Brooke Astor, the wealthy New York socialite who was widely admired for her hands-on philanthropy and her charm, died on August 13 at the age of 105.
She was born Brooke Russell in 1902 to a wealthy, well-connected family during what has come to be termed "America's Gilded Age." It was an era known for the luxury and wealth of America's upper social classes.
She was married twice before her New York society wedding to Vincent Astor in 1953. When he died five years later, his will divided in half his share of the vast fortune his ancestor John Jacob Astor had made in the fur trade and New York real estate during the previous century.
The will left $60 million to his wife and $60 million to a foundation "dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering." It was a cause Mrs. Astor took up with passion, purpose and rare intelligence, observes Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University history professor and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York
"It's really 'new money' that is really 'the straw that stirs the drink' [where power is concentrated] in New York City in the 21st century," Jackson says, "but Brooke Astor was representative of the 'Old School,' someone who had money and who had dignity and elegance and style, and who had a sense of tradition and the city of the past."
Jackson says Astor "help set a standard for people who wanted to be philanthropic." He adds that we see that altruistic impulse today in people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, people who have amassed great fortunes but who see as their responsibility to give most of it back to the society which generated it."
Jackson notes that Brooke Astor had that attitude. "She chose to make a difference and she really did make a difference."
She is widely known for helping to restore the New York Public Library to the greatness that previous generations of the Astor family had helped to create. "It was really Brooke who reached in and brought this phoenix back to life in a very significant kind of way," says Paul LeClerc, president of the institution.
LeClerc says that when he became president in 1994, the library had already largely recovered from the severe financial crises that beset New York City in the mid-1970s. Astor orchestrated that recovery, he says, by recruiting a great chairman of the board and by making large donations to the library. He notes that her gifts inspired others to give. "Through her example and her advocacy, many, many people in New York realized how centrally important the library was to the city's well-being and started giving very generously."
The New York Public Library was a natural cause for Astor to take up. She was a passionate reader, an accomplished writer, and a tireless advocate for the principle that the Library's treasures should be dedicated to the welfare of all New Yorkers, not just scholars, or a chosen few.
Early on, Astor decided that the wealth her family had made in New York should be spent in New York, and she offered vital support to many famed New York institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Morgan Library and Museum, Rockefeller University, and other organizations she called the city's "crown jewels."
But Astor also took an active, hands-on interest in many of the city's more obscure non-profit groups. Some helped people get inexpensive furniture for their homes, others helped people find a place to live, while another helped pregnant teenage mothers. The list is long. "Whatever the cause," says LeClerc, "it wasn't about serving elite culture. She cared authentically about the welfare of the common person. It was the most enlightened kind of philanthropy."
Brooke Astor was fond of quoting a line from Thornton Wilder' play The Matchmaker: "Money is like manure. It's no good unless you spread it around." But she also dispensed advice that could change lives.
Paul LeClerc experienced this himself when he became president of the New York Public Library and was invited for tea in her sumptuous Park Avenue apartment. "She said 'have fun at the Library; have fun in this new job you have.'" he recalls. "It's not something most of us think about, but it was sort of her philosophy of life. 'Do things that are going to give you pleasure and ideally do some good for somebody else. Bring some pleasure to people by virtue of your interaction with them.' It was the single most positive approach to life I had come across."
LeClerc says that while his hostess always sought to put him at ease, he was always also aware of the power and charisma she projected. "You knew you were with Mrs. Astor, a legendary person. But what came across was an immense amount of charm, of wit, or playfulness, of intelligence, of sparkle. She was really impeccable… and one of the greatest people in my entire life - to know to revere, to admire and to work with."
Indeed, Brooke Astor knew great affection and acclaim during her 105 years. In 1996, in a rare move, New York's Landmark Conservancy declared her a "living landmark." In 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. And while she will certainly be missed by the city's cultural and political elite, as well as by many of the everyday New Yorkers whom she served, Brooke Astor's influence will be felt here for many generations to come.