Aug 11, 2006

They don't make 'em like that anymore

It seems a shame to be reading what amounts to a series of obituaries for someone who is not yet dead, especially considering the circumstances that have brought her back into public view, but I've been enjoying the NY Sun's series on society doyenne Brooke Astor.

Astor lived in fabulous houses, went to fabulous parties and wore fabulous clothes. Her life is like Princess Diana's without the bulimia, the extramarital sex or the confessional interviews on TV. Or maybe not. Maybe it's like Paris Hilton's life without the sextapes. Or Nicole Ritchie's life without the drugs and anorexia. (See also Heiresses then and now.)

In truth, reading about Astor's life is like entering a foreign country. There are the steamers to Cherbourg, the foreign amahs and the Max Beerbohm and Evelyn Waugh sightings--all stuff that I'm a sap for.

But Astor's life didn't lack drama--or hardship.

When she was 17 she married an abusive drunk with whom she stayed for the sake of the children until he kicked her out. She volunteered at a Staten Island hospital during World War II. She also worked as features editor at House and Garden and wrote two volumes of memoirs. Then Vincent Astor died and left her in control of the his foundation.
The Vincent Astor Foundation, worth some $67 million at his death, was never the largest foundation in New York, but thanks to Brooke Astor, it punched way above its weight. By virtue of her place in society, whatever cause she gave to became instantly popular.

"It became glamorous and important to support what Brooke was supporting," the president of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc, said. The Astor largesse there, starting with her first really large gift of $5 million in 1977 and totaling about $25 million, is generally credited with sparking a renaissance in that institution, and even by some for increased giving at libraries across the country.

At the library, it was her lifetime romance with the written word and her husband's family tree that inspired her giving. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was in part her fondly remembered childhood years in China, where her father was posted as a Marine attaché. The Chinese Garden Court and the Ming Room, opened in 1981, were funded by Mrs. Astor. In a nod to international understanding, they were the first jointly created exhibit between the two nations after their rapprochement.

A well-lived life. Too bad she hasn't been allowed to go out gracefully.

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