The death of Brooke Astor brought much commentary from men and women who had observed her and marveled at her way of doing things. Her life was too long by a few years (she was 105), an affliction that will come to more and more people, courtesy of modern medicine. What she was left to cope with wasn’t any shortage of friends or of money. But she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and could no longer revel in her own wit, which had been considerable.
When I first met her I thought to clear the air by telling her that I did not want any of her money. “That’s an unfriendly thing for you to say!” she replied brightly, aware that I was always happy to receive financial contributions for National Review. The conservative politics of my journal didn’t put her off, though she was a kind of fenced-in Democrat, but of the breed that gets 100th-birthday parties given by David Rockefeller.
She had plenty of suitors attracted to her for other reasons than her wealth, but she sweetly, and dispositively, warded them off, remarking at one point that she wished to die not with a fourth husband, but with her doggies, in one of the dwellings she endowed with her eccentric and original gifts.
Mostly she gave money to official New York City causes, especially including the New York Public Library. But it takes a while to distribute $195 million, and she took her time with it all, satisfied to make gifts large and small, so that there were always people left out there who sought alms from the Vincent Astor Foundation for this or that other project.
She was both commanding and withdrawn. It is difficult to be entirely insulated when one needs to share several times every day an elevator the size of a double bed. She had to do this because her home, on the top floor of a regal apartment building in New York City, could be reached only by one of those elevators. Curiously, it was in an elevator that we first met — curiously, because although my wife’s and my apartment was in the same building, ours has a private ground-floor entrance, so we could get in and out without brushing up with the luxury trade.
Mrs. Astor had a role in the momentary confusion following the election of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States. Mr. Reagan was a very old friend of mine, and of course we inhabited the same ideological house. When he was elected, I immediately conveyed an invitation to a reception at our apartment. The invitation was impetuously and spontaneously accepted, but a day or two later, when the great machinery of government crystallized over the Reagan household, we began to get bits of messages from California and Washington to the effect that all plans involving the president-elect were in suspension.
What eventually happened was that the reception welcoming Mr. Reagan to New York took place not at our apartment, but at Mrs. Astor’s, up the elevator on the 16th floor. It was a long while before I learned the reason for it all, which, not surprisingly, was political. Mr. Reagan’s close aide and scheduler thought it unwise for the initial appearance to be at the quarters of a mad-dog conservative. Better make that first appearance in the cosmopolitan setting of the queen of New York society, Brooke Astor, who, conveniently, resided in the same building.
Mrs. Astor, in 1980, was a spry 78 years old, and she loved to chat about the political implications of anything at all. The story of Mr. Reagan’s first official appearance in New York amused her for a while, and we made jokes, though it was probably unkind of me never to have asked her for a contribution.
She was a lady of inquiring intelligence, an author, a woman of high standards and infinite understanding. She made it a point personally to visit the hundred enterprises she contributed to, and the newspapers reproduced charming photographs of her singular self, always with hat and jewels. She explained at one point that her hosts, in slum centers, would think it condescending of her to appear other than as she would appear for a meeting at the White House.
She suffered badly, a year or so ago, from a ferocious quarrel over her money, featuring her son and grandson. All of New York, for several months, agonized over the thought that this woman should suffer humiliation. Then she was wafted off to one of her estates and was looked after for the last year of her life, and, one hopes, will not be forgotten.
© 2007 UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE