|Sleepy Hollow, NY||May 22, 2010|
“Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.” This line, from Thornton Wilder’s 1954 play The Matchmaker, was a quote favored by aristocrat Brooke Astor. She put her money where her mouth was by dispersing funds for decades to numerous New York City charities, projects, and organizations. Beneficiaries of her largess included the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, the Animal Medical Center, boys and girls clubs, and homes for the elderly. Astor gave away nearly $200 million in her lifetime, and after her death another $100 million was distributed in her name. The philanthropist rests at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester County beside Vincent Astor, her fourth husband, whose wealth she inherited in 1959.
The inscription near the bottom of Astor’s slab says, “‘I was glad when they said unto me we will go into the House of the Lord.'” The inscription toward the center reads, “I had a wonderful life.” Upon her death at age 105, Astor was eulogized by the New York Times as the Big Apple’s “unofficial first lady” and “Aristocrat of the People.” Astor used to personally inspect facilities that applied for grants from the Vincent Astor Foundation, and was always engaging with the people she encountered. “She could talk to anyone as she made her rounds, offering encouragement to a child working at a library computer, counseling a mother about the importance of reading,” read her NYT obituary. “To a janitor at a branch library — and she tried to visit every branch — she might give a word of thanks ‘for keeping this place so clean.'” Former New York Public Library president Vartan Gregorian said of Astor, “Hers is not a socialite’s attitude. She is genuinely concerned. There’s a lot of effort and mental discipline. She’s one of the few who have read so much. She’s a teacher; she teaches by example, by analogy. If you spend an evening with Brooke Astor and come away empty, there’s something wrong with your antennae.”
Astor’s final years were not as charmed as the hundred or so that preceded them. In 2006, Astor’s grandson leveled accusations that the Alzheimer’s disease-stricken centenarian was being abused by her son, Anthony Dryden Marshall. Philip Marshall filed suit against his father. The lawsuit alleged, in part, that Anthony Marshall had denied his mother medicine and relegated her to sleeping in a torn night gown on a urine-soaked couch. The saga is “painstakingly detailed” in Meryl Gordon’s 2008 book, Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach. Although the more sordid allegations of elder abuse were not proven in court, Anthony Marshall was convicted of swindling millions of his mother’s fortune and sentenced to one to three years of incarceration. The 89-year-old reported to prison in 2013, but served just eight weeks before he was granted medical parole due to his deteriorating health.
The Astors’ graves are tucked away, toward the back of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and off the beaten path. A good landmark to use in finding their plot is a mausoleum with the name “Herbert” chiseled above its doorway, situated by a paved cemetery loop called Sylvan Road. The Astors are buried several yards behind the Herbert mausoleum. Automobile magnate Walter Chrysler is entombed very close by.
Born: March 30, 1902 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Spouses: John Dryden Kuser (m. 1919-1930); Charles Henry Marshall (m. 1932-1952); William Vincent Astor (m. 1953-1959)
Presidential Medal of Freedom: Awarded by Bill Clinton (1998)
Died: August 13, 2007 in Briarcliff Manor, New York
Cause of Death: Pneumonia
Interment: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York
"If I go up to Harlem or down to Sixth Street, and I’m not dressed up or I’m not wearing my jewelry, then the people feel I’m talking down to them. People expect to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old lady, and I don’t intend to disappoint them."
- Brooke Astor
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Berger, Marilyn. “Brooke Astor, 105, Aristocrat of the People, Dies.” New York Times. August 14, 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/14/obituaries/14astor.html.
Eligon, John. “Witness Says Astor’s Staff Masked Her Decline.” New York Times. May 5, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/nyregion/06astor.html.
Gordon, Meryl. “The Family Astor.” New York Magazine. August 4, 2006. https://nymag.com/news/features/18860/.
Legacy Staff. “Brooke Astor: The Great Philanthropist.” Legacy.com. March 30, 2014. https://www.legacy.com/news/brooke-astor-the-great-philanthropist/.
Martelle, Scott. “Brooke Astor, 105; N.Y. socialite, philanthropist gave away $200 million.” Los Angeles Times. August 14, 2007. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-aug-14-me-astor14-story.html.
Thomasch, Paul. “Brooke Astor’s will finally settled; $100 mln to charities.” Reuters. March 28, 2012. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-astor-will/brooke-astors-will-finally-settled-100-mln-to-charities-idUSBRE82R1GN20120328.