08/27/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
At black-tie benefits, where she appeared impeccably dressed in Geoffrey Beene or Oscar de la Renta, socialite Brooke Astor was known for her bright conversation and healthy self-esteem ("I have never had a face-lift!" she loved to say) as well as her joy at dancing off with dashing partners decades her junior. "[Brooke] is very coquettish," her friend De la Renta once told The New York Times. "The worst thing is for her to go to a dinner and sit next to a woman. She wants to sit next to two men to flirt." All of which helped Astor rule Manhattan's triple-strand-of-pearls set for almost 50 years, mastering a calendar regularly stuffed with lunch dates, trustee meetings and gala events while defining the A List.
She died of pneumonia at age 105 on Aug. 13, at her weekend estate, Holly Hill, in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., ending a life celebrated as much for its charity work as its social diary. In 1959 she inherited a multimillion-dollar foundation from her third husband, Vincent Astor, the eldest son of capitalist John Jacob Astor IV, who died on the Titanic. She donated its funds to New York City cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library, as well as schools, zoos and housing. In all, Astor gave away about $200 million.
While vigorous well into her 90s, Astor's health deteriorated in recent years—as did her son Anthony Marshall's reputation. Her grandson Philip Marshall accused him of neglecting Astor's health care and misusing her money. Marshall denied the charges but agreed to stop managing his mother's affairs. Many expect a family battle over Astor's estate, valued at about $190 million. (Among her bequests: $2 million for public school teachers to travel abroad; $100,000 for an azalea garden in Maine; a Buddha sculpture for friend David Rockefeller; and a 367-diamond necklace for her daughter-in-law.) Still, "she lived her last days in the country; she died painlessly with grace and dignity," says Philip. "What more could anyone ask for?"