08/24/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
The perfectly coiffed dowager, impeccable in a crisply cut suit with matching hat and gloves, steps from her limo to greet a crowd of curbside admirers. The Queen Mother? No. But as a symbol of breeding and beneficence, philanthropist Brooke Astor, the undisputed doyenne of New York City's high society, is perhaps America's nearest equivalent.
Astor arrived at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater one afternoon last year to inspect the renovation of its aging facade, a project made possible by her financial support. "This is very nice," she said approvingly—until she noticed the sad state of the building's interior. "Oh, my goodness!" New York Landmarks Conservancy president Peg Breen recalls Astor's declaring. "This is shabby! This needs help!"
And help—in the form of an additional $200,000 from the Vincent Astor Foundation, named for Brooke's late husband—was soon on the way. For nearly 40 years, Brooke Astor, who recently turned 96, has been New York City's Lady Bountiful, distributing nearly $200 million to a wide variety of local causes. She insists on personally visiting each applicant for the foundation's largesse—and always dresses her best. "People expect to see Mrs. Astor," she has said, "and I don't intend to disappoint them."
Says Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, one of Astor's pet causes: "She has touched the lives of countless people, and she has done it with impeccable style." But there is sad news from the Astor Foundation for the worthy organizations that have come to rely on it. Astor announced last December that she planned to retire from philanthropy, and now—with a final $25 million giving spree to such beneficiaries as Manhattan's Pierpont Morgan Library, the Bronx Zoo (which once named a baby elephant after her) and a playground in Queens—she has emptied the foundation's coffers. "The money was made in New York, so I've given it back to New York," she says in the vaguely British accent characteristic of East Coast aristocrats of a certain age. Though reluctant to retire, she feels that at 96, she needs some time for herself.
Astor's generosity has made her a "have" whom "have-nots" can admire. Born Roberta Brooke Russell in Portsmouth, N.H., she was educated in Beijing (she still speaks some Chinese, as well as Italian and French), Santo Domingo and—while her father, a career officer who would become Commandant of the Marine Corps, was posted in Washington, D.C.—at Miss Madeira's School. Bookish as a girl, Astor, who started keeping a journal at age 7, has published two novels and a pair of memoirs. She reviewed books for Vogue in the '20s and '30s, was later an editor at House & Garden and still contributes poems to The New Yorker.
But it was at the old-fashioned art of marrying well—after one spectacular misalliance—that Astor ultimately excelled. Her first husband, whom she met when she was almost 16 at a Princeton University prom and married the following year, was a "flagrantly unfaithful" drunk, she once wrote, who broke her jaw when she was six months pregnant with her only child, retired diplomat Anthony Marshall, now 74. Divorced in 1930, Astor wed stockbroker Charles Marshall (a close pal of songwriter Cole Porter), with whom she says she spent 20 blissful years until he died in her arms on Thanksgiving Day 1952.
Astor's rise to social prominence was sealed by her 1953 marriage to Vincent Astor, the then recently divorced heir to a vast real estate fortune, whose name was synonymous with New York society. (In the late 1800s, the city's elite was referred to as the Four Hundred—meaning the 400 guests who could fit into the ballroom of his grandmother's Fifth Avenue mansion.) Before his death in 1959, Vincent, whose father had died on the Titanic (Vincent wasn't aboard), tapped Brooke to administer his $60 million charitable foundation. "You are going to have a hell of a lot of fun running it, Pookie," he told her. He also left her four homes, a $60 million trust and $2 million for pocket money.
It was his widow's idea, though, to spend the foundation's money in New York, where she is widely credited with reviving the city's financially strapped public library system. Her $10 million gift in 1985 set an example for other socially prominent New Yorkers. Says fashion designer Bill Blass, who donated $10 million himself: "She was the inspiration for us all." Astor has also supported the city's public school libraries and in 1980 donated $3 million to import a team of 27 Chinese artisans who meticulously reproduced the serene courtyard garden of a Ming dynasty scholar at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art. But one of the gifts of which she is most proud, according to Linda Gillies, director of the Astor Foundation, came after Astor visited the bare apartments of two Queens families who had successfully moved from homelessness to private housing but couldn't afford furniture. "How can you build a new life if you have nothing to sit on?" Astor asked Gillies. The result: the Furnish A Future program, which since 1990 has helped 11,500 formerly destitute families furnish new quarters. "After Vincent died," she told The New York Times Magazine in 1984, "I re-created myself. Now I feel I've become a public monument."
Friends have trouble picturing a quiet retirement for Astor, who once told one of them, "It's important to do for others, but it's important to have a good life and enjoy yourself." Having recovered from a broken hip suffered in a June fall, she has, as usual, left her Park Avenue apartment to summer at her oceanside home in Maine. Beyond that, her agenda is open. "I have a great many friends and relatives in England, and I'd like to go over there," says Astor, who favors Cutty Sark scotch and as recently as 1993 jetted to London and back on the Concorde just to attend a party. "And I've never been to Russia."
Wherever she goes—often accompanied by her schnauzer Maisie and two dachshunds, Boysie and Girlsie—she is sure to make an impression. "Nobody," says Peg Breen, "forgets meeting Mrs. Astor."
Nancy Matsumoto in New York City