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Brooke Astor, 105; N.Y. socialite, philanthropist gave away $200 million

August 14, 2007|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Brooke Astor, the itinerant soldier's daughter who married her way into the top echelon of Manhattan society and then gave away a fortune, died Monday. She was 105.

Astor died of pneumonia at Holly Hill, her more than 60-acre country estate overlooking the Hudson River in New York, said Kenneth Warner, a lawyer for her son, Anthony D. Marshall.

In a life with many chapters, Astor's final days took on the air of a Victorian tragedy as her grandson Philip Marshall accused his octogenarian father of taking advantage of the frail philanthropist and failing to ensure that the once fiercely independent Astor received proper care, including medications.

In late July 2006, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge removed Marshall, a onetime Broadway producer and former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, as her legal caretaker in favor of Astor's longtime friend and society protege Annette de la Renta, wife of the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. Astor was then hospitalized briefly and, upon her release, went to her Westchester County estate, where she remained until she died.

Marshall released a statement through his lawyer saying, "I have lost my beloved mother, and New York and the world have lost a great lady. She was one of a kind in every way. Her tombstone will be inscribed with the words she specifically asked for: 'I had a wonderful life.' "

The family dispute is destined to flare up with her death. Under the agreement that removed Marshall as guardian, legal disputes over the will -- which allegedly includes a forged amendment -- are to be wrangled over in New York Surrogate's Court.

The scandal, and the underlying fight over money, contrasts sharply with Astor's legacy as a leading light in Manhattan's high society -- her dinner parties were known for drawing together the power brokers of politics and business -- and the doyenne of New York philanthropy, a role that she often wryly observed had turned her into "a public monument."

In a statement Monday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Astor "a quintessential New Yorker and one of the great philanthropists of our time. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers were the beneficiaries of Mrs. Astor's good will and kind nature, many unaware of the origins of the donations."

Astor's wealth came from Vincent Astor, her third and last husband and a direct descendant of John Jacob Astor, believed to be the nation's first millionaire, who made his post-Revolutionary War fortune in fur trading and early New York City real estate.

His descendants, John Jacob Astors II, III and IV, turned that family stake into a formidable fortune in the 19th century, paralleling New York City's emergence as a world center and integrating the family name into Manhattan itself, from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to Astor Place.

John Jacob Astor IV was aboard the Titanic in 1912 when it sank in the icy North Atlantic, and with his death his eldest son, Vincent, left Harvard College to take control of the family fortune, estimated then at $87 million.

Upon Vincent Astor's death in 1959, Brooke Astor received $2 million and the interest income from an additional $65 million, about half of his estate, the principal of which will be disposed of in her will.

Vincent Astor willed the other half of his estate to his namesake foundation devoted to "alleviating human misery," and over the next three decades Brooke Astor doubled its holdings even as she gave away, ultimately, nearly $200 million to New York City organizations and projects that she had first personally inspected for suitability.

For Astor, dispersing her husband's wealth within New York City was akin to scattering the ashes of the dead over a homeland. The money, she reasoned, had been made mostly in New York City, so that's where it should go.

Astor was a lifelong reader and the author of four books. Reflecting that interest, the New York Public Library was a prime beneficiary of her largesse. But Astor's projects ran the gamut, including creating outside "living room" parks for public housing complexes, renovating subway stations, paying for pet care for low-income elderly New Yorkers and providing the recently homeless with furniture for new apartments.

Astor was born Roberta Brooke Russell on March 30, 1902, in Portsmouth, N.H., where her father, a Marine, was stationed. An only child, she was reared mostly overseas -- China, Panama, Santo Domingo and Hawaii -- as her father moved from posting to posting (he eventually served as high commissioner to Haiti and was the Marine Corps commandant from 1932-34).

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