Thursday, April 30, 2009

Part III: Vincent, the Astor Who Gave Away the Money

The new Mrs. Astor, circa 1980.
After more than a decade of marriage and fifteen years together, Minnie Cushing Astor wanted out. When she told her husband she wanted a divorce his first thought was that he didn’t want to be alone. He made his case clear enough that Minnie felt compelled to help him find a mate to replace her. Whether or not he threatened to not give her a divorce is not known by this writer, but she actively sought to assist him in the task of finding the replacement. It wasn’t easy. He asked three different women, including a woman who had been his mistress, and they all turned him down.

One evening in 1953,
Minnie and Vincent Astor went to a dinner party at the Manhattan apartment of Mr. and Mrs. James Bruce. There were sixteen at two tables of eight, and seated directly across from Vincent was a very attractive, recently widowed woman of fifty named Brooke Marshall. Vincent had known Mrs. Marshall casually for years. Coincidentally, her late husband had been married to Helen Astor’s sister before he married Mrs. Marshall.

After dinner Vincent awkwardly offered Mrs. Marshall his belated condolences over the death of her husband. When the evening was over, the Astors offered Brooke Marshall a lift (they lived just around the corner from each other – she at 10 Gracie Square and they at 120 East End Avenue).

The newly married Mrs. Vincent Astor at home in 1954.
Coincidentally, Vincent and Brooke Marshall had come in contact a few months before when he was convalescing in a private retreat for alcoholics to “dry out” just outside the city, in Connecticut. Mrs. Marshall had “volunteered” part time to work with patients there, and specifically struck up a bit of a relationship with the man.

Years later it was speculated upon by some members of the Astor family that Brooke Marshall had placed herself in that situation especially so that she could meet and get to know Mr. Astor whose marriage situation was not exactly a secret among the social set around Minnie. Brooke, in her later memoir “Footprints” recounted the meeting at the Bruce dinner party and the ride home but failed to mention any previous social occasions with Vincent. Minnie, however, had registered it.

On the ride home from the Bruces’ dinner party that night, Minnie invited Brooke Marshall for Memorial Day Weekend in Rhinebeck. The invitation came as a surprise to Mrs. Marshall who was really only an acquaintance of the couple. However, the next morning, both the husband and the wife called to ask her again.

Brooke later wrote that she was mystified by this sudden attention, and that may be so, although it was a scenario that she could have wished for, considering how events played themselves out.

The following day Vincent invited himself for tea. It was pleasant but unremarkable and Brooke was left thinking perhaps she was a “whim of two rich people to have someone new in their lives.”

That Memorial Day weekend at Rhinebeck, Vincent took his new houseguest for a ride on the estate, told her that Minnie was leaving him and asked her if she would marry him.

In her memoir, Brooke later claimed that she was dumfounded by his proposal and had no answer for him. Although that may be so, it is possible that she was very clear about her own intentions. Thomas Hoving later recalled that he'd seen the lady dance with joy at having snagged the town’s biggest fish in marriage.

Vincent, recognizing the opportunity to replace his loneliness with another wife, pursued her. When he went away to Japan that summer he wrote her five letters a day full of whimsy and jest and declarations of his life.

She was touched and impressed as well as confounded by the letters from such a romantic young man with a constant heart. Although it still seemed so quick, so absurd. The following September while she was visiting friends in Bar Harbor, Vincent cabled her from Hawaii asking that she agree to marry him fairly soon.

With enthusiastic encouragement from her friends, she finally relented. By then the idea had begun to titillate the middle-aged widow. As Mrs. Vincent Astor, she will be finalizing her financial future which had been left meager by the death of her beloved second husband Buddie Marshall.

On October 8, 1953, only days after Minnie got an Idaho divorce, Mrs. Marshall became Brooke Astor at a ceremony at the Bar Harbor home of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer. Vincent’s mother, Lady Ribblesdale (age 85) was in attendance.

The couple moved into the St. Regis while the new Mrs Astor redecorated their New York and Rhinebeck homes. Soon enough Brooke Astor would discover that life with Vincent wasn’t all whimsy and love letters. He returned to his old difficult and demanding self. He had long before become a hypochondriac.

Brooke with her friend, Annette de la Renta.
His doctor, a well known society physician named Connie Guion, came every morning to see him. The same doctor who once told him he could smoke all he wanted because it couldn’t harm him was equally acquiescent about Vincent’s myriad, oft-imagined ailments. He had a longtime cook in Rhinebeck whose daily menus didn’t measure up to that of a nearby diner where she once worked. When Brooke questioned her qualifications, Vincent explained that she was the only one strong enough to throw the hose up to the roof during the fire drills he held at the house every two weeks. Eventually she was replaced.

Brooke soon saw that her new husband was a very frightened man. And prone to jealousy. Jealous of her old friends, even of her son to whom she was devoted. At one point, when her son, then in his early thirties, was visiting his mother at Rhinebeck, he went to her room to chat with her one morning while she was having her customary breakfast in bed. Suddenly Vincent burst in the room and ordered him out of the house, and forbade him to ever return. After he was gone, Vincent turned to Brooke and told her that if she had anything more to do with “that man,” she’d be gone too. She followed orders and did not communicate with her son (without telling him why) until Vincent’s death.

Besides her son, Vincent demanded that she not phone people when he was at home (and he was home most of the time by now). A gregarious person by nature, Brooke had to forego her social life almost entirely. A product of a happy childhood and doting parents, a painful first marriage (when she was as young as Madeleine Force was when she married Col Jack Astor), followed by a happy marriage that left her widowed, she had fortitude and patience with this husband whom she could see had had no happiness in his life.

Brooke with William Paley.
Except for a dinner dance for 275 at the St. Regis during the first year of their marriage, Brooke and Vincent saw few people. Instead they stayed home. They dressed for dinner. He bought her jewels to wear with her couture gowns. She played the piano and sang to him. They played backgammon and dominoes and watched old movies on television. He called her Pookie and cherished her attentiveness. He had finally acquired the mother he never had.

Despite Vincent’s obvious affection for and his promises (that he would keep) to his new wife that she’d “have a good time” giving his Astor Foundation money away after he’d gone, living with him had become a kind of hell for Brooke. She soon understood only too well why Minnie Cushing Astor wanted out, and the thought had crossed her mind more than once.

In 1956, Alice Astor died suddenly at age 54. Finally reconciled with her, with the help of Brooke, Vincent grieved. Two years later, Ava, Lady Ribblesdale died at 90. Afraid of her wrath his entire life, Vincent was less moved by the death of the mother who never liked or understood her only son.

Just a few months after his mother’s death, on February 3, 1959, the night before they were to leave for several weeks at their house in Arizona, Vincent begged off from a dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Muir (he was editor-in-chief of Newsweek). Brooke went without him.

The Grande Dame.
When she returned home she found Vincent propped up in bed and gasping for air. She called Connie Guion who appeared shortly. The doctor was with him for only a few minutes when Vincent suddenly fell back against his pillows. The head of the Astor Family in America, as Vincent billed himself in Who’s Who, was dead at 67.
Like his father, Vincent Astor passed suddenly from this life. Unlike his father, and perhaps unbeknownst to himself, he suffered a lifetime of pain.

It had been a childless, loveless life for a man until almost the very end. The last five and a half years with Brooke had changed that somewhat and it was reflected in his will. Half of his estate -- $65 million was left to the Vincent Astor Foundation which he created in 1948 “for the alleviation of human misery.” $2 million outright was left to Brooke as well as a life interest in the remaining half of the estate which, on her death, she was free to dispose of as she wished.

There were a few additional minor bequests in Vincent’s final Will and Testament, otherwise the rest of the Astor family was ignored. He was the first Astor after five generations who cut off his kin from the family estate. With the exception of the St. Regis, his personal residences, the Newsweek Building and his large holdings in U.S. Lines, the real estate holdings, after more than a century of accumulation, were gone.

“If you label a man as a scientist,” Vincent Astor once said, “he is instantly accepted by the public mind as a more than ordinarily useful person. If you label a man as a lawyer or give him any professional tag, the public mind associates him with worthwhile achievement. But if you say of a man that he is merely rich, he is immediately docketed as a wealthy wastrel, and whatever he attempts to do to show that he is a sincere well-wisher of his fellow man is either discounted or misinterpreted on account of his wealth."
Carrying Mrs. Astor coffin down the stone steps of St. Thomas'. Sunday, August 19, 2007.
Charlene Marshall speaking to the rector with her husband Tony Marshall on her right (white hair).
A hundred and eighteen years after his birth, the last American Astor possessing the family fortune, thanks to the guidance of his last wife, achieved his well-wishing and will be rightfully remembered as the Astor who gave the money away. Half of it, anyway. The other half is the stuff of novels -- arrogance, venality, the cross currents of passion, multiple deceits, greed cloaked in the mantle of good; and last but never least, lawyers’ fees. Lots of lawyers’ fees. Millions and millions.

Oh, and the public humiliation of the beloved lady’s son whom the paranoid Vincent Astor forbade his wife to see. You have to wonder if Brooke Astor would have approved of the public prosecuting her only child who had demonstrated loyalty and devotion to his mother, and had looked after her interests and well-being throughout her adult life. You have to wonder what she would have thought of the possibility of this man in his mid-80s facing a term in the penitentiary for his final days, apprehended, it would seem, (at least in the novel) by her former servants and her friends coming to the aid of her proposed philanthropy. Irony everywhere looking for justice.

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