03 September 2014

Current reading: THE LAST MRS. ASTOR

Reading about Brooke Astor's multiple marriages reminds me of the debate earlier this year over the connection between marriage and financial stability and how we equip people (or don't) to take advantage of that.

Mrs. Astor was married 3 times in her life and author Frances Kiernan makes a pretty clear case that Marriage #3, to Vincent Astor, was primarily financially motivated, with #1 and #2 having contributing financial factors. The woman born Roberta Brooke Russell was of a class where it would have been unseemly for her to work, and her education (ending at 16) did not equip her to do so anyway. But Husband #1 was a feckless unfaithful alcoholic who more or less stashed her at her in-laws for years, and after her divorce from him, and in her widowhood after Husband #2, she didn't have an independent income nor a way to make it. That said, she did work for a few years at House and Garden and for interior designer Dorothy Draper -- but she had to maintain the facade that it was a lark or a diversion, something she could enlist her friends in, rather than being 'real' about (Kiernan points out that Conde Nast paid badly in those years because it was expected that editors were of the leisure class and independently supported -- so they didn't need the money. Also, they had expense accounts.)

You can fault Mrs. Astor for marrying for money, and some friends quoted in this book do -- I was surprised at how barbed they were sometimes given that this is an authorized biography. (What is your damage, Louis Auchincloss?) But her other options were to live on her annual income from her second husband's will or fall back on her mother or other relatives. Whether that annual income would have been a struggle or not to live within isn't clear -- this calculator from the terrifically named WestEgg.com estimates it would have been around $248,000 in 2013 dollars, not exactly a pittance. But her marriageability was what she had to trade for financial stability. It was all she had. And to her credit, at least she knew that she was marrying a fortune. According to Kiernan, Vincent Astor courted her quite aggressively (bizarrely, with the help of his soon-to-be-ex-wife who apparently wanted him to settle down so she could leave him), so it wasn't a question of who got hoodwinked in that trade.

In conclusion, it's another day I am grateful to be a woman in 2014, where I can hope and plan to support myself for the rest of my life no matter what happens. And this book is some real-life Edith Wharton business and if you like Old New York you should take a look.

P.S. If you follow NYC tabloids, this is the Mrs. Astor whose grandson and son went to court over charges that her son was keeping his mother in reduced circumstances while pocketing over $2 million a year of her fortune. That's her son from her first marriage. I think that is covered in this book, although I'm not there yet. I was called for jury duty right around the time they were trying to empanel jurors for that trial, which was an impossible struggle according to courtroom scuttlebutt.

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