Being Mrs. Astor

Mrs. Vincent Astor, 1956.Photo: Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archives at Sotheby's

Osborn Elliott, former editor, Newsweek
When I was the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, and Schuyler Chapin was dean of the School of Arts, the then president, Michael Sovern, asked us to bring her to lunch—he’d never met her. Sovern was a little apprehensive, and she said, “Well, I know why I’m here. Do you know the one about the lady from Kent?” He said no, and she replied:
There was a young
lady of Kent
Who said that she knew what it meant
When men
asked her to dine,
And served cocktails and wine
She knew what it meant— but she went!

And she said, “How much do you want?” He was taken aback. She said, “We can’t give you the kind of money we give to the Bronx Zoo, or those places.” “Well,” Sovern said, “we could use a million dollars for scholarships.” “Oh, we can do that!” she replied. To this day, I think he’s sorry he didn’t ask for more.

Veronica Hearst, socialite
She was a coquette. She always wanted to look pretty and she was a great flirt. She would flirt at the table. She loved handsome men. She would seat them near herself.

Betsy Gotbaum, public advocate
Sometime when she was in her nineties, we all were down in Punta Cana. We went swimming with dolphins. I had to be coaxed and assured that they weren’t going to slap me in the head with their tails. She got right in. Totally uninhibited.

Sean Driscoll, co-owner, Glorious Food caterers
When she gave a dinner, she was into the potpies—chicken or a combination of quail and pheasant—served with creamed spinach and mashed potatoes. I’d say, “We’re going to do our nouvelle-grandma food”—she loved that. But she’d start with something very elegant—a lobster that’s poached and put back in the shell—so that you went from elegant into comfort food. And once you got over the aura, she made you comfortable. She knew most of our waitstaff were artists, and she always wanted to know what they were doing. She loved that they’d come to find their fortune.

Rita Jammet, co-owner, La Caravelle
We saw her about once a month. We had a little ritual—[my husband] André and I would always go to the curb and help her out of the car and walk her in. She loved the attention. And when she was there, the whole room knew, and loved it.

Paul LeClerc, president, the New York Public Library
She was really enlightened about what we now call health maintenance. She swam almost every day. She did yoga. What’s part of the longevity secret is an exceedingly positive attitude. When I was first personally invited to her home—I grew up in Queens; it was an extraordinary moment in my life to be alone with Brooke Astor—she said, “Paul, have fun at the library,” and that was characteristic of her approach to life. If you’re going to do something—even if you have to do something—have fun doing it.

Her Social Circles
The Astor Donor Role
Those Smart Little Suits

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Being Mrs. Astor