Every year on March 30th, Brooke Astor’s birthday, I think about the time I killed her. Here is how it happened:
In 2000, Brooke Astor kindly lent her name to the Gotham Center for New York City History. Mike Wallace (the historian, not the reporter) was starting up a center at the CUNY Graduate Center to celebrate New York City history. He needed an advisory board and asked Brooke Astor if he could add her name to our letterhead. In exchange, we promised that we would make no demands of her. We’ve pretty much lived up to that agreement.
We did violate it once. In the spring of 2001 Mike wrote to her to ask if she’d be a judge at the First New York City History Costume Ball. She replied to Mike, “So nice of you to ask me to be Chief Judge for the Costume Party…as you know I am 99 years old and I don’t think I can come dressed up in costume. The evening sounds absolutely delightful and I am sorry I cannot be a part of it.” And then she added in her own handwriting, “With all best wishes and am sorry that I am so old.” (We never had the costume ball but still want to.)
The following year, on March 30th, 2002, Brooke Astor turned 100. There was an article about her in the New York Times. Skimming it, I thought it was an obituary. I e-mailed Mike and, in a bizarre folie à deux, he replied that yes, he had seen it, too. “What should we do about the stationary?” I asked him. “Remove her name or keep it and add the dates of her birth and death?” After some back and forth, we settled on the latter.
Brooke Astor was born Roberta Russell Kuser. She and her good friend Clare Booth Luce were the Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie of their day – minus the sex tapes. Unlike Paris and Nicole, they apparently did not fight over men. In 1953, Brooke married her third husband, Vincent Astor. The Astor name is more ubiquitous than Trump; it dots the urban landscape of the city. Mrs. Astor has spent the past ½ century since her third husband’s death in charge of doling out his riches to worthy charitable institutions, including one of her favorites—the New York Public Library.
While Brooke spent her 20’s as a leading socialite, I spent mine in the New York Public Library writing about the everyday lives of people on the Lower East Side during the Depression and the growing tourist trade in Jewish nostalgia. As a social historian, I’m much more interested in the history of the Astor Place riots, for example, than in the lives of the Astors themselves. Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a major bold face name associated with our Center – even a dead one. So I had new stationary printed up. On the masthead, next to Brooke Astor’s name we added the dates: 1902-2002. For a year, I regularly sent out this stationary. My horrible blunder went unnoticed.
On March 23rd of the following year, I was home reading the Style Section of the Sunday New York Times. There was a picture in Bill Cunningham’s “Evening Hours” section of Brooke Astor in a typically elegant suit and hat blowing out candles on a birthday cake! “The Black Alumni of Pratt Institute honored Brooke Astor at a luncheon at the Four Seasons Restaurant for her 101st birthday,” That’s impossible! That must be a photo from last year, I thought to myself. She’s dead. Then I broke out in a cold sweat.
Of course, I immediately had new stationary produced. But every March 30th I secretly wish Brooke Astor a Happy Birthday. This past March 30th, I silently wished Mrs. Astor a happy, healthy 104th.
Suzanne Wasserman is Associate Director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at CUNY.