MAR1Over the past few years I have been drawn to biographies of notables whose lives spanned most of the 20th Century.  I don’t know why exactly, but it is compelling to read about people who lived through all of the ups and downs of the century just completed. One such life is that of New York social icon and philanthropist Brooke Astor, who died in 2007 at age 105.

I picked up the book, Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach by Meryl Gordon, partly because Mrs. Astor’s life perfectly fits the genre that intrigues me, and partly because of excerpts I had read in various publications.  I did not know much about Mrs. Astor before reading this book, other than her association with the Astor family through marriage (her third and last husband was Vincent Astor eldest son of tycoon John Jacob Astor who famously perished with the Titanic).

Although the book is largely a biography of Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Astor Regrets mostly focuses on the circumstances of her later years, her death and legacy, and the allegations of poor treatment by her son.  Like most people, Mrs. Astor’s life was not all roses, but in general she enjoyed the comforts of being a socialite and the benefits that came along with carefully positioning herself as a philanthropist with the last of the Astor fortune.  However, Mrs. Astor may have lived too long, as in her last years as her health deteriorated she may have been taken advantage of in the most heartbreaking way.

About Mrs. Astor Regrets: “The fate of Brooke Astor, the endearing philanthropist with the storied name, has generated worldwide headlines since her grandson Philip sued his father, Anthony Marshall, in 2006, alleging mistreatment of Brooke. Shortly after her death in 2007, Anthony was indicted on charges of looting her estate. New York journalist Meryl Gordon has interviewed not only the elite of Mrs. Astor’s social circle but also the large staff who cared for her during her declining years. The result is the behind-the-headlines story of the Astor empire’s unraveling, filled with never-before-reported scenes. This powerful, poignant saga takes the reader inside the gilded gates of an American dynasty to tell of three generations’ worth of longing and missed opportunities and is filled with secrets of the sort that have engaged Americans from the era of Edith Wharton to the more recent days of Truman Capote. Even in this territory of privilege, no riches can put things right once they’ve been torn asunder. Mrs. Astor Regrets is an American epic of the bonds of money, morality, and social position.”

Considering the subject matter, it would be easy to write this book off as just another scandal-ridden, gossipy biography of a noted personality – the world is full of those.  However, author Meryl Gordon weaves a narrative based on a well-researched and documented account of Mrs. Astor’s life and the people around her. 

In the end, Mrs. Astor Regrets is a story of someone who rose through the ranks to the height of society, lived a long celebrated life, but who also endured shocking indignities at the hands of those closest to her.  This is the type of non-fiction story that had it been fiction you would say it was over-the-top – which translates into a good read.

Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach by Meryl Gordon is available from Amazon and other booksellers.