Brooke Astor died on Aug. 13 at the age of 105.
This wonderful New Yorker left instructions on how her funeral should be conducted and what hymns should be sung. The simple, austere service was held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street.
Invited guests, of which I was one, were escorted to a reserved seating area. I was seated in the front row with Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former mayor David Dinkins. There we sat like the three tenors. Also seated with us was David Rockefeller, who knew Brooke the longest and was a close personal friend. After David addressed the attendees, Mayor Bloomberg was called on to speak.
In his remarks, he likened Mrs. Astor to his own 98-year-old mother. He said they both "saw history from a perspective that few of us can share . . . They came from an era before the Internet, before television, even before Ed Koch and David Dinkins were in knee pants."
During funerals, I always find myself closing my eyes and musing over the various religious services that I have attended over the years. My first Episcopal funeral experience was in 1986 when I attended the service of former New York Gov. Averell Harriman.
My prevailing memory of that service is of a violist, center altar, playing unfamiliar music sans melodies. I left that well-attended service thinking the musical director was undoubtedly brilliant but cold in personality.
Years ago I was invited to the swearing-in ceremony of U.S. Federal District Court Judge David Trager in the Eastern District of New York. Lots of speeches were made and the atmosphere was one of levity, warmth and good will. When I rose to speak I compared that ceremony in the Eastern District in Brooklyn with others I had attended in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan.
In my remarks I said, "I would describe the Southern District as Episcopalian in protocol (recalling the Harriman service), and the Eastern District as more Pentecostal."
Brooke Astor was a magnificent person, a leader of the social scene in New York City for many years. She was extraordinarily generous, giving away hundreds of millions of dollars during her lifetime intending to exhaust her charitable foundation. Many of her contributions were to city institutions like the Metropolitan Museum which houses the magnificent Astor Court for those seeking solace and a place to contemplate.
She is also largely responsible for restoring much of the 42nd Street Library in Manhattan to its current pristine beauty and brilliance.
Mrs. Astor helped raise money to restore Gracie Mansion, the mayor of New York's official residence. The house was built in 1799 by Archibald Gracie who was a wealthy New York civic leader. When I moved into the building in 1978, it was falling apart and the estimate was that 5 million dollars would be needed to restore it. We did not want to use city money except for basic systems such as heating.
Mrs. Astor made a large contribution to the restoration fund and then agreed to help lead the fundraising effort. I invited some very wealthy people to a luncheon at Gracie Mansion. They knew they were there to help with the restoration. Brooke opened the discussion saying, "Mr. Mayor, I will donate another $50,000," intending to set the amount for the others to give. And it worked.
After she made her opening offer, a luncheon guest at the table who owned a large business selling expensive furniture said, "I will donate $50,000 in furniture." I said, "Is that wholesale or retail?"
He generously replied, "Wholesale."
On a later occasion Brooke invited me to accompany her to the Bronx Zoo to visit the baby elephant named Astor that she had donated to the zoo. There wandering around on an open hill was young Astor and a matriarchal elephant who had adopted the baby as her own. Brooke said to me, "Let's go play with the baby."
I always remembered my mother's advice to me as a young boy, "Eddie, never fool around with a wild animal," and I never have. But there was Brooke frolicking around with Astor.
The matriarchal elephant appeared to be pleased touching Brooke gently with her trunk. She seemed to accept Mrs. Astor's presence as a member of the herd, but occasionally looked sternly in my direction.
The last time I saw Brooke Astor was at the Four Seasons Restaurant. That was about 12 years ago when she was 93. She had left her dining companions and was walking alone in her high heels toward the restaurant's exit leading to Park Avenue.
I rushed after her and said, "Brooke, isn't there someone to escort you to your car?" She laughed and said, "No." I said, "Well, I insist that you allow me to walk you to your car." She laughed again and said, "Of course, if it will make you feel better," and we walked hand in hand to her auto.
Brooke Astor undoubtedly felt at home during the Episcopal funeral service that she chose, because she was at home everywhere and under all conditions. I believe that had it been a Pentecostal service, she would have gotten up and danced.
As for me, I would like a Klezmer band playing the familiar melodies of my youth at my service. I hope those in attendance will smile, laugh, and recount anecdotes of their service in and involvement with city government. And, of course, their best stories to be later recounted in a book entitled, "The Best of New York."
We will not see the likes of Brooke Astor for another 100 years. The mold has been broken.
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