History Books

About Mrs Astor 

What is Brooke Astor really like? Any New Yorker interested in the local establishment wants to know. For twenty-five years - at least - Vincent Astor's widow has been graced with a nimbus of widespread admiration. Her reputation as an industrious philanthropist is beyond question. Her charm is legendary. And, of course, there's the fact that she is a hundred and five years old. The Mrs Astor that used to appear week after week in the Sunday Styles section of the Times retired four or five years ago, and one can only hope that she is not too keenly aware of the scandal surrounding her son's alleged mismanagement of her affairs.

Frances Kiernan's The Last Mrs Astor: A New York Story (Norton, 2007) is an intriguing portrait of a great lady, but one that is unlikely to satisfy readers who prefer sharp focus. Inferences can certainly be drawn from Ms Kiernan's account. The book is arguably premature, written while its subject is still alive, even if she is no longer surrounded by the world of great and good people who seem predisposed to speak well of her to Ms Kiernan. The author is not absolutely uncritical, but she finds few faults and no vices. She appears to be abiding by Mrs Astor's own code of good manners. A telling instance, occurring in the introduction, recounts the first meeting of the author, whose previous book was Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy, and her prospective subject.

Mrs Astor led off by asking about my time at The New Yorker. Then she asked me about my book, which was scheduled to come out the following year. The subject of my book seemed to interest her not at all, even though I had learned from Renata Adler that she had put up Mary McCarthy for the night when McCarthy's beautiful white Mercedes convertible broke down near her place in Maine. The thought of two women so different - one know for her tact and good manners, the other for her sharp tongue - spending one night together conjured up all sorts of tantalizing possibilities. At one point, I'd asked John Hart if I could talk to Mrs Astor about that visit and word had come back that she had nothing to say on the subject. Mary must have stolen a toothbrush, her stepdaughter had joked. I tended to think nothing quite so dramatic had transpired. Mrs Astor was of a generation that believed that when you had nothing good to say you did best to keep your moth shut.

In many ways, Ms Kiernan's occasional reticence is commendable. But it leaves her with a New Yorker profile that has been stretched too far. Hers would have been a better book at half its present length.

It would also have been improved by a clearer sense of context. Mrs Astor is famous for paying regular visits to the people and institutions at the receiving end of her bounty, always beautifully turned out. Was this really so unusual? If it was, then just how unusual it was ought to have been made clear. Let's take, for example, Mrs Astor's attentiveness to the Vincent Astor Foundation's accounts. This necessarily lay somewhere between the statements "She did them herself" and "She paid no attention at all." But where? And in what ways was she more or less attentive than the run of other philanthropists? The Last Mrs Astor is also somewhat haunted by the ghost of circular thinking: if Mrs Astor did something, it must have been a good thing and it must have been done well. Given the moderate extent of the Foundation's endowment, Mrs Astor's reputation is grossly outsized. Is that because she was a dedicated fund-raiser, skilled at charming even bigger gifts from other donors? Ms Kiernan suggests that this might be the case, but, again, she fixes no context.

The lapse would be less salient if so much of her book - more than half of it - were not dedicated to Mrs Astor's good works. What we get instead of analysis is a parade of big names. The fundamental question - how did Brooke Astor rise to the apex of New York society? - is left unresolved. She does not appear to have clawed her way there, but it seems unlikely that she simply floated. My suspicion, first roused by Ms Kiernan's book, is that the elevation was symbiotic. With the passage of time, Mrs Astor, a "people person" if there ever was one, as well as a woman endowed with good taste and good sense, came to embody, literally, what social New York liked to think it looked like. She could be proper without being fussy. Like another pretty but not beautiful woman who achieved formidable power by appealing to the comforts and pleasures of the opposite sex - Mme de Pompadour - the former Brooke Russell made a study of what men like so that she could give it to them. And she appears to have put up with a lot of bad behavior from at least two of her husbands.

The current investigation into Anthony Marshall's execution of his fiduciary duties to his mother will no doubt help sales of this book, but it also necessarily mutes the second most pressing item of intrigue: what makes Tony tick? The man who hovers at the margins of Ms Kiernan's vision seems hard and sullen, but the author, doubtless prudently, never pronounces judgment. As to his mother's knack for the maternal, Ms Kiernan is cool:

It would be wrong to say that Brooke Marshall was a bad mother. But owing to the pressures, distractions, and diversions of her new life, she was an erratic one. At those times when Tony's life was threatened, his mother remembered just how much she loved him, but ordinarily her son's welfare was not foremost on her mind. Although her concern for Tony was very real, it was far from consistent. Louis Auchincloss, with one brief anecdote, would suggest its limits: "My mother and father went back with Brooke one time on the train from Groton. Brooke was in tears. So sorry to leave poor Tony. One cocktail and the tears disappeared, like a brief spring shower."

The anecdote is ambiguous, given Mrs Astor's formidable good matters, which would have precluded any prolonged demonstrations of unhappiness. There seems to be little doubt, though, that Mr Marshall would have been justified to feel somewhat shortchanged of parental devotion. Many readers, I expect, will be surprised to learn that he was never formally adopted by Mrs Astor's second husband, Charles "Buddie" Marshall, but that he simply took his stepfather's name, during World War II.

The Library of Congress, which always practices a low-key but not insignificant form of literary criticism, does Ms Kiernan an injustice on the copyright page:

1. Astor, Brooke. 2. Socialites - New York (State) - New York - Biography. 3. Philanthropists - New York (State) - New York - Biography. 4. New York (NY) - Biography.

Mrs Astor's life as a "socialite" takes, in the pages that follow, a back seat to her charitable work. The thick thread that runs through the entire book is Brooke Russell's search for an active and meaningful life. Although her career was far from a succession of lucky breaks, she knew how to make the most of the ones that came her way, while deflecting the blows of misfortune. I expect that she was more successful than she thought she would be, and that her renown was a matter of personal bemusement. As it is unlikely that she will have left a definitive record of her character, especially given the selective nature of her "autobiography," Footprints - which Ms Kiernan is correct to call a memoir - Frances Kiernan is to be thanked, first, for speaking with so many of the New Yorkers who knew and worked with Brooke Astor; and, second, for writing up what she found out as nicely as she has done.

In the end, the secret of Mrs Astor's success may have been in her genes: her father, John Henry Russell, Jr, crowned his long military career by becoming the Commandant of the Marine Corps. (May 2007)

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