Brooke Astor is a survivor of those bygone days when women worried about their charm instead of thier careers and when being in the upper crust meant 10 servants, a Rolls Royce and traveling with your own silk sheets. She describes this privileged life in "Footprints," her autobiography.
The only child of adoring parents, Brooke Astor grew up in China and Wasington early in this century. Her father was a career officer in the Marines who wound up as commandant. Brooke was taught the cardinal rules for a lady -- never sulk, never be rude, never indulge in self-pity. Please Please and be pleasing was the lesson.
All of which must have been fine training for what became her life's main occupation -- being "backup" to a man, someone "a man can come to when he is worried and upset and full ofproblems. If he can unload them, and be comforted and helped and made to feel that what he is doing is important . . . that you admire him for doing it, that is a really fun job. I've done it all my life . . . I find it enormously satisfying". Such a notion seems quaint (if not subversive) now, but remember most of this was 40 years ago. Consider, too, that BrookeAstor became an editor of House and Garden (making sure, of course, that her job was never an inconvenience to her husband) back when most women like her were playing golf or shopping. Today, widowed for more than 20 years, she is the driving force behind the Vincent Astor Foundation.
Arthur Krock once described Brooke Astor as a "confirmed bride." And she does seem to have had a yen for marriage. She tried it three times -- twice to men who were merely rich and the third time to Vincent Astor, who was loaded. When she took her first marital plunge at 16, she found the water cold. Nobody had thought to enlighten her beforehand on what they used to call the facts of life. When she discovered them firsthand, she was appalled, but still so naive she feared, when she became pregnant, that "having not participated very willingly in this future event," she might have only half a baby. Her poor little rich boy husband (first encountered at a Princeton prom) gambled, drank, philandered and after eight years moved on to someone else. Nevertheless, Brooke failed to lose her sunny disposition.
Next time she tied the knot it was toBuddie Marshall, a good shot, a fine fisherman and, by her account, a perfecthusband. For 20 years they lived the agreeable life of rich New Yorkers with distractions galore including a penthouse on Gracie Square, a "castello" on the Mediterranean and an endless round of lunches, teas and dinners with famous friends -- Robert Sherwood, Osbert Sitwell, d Lillian Gish and dozens more. We learn little about these luminaries beyond the fascinating news that at parties Sherwood use to sing, "When the red red robin comes bob, bob bobbing along." Marshall died in 1952. Six months later, Brook's life took a dramatic turn. Vincent Astor, the heir to all those millions, was 62 and married to his second wife when he saw Brooke across the table at dinner one night and decided she must become the third Mrs. Vincent Astor. He besiged her with proposals, writing her as many as five letters a day, and finally she gave in. He divorced his wife and they got married, apparently not so much for love, on her part, as because he needed her. She had 5 1/2 years with Astor, running his houses and coping with his quirks, which were numerous. He was afraid of the telephone and terrified of his mother, Lady Ribbesdale, fiercely antisocial and very jealous. For his sake, Brooke gave up seeing much of her only son and her old friends and devoted herself to making Vincent happy. When he died, he left her the responsibility for his charitable foundation. He used to say she would have "a hell of a lot of fun running it," and it seems she has.
Brooke Astor has written "Footprints" in the chatty, rambling, unpretetious style of a light reminiscence intended for one's family and closest friends. She is not embarrassed to include details that, to an outsider, are quite, well, boring. Shetells example, that the governess became upset when she married Marshall and she had to make the "dreadful decision" to let her go; how they played"The Game" at Gracie Square and she had the "difficult and awkward assignment" of acting out the Holland Tunnel. In her final chapter on the Astor Foundation, she gives us the full rundown on all itsgrants, just like an annual report.
But for all that, Brooke Astor comes across as good, decent, big-hearted and enthusiatic, a woman who has thoroughly enjoyed her life and given as much pleasure as she recieved, which is more than a lot of us can say today. a