Edith Wharton and Brooke Astor grew up more than a generation apart, and although they never met, their lives seem to touch. Both were grandes dames who hobnobbed with presidents (Wharton with Teddy Roosevelt, Astor with Ronald Reagan). Both were proper, well dressed and cared deeply about home décor—Astor once worked for House & Garden, while Wharton wrote a book called "The Decoration of Houses." Both cherished small dogs and large gardens. (Wharton's list of her "Ruling Passions" went like this: "Justice—Order—Dogs—Books—Flowers—Architecture—Travel—a good joke—& perhaps that should have come first.") Astor was a writer, too—of two novels, some poetry and two volumes of well-scrubbed memoirs. She even liked to retreat to her bedroom to write in longhand on big tablets, just as Wharton did, though only Wharton had the nerve to scatter her pages around her bed for a secretary to type up later.
But Astor, now 105 and out of the public eye, isn't remembered for her books but for her philanthropy and her gilded name. As Frances Kiernan's gracious new biography, "The Last Mrs. Astor," makes abundantly clear, Edith Wharton wasn't so much her role model—Wharton could have invented her. Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor was a classic Wharton heroine—a vivacious girl from a family with manners but no money, who married well and then married better. She was a disciplined, sensible woman, and so likable that no one minded the ice ax she wielded to scale the peaks of New York society. It's stories like hers that explain why Wharton's fiction still feels so fresh. The social jockeying and the obsession with power and money in her Gilded Age sagas never go out of style. The excesses of 21st century hedge-fund managers aren't such a long way from Wharton's robber barons and fortune hunters.
In a richly detailed biography, "Edith Wharton," the Oxford scholar Hermione Lee artfully interweaves the fiction and the life. Born Edith Jones in 1862, into a New York family with real-estate money and a venerable name—her aunts' house supposedly sparked the expression "keeping up with the Joneses" —she was, in fact, an Astor relative. Her father's cousin was the Mrs. Astor whose ballroom fit "the 400" of New York's elite. If the Joneses weren't as wealthy as the Astors, Edith still had a privileged upbringing, with long sojourns in Europe. She essentially educated herself and read widely her whole life—Darwin and Tolstoy, Thorstein Veblen and Balzac—and was fluent in several languages. (She originally wrote her stark novella "Ethan Frome" in French.) But despite her intellectual gifts and ambitions, she—like Brooke Astor—couldn't escape the necessity of marriage. Like most of her fictional characters, she made a terrible match—Teddy Wharton was fond of sport and auto-mobiles, not books—and ultimately, she took the radical step of divorcing him. She also divorced America, settling permanently in France around 1910.
When, in 1920, Wharton looked back to the 1870s New York of her youth to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Age of Innocence," she commented ruefully on marital expectations. In imagining his future with the wide-eyed May Welland, Newland Archer pictures their marriage as more liberal and companionable than the soulless unions of his social set—until he realizes his fantasy presumes that May had "the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment which she had been carefully trained not to possess." Wharton's take on May could be a modern feminist critique.
Lee cracks the elaborate code of details in Wharton's fiction. The drawing rooms in "The Age of Innocence," dark with layers of draperies, crowded with overstuffed furniture and knickknacks, are a denunciation of her mother's taste (she hated her mother) and suggest the suffocating society that traps Newland Archer. Wharton became something of an early Martha Stewart, laying out her philosophy of interior design in "The Decoration of Houses" (1897), which was actually her first book. (It has just been reissued in a facsimile edition.) Her stand against clutter and her pleas for simplicity sound almost contemporary. She came down hard on pretension, calling Cornelius Vanderbilt's extravagant Newport palazzo, The Breakers, a "Thermopylae of bad taste." And in "The House of Mirth" (1905), a character describes a new Fifth Avenue façade as "a complete architectural meal; if he had omitted a style, his friends might have thought the money had given out." He could be describing the overblown eclecticism of today's McMansions.
But if Wharton seems modern in some ways, she wasn't in others. She called Freudianism "sewerage," and though she satirized tight-corseted old conventions, she remained a terrific snob. (She was also anti-Semitic, which Lee notes was common but does not excuse it.) She hated Picasso, jazz and Joyce—she called "Ulysses" "a turgid welter of schoolboy pornography." Yet she was a big fan of Anita Loos's 1925 novel, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Loos's cheerful gold digger from Little Rock embodied a favorite theme.
Which brings us back to Astor. When "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" came out, Astor was still trapped in her own miserable first marriage to the son of a self-made millionaire; with her young son, she soon headed to Reno for a divorce. Her next husband was a gregarious Wall Street broker who wasn't as rich as her first. But she loved him, and they lived a life that was more glamorous and social. He died when Brooke was 50. Within a year, she became the third wife of Vincent Astor—a marriage engineered, according to Kiernan, by Astor's then wife, Minnie, who wanted to shed her husband but not until he'd fallen for someone else—to ensure a good settlement. Brooke, too, had her secret motives. "Of course she married Vincent for the money," said her friend Louis Auchincloss. "I wouldn't respect her if she hadn't. Only a twisted person would have married him for love." Spoken like a true Wharton character.
Six years later, Brooke was a widow again—and began her public life as a philanthropist. She oversaw the Vincent Astor Foundation's grants to New York charities and cultural organizations for 37 years—and succeeded in her goal of giving away all the foundation's assets, about $200 million. She remained an avid—and flirtatious—socialite, still dancing at her 90th-birthday party. In a sad coda, her name was splashed in newspapers last year due to charges that her son was failing to take proper care of her and her finances. He denied the claims. A judge appointed an old friend as her guardian, and a bank to oversee her money.
You can't help but wonder what Wharton would have made of Astor's life. Her last novel, "The Buccaneers," was inspired by the ambitious American beauties of the late 19th century who bagged husbands among the English aristocracy. Wharton had known such girls in her youth: Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill and became the mother of Winston. When the American divorcée Wallis Simpson seduced the King of England from his throne, Wharton felt the theme of "The Buccaneers" was vindicated—but she died before finishing it. What a shame she couldn't have borrowed a few Brooke Astor details for one more brilliantly observed story.