Roberta Brooke Astor (née Russell; March 30, 1902 – August 13, 2007) was an American philanthropist, socialite, and writer who was the chairwoman of the Vincent Astor Foundation, which had been established by her third husband, Vincent Astor, son of John Jacob Astor IV and great-great grandson of America's first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor. Brooke Astor was the author of two novels and two volumes of personal memoirs.
Brooke Astor in 2002 in her duplex
Roberta Brooke Russell
March 30, 1902
|Died||August 13, 2007 105) (aged|
|Residence||Northeast Harbor, Maine (Seasonal)|
|Education||The Madeira School|
John Dryden Kuser
(m. 1919; div. 1930)
Charles Henry Marshall
(m. 1932; his death 1952)
William Vincent Astor
(m. 1953; his death 1959)
|Children||Anthony Dryden Marshall|
|Parent(s)||John Henry Russell, Jr.|
Mabel Cecile Hornby Howard
|Relatives||John Henry Russell, Sr. (grandfather)|
Brooke was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the only child of John Henry Russell Jr., the 16th Commandant of the Marine Corps, and his wife, Mabel Cecile Hornby Howard. Her paternal grandfather John Henry Russell Sr. was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. She was named for her maternal grandmother (Roberta) and was known as Bobby to close friends and family.
Due to her father's career, she spent much of her childhood living in China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and other places. Also, she briefly attended The Madeira School in 1919 but graduated from the Holton-Arms School. As a child, Mrs. Astor kept diaries, letters and drawings from her travels, which were published in an illustrated edition of "Patchwork Child: Early Memories" in 1993.
John Dryden Kuser
She married her first husband, John Dryden Kuser (1897–1964), shortly after her 17th birthday, on April 26, 1919, in Washington, D.C. "I certainly wouldn't advise getting married that young to anyone," she said later in life. "At the age of sixteen, you're not jelled yet. The first thing you look at, you fall in love with."
John was the son of the financier and conservationist Anthony Rudolph Kuser and Susie Fairfield Drydan. Susie's father was U.S. Senator John Fairfield Dryden. John Kuser later became a New Jersey Republican councilman, assemblyman, and state senator. They also lived in Bernardsville, New Jersey.
Brooke described her tumultuous first marriage as the "Worst years of my life", which was punctuated by her husband's alleged physical abuse, alcoholism, and adultery. According to Frances Kiernan's 2007 biography of Brooke Astor, when Brooke was six months pregnant with the couple's only child, her husband broke her jaw during a marital fight. "I learned about terrible manners from the family of my first husband," she told The New York Times. "They didn't know how to treat people." A year after the marriage, according to a published account of the divorce proceedings, John "began to embarrass her in social activities" and "told her that he no longer loved her and that their marriage was a failure."
Brooke and John had one son, Anthony Dryden "Tony" Kuser, May 30, 1924. She filed for divorce February 15, 1930, in Reno, Nevada. It was finalized later that year. John married his second wife, Vieva Marie Fisher Banks (formerly Mrs. James Lenox Banks, Jr.) September 6, 1930, in Virginia City, Nevada. They had one daughter, Suzanne Dryden Kuser, and divorced in October 1935. A week later, Sen. Kuser married Louise Mattei Farry (formerly Mrs. Joseph Farry). In 1958, he married, as his fourth wife, Grace Egglesfield Gibbons (widow of John J. Gibbons). An amateur ornithologist and president of the New Jersey Audubon Society, Sen. Kuser introduced the bill that made the eastern goldfinch the state bird of New Jersey. He also was, at various times, an insurance and real estate broker in New Jersey (1937–1942) and Nevada (1942–1955), a vice president of Lenox, Inc., the pottery and china company, a columnist for the Nevada State Journal (1943–1947), and a director of the Fox Film Corporation.
Charles Henry Marshall
Her second husband, whom she married in 1932, was Charles Henry "Buddy" Marshall (1891–1952), the only son of Charles Henry Marshall. Buddy was the senior partner of the investment firm Butler, Herrick & Marshall, a brother-in-law of the mercantile heir Marshall Field III, and a descendant of James Lenox, the founder of the Lenox Library.
In 1942, Brooke's then-18-year-old son Tony changed his name to Anthony Dryden Marshall out of admiration for his stepfather. Buddy's financial fortunes turned in the mid-1940s, at which time Brooke went to work for eight years as a features editor at House & Garden magazine. She also briefly worked for Ruby Ross Wood, a prominent New York interior decorator who, with her associate Billy Baldwin, decorated the Marshalls' apartment at 1 Gracie Square in New York City.
William Vincent Astor
In October 1953, 11 months after Charles Marshall's death, she married her third and final husband, William Vincent Astor, the chairman of the board of Newsweek magazine and the last rich American member of the famous Astor family. Vincent was the son of RMS Titanic victim John Jacob "Jack" Astor IV and socialite Ava Lowle Willing, he had been married and divorced twice before, was childless, and was known to have a difficult personality.
"He had a dreadful childhood, and as a result, had moments of deep melancholy," Brooke recalled. "But I think I made him happy. That's what I set out to do. 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. Because of his money, Vincent was very suspicious of people. That's what I tried to cure him of."
Not wanting to die alone, Astor agreed to divorce his second wife, Mary Benedict "Minnie" Cushing, only after she had found him a replacement spouse. Minnie had first suggested Janet Newbold Rhinelander-Stewart, who turned down Astor's proposal with startling candor stating "I don't even like you". Minnie then suggested the recently widowed Brooke. Few people believed that the Astor-Marshall union was anything more than a financial transaction. According to Brooke's friend Louis Auchincloss; "Of course she married Vincent for the money," adding, "I wouldn't respect her if she hadn't. Only a twisted person would have married him for love."
During her brief marriage to Vincent, whom she called "Captain", Brooke participated in his real-estate and hotel empire and his philanthropic endeavors. Between 1954 and 1958, she redecorated one of his properties, the Hotel St. Regis, which had been built by his father. Vincent died leaving all his money to Brooke. His younger half-brother, socialite John Jacob "Jakey" Astor VI, was left with nothing since Vincent's hatred for Jakey's mother Madeleine (Jack's second wife and widow) led him to believe he was not even a biological Astor. Vincent had nothing but contempt for him. Jakey felt cheated and resentfully stated Vincent "had the legal, not the moral right to keep all the money". He was certain that Vincent was "mentally incompetent" when signing his last will in June 1958 due to alcoholism, though Brooke insisted otherwise. While Vincent was hospitalized, Brooke would often bring him liquor. Jakey accused her of using the liquor to influence the will in her favor. Jakey ended up settling for $250,000. The rest of money remained with the Vincent Astor foundation and Brooke. Before Vincent's death, Brooke once privately admitted to her daughter-in-law Elizabeth Cynthia "Liz" Cryan: "I don't think I can stand being married to him anymore. I don't think I can take it. He never wants to go anywhere — he's so antisocial."
Though she received several proposals after Astor's death, she chose not to remarry. In a 1980 interview, she stated: "I'd have to marry a man of a suitable age and somebody who was a somebody, and that's not easy. Frankly, I think I'm unmarriageable now", and also said "I'm too used to having things my way. But I still enjoy a flirt now and then."
Though she was appointed a member of the board of the Astor Foundation soon after her marriage, upon Vincent Astor's death in 1959, she took charge of all the philanthropies to which he left his fortune. She served as a Trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and chaired the Visiting Committee of the Metropolitan's Department of Far Eastern Art; she is credited with the idea for a Chinese garden courtyard, the Astor Court, in the Metropolitan. In addition, Astor served as a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 100th Anniversary Committee and hosted the Metropolitan's Centennial Ball.
Despite liquidating the Vincent Astor Foundation in 1997, she continued to be active in charities and in New York's social life. The New York Public Library was always one of Astor's favorite charities, as was The Animal Medical Center. In 1988, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992. As a result of her charity work, Astor was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. Her life's motto summed up her prodigious generosity: "Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around."
Among numerous other organizations, she was involved with Lighthouse for the Blind, the Maternity Center Association, the Astor Home for emotionally disturbed children, the International Rescue Committee, the Fresh Air Fund, and the Women's Auxiliary Board of the Society of New York Hospital.
Elder abuse controversy
The Daily News ran a cover story July 26, 2006, describing the family feud between Brooke's son Tony and his son Philip Cryan Marshall, regarding Brooke's welfare. The story detailed how her grandson, a historic preservationist and associate professor at Roger Williams University, had filed a lawsuit seeking the removal of his father as the socialite's guardian and the appointment of Annette de la Renta, the wife of designer Oscar de la Renta, instead.
According to accounts published in The New York Times and the Daily News, Astor was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and suffered from anemia, among other ailments. The lawsuit alleged that Marshall had not provided for his elderly mother and, instead, had allowed her to live in squalor and reduced necessary medication and doctor's visits, while enriching himself with income from her estate. Philip Marshall further charged that his father sold his grandmother's favorite Childe Hassam painting in 2002 without her knowledge and with no record as to the whereabouts of the funds received from the sale. In addition to Annette de la Renta, Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller provided affidavits supporting Philip Marshall's requests for a change in guardianship.
The day the story appeared, New York Supreme Court Justice John Stackhouse sealed the documents pertaining to the lawsuit and granted an order appointing Annette de la Renta guardian and JPMorgan Chase & Co. to be in charge of Brooke's finances. Several news organizations, including the Associated Press and The New York Times, sued to have the records of the Astor case unsealed in the public interest; their request was granted September 1, 2006. Astor was moved to Lenox Hill Hospital, where an unidentified nurse called her appearance "deplorable", according to the Daily News. Brooke's son Tony unsuccessfully attempted to have his mother transferred to another hospital.
Meryl Gordon's book, Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach (2008), makes use of diaries kept by the nurses who cared for Brooke during the last years of her life. The diaries were compiled over the four years Astor received care and detail the abuse that Mrs. Astor reportedly received from her son, Anthony (Tony).
Philip C. Marshall was tenured professor and director of historic preservation at Roger Williams University until 2017 when he left to dedicate his efforts, full-time, to elder justice as Founder of Beyond Brooke.
The New York Times reported August 1, 2006, that Anthony Marshall was accused by Alice Perdue, an employee in his mother's business office, of diverting nearly $1 million from his ailing mother's personal checking accounts into theatrical productions. Marshall, through a spokesman, said that his mother knew of the investments and approved of them. Perdue countered that Marshall had advised her never to send to his mother any documents of a financial nature because "she didn't understand it."
The claims made by Philip Marshall regarding his father's handling of the estate prompted interest in the matter. The New York District Attorney announced indictments on criminal charges against Tony and attorney Francis X. Morrissey Jr., November 27, 2007. The charges stemmed from the district attorney's office and subsequent grand jury investigation into the mishandling of Astor's money, and a questionable signature on the third amendment to her 2002 will, made in March 2004. That amendment called for Astor's real estate to be sold and the proceeds added to her residuary estate. An earlier amendment, also made in 2004, which designated Marshall as the executor of his mother's estate and left him the entirety of the residuary estate, was also under investigation.
The specific charges included grand larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, forgery, scheming to defraud, falsifying business records, offering a false instrument for filing, and conspiracy in plundering her $198 million estate. The most severe charge, grand larceny, carries up to a 25-year sentence.
The trial of Marshall and Morrissey started March 30, 2009, with the jury selection. The judge, Justice A. Kirke Bartley Jr., had originally indicated that the trial could last up to three months. After deliberations that stretched over 12 days and were reportedly marked by bitter disagreements that left one female juror claiming to feel personally threatened, the jury convicted Anthony D. Marshall of one of two charges of grand larceny, the most serious of a number of charges brought against him October 8, 2009. The same jury convicted Francis X. Morrissey Jr. of forgery. In December 2009, Marshall and Morrisey were both sentenced to 1–3 years in prison. Philip C. Marshall, Astor's grandson, said that now that his father has been convicted in the Brooke Astor will case, he expects the will to be contested by various charities.
Death and interment
Brooke died August 13, 2007, aged 105, from pneumonia, at her home in Briarcliff Manor, New York. A funeral service was held at Saint Thomas Church (Manhattan) on August 17. Among the guests were Henry Kissinger, Oscar de la Renta, Whoopi Goldberg, Jessye Norman and Michael Bloomberg. She is interred in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery next to Vincent.
One of Astor's death notices in The New York Times, a paid notice from The Rockefeller University, ended with these lines:
And if you should survive to 105,
Look at all you'll derive out of being alive.
Then here is the best part,
You'll have a head start,
If you are among the very young at heart.
Among the organizations who lamented Brooke's death are The Animal Medical Center of New York, Brooklyn Stained Glass Conservation Center, Carnegie Hall, the Citizens' Committee for New York City, Historic Hudson Valley, The Juilliard School, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, Library of America, Lotos Club, Merchant's House Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris-Juemel Mansion Museum, New York Botanical Garden, New York Landmarks Conservancy, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York Public Library, New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, New York University, Pierpont Morgan Library, Rockefeller University, Wildlife Conservation Society, and WNET-TV.
- Astor, Brooke (1962). Patchwork Child: Early Memories. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-679-42687-6.
- Astor, Brooke (1965). The Bluebird is at Home. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-679-42687-6.
- Astor, Brooke (1980). Footprints. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-14377-X.
- Astor, Brooke (1986). The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree: A Period Piece. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-90545-9.
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Brooke Astor is portrayed as the heroine, Jane Merle, of the romantic comedy Night and Silence: Who is Here? by British novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson.
Brooke Astor's biography was adapted into the musical Brooke Astor's Last Affair, with book and lyrics by Rachael Migler and music by Eric Grenin. The play premiered at the 2019 Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.
- Brooke Astor's Maine Estate Now Belongs to Her Son's Wife - The New York Times Retrieved 2017-04-10.
- Berger, Marilyn (August 13, 2007). "Brooke Astor, 105, First Lady of Philanthropy, Dies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 3, 2019.
- Klemesrud, Judy (June 15, 1980). "Brooke Astor: The Private Moments of a Public Benefactor; Married at 16". The New York Times. Retrieved November 6, 2014.
- In 1927, Brooke and John Kuser lived in a New York City townhouse which they rented from Madeleine Talmadge Force, the stepmother of Brooke's eventual third husband.
- Miller, Judith (November 17, 1991). "Old Money, New Needs". The New York Times. Retrieved March 21, 2011.
Eventually Kuser fell in love with another woman and left his wife. She moved from Bernardsville, N.J., to New York and took up a career writing features and book reviews, and eventually became an editor at House & Garden.
- Schillinger, Liesl (June 17, 2007). "Astor's Place". The New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2007.
- "Mrs. Kuser Files Suit; Gets Custody of Son. Wife of New Jersey Senator in Reno Court Relinquishes Her Dower Rights". The New York Times. February 16, 1930. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Gray, Christopher (July 12, 1998). "Streetscapes: 863 Park Avenue; One of the Oldest Luxury Apartment Houses on Park". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Pace, Eric (June 6, 1993). "Janos Scholz, 89, Cellist, Scholar And Morgan Library Benefactor". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Astor's association with House & Garden has been established by a contemporary issue of the magazine, which shows "Mrs. Charles H. Marshall of Ruby Ross Wood, Inc." in the design firm's office. The gossip columnist Cindy Adams stated July 28, 2006, that Astor was fired from her position at House & Garden and also worked briefly as a secretary to the American decorator Dorothy Draper.
- "Part III: Vincent, the Astor Who Gave Away the Money". New York Social Diary. April 30, 2009. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
Janet Newbold married (1) Allan A. Ryan Jr, (2) William Rhinelander Stewart, and (3) James Smith Bush II. Her third husband, to whom she was married from 1948 until 1952, was a brother of Senator Prescott Sheldon Bush, an uncle of U.S. president George Herbert Walker Bush, and a great-uncle of U.S. president George Walker Bush.
- "Part II: Vincent, the Astor Who Gave Away the Money". New York Social Diary. April 29, 2009. Archived from the original on May 12, 2013. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Wilson, Andrew (March 6, 2012). Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived. Atria Books. ISBN 978-1451671568.
- Gordon, Meryl (October 22, 2009). Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach. Mariner Books. ISBN 978-0547247984.
- One Hundred Eleventh Annual Report of the Trustees The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Fiscal Year July 1, 1980, Through June 30, 1981. Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 19, 1981.
- "Finding aid for the George Trescher records related to The Metropolitan Museum of Art Centennial, 1949, 1960-1971 (bulk 1967-1970)" (PDF). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. June 13, 2014. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Berger, Marilyn (August 13, 2007). "Brooke Astor, New York's First Lady of Philanthropy, Dies at 105". The New York Times. Retrieved August 13, 2007.
Brooke Astor.....died yesterday afternoon at her weekend estate, Holly Hill, in Briarcliff Manor, New York. She was 105.
- Anderson, Susan Heller; Dunlap, David W. (May 2, 1985). "New York Day by Day; 2 Honors for Brooke Astor". The New York Times. p. B3.
It was a big day for Brooke Astor yesterday. At lunch, she received the Frederick Law Olmsted Award for being wonderful to Central Park. At cocktails, she received the Governor's Arts Award for being wonderful to New York. The Olmsted Award, named after one of the architects of Central Park, is the annual excuse for about 700 New York movers, shakers and climbers to mingle in the park, which benefits from the lunch.
- Kovaleski, Serge F. (September 1, 2006). "Astor Painting Becomes Focus of Courtroom Battle". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Mason, Christopher (November 17, 2008). "The Baby Monitor Diaries". The Daily Beast. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Kovaleski, Serge F. (November 27, 2007). "Son of Astor Is Said to Face Criminal Case". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- "Brooke Astor's son accused of plundering estate". NBC News. Associated Press. November 27, 2007. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- John Eligon (March 30, 2009). "Jury Selection Begins in Fraud Trial of Brooke Astor's Son". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Eligon, John (October 8, 2009). "Brooke Astor's Son Guilty in Scheme to Defraud Her". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Barron, James (December 21, 2009). "Brooke Astor's Son Is Sentenced to Prison". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Morgan, Thomas J. (October 14, 2009). "Philanthropist Astor's will headed for court challenge, grandson says". The Providence Journal. Retrieved October 14, 2009.
- Vogel, Carol (December 1, 2011). "A Brooke Astor Auction Planned by Sotheby's". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- "ASTOR, Brooke". The New York Times. August 16, 2007. p. C15. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- Young, Peter (August 13, 2007). "Brooke Astor, New York Society Doyenne, Benefactor, Dies at 105". Bloomberg.com. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
- "Remembering Brooke Astor". The New York Times. August 13, 2007. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
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- Detailed description of donations by the Vincent Astor Foundation
- Description of Mrs. Astor's 14-room duplex at Rosario Candela's 778 Park Avenue including the oft-photographed Albert Hadley library. Sales offering as of June 2009 and NYTimes Article 6FEB09
- "Brooke Astor". Find a Grave. Retrieved August 10, 2010.
- Steve Fishman, "Mrs. Astor's Baby: The Fight for A Mother's Love, And Money", New York Magazine, November 12, 2007
- Lifetime Honors – National Medal of Arts