Goodbye Mrs. Astor

JAMES WATT
Brooke Russell Astor Senior Curator for Chinese decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

She never had any what we would call academic knowledge of art. She just liked what she liked. … But she had very good judgment as to what a good work of art is. It was nothing too ornate. But anything with a slight sense of whimsy—she would love it.

FELIX ROHATYN
Financier and former chairman of the municipal assistance corporation:

I think I met her when the city was facing bankruptcy about 30 years ago. … What she did with the New York Public Library [then] was very meaningful. At that time it had really run down and it was kind of a discouraging thing. But by having Brooke step forward and essentially put her arms around the Public Library and say, “I will bring this back to what it should be,” I thought that was an enormously important act of faith in the future of the city.

JOHN RICHARDSON
Art critic, author, former head of Christie’s U.S. operations

I always looked on her as a queen of New York. … Brooke used to give little parties and she gave a little dance … and Brooke was wearing a sash with an enormous emerald the size of a piece of soap. Huge, I mean too big to wear anywhere … And we were dancing like crazy, old-fashioned waltzes and polkas and everything, and suddenly this stone fell to the ground, and Brooke kicked it under the sofa and said, “Don’t worry, that’ll be found in the morning.”… And in the morning it was not found.

MARY McFADDEN
Fashion designer

She did a lot for the hat business in New York, because she always wore hats. There was a long time where people weren’t wearing hats in New York anymore, and the whole hat industry really had a resurgence due to Mrs. Astor’s hats, not to mention her emeralds, which she used to wear out in full splendor to Swifty’s restaurant, which is hardly a dressed-up place.

IVAN OBOLENSKY
Investment banker and nephew of Vincent Astor

She is the greatest adventuress that has ever been since Cleopatra, perhaps. … She shmoozed everybody in sight, whoever suited her. … She’d go around at parties whistling. She was a whistler, literally. She whistled very well. Like a leader.

ROBERT SILVERS
Editor, The New York Review of Books

She was in no way remote from the world. She knew very much what was happening. And this was, after all, indicated by this fact that she had taken an interest in this paper which had been put on the newsstands once. … She took the initiative, she wanted to see it, she wanted to be part of it, she wanted to invest. … At a later point, one of her businesspeople said, you know you’ve been going on for years and the paper is doing well, and she wants to make her shares available to you at low cost … and she just gave it back to us really.

KENNETH JAY LANE
Jewelry designer to the socialites and friend of Mrs. Astor’s for 40 years

One thing she always used to say all the time, even in her old age, was, “Kenneth, do I flirt too much?” And I’d say, “No, Brooke you flirt just enough. You better not stop.”

KENT BARWICK
President, Municipal Arts Society

Brooke wasn’t born into great wealth; I knew elderly snobs who thought that Vincent had married beneath himself. I guess, she was a showgirl, they thought. But she knew who she was. Vincent knew who she was. And, as it turned out, whether it was his idea or her idea, it was a great idea for her to get involved and to do so much good.

It was very much personal philanthropy, personal involvement. She came over to our building when it was a ruin. She walked through with a flashlight, with some of the trustees, and determined after marching through the dust and whatnot that it’d be a good idea to help us do it. So she gave us the money to get our first real headquarters.

AILEEN MEHLE
Longtime socialite columnist as “Suzy” and friend of Mrs. Astor

She was one of the women of that era, of that ilk, who was a personage who meant something. Someone who actually didn’t have a damn about what people thought of them. … She said to me, “I love it when you write about me, but never mention my jewelry. I’m a woman alone.”

—Compiled by Lizzy Ratner, Gillian Reagan, and David Foxley