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Life at a funeral

Philanthropist-socialite Astor planned every detail of her last party -- and made sure the 'regular people' got in.

August 18, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The women came cloaked in black, wearing strings of pearls and floppy hats with thick bows. The men came in designer suits with silk handkerchiefs tucked into their breast pockets.

It was in some respects the ultimate A-list funeral, where high-society New York notables were ushered past cameras and crowds into St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. They had come to honor Brooke Astor, the Manhattan philanthropist and socialite who died Monday of pneumonia at the age of 105.

Her funeral Friday, like her parties, brought out New York's upper echelon of celebrities, politicians and dignitaries, including former opera star Jessye Norman, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and co-host of "The View" Whoopi Goldberg.

Astor began planning the ceremony more than a decade ago, updating her guest list of more than 400 names over the years. Known for impeccable style, Astor picked every hymn, Bible verse and prayer to send her spirit off spectacularly.

Just after 2 p.m. in Midtown, the important people began to arrive. Escorts guided them past the Episcopal church's pale limestone exterior, into the nave of French gothic arches and a towering mosaic of stained glass. They took seats on red-velvet pews on the ground floor, beneath soft spotlights and dangling chandeliers.

Reporters and photographers stationed outside the church's front entrance awaited the noteworthy.

But around the corner, fenced off in a long line, a different set of mourners had begun gathering hours earlier. Some arrived in black dresses, others in jeans and sneakers. They were teachers, secretaries, nurses and retirees.

"This is the peon entrance," one woman joked.

Though more than 400 seats had been reserved for Astor's special guests, the rest had been left open to the public. A newspaper reported this week that someone had tried to sell two tickets in the "16th pew from the front" for $500 on Craigslist. The family told the paper it was a hoax.

Most in line had never met Astor -- but, being New Yorkers, they felt they had known her anyway.

"She was an icon," said Mary Wong, a travel agent. "I didn't come to share the spotlight with the prestigious people or the A-list. I just want to pay my homage to someone who has done so much for this city."

Astor gave almost $200 million to the New York Public Library, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, the Bronx Zoo, the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as smaller projects to help youth, the environment, the homeless and the poor.

"I didn't think I could get in," said Renee Smith, 79, a former dancer, who wore khaki pants and a pink terry-cloth hat. "I mean, we're just regular people."

As the uninvited guests waited outside, Astor's former nurse Beverly Thomson, 63, stopped to talk to them. Thomson, who said she served Astor from 2004 to 2006, was on the formal invite list.

"Every night I read the Bible with her, and prayed with her and sang a hymn," Thomson said.

"What was her favorite hymn?" asked Connie Harnisch, 57, a laundry room monitor.

" 'Just As I Am,' " Thomson replied.

At that, Harnisch, a simply dressed woman who carried a cloth book bag and wore a sparkly rubber band in her hair, began to cry.

The ushers opened the side doors to let the people inside, guiding them to the balcony.

Wong, Smith and Harnisch, who had just met, shared a front-row pew upstairs with a view of the prominent crowd.

"Do you see Koch? Mayor Koch?" said Wong. That would be Edward I. Koch, New York's 105th mayor. "In the front second pew." Former Mayor David N. Dinkins sat nearby.

"There's Charlie Rose," said Harnisch. "He's on Channel 13."

Wong swore she saw TV anchor Katie Couric sitting behind a pillar wearing black and white.

"It's nice to be somebody, isn't it?" said Smith, taking off her pink hat to put on glasses. She peered over the rail like a little girl. "I mean, it would be fun for a little while."

"Kissinger!" said Wong, "Red tie, 11th row."

"David Rockefeller, eighth row," she added.

On the ground floor, more A-listers shuffled in, sitting quietly and flipping through programs.

The services began, and eight Marines wearing white gloves carried Astor's gleaming casket into the church. The choir sang.

Harnisch traced the sign of the cross and cried some more.

Running late, Whoopi Goldberg slipped into the ninth row on the ground floor of the cathedral-style church. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg remembered Astor as the best-dressed New Yorker. "She will be deeply missed, and she will be long remembered."

Her son, Anthony D. Marshall, spoke next. "Three years ago, on my 80th birthday, my mother informed me with a twinkle in her eye, 'You're only halfway there,' " he said.

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