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Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe, the bestselling authors ofreturn with a story of another American dynasty.
“Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune” (published September 19 by HarperCollins) traces the family fortune started by John Jacob Astor, one of the richest Americans of all time, and explores how the Astors left their mark on life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss Kelefa Sanneh’s interview with Anderson Cooper on “CBS News Sunday Morning” September 17th!
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After Mrs. Astor, there was chaos.
—Frederick Townsend Martin
My first thought when I met Brooke Astor was, Who is this very small lady in a very large coat? I was thirteen and it wasn’t the first time I asked myself such a question when I was introduced to someone by my mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. I only knew the name “Astor” because of the Astor Place subway station in the East Village and the barbershop nearby called Astor Hair where the cool kids from my school liked to go. I did not know that “Astor” was the name of a family whose fortune began with beaver furs; that the pearls Brooke Astor wore around her neck and the gold glittering on her earlobes, the shiny coat over her shoulders, even the food she was putting in her mouth would have been paid for—if you traced it back far enough. – by the bloody business of removing fur skins from dead beavers, otters and other small animals. I’m pretty sure the coat she was wearing that day was sable.
It was 1981 and I was having lunch at Mortimer’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with my mother and Carter, my brother, when Mrs. Astor swept in. My father had died three years before, and my mother often took us to places she would otherwise have gone with him: Broadway plays, Elaine for a late-night dinner, Café Carlyle to hear Bobby Short sing Cole Porter. I enjoyed hanging out with my mom. It was like having a front-row seat to a never-ending performance filled with fascinating and often strange characters you actually got to interact with. And she didn’t take that world too seriously – that was part of the fun of going out with her. We all made mental notes about things people said or did and then giggled about it together afterwards. I was probably the only thirteen-year-old in New York who did impersonations of society figures like Jerry Zipkin and Nan Kempner to make her mother laugh.
We ate chicken nuggets and burgers at Mortimer’s that day, but the food was second to none. Mortimer’s, at the corner of Seventy-Fifth and Lexington, was to New York society what Delmonico’s or Sherry’s had been a century before, that is, when society ladies allowed themselves to be seen dining in restaurants. The original Mrs. Astor, Caroline Astor, who defined and dominated New York society during the Gilded Age, did not eat in a restaurant until almost the end of her life, in 1908, when she finally bowed to the liberalizing changes of the twentieth century . century and set foot in Sherry’s when it was on Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Seventh Street. Her arrival was an “event” that lit up gossip pages all over town. Less than eighty years later, Mortimer was the scene of many such “events.” It was the see-and-be-seen watering hole for the coolest names in bold print on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “Mortimer’s is the best show in New York. If you can get a table,” wrote Dominick Dunne in Vanity Fair, before warning: “But don’t count on getting a table.”
Mrs. Astor, of course, had no such concerns. Her table was waiting for her, right next to ours. Before she sat down that day in 1981, she paused at our table and said something like “Hello, Gloria. Nice to see you. What handsome young men you have here” – that sort of thing.
Carter and I stood and took turns shaking her gloved hand. We had practiced a lot at being well-behaved young men who made a good impression when we were out with our mother. The conversation was short, which was probably for the best. I could tell at once that my mother did not like Mrs. Astor.
Later, when I asked her why not, she said, “She just never took me” – which was classic Gloria. My mother rarely said bad things about people, but when she did, she had her own lexicon. “Terrible” was her harshest criticism, usually reserved for someone who was very demanding or rich and obsessed with money. “Vincent Astor was terrible,” she later told me, speaking of Brooke’s third husband, whose name and fortune Brooke had inherited after five and a half often miserable years of marriage. I have since learned while researching this book that almost everyone who knew Vincent described him the same way.
So when my mom said that Brooke Astor “just never grabbed her,” I knew exactly what she meant. I suspect that someone walking down Lexington Avenue that afternoon and looking through Mortimer’s large picture window might have been fascinated to see Gloria Vanderbilt, then fifty-seven years old, and seventy-nine-year-old Brooke Astor, the last two examples of the Gilded Age New York, dining shoulder to shoulder. Had iPhones existed back then, a passerby might even have taken a picture and posted it on Instagram. #iconic. Their reasonable assumption would have been that these high-profile women had much in common beyond glittering surnames: elegant fashion, strong friends and well-decorated homes. My mother had actually lived for several years in the same penthouse at 10 Gracie Square that Mrs. Astor had once lived in, but in most ways the two women could not have been more different. Despite the name “Vanderbilt” (which she used only in professional settings) and all that came with it, Gloria had little interest in the social world in which Brooke Astor lived, ruled and reveled.
Although my mother also found herself in serious financial trouble at times, she would never have married a man like Vincent Astor for his money that Brooke had. My mother did not attend gala benefits or play canasta or gossip with other ladies and gentlemen having lunch. She could have chosen that life; she was expected to—but she didn’t. She rejected it early, driven by a relentless desire to prove her worth, to make something of herself. She was an artist at heart, a painter and writer, and she preferred to surround herself with creative people, people who were manufacture thing.
My mother’s longtime friend Ben Brantley, who closely followed the comings and goings of society in New York as a writer on W Magazine before he became theater critic for the New York Times, recently remarked to me, “I think there was a rudimentary part of Gloria that felt they disapproved of her as a maverick. Gloria was instinctively repulsed by anything that smelled of hierarchy, with its codes. of judgment.” I think he is right. Like Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt a century before, Brooke and Gloria only looked alike if you didn’t know either of them very well.
Excerpt from “Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune” by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe. Copyright © 2023 by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe. Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins.
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