrs. Astor's care and the fate of her remaining fortune -- estimated at $45 million -- as her physical and mental condition deteriorated.

Grandson Philip Marshall alleged that his father, who had been Mrs. Astor's caretaker, misappropriated the money to invest in theater productions and enrich himself.

In a settlement last year, Anthony Marshall admitted no wrongdoing but gave up custody. The new guardians became Annette de la Renta, the wife of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, and JP Morgan Chase bank. The ordeal was a sordid final chapter in a life that began in great splendor.

Mrs. Astor, the daughter of a future Marine Corps commandant, was raised to embody poise, charm and beguiling fashion sense in the era of top hats and tea dances.

In her 20s, she included among her friends newspaper publishers such as the Pulitzers, songwriter Cole Porter and actress Lillian Gish. She once played tennis at her Italian vacation castle with Ezra Pound, whom she found "a fine poet and extremely uncouth man" because on the court he let his naked stomach protrude over a low-slung belt.

At 44, she took her first paying job -- features editor of the magazine House and Garden. She later wrote: "My value to [editor] Albert Kornfeld was that I could get people to let me photograph their houses, their gardens, their children, their stables, their linen closets, dress closets and kitchen cupboards."

She transformed herself into one of the most vital forces for civic, artistic and educational goodwill in New York after the death in 1959 of her third and last husband, Vincent Astor. He was heir to a 19th-century real estate and fur-trading fortune, which made Astor one of the most storied names of New York society.

His grandmother established the "400," the elite gatherings named after the number that could fit into her Fifth Avenue mansion's ballroom. His father, John Jacob Astor IV, perished on the Titanic voyage in 1912.

After Vincent Astor's death, Mrs. Astor took over his self-titled foundation, which he had started for the "amelioration of human misery." She gave away $195 million before dissolving the trust in 1997.

Waldemar A. Nielsen, an authority on philanthropies, once wrote of her "extraordinarily effective leadership" because of her direct oversight.

Mrs. Astor's greatest beneficiaries were what she called the "crown jewels" of the city: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the New York Zoological Society, Rockefeller University and what she called "that smaller marvel," the Pierpont Morgan Library.


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