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Brooke Astor: The Great Philanthropist

Published: 3/30/2014
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Brooke Astor (AP Photo/Serge J.F. Levy, File)

Brooke Astor gave away about $200 million during her lifetime to institutions such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bronx Zoo, as well as to smaller charities seeking to right social wrongs.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Astor "a quintessential New Yorker and one of the great philanthropists of our time. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers were the beneficiaries of Mrs. Astor's goodwill and kind nature, many unaware of the origins of the donations."

“For decades she had been known as the city’s unofficial first lady, one who moved effortlessly from the sumptuous apartments of Fifth Avenue to the ragged barrios of East Harlem, deploying her inherited millions to help the poor help themselves,” as The New York Times cited in her obituary after her death in August 2007 at 105.

"There was no one like Brooke," New York magazine quoted her friends as saying.

Roberta Brooke Russell was born March 30, 1902, in New Hampshire, the daughter of Maj. Gen. John H. Russell, who later became commandant of the Marine Corps. Her childhood was spent traveling around the world.

Her great fortune came from her third husband, William Vincent Astor. Vincent, as he was called, was the great-great grandson of America's first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor, who gained his fortune from investments in the fur trade and New York real estate. Vincent's mother died when he was a child and his father died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

Vincent Astor was known as a difficult man. "He had a dreadful childhood, and as a result, had moments of deep melancholy," Brooke Astor told The New York Times in 1980. "But I think I made him happy."

The couple married in 1953, the third marriage for both. After Vincent's death in 1959, Brooke Astor took the helm of her husband's charitable organization, the Vincent Astor Foundation.

She was fond of quoting a line from the Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker –– "Money is like manure, it should be spread around," her obituaries noted.

And Astor spread it around. Among her favorite charities were the New York Public Library, the Animal Medical Center, the Alliance for the Arts, the restoration of Carnegie Hall, and the city's Parks Commission.

"Brooke passed her days giving away money, which she loved,” New York magazine said.

Brooke had presence –– "star power," author Frances Kiernan wrote in her biography, The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story. “Photographs didn’t begin to do Mrs. Astor justice,” Kiernan wrote of the then 96-year-old woman. "Part of what made her so attractive was the delicacy of her coloring. Part of it was the magic worked by charm. She was an accomplished seductress.”

In 1998 Astor was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for her charitable work. She was also an author, publishing two memoirs and two historical novels.

In 2002 Astor had a gala 100th birthday celebration at the Rockefeller estate attended by notables ranging from Henry Kissinger and Kofi Annan to Barbara Walters and Peter Jennings. Although she'd been given a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease about two years earlier, Astor gave a speech that moved listeners, according to an account in The New York Times. "My mother used to say to me, ‘Brooke, don’t get beyond yourself,’ ” Mrs. Astor said. “I feel that I must have gotten very beyond myself tonight … to have all these nice people saying nice things about me.

"I really am not so extraordinary," she added. "I’m just an ordinary person who has had a very good life."

The last few years of Astor's life were dark ones as her son, Anthony Marshall, took advantage of her reduced mental capacity to steal from her, according to prosecutors. Marshall was convicted in 2009 of stealing millions of dollars from his mother, and in 2013 he served two months of a one- to three-year prison sentence before being released on medical parole. Astor's grandson, Philip Marshall, accused his father of mistreating Astor, but those allegations were never proved in court.

Astor is buried in Westchester County, N.Y. Her gravestone is inscribed with the words, "I had a wonderful life."
 

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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