Liz Smith: The Last of Mrs. Astor

“WHEN I was 40, I used to wonder what people thought of me. Now I wonder what I think of them,” said the saucy philanthropist Brooke Astor when she was only 92 years old.

Tomorrow, we will begin to get a look at the late Mrs. Astor’s belongings, artifacts, art work and the tasteful gee-gaws of a long life when Sotheby’s begins auctioning off 901 lots of her belongings from her Park Avenue apartment and her country estate near Westchester.

When Mrs. Astor was in her 90s I went to visit in her house in Maine. She was still driving herself in her own car in those days and the visit was a pretty heart-in-the-mouth affair as Brooke careened out of her driveway forcing others to make way.

George Trescher and I begged her not to drive, but let herself be driven. She had wonderful people there working for her. But she was a law unto herself in some ways.

I was given a bedroom right next to Brooke’s upstairs, in this charming country house. She was giving a dinner party for the likes of David Rockefeller and others so we met each morning to consult in the connecting hall where she had a chest heaped high with dozens of books. She was an avid reader-collector.

One morning I was standing in the hall looking thru these stacks when Brooke appeared. I was holding a copy of Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter — an analysis of King Edward VII’s mistress and Violet Trefusis, her notorious daughter. Brooke peered over my shoulder, saw the book and said firmly, “I detest that woman!”

I reacted. “Mrs. Keppel?”

Brooke, absolutely vehement, said, “Oh, no, I knew Mrs. Keppel. I met her as a child in London. She was so well-thought-of that the king’s queen, Alexandra of Denmark, arranged for Mrs. Keppel to visit the King when he was on his death bed. People were so much more civilized in those days …. No, the person I detest was that Violet Trefusis!”

“Why?” I asked. “Is it because she was the lesbian lover of Vita Sackville-West?”

Brooke turned to go down the stairs, saying over her shoulder. “No, I don’t care about that! I detested Violet because she was always so unkind and awful to her mother.”

“But, Brooke, tell me, what was the mistress — Mrs. Keppel — like!?”

Brooke paused, “Oh, well, I was just a child when I was introduced. I kissed her hand, but she was charming — a real lady.”

So much for Victorian manners and morals.

LATER that same day, Brooke took me into the dining room to survey the garden flowers already arranged on each table for the party.

“They look very squashed down, don’t you think? Not really attractive.” I agreed and the two of us set to removing them from the vases and sorting them out and replacing them in a less crowded manner. Brooke stood back and looked when we finished.
“No, no,” she shook her head. “It looks like we did them over. And I don’t want to hurt the housekeeper’s feelings. So let’s cram them back in the vases the way they arranged them. I wouldn’t offend them or hurt their feelings for the world.”

And that’s what we did.

AFTER DINNER that night, one of Brooke’s guests (I’ll call him Mr. So-And-So because I can’t recall his name) asked me what I was doing in Maine?

I said I was just one of the variety of people Mrs. Astor knew and she was quite eclectic in her tastes.

He said, “Well, you strike me as a self-made woman. I like that! But I’m a playboy. My family is rich, my brothers run the family business and I spend most of my time just hanging around on my boat.

You know, I’m conservative and most of these people here — well, they are Communists!”

I laughed, asking him: “Communists? David Rockefeller there is a Communist!?”

He snorted, “Yes, in a manner of speaking. He’s always going around giving away his money; what do you call that but a Communist?”

I paused. “Ok, then, Mr. So-And-So , what do you have to say about your hostess — Brooke Astor!?”

“Oh,” said Mr. So-And-So — “Mrs. Astor? Why, she’s a lady!!!!”

End of discussion.

MY FAVORITE Brooke Astor story is of the time she went down to the South Street Seaport, which had just been revitalized and done over. She always tried to go wherever she had donated money and as she was examining a site full of rough and tumble workmen, she stumbled in her high heels and fell over a piece of wood, tearing her stockings and giving herself quite a gash.

After the workmen had sat her down on a pile of lumber and staunched her wound and bandaged it, Mrs. Astor calmly rose, instructed them to form a circle around her, facing outward. They did as she bid and Brooke carefully removed her torn panty hose. From her purse she took out a fresh pair and steadied by her maid, pulled them back on over her wound.

When she finished, the workmen stood back and clapped. Mrs. Astor went away happy. She said later, “I am Mrs. Astor. They have expectations of me and I don’t like to disappoint them.”

This was rather more and less snobbish than Brooke could sometimes be. Once at a dinner she was trapped afterward in a corner by two businessmen who discussed their interests over her head. She was usually quite flirtatious and definitely wasn’t used to being ignored. But she didn’t say anything, just beckoned to me and said she had to be going and would give me a lift home.

When we got in her car, she asked if I was a Democrat or a Republican? I laughed, “You know, Brooke, I am not a Republican.” She sighed: “Yes, I know. After I married Vincent Astor, I became a Republican …

“But, Liz, tell me. Who WERE ‘those people’ we were just with …”

MRS. Astor’s estate, which goes on sale September 24-25, makes much of her love of dogs of all kinds.

An angry dog which she had tried to separate from her beloved dachshunds once bit the end of her finger off. This did not mitigate her love of canines.

In fact, Mrs. Astor’s beloved “Girlsie” is outliving her up in Vermont where she was adopted by the archaeologist Iris Love. “Boysie” met his end two years after Brooke died. “Girlsie” rules the roost in Vermont. She sometimes waits for one of her “servants” to open the kennel door before she will stroll out to play. “Girlsie” would really prefer it if the gatekeeper wore white gloves.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 9/19/12

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Quite the personality. I thought the treatment (or lack of) that she had from her son in her final years was pretty reprehensible.

  2. avatar Mew says:

    I think Mrs Astor was a great lady, I don’t care that she had loads of money, she gave much of it away.

    She was treated so badly by the horrible son, I just wish she could have lived longer, I loved reading abou this fine ladys life. And it is so sad, she did love her lifestyle.And why not!!! Im not someone with lots of money, I am a former nurse who retired twenty years ago, Im not rich by any means, but I guess I could have enjoyed Mrs. Astors lifestyle. If you haver money and you spend it like she did, it was great!! not like the Romneys who find ways to hide their money!!!!!!!!!!!!!!