Money is like manure; neither does any good unless you
spread it around.
— Roberta Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor
The last of the great pillars of high society, the last connection to The
Gilded Age, Mrs. Vincent "Brooke" Astor, worked assiduously against being
labeled pretentious or aloof. She set a new standard for women of social stature
that blatantly made fun of the old standard set by her peers, a list which
includes names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie and Woodward. Brooke Astor's
most famous achievement was divesting herself of the $200 million Vincent Astor
Foundation, giving freely to causes large and small. No dowager hiding up high
in her de luxe Fifth Avenue apartment writing checks on a Chippendale
desk; Mrs. Astor visited each and every one of the benefactors of her
philanthropy, prior to and after giving. She was as at home eating hot dogs with
mustard and pickle relish off of a paper plate at a reception in Brooklyn's
Bedford-Stuyvesant district as she was nibbling caviar on toast at a crystal-
and silver-set banquet attended by Presidents and other heads of state.
A Sophisticated Childhood
Roberta Brooke Russell was born on March 30, 1902 in Portsmouth, New
Hampshire. Her father, Major General John Russell, was a descendant of one of
the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Due to her father's military
assignments, she grew up in Hawaii, Panama, Santo Domingo and China, and became
fluent in Chinese.
An only child, she grew up at times isolated, but in her memoirs remarked
that she'd enjoyed the privilege of being exposed to so many foreign places and
customs. She dropped out of an exclusive private school but later graduated the
exclusive Holton-Arms School.
Sources for this article disagree on exactly when she married her first
husband, John Dryden Kuser; probably about 1918. A quote from Astor saying that
Kuser had "promised her a wonderful life ... and a car when I was old enough to
get a license" leads this writer to believe that she was merely 16 when she wed
the grandson of U.S. Senator John F. Dryden. Kuser later became active in New
She described her husband's abuse, alcoholism and adultery as the "worst
years of my life." The marriage, which produced one son, was ended when Brooke
filed for divorce in 1930, at the encouragement of her husband. An Astor
biographer reported that she was a few months along in her pregnancy when Kuser
broke her jaw in an alcoholic fit of rage. He demeaned her and constantly
reminded her that he no longer had any feelings for her. She was outspoken later
in life regarding her first husband's moneyed family: "The very rich think that
they are never wrong. The arrogance of big money is one of the
most unappealing of characteristics, and it goes very deep." This belief was one
that shaped her thoughts about how she should behave in her later life, and she
spent the rest of her days living a generous and decent life free from the
pretense and sense of privilege she so hated.
Suffice it to say that there's more, but in the interest of brevity, let it
merely be said that had any other woman endured what John Kuser put Brooke
through, she'd probably have had a lot of trouble convincing herself to get
Husband Number Two
Brooke managed to pick herself up, and brush herself off, and ended up
discovering a kindred soul. She was to later write that her marriage to Charles
Henry "Buddy" Marshall was "a great love match." Her son by John Kuser
changed his name to Anthony Dryden Marshall at age 18, so enamored of his
stepfather was he.
Again, sources for this article disagree upon whether it was because of
financial misfortune on the part of Marshall or merely because she didn't want
to be a member of "the idle rich" that she took a job at House & Garden
magazine, where she became a features editor.
Sadly, her marriage to Charles Marshall was to end after only twenty years,
at his death in 1952.
Mrs. Vincent Astor
Vincent Astor had not even divorced his second wife, Minnie, when he proposed
to Brooke not even a year after Marshall's death. Much to the surprise of both
of them, she said yes, qualifying that with the fact that she hardly even knew
him. He agreed that yes, he hardly knew her, either, but that they'd grow to
fall in love together. They were married in 1953.
A novelist who was also a friend of Brooke's stated "Of course 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." This was in a way true, but she fell
hard for Astor, the oldest son of John Jacob Astor, a victim of the
Titanic disaster. Astor had had a troubled childhood. It haunted him in
adult life by a tendency to be anti-social, often depressed, and somewhat
paranoid about other people. Oh, by the way, about the money. Vincent Astor was,
at the time of their marriage, the twelfth wealthiest man in America, according
to Forbes magazine.
Brooke and Vincent ended up getting along just fine. She assisted him with
his financial empire and his business in hotels and real estate. She was
appointed a member of the board of the Astor Foundation shortly after they were
married. When he felt melancholy, she'd sing to him, and dance with her dogs
until she elicited a smile.
Their marriage ended when Vincent passed away in 1959. She was left a few
million in cash, millions more in investments, and control of her husband's
personal foundation, the purpose of which was "the amelioration of human
misery." Well, she did just that. She wrote "giving away money should be
exhilarating" in her memoirs. She certainly was exhilarated; and she exhilarated
the people of the City of New York as perhaps no other philanthropist ever had.
Pookie, you are going to have a hell of a lot of fun
with the foundation when I'm gone.
— Vincent Astor
John D. Rockefeller III gave Mrs. Astor this advice:
"The person who has control of the money should also be personally involved in
the giving. It is a lot of work, but it's worth it." Whether it was an
eight-figure gift to her favorite charity, the New York Public Library, the
setting-up of a day care center in the impoverished South Bronx, or the ground
breaking for a playground in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, Mrs. Astor was
there. She always wore pearls, her signature white kid gloves, a tailored suit,
and a hat no matter where she went. She never dressed down, stating that the
recipients of her gifts wanted to see Mrs. Astor, "not some doddering old lady."
Indeed, her appearance was somewhat larger than life. She had to live up to
the title of "First Lady of New York," after all. Her hair was always impeccably
coiffed, she was always in shape (due to a regimen of swimming exercise that she
pursued well into her 90s). She claimed (although it was doubted) that she'd
never had a face lift.
In 1997 she liquidated the funds of the Astor foundation, giving out the last
$25 million. She claimed she wanted to spend more time traveling and writing
poetry. During the forty years she controlled the Astor fund, she gave away $195
million to New York charities, including the Bronx Zoo, social projects, and the
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton
on January 15, 1998.
When asked why she didn't re-marry after Vincent Astor's death, she gave a
number of explanations, the most humorous being that she didn't want someone
around "to tell me it's time to go home at ten o'clock." Mrs. Astor enjoyed the
night life, especially parties where there was dancing. She had a number of
suitors, but refused them all.
Good friend David Rockefeller gave Mrs. Astor a gala 100th birthday party in
New York City in 2001.
Trouble in Paradise
By the time she was 104, Astor had been hospitalized for anemia and
Alzheimer's. Her son, Anthony Dryden Marshall, was her guardian and in charge of
managing her affairs. On July 26, 2006 it became public that Astor's grandson
Philip Marshall criticized his father's treatment of Astor. Philip's accusations
had launched a full-scale investigation of his management of Astor's vast
estate. Apparently, Marshall had not provided for the aging Astor, allowing her
to live in squalor, and interfering with her medical treatment. The accusation
was even made that her beloved dogs were kept away from her, locked in a closet
in the estate where she lived out her final years, in Briarcliff Manor, New
One by one concerned parties came forward with news of malfeasance and
unfettered greed on the part of Anthony Marshall. Charges filed against Anthony
Marshall and Astor's Attorney, Francis X. Morrissey, Jr., on the first of August
of 2006 included:
- They tricked Marshall's mother, Brooke
Astor, into thinking that she was broke and
needed to sell an expensive artwork, one of
Mrs. Astor's favorites, so
Marshall could get a $2 million commission.
- They conspired to increase Marshall's
salary (without Astor's knowledge) from
$450,000 a year to $1.4 million a year, and
used much of that money to buy himself a
- Marshall used his mother's money to hire a
captain for the yacht at $52,000 a year.
- They hired a "social secretary" for their
joint theatrical company paid for by Astor's
- Morrissey forged, or caused to be forged, Mrs.
Astor's signature on at least one codicil to
- Marshall outright stole two expensive
artworks from his mother's Fifth Avenue
apartment, which were later
- Marshall also helped himself to $600,000
of Astor's money to pay for the upkeep of
her former Maine estate, Cove End, which he
had given to his wife, Charlene.
- Marshall gave himself $1 million in
securities from Astor's portfolio in 2003
and failed to report the gift on tax
The most grave of these charges, grand larceny, carries a sentence of up to
25 years. The matter is still pendente lite.
And if you should survive to 105,
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive.
Then here is the best part,
You'll have a head start,
If you are among the very young at heart.
— Lyric from popular song "Young At Heart" by Carolyn Leigh and Johnny
Reprinted from the death notice in The New York Times placed by the
Rockefeller University (one of many).
Indeed, she was 105 when she died peacefully at her home in Briarcliff Manor on August 13, 2007.
A horrible end, but perhaps for the best, her Alzheimer's had progressed to the point where she didn't fully
comprehend what was going on vis-a-vis her estate. The estate is still being
contested, and charges are still pending against her son and her attorney.
Brooke Astor chose her own epitaph, inscribed upon her headstone at Sleepy
Hollow Cemetery, in Sleepy Hollow, New York: "I had a wonderful life."
Apart from the hanky-panky going on vis-a-vis her substantial estate,
political blogger and writer Madeleine Begun Kane was moved to write a wonderful
tribute to Mrs. Astor, despite their political differences, after discovering
that the website craigslist.com was offering two "tickets" to Astor's funeral,
described as "16th pew from the front" for $500 two days before the rites (the
offer appeared on the website; but was a hoax):
A generous lady named Astor,
Whose kindness will surely outlast her,
Is mourned far and wide
Since she recently died,
And nobody’s ever outclassed her.
"Ode To Brooke Astor"
By Madeleine Begun Kane
- 1962: Patchwork Child: Early Memories. New York: Random
House. ISBN 0679426876.
- 1965: The Bluebird is at Home. New York: Random House. ISBN
- 1980: Footprints. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. ISBN
- 1986: The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree: A Period Piece.
New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312905459.
- "(Today in Astor-ia) Anthony Marshall Accused of Greed, Bad Taste in
Friends," edited by Chris Rovzar and Jessica Pressler, New York Magazine,
November 28, 2007
- "Brooke Astor, 105, First Lady of Philanthropy, Dies" by Marilyn Berger,
The New York Times, August 13, 2007
- Mrs. Vincent Astor - Biography (anonymous) Internet Movie Database
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1480564/bio (Accessed 12/1/07)
- Brooke Astor NNDB "Tracking The Entire World"
http://www.nndb.com/people/173/000057002/ (Accessed 12/1/07)
- "Brooke Astor, New York Society Doyenne, Benefactor, Dies at 105", by Peter
- "Brooke Astor's 83-year-old son charged with changing her will" by Andrew
Gumbel The Independent (UK) December 1, 2007
- "Brooke Astor's Son Caves on Will Codicil" by Stefanie Cohen,
The New York
Post, August 24, 2007
- "Selling Tickets to Brooke Astor's Funeral: Scam or Satire? by Mad Kane
Mad Kane's Political Madness