Brooke Russell Astor, who has lived a remarkable life that has spanned more than a century, proved that she could help to save a city.
She did it through her careful management of the Vincent Astor Foundation, which supports, among other things, the New York Public Library, the Bronx Zoo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and urban renewal projects.
Frances Kiernan, an acclaimed biographer, interviewed Astor herself as well as friends, associates and New York City civic leaders and provides a warm and entertaining portrait of a woman who has become a beloved figure in New York City society as well as a revered philanthropist.
The only child of Marine Corps Capt. John Henry Russell Jr., who became commandant of the corps, she was born Roberta Brooke Russell in 1902 in Portsmouth, N.H. She spent several years of her early life in Beijing, China, and then boarding schools in Maryland, which she describes in her memoir, "The Patchwork Childhood."
Her 10-year marriage to Drydan Kuser was a disaster, but it produced her only child, Anthony. He took the surname of his stepfather, Charles "Buddie" Marshall, to whom Brooke was married for 20 years before his death.
During that marriage, Brooke Marshall wrote another memoir, "Footprints," when she worked as an editor for Home and Garden magazine and became friends with such influential men as Thomas Hoving, Louis Auchincloss, Cardinal Spellman and Nelson and David Rockefeller.
She was introduced to Vincent Astor by his then wife, Minnie, who wanted to divorce him but not before he "was settled." By the end of a weekend, "Vincent Astor, with Minnie's strong encouragement, had proposed marriage" and Brooke has accepted.
When Vincent died in 1968, she had a court battle to take over his foundation, for which she developed a policy that no grants would be awarded until she paid an appraising visit to the site or organization that applied.
In another court battle, Tony Marshall and his wife were forced to pay millions to Brooke Astor's estate so that at the end of her life -- she has now reached her 105th birthday -- she can be cared for in the luxury and comfort she knew as Mrs. Vincent Astor. She will leave her money to benefit the people of New York City.
Says Kiernan: " 'Don't be guessing,' Brooke Astor liked to say, and this bred-on-the-bone curiosity -- this wish to see and savor everything that came her way -- had stood her in good stead. It made it possible for her to regard everyone she met as worthy of her attention. It had made it only natural for her to appreciate the dreams as well as the needs of the men and women she was trying to help with the foundation she'd remade in her own image."
Erna Eaton is a News staff reporter.
>The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story
By Frances Kiernan
Norton, 307 pages, $24.95