The Stuff Novels Are Made Of

She was born to a respectable family, but not great wealth, the only child of a Major General in the Marine Corps. Her carefree, travel-filled childhood ended at the age of 17, when she married for the first time, to a man of substantial fortune and short temper. It is said that her husband broke her jaw while she was pregnant with what would be her only child, a boy. After eleven miserable years, she and her husband divorced.

Two years later she married again, this time to a gentler soul. This husband, a respected name, was a financier with up and down fortunes, and she went to work at a magazine to help pay the bills. After she was widowed at the young age of 40 there was no large inheritance and she had to work, but was nevertheless a popular favorite among the society set. At a dinner party a year later she was introduced to Vincent Astor.

Vincent inherited the bulk of his father's estate when John Jacob Astor IV went down with the Titanic in 1912. (Vincent had a half-brother born a few months after the sinking, but no provision had been made in the will for him, so he received relatively little of the Astor millions. The provisions for Vincent's young stepmother [two years his junior] were to stop if she remarried, which she did a few years later.)

This marriage lasted a mere six years, until Vincent died in 1959. He left his wife $60 million dollars for herself (an average of $10 million for each year of marriage), plus another $60 million in a foundation to be devoted to philanthrophy. At this point Brooke Astor became known as simply "Mrs. Astor," the same name used by her husband's grandmother nearly a century before. While the first Mrs. Astor concentrated on silly social feuds, the second Mrs. Astor set about to do some good with the family money. By all accounts, she succeeded, making generous endowments to improve standards of living in some of New York's poorest communities.

As she aged and became more infirm, her only son, by now past 80 himself, was accused of pilfering from her estate and of abusing her by cutting back on her care . . . by his son, Mrs. Astor's grandson. What threatened to become a lurid trial was halted by a judge who moved the responsibility for the care of Mrs. Astor from her son to a longtime friend after several prominent people came forward to support the grandson's claims.

Brooke Astor died at the age of 105.

Her life proves that truth really can be stranger than fiction.