Ed Koch: Another Era

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Brooke Astor died on August 13 at the age of 105. This wonderful New Yorker left instructions on how her funeral should be conducted and what hymns should be sung. The simple, austere service was held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue and East 53rd Street. Invited guests, of whom I was one, were escorted to a reserved seating area. I was seated in the front row with Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Mayor David Dinkins. Seated with us was David Rockefeller, who was a close personal friend. Mayor Bloomberg spoke, saying that Brooke “came from an era before the Internet, before television, even before Ed Koch and David Dinkins were in knee pants.”

During funerals, I always find myself closing my eyes and musing over the various religious services that I have attended over the years. My first Episcopal funeral experience was in 1986 when I attended the service of former New York Governor Averell Harriman. My prevailing memory of that service is of a violist, center altar, playing unfamiliar music sans melodies.
Years ago I was invited to the swearing-in ceremony of U.S. Federal District Court Judge David Trager in the Eastern District of New York. Lots of speeches were made and the atmosphere was one of levity, warmth and good will. When I rose to speak, I compared that ceremony in the Eastern District in Brooklyn with others I had attended in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan. In my remarks I said, “I would describe the Southern District as Episcopalian in protocol (recalling the Harriman service), and the Eastern District as more Pentecostal.”

Brooke Astor was a magnificent person. She was extraordinarily generous, giving away hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of her contributions were to city institutions like the Metropolitan Museum, which houses the magnificent Astor Court for those seeking solace and a place to contemplate. She is also largely responsible for restoring much of the 42nd Street Library in Manhattan to its current pristine beauty and brilliance.

Mrs. Astor helped raise money to restore Gracie Mansion, the mayor of New York’s official residence. The house was built in 1799 by Archibald Gracie, who was a wealthy New York civic leader. When I moved into the building in 1978, it was falling apart, and the estimate was that $5 million would be needed to restore it.

Mrs. Astor made a large contribution to the restoration fund and then agreed to help lead the fundraising effort. I invited wealthy people to a luncheon at Gracie Mansion; they knew they were there to help with the restoration. Brooke opened the discussion saying, “Mr. Mayor, I will donate another $50,000,” intending to set the amount for the others to give. After she made her opening offer, a luncheon guest at the table who owned a large business selling expensive furniture said, “I will donate $50,000 in furniture.” I said, “Is that wholesale or retail?” He generously replied, “Wholesale.”

Brooke invited me to accompany her to the Bronx Zoo to visit the baby elephant named Astor in her honor by the zoo. There on an open hill was young Astor and a matriarchal elephant who had adopted the baby as her own. Brooke said to me, “Let’s go play with the baby.”

I remembered my mother’s advice to me as a young boy, “Eddie, never fool around with a wild animal,” and I never have. But there was Brooke frolicking with Astor. The matriarchal elephant appeared to be pleased, touching Brooke gently with her trunk. She accepted Mrs. Astor as a member of the herd and occasionally looked sternly in my direction.

The last time I saw Brooke Astor was at the Four Seasons Restaurant about 12 years ago when she was 93 and walking alone in high heels toward the restaurant’s exit leading to Park Avenue. I rushed after her and said, “Brooke, isn’t there someone to escort you to your car?” She laughed and said, “No.”

“Well, I insist that you allow me to walk you to your car,” I said. She laughed again and said, “Of course, if it will make you feel better,” and we walked hand in hand to her auto.

Brooke Astor undoubtedly felt at home during the Episcopal funeral service that she chose, because she was at home everywhere and under all conditions. I believe that had it been a Pentecostal service, she would have gotten up and danced.
As for me, I would like a Klezmer band playing the familiar melodies of my youth at my service. I hope those in attendance will smile, laugh and recount anecdotes of their involvement with city government. And, of course, their best stories to be later recounted in a book entitled The Best of New York.

We will not see the likes of Brooke Astor for another 100 years. The mold has been broken.

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