|L. to r.: Caroline Astor; Ava Willing Astor; Minnie Cushing; Brooke Astor; Charlene Gilbert Marshall.|
|The Fly In the Astor Ointment
7.30.06 - When the first John Jacob Astor lay dying shortly before his 85th birthday in 1848, so the probably apocryphal story goes, someone asked America’s richest man if he would have done things differently if he had it to do all over again.
“Yes,” he replied. He would have bought every inch of Manhattan. When his great-grandson John Jacob Astor IV went down on the Titanic in 1912, his son William Vincent (always known as Vincent) inherited property all over Manhattan that today would probably be worth a hundred billion.
The first John Jacob Astor was as parsimonious as he was rich. Charity and philanthropy were concepts far outside his consciousness. The next three generations of his heirs maintained that family tradition impeccably.
The two brothers had a distant relationship, although they were next door neighbors – their townhouses sharing the block on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Street where the Empire State Building stands today. At the root of the brothers’ distance was the fact that William B., as the minority partner, was given little to do in the family business. Instead he was relegated to spending the majority of his adult years on his yacht (the largest in the world at the time) or at his estate Ferncliff in Rhinebeck, New York, often in the company of a coterie of friends and available women, and far far from his wife Caroline (known as Lina), the queen of New York society.
JJIII’s son and only child, William Waldorf Astor, was educated in Germany and in Italy before studying at Columbia Law School. In 1878, at age 30, he married and went into politics, serving as a New York state assemblyman and senator. He was defeated in his bid for a seat in the United States Congress, however, and in 1882, President Chester Alan Arthur appointed him ambassador to Italy, serving there until 1885. While living in Rome, Astor developed a life-long passion for art and sculpture.
Despite William Waldorf Astor’s privilege and rank, he was basically a frustrated individual, fortified with all the authority of the Astor millions and yet with none of the satisfaction that people believe money naturally provides. He resented his aunt Lina’s usurping the family name by referring to herself publicly as MRS. Astor, (as it was printed on her calling card), thereby ignoring all the other Mrs. Astors, specifically Mrs. William Waldorf Astor. So when his father, John Jacob III died in 1890, William Waldorf had the family mansion demolished and erected an enormous hotel, which he called the Waldorf, on the site. This move was an enormously successful calculation: it was a moneymaker and it effectively drove his social-usurping aunt crazy, and finally out of the neighborhood.
Soon thereafter, Caroline Astor’s son John Jacob Astor IV built a much bigger limestone palace, a double mansion at 65th Street and Fifth Avenue (where Temple Emanuel stands today), which he shared with his mother and his young family – his wife Ava, his son Vincent, and eventually his daughter Alice.
William Waldorf’s one-upping his annoying aunt Lina by immigrating to England, automatically cast his younger (by sixteen years) first cousin, John Jacob Astor IV in the role of titular head of the American branch of the family.
At home, growing up, Jack Astor was the only boy in a family of five children, and was surrounded and adored by all the women in the family. Adoration aside, he grew up to be tall and ungainly, a not very attractive looking individual whom people referred to (behind his back) as Jack Ass.
He was, in short, nerdy. The Astor fortune naturally compensated when it came to social rank. At 27 he married a beautiful Philadelphia socialite named Ava Willing. She was also bright, self-indulgent, spoiled and vain. And she was soon voting on the side of her husband’s detractors. The couple had little in common and little to do with each other. When daughter Alice Astor was born in 1902, it was said (and believed) that the child’s real father was a society gent named Hatch.
Unlike his father, Jack Astor was not inactive in the family business. If for no other reason, he was motivated by family competition. After his cousin William built the Waldorf Hotel, Jack Astor had his mother’s brownstone razed and he built the Astoria right next to the Waldorf. Eventually the two were combined -- with the cousins never speaking, but negotiating through agents -- into the Waldorf-Astoria, becoming the most popular hotel in New York and one of the most famous hotels in the world throughout the 20th century.
Jack Astor’s business ventures were frequently perceived as a bid to out show his expatriate cousin. After he built the Waldorf, William built the very popular Astor Hotel on Broadway and 44th Street and the Netherlands Hotel (where the Sherry-Netherland stands today).
There was much talk and publicity about William Waldorf’s move to England. He was called a turncoat, a traitor and deserter of his country, and Jack Astor agreed with all of it. A few years later during the Spanish-American War, Jack himself affirmed his patriotism by supplying horses and arms to the US for the incursion, as well as donating his yacht for use as a hospital ship. For this he was awarded a rank of lieutenant colonel. Thereafter, for the rest of his life, he insisted on being addressed officially as Colonel. When he died on the Titanic, he was first listed among the missing, and later buried as Colonel Astor.
The act of fate, of the ship hitting the iceberg, marked the beginning of the drama of the Astor fortune whose end is now being played out almost a century later in today’s headlines.
When Col. John Jacob Astor IV went down on the Titanic, at age 48, he left behind a pregnant widow, Madeleine Force Astor, who was 19 years old; a daughter, Alice who was ten, and his son Vincent who was just turning 21. Astor’s fortune at the time of his death was estimated to be between $80 - $150 million (or many many billions in today’s currency). His nineteen-year-old widow was left an income from a $5 million trust unless or until she remarried (she did). His daughter Alice was left a trust fund of approximately the same size. His then unborn son JJ VI would receive $3 million at 21, and his son Vincent, only months away from his 21st birthday, received the rest, making him the youngest of the very richest men in America.
Because Col. Astor had not yet re-written his will to include the son who would be born five months after his death, (John Jacob Astor VI, August 14, 1912), the division of his estate was always regarded by his youngest son (and many others) as very unfair distribution. It could be argued that $3 million in 1933 (at the height of the Depression, and the equivalent of sixty or seventy millions today) was adequate. But “adequate” is always arbitrary when it comes to inheritance. Furthermore, the 21-year-old Vincent Astor, now the titular head of the American Astors, did not want his brother to have any more money. In fact he may not have wanted him to have one dime.
|Vincent Astor had a very difficult childhood. He reported later in life that his mother -- to whom he was always fearfully subservient and who he looked after loyally in her dotage -- paid little attention to him when he was a child. She would even lock him in a closet to keep him from disturbing her.
There was one story frequently told about the time Ava Astor locked the child Vincent in her dressing room closet and went out forgetting about him. His terrified cries and banging on the door went unheard in the vast, almost empty, house, so that it was hours later that he was rescued and freed, by the butler.
Already an affection-starved and ungainly young man, not unlike his father, Vincent Astor resented his pretty stepmother, who was two years younger than he, and who was the object of his father’s attention and affections. There were the typical accusations of fortune hunter when Madeleine Force married Vincent’s father who was thirty years older than his wife.
With his father now gone, Vincent didn’t have to take into consideration that it was his father’s needs or wishes that were being met by his stepmother. Nonetheless, Vincent was not psychologically prepared to be kind, especially in his most intimate relationships with women, and he was not.
As it was, the relationship of Col. Astor and his child bride was considered a scandal at the time, and the couple was well aware of it. After they were married in September of 1911, at the Astor mansion, Beechwood, in Newport, they went to Europe to get away from all the nay-saying and public moralizing about the colonel’s cradle robbing. They’d only been returning to the United States, when they sailed on the Titanic that March, so that their child would be born on Col. Astor’s native soil (unlike his cousin William Waldorf Astor’s descendants).
When he came of age, the fatherless John Jacob Astor VI tried to wrest a larger slice of his father’s fortune from his half-brother Vincent. But it was to no avail. Instead Vincent encouraged the public reputation and image of JJ VI as a playboy, reprobate, and do-nothing. He even encouraged rumors that JJ VI was not really his father’s son. Those rumors continued throughout the life of the brothers (Vincent died in 1959 and JJ VI died in 1992) and are still discussed today in some crusty old circles. Vincent’s widow, well aware of it, did not dispel the rumor either.
He built what we would now call low-income housing for working people and their families. And he built them well. He also owned Newsweek Magazine and dabbled in the political dialogue of his times. He was a distant cousin of Franklin Roosevelt, a relationship he worshipped. During World War II, he, like his father had a half-century before, lent his enormous yacht, the Nourmahal, to the U.S. Navy.
He lived in his grandfather and father’s house in Rhinebeck, and on Fifth Avenue, and then built a smaller (but by no means small) house on East 80th Street for himself in 1927. Three years later, he built 120 East End Avenue overlooking the East River, with the biggest penthouse in New York (10,000 square feet) for himself.
The year after his father’s death, Vincent married Helen Dinsmore Huntington, a woman whom he knew from Rhinebeck. The groom contracted mumps during the ceremony, which rendered him sterile. The couple remained married for 27 years although by the late 1920s, early 1930s, they went their separate ways sharing roofs when their calendars matched. They divorced in 1940 and Helen married a friend of hers and Vincent, Lytle Hull. Years after her passing, her friend, Glenway Wescott’s Diaries were published in which he refers to Helen as a “grand old-fashioned lesbian.”
After his divorce from Helen, Vincent almost immediately married Mary Benedict Cushing, known as Minnie, who had been his mistress for several years.
Minnie was long and bony and slender like her husband. She was not pretty, in contrast to her youngest sister Barbara, known as Babe, who first married Stanley Mortimer and then William Paley.
The relationship between Minnie and Vincent was a puzzlement to many. She was charming and outgoing and loved New York life which included society, the arts, culture and its access to its European counterparts. Minnie hated the big house in Rhinebeck that Vincent loved and which his grandfather had built, so at her insistence, he had it torn down and they moved into the very large tennis house/gymnasium/guest house on the property that Stanford White designed and styled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles for Ava Astor in 1903.
Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Minnie got Vincent to create living spaces with cheap rents for artists, and he did.
Vincent didn’t have much of a sense of humor although he loved practical jokes. Serving hotdogs on a role, he’d slip a metal facsimile onto someone’s roll so when they bit into it, they might even chip a tooth. Vincent Astor thought that, was hilarious.
As far the marriage between Vincent and Minnie went, they were both, as one of Alice Astor’s husbands, David Pleydell Bouverie once recounted: “low voltage sexually.” Which is how it seemed to outsiders. It was difficult to figure.
In the early 1950s Minnie Cushing Astor decided she couldn’t take it anymore and told Vincent she wanted a divorce. This was not a marriage with any kind of substantial dialogue so that the husband might know what the wife’s issues are, and why she might be leaving. This was a relationship of two people living separately in the same room for many years. And it got to the point it always gets to where The Money is the major, the only real, consideration: she just couldn’t take living with a very big, now-getting-old-baby who always had to have it his way.
Vincent Astor was very upset. Minnie suggested and he agreed that she first find a “replacement” for him. In other words, the divorcing wife finds a new wife for her departing husband. The two of them went to work. Vincent thought of Janet Stewart, the widow his closest childhood/lifetime friend, William Rhinelander Stewart.
Janet Stewart was considered the most beautiful woman in New York and was known for her late afternoon cocktail salons where guests were permitted to stop by uninvited for drinks and conversation. She was also a charter member of the Best Dressed List while quite happy to tell anyone who wanted to hear that the dress she was wearing at any given time might have cost $4.98.
|So when Vincent Astor, this hulk of a man, still adolescent in many ways, this Croesus of Manhattan with protruding (and occasionally drooling) lower lip; told Janet Stewart that Minnie was leaving him, and he asked would she, Janet, like to marry him, Janet Stewart responded with characteristic directness: “Marry you? I don’t even like you. Why would I marry you?”
Undaunted, he gave her a reason: “Well, I’m not all that well, and I may not live long and there would be all the Astor money.”
The story of the meeting of Janet Stewart and Vincent Astor was passed around for years afterwards, always with a laugh at the punch line, with never with a thought of what it must have felt to be Vincent Astor at that moment. That may be because everyone believed Vincent Astor didn’t know any better.
After Janet Stewart turned him down, he proposed to another woman who was about to get married again herself and tendered her regrets. Then one night after a dinner party Minnie offered the newly widowed Brooke Marshall a lift home in their limousine. At that time, Mrs. Marshall, a very attractive 50-year-old magazine editor/aspiring poet-writer/interior decorator, was living in an apartment at 10 Gracie Square, just a block away from the Astors’ penthouse at 120 East End.
After the drop-off that night, Minnie hatched an idea with Vincent: What about Brooke Marshall as a wife?
|It must have sounded right. Soon after Brooke Marshall was invited for the weekend at Ferncliff. The invitation surprised her some because she hadn’t been a close friend of the Astors. On the second day, Vincent asked if he could take her out for a ride to show her the estate, which at one time covered 2800 acres with several miles of roadway and Vincent’s large miniature railroad.
Finished with the tour details, he stopped on a roadside, turned off the ignition and told his weekend houseguest that his wife was leaving him. He then asked her if she would consider marrying him. It was agreed that she have time to think about it, since she was flabbergasted by the sudden marriage proposal. Her late beloved husband Buddy Marshall had not even been dead a year.
Brooke Marshall’s marriage to Vincent Astor was grist for the gossip mill. Although she wasn’t a stranger to his society, she was not one its reigning queens or even princesses like both her predecessors or like Minnie Astor’s sisters, Betsey, now Mrs. John Hay Whitney, or Babe, now Mrs. William Paley. She had just recently been Brooke Marshall, widow with young son, working (for a pittance) when she could for House & Garden magazine and making the most of her loss and widowhood.
The couple moved into his penthouse apartment at 120 East End and eventually Brooke was able to redecorate. He was affectionate, calling her Pookie. But he was also, as he had always been, a martinet used to having his own way.
He didn’t like the social life that drove Minnie, the dinner parties and cocktail parties and weekend house parties with more dinner parties and luncheons. He liked dinner a deux.
And that was that. He lived by a rigid schedule, which included morning visits to his office, lunches and afternoon visits to his club. And he drank. He drank and he smoked. All the time. As he was getting older he could put away a fair amount of whiskey by noontime.
By the time he married Brooke, now in his sixties, he was beginning to seriously suffer from his alcoholic excesses, as well as the smoking. His ill health only enhanced his childlike, indulgent sensibilities.
The young Brooke Astor would often dress for dinner in evening gown and jewels for her husband who would naturally wear black tie. But it was just the two of them. By the end of dinner, whether he had eaten much, if at all, he had even more to drink. All dressed up and nowhere to go.
Within a few years, the domestic isolation that Vincent Astor preferred was very difficult for the gregarious Brooke who reveled in the company of people and social exchange. It got to the point where he didn’t want her to share herself with anybody unless absolutely necessary, even if it were over the phone. She had to get her phone calls and make them when he was not around.
It got to the point where she couldn’t help thinking of doing what Minnie did: leave. After less than six years of marriage, she was at that point when one night she went out to a dinner party without him, he having excused himself with feeling a little under the weather. The world which the couple occupied, the hostesses who invited them, were all aware of the impending doom of the marriage, and all sympathetic to poor Brooke and That Man.
However, when she got home from the dinner that night, February 3, 1959, Vincent had died. He was sixty-eight, she was fifty-seven, and they had been married five and a half years.
The world of the Astors were very surprised that Vincent left everything to Brooke, excluding other Astor relatives as well as his half-brother JJ VI, who contested the will and lost. In the beginning, Brooke was treated by the lawyers and trustees as “poor little widow,” and patted on the head. The
Vincent Astor Foundation with its estimated $60 million in assets was firmly under the control of his chosen trustees.
Brooke Astor had known about the legacy her husband had in store for her. He told her she would have a good time giving away the Astor money. They were in harmony about the task. When she finally wrested control of the foundation, she began her task.
George Trescher not only advised her but kept her informed. Trescher was a man who knew the lay of the land, who was doing what with whom and to whom. He was a man who could mention the unmentionable and say the unsayable. Brooke Astor totally trusted him. It was through his guidance that she built a public image and reputation that she could wear like a suit of clothes.
She was a child of Victorians, came into young womanhood at the end of the Edwardian era which had great influence on American men and women of a certain socio-economic strata. When Vincent Astor came out of the blue and asked her to marry, she was at that point in her life when a woman of that time didn’t have many options. She certainly knew about the difficulties of Mr. Astor’s temperaments. But she also knew that most importantly she had to think about herself and her own old age.
It was fortuitous that Vincent Astor died when he did. His oppressive personality eccentricities were bearing down hard on his wife. As sensible and practical as she might have been, there’s a limit for everyone, and Vincent Astor could test those limits with facility.
Over the course of the next decade following Vincent Astor’s death, Brooke Astor laid the groundwork for the Vincent Astor Foundation’s giving. By the 1970s, her philanthropy, mingled with her social and political alliances, along with her prestigious old New York name, drew her into the public forum.
This was a woman whose example was contrary to the popular notion of womanhood. Without the physical trappings of youth, a lady who often wore a hat and gloves, white gloves, a lady who wrote a memoir and put it all out on the table, and with grace and style, as well as discretion (“Footprints”). She slowly but steadily became the grande dame of a New York that had not seen much of grandes dames since her husband’s grandmother reigned a century before. She became the right person for the right moment.
She was a writer, an artist, an actress. Fate took notice when she lost her love and presented her with a task, namely giving away the American Astor fortune. She made it her mission and her mission made her.
She loved men but never wanted to remarry. She was smart enough to know that her life could be more interesting without a man to look after. She certainly was not without suitors and, to use a term that would have suited her, beaux.
On her 90th birthday they had an enormous party for her at the 67th Street Armory. There were several hundred guests and it was the hot invitation in town. Everyone wanted to be in the presence of Mrs. Astor. She now embodied the best of New York – creativity, industry, generosity and distinction. She was as close to royal as elite Americans could aspire. And it was 100% authentic.
She said that night about her age that she had always thought that by the time she reached old age, she would no longer have to put up with a lot of people that pass through. However her mother had always told her that as she got older, it was important to be nicer. Otherwise, she had been admonished, people won’t want to be around you.
It never occurred to anyone listening to Mrs. Astor’s words of wisdom that she herself might someday be isolated from such choices and opportunities.
|Mrs. Astor’s failing health has been ongoing for several years. After all she’s lived more than a century. Over the course of the last five years she’d withdrawn completely from public life. No doubt the choice was not hers but made for her by her condition, because she was always a girl who liked to go out.
However, as she drew closer to her centenary, she still had frequent, sometimes daily contact with a small circle of devoted friends including especially Annette de la Renta and David Rockefeller and the Henry Kissingers. Although she had a son, Anthony Marshall, these people were like her family.
|The jury of Mrs. Astor’s friends, are not out on her son Anthony Marshall. He is well-liked but with frequently expressed reservations. His mother is credited for his progress in life and his intellect gets little if any credit at all. He’s only twenty years younger than his mother and so now is in his eighties.
About fifteen years ago in Northeast Harbor, Maine, he met a younger woman named Charlene Gilbert who was married to the local Episcopal minister of the church, as a matter of fact, that was attended by Brooke Astor.
The meeting of Mrs. Gilbert and Mr. Marshall, was, in the eyes of their neighbors (and Northeast Harbor is a small town with small town values and small town habits), not an accident. Some took note of how frequently Mrs. Gilbert passed by Mr. Marshall property, making herself a familiar sight. If that is so, then Mrs. Gilbert succeeded. An affair began between her and Mr. Marshall, (already twice married).
The matter so embarrassed her, she never set foot in Rev. Gilbert’s church again. And as for Charlene Gilbert? Mrs. Astor was the child of tradition and decorum. A lady is as a lady does and vice versa.
She tolerated Charlene Gilbert. And when she married Tony Marshall, she kept up appearances with grace and courtesy. Aside from Charlene’s relationship with her son, she was not of interest to her. She may even have not trusted her.
If so, she may have been right in thinking such a thing. Saturday morning’s (July 29, 2006) New York Times carried a story about how the property that Vincent Astor gave to Brooke in Northeast Harbor had recently been transferred entirely into the name of Charlene Marshall. Mrs. Astor had given the property to her son three years ago and not long thereafter it was placed in his wife’s name. This came as a great surprise to Mrs. Astor’s grandson Philip Marshall, who made public the matter of his grandmother’s debilitating circumstances, as he had once been told by his grandmother that one of the guesthouses on the property would be his and his wife’s.
It is possible that Mrs. Astor never intended to leave a piece of property to her grandson. Or that she changed her mind. Or, that by 2003, when she was already running into problems processing information, she wasn’t quite sure what she was doing. What she was doing, however, aside from what she knew or what she intended, was signing over, consciously or otherwise, a multimillion dollar piece of property to a daughter-in-law, the same daughter-in-law who had embarrassed her publicly. This was the same daughter-in-law whom it has been said, canceled orders Mrs. Astor’s prescriptions for cheaper brands, and cut back on her maintenance. This was the same daughter-in-law who was seen in public wearing Mrs. Astor’s jewels.
|Reports of neglect, of objects and pieces being removed from the Astor apartment, of other things being oddly amiss had been circulating for some time. Rumors and suspicion of “neglect” had long been in the air. Nevertheless, Annette de la Renta, her young friend of longstanding checked in on her friend daily to see that she was comfortable and cared for. And then stories circulated that there came the time when Mrs. de la Renta was informed that she would have to make an appointment to see her ailing friend. Henry James or Edith Wharton couldn’t have created a better plot point. It suddenly appeared to some that Brooke Astor, the great philanthropist who had devoted the past forty years to improving the lives of the community, who had the good fortune to have the means to care for herself in her declining age, appeared to be a prisoner in her own home. A prisoner of somebody she instinctively never really liked: her daughter in-law, the one-time preacher’s wife from a coastal village in Maine who now by some stroke of fate or some kind of intent, was accumulating the Astor property in her own name.
All of this is business that Mrs. Astor would never have wanted to see in print, let alone ever be confronted with. The writer that she was, however, she would have been fascinated by the story and obviously have understood the main character, but also all the other characters. For what Vincent Astor did for Brooke Russell was to give her the tools to be herself. She not only extended her graciousness to the philanthropies she supported but she took it one step further and became a public persona of similar grace. She “set a good example,” as was advised to young ladies in her youth. She made people feel good with her distinguished presence. She also had the curiosity and the intellect to insinuate herself significantly into the public dialogue, all the while elevating the Astor name into the realm of the Greater Good. She knew whence she came and where she was. Vincent Astor was re-paid in full.
A couple of days ago when the first details of her state of affairs came to the light, a reader wrote to comment:
just have to say
that once again
Mrs. Astor is showing us,
with the dignity of her person,
because we TAKE NOTICE
of her person,
that SENIOR ABUSE
is unacceptable, no matter who you are.
The question remains, what of those rumors were true and which were false? Was ordering a generic drug instead of the doctor's prescription an act of "abuse"? And in fact, did Charlene Marshall actually make those choices? Had they really "cut back on Mrs. Astor's maintenance," considering she had round-the-clock nurses and fully staffed houses in New York and Westchester? Or were these rumors spread to cast aspersions on the activities of her son and protector, Tony Marshall, via his wife, Charlene?