Her Early Years
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Before Brooke Astor was Brooke Astor, she had lived a full and varied life, one worthy of a memoir all to itself. Already aged 51 by the time of her marriage to Vincent Astor, she had previously lived in countries from Italy to the Dominican Republic to China, rubbed elbows with some of the century’s most famous and powerful, and been through two marriages and motherhood.
Family and marriages defined her for the first half of the century.
She had an idyllic childhood, much of it spent abroad at her father’s postings as a Marine commandant in Panama, Hawaii, China, and the Dominican Republic. At 17, she hastily became Mrs. J. Drydan Kuser, the wife of a drunk and a womanizer who was, she said, the first man she had ever kissed. A Reno divorce a decade later left her briefly single.
In 1932, she became Mrs. Charles Marshall, the wife of a stockbroker whom she remembered so fondly that, three decades, a career as New York’s most flamboyant philanthropist and many millions later, she dedicated her romantic novel “The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree” to him. He died on Thanksgiving Day, 1952.
Becoming Mrs. Astor changed everything.
If she found true love as Mrs. Marshall, it was as Mrs. Astor that she came to be loved by people who never even met her. Even before Vincent Astor left her his $60 million foundation dedicated to the “amelioration of human misery,” she was being lionized as the glamorous socialite with civic improvement on her mind.
In early 1958, the New York Times found her plumping for the Maternity Center Association, which tried, she said, “to make childbirth normal and attractive so that the young matrons have a relaxed and intelligent approach to motherhood.” Mrs. Astor was said to be “slim in her black greet gown, designed by Balmain, she has youthful good looks that belie … the fact that she is a grandmother.”
Within a year, Vincent was dead and Brooke Astor was laying plans for the distribution of over $60 million. Her nearly 40 years with the Vincent Astor Foundation constituted in some ways her longest-lasting union, and her most productive.
Roberta Brooke Russell was born on Easter Sunday, 1902, in Portsmouth, N.H. Soon after she was born, her father was ordered on a three-year tour of the Orient, and Brooke and her mother returned to Washington, D.C., to live with her mother’s parents, who had a large house near Dupont Circle bustling with servants. “I started forth rather royally,” Mrs. Astor writes in her memoir, “Patchwork Child,” surrounded by adoration and homage.
At age three, she finally met her father on his return from abroad to teach at the Naval Academy at Annapolis.”Who’s that man?” she asked her nurse.”Why that’s Father off the big ship,” was the answer. Brooke writes that she “threw myself against his knees. He lifted me up in his arms and we looked each other in the eye. ‘Why it’s a Little Woman,’ he said, laughing.” It was his nickname for her until he died.
Her relationship with her father was extremely close, yet tinged with Edwardian formality; things with her mother were more complex. A tremendously bright and enthusiastic personality, Mabel Howard Russell was a socialite and an intellectual. Being with her, Brooke writes, was to be “in the midst of the blinding radiance that was mother.”Yet many years later, in her subsequent memoir “Footprints,” Astor would write that the relationship was competitive, and speculated that her mother pushed her to marry young just to get her out of the house.
But the early years were happy and adventurous. After three “pretty tedious” years at Annapolis, the family moved to Honolulu, where they took a cottage on the beach at Waikiki with a view of Diamond Head. Brooke was given into the care of an amah, who terrified her to sleep by telling her Japanese ghost tales.
Subsequent postings included the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where the family moved when her father had to evacuate an assignment to Panama after he was bitten by a rabid dog. (“Father bore the treatment with real stoicism,” she writes.)
But of all the places the Russells lived, it was China that had the most lasting effect on Brooke. When she was seven, they moved to Bejing, and engaged a Chinese amah to care for her. “In three months I could jabber away in coolie and hold interminable conversations with anyone who would talk to me.”The family stayed in Peking for four years, and Brooke developed a love for Oriental art, gardens, and philosophy that would last a lifetime.
At her parents’ insistence, Brooke began keeping a diary while in China, and the writing habit became deeply engrained. While still abroad, she began composing plays, poetry, and short stories. When the family moved back to Washington, D.C. and Brooke attended classes at Miss Madeira’s School, she founded a literary magazine.
A quiet but persistent urge to write seems to have stayed with her, manifest in poetry during her first marriage, journalism in her second, and novels and memoirs in later years. As a writer, she was much the same as she was in person — a little facile and formal.
An exception to this is an enthusiastic diary entry from the summer of 1914, when she wrote, “I have been listening to Russian music, and I want to marry a Russian peasant; a great strong beautiful brute, who would beat me, and pull me around by the hair!!!!!!!!!!!!!” She very nearly got her wish.
Brooke was 16 when she met J. Dryden Kuser, wealthy and a collegian, manager of the Daily Princetonian, and president of the New Jersey Audubon society. She was married in a rush of enthusiasm and maternal cajoling, at 17.
It was a young age in those days too: the Washington Post labeled her an “underdebutante,” but added that her elaborate and fashionable trousseau “points the way in several departments of dress.” She got high marks from fashion editors for the next eight decades, and in 1988 was presented an award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Things quickly degenerated for the newly-weds. Brooke once asked her mother why she had never told her about sex, to which her mother replied, “‘I didn’t think you wanted to know.”
Kuser turned out to be a “flagrantly unfaithful” drunk, and once broke her jaw when she was six months pregnant. Her father urged her to leave, but Brooke stayed for the sake of her son, Anthony. When she finally sued for divorce in 1930, after the required three-month stay in Reno, it was only because Kuser had kicked her out. The divorce papers made him sound far more civilized, alleging only that “he was critical of her dress and upbraided her because of alleged extravagance.” She got custody of their son.
Years later, broke and multiply divorced, he crawled back to touch Brooke for support. She helped him out.
Brooke had already met Charles Marshall, a stockbroker and close friend of Cole Porter’s who went fox hunting and played squash. They were married in 1932 and promptly sailed to Cherbourg aboard the steamer Europa. Summers were spent at a castle in Portofino, Italy, where Brooke met Max Beerbohm, a distressingly plump and shirtless Ezra Pound, and Evelyn Waugh, in a rare good mood while on honeymoon.
During World War II, Brooke volunteered at a Staten Island hospital. Typically, she worked hard — often until 3 a.m. — and the uniform was part of the appeal. She described herself in a nurse’s veil as “a grey lady.” After the war, she became a features editor at House & Garden magazine.
The two decades she spent with Marshall were, she later said, the happiest of her life. His Thanksgiving Day death forms an odd seasonal bookend to her own Easter birth a half-century before.
Barely six months had passed before Vincent Astor began paying her court. Astor, a wealthy scion of America’s first great fortune whose father had gone down on the Titanic, was already married. But he pursued her relentlessly and managed to win her hand in 1953.
The marriage was difficult from the start. Mrs. Astor described her new husband as “extremely jealous.” He would not permit her to talk on the telephone when he was home. She was isolating herself from friends and even her son. “I think I made him happy,”she told the Times in 1980. “I’d literally dance with the dogs, sing and play the piano, and I would make him laugh, something no one had ever done before.”
Melancholy, possibly alcoholic, and one of New York’s more prolific philanthropists, Vincent Astor did the city his best turn when he settled control of his foundation on his wife at his death, in 1959.