The Trouble With Mrs. Astor

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The New York Sun

I have many times quoted, in my years at bat, the wry judgment of the Viennese critic: “The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists.” I’ll probably say it yet again before I go, but how to ignore those words in the week of Mrs. Brooke Astor? Her husband died in 1959, and she settled down in her apartment in New York and disbursed $200 million to people and institutions in need.

What suddenly awoke New York was a melodrama as vividly choreographed as any story ever told. She was at the center. She was used to this, being at the center. She had been very beautiful, she dressed like a fashion model, she was escorted by czars and presidents and nabobs of the night. She had been an editor at House & Garden, she had decorous country places here and there, she was funny and just a little impious, though she would never have thrown a rotten egg in the face of the Establishment, which she at once courted and patronized. She wore her Republicanism discreetly, but it was there, just one of the covey of jewels she sported.

She sent money everywhere, not least to blighted parts of the city where John Astor amassed the fortune that five generations later she was spiritedly dissipating. But in 1983 she resolved to train her energies and focus her philanthropy on the world of books. She is even today, at age 104, the honorary chairman of the board of trustees of the New York Public Library, and who knows, they might figure out a way to keep her presence in sight in the board rooms when she has passed on.

Which surely has to be soon, given her age and infirmities. One has not for several years sought out exchanges with her. But it matters to her friends and admirers that she is being cared for, and the big news story has to do with the fact that the mere question arose.

It isn’t easy to find such a story. De Maupassant would not have ended it serenely.But when last did we hear of a grandson petitioning the courts to remove from his father title to look after his grandmother?

The grandson nominated a social powerhouse about town, Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, an old and dear friend and admirer of the afflicted Mrs. Astor, to serve as her caretaker after the deposition of her gruesome son, whose neglect, we read, had resulted in an apartment, in the grand Park Avenue building, with untended wastebaskets, sofas reeking with urine and her pet dogs locked in a pantry, with the grand lady in rags stumbling about in what had been palatial rooms.

Over there was the dining table under which Ronald Reagan found the diamond earring she had dropped. Mr. Reagan, on his hands and knees under the table, had bumped into William Paley and Walter Wriston and Felix Rohatyn, all of them on their own hands and knees eager to spot the missing jewel. It was a little party for Ronald Reagan, who four weeks before had been elected president of America, and six weeks later would take his oath of office.

Mrs. Astor’s son, who aroused the parricidal intervention by his own son, had had a career in the State Department, serving as ambassador from America in the court of Kenya’s president, Jomo Kenyatta. He had turned to show business in New York and, who knows, perhaps had an idea for a musical featuring a senile old lady who had given away all her money and was devoting Act III to seeing how she could make out without servants and jewels and nurses and dogs and presidents-elect to find her mislaid diamonds.

We (my wife and I) didn’t see her often, and when we did, one of us recited our standard joke. “The trouble is,” she’d say chortling, “we live too far apart.” The joke was that we have lived 40 years in the same building. Then we would resolve to atone for past neglects, and she would loose a bit of gossip, or gentle derogation of somebody or something, though never (in my hearing) of people who, by their conduct, give capitalism a bad name.

The New York Sun

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