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

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.

With a $10 million personal donation, she helped the New York Public Library recover from dire times in the mid-1980s, resulting in the restoration of services and renovation of its 42nd Street building. She also devoted much of her energy and social clout to attract other donors, once marching up to a series of Rockefellers to solicit matching funds.

John D. Rockefeller III told her it was essential to remain personally involved in the giving, and she was vigilant about inspecting the places that received the foundation's money to ensure that they were running to her standards.

On inspection tours in crumbling neighborhoods, she arrived in Chanel dresses, pearl necklaces and diamonds. She told the New York Times, "If I go up to Harlem or down to Sixth Street and I'm not dressed up or I'm not wearing my jewelry, then the people feel I'm talking down to them."

To help combat street gangs, she founded settlement houses in the blighted Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and created parks and playgrounds that she called "outdoor living rooms." (At the request of first lady Lady Bird Johnson, Mrs. Astor gave money for a playground at Buchanan Elementary School in Southeast Washington.)

She bought ground-floor grilles for housing projects, windows for a nursing home, a fire escape for a homeless shelter and a boiler for a youth center. She gave money to the Coalition for the Homeless and the Animal Medical Center, which treats pets of the elderly poor.

In the early 1990s, she helped start a furniture bank to give chairs, tables and other goods to thousands of formerly homeless families. "How can you build a new life if you have nothing to sit on?" she said.

Roberta Brooke Russell was born March 30, 1902, in Portsmouth, N.H. Her father, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Henry Russell Jr., took his family on assignments to the Caribbean, Asia and Washington.

She described herself as an introverted child, inclined to write diary entries and short stories.

A newfound interest in Greek "terrified my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts," she once wrote. "What if I turned out to be a bluestocking -- a wretched woman who ran about in a baggy tweed skirt and tennis shoes and bored civilized people (men) to death with arguments and facts?"

She said her mother sent her to several boarding schools, including the Madeira School in McLean, to refine her skills in French and flirting.

At 16, she married J. Dryden Kuser, a wealthy Princeton University student whom she had met at his college prom. She later described Kuser, a future New Jersey state senator, as a gambler, womanizer and violent drunk.

"One day he knocked me down and broke my jaw," she told the New York Times. "Father wanted me to leave him, but I said I couldn't because I was having his child."

She called those the "worst years of my life."

After her divorce in 1930, she settled in New York and became a regular part of the city's social circuit. Encouraged by literary friends -- including novelist W. Somerset Maugham, playwright Clare Boothe Luce and newspaper editor Herbert Bayard Swope -- she took a creative-writing class and wrote a comedy called "Let Them Eat Cake."

Although the play went unproduced, she published two novels: "The Bluebird Is at Home" (1965), which she called an antidote to modern novels that "get bogged down in sex and stream of consciousness"; and "The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree" (1986), a comedy of manners. She also wrote two memoirs, "Patchwork Child" (1962) and "Footprints" (1980).

In 1932, she married a socially connected stockbroker, Charles H. "Buddie" Marshall. She said they had 20 blissful years until he died in her arms on Thanksgiving Day, 1952.

Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Anthony Marshall, who took his stepfather's surname, of New York; and two grandchildren.

While in mourning for Buddie Marshall, she was pursued by Vincent Astor, she said. Vowing to divorce his then-wife, Minnie, he sent Brooke Marshall several romantic letters every day. This surprised her, she said, as they had been only distant social acquaintances.

However, in a state of overwhelming loneliness, she agreed to marry him in 1953. In short time, she found him a melancholy and complicated man. His generosity was most apparent in his foundation. He once told her, adding a nickname he bestowed, "You are going to have a hell of a lot of fun running it, Pookie."

After Vincent Astor's death, Brooke Astor was suddenly one of the leading businesswomen of New York. He left her a $60 million trust and $2 million outright, plus control of $60 million in the assets of the foundation. She also had a major role in the early 1960s sale of Newsweek magazine -- which Vincent Astor counted among his holdings -- to The Washington Post Co.

Mrs. Astor remained wary of suitors but never lacked for male companionship. She tended to her several estates and collection of 19th-century portraits of dogs.

President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 1988, and President Bill Clinton gave her the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1998.

"Power, for me, is the ability to do good things for others," she once told Harper's Bazaar magazine. "I have the means to do it, thanks to Vincent's money, and the act of giving makes me powerful inside. I would tell anyone, if you have enough money for three meals a day and you're not too busy, you ought to do something for others."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company