Generosity Unleashed

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

A November, 1946, “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker cast a whimsically gimlet eye upon an article in House & Garden magazine instructing readers on how to have a perfect buffet supper.

“The beauty of a buffet is that it … remains intimate. People move about freely, serving themselves,” the H&G article advised, under the byline of one Brooke Marshall.

Then the article switched gears and advocated more hostess control. “It is imperative that guests be assigned to definite places. Without the hostess’s guiding touch, people are apt to be stranded. Like leaves caught up by a gust of wind, four people who are utterly incompatible will settle down, hopelessly, at the same table.”

The New Yorker zinged a backhanded compliment on Mrs. Marshall’s “courageously feminine disregard for consistency.” But from the vantage point of 60 years, what strikes the reader today is how frivolous it all seems, with its extensive menus featuring chicken spaghetti, Liederkranz cheese, risotto, and ladyfingers.

How different to this picture is one in a 1997 New Yorker profile of Brooke Astor, the leading lady of philanthropy in New York, demurely sipping a Campari at the Knickerbocker Club with Brendan Gill and reflecting on the 3,000 causes to which she had disbursed nearly $200,000,000 over four decades.This was consequential stuff indeed. Under her leadership, the Vincent Astor Foundation gave money for an astounding range of projects, including “outdoor living rooms,”a 1960s term for recreation areas in housing projects; the Animal Medical Center, which cares for the pets of the poor and elderly; and a hydroponic herb farm in the Bronx.

There were tremendous gifts to the city’s “crown jewels”— the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, and especially the New York Public Library, cofounded by the original Astor, John Jacob, and where Brooke Astor sat on the board from Vincent Astor’s death, in 1959.

Vincent Astor assured his wife soon before his death that she would have “a hell of a lot of fun running ” his foundation, which she finally ended up with after a bruising dispute with other male Astor relatives, who contended that the money should descend in the male line.

Mrs. Astor’s determination to personally head the foundation evidently came as a surprise to his advisors, who had expected Brooke to go off on an extended cruise and leave matters to them.

“They had forgotten, if they ever knew, that I had spent most of my life as a working woman,” Mrs. Astor told the New Yorker. “I acquired the discipline that everyone has to possess to succeed in New York. I was a woman, but not a fearful one.”

The foundation’s remit was the “amelioration of human misery,” but Mrs. Astor wisely decided there was plenty of misery in New York to be ameliorated. It seemed right to give something back since the bulk of the Astor fortune had been amassed there. Also, by confining her giving to the five boroughs, Mrs. Astor could keep a close eye on how every dollar was spent. “I never give to anything I don’t see,” she once told Newsday.

Just as important was being seen. A flying visit by Mrs. Astor might seem like a visit from the Queen, in England, dressed impeccably, conspicuously hatted, and often toting a tiny schnauzer or dachshund. She was every society-lady stereotype incarnate, and a sui-generis philanthropic ATM, all at the same time.

She overcame the doubters by sheer perseverance. “Being Mrs. Astor, a lot of social workers are against you,” she told the New York Times in 1968. “They think you’re a silly Lady Bountiful who doesn’t know a thing. When that happens I try to be as attractive as possible and win them over.”

The Vincent Astor Foundation, worth some $67 million at his death, was never the largest foundation in New York, but thanks to Brooke Astor, it punched way above its weight. By virtue of her place in society, whatever cause she gave to became instantly popular.

“It became glamorous and important to support what Brooke was supporting,” the president of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc, said. The Astor largesse there, starting with her first really large gift of $5 million in 1977 and totaling about $25 million, is generally credited with sparking a renaissance in that institution, and even by some for increased giving at libraries across the country.

At the library, it was her lifetime romance with the written word and her husband’s family tree that inspired her giving. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was in part her fondly remembered childhood years in China, where her father was posted as a Marine attaché. The Chinese Garden Court and the Ming Room, opened in 1981, were funded by Mrs. Astor. In a nod to international understanding, they were the first jointly created exhibit between the two nations after their rapprochement.

Over the decades, the foundation’s giving seemed to move from direct involvement in misery-amelioration to a more long-sighted view that included aesthetic and intellectual pleasure among the goals worthy of funding. Thus, at the start there were enhancements to settlement houses and programs for pregnant woman and those at risk of joining gangs. Historic preservation became a priority in the 1970s, including the rescue of Federal-style houses in Manhattan near Fraunces Tavern.

Later, the Astor Foundation began putting its money into wholesale urban improvements, like the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum and South Street Seaport, additions that make New York a finer place to live. The foundation’s last large gift was to the library, for “good books” for the branch libraries.

Mrs. Astor not only spent nearly $200 million to improve New York; she spent all the money her foundation had, an unusual gesture in the world of philanthropy, where funders typically try to preserve their capital and make their institutions theoretically eternal, like the prayers said for kings at medieval priories.

“I would guess that about 5% of private foundations spend out in the lifetime of the donor,” author of “American Foundations,” Mark Dowie, said.

Asked why she was shutting it down, Mrs. Astor gave various answers. She pointed out that there were no more Astors to leave it to — Vincent Astor died childless and her own son, Anthony Marshall, is the product of a previous marriage.

And she was getting older. In 1996 she told the Times, “I would like to have one year before I dance into my grave, of doing something good for myself.” Remarkably, for a 94-year-old, she got another decade and more.

The New York Sun

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