The flags at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are flying at half-mast today. Brooke Astor has died at age 105, taking with her, perhaps, the final bit of New York City’s so-called Gilded Age of elegance and privilege. Known for the last four decades as the “leading lady” of high society, the unofficial First Lady of NYC, Ms. Astor used the money she inherited from her third husband, Vincent Astor (who inherited his millions when his father went down with the Titanic), to fund numerous charities, including the New York Public Library, the Lighthouse For The Blind, and the Fresh Air Fund – all while playing grand dame hostess to the most exclusive events of the last half of the 20th century. Lesser known is Astor’s key role in Jacqueline Onassis’ triumph in preserving Grand Central Terminal. By the time Astor dissolved her foundation in 1997, she had donated almost $200M to New York City charities. In 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her philanthropy.
While many of “the ladies who lunch”, whether idle rich or business baronesses, are rightfully regarded as opportunistic, even cruel (see: Leona Helmsley), by all accounts Brooke Astor was gracious, warm, and above all, generous. Sadly, Ms. Astor’s final years were wrought with accusations of elder abuse at the hands of her son, an elderly 81 himself, and in 2006 she was successfully removed from his guardianship by her grandson. I imagine that this evening, more than a few gay men in Manhattan will be tipping a cocktail to her memory.