Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley, grandes dames of New York, died on August 13th and 20th respectively, aged 105 and 87
THE concept of richesse oblige has various dimensions. The bottom line is that those who have come into oodles of money should give some of it back; the second-to-bottom line is that they should cut a certain style while doing so. Both Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley, who died within a few days of each other, gave millions of dollars away. And their similarities ended there.
Mrs Astor was as small, delicate and fine as a Meissen cup, her tailoring exquisite and her jewels unobtrusive. Mrs Helmsley, though not large, favoured loud trouser suits and chunky diamond clips, with her mouth made big and cruel by scarlet lipstick. Mrs Astor set great store by good manners, civility, kind remarks and the careful handling of umbrellas; Mrs Helmsley believed in loud words and elbows. Mrs Astor had dogs as well-behaved as herself, silky and smooth-haired to pose for photographers or to have their portraits in her 19th-century collection on the staircase of Holly Hill, her weekend retreat. Mrs Helmsley had a Maltese bitch called Trouble, tied with pink ribbons and small enough to stuff in a purse, who sniffed at diners' legs in her restaurants and nipped their heels until they bled.
The Astor money, more than $120m by the time it was Brooke's to disburse, was old, from New York land and the fur trade. The Helmsley money, $5 billion by the time Leona got her hands on it, was pretty new, from property speculation. Both fortunes came from late third marriages to cunning husbands. But whereas Mrs Astor, aside from writing features for House & Garden, merely let the markets increase her pile and relished spending the capital (something, she admitted, that John Jacob Astor would have thought as outrageous as dancing naked in the street), Mrs Helmsley worked like a dragon to build up and expand her husband Harry's hotel empire. As a Manhattan hatter's daughter with several competitive siblings, she was used to graft and struggle. Mrs Astor, a solitary and dreamy child who had come by money almost magically, treated it like fairy dust to the end of her days.
Both, in their wildly different ways, were peremptory. Well into old age, Mrs Astor wore out the staffers of the Astor Foundation with her insistence on seeing every group and project that was asking her for money, and visiting them frequently to check that things were done as required. A run-down section of 130th Street in Harlem, Astor Row, had to have its porches and decorative brackets immaculately restored; a start-up furniture service for the poor had to include tea-cups and saucers. Meanwhile, at Helmsley hotels across Manhattan, underneath giant portraits of the “Queen” herself, quaking bellhops with huge armloads of laundry submitted to the scarlet, pecking fingernails and the icy tiara smile. “I won't stand for skimpy towels; why should you?” cried Mrs Helmsley's adverts in the New York Times.
Gloves and paper cups
The arrogance of big money, Mrs Astor wrote once, “is one of the most unappealing of characteristics”. Mrs Helmsley, though fun to her friends, was arrogance personified: “Rhymes with rich”, was Newsweek's caption for her portrait on its cover. “We don't pay taxes,” she was said to have told a housekeeper once; “only the little people pay taxes.” Mrs Astor, a gentle soul, was upset when her first father-in-law, a colonel, yelled at his secretaries. Mrs Helmsley believed staff existed to be barked at, slapped and called fags if appropriate; two of them sued her for firing them because they were gay. On visits to underprivileged areas Mrs Astor, gloved and immaculate because this was what the ordinary person expected of the rich, would happily sip from a paper cup and praise the hot-dog mustard on her paper plate. At the sight of a paper-cup-carrier in any of her reception areas, Mrs Helmsley would get her doormen to throw the offender out.
Vulgar showiness was also seldom seen in the Astor household. True, the glasses, silver and finger bowls bore the Astor initials or the Astor crest, but it was not half as obvious as the “H” on Leona's plastic soap-compacts. Mrs Astor could sport massed sapphires if one-upmanship seemed called for; but she owned only two country houses, not several, and her birthday was never marked, as Leona's once was, by a display of red, white and blue lights on the Helmsley-owned Empire State Building. Vulgarity led to trouble; which was why Leona, accused of “naked greed” by the judge, spent 18 months in Camp Fed in 1992-94 for tax evasion, when it was fairly clear that her real crime was to be both abrasive and rich.
New York gained hugely from both women. Mrs Astor gave to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rockefeller University, the Bronx Zoo and, her special favourite, the New York Public Library; Mrs Helmsley gave to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Weill Cornell Medical College and, her spell in prison evidently softening her, to poor children and hurricane victims. Both ended sadly, left alone with their dogs and the ghosts of their husbands in dust-draped city apartments or empty summer homes. But in the memory of most New Yorkers one was a saint and the other a sinner. Richesse oblige