01 September 2006

What Ever Happened to Class?

Splendid squalor is always news. Various sources report on a lawsuit in New York that accuses a son of neglecting his mother. That’s not news, sadly. What makes it newsworthy is who is supposedly neglecting whom. Anthony Marshall, the son, is accused of neglecting Brooke Astor his mother. Brooke is the widow of Vincent Astor, the last of the line that goes back to John Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire.

You can read the history of the
Astors in lots of places. What matters here is that Brooke, though she married into the family, changed their reputation from one of fabulous but indifferent wealth to fabulous charitable wealth. According to the NYTimes, she inherited $120,000,000 in 1959 when her husband died. (Somewhere north of a $1 billion in current dollars no doubt) and over the next forty years gave away over $200 million (compound interest is a great thing, as Ben Franklin noted.)

The lawsuit (brought by Marshall's own son and Brooke’s grandson - which makes this real not just soap opera) says that Anthony has so neglected his mother that she, now 104, is barely fed and clothed. Her Park Ave duplex apartment is decaying around her. He, Anthony, on other hand is draining her bank accounts for personal gain. Exactly the sort of story Americans love to hear.

Why am I talking about this?

Because I met Mrs. Astor.

Back in 1995, my previous church was doing extensive repairs. It is very old, and thus affected by historic codes and laws. That makes repairs more expensive. Way more expensive. So the church applied to various foundations for assistance, including Mrs. Astor’s. One of the rules of her charity was that she needed to see each project she might support.

One day, pre-arranged and very quietly, her limousine pulled up in front of the church, its façade completely shrouded in scaffolding. Her driver opened the door and a very small thin woman in a wide brimmed had slowly emerged. She was then 92, mind you, and our church had a steep set of brownstone steps. She wanted to go inside. So she took my arm and we lowly mounted the steps. She then walked through the outer vestibule with its paintings of predecessors and into the sanctuary which is dominated by a tall neo-gothic pulpit shaped like itself like a cathedral façade, and then she sat down in one of the ancient pews.

There were only three of us there, a church member and Ms. Astor and I. She sat and looked and asked a few questions. Her face was quite genial and serene. After about five minutes (probably less) she began to get up and I escorted her back to her car.

We got the grant, which was only $25,000 but that was as much as she ever gave to building projects. But ever after, as I read about society balls and events, I enjoyed seeing her and reading about how she was the presiding doyenne of New York Society. I may not have met the mayor or the governor or the celebrities that are as thick as thieves in that town. But I did meet Mrs. Astor.

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