Goodbye to Brooke Astor
Brooke Astor was the quintessential New Yorker. She passed away yesterday at the age of 105. That alone is an accomplishment. Her finest achievements were really leaving NYC a better place. She gave millions of dollars away to the art institutions throughout NYC such as the MOMA, Met, Botanical Garden and the Public Library to name a few.
In 1999, I was asked to lunch at a club on the Upper East Side. At that point I was chairing MOUSE and was doing a lot of schmoozing. I don’t recall the name of the club but it was something I had never experienced before.
After entering the club, I was a bit early, so I wandered into a grand room, grabbed a magazine and took a seat. Within seconds, a gentlemen dressed in a black/white waiters uniform came over to me and told me that I had to leave that room because it was a men’s only room. I remember saying to him, "you are kidding, right"? Unfortunately he was not. I moved into room number two. Seconds later my dining companion came and we were seated to lunch.
During our lunch, Brooke Astor enters the room. She is a small woman wearing white gloves and a beautiful brimmed ham with someone wearing a staff outfit ( I presumed she worked for her ) guiding her through the room over to a table for lunch. She sat next to our table. Her help left and she sat and had her lunch with a friend.
I was in awe. I felt like I was in the presence of a rock star. I so wanted to say to her, "please tell me a story about the life you have lived, the people you have met, and by the way, it is incredible how philanthropic you are, so impressive" but I didn’t say a word. Brooke Astor came from a different era. One where you dress up for lunch, you have certain manners, you treat everyone with respect. Reminds me of a saying my Grandmother used to say "better overdressed than under dressed". Brooke Astor is one of the last of the originals from a time period that has faded into the past.
Today the MOMA hung the flag at half mast. Truth is, all of New York City should be hanging the flag at half mast for a helluva of a lady.
I enjoyed this post, and agree that Brooke Astor will be missed.
However, I do think that some of praise that she has received — here and elsewhere — is somewhat misplaced and based on a misconception.
She was not, in fact, a philanthropist. Her husband — to whom she was married briefly — left a foundation which she was put in charge of. Giving money away is philanthropic; allocating grants, while important, does not imply any charitable virtue.
Moreover, many of the grants that she gave went to institutions such as the Met or the MOMA, which brings to mind the recent comment by Bill Gross: “A thirty million dollar gift for a concert hall is not philanthropy, it is a Napoleonic coronation”.
She will be missed, but let’s not gild the lilly.
It must have been something to see with a HAM on her head.
Mrs. Astor sent me to Paris the first year I went into teaching, and although the trip was only for ten days, I was able to rent a place and stay the summer. When I returned, I was able to have tea with her and other teachers who had received that special gift. (She got tired after about half an hour, but it was sweet anyway.) She sent many, many grateful teachers on European vacations. She really was a helluva lady.