An interview with Meryl Gordon, whose latest is Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

PW: What was your reason for writing Mrs. AstorRegrets?

MG: There are a handful of names in American life, the Kennedys, the Vanderbilts, that will have a longer legacy than, say, Trump has a name. And I think this stuff struck everybody’s fears. How could somebody so well loved and so well known find herself in this situation? There’s a tremendous curiosity about how it’s going to play itself out. It has been gratifying to me that people think the book is balanced. I felt when it all began that {Brooke’s son] Tony and Charlene Marshall and Francis Marcy were caricatures—they seemed like villains with a capital V. So one of the things I tried to do is talk to their friends and learn about their lives so you can learn about who they are and how they came to this moment.

PW: What’s the fascination with reading about the moneyed classes?

MG: What I think these books do—certainly Mrs. Astor in particular—is take you behind closed doors. It takes you to the Metropolitan Museum where you see [son] Tony being shunned by the board. It takes you to the Knickerbocker Club where you and I could not stroll in off the street. It gives you these scenes, these private glimpses of a very different world. Also, it is a vanishing New York in some ways. Brooke Astor [in the book] is 105 years old and that whole social world that was the high society, wealth-dominated world is fading fast. And I think we have this fantasy that other people, wealthier people have these happier or less complicated lives. If you look at what happened to Brooke Astor, her son and her grandson, I think people take a deep breath and think, Wow, things are pretty good around my house.

PW: You interviewed a great number of people for the book. How did you get them all to talk with you?

MG: When I first started I couldn’t get anyone to talk to me; they were burnt out by the tabloids’ attention. But it was several things at once that worked in my favor. It helped that I had worked at New York magazine and I had interviewed all these people like Mike Bloomberg, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Kofi Annan. So people could look at my work and see that I was a responsible and balanced journalist. Also if you work in New York long enough you meet a large cast of characters, so there were people I knew who weren’t involved directly with the story but who were peripherally involved and who gave me names. Also, Brooke Astor went out every single night of the week. She loved the charity galas and was always scheduled to the nines. So I realized that if I was going to work in this world I’d better start going where she was going. So I got dressed up and went out on the town. I also did something very different. Normally, if you want to talk to people you call them up. But this is a more formal world. I wrote letters on beautiful stationery with copies of my clips. Every time I did an interview I wrote a thank-you note. I just sent a book to Nancy Reagan and I got a thank-you note from her. I was really touched. I never thought I’d have a life where I’d get thank-you notes from Nancy Reagan.

PW: What made the Astors “beyond reproach,” as your subtitle notes?

MG: Among the families that were part of the New York 400 there was the sense of living in a protected world, in which something happens and no one talks about it in public. They might have thought they were beyond reproach. Mrs. Astor herself was perceived in public as New York’s Lady Bountiful; I still find her to be a remarkable woman but she was much more complicated in some ways. She was a great friend to have but she was not the best of mothers. Some of the things that happened 70-80 years ago have had repercussions today. Brooke Astor had written in her autobiography about having an abusive first marriage but she had so kept on with life with a stiff upper lip she had barely really talked about it. It was once I really started to make phone calls that I got a sense of what her last years had been that her first bad marriage to a man who was a womanizer, who broke her jaw when she was pregnant, she indicated that her first son Tony was the product of marital rape, you started to realize that there was no self-help section when she was coming of age. She buried a lot of stuff that was with her all her life. There was a sadder side of her but she just kept going.