Brooke Astor and her 27 Chinese artisans took a spring holiday in Washington, returning to New York last night to get on with their little garden project that has cost her $3 million thus far.
"It would be unthinkable for them to go back to China without seeing Washington," she said. The widow of Vincent Astor (who owned Newsweek, the St. Regis Hotel, and had major interests in United Steamship Lines) hired a limousine that led a busload around Washington.
Passing DeSales Street she said to Zhang, leader of the Chinese who are building a sensational Ming Courtyard at New York's Metropolitan Museum, that times change, by golly.
"That's where I grew up. There was a convent where the Mayflower is. Had the most wonderful horsechestnuts. When they bloomed it was heaven. Then in the fall you collected the nuts, and lined them up on a mantrel."
"It's still a nice street," someone said.
"Is it? I thought it looked awful."
Ordinarily she lives on Park Avenue in a handsome apartment with silk draperies, lacquered walls, plenty of books and lots of sunlight.
Last week she was, as usual, dropping by the Metropolitan Museum, of which she is a trustee, to see how the work was going on. The courtyard, covered with a glass skylight, was littered with weathered limstone rocks (brought from 17th Century Chinese gardens and slabs of terra cotta that looks like soapstone, to say nothing of the workmen, some of them 70 years old, who were steadily working in immemorial ways to create a garden court. A great wooden tripod on ropes was shifting a rock. An old man was fitting a slab of terra cotta coping around one of the nan wood posts of the covered walkway.
"The wood is almost impossible to get," said Wen Feng, a Princeton professor who is consultant at the Met on Far East art. "They use it for coffins. Mao's was made of nan wood."
"All wood is rare in China," someone said.
"Well I do hope," said Astor, "they're not chopping down too many trees over there."
Brooke Astor had arrived at the museum wearing a gray-blue jacket of suede or dull velvet and a plaid wool skirt. She sported a triangular hat with blue feathers sticking up on one side. Her eyes are blue-gray and she uses rouge on her cheekbones so that, intentional or not, her eyes are set off well.
Her voice is deep, rich, uncommonly well modulated, and she rarely speaks more than eight words in a sentence. She seems to like everybody she meets. She is open and direct. You could readily imagine her pushing a project through, or leading a charge on Orleans, for that matter.
She is glad the Chinese take pride in their work on the courtyard. To her it is a major offering of civilization. She would hate it if they thought it was just "a rich woman's whim," and is pleased they seem to regard the construction reverently. She is by no means sure she likes the placement of one rock in the courtyard.
"It's wrong where it is," she said. And she's right. It will be moved.
Astor grew up in Washington -- she was Brooke Russell -- the daughter of Maj. Gen. John Russell, commandant of the Marine Corps, and his wife, Mabel Howard. (One of the Howards warned at the time against letting a Howard girl marry a "sea urchin" though as Brooke observes he was not really a sea urchin, being a Marine, so much as an amphibious animal.)
Anyway, Brooke adored him. Even when she had to move to Santo Domingo (leaving behind the first great teen-age passion of her life, a fellow named Gordon). As she wrote in her diary at the time, "If I die an obscure death in an obscure place, well, such is the fate of some."
On the boat taking her away from Gordon she found herself eating a dismal thing called diplomat's pudding and it had a cockroach in it (not part of the recipe) which she crunched before realizing it.
Still, as she recounted in memoirs of her early life, she got over Gordon.
At her New York apartment, over a cup of coffee and water (she drinks water, mainly) she said her new book of memoirs will come out late this spring. w
She once was an editor of House and Garden, and as Brooke Marshall (an earlier marriage) she wrote features that, not to split hairs, were pretty damned good.
Later when her husband, Vincent Astor, died she was pretty much at sea, she said -- not like now, when she feels confident and at home in the world.
"There was Newsweek. What was I supposed to do with it? You can't own something like that unless you give all your time to it. I put it up for sale. Philip Graham [who was publisher of The Washington Post] offered me the most money. But it wasn't just that. He wrote me a beautiful letter. I thought he was the man to sell it to. I had never laid eyes on him."
She now presides over the Vincent Astor Foundation and has a number of projects going, including various charities.
"About 11 years ago, I suggested it would be nice if the Metropolitan built a wing for Chinese art. They had not done so much with that. These things are slow. But eventually the decision was made to go ahead.
"I had lived in China, and loved the gardens of Suchow, which is famous for them. I very much wanted the galleries of scroll paintings and furniture to be approached through a garden court. At the time, I supposed we would have to get things, -- roof tiles and so on -- from Taiwan. Of course mainland China was closed to us then.
"And then things opened up. The People's Republic was approached. To our delight they offered every possible help. The reopened 18th century kilns to fire authentic things. They made available to use these wonderful craftsmen -- some of them are very old now -- who still know how to build gardens the old way.
"It had to be authentic. That paint they're applying on the garden house is taking them three days. It could be done in an hour with laxtex. But it wouldn't be the same. Small details matter.
"You saw that old gentleman fitting the terra cotta. He'd saw for a while, then file for a while. It fit perfectly well the first time. But not for him. It had to be perfect down to the last millimeter.
"It's taking them five months. They've been at it since January. It won't open till fall. They stay at the Admas Hotel, near the Museum. It was clear to me that since they don't speak English, and have never been outside China before, they couldn't possibly manage things like ordering dinner in New York.
"So we brought a cook from China. There's a regular kitchen set up in the museum just for them. They hate the electric stove. It doesn't get hot quick enough. But they make do.
"Look at that pile of rice."
Sure enough, about a bushel of cooked rice was waiting for the men's lunch.
"Regular museum people have been wonderful to the Chinese," she went on. "On weekends, they've been taken to see Chinese acrobats, and the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.
"They've been to the Ice Capades, and in general we've tried to see to it they see something of New York.
"But I couldn't stand the thought of seeing just New York. The trip to Washington is something I was determined about. Of course there is no budget for such thing at the museum and you can't use foundation money for holidays. I am paying for it myself, since you seem curious who's paying.
The group got here Friday afternoon. The Chinese stayed at the Washington Hilton. Astor stayed at the Hay-Adams.
Astor was hostess at a dinner at the Yenching Palace restaurant, and kept up a lively banter with the Chinese through interpreters.
Later, as everybody toured the capital's monuments, she bounded out at every stop from her limousine. She commented on Jefferson. The Chinese, in their plain gray Mao uniforms, held hands around the marble columns, their way of measuring them. They felt under the stone benches, to see if they were well finished in places that don't show.
One of the Chinese commented on the endless extent of government buildings.
"Oh, yes," said Astor. "The government has grown enormous. All those buildings, all those people. They have to be fed 17 times a day." (The interpreter seemed a trifle puzzled at that).
"Now this of course is the Lincoln Memorial. It is more spiritual than the Jefferson. Though maybe not so beautiful a building." She seemed moved as she walked up the steps and stood by the huge statue.
The Chinese, who had silently observed the kids playing with lighted frisbees on the steps, dutifully regarded everything, but came to life when Astor took them beneath the stone temple to show them the piers supporting it.
They paused at the Capitol, then returned yesterday for a long visit. They went to the Air and Space Museum, and the East Wing of the National Gallery.
"Think of the Mellons and that gallery," she said. "That vast gift, and they wouldn't let it be called the Mellon Gallery."
At the Dumbarton Oaks garden in the morning, Astor said to the interpreter:
"Do they understand this was a private house now open to the public?" The man said they understood.
"Running downhill fast," she said not meaning Dumbarton.
"Look at those cherries," she cried. "This garden is an artist's idea of spring. Though you don't see spring so beautiful in real life. Are you telling them this plant came from China?"
She pointed here and there. The Chinese didn't need to be told about most plants. They recognized many, (China has produced more important garden plants for Western gardens than any other country).
"Mildred [Mildred Bliss, original owner of the garden] spoke Latin," Astor said, eyeing a Latin inscription let into a stone wall. "I can't read a word of it. All I remember is 'Gallia est omnis divisa.'"
"Well, Shakespeare had little Latin," someone said, "but fared well enough."
Brooke Astor and the 27 Chinese looked over a parapet to a swimming pool on a lower terrace.
"Let's jump in," she said. "Oh, what I would give to jump right in."
She was in a violet tweed, sensibly shod, her hair carefully and sensibly dressed, nothing fancy, and though the pool was 20 feet below, it was a near thing.
"A tulip," she said, indicating tulips.
"Tu-lip," said several Chinese, gingerly, as Americans might rehearse Wang Shih Yuan (the great garden of Suchow that inspired the courtyard garden at the Metropolitan).
Some of the Chinese had never seen tulips. But one man passed a great flowering quince bush and could get no satisfaction from the English name. He drew a picture of the a quince and spoke the Chinese name triumphantly.
Diane McGuire, the garden expert leading the tour, pointed out various treasures.
One of the spectacles of the garden is a vast black oak, in full bloom with green-gold tassels and tiny leaves just sprouting.
Brooke Astor peered up to the top of the trunk:
"Wouldn't you love it sit up there?" she cried, and a professor said it would be great for a tree house.
"If they've got a ladder, maybe it could be arranged," said a man who did not doubt she was all set to start climbing.
Brooke Astor was flourishing in the 1920s, and really is not the best candidate for climbing enormous oaks this year, but reading one's mind she said:
"At least I've got the spirit. I think it may be odd. I always want to try one more new thing before I die."