Shopping (Sort of!) at the Brooke Astor Auction

FILE - In this May 1, 1997 file photo, the late socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor is seen at the Merchant's House Mus
FILE - In this May 1, 1997 file photo, the late socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor is seen at the Merchant's House Museum in New York. The long dispute over the estate of socialite philanthropist Brooke Astor ended Wednesday, March 28, 2012 with a settlement that frees $100 million for charities and cuts by more than half the amount going to the son convicted of bilking her. (AP Photo/Serge J-F. Levy, File)

"POWER IS the ability to do good things for others," said the late Brooke Astor, who had power, money and did good things for others.

  • WENT TO Sotheby's the other night to see the treasures of Brooke Astor's Manhattan apartment and her Westchester country home, set up for display with the proceeds going to the Animal Medical Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library and other needy charities.

You'll seldom see anyone living these days with such old-fashioned taste, elegance and sentimentality toward her personal collections as was displayed here. (The dog collection alone is overwhelming!)

I was touched by the grouping of Brooke's many awards from charities, cities and countries, though I looked in vain for the silver tray that made her "a Living Landmark" of the New York Landmark Conservancy. There were also the medals that had been won by her husband, Vincent Astor, and his forebear John Jacob Astor.

An eerie thing happened to me as I was strolling in the rooms with literally hundreds of Brooke's books. Depending on size, they were bundled into groups of 10 or so, which were tied together but still set up on the shelves -- lines and lines of books for display.

That very day I had been puzzling to find a book in the few I still have room for, to give away for the birthday of a special literary agent, Michael Carlisle. (He is a man who has everything else, so I thought a used, favorite book was the ticket and perhaps something a little rare that he didn't know about.)

I elected to give him an unusually entertaining novel by Philip Norman titled Everyone's Gone to the Moon from Random House. This is the fanciful story of the fateful romance between the man who was once the top editor of London's most important newspaper and a rising, young, sexy, brilliant lady. They fall in love, meet everyone who is anyone, and the rest is history. (Does it maybe remind you of our own Harry Evans and Tina Brown? Harry was once editor of the London Times and Tina began her magazine career on the Tattler. )

Well, if it does remind you, I am surprised because this novel became extremely hard to find when it came to the U.S. and there were all kinds of stories about how it had been kept deep-sixed in the Random House basement. But I had read it and loved it and ended up with two copies of it.

When I went to wrap mine up for Michael Carlisle's birthday, I remembered I'd given my extra copy away already so I couldn't relinquish this one. Drat! (I didn't want to have to give Mr. Carlisle a tie or something pedestrian like that.)

But time pressed and I went off to the Brooke Astor display of her belongings at Sotheby's. I chiefly wandered the library of her books, all tied together, all enticing -- beautiful sets of bound fancy leather editions, flashy shelves of popular novels, biographies, histories, the works. I was wondering how one would "bid." Does one say, "Anything tied together with string I'll take" or "I want the grouping that has Thackeray and Dickens"? Or what could a bidder say in describing the books one wanted?

Suddenly my eye falls on a title, standing in the middle of many other popular titles -- it reads Everyone's Gone to the Moon and I knew it was THE book I wanted for Michael Carlisle -- a book, I had only thought of that very morning and one that, incidentally, is full of fabulous stories about the Burtons (Liz 'n' Dick... the Beatles... Marianne Faithful... Jimi Hendrix, and others of the times).

How does one select or run across this Norman novel out of the plethora of Brooke Astor's collection? How would they find it for you to buy it specifically? The coincidence and synchronicity raised the hair on the back of my neck.

Life and memory are strange little beasts. I guess I'll have to give Michael Carlisle my precious copy -- my last one.

I well remember a time when I lent it to the late Mrs. Pat Buckley. I almost never got it back; she loved it so much.