Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story by Frances Kiernan








Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






Frances Kiernan’s fond biography of the late Brooke Astor it titled, The Last Mrs. Astor: A New York Story. While the biography does justice to her total life, the book shines when presenting the tireless ways in which Mrs. Astor helped the people of New York. Following the death of her husband, Vincent Astor, there was a $67 million foundation from which Brooke spent almost fifty years using as a vehicle to provide grants to programs that served the people of New York. Mrs. Astor visited each grant applicant, and used her society connections to leverage additional funding. Her efforts come across as tireless, and full of caring and love. Here’s an excerpt about an earlier marriage, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 52-55:


MRS. DRYDEN KUSER, 1919—1929


Mother used to quote a French proverb, “What is inno­cence in a girl of eighteen is ignorance in a woman of thirty.”


On April 26, 1919, Roberta Brooke Russell married John Dryden Kuser at St. John’s Episcopal Church, on Lafayette Square, across from the White House. The bride wore a plain white satin gown, with a square neck and long sleeves, while her maid of honor and eight bridesmaids were outfitted in flowing green chiffon dresses and large leghorn hats trimmed with apple blossoms. Their outfits, like her own, had been chosen by her mother, but to the bride’s eye theirs were undeniably “prettier.” The one piece of jewelry she wore to the ceremony was a striking sapphire necklace, a gift from the Kusers, that nicely complemented her sapphire engagement ring.

If the bride’s wedding attire was not entirely to her liking, the service at St. John’s was all she could have hoped for. Presiding at the ceremony were the rector of St. John’s and the bishop of Washington, who had been enlisted by her godmother, soon after her return from China, to oversee her religious education. Although neither of her parents had any use for organized religion, they had been persuaded by her godmother that she would benefit from formal instruction. John Russell’s father had been on the vestry at St. John’s and he him­self had attended church there as a boy. So it was at St. John’s that Brooke had been confirmed and then gone on to regularly attend Sunday services. For her, the Book of Common Prayer and the tradi­tional Episcopal hymns and liturgy had become an enduring source of pleasure, while in no way superseding all she had learned from the Buddhist priests at the Temple of One Hundred Courtyards. If any­thing, her new faith seemed to reinforce the solace she was able to find in the natural world.

Thanks to the efforts of the bride’s mother, the reception for the Russell—Kuser wedding was treated as an important Washington social event. Attending, along with the bride’s friends and family, were some of the more glamorous friends Mabel Russell had made there in recent years. Not only did Alice Roosevelt Longworth deem it worth her while to put in an appearance, but also Mrs. Perry Belmont, newly arrived from New York. Neither President Wilson nor his wife could be found on the list of guests, but the current president was by no means a stellar member of Washington Society and in any case the Russells had always been staunch Republicans.

Brooke Russell had never had a debutante year. But at her wed­ding reception, with the cream of Washington Society in attendance, she could be said to have officially come out. With champagne flow­ing and music once again provided by Meyer Davis, she had little to do but smile and greet all the guests who were there to wish her well. If her dress was not something she herself might have chosen, she could not fault her sapphire necklace—at least not until she took note of the stunning impression made by Mrs. Belmont’s long ropes of Perfectly matched enormous natural pearls. Something she could hardly fail to do once a mischievous Alice Longworth informed her, “You are competing with Mrs. Belmont, Brooke.”

While the wedding came close to living up to the rosiest of expectations, the ten-day honeymoon at the Hotel Greenbrier, in West Virginia, was an unqualified disaster—beginning with a rough overnight journey on an uneven rail bed, during which, in the con­fines of their specially reserved drawing room, the newlyweds dis­covered that they had come to this marriage with very different expectations. Dryden had naturally assumed this flirtatious young girl had some notion of the facts of life. As it happened, she didn’t. Whenever her mother or her friends tried to broach the subject, she had made it abundantly clear she had no wish to listen. This was not her idea of romance. Briefly the Howards had wondered whether the bride and groom might be too young to start a life together, but Granny Howard had taken the more optimistic view that this would give them a chance to grow up together. On the journey from Washington to White Sulphur Springs, it became clear to the bride at least that this was not likely to happen. “Dryden was oversexed and completely inexperienced, and I was hopelessly ignorant and unprepared in any way for this great adventure,” she later wrote. To be more accurate, Diyden had a great interest in sex, while she had yet to discover that there might be good reason to also take a serious interest in this subject.

The pretty nightgown the bride wore that first night was only one of many lovely gowns and dresses in the elaborate trousseau that had been carefully packed for her stay at the Greenbrier. Although the atmosphere was still strained as the new couple settled into the large suite that had been reserved for them, the bride could at least look forward to an evening in the gracious public rooms downstairs, din­ing and dancing in one of her pretty new dresses in the company of their fellow guests. Of course Dryden had never been much of a dancer—something that might have warned her. That is, if she’d had any idea what she was being warned against. Now that she did have some idea, she was inclined, by training and instinct, to try and make the best of it.

Unfortunately, the groom’s valet had forgotten to pack his dinner jacket, and gentlemen were not permitted in the hotel’s dining room without one. Young ladies were not permitted in the hotel’s bar in any attire. The newlyweds were going to be forced to dine alone in their suite. Dryden’s way of preparing for their first solitary dinner was to head downstairs to the bar for a few fortifying cocktails. For the entire length of their stay he persisted in resorting to this measure, return­ing in no state to make the best of their quiet dinners together and in no way remedying the unfortunate impression he had made on their wedding night.

By the end of this benighted honeymoon, the bride had taken the measure of her new husband, but the implications of what she had discovered were not something she was capable of understanding or even imagining. “I was no longer ignorant, but I was still innocent,” she later wrote. The young couple’s next stop was the Russell house in Washington, where Brooke immediately rushed into her father’s arms and burst into tears. By the end of the Washington visit, there was no mistaking these for tears of joy. At one point she found time to take her mother aside and ask why she hadn’t prepared her for what was going to happen. “I tried to,” Mabel responded, “but you didn’t want to listen to me.” Looking back in her old age, Brooke Astor could only acknowledge that this was true.

When Dryden Kuser had courted the young Brooke Russell, he promised her a smart sports car of her own to drive, along with a house of her own, where she would have a free hand in choosing the way it was decorated and where, no less important, she would be free to have as many dogs as she wished. The Kusers—much taken with this old-fashioned young woman who dropped a pretty curtsy upon being introduced to them and who bore no resemblance to the fast young women their son had been seeing—had backed up his prom­ises with additional promises of their own.


The custody battle for the care of Mrs. Astor in the years before she died are also covered in The Last Mrs. Astor. From the beginning to the end of her life, Mrs. Astor acted with charm and grace, and this biography will make readers wish they had met or known Brooke Astor.



Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2007



Buy The Last Mrs. Astor

@ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2007 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2007 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the October 2007 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Last Mrs Astor.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com