Remembering the First Lady of New York

Remembering the First Lady of New York

On Monday, a chapter was closed in the social history of New York City: a great dame, the arbiter of New York society, died without leaving any successors. Brooke Astor, who passed away at age 105, was a combination of the Victorian age, with all its wit and elegance, and of the modern era, with its sharp-minded determination. She had taste, discernment, character, compassion, and was extraordinarily generous. She ran a great salon where the meek and the mighty met as equals. She had a profound respect for democracy and believed, as I do, that democracy and excellence are not mutually exclusive and that public institutions, too, must aspire to be great.

The revival of the New York Public Library was in large measure due to the fact that it was Mrs. Astor who led the campaign to bring this iconic and invaluable institution back to its rightful place at the center of the city’s life. Her contributions to this effort were, and remain, immeasurable, but to highlight just a few, it is important to note that it was she who recruited cosmetics mogul Richard B. Salomon and, later, former chairman of Time Inc. Andrew Heiskell to the cause. She also brought together New York high society, and helped to form an alliance not only with writers, artists, journalists and politicians, but also with corporate America so everyone could do their part and their duty to revitalize the Library and hence, to serve the public.

Mrs. Astor was proud of the fact that she never gossiped. She was proud that she never had a face-lift. She was proud to have mastered the art of conversation and was able to communicate ideas without resorting to ad hominems. She was proud to be loyal to her friends from all walks of life. She valued not what people had, but who they were and what they could contribute. She treated everyone as unique and as important individuals — from the guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to those at the Library, to presidents, governors, senators, and industry titans. She became the unofficial and enduring First Lady of New York City. First Ladies come and go, but Mrs. Astor always remained, a symbol of what is good, decent and proper — as well as wonderful, classic and above all, matchless — about New York.

She presided over a vast social and cultural network. She was always gracious and dressed impeccably, as befitted a First Lady. She often said that she took the time to dress well because that was what was expected of her. She wrote and spoke about the joy of giving — not acquiring — and enjoyed every minute of giving money away. She visited every institution her foundation funded. In particular, I still remember a very touching scene when she visited one of the branch libraries and sat, entranced, next to a grandmother who was reading to her grandchild. When her foundation eventually exhausted its resources in support of institutions, programs and projects that benefited the public, Mrs. Astor celebrated that fact — and afterwards used her own personal fortune to keep on contributing to the city she so dearly loved. She believed that Astor wealth was made in New York City and therefore, should be reinvested in New York.

Mrs. Astor never neglected a guest — after all, her guests were people she had invited. She always remembered names. And her intellect was lively: even at the age of 100 she continued to write poems and articles. These were not ghostwritten pieces, but conceived and written by herself. She was also a great writer of letters and thank-you notes, which always appeared in your mailbox written in her own hand. When she had to send out numerous letters all at once, which had to be typewritten, she never failed to add her name and yours in her handwriting, with a bon mot at the end. She also had a sparkling sense of humor. She was delighted, for example, in 1981, when the Bronx Zoo, one of the great institutions she supported, named a newborn baby elephant after her. It was a boy, so they called it Astor.

Mrs. Astor loved to dance. She loved to flirt and she thought that flirting as an institution necessary to romance had disappeared, a fact that she mourned. She thought love was a many-splendored thing that should never be cheapened. Love, she believed, brought out the best in people. While she was partial to men, many of her loyal friends were women. She had countless friends — of both genders — all over the city, and they all took care of her. As she got older, for example, she was not supposed to drive, but drive she did, in Maine and at her beloved Holly Hill, in Briarcliff Manor, and so the local policemen watched out for her — as did her passengers — to make sure nothing happened when she was behind the wheel.

Mrs. Astor never talked about money or jewelry or any of the trappings of wealth as a measure of men and women. She talked about taste and about community service. And of course, she talked about New York. She believed in the city. She loved it, not only its crown jewels but all its everyday institutions as well. And she loved New Yorkers — she always thought that we had much more good in us than we thought we had.

There will never be another Mrs. Astor. All of us are blessed to have known her. All of us are grateful that she touched our lives. Those of us who were lucky enough to be her friends are doubly blessed. We are thinking about her this week, and will go on thinking about her — and missing her — for a very long time to come.

Vartan Gregorian is president of Carnegie Corporation of New York.