In July 2006, Brooke Astor—grande dame of East Coast society and elegant philanthropist—found herself in the last place she ever would have wanted to be: the front page of a New York tabloid, under the headline "Disaster for Mrs. Astor." Her grandson Philip Marshall had filed a petition to transfer legal guardianship of his 104-year-old grandmother from Anthony Marshall (her son, Philip's father) to her close friend Annette de la Renta, for what his lawyer described as "elder abuse." Mrs. Astor, her grandson wrote, was living in "dirty and dilapidated" conditions in her Park Avenue duplex, neglected, underfed, and "forced to sleep in the TV room in torn nightgowns on a filthy couch." There were also allegations of financial improprieties. "This was a family exploding in public," says journalist Meryl Gordon, who offers a remarkably close-up look into New York's most exclusive social circles in Mrs. Astor Regrets (Houghton Mifflin), her new book about the dowager's turbulent last years.
To understand what caused the breakdown of this family, Gordon would have to gain access to the monied, exceedingly private sphere of Manhattan's Upper East Side. She knew better than most how difficult that would be. The previous year, she'd tried to write a magazine article about Mrs. Astor, only to be thwarted by Anthony Marshall (his mother's "gatekeeper," explains Gordon). This time, she decided, her battering ram would be etiquette. "There's an old-fashioned nature to this world," says Gordon. "For the first time in my career, instead of calling people, I wrote to them—because that's what they do. I sent elaborate, detailed letters, explaining who I was and what I wanted—letters of introduction." After every interview, Gordon sent a thank-you note.
When her correspondents rebuffed her overtures, she wrote more letters…and then she went to her closet, pulled out her best outfits, and hit the charity circuit of luncheons and galas. "Brooke Astor had gone out nearly every single night of her life," Gordon says. "She still dressed for dinner when she was 103 years old—putting on makeup, putting on her wig, and carrying her purse to dinner because that is what a lady does. I was like Columbo infiltrating the Upper East Side, except that instead of the raincoat, I had the pantsuit."
Whirling through her Rolodex, she wangled invitations and free press tickets to $1,000-a-ticket dinners where Astor's intimates gathered. "In every room there was someone I knew," she explains. She ran into Tom Brokaw, who put her in touch with Mrs. Astor's friend Nancy Reagan, who told her, "Brooke was a huge flirt." In the drawing rooms of Park Avenue, Gordon appeared smiling, poised, pantsuited, ready to listen and take note. In January 2008, after a year of tireless letter writing and socializing, she at last persuaded Annette de la Renta to meet with her. "People who weren't returning my phone calls would change their minds about talking to me if they were introduced by someone they knew," she says. "They would think, 'Maybe I should talk to this lady.'"
Once people started talking, they couldn't stop. "They wanted to know what people were saying, because they weren't talking to anybody," says Gordon. "They weren't speaking to each other, but they were talking to me—a few people began to joke that I had become their therapist."
Over two years, Gordon obtained astonishingly frank, often heartbreaking interviews with 230 of Mrs. Astor's intimates, among them Viscount William Astor, a cousin. He spoke about his relative's 100th birthday party, where she chose to arrive on his arm, snubbing her son and his third wife, whom he described as the "ultimate coldhearted couple out of an Agatha Christie plot."
Gordon managed to capture it all. "I love being a reporter," she says. "This was so much fun—the chase, the unfolding, were so exciting." Since finishing the book, she's returned to her old journalistic habits, calling and e-mailing to arrange interviews—no thank-you notes required.