April 20, 2019
Obituaries

N.Y. philanthropist Brooke Astor dies Heiress, 105, summered at MDI estate

After a tumultuous year that saw her family squabbling over her care and her riches, longtime Mount Desert Island summer resident Brooke Astor died Monday afternoon.

The heir to the Astor family fortune, who famously gave away $200 million to mostly New York City institutions but also was known for her local largess on Mount Desert Island, was 105 years old.

“She’s one in a million,” said Alicia Johnson, a former executive housekeeper at Astor’s estate in the village of Northeast Harbor. “There’s no one else like her.”

Astor died of pneumonia at her estate in suburban New York City, according to family attorney Kenneth Warner.

For more than 40 years, Astor was regarded as the grande dame of New York high society as she gave away millions of dollars to institutions such as the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History, to name a few.

In Maine, where she summered for decades at her oceanfront Cove End property, recipients of her charitable donations included, among others, Maine Community Foundation, College of the Atlantic and Northeast Harbor Library.

“Money is like manure, it should be spread around,” was the oft-quoted motto of Astor, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Robert Pyle, director of the Northeast Harbor Library, estimated Monday that Astor gave the organization a quarter of a million dollars over several decades and served on the library’s board for more than 25 years.

But the reason Astor relished her seasonal retreat was not that it accorded her another way to exercise her wealth and influence, Pyle said. She, like other famous or wealthy people who summer in Maine, could walk down the street without fear of being accosted and could rub elbows with different strata of society.

“She sought and received no special treatment,” Pyle said. “Everyone who knew who she was would wave to her as they did to any other neighbor.”

For much of the past year, however, public attention on Astor has focused on a family dispute about her care.

Astor’s grandson Philip Marshall, 54, filed suit last summer against his father, Anthony Marshall, accusing him of neglecting Astor’s care and pocketing her money for the benefit of himself and his wife, former Mount Desert resident Charlene Marshall.

Anthony Marshall, 83, reportedly is named in her will as the primary heir of her $130 million fortune – including her $6 million, 7-acre Cove End estate overlooking the Northeast Harbor Fleet yacht club – but exactly how her holdings will be parceled out is yet to be determined.

Charlene Marshall, who divorced a local Episcopal priest two years before marrying Anthony Marshall in 1992, had been given ownership of the Cove End estate by her husband in 2003 as he managed his mother’s affairs.

Last fall, she was required to cede Cove End back to her husband as part of a court-ordered settlement that made Annette de la Renta, wife of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, and the bank JP Morgan Chase guardians of Astor’s well-being and finances.

As part of the settlement, Anthony and Charlene Marshall were ordered to return paintings, family silver, jewelry and a 10-carat diamond ring they had given themselves from Astor’s estate, according to New York media reports.

The son and grandson also agreed that any more legal wrangling, such as whether amendments to Astor’s will are legitimate, would be postponed until after her death.

Among the more scandalous accusations Philip Marshall made against his father was that Astor slept on a dirty couch in a shabby nightgown to get away from the cold in the bedroom of her Park Avenue residence in New York City.

His father “has enriched himself at the expense of my grandmother,” Philip wrote in his complaint, while Astor was denied physical comforts and precautions and survived on a diet of pureed peas and oatmeal.

De la Renta, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller – also a longtime summer resident of Mount Desert – each filed court affidavits last year in support of Philip Marshall’s concerns about his grandmother.

But despite the tabloid fodder that has dominated recent media reports about Astor, local residents have chosen to reflect on the memories they have of their famous seasonal neighbor. Astor, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, had not been to Maine for several years as her health had declined.

“She was an icon and a legend in town,” Rick Savage, a former local selectman, said Monday. “She will be missed.”

Savage runs a charter boat service and often took Astor and her friends out for picnics on the water. They would find an island, set anchor, row ashore and for lunch would cook lobsters in a pot set on an open fire.

“I didn’t call her Brooke,” Savage said. “I called her Mrs. Astor. But she knew me and my family.”

Astor understood that there needed to be a vibrant, year-round community life in Northeast Harbor in order for the summer elite to have a place to come to, Savage said, which prompted her to give money to programs at the library and the local elementary school. She was sincere in her interest in local people, he said, but knew it was up to local people to determine how to run the town.

“She made a positive impact on our community,” Savage said. “She respected what we stood for and supported it.”

Johnson, the former housekeeper, said she remembers being the only staff member on duty at Cove End one summer day when Astor decided to return to New York City to pick up one of her beloved dogs from the veterinarian’s office.

She told Johnson to find her a jet.

“She wanted to fly to New York that morning,” Johnson said. “I used every resource I had, but I found one.”

Astor flew to New York, Johnson said, and went straight from the airport to retrieve the dog from the vet. She then returned to the airport and flew back to Mount Desert Island that night.

Though Astor had high standards and expectations, Johnson said, she also was rewarding. She occasionally threw cocktail parties for local contractors and business owners whose services she used and was known from time to time for making her employees her guests by taking them out for lunch or dinner, Johnson said.

“She’d take us out to the Jordan Pond House,” Johnson said. “She was very giving. She wanted to make sure she gave to the staff.”

Astor would change wardrobes upon arriving in Maine, switching from her city attire to her “country” garb, according to Johnson.

But there was no mistaking who she was as she walked down the street to the local post office with her two small dogs.

“She shopped at every store in town,” Johnson said. “She’d go into a store and say, ‘Do you know who I am? I’m Mrs. Astor.'”

Brooke Astor was born March 30, 1902, in Portsmouth, N.H. She inherited the family wealth when her third and final husband, Vincent Astor, died in 1959.

Vincent Astor was the great-great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, a native German who made a fortune in the late 1700s in the American fur trade and in real estate. John Jacob Astor is said to have been the first millionaire in the United States.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Correction: Because of a production error in some editions, part of the article on the death of Brooke Astor that appeared on Page B6 in Tuesday’s paper was illegible. Here is the segment in its entirety:
Last fall, she was required to cede Cove End back to her husband as part of a court-ordered settlement that made Annette de la Renta, wife of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, and the bank JP Morgan Chase guardians of Astor’s well-being and finances.
As part of the settlement, Anthony and Charlene Marshall were ordered to return paintings, family silver, jewelry and a 10-carat diamond ring they had given themselves from Astor’s estate, according to New York media reports.

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