Carrying Mrs. Astor coffin down the stone steps of Saint Thomas Church. Photo: JH.
They held the funeral service for Brooke Astor last Friday afternoon at St. Thomas Church, an Episcopal parish, located on the northwest corner of 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. The church was founded by William Backhouse Astor, great-grandfather of Mrs. Astor’s late husband Vincent.
There was misinformation passed around and published in the days leading up to the funeral, all stemming from the court battles over Mrs. Astor’s care and her son’s management of it. It was said that certain friends of Mrs. Astor, including Annette (Mrs. Oscar) de la Renta, Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, had not been invited to “join the family” at the funeral, despite their being on Mrs. Astor’s original list. It was also reported that Martha Stewart, who was not an old friend, had been invited, as well as Whoopi Goldberg who was a friend and neighbor of Charlene and Anthony Marshall, Mrs. Astor’s son and daughter-in-law. This turned out to be not-true, Stewart, Goldberg et al notwithstanding. The guest list which had been planned by Mrs. Astor herself many years before was still in effect. Her close friends, including the aforementioned, were invited. Mr. Marshall also personally invited Mr. Rockefeller to participate in the service, which he agreed to do.
Even before it went to court the first time, the stories were swirling about Mrs. Astor being a victim of elder abuse by her son. Stories making the rounds painted an almost Dickensian picture of the helpless centenarian philanthropist at the whim of a greedy son and daughter-in-law. It is a classic story, true or not, and an easy one for the media to pursue, true or not.
Also at the center of this controversy was Mrs. Astor’s devoted friend, Mrs. de la Renta who recruited Dr. Kissinger and Mr. Rockefeller to help her wrest control of Mrs. Astor’s care from the son. Because Mrs. Astor was by then in a seriously failing state of mind, all of this went on without her knowledge. The courts then determined that Mr. had not been abusive or negligent in caring for his mother. Nevertheless, because of questions about Mr. Marshall’s management of Mrs. Astor’s estate, Mrs. de la Renta replaced him as legal guardian of his mother.
The scene outside St. Thomas Church.
Throughout this ordeal, Mrs. Astor had eleven nurses (on different shifts) and six in household staff, with frequent attendance by her doctors. When Mrs. de la Renta took over from Mr. Marshall, the staff’s salaries were said to have been trebled. However the care for Mrs. Astor might have been improved, the last two years of the woman’s life were overtaken by a relentless degeneration of mind and body that rendered her no more than an invalid with only brief moments of mentality. The poor woman had outlived her self.
At St. Thomas’ on Friday afternoon, although the service was open to the public, there was enough security at the church entrance to scare off anybody who wasn’t invited or friends of the family.
Mayor Bloomberg was the only speaker listed on the program besides St. Thomas’ rector, Reverend Andrew Mead. In his remarks, the mayor especially acknowledged Mrs. de la Renta’s friendship and caring for Mrs. Astor. There was a perceived lack of equal acknowledgement for Mr. Marshall and his lifetime (he’s 83) devotion to his mother. Then David Rockefeller took his turn to speak briefly of his late friend. He too made a special acknowledgement to Mrs. de la Renta, and what also seemed to others in the congregation to be a lack of acknowledgement of Mr. Marshall.
Then Anthony Marshall read a prose poem written by his mother. It was her original plan that this poem be read at her funeral by one of three particular friends, but she had outlived all of them. Mr. Marshall’s time at the podium appeared to be ignored by many of Mrs. Astor’s friends who talked among themselves as he was speaking. He finished by saying that New York had lost a great lady but he had lost his mother. His voice was breaking and his grief was visible. In the pew, his wife stifled her sobs.
Funerals of public persons, celebrities, actors are an entertainment attraction these days. Maybe it was always thus. In the sanctuary of St. Thomas’ Church on Friday afternoon, there were two funerals, or so it did seem to many onlookers. One for the son and his mother, and another for his mother and her friends.
After the service, there was a reception at the posh and WASPy Colony Club on 63rd Street and Park Avenue. The Colony Club was the first woman’s private club here in New York. Many of its founding members were also members of St. Thomas’ Church. It has maintained its “old world” stuffiness in a very relaxed and genteel way and is very popular. Members use the club for all kinds of social activities, including wedding receptions, engagements, special dinners and luncheons, and receptions after funerals.
Some of the guests included Charlie Rose, Whoopi Goldberg, Mayor Bloomberg, Commissioner Kelly, former Mayor Dinkins, Paul LeClerc, Gregory Long, Randy Bourscheidt, all visible in this photo.
Of the hundreds who attended the service at St. Thomas’ ten blocks south, only about 60 showed up at the reception hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Marshall. The Marines, who were the pallbearers were there. And Linda Gilles, Mrs. Astor’s executive assistant who ran the Foundation; and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as Mrs. Astor’s attending doctors and nurses and the staff. But few, if any, of the "special friends," came to pay their respects, as they say.
A number of people at the church that day were aware that legal proceedings about Mrs. Astor’s “competence” were about to begin again. Indeed at the very moment her son kept vigil at his mother’s bedside, in another part of the forest lawyers were setting out papers to be signed, inaugurating these proceedings. It will be another chapter which will call into question the son’s loyalty to his mother.
No one seems to know quite how this started, although Mrs. Astor’s grandson who alerted Mrs. de la Renta evidently remembers when he was first alarmed. However, there is also the little matter of the house in Maine which some believe is the straw that broke the camel’s back in this mess. It was long believed by members of the family that the house would one day pass on to Mrs. Astor’s grandsons, Mr. Marshall’s sons. However, a few months after Mrs. Astor signed it over to her son several years ago, he then signed it over to his wife Charlene. These matters are classic in the annals of inheritance, as any estate lawyer will tell you. Issues of competence and fraud soon follow, arising from fact or imagination, and burgeoning lawyers fees.
Charlene and Anthony Marshall speaking to The Reverend John Andrews, Rector Emeritus of Saint Thomas Church. The Reverend Andrew Mead, the Rector of Saint Thomas Church, is standing on the left in the gold cope.
The issue of Mrs. Astor’s competence will not be so easy to decide. Many of us who had been in her company for a number of years long ago began to see her mind failing. It was gradual and sometimes more noticeable than other times, but it was happening. The last time I saw her, several years ago, at a dinner at The New York Public Library, she got up to speak and told the same anecdote twice, in sequence. Everyone in the room laughed and applauded (which she loved and basked in charmingly) and acted as if it hadn’t happened. After all, she was a very old woman whose mobility bespoke her characteristic pluckiness.
I’ve been told that at the time she made or agreed to make changes in her will a few years ago, a time during which her competence is being questioned, she was also dispensing gifts, such as valuable pieces of jewelry, to special friends. She evidently kept a detailed record of these gifts, at the time of the giving. This does not bear witness to incompetence.
Whatever the outcome, the tragedy has already been cast. Where there’s a will there’s a war, doubt it not. Those who’ve known Anthony Marshall for many many years never called into question his devotion to his mother under any circumstances, (nor his wife’s devotion to him). And not all the circumstances were enviable. Mother was a strong personality. Son followed her directions and instructions dutifully despite the fact that Mother was not always, even by her own admission, motherly.
There was a very telling moment in the mid-1950s during Mother’s brief (five and half years) marriage to Vincent Astor. The son, then about thirty, had gone to spend a weekend with his mother and stepfather at the Astor estate in Rhinebeck. One morning while visiting his mother while she was having breakfast in bed, Vincent came in. Shocked and angered by Anthony’s presence, he wanted to know what “that man” (the son) was doing in Brooke’s bedroom. In his garbled fury Vincent Astor ordered Anthony Marshall out of his house, forbidding him to ever to return. He then ordered Brooke to never speak to “that man” (her son) again, or she’d “be out too.” And so the son left immediately, and the mother never spoke to him “again” -- that being a couple years, after which, fortunately for everybody else, Vincent died, and mother and son were reunited.
JH's account ...
Showed up outside St. Thomas church at 3:00 PM on the dot, Friday afternoon, after agreeing with DPC that the procession of family members, friends, politicians, would soon descend the steep steps of St. Thomas’ at around that time (the funeral was called for 2:30 PM). I couldn’t get directly outside the church, because the NYPD had cordoned off the west side of Fifth Avenue between 53rd and 54th, except for a little area reserved for press with particular credentials. I hadn’t made the necessary arrangements to gain access to the press area, so I was on my own.
There were two areas in which to stand to get a last (or in many cases, a first) glimpse of Mrs. Astor -- the aforementioned northwest corner of 53rd and Fifth; and directly across on the east side of the Avenue between 53rd and 54th. I chose the latter because of the head-on view of the church. It was a risk due to the constant flow of traffic down Fifth Avenue, especially the herds of buses that would completely block the view of the front entrance of the church as they passed.
There were about 100 people waiting patiently with me, ranging from a group of Italian tourists, a mother and teenage daughter from Brooklyn, an elderly white women with a live house cat thrown over her shoulder, to surfer types and college kids in University of New Hampshire t-shirts, to an old batty New Yorker who was running her mouth every time someone accidentally bumped into to her.
I was under the assumption everyone was there for the same reason I was; to catch a glimpse, take a mental picture or get a tangible photograph of the last of a lady who embodied the end of an era. However, the longer we waited around, the more uninformed bystanders gathered, curious as to what was going on. So naturally they asked.
The crowd outside St. Thomas'.
The first was an Eastern European woman in her late 20s:
"What's this?" she asked.
"It's the funeral of Brooke Astor," said the cheery volunteer.
"Oh ... uh, uh ... Brooke who?"
"Who is that??"
"Brooke Astor ... the great philanthropist who married into the famous New York family."
" Oh ... ok, thanks" as she walked away.
Next, came two overweight middle-aged women from the Bronx:
"whaat's goin' on?"
The same generous citizen answered, "It's the funeral of Brooke Astor."
"Brooke Aasta? Who's that, nevuh hearda hah."
Next came a middle aged Asian woman. Once again, Brooke Astor did not elicit any reaction. In the time I was waiting, six or seven more asked, and only one had ever heard of Mrs. Astor.
At around 3:45, the front doors of St. Thomas were flung open to first a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace,” and then a group of clergymen who descended the stone steps, followed by the coffin being carried out by seven or eight pallbearers. At just that moment, an M3 bus drove by followed by an M4. Fortunately I was able to grab a quick snapshot of the men bearing the simple but robust and highly polished wood casket of Mrs. Astor to the hearse. Just as they were gently placing the coffin into the hearse, another bystander asked whose funeral it was.