14 August 2007

Astor’s Place

Just another kid from the hinterland: Brooke Astor

One comes to the big city with certain expectations — dreams that, with the right attitude, plus hard work and good luck, often come true. Gene Kelly illustrates this phenomenon in the "Gotta Dance" number in Singin' in the Rain. And that number has in turn fired the dreams of many starstruck kids in the heartland who dream of New York. When I first moved to the city, I felt just like Gene Kelly, every time I walked down the street. The pavement was electrified: my feet had to dance.

For me, New York was very much the handiwork of those who had come before me. I used to look forward to bumping into my heroes, the people who had made New York what it was. Well, I never met Greta Garbo, though I knew people who did, and I never got closer to Lou Reed and Joey Ramone than a concert stage. I saw Woody Allen walking down the street with Mia Farrow once, but I never ran into Katharine Hepburn, and (no fool, she) she never answered my letters. Groucho Marx and Robert Benchley were dead before I got there. No matter. They made the city for me; they made me want to live there.

In recent months, we've lost several of the ladies who made New York special. The first was Betty Comden, the sassy lyricist who put words in Gene Kelly's mouth. Then Kitty Carlisle Hart, who looked like New York and whose relentless efforts as chairwoman of the State Council for the Arts made sure that the rest of New York looked, and sounded, like New York, too. Then Beverly Sills — and now Brooke Astor, who gave so much of what she had to help other people enjoy life in the city as much as she did.

Mrs. Astor, like Mrs. Hart, wasn't born in New York, but she was as much a part of it as any skyscraper or monument, and she helped to form our idea of New York. The city won't be the same without her, and what's more distressing, the next generation of newcomers won't know they've missed her.

Among the many charitable organizations with which Mrs. Astor was involved, the Robin Hood Foundation is of note, not least because it's run by a college buddy of mine, David Saltzman. If you'd like to be more like Mrs. Astor, there are ways.