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Mrs. Astor's Baby

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The letters are fascinating, though not only for the reason Tony proposes. Brooke is a natural writer, and they are lively, gossipy, snide, among the charms for which she was beloved—Tony’s given me eleven, some of which are excerpts. She names a person who died. “I can not pretend to be sad as I never liked him,” she writes. She confides that she’s going for “a tuck in my face. I definitely need it as I … look a million yrs. old.” She includes telegraphic accounts of her social life. Tony may be the diplomat, but one never forgets that Brooke moves in the highest circles. She dines with Henry Kissinger and a senator and a governor who is “a bit of a bore.”

Tony is right. The letters are loving, adoring, even maternal. “That a man can be happy, completely fulfilled! … My joy is your joy,” she wrote. “You are useful, wise and happy, an unbeatable combination.” Tony’s also right that Brooke rattles off complaints about her grandsons. “They have not been taught anything,” she writes. A graver offense is that they are dull. “If they played tennis or golf or were keen about swimming—if they were gay and anxious to have fun—but they are not,” she writes. Worse yet, they are indifferent to her charms. “One feels it if someone really cares—I have no ‘charisma’ for them.” All her life, Brooke had, as she said, been obsessed with pleasing people. Her grandsons’ indifference hurts. “You know how upset I get if rebuffed. I have never been able to overcome my vulnerability.” Once wounded, Brooke suspects motives. “All I mean to them is money,” she says. “They were very happy when we first arrived in Paris because I was buying them things, but now that the ‘giving’ has dried up so has their affection.”

And yet Tony may have missed the real import of these letters. Brooke complains about the ragamuffin boys (who in these letters are in their teens and twenties), but she is interested in them. She invests in their futures, for which she has hopes. She’s desperate to “open their eyes even a little bit on a world of ... good manners and civilized conversation.” And Brooke wants Tony to join in this project. Yes, she runs down Philip’s young male flaws and showers Tony with praise, but Brooke was always an instinctive diplomat. The subtext is that she wants Tony to be the father Philip needs—the one Tony never had. She lobbies for a summerlong father-son reunion in Tony’s latest African posting. “Philip needs help,” she writes. “He needs to respect and look up to someone. No preaching can do it, but to see you in action would be an eye opener for him. I hope that you can arrange it.” She offers to pay his way. “After all,” she wrote, “what is more important than to have your children turn out well?”

No one ever heard Annette de la Renta say she disliked Tony and Charlene. “She has good manners,” says a friend. But Annette and Tony were natural rivals—Brooke liked to say Annette was like a daughter to her. “I knew that Annette loved my grandmother unconditionally,” says Philip.

Brooke and Annette were different. Brooke was regal, the natural center of attention. Annette, who is married to the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, is shier. Public speaking petrifies her (which made her public effort on Brooke’s behalf “courageous” and “heroic” to her circle). Together, though, they seemed cozy, gossipy. (Annette sometimes flew from her place in the Dominican Republic to Brooke’s Maine house just for lunch.) They loved dogs. After Brooke bought a dachshund named Boysie, Annette, saying the dog was lonely, got her another named Girlsie. They loved clothes; they had great legs. Later, when Brooke was housebound, Annette would stop by on her way out for the evening to show Brooke what she was wearing.

Their friendship continued at the De la Rentas’ coral-stone mansion in the Dominican Republic, Oscar’s native country. Annette said it was a place for family and friends. That included the Kissingers, who jetted down for an en famille Christmas, as well as the Clintons, Baryshnikov, and Barbara Walters. Brooke flew down, too, of course. Once she was there with Betsy Gotbaum—Betsy, New York City’s public advocate, is one of Annette’s childhood friends. Betsy remembers that they swam with the dolphins. Betsy was afraid. Brooke, in her nineties, jumped right in.

Both Brooke and Annette also shared a belief that the upper crust had obligations, particularly to the Culture, capital C. For years, they’d been in a book group together with other dignified socialites, Susan Burden and Anne Bass, and, for intellectual heft, the writer Renata Adler. And together they supported the city’s crown jewels, as Brooke called them. Annette had followed her mother, Jane Engelhard, onto the board of the Met, where Brooke, of course, served, too. (As did Tony, though his participation was, as Annette’s circle says, a favor to his mother.) Annette and Brooke also served on the New York Public Library’s board. The Astors helped found it, and Brooke almost single-handedly made it a fashionable charity, donating $25 million in her lifetime. “It is impossible to overstate her importance,” says president Paul LeClerc. Annette was sure that Brooke wouldn’t forsake the institutions they’d worked so hard for all those years. “Annette felt that Brooke was wronged,” says Betsy Gotbaum. “There’s nothing in this for Annette.”


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