Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Other Mrs. Astor Sale

Or, More Silver for the Entertaining Household

There was quite a hubbub in New York over the last several weeks among design, fashion, and society cognoscenti (as well as on the blogosphere) about the Sotheby's auction held in late September of the belongings of the thrice-married Roberta Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor (1902-2007), the third and final wife of Mr. William Vincent Astor (1891-1959), also known as Brooke Astor.

Mrs. Astor's rather tarnished silver (plate),
just arrived at Darlington House

While the sale at Sotheby's on September 24th and 25th of the contents of Mrs. Astor's Park Avenue apartment and her Westchester country house, Holly Hill, elicited a storm of publicity, was heavily attended, and generated almost $19 million in proceeds (more than two times the high estimate), there was another, lesser-known sale of the dowager's effects on October 5th at Stair Galleries, an auction house in the Hudson River Valley.

I attended the preview of the Astor sale at Sotheby's in New York and was captivated by the elegance of the furniture, porcelains, objets de vertu, and art the society legend collected over her very long life.  Sotheby's did a beautiful job of arranging Mrs. Astor's many belongings in room-like settings, which brought to life and provided context for how lovely the spaces they filled must have been in their day.  I came away from the preview with the sense that I had just seen one of the last remnants of a fast-vanishing world of supreme comfort and elegance, exquisite formality, and measured order.  Mrs. Astor clearly lived a very lovely life.  At least until all that unpleasantness at the end, that is.

While there were any number of lots at the Sotheby's preview that caught my fancy, I didn't bother to leave a bid on anything as I suspected everything would go for dizzying prices, given the quality and provenance, and the hoards of souvenir hunters, too.  I was correct, as it turned out.  It all did.

However, I was not particularly bereft as I knew that I would have an opportunity to bid with greater likelihood of success (and at much more reasonable hammer prices) on some of Mrs. Astor's other effects in a week or two, at an upcoming sale of the society legend's lesser, mostly decorative things at Stair Galleries.  And again I was correct.

Stair Galleries is a regional auction house based in Hudson, New York, that does a very good and growing business in antiques, estates, and art.  In addition to a healthy business in direct consignments, Stair also partners from time to time with the larger New York auction houses in selling decorative-quality goods that come along with big-ticket estates but which are not the major houses' primary interest.  It is not unusual to find groups of objects at a Stair sale that are easily identifiable as coming from a known estate that was recently auctioned in New York.

The Stair sale of Mrs. Astor's effects held on October 5th was advertised simply and discreetly by the auction house as a sale of "Property of a Lady," with no mention made or acknowledgment of who the lady in question might be.  However, it was patently obvious from examining the 299 lots in the sale that the unidentified lady could only be Brooke Astor.

The Stair sale of the Property of a Lady was full of decorative goods, including soft furnishings, tables and chairs, lamps, china, silver, bibelots, linens, and clothing.  Unlike the heavily publicized Sotheby's Astor sale, most of the goods sold at the Stair sale went within their very reasonable estimates.  The lots that went above estimate—and there were several—mostly had some kind of clear association or identification with the Astors, such as a monogram or an inscription.

I was not able to attend the auction at Stair, held this past Friday evening, due to an inconveniently scheduled professional obligation at the Investment Bank where I work.  However, Boy and his assistant Nancie Peterson, along with two weekend house guests of ours, did.  All were successful in scooping up attractive bargains at the sale, and every one of them was delighted by their successes.

Boy came away with a large, silver-plated chafing dish, a silver-plated wine cooler, and four wine coasters.  We agreed in advance that he would bid on these items to add to our collection of silver we use when entertaining.  We wanted the chafing dish, even though we already own one, because we find that having more than one is useful when throwing a large buffet party.  We certainly could have used it at the brunch party for 35 guests we held at Darlington House the previous weekend.  Boy bid on the wine cooler because it is a near-match to one we already own that we use on the bar during large parties.  Footed wine coolers are particularly useful because they do not sweat condensation onto one's tablecloths, as do ice buckets.

The 1938 Astor wine cooler (shown on the right) is similar to the 
early-nineteenth-century one we bought years ago (on the left)

Another reason we decided to bid on the Astor wine cooler was because it is amusingly engraved "For Wince from Minnie and Carlo 1938."  "Wince," I am convinced, refers to Vince (as in Vincent) Astor.  The "Minnie" is (or was) Mary Benedict Cushing Astor Fosburgh (1906-1978), one of the famously well- (and frequently) marrying Cushing Sisters, including Betsey Maria Cushing Roosevelt Whitney (1908-1998) and Barbara "Babe" Cushing Mortimer Paley (1915-1978).  Minnie Cushing became the second Mrs. Vincent Astor in 1940, two years after she and "Carlo" gave the wine cooler to her future husband.  I have not been able to identify "Carlo," but Boy suspects that the reason that Vincent Astor is referred to as "Wince" on the cooler is that this Carlo may have had difficulty in pronouncing the "V" in the beneficiary's name.  It's all a play on pronunciation, Dear Reader.

The wine cooler's amusing inscription

I am quite pleased to have the additions of these Astor silver (plate) objects to our collection of silver for the entertaining household at Darlington House, and I look forward to using them at our next large party.  I am confident that they will benefit from a polish quite nicely.

Should anyone reading this essay know the identity of "Carlo," I would be most grateful if you would please share it with me so that I can fill in the missing piece of this engraved puzzle.

Photographs by Boy Fenwick and Reggie Darling

34 comments:

  1. She's lucky you are there to carry on her traditions. I sense she would be quite pleased.

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  2. Hello Reggie, You snagged some useful items at the Astor sale. What they lack in age they make up in provenance.

    The mention of chafing dished brought back memories. My mother had several of them, which she used at parties to serve such dishes as Swedish meatballs, chicken paprikash, etc. (She still makes these, she just no longer uses the chafing dishes.)

    I also recall the weird iridescent-pink color of the sterno that some of the burners operated on, and the bluish flames. At one point we had three or four chafing dishes; I have no idea where they are now, or if they are still in existence.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    Replies
    1. Hello Parnassus, Thank you for your comment. The last two times we used our chafing dish was to serve chicken volouté (last weekend, in fact), and swedish meatballs (this spring). I am a big fan of chafing dishes, and am considering mounting a campaign for their comeback. Reggie

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  3. What a find and such a beautiful addition to your collection.

    A very interesting post

    Helen

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  4. Dear Reggie,
    I do like the look of that chaffing dish. What do the legs look like? In the photo they are hidden by the wine coasters, and I was wondering if it had ornate feet.
    I have no idea who Carlo is but I am sure I recall reading that Wince was Vincent Astor's family nickname.
    Bye for now
    Kirk

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    Replies
    1. Hello Kirk Dale, the legs of the chafing dish terminate in lions' paws, which are quite wonderful. Interesting to learn that Mr. Astor's nickname was Wince, that makes sense to me. Thank you. Reggie

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    2. Lions paws - I knew it! I have turned slightly emerald with envy now.
      Kirk

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  5. I hear that the knock-down prices at this auction were verrrry reasonable! I should have come up!

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    Replies
    1. Hello Meg, yes the hammer prices were very reasonable. You would have enjoyed the sale, I am sure, also the Keith and Chippy Irvine sale held the next day. There was lots to buy! Reggie

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    2. I know Keith died, but is Chippy still living?

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    3. Apparently Mrs. Irvine is very much alive and kicking, and having a ball. We attended the Irvine sale, too, and also came away with some wonderful additions to Darlington House. At the sale we ran into an old friend of ours who we learned is also a friends with Mrs. Irvine, and he reported that she is in fine fettle, indeed. Reggie

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    4. You'll have to share with us what you got at that sale, too, Reggie. I'm glad to hear that Chippy Irvine is still very much alive. Thank you for the update.

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  6. I think the title "Property of a Lady" is a book waiting to happen. Hope you come up with Carlos. Were there any events of 1938 that you can tie it to??? Horses, dogs, sports??? Good for you to come away with such lovely things!

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    1. Hello LPR: All I have been able to find is that Miss Cushing joined the Astors on a three month cruise to the Galapagos Islands in 1938. The wine cooler may have been a thank you gift from her for hosting her. Reggie

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  7. Could Minnie Cushing have owned a dachshund named Carlo? She was quite fond of that breed.

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    1. Hello Mitch, this is quite a brilliant conjecture! I have since provided a link to Aesthetes Lament's recent post on the Stair Astor sale, which is what I meant to do all along. Your comment reminded me to do so! Reggie

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  8. Now years ago, a well noted arbiter of home keeping recommended was it calcium carbonate ??as the method employed by museums to polish silver in a manner to gently achieve the results-- what is RD's fav-0-rite method to polish?

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    1. Hello Anon, thank you for your comment and asking -- we use Goddard's Silver Polish Foam and a lot of elbow grease to clean and polish our silver at Darlington House. We buff the silver with soft old dish towels afterwards. Reggie

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  9. On the subject of silver polish how did Paul Revere keep his wares gleaming did he use ash from the hearth?

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    1. Hello Anon, that is an interesting question you raise... Perhaps another of my readers knows the answer to this? Reggie

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    2. Boy here. When Mr. Revere was making silver, he--or those in his workshop-annealed layer after layer, leaving pure silver on the surface. Pure silver, as does gold, does not tarnish. Polish your early silver too ardently, and rub all the way down to the next silver-and-alloy layer, and you'll never be able to bring up its perfect shine again. --Boy Fenwick

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  10. I find Goddards silver polish hard to find in Sydney ..I've had to buy Hagerty Silver clean. Made in Holland. Now I only have to use it.

    Do you think Carlo could really be a Charles? Very amusing doncha think?

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  11. I'd have preferred the sled.

    (It's Vincent's own "Rosebud"...)

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    1. Yes, dear Ancient, the child's sled was quite charming, but not as useful as the utilitarian articles that we came home with. Reggie

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    2. Ancient, do you have any idea who this "Carlo" may have been? Reggie

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    3. My only suggestion: See if you can't put the two of them together in 1938 in Monte Carlo. (After all, she'd been his mistress for some years before their 1940 marriage.)

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  12. How exciting! I would have loved this, and I'm loving vicariously through you.

    Nice finds by the way.

    Elizabeth

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  13. Oh dahhing Reggie, I could not agree with you more regarding the "fast-vanishing world of supreme comfort and elegance, exquisite formality, and measured order" so true. So few actually relish the formality & enjoyment of a well lived life.
    Your finds & new additions as always are exquisite!

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  14. Wonderful items Reggie and great gossip-fest on the comments!! Love it.

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  15. Hre's a comment from email:

    Hi Reggie,

    I couldn't post my comment because the Captcha wasn't working for some reason.

    Anyhow:

    To clean silver - how about immersing it in hot water with baking
    soda and a piece of aluminum foil? Have tried with smaller pieces and
    it works (chemical reaction).

    Also just a quick guess- could Carlo be Prince Carlo Caracciolo
    (Marella Agnelli's brother) who apparently attended Truman Capote
    parties with Minnie and many other socialites?

    Enjoy your new pieces!

    Marianne

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    Replies
    1. Hello Marianne: Thank you for your comment, and your suggestion re. cleaning silver. I must try it some time. I, too, have wondered if said "Carlo" is Mrs. Agnelli's brother, the prince. I hope that someone will be able to clear this matter up once and for all at some point! Rgds, Reggie

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  16. And another comment from my email inbox:

    Hello darling Reggie,

    I'd put this in your Comments, but your form won't accept my input, besides I only have chronology to offer, alas no identity of Carlo.

    http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/317873/print

    If the above article is to be believed, we know Minnie and Vincent were well into their affair by 1938, the date on your piece of silver. Here are a few key excerpts establishing chronology, I'm guilty of doing a little cobbling, so scan the article for the full info:

    * By the[-early 30s]n his marriage to Helen Astor was in name only and he rarely saw her. It was widely known by then that Helen had a very strong Sapphic side, and although she re-married to Lytle Hull, a man several years her senior and also an old family friend, her intimate life was shared with other women.

    * In the mid-1930s, a woman fifteen years his junior came into his life. Mary Benedict Cushing (known as Minnie)

    * Unlike Helen, Minnie, much to Vincent’s delight, loved the months-long trips on the Nourmahal and even dutifully kept the logs for her “admiral” whom she called “Winsie.” [NOTE: might the author of the above NYSD article have made a slight error due to poor sources for example, might your "Wince" have really been her nickname for Vincent, not "Winsie"? A possibility. And since Minnie "kept the logs," might the adulterers have devised a fictional fellow named Carlo for whom they had to dutifully go ashore to see to? A possibility. Might DPC have a lead/source on Carlo?]

    * The affair continued quite publicly for several years though he was still legally married to Helen, and at a time when people went to great lengths to conceal such truths.

    * Finally in 1940, however, Vincent was persuaded – some say by Minnie’s mother, Kate Cushing – to divorce Helen and marry Minnie.

    I'm intrigued by your mystery, just as intrigued as I was with Marta! I saw Ancient's remark about the sleigh, so I went through the Stair lists and smiled to see Vincent had named the sleigh "Minnie." One more thing, that particular color gray paint on your bench is magnificent.

    Carry on young man, all best to you, Boy and Pompey,

    Your devoted reader [who is hurrying and not proofreading, with apologies...],

    Flo

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    1. Dearest Flo,
      Thank you for your wonderfully informative comment, and your admirable sleuthing. I was aware that the first Mrs. Astor was thought to be a gal-lovin' lady, but I was not aware of (but I am not surprised) that Miss Cushing was carrying on with VA long before her wedding bells rang (or tolled, as it turned out). I was aware that Miss Cushing spent at least three months in 1938 as VA's guest on the Nourmahal, and suspect the wine cooler may have had something to do with recognition of that cruise. Thank you for your comment, m'dear, and I do hope you are well. Fondly, Reggie

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