Brooke Astor: Cherished Remainders of a Luxe Life
IN her heyday as the bejeweled empress of New York philanthropy, Brooke Astor entertained presidents, first ladies and a potpourri of pooh-bahs and literati at her elegant 14-room duplex on Park Avenue. And when she died on Aug. 13, 2007, at Holly Hill, her estate in Westchester County, at 105, she left behind two households’ worth of cherished possessions, including Qing dynasty lacquer furniture, a jade-and-diamond Cartier clock and dozens of 19th-century dog portraits.
Five years later, after a corrosive battle over her $130 million estate, Sotheby’s will auction 901 lots of furnishings, decorative art, fine art and jewelry on Sept. 24 and 25, to support causes Mrs. Astor championed during her life, like the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Historic Hudson Valley and the Animal Medical Center.
The auction follows a maelstrom of litigation that began in 2006, when her grandson Philip C. Marshall filed a lawsuit accusing his father, Anthony D. Marshall, her only son, of mishandling her finances and mistreating her. That dispute led to the father’s conviction in 2009 on charges of defrauding and stealing tens of millions of dollars from his mother, who was suffering from dementia. (Mr. Marshall, now 88, has appealed the verdict.)
The lavishly illustrated Sotheby’s catalog offers a glimpse of the genteel splendor in which Mrs. Astor lived at Holly Hill and at 778 Park Avenue, and sets the scene for the alleged depredations of her twilight years.
A stylish dresser and irrepressible flirt, Mrs. Astor loved elegant design with a touch of whimsy, and for several years worked as an editor at House & Garden. Later, as the wealthy widow of Vincent Astor, Mrs. Astor hired her friend the formidable decorator Sister Parish, who excelled at imbuing upper-class clients’ homes with impeccable taste, to design her Park Avenue apartment. Kenneth Jay Lane, another friend, observed: “It was an absolutely charming apartment. Everything was perfection. It wasn’t pretentious, just charming and comfortable.”
For the library, Mrs. Astor turned to Albert Hadley, Mrs. Parish’s business partner, who created one of the most admired interiors of the 20th century: a red-lacquered, brass-trimmed sanctuary that reflected Mrs. Astor’s starring role in reviving the fortunes of the New York Public Library. The room showcased leather-bound books that had belonged to Mr. Astor, the real-estate tycoon to whom she was married for more than five years before his death in 1959. And amid the chintz and gilded Buddhas, it was festooned with animal figures, a fanciful circus that included a carved-ivory Indian elephant studded with rubies and emeralds from Van Cleef & Arpels (lot 82, $6,000 to $8,000) and a Chinese gilt-bronze figure of a recumbent buffalo (part of lot 44, $2,000 to $3,000).
As the art historian John Richardson, a frequent guest of Mrs. Astor’s, noted, “Brooke was above all a great animal lover.”
Devoted to her dachshunds, Boysie and Girlsie, she took playful delight in sharing her love of dogs in particular.
Mr. Lane recalled, “I got the most marvelous gift from Brooke once: this little box arrived at my office and in it was a little Chinese jade dog. It came with a note saying, ‘Kenneth, it’s time you had a dog.’ ”
For nearly a quarter-century, beginning in the mid-70s, invitations to dine at Mrs. Astor’s Park Avenue apartment were among the most sought-after in New York. Acceptance into her circle of friends conferred the glow of social desirability and the privilege of mingling with the leading writers, politicians and philanthropists of the day. Barbara Walters, a close friend, remembered that “from the moment you came in, there was a sense of gaiety.”
“She was a great hostess, fun and lively,” she added.
After dining on Astor plates and monogrammed silver, guests would repair to the drawing room for coffee, where they could sit on Louis XV chairs festooned with floral chintz (lot 122, a set of four, estimated to fetch $12,000 to $18,000), amid old master drawings by Tiepolo and Boucher, and a Canaletto that once belonged to the Duc de Talleyrand (lot 143, $300,000 to $500,000).
Mrs. Astor’s weekend retreat, Holly Hill, provided a more informal setting for intimate lunches with friends who would drive out from the city, Ms. Walters recalled. “Her life in New York was fairly hectic,” Ms. Walters said. “She was out every day for lunch and out almost every night. Holly Hill was a place to relax.”
The stairwell there was bedecked with paintings of dogs, mostly 19th-century, that bounded along an upstairs hallway as well. William Secord, a New York dealer who specializes in dog paintings, credited Mrs. Astor with helping to create a society trend of collecting those portraits, a Victorian pastime that had fallen out of fashion. An essay she wrote in 1982 for Architectural Digest, “Brooke Astor on the Pleasures of Collecting,” included several photographs of the stairwell. And to Mr. Secord’s delight, she agreed to write a foreword to his 1992 book, “Dog Painting 1840-1940: A Social History of the Dog in Art.”
“She was certainly a star in my firmament,” he said. “Her imprimatur made an incredible difference in collecting.”
Mrs. Astor was also a prodigious accumulator of teapots: there are 46 from her collection in the Sotheby’s sale. In addition to more conventional shapes, there is a pair of Qing dynasty cockerels (lot 470, $8,000 to $12,000), a 19th-century cabbage-form vessel with a snake spout and handle (included in lot 502, $9,000 to $15,000), a Staffordshire glazed stoneware squirrel teapot (lot 247, $4,000 to $6,000) and a matching camel (lot 248, $2,000 to $3,000).
And they were not merely decorative, noted Christopher Ely, her butler. “Mrs. Astor drank tea every afternoon,” said Mr. Ely, a former Buckingham Palace footman. “I used to give her English Breakfast and Earl Grey.”
FRIENDS of Mrs. Astor’s who visited in later years sometimes found themselves having to decline gifts from a bewildered lady who had trouble remembering their names. John N. Hart Jr., a film and theater producer, recalled that on one visit to Holly Hill, he paused to admire a Cecil Beaton watercolor, “Portrait of Brooke Astor,” that hung in her bedroom (lot 707, $2,000 to $4,000).
“She’s asked me if I wanted it,” Mr. Hart said. “But at that point, no way.”
Mr. Marshall seems not to have shared the same compunction about his mother’s possessions. After he fired Mr. Ely in 2005, the concerned butler kept in touch with her nurses and staff to check on Mrs. Astor’s condition, and learned that the Marshalls had been removing antiques, silver and other valuables from Holly Hill without her consent.
He took his concerns to her grandson, who filed the lawsuit requesting that his father be removed as Mrs. Astor’s legal guardian and replaced by her closest friend, Annette de la Renta, and JPMorgan Chase & Company as co-guardians. When the court appointed them, Mrs. de la Renta rehired Mr. Ely as the butler at Holly Hill. On his return in July 2006, he was astonished to see how much was missing.
“Tony basically looted Holly Hill after I was fired,” Mr. Ely said. “I was gobsmacked to see how much had gone.”
In October 2006, in a civil settlement, Mr. Marshall and his wife, Charlene, were required to return more than $11 million in assets, including cash, jewelry and art, to Mrs. Astor’s estate. And on March 28, 2012, under the terms of a settlement announced by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, Mr. Marshall relinquished his rights to furniture, household effects and books he had inherited from his mother.
A selection of those items, along with fine art and jewelry that Mrs. Astor had earmarked for charity, will be available at the Sotheby’s auction.
David Rockefeller, 97, a longtime friend of Mrs. Astor, said he welcomed the prospect of the coming sale.
“I couldn’t be happier that the sale of these items will benefit several of the wonderful charities to which she devoted her life’s work and about which she cared so passionately,” Mr. Rockefeller said.