A young person who’s just moved to New York can hardly ignore the name Astor. It spans only one block, but Astor Place is frequently invoked by 23-year-olds, as it connects Broadway to St. Marks Place, the enduringly hip East Village destination. THE LAST MRS. ASTOR: A NEW YORK STORY
By Frances Kiernan
Norton, 307 pages, $24.95
A young person who’s just moved to New York can hardly ignore the name Astor. It spans only one block, but Astor Place is frequently invoked by 23-year-olds, as it connects Broadway to St. Marks Place, the enduringly hip East Village destination. To the new New Yorker, the name Astor conjures up downtown and youth and trendiness (and Kmart, too, as it sits right there)—which is ironic, since the Astors themselves are very much an uptown crew, hardly cutting-edge and most definitely not cheap.
Brooke Astor is the last member of this famous family who will ever matter much to those of us who have said the name so often. She’s 105 years old and bedridden. Upon her death—which may still be a ways off, given her prodigious will to live—we’ll surely be treated to a doorstop biography or two. But for now, while she’s still with us, we have Frances Kiernan’s The Last Mrs. Astor, a concise and engaging look at the tiny doyenne of society who did so much good for Gotham.
Before she was Brooke Astor, the woman we know as a “living monument” (sort of a backhanded compliment, really) was married to two other men—both of whom made her wealthy. Her second husband and “love match,” Charles (Buddie) Marshall, died suddenly in 1952, after 20 years of marriage. Just 11 months later, Brooke Marshall became the third and final Mrs. Vincent Astor.
There are competing stories about her third marriage, but it seems indisputable that Brooke Marshall’s primary reason for becoming Brooke Astor was money: Her new husband had a considerable personal fortune as well as an eponymous foundation worth close to $450 million by today’s standards. It’s not that Brooke was greedy, but her means were limited, and by that point she did have a lavish lifestyle to maintain. She also seems to have been excited by the idea that she might one day run the Vincent Astor Foundation—a promise that her husband is said to have made to her before she agreed to become his wife.
Vincent died in 1959, and within two years Brooke Astor was president of the foundation. Ms. Kiernan’s book is most valuable as a catalogue of all of the things that Mrs. Astor did for us—the residents of this city—with her husband’s fortune. The New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum, the Bronx Zoo, Central Park, The New York Review of Books—without Brooke Astor, these institutions might not have survived some of their worst moments or, in the case of the NYRB, never have come into being. Her fingerprints are all over the city, and she seems always to have been on the side of good and right: saving historic buildings, buying books for libraries, expanding art collections.
No wonder Frances Kiernan is such an over-the-top fan. Though there are moments when she hints that Brooke Astor may have been a less-than-perfect woman, as soon as our ears prick up, we’re whisked off to another party or fund-raiser in her honor. Still, The Last Mrs. Astor is a valuable and enjoyable appreciation of a great old lady, a relic of old, rapidly disappearing New York.
Hillary Frey edits the culture pages of The Observer.