The ideas came straight from the headlines. Both of these women were centenarians from the Social Register who became front-page news towards the end of their lives. They were at the center of family fights and prosecutors’ investigations. I was drawn to trying to understand the mysteries in their histories.
Do you have a special interest in society?
I grew up in a middle class Jewish family in Rochester, New York so this is not my natural metier, which is why it fascinates me. I have always loved reading the gossip columns—Liz Smith, Suzy, Cindy Adams—and I am curious about what goes on behind closed doors.
How were the two subjects of your books similar?
Brooke Astor was born in 1902, Huguette was born in 1906. This was an era when the opportunities for well-to-do women were limited. Neither of them went to college, and both women were eager to find a sense of meaning and purpose. Brooke found it as a philanthropist, Huguette found her calling as an artist, painting landscapes and still lifes. Both women married—and divorced—Princeton men. For most of their lives, they lived three blocks away from one another: Brooke was at Park Avenue and 73rd Street, Huguette was at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Streets.
Did they have different attitudes towards wealth and publicity?
Very much so. Brooke Astor married money (her third husband was Vincent Astor) and she was very social, going out-on-the-town virtually every night. She loved giving interviews and being photographed in the newspapers.
Huguette inherited her money from her robber baron father, William Andrews Clark, and she was famous from birth as one of the richest heiresses in America. She hated the limelight, and became very reclusive. She did not leave her Fifth Avenue apartment for many years, and then spent 20 years in the hospital even though she was healthy.
Is it hard to write about a recluse?
I discovered that she wasn’t always that way. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Huguette had a very active social life—she went to the Ziegfeld Follies, the opera and fashion shows. She was dancing at the Rainbow Room and visited the 1939 World’s Fair. But she started going out less and less by the end of the 1960’s. I was able to speak to people who were close to her in the latter years of her life. Huguette’s god-daughter Wanda Styka and Huguette’s assistant Christopher Sattler were among the many people who gave me exclusive interviews.
When you are writing a biography, do you immerse yourself in the life of your subject?
It’s like having an alternate identity. You dream about them. They consume your waking thoughts. I walked around Manhattan constantly feeling like I was simultaneously living in the past and in the present, as I visited the places where Brooke and Huguette spent their time. Both were true New Yorkers who loved Central Park—Brooke took her dogs for a walk there daily, and Huguette painted Central Park scenes as seen from her window.
Did you come to any conclusions about the rich, and their relationships with other people?
In old age, both women became very close to their employees—closer than they were to their own families. Brooke adored her butler, Christopher Ely, and he loved and cared for her in return. Huguette became so dependent on her nurse, Hadassah Peri, that she asked Hadassah to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and gave her $31 million in gifts for her loyalty.
Did you fantasize about what it would be like to have millions of dollars?
On those days when I was trying to decide whether to take a cab or a subway to an interview, sure, I thought about it. Brooke was worth $200 million, Huguette was worth $300 million. It’s hard to imagine what it is like to never worry about money. But there can be downsides. Huguette’s father warned her that no one would ever love her for herself, it was all about her money, and that was crippling.
Did you ever feel like you were having a nervous breakdown when you were writing these books?
Doesn’t every writer? There’s usually a moment when you hit the wall—no one will talk to you, you can’t figure out how to structure a chapter—and all hope is lost. When you’re in the thick of it, you cannot imagine you will ever finish. But then, you do.
What do you read to get in the mood to write?
I read four newspapers daily and tons of magazines to stay up to date, but for pure pleasure, I love novels and mysteries. I’m addicted to trying to figure out not only who did what—but why. I’m fascinated by what motivates people. And if I’m reading a book with an imaginative plot and wonderful sentences, it inspires me to try to improve my game.
MERYL GORDON is the author of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, as well as the author of Mrs Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of A Family Beyond Approach. She is an award-winning journalist and a regular contributor to Vanity Fair. She is on the graduate journalism faculty at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She is considered an expert on “elder abuse” and has appeared on NPR, CNN and other outlets whenever there is a high-profile case.