Brooke Astor – Bedazzling NY Philanthropy on a Grand Scale

Brooke Astor 'At Home' in her library, designed by Albert Hadley
Brooke Astor 'At Home' in her library, designed by Albert Hadley

Brooke Astor and her dachshund Freddy, circa 1981. Mrs Astor’s bracelet by Van Cleef & Arpels was offered in Property from the Estate of Brooke Astor, © Norman Parkinson/Corbis and courtesy of Sotheby’s New York

In New York City in September 2012 the Estate of Brooke Astor achieved an outstanding total of $18, 828,109.00 USD at auction at Sotheby’s. Buyers competed enthusiastically to take away with them a fine selection of objects from a simply splendid eclectic range of fine and decorative arts.

They had come from her residences, Holly Hill in the country and her duplex at 778 Park Avenue where, as with many women of her time, the interiors combined elegance and grace with both comfort and sophistication.

Many pieces from history ended up making history by benefiting charitable organizations selected by Mrs. Astor during her lifetime. For example a chic giltwood box from Mrs. Astor’s Manhattan sitting room demonstrated bidders’ keen interest in owning a piece of her celebrated taste, soaring above its $200-400 estimate to sell for $21,250.

Interest from buyers drove lot after lot beyond anything that anyone could have expected and the proceeds from the sale will benefit the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and the Animal Medical Center of New York.

Sotheby’s reported that ‘auction fervor’ proved that Brooke Astor had remained ‘as fashionable as ever’.

Power is the ability to do good things for others*

The Astor’s were American nineteenth and twentieth century royalty. The founder of the family John-Jacob was the richest man in America when he died in 1848, having accumulated vast wealth by trading. Fur, tea and real estate were all commodities that enjoyed huge expansion during the rise of the industrial age and the fortune added to by his heir and grand heirs.

The family name is immortalized in Manhattan at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and Astor Place. When Vincent Astor died of a heart attack in 1959 Brooke Astor, as head of his eponymous foundation, was given the task of spending the remaining years of her life giving away $195 million dollars of his fortune.

Consequently, courted by all and sundry, Mrs Astor was ignited by her own real sense of mission and set out to spread the love around. She used to say words to the effect that ‘money is like manure’ and made her point by giving away millions to the Bronx Zoo as well as to causes she personally knew about and had investigated. She had her favourites, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York Public Library

It was one of the most exciting and anticipated single owner sales in recent years and it’s certainly no surprise that the jewellery all sold well. Great jewellery is heavily under focus in this decade especially great pieces from the 20’s – 50’s. Mrs Astor’s Bulgari Platinum, 18 carat gold, emerald and diamond necklace doubled its pre-sale estimate selling for $686,500.

One of the biggest and longest bidding wars in an auction room took place for her platinum, emerald and diamond ring. It was only estimated to achieve $150,000 and instead went for $1.2 million to a private collector.

It had been her engagement ring from her third husband, the millionaire real estate owner and head of the American branch of the famous Astor family, Vincent Astor who coveted his wife like the prize she was. He had inherited great wealth when his own father perished aboard the Titanic in 1912, which he built into a mighty business empire. It had been the last gift he gave her just before he died and she wore it often.

Brooke Astor died aged 105 years in 2007. One can only imagine that she would be pleased, that even though it had taken five turbulent years, marred by a challenge to her will, to bring her final possessions to sale. Sotheby’s achieved the result that she would have wanted – a great deal of cash that will benefit the greater good and the public for years to come.

At her funeral attended by 900 New Yorkers in 2007 the Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg said in his eulogy to this remarkable woman ‘ On behalf of 8.2 million New Yorkers; she will be deeply missed’. Hugh Stroud, a 67-year-old social worker who met Astor while working on children’s programs she funded in Harlem, also went along to pay his respects.

“She was truly a woman of all times. And she never gave up being good,” he said. Eight Marines served as pallbearers, as Astor had specified in her funeral plans. Her late father, John H. Russell, was the 16th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps. And as her body was brought out of the church, the crowd stood as a lone bagpiper performed “Amazing Grace.”

Roberta Brooke Astor (1902 – 2007) it has to be said led a very interesting life. It all started with her being born in New Hampshire. After that she spent her childhood as part of a military family on the move in Hawaii, Panama, China and Mexico. Her father and his father before him were all officers and discipline and toughness would have been integral to her upbringing.

Perhaps it showed early on in that she rebelled and ran off when she was only seventeen years of age to marry. It would also show in the love she lavished on others during her lifetime.

Her first husband John Dryden Kuser a grandson of a US Senator, reputedly chose to beat her, cheat on her and then announced after a year of marriage that he did not love her. He would frequently humiliate her in society.

She commented later in life that they were the ‘worst years of my life’. Women of her time remained faithful to their wedding vows and she did, at least until he was elected to the New Jersey Senate in 1930 when he insisted she leave him. So sensing the inevitable she filed for a divorce that was finalized in Reno, Nevada a year later.

Her second marriage in 1932 was for love and to a stockbroker Charles Henry ‘Buddy’ Marshall and it was much happier. He was kind and she loved him until his death two decades later, having been through Word War II working as a nurse attending to veterans.

After the war, as many of the women of her era, she began to work. Her husband had begun to make a fortune in the mid 40’s at the same time she became a writer for, and the Editor of House and Garden magazine.

The time she spent there allowed her to show off her stylish practical and sophisticated interior design and social skills, to learn a great deal about the history of art, design and the decorative arts and to make legions of professional and personal contacts.

She married Vincent Astor (1891-1959) in 1952 after her second husband had suddenly died and from day one she set out to make his new life with her full of laughter because she knew that he had not previously had a happy life.

Most people in society believed it was a marriage of convenience and gave her access to a very different life style, that of being a philanthropic hostess. Novelist Louis Auchincloss, known to be Brooke’s friend reputedly said ‘… she married Vincent for the money… I wouldn’t respect her if she hadn’t. Only a twisted person would have married him for love’. When Astor died she decided, aged 78, not to remarry again although she said she always enjoyed fashionable flirting.

Celebrating 100 years at The New York Public Library

She lavished attention and love on her husband and the many dogs that she owned and her collection of 73 paintings of dogs achieved at the auction the grand total of $816,130, more than double their overall high estimate of $327,800.

Those who were later privy to her circle such as Barbara Walters, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and others enjoyed her gracious hospitality as the grand dame that she was. An invitation to tea with her at the apartment in New York was a coveted social prize.

If she had an informal occasion ‘at home’ it was with men in suits and ties and women beautifully coiffured and decked out in couture… very Downton Abbey on a good day.

She was a woman who was far more comfortable in a man’s world; hardly surprising when you consider her childhood and the fact she grew up in a household dominated by military men.

Those who knew her well said that she did not offer an opinion unless she had something of value to say. If she was on a committee or board she did not hold back on expressing herself, especially if it involved someone else’s welfare. Self-sacrifice was integral to the woman that she was.

She was committed to all her causes and gave generously.

Astor Court in The Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York

One of the favourite things that she did was to found the ‘Astor Court’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was an authentic replica of a 17th century Chinese courtyard, modelled on a seventeenth century scholars’ courtyard in the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets in Suzhou.

It was furnished with early Ming furniture and landscaped to perfection and became a memory of her own childhood experiences in China and the return visit she had made in 1979. When it opened in 1980 it was and still is considered at the heart of its Asian galleries. Currently it is hosting an exhibition: Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats until January 6, 2013

While Brooke Astor gave many gifts to The Met at New York, she also valued the staff by instituting an annual lunch in their honour and left an endowment for it to be held in perpetuity, such was the nature and nurture of this amazing woman.

The last glimpse of Brooke Astor’s boudoir

Her apartment was decorated by Albert Hadley, a partner in the patrician firm of Parish Hadley, which became famous because its principal partner.

She was the wonderfully eccentric ecclesiastically named Sister Parish (1910-1994) or ‘she who must be obeyed’ and the first all American designer to produce interiors within the classically elegant White House.

Albert Hadley worked with Sister Parish for 33 years, creating interiors that contained both intriguing and liveable rooms, with always a focus on excellence and each having a vista of wonderful things to look at and enjoy.

Brooke Astor ‘At Home’ in her library, designed by Albert Hadley

Brooke Astor’s library where she used to greet everyone was an extension of herself and her love for learning. She gained a reputation as an ‘omnivorous reader’, soaking up both history and culture, including information about the religion Buddhism. It was for her an ever abiding interest.

She wrote two books about her own life Footprints and Patchwork Child as well as two novels, countless poems and essays, which were published in House & Garden, Vanity Fair, Town and Country and The New Yorker.

Her lifespan encompassed one of the most amazing periods in world history from the Edwardian Age to the Age of Technology, which in itself was a feat of fortune and for everyone who encountered her. She would long be remembered for providing a magic moment in their lives.

Brooke Astor dined in style and with many famous people including the American president and his wife.

She gave money away to many municipal and cultural institutions, to schools, playgrounds and homeless shelters. Investigating these personally as per her credo took her into some of the grittiest, most crime-infested neighbourhoods of New York. She always insisted on seeing things first hand.

Mrs Astor photographed by Cecil Beaton 1956

Interestingly she didn’t dress down to do that, in fact she did just the opposite.

She fearlessly dressed up ‘to the nines’ as the expression goes, because she did not want to disappoint.

People were expecting to see Mrs Astor, who had a reputation to uphold, she did not want them to think of her as ‘just a ‘dowdy old lady’. She wanted to make a big impression.

As Canon Andrew of St. Thomas Church in Midtown New York noted in his homily to her at her funeral

‘…  she made it her duty to be proactive when causes for her foundation were brought to her notice. She would go there, talk there, ask questions there, make contacts there, friends there, having done her homework earlier. Her prudent generosity with what she had to give stemmed from a heart ready to imagine. This is why her touch was so sure, she came. She saw, she conquered, in her shrewd assessment of need’

A Chinese gilt-bronze clock Qianlong Period (1793- 1795) owned by Brooke Astor

She wrote hand notes of thank you to all on her pale blue Tiffany stationery. It was stylishly engraved with her address 778 Park Avenue and she was always known for signing each letter with affection. When asked the secret of her longevity by her friend the President of the New York Public Library Vartan Gregorian she reputedly said words that will forever echo and provide us with a real insight into the splendid woman that she really was.

Aaron Shikler, b1922, Portrait of Mrs Vincent Astor, seated Estimate 10,000 – 20,000 USD Lot sold $22,500 USD (Hammer Price with Buyer’s Premium) courtesy Sotheby’s New York

Be an optimist, be curious, read every night, don’t meet the same people all the time (sooner or later, they become lazy, boring and repeat themselves), don’t be a cynic, don’t envy or be jealous… spend some time in solitude in order to reflect, meet different people (young people), travel, and, if you are rich, adhere to the Gospel of ‘The Joy of Giving.’

While she might have been a grand dame, Roberta Brooke Astor was indeed a great lady, one who always gave the gift that keeps on giving.

When I go from here, I want to leave behind me a deeper sense of God*

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2016

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