“Money is like manure, it should be spread around,” Brooke Astor took to saying in later years. In 1986, when she accepted an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for “Distinguished Service to the Arts,” she attributed the remark to Thornton Wilder and went on to describe the role played by the Vincent Astor Foundation and her special task as president: “So what we have done is spread around the manure and I have been raking it.” In fact she was paraphrasing the words of the turn-of-the-century Yonkers widow Dolly Levi, eponymous heroine of Hello, Dolly, the long-running Broadway musical based on Wilder’s play The Matchmaker.
Coming from just about anyone, these words would guarantee an audience’s attention. Coming from someone who could plausibly lay claim to having enjoyed an Edwardian childhood, they had to be a bit of a shock. Sixteen years later, when she was about to turn one hundred, Brooke Astor was still savoring the contrast between this indisputably pungent nugget of wisdom with the decorous, ladylike picture she presented. With her well-cut suits, her omnipresent hats, her fine kid gloves and her three strands of good pearls, she was a throwback to a time when men and women dressed for an occasion. To find anyone who presented a comparable face to the public you would have to look to the British Royal Family. Like the Queen of England, she had perfected a style that rendered her immediately recognizable. Unlike the Queen, she was chic.
For more than four decades Mrs. Astor captured the attention of New Yorkers with words more in keeping with her public demeanor. “Good manners come from a good heart,” she liked to say. Her own heart, which rarely faltered, she ascribed to two loving parents. But a good heart can take you only so far. To discipline she credited the unfailing energy she brought to making life better for the citizens of this city. Her best known poem, published in The New Yorker the week after she turned 95, bears that name. It tells of how, when faced with “sorrow,” she discovered solace and even happiness by adhering to a code any self-respecting Edwardian parent might approve. The poet writes:
I learned to smile when I felt sad,
I learned to take the good and bad,
I learned to care a great deal more
for the world about me than before.
I began to forget the “Me” and “I”
And joined in life as it rolled by;
Then, lest this be taken for the words of a hopeless Pollyanna, she adds:
this may not mean sheer ecstasy
but is better by far than “I” and “Me.”
“Discipline” was written by a woman whose feckless first husband had suddenly divorced her, leaving her with a small son to raise; whose beloved second husband had died in her arms on a Thanksgiving weekend; and whose demanding but loving third husband had died only five-and-a-half years later. The poem can be read as a paean to selflessness. It can also be read as a ballad of good common sense: Put others first and everyone comes out ahead. Still, there remains a hint that life is best when it offers something more.
Brooke Astor was no late-blooming poet. By this point she was also the published author of two novels, numerous essays and articles, and two book-length memoirs, as well as a devoted friend and daughter, a self-professed romantic, an accomplished hostess, an intrepid dancer, and a valued guest who thought nothing of attending as many as four parties in one night. But, above all, she was a world-famous philanthropist. For 37 years, as president and guiding spirit of the Vincent Astor Foundation, she devoted the better part of her life to this city—securing funding and also ensuring attention for causes she deemed important. “I never give to anything that I don’t see,” Mrs. Astor liked to say. For her philanthropy was always personal.
In her own way, Brooke Astor was a great matchmaker—whether it meant bringing upstart organizations in need of funding to the attention of old friends with deep pockets or introducing attractive newcomers with money to the pleasures of philanthropy. Never was it only about money. Newcomers with talent who had something to say for themselves could always find a place at her table. Although she sometimes seemed like a throwback to another era, she kept an eye on the future. Her life might not be “sheer ecstasy,” but she saw to it that she and everyone who crossed her path had a good time.
Toward the end of her life, faced with an admiring reporter or some group that had gathered to honor her, she took pleasure in recounting how her beloved father used to warn her, “Brooke, don’t get beyond yourself.” Of course she would be the first to admit that by taking on the role of Mrs. Astor she had done just that. Dressed for a visit to a row of abandoned houses as though she were headed for a lunch at La Grenouille, she liked to say, “People expect to see Mrs. Astor.” For her it was a matter of good manners. It was also an act of faith. By the end she gave away close to $200 million. Even after she closed down the foundation in 1997, she made being Mrs. Astor seem like an adventure. She also made it seem as though, with a bit of application, anyone could accomplish what she had. Of course nothing could be further from the truth.
Frances Kiernan is the author of The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story (W.W. Norton)
Remember Mrs. Astor
One sometimes hears, “Who will be the next Brooke Astor?” But there will never be another Brooke Astor. She was unique—charming, wise, funny, elegant and, most important, generous. Even her very long life was unique. To have her for a friend was a privilege.