Birthdays could be a dilemma, for Brooke Astor loathed acknowledging her age but did love a good party. Vartan Gregorian had orchestrated one celebration for her and instructed the guests not to mention her age. But his warning did not deter Henry Kissinger, who got up and gave a toast, saying, “For an 80-year-old woman, you look great.” Gregorian recalls the upset look on Mrs. Astor’s face, saying, “She didn’t like that. Because in many ways she was ageless.”
Ten years later, on her 90th, she had allowed the Citizen Committee for New York City, which she had helped launch with an early donation of $50,000, to hold a fundraiser in her honor. The vast Seventh Regiment Armory was transformed into a rose-covered gazebo and confetti was shot out of a cannon, raining down on the more than 1,500 revelers, including Jacqueline Onassis and Mayor David Dinkins. The entertainment included three musical groups: the Peter Duchin Orchestra, the Marine Corps Band (in honor of her father, the general), and the Illinois Jacquet Big Band. “She had a ball that night,” says Oz Elliott, the former Newsweek editor, who was then president of the Citizens Committee. Mrs. Astor loved to foxtrot, and even at 90 she danced nearly all night.
Yet she also let her mask slip that evening, revealing her vulnerability in a five-minute videotaped interview that was broadcast at the event. Speaking about a recent dream, Mrs. Astor described a nighttime vision in which her long-dead grandmother, so gaunt as to be initially unrecognizable, materialized on the street. “I ran back and threw my arms around her,” Brooke recalled. “She pushed me off. I said, ‘Granny, I didn’t recognize you, you were so thin.’ She said, ‘Do you know why? Because the dead live off the thoughts of the living. And nobody is thinking of me.’ ” It was an odd story to evoke at this celebration of her life, but at 90, Brooke was worrying about her legacy and wondering how or if she would be remembered.
The New York Times treated Brooke Astor’s birthdays with the civic reverence granted to holidays on which alternate-side-of-the-street parking is suspended. Every year the event was commemorated with a story or a photograph. “I don’t feel old. I can walk as fast as anybody. I got a new driving license this year,” Brooke told the Times at age 90. “I don’t hear as well as I used to, have to wear a hearing aid, which I hate.” She went on to add, “But I can’t sit there with an open mouth when people are telling me some dreadfully wonderful story.”
Even in gala-fatigued New York, Brooke’s 90th birthday party was a roaring social success, and it netted $892,741 besides. The Citizens Committee was eager to replicate the evening and celebrate 100 years of Mrs. Astor’s benevolent rule. “I went to Brooke, and she semi-agreed,” recalls Elliott. The gossip columnist Liz Smith even ran a save-the-date item in her column on June 12, 2001, promising that a Broadway theater had been booked and Shakespearean actors would perform in honor of Mrs. Astor’s centennial. “Then it got more iffy and Brooke backed out,” says Elliott. She sent a note to her friend George Trescher, the public relations mastermind who had burnished her reputation and served as her social gatekeeper. Although Trescher died in June 2003 of emphysema, his second-in-command, Vincent Stefan, can still recite parts of Mrs. Astor’s candid note from memory: “I’m old and I’m tired. I would like this birthday to be fun for me, instead of being on display for some organization.”
Excerpted from Mrs. Astor Regrets by Meryl Gordon, copyright © 2008 by Meryl Gordon. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.