New York socialite, philanthropist Brooke Astor dies at 105

NEW YORK - Brooke Astor, the civic leader, philanthropist and high society fixture who gave away nearly $200 million to support New York City's great cultural institutions and a host of humbler projects, died Monday. She was 105.

Astor, who recently was the center of a highly publicized legal dispute over her care, died of pneumonia at Holly Hill, her Westchester County estate in Briarcliff Manor, family lawyer Kenneth Warner said.

'Brooke was truly a remarkable woman,' longtime family friend David Rockefeller said. 'She was the leading lady of New York in every sense of the word.'

Although a legendary figure in New York City and feted with a famous gala on her 100th birthday in March 2002, Astor was mostly interested in putting the fortune that husband Vincent Astor left to use helping others.

Her efforts won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1998.

'Money is like manure, it should be spread around,' was her oft-quoted motto. There has been a lot to spread in the family ever since Vincent Astor's great-great-grandfather, John Jacob Astor, made a fortune in fur trading and New York real estate.

Brooke Astor gave millions to what she called the city's 'crown jewels' - among them the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Natural History, Central Park and the Bronx Zoo.

She also funded scores of smaller projects: Harlem's Apollo Theater; a new boiler for a youth center; beachside bungalow preservation; a church pipe organ; furniture for homeless families moving in to apartments.

It was a very personal sort of philanthropy. 'People just can't come up here and say, 'We're doing something marvelous, send a check.' We say, 'Oh, yes, we'll come and see it,' she said.

Papers filed in July 2006 alleged her final years were marred by neglect, and in a settlement three months later, her son, Anthony Marshall, was replaced as her legal guardian with Annette de la Renta, wife of the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.