Name: Roberta Brooke Russell
Birth: 30 MAR 1902 in Portsmouth, Rockingham, NH
Death: 13 AUG 2007
Brooke Astor, 105, Aristocrat of the People, Dies
Brooke Astor, who by night reigned over New York society with a decided disdain for pretension and by day devoted her time and considerable resources to New York’s unfortunate, died yesterday afternoon at her weekend estate, Holly Hill, in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. She was 105.
Her death was confirmed by Kenneth E. Warner, a lawyer for Mrs. Astor’s son, Anthony D. Marshall. The attending physician listed the cause of death as pneumonia, Mr. Warner said.
Mrs. Astor’s image as a benevolent society matron was overshadowed last year by that of a victimized dowager at the center of a very public family battle over her care and fortune. Yet for decades she had been known as the city’s unofficial first lady, one who moved effortlessly from the sumptuous apartments of Fifth Avenue to the ragged barrios of East Harlem, deploying her inherited millions to help the poor help themselves.
Among the rich of New York, she was perhaps the last bridge to the Gilded Age, when “society” was a closed world of old-money families, the so-called Four Hundred, who were ruled over by a grandmother of Mrs. Astor’s by marriage, Mrs. William Backhouse Astor.
But it was a changing social order that Brooke Astor oversaw. Hers was a society defined more by balance sheets than bloodline. It opened its doors to entrepreneurs and Wall Street movers and shakers who had bought entree with so many millions that in the 1980s Mrs. Astor declared herself “nouveau pauvre.”
Although aristocratic in upbringing, style and social milieu, she never sought to be the arbiter of society that the Astor name might have entitled her to be. She never wanted to rule over a world that she was among the first to recognize was no more.
And in her advanced age, her own world seemed to collapse as well. In a startling episode that played out in court and on the front pages of the city’s newspapers last year, one of her grandsons, Philip Marshall, filed a lawsuit accusing Anthony Marshall, her only son, of neglecting her care and exploiting her to enrich himself and his wife.
Although her son denied the accusations, the public was suddenly given a picture of Mrs. Astor as a mistreated centenarian. By the grandson’s account, she had been stripped of her dignity and some of her favorite art, denied medicine and the company of her dogs, Boysie and Girlsie, and forced to sleep in misery on a couch smelling of urine.
The dispute stretched over months, its every wrinkle making headlines. Then, last Oct. 13, the parties announced a settlement, avoiding what could have been a costly and sensational trial. Her close friends said her declining physical condition left her unaware of the tumult; doctors were later said to have diagnosed dementia. But it was a bitter and unlikely last chapter for a woman who had defined high society and made philanthropy her career for almost four decades.
She took up that vocation after her third husband, Vincent Astor, heir to the fur and real estate fortune of John Jacob Astor, died and left about $60 million to her personally and an equal amount for a foundation “for the alleviation of human suffering.” Her husband had told her, “You’ll have fun, Pookie.”
In fact, she said she had a great deal of fun giving money away as it grew over time into the hundreds of millions. With a wink and a sly smile, she liked to quote Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” saying, “Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.”
It was Mrs. Astor who decided that because most of the Astor fortune had been made in New York real estate, it should be spent in New York, for New Yorkers. Grants supported the city’s museums and libraries, its boys’ and girls’ clubs, homes for the elderly and other institutions and programs.
She made it her duty to evaluate for herself every organization or group that sought help from the Vincent Astor Foundation. In her chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz, she traveled all over New York to visit the tenements and churches and neighborhood programs she was considering for foundation grants. Many times a welcoming lunch awaited her on paper plates and plastic folding tables set up for the occasion. She would exclaim over what she called the “delicious sauces”: deli mustard and pickle relish.
Father: John H Russell
Mother: Mabel Howard
J Dryden Kuser
- Anthony Dryden Kuser Marshall b: 1924
William Vincent Astor b: 15 NOV 1891