Socialite Brooke Astor dies at 105


NEW YORK -- Brooke Astor, the civic leader, philanthropist and high society fixture who gave away nearly $200 million to support New York City's great cultural institutions and a host of humbler projects, died Monday. She was 105.

Astor, who recently was the center of a highly publicized legal dispute over her care, died of pneumonia at Holly Hill, her Westchester County estate in Briarcliff Manor, family lawyer Kenneth Warner said.

"Brooke was truly a remarkable woman and an irreplaceable friend," longtime family friend David Rockefeller said. "She was the leading lady of New York in every sense of the word."

Although a legendary figure in New York City and feted with a famous gala on her 100th birthday in March 2002, Astor was mostly interested in putting the fortune that husband Vincent Astor left to use helping others.

Her efforts won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1998.

"Money is like manure, it should be spread around," was her oft-quoted motto. There has been a lot to spread in the family ever since Vincent Astor's great-great-grandfather, John Jacob Astor, made a fortune in fur trading and New York real estate.

Brooke Astor gave millions to what she called the city's "crown jewels" -- among them the New York Public Library, Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Natural History, Central Park, the Bronx Zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the flags were lowered to half-staff after her death.

She also funded scores of smaller projects: Harlem's Apollo Theater; a new boiler for a youth center; beachside bungalow preservation; a church pipe organ; furniture for homeless families moving in to apartments.

It was a very personal sort of philanthropy. "People just can't come up here and say, 'We're doing something marvelous, send a check.' We say, 'Oh, yes, we'll come and see it,"' she said.

The final year of Astor's life was marred by a family feud over her care, including allegations that she was forced to sleep on a couch that smelled of urine while subsisting on a diet of pureed peas and oatmeal.

Papers filed in July 2006 alleged her final years were marred by neglect, and in a settlement three months later her son, Anthony Marshall, was replaced as her legal guardian with Annette de la Renta, wife of the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.

Marshall's son Philip Marshall, a professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, had alleged that his father was looting his grandmother's estate and allowing her to live in filthy conditions at her Park Avenue duplex. Anthony Marshall, a former diplomat and sometime Broadway producer who won Tony awards in 2003 and 2004, denied any wrongdoing.

In December, a Manhattan judge ruled that claims "regarding Mrs. Astor's medical and dental care, and the other allegations of intentional elder abuse" by Anthony Marshall were not substantiated.

"I have lost my beloved mother, and New York and the world have lost a great lady," Marshall said. "She was one of a kind in every way. Her tombstone will be inscribed with the words she specifically asked for: 'I had a wonderful life.' I am thankful that she did. I will miss her deeply and always."

Astor was born Brooke Russell in March 30, 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt was president, the U.S. had only 45 states and the Wright brothers had yet to make their first flight.

She was the only child of John H. Russell, a career Marine officer who rose to become commandant of the Corps from 1934 to 1936. She was fluent in Chinese after having spending her childhood in China and many other places, including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Hawaii and Panama.

"I grew up feeling that the most important thing in life was to have good manners and to enhance the lives of others," Brooke Astor said in a 1992 interview with The Associated Press.

At age 16, she was pushed by her mother into marriage with J. Dryden Kuser, whom she had met at a Princeton prom. The marriage ended in divorce 10 years later.

Her second marriage was to stockbroker Charles "Buddie" Marshall. Her son Anthony, from her marriage to Kuser, took Marshall's name. During her marriage to Marshall, Astor wrote articles for various magazines and joined the staff of House & Garden, where she was feature editor for several years.

Marshall died in 1952. A year later, she married Vincent Astor, the eldest son of John Jacob Astor 4th, who died in the sinking of the Titanic.

Vincent Astor, who had no children, died in 1959. He left his widow $2 million plus the interest off $60 million and endowed the Vincent Astor Foundation with an additional $67 million. It gave away approximately $200 million by the time it closed at the end of 1997.

"Vincent was a very suspicious man," Brooke Astor recalled. "The fact that he had total confidence in me to run the foundation made me want to vindicate him, show him -- wherever he is -- that I could do a good job."

She decided that since the money was made in New York it should largely be spent there. She also persuaded the trustees to give away principal as well as interest so most of the money would be spent in her lifetime.

"I'm afraid that, to old John Jacob Astor, spending principal would seem like dancing naked in the streets," she acknowledged.

Hers was a hands-on approach, personally going over applications and then going out to meet the people who ran the programs.

"Even in the worst drug areas, I don't hesitate to go right in and see people," she once said.

Astor Foundation director Linda Gillies, several decades younger than Astor, once said Astor "wears us out."

"Often," Gillies said, "we can't keep up with her."

Astor wrote four books: "Patchwork Child," a 1962 autobiography; "The Bluebird is at Home," 1965, a novel; the autobiographical "Footprints," 1980; and "The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree," 1986, a period novel.