Brooke Astor: a life of giving

Brooke Astor, Episcopalian and NYC’s most gracious philanthropist, died Monday at the age of 105. According to The Rev. Paul Woodrum of Challwood Studios, when she gave money to a project, however, small, she would always go visit the people receiving it and see how it was being used.

According to the New York Times,

she had a great deal of fun giving money away as it grew over time into the hundreds of millions. With a wink and a sly smile, she liked to quote Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” saying, “Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around.”

It was Mrs. Astor who decided that because most of the Astor fortune had been made in New York real estate, it should be spent in New York, for New Yorkers. Grants supported the city’s museums and libraries, its boys’ and girls’ clubs, homes for the elderly and other institutions and programs.

She made it her duty to evaluate for herself every organization or group that sought help from the Vincent Astor Foundation. In her chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz, she traveled all over New York to visit the tenements and churches and neighborhood programs she was considering for foundation grants. Many times a welcoming lunch awaited her on paper plates and plastic folding tables set up for the occasion. She would exclaim over what she called the “delicious sauces”: deli mustard and pickle relish.

For her forays around the city, she dressed as she did when she joined the ladies who lunch at East Side bistros: a finely tailored suit or a designer dress, a hat in any weather, a cashmere coat when it was cool and, in her last years, an elegant cane, her one apparent concession to age. “If I go up to Harlem or down to Sixth Street, and I’m not dressed up or I’m not wearing my jewelry, then the people feel I’m talking down to them,” she said. “People expect to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old lady, and I don’t intend to disappoint them.”

She could talk to anyone as she made her rounds, offering encouragement to a child working at a library computer, counseling a mother about the importance of reading. To a janitor at a branch library — and she tried to visit every branch — she might give a word of thanks “for keeping this place so clean.” She was thrilled when the Bronx Zoo named a baby elephant in her honor.

Read more here and here.

Services for Mrs. Astor are to be held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 5th Ave., NYC

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