“‘I’ve had love and sorrow, seen sudden death / And been left alone and of love bereft'” – Mrs. Astor Regrets, by Meryl Gordon

January 5, 2009 at 1:35 pm (Book review, books)

Book Review Mrs Astor Regrets For years now, one of my chief guilty pleasures has been the perusal of the “Sunday Styles” section of the New New York Times – in particular, the Evening Hours Page, where we read about the doings of the rich and famous at  their various celebrations and fundraising events. The pictures are infuriatingly tiny and often not very clear . Nevertheless, I find this feature of the Times irresistible.

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Family Fetes – click to view

A regular reader of Evening Hours could not help noting that certain names and faces appear repeatedly. Up until just a few years ago, there was one person in particular who appeared at one gala or another almost every week. That person was Brooke Astor.

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Obit Astor amd_astor

In Mrs. Astor Regrets, Meryl Gordon recounts the crowded, eventful life of this doyenne of New York Society. She was born Roberta Brooke Russell in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1902. At the age of seventeen, she was pushed – one wants to say, shoved (by her social climbing mother) – into marriage with John Dryden Kuser, who proved to be an alcoholic and an adulterer. The union was in every way disastrous, save for the birth of her only child, Anthony. Ultimately, she divorced Kuser and married Charles Henry “Buddy” Marshall in 1932. Marshall was, by all accounts, the love of her life; she was devastated when he passed away in 1952. (Although Buddy Marshall never actually adopted him, Anthony changed his last name from Kuser to Marshall.)

The widowed Brooke soon found herself being courted by Vincent Astor, scion of one of America’s wealthiest, most famous families. (Vincent’s father was John Jacob Astor IV, who in 1911, after ending a difficult marriage to Vincent’s mother, took a teen-aged debutante as his bride. He spirited her off to Europe, and when planning their return journey the following year, he selected the most luxurious vessel he could find. Its name was The Titanic.)

Brooke and Vincent married in 1953.  For Brooke, this was not the love match that her previous union had been; still, despite Vincent Astor’s bouts of alcoholism, they were reasonably happy together. When Vincent died in 1959, Brooke Astor vowed never to marry again.

For most of the half century remaining to her, Brooke Astor had what to all appearances  was a wonderful life. She socialized, both publicly and in private, with the likes of Henry and Nancy Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Louis Auchincloss, Barbara Walters, and numerous others among the country’s rich and famous. She also worked hard to make sure the Astor Foundation’s money was directed to worthwhile causes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library in particular greatly benefited from her largess.

As she reached her nineties, Brooke Astor could still party with the best of them. (See “She Could Have Danced All Night”)

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Inevitably, though, age began to take its toll: she became less and less able to take care of herself and her affairs. And that’s when the trouble started – trouble involving herself, her staff, her son Anthony and his (third) wife Charlene,  her grandson Phillip, and a whole host of secondary players, not to mention innumerable attorneys. It’s a tangled tale, but Meryl Gordon does a first rate job of telling it with wit and clarity.

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Meryl Gordon

Mrs Astor Regrets put me in mind of characters right out of the works of Edith Wharton and Henry James. Butlers, chauffeurs, and maids are everywhere in abundance. Brooke Astor led an extremely privileged existence, yet I found her a surprisingly sympathetic character. She had genuine empathy for the less fortunate, and helped wherever she was able. She could be hurt by callousness, disloyalty, or betrayal, like anyone else, but she was not vindictive or spiteful. She knew the meaning of friendship and had many friends, like David Rockefeller and Annette de la Renta, who genuinely loved her. She wrote poetry and authored two memoirs; the lines quoted in the title of this post are from her poem “Discipline.”

This is a fascinating, eminently readable and surprisingly poignant book.

5 Comments

  1. Favorite nonfiction of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach, by Meryl Gordon. Well, of course, they were not beyond reproach, any more than most of us are. Still, their wealth and status  set them apart, and ultimately set them on a disastrous collision course with one another. […]

  2. Louis Auchincloss « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] was a friend of Brooke Astor’s and was quoted several times by Meryl Gordon in her book Mrs. Astor Regrets. Now Mr. Auchincloss and Mrs. Astor are both gone, and an entire era with them. Louis Auchincloss: […]

  3. Nan said,

    I don’t know if you get a notice of comments on older posts, but I wanted to say I definitely want to read this. Thank you.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Nan,

      I do get such comments, & I thank you for yours. And I also want to compliment your on the sheer wonderfulness of Letters from a Hill Farm!

  4. Nan said,

    You are so nice -thank you!

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