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New York Socialite, Philanthropist Brooke Astor Dies at 105

Brooke Astor, the civic leader, philanthropist and fixture of New York high society who gave away nearly $200 million to support the city's great cultural institutions and a host of humbler projects, died Monday at 105.

Astor, recently the center of a highly publicized legal dispute over her care, died of pneumonia at her suburban estate, family lawyer Kenneth Warner said.

Although a legendary figure in New York City and feted with a famous gala on her 100th birthday in March 2002, Astor was mostly interested in putting the fortune that husband, Vincent Astor, left to use where it would do the most to alleviate human misery.

Her efforts won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1998.

"Money is like manure, it should be spread around," was her oft-quoted motto. There was a lot to spread: Vincent Astor's great-great-grandfather John Jacob Astor made a fortune in fur trading and New York real estate.

Brooke Astor gave millions of dollars to what she called the city's "crown jewels" — among them the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Natural History, Central Park and the Bronx Zoo.

But she also funded scores of smaller projects: Harlem's Apollo Theater; a new boiler for a youth center; beachside bungalow preservation; a church pipe organ; furniture for homeless families moving in to apartments.

It was a very personal sort of philanthropy.

"People just can't come up here and say, `We're doing something marvelous, send a check,"' she said. "We say, 'Oh, yes, we'll come and see it."'

Astor's imprimatur on a program or project helped generate support from other philanthropists.

But papers filed in July 2006 alleged her final years were marred by neglect, and in a settlement three months later her son, Anthony Marshall, was replaced as her legal guardian with Annette De La Renta, wife of the fashion designer Oscar De La Renta.

Marshall's son Philip Marshall, a professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, had alleged that his father was looting her estate and allowing her to live in filthy conditions at her Park Avenue duplex. Anthony Marhall, a former diplomat and sometime Broadway producer who won Tony awards in 2003 and 2004, denied any wrongdoing.

In December, a Manhattan judge ruled that claims "regarding Mrs. Astor's medical and dental care, and the other allegations of intentional elder abuse" by Anthony Marshall were not substantiated.

The Vincent Astor Foundation was created when he died in 1959. Vincent Astor had no children; he left his widow $2 million plus the interest off $60 million and endowed the foundation with an additional $67 million. It gave away approximately $200 million by the time it closed at the end of 1997.

"I grew up feeling that the most important thing in life was to have good manners and to enhance the lives of others," Brooke Astor said in a 1992 interview with The Associated Press.

She decided that since the money was made in New York it should largely be spent there. She also persuaded the trustees to give away principal as well as interest so most of the money would be spent in her lifetime.

"I'm afraid that, to old John Jacob Astor, spending principal would seem like dancing naked in the streets," she acknowledged.

Personal philanthropy can be quixotic, but Astor's giving was informed by her knowledge of the city, its institutions and its real needs. And while she had always been comfortable, she was not always rich.

When Brooke Russell was born March 30, 1902, Theodore Roosevelt was president, the U.S. had only 45 states and the Wright brothers had yet to make their first flight. She was the only child of John H. Russell, a career Marine officer who rose to become commandant of the Corps from 1934 to 1936. She was fluent in Chinese after having spending her childhood in China and many other places, including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Hawaii and Panama.

At age 16, she was pushed by her mother into marriage with J. Dryden Kuser, whom she had met at a Princeton prom. The marriage ended in divorce 10 years later.

Her second marriage was to stockbroker Charles "Buddie" Marshall. Her son Anthony, from her marriage to Kuser, took Marshall's name. During her marriage to Marshall, Astor wrote articles for various magazines and joined the staff of House & Garden, where she was feature editor for several years.

Marshall died in 1952. A year later, she married Vincent Astor, the eldest son of John Jacob Astor 4th, who died in the sinking of the Titanic.

"Vincent was a very suspicious man," she recalled. "The fact that he had total confidence in me to run the foundation made me want to vindicate him, show him — wherever he is — that I could do a good job."

Hers was a hands-on approach, personally going over applications and then going out to meet the people who ran the programs and see what they were doing.

"Even in the worst drug areas, I don't hesitate to go right in and see people," she once said.

Astor Foundation director Linda Gillies, several decades younger than Astor, once said Astor "wears us out."

"Often," Gillies said, "we can't keep up with her."

Astor wrote four books: "Patchwork Child," a 1962 autobiography; "The Bluebird is at Home," 1965, a novel; the autobiographical "Footprints," 1980; and "The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree," 1986, a period novel.