Monday, August 13, 2007

Brooke Astor, 1902-2007

A few weeks ago, Le Sweetie and I visited the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's beautiful collection of medieval art. Nestled in Fort Tryon Park, near the northern tip of Manhattan, the Cloisters is alternately sunny and strange. Outside are people lounging on the grass and walking their dogs. Inside is the closest thing Manhattan will ever have to a medieval castle, complete with illustrated prayer books and the famous Unicorn Tapestries.

To Brooke Astor, the Met was one of New York City's "crown jewels," and she dearly loved the city's cultural landmarks. But her philanthropy wasn't limited to museums or zoos. Nor was she satisfied writing checks and attending charity balls. She famously proclaimed, "Money is like manure, it should be spread around." She took a personal interest in every project funded by the Vincent Astor Foundation. It could be in the middle of the scuzziest neighborhood in the city, the most drug-infested block, and Mrs. Astor would be there. She bought a boiler for a youth center and a pipe organ for a church. She donated to the Coalition for the Homeless and the Apollo Theater. She was determined to spend last dollar during her lifetime, and when the Vincent Astor Foundation finally closed its doors, she proclaimed herself one of the "nouvelle pauvre."

Like so many other people who are motivated to good things, she wasn't always so generous with people in her life. By her own admission, she was not much of a mother to her son. The tradition of family estrangement, sadly, seems to continue to the present day (one grandson accused his father of elder abuse). On the other hand, her friends all describe a vivacious, cultured woman with passion and drive. The simple, unpretentious quote below sums up Mrs. Astor and her approach to her life and work.

Power, for me, is the ability to do good things for others. I have the means to do it, thanks to Vincent's money, and the act of giving makes me powerful inside. I would tell anyone, if you have enough money for three meals a day and you're not too busy, you ought to do something for others.

Godspeed, Mrs. Astor.