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Ahoy There! Brooke Astor

Social and Ocean Liner History: Brooke Astor sailed on scores of ocean liners from the 1910 into the 1950s.  This video looks at some of these great ocean liners.

Roberta Brooke Astor (née Russell, previously Kuser and Marshall) (March 30, 1902 – August 13, 2007) was an American philanthropist and socialite 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 (who died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic) and great-great grandson of America’s first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor.

She was the last of the American branch of the Astors, a family whose financial and social prestige was once synonymous with the wealth and power of the Rockefellers and the Morgans. The family’s holdings at various times included the St. Regis Hotel, the Empire State Building’s site and Newsweek magazine. One of the Astors died on the Titanic.

Astor was “an energetic, charming but level-headed municipal fairy godmother, who found and made adventure out of conventional upper-class life until some curious fate gave her the magical power of the Astor money,” the New York Times said in a review of her 1980 memoir, “Footprints.”

She faded from public view after a lavish 100th birthday party organized by David Rockefeller until 2006, when a feud over her estate thrust her back into the limelight. Her grandson, Philip Marshall, filed suit seeking the removal of his father as Astor’s guardian, saying she was a victim of “elder abuse.”

The court filing alleged Anthony Marshall, then 82, had “intentionally and repeatedly” ignored his mother’s health and personal well-being “while enriching himself with millions of dollars.”

Will Investigation

The suit was settled after three months. Anthony Marshall was replaced as his mother’s guardian by her close friend Annette de la Renta. JPMorgan Chase & Co. was put in charge of Astor’s finances.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has been investigating the terms of Astor’s will and other matters. “The investigation continues,” Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said yesterday.

The lawsuit’s claims of Astor’s mistreatment, which her son disputed, provided a sad coda for the high-spirited woman who led New York society for more than a generation. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 and the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.

Early Years

Roberta Brooke Russell was born on March 31, 1902, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the only daughter of John Henry Russell Jr. and Mabel Howard Russell. Her father, a career U.S. Marine officer who became a two-star general and commandant of the Marine Corps, took her to posts in Hawaii, Panama and Beijing.

At 16, she dropped out of Miss Madeira’s School, a boarding school for girls in Washington, to marry Dryden Kuser (she had lied about her age when they met at a Princeton University prom), the son of a utility tycoon and an heir to the founder of Prudential Insurance.

She found her in-laws disagreeable, writing in her memoirs, “The very rich think that they are never wrong. The arrogance of big money is one of the most unappealing of characteristics, and it goes very deep.”

Anthony, her only child, was born in 1924. After 10 years together, Kuser asked for a divorce and she moved to New York.

Writing Career

Astor began a writing career with help from her second husband, whom she married in 1932, Wall Street broker Charles “Buddie” Marshall, the brother-in-law of Marshall Field. She wrote for Vogue and Town and Country magazines, and was feature editor at Conde Nast’s House and Garden magazine from 1946 to 1956. She was the author of two novels, in 1965 and 1986, and two memoirs, in 1962 and 1980.

After 20 years together, Marshall died of a heart attack in 1952. Eleven months later, Brooke Russell Marshall became the third wife of William Vincent Astor, known as Vincent, whom she had met at a dinner party. He had inherited an estimated $100 million when his father, John Jacob Astor IV, went down with the Titanic.

Less than six years after they married, Vincent Astor died in 1959, leaving Brooke Astor $2 million outright, about $65 million in investments and, most important, control of her husband’s $67 million personal foundation, according to the Times, with a mandate of “the amelioration of human misery.”

Astor Foundation

Under her guidance, the Vincent Astor Foundation gave not only to the major cultural institutions — $30 million to the New York Public Library, for instance, and $25 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art — but also to groups helping ordinary people, such as $1.5 million to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. in a low-income section of Brooklyn.

“Giving away money should be exhilarating,” she wrote in her memoirs. “I keep reminding myself of what Vincent said: `Pookie, you are going to have a hell of a lot of fun with the foundation when I’m gone.”

A practicing Episcopalian, she gave Ferncliff, Vincent Astor’s family home in Rhinebeck, New York, to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York as a home for senior citizens.

She was always personally involved in her charitable giving and would appear, dressed in pearls and white gloves, at the many projects she funded, Frances Kiernan, a former editor at the New Yorker, wrote in her 2007 biography, “The Last Mrs. Astor.”

`Queen Mother’

She was “a photograph of the Queen Mother during the Blitz” as she journeyed between the New York Public Library and the South Bronx, Kiernan wrote.

By 1997, when she liquidated its assets, the foundation had given away $195 million, according to the Times.

Astor insisted on visiting every recipient before a grant was made, gauging the city’s problems first-hand. It was her guiding principle, she wrote, given to her by John D. Rockefeller III: “The person who has control of the money should also be personally involved in the giving. It is a lot of work, but it is worth it.”

Astor may have been best known for her support of the New York Public Library. She became a trustee in 1959, taking her husband’s place on the board, and through the end of her life was its honorary chairman.

The Astor name is chiseled in stone above the entrance to the Beaux-Arts main library on Fifth Avenue, whose formal corporate name is The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. The marble lions outside that are its mascots, known today as Patience and Fortitude, were once called Leo Astor and Leo Lenox.

New York City

Asked in 1996 why, at 94, she had decided to close her husband’s foundation and give it all away, she told the Times, “Age.”

Astor’s will gives the majority of her fortune to her son, jewelry and artwork to family and friends and a $2 million endowment to New York City public school teachers for travel abroad, the Times reported this year after receiving a copy of her will from an unidentified person involved in the legal fight over the document.

The will reflects Astor’s love for New York City and hopes for her own family. It notes, for example, that she would like her grandson to visit his father at the Maine estate she gave her son in 2003. Survivors include her son and two grandchildren.

Astor even chose the epitaph for her own gravestone. It will read: “I had a wonderful life.”

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