Society Dreams: Brooke Astor

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Carrying Mrs. Astor's coffin down the stone steps of Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, August 17, 2007. Photo: JH.

Friday, March 22, 2024. It was cold yesterday in New York. Bright sunshine and freezing cold, the kind when you realize out there that you hadn’t dressed warmly enough. That’s very disappointing for us little ones who thought it was going to belike summer in a half hour or so. It remained cold for the remainder of the night (high 30s/low 40s in light jacket weather – uh-uh).

That’s my only complaint (boo-hoo); otherwise it was a beautiful day with the bright blue sky with more of those clouds that looked like they had been made by an artist’s hand.

Brooke Astor around the time we first met. Photo: Mary Hilliard.

Today, dream analyst Lauren Lawrence is featuring a dream told to her by Brooke Astor.

I did not know Mrs. Astor personally although in the early ‘90s she granted me an interview which I requested when I was working on a book on the Cushing Sisters (it was never written).

We met in her office which was in a building on Park Avenue in the Fifties. I had no pre-impression of her as Mrs. Astor. However, she was officious in a no-nonsense way, and discussed her information on Betsey Whitney, the sister-in-law of Vincent Astor by his second wife Minnie Cushing. It was not an interesting interview and I wondered why she’d even agreed to it.

I learned much later that the Cushing Sisters, particularly Mrs. Whitney, were not “welcoming” when Brooke married Vincent Astor — and moved in, “out-of-nowhere” into the higher echelons of the very elite of the social world in which the Whitneys were most prominently regarded. In other words, Brooke was snubbed. And she by then was Mrs. Astor. Period.

In 1952, Brooke at 50 was suddenly a widow of her second husband Charles Marshall. They’d lived on Gracie Square overlooking Carl Schurz Park only a block away from Vincent Astor’s 10,000 square foot penthouse atop a residential building he built (and developed East End Avenue renamed from Avenue C Uptown). The entire area had once been the property of and developed by the first John Jacob Astor who kept a summer estate close by also overlooking the East River.

The Astor Estate on 87th Street and East End Avenue. From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

In her generation, fifty was “old.” She also needed a partner to maintain her respectable life style. Coincidentally, it was the same time that Minnie Astor told Vincent that she wanted out. He’d told her she couldn’t leave until she found him a new wife.

Vincent was also what today would be simply described as an alcoholic. Before 10 in the morning. Not unlike a lot of men of his generation, it increased with age. It wasn’t surprising that he had a bottle of imported whiskey before, during and after breakfast. However when things got too drastic, he put himself in a private sanitarium in Connecticut where he’d stay until he regained his complete sobriety.

A photo of Brooke Astor from her personal collection.

It so happened that Minnie Astor’s plans to leave him were known among her friends. It was through one of them who knew the story and happened to tell Brooke about it. Hearing also about his being, occupying a room at the private sanitarium in Connecticut, she volunteered to work there to tend to him.

It was there that they met. The rest is history and it’s too long and too fascinating to go into in this introduction to Brooke Astor’s “Dream.” But a relationship was born and within a few months a new marriage was in the offing.

Surrounded daily by luxury and grandeur presence, in many ways it was a terrible and burdensome experience for her. She was 51 and he was in his mid-sixties (and dying although not acknowledged as such). Five years of marriage, she wanted to get out of it. Both, at that point, had divorce lawyers. She went out to a dinner one night and Vincent stayed home and went to bed early. When she returned home, she found him in bed; gone.

Had Vincent lived a few more years, Brooke’s life might have been very different and not as glamorous and feted. Because she then burst out like a debutante, a totally self-reliant woman of maturity enjoying the bounty of her married life. He also left her a rich woman who’s public history is well known to many Americans. Having been Mrs. Astor.

Now, on to Mrs. Astor’s dream. Lauren was one of the last people to see Brooke in her bedroom at 101 years old before the dreadful brouhaha brought on her son Anthony Marshall, which was pushed by others.

SOCIETY DREAMS by Lauren Lawrence

The Dream: Coming back from China when I was eleven, I felt different from other children – more British than American, because those were the people I saw in China. Mother was busy, having just returned from Peking – father was busy with his job. Feeling rather alone, trying to adjust to my new life in Washington, it was Granny to whom I turned. She listened to all my complaints and gave me a feeling of security making me feel as though I was ‘somebody.’

A young Brooke Astor.

Marrying young and moving to New York I saw very little of Granny who moved to her country home in Maryland. Busy running a household – trying to fit into what turned out to be an unfortunate marriage, I survived, though I forgot about Granny. But way back in my mind something was haunting me … Then one night I dreamt that I was walking down the street and I saw a very old lady walking with two sticks. She could hardly move and as I went up to help her, I noticed she looked just like Granny, whom I loved very much (and who was now deceased).

When I saw that it was Granny, I said ‘Granny, I did not recognize you. Why are you looking this way? You are so thin now and I remember you being so active.’ She glanced up at me and said nothing. ‘Please forgive me,’ I said. Finally, she turned toward me and said, ‘I look like this because the dead live through the thoughts of the living, and neither you, nor anyone else, have been thinking of me.’

The Interpretation: In this self-recriminatory dream, a painful realization comes forward on two sticks, and stick it does: Young Brooke takes a cool, long look at her selfish behavior, and chastises herself for thoughtlessness. When the dreamer meets up with her unrecognizable, deceased grandmother, self-interest brought on by an unfortunate marriage is exchanged for pathos and empathy. Wistfully, the grandmother that made Brooke feel like she was ‘somebody’ now appears as a cane wielding nobody.

Whereas the dreamer’s question, “Why are you looking this way?” symbolizes Brooke’s guileless disbelief over not having thought about her beloved granny, it reveals a refreshing emotional honesty — Brooke’s ability to be self-critical.

Not being remembered has weakened the granny — the two walking sticks symbolize that she has no one to lean on, and nothing to hold onto. Surely a remorseful revelation. What is wonderful about Mrs. Astor’s dream is the inversion of the idea behind it — the poetic notion that loving thoughts can make the recipient of those thoughts stand strong, and alter their state of being.

Brooke Astor at 100 at the The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Living Landmarks Gala in 2001. Photo: JH.

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