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Dame at Sea

Life overshadows art in Mrs. Astor's biography.

May 28, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 35 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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The Last Mrs. Astor

A New York Story

by Frances Kiernan

W.W. Norton, 256 pp., $24.95

Frances Kiernan, the ladylike biographer of Brooke Astor, hadn't been expecting, during the course of her research, anything much in the way of excitement to write about. This she makes perfectly clear in her introduction. After five years of toil, Kiernan explains, she figured she could wrap the book up in a tidy bundle. She had by then done all the heavy lifting.

For example, the author had met Mrs. Astor--even better, met her at the Carlyle Hotel in New York for lunch--and the two discussed Mrs. Astor's first marriage, which was not a good idea, evidently. The bride remained a virgin six months into her marriage. And that, unfortunately, is about the first--and last--interesting revelation the reader is likely to trip over.

Why? Mrs. Astor led a pretty interesting life. She was never beautiful at any age, but she was always resourceful. She wasn't brilliant or especially witty, but men, even rich men, adored her. What happened to her biographer that she explains none of this?

The answer, I suspect, comes early in the book--right in the introduction, in fact. The author's investigations into a long, flush, and husband-packed life were aided, the author reports in a blithe-but-too-brief sentence, by "the cooperation of Mrs. Astor and her son, Anthony Marshall." Alas, the cooperation of Mrs. Astor was very likely limited. With her philanthropic subject almost a century old, no longer empress of New York, and ailing, Kiernan writes, "Mrs. Astor's story was over" after a few years, "awaiting only her death to provide a quiet coda."

One can only imagine the horror the author experienced last summer when she glanced at the New York Daily News and discovered that the cooperation--the complete, let-it-all-hang-out cooperation, that is--of Anthony Marshall was also likely of limited and insufficient value. DISASTER FOR MRS. ASTOR, read the unquiet headline. SON FORCES SOCIETY QUEEN TO LIVE ON PEAS AND PORRIDGE IN DILAPIDATED PARK AVE. DUPLEX.

Even worse, stunning court allegations were promised: Mrs. Astor's son was "intentionally and repeatedly ignoring her health, safety, personal and household needs," it was revealed, while helping himself to Brooke's millions. For example, Marshall sold his mother's Childe Hassam painting to a dealer, for which he got a $2 million commission. The dealer promptly sold it again for $20 million--double the original price.

These activities did not go unrecorded or unremarked. Thanks to Marshall's own son, and the intervention of Mrs. Astor's close friend, the socialite Annette de la Renta, Marshall was removed as his mother's guardian. In vain did Marshall protest his innocence or describe the legal interventions of Mrs. Astor's friends as "bad manners." The tabloids, along with the newly intemperate New York Times, made many lavish meals of these morsels. Everyone was riveted.

Well, everyone except for Brooke's biographer, it would seem. In The Last Mrs. Astor (a misnomer, as its author readily concedes, since Brooke really isn't the last) the reader can tell just how dismayed Kiernan was to learn of the kind of scandal most biographers can only pray for in the lives of their subjects. What she originally wanted to do with Mrs. Astor, she explains early on, was "concentrate on the years she served as president of the Vincent Astor Foundation," an organization which gave money to worthy causes, named for Brooke's bizarre, rich, and ill-tempered late husband--third in a line, in fact, of bizarre husbands.

Alas, it was none other than David Rockefeller who observed to the author "in the kindest way possible" that such a book, concentrating only on Brooke's philanthropy, sounded completely worthless to him. Then Felix Rohatyn weighed in, pointing out that hey, Brooke may have been loaded and philanthropic, yes, "but she hadn't made any significant difference."

Hmmm. It isn't every publisher that will allow such a dispiriting observation to appear on page 10. The author, of course, believes that Rohatyn was wrong, since he was simply talking about "money," whereas she, Kiernan, was talking "about a contribution that defied any assessment that placed a high value on results subject to measurement in dollars and cents." (Yes, I'm afraid she did write that sentence.) However, as Mrs. Astor married for money, valued money, lived in a moneyed fashion, wore money in the form of famous emeralds and satin designer gowns, and above all, gave piles of money away--it is hard to know what to make of such sentiments.

But back to mothers and sons. Let's say you're about to scribble that quiet coda, and along comes word that your heroine's only offspring, in his early eighties by the time he sells the Childe Hassam, isn't behaving in a manner widely considered filial. What to do? Do you delve into Mrs. Astor's past to reconsider what part, if any, she might have played in her son's life? Or what resentments he might have harbored?

As it happens, the biographer does touch on this tricky subject, and in a fairly original way, too. "It would be wrong," she writes defiantly, to say that Mrs. Astor "was a bad mother." About this she is sure. However, "at those times when Tony's life was threatened, his mother remembered just how much she loved him, but ordinarily her son's welfare was not foremost on her mind."

Then, almost at the end, comes another sure-fire conclusion: "One chooses one's friends; when it comes to family, one has no choice." But about one's book selections, one absolutely does.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to
Vanity Fair.