Saturday, March 22, 2008

"The Vernon Stories of Jacobus Van Brug" is now joined by "PAST MATTERS"!

The general ease of posting essays online using Blogger has convinced me to set up shop here. I'll be posting new articles as well as ones from the past on a regular basis.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Sussex County Astor Connection

[from October 2006].

The headline screamed from the front page of the New York tabloid: “DISASTER FOR MRS. ASTOR.—Son forces society queen to live on peas and porridge in dilapidated Park Ave. duplex.” 104-year-old Brooke Astor, until recently the Queen Bee of New York high society and philanthropy, is the subject of a court case between her son, Anthony D. Marshall, and her grandson, Philip Marshall. The grandson alleges his father (in control of the family’s $45 million fortune) is forcing his grandmother to live in a state of neglect. Such melodrama wouldn’t normally interest me, but I grabbed this paper.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the story, but it has a northern New Jersey connection. You see, Anthony D. Marshall was born as Anthony Dryden Kuser. If that name rings a bell, it should.

Brooke Astor was born in New Hampshire in 1904 as Roberta Brooke Russell. She was from a distinguished family, and in 1919, at the tender age of 17, she was married to a member of an equally distinguished New Jersey family: John Dryden Kuser. The Kusers had emigrated from Switzerland to New Jersey in the 1830s, and had established a small empire of industrial and commercial enterprises, cemented by excellent social and political connections. Kuser’s father, Col. Anthony R. Kuser, had married Susie Dryden, daughter of U.S. Senator John F. Dryden of Newark, founder of the Prudential Insurance Company.

The Kusers, as many will know, are best known in Sussex County for their connection with High Point State Park. Colonel Kuser and his brother acquired the former High Point Inn property in 1910, and soon established it as their private summer estate. The High Point Inn was remodeled as a summer “lodge,” known in recent generations as the Kuser Mansion.

Ultimately, however, the Kusers decided that their High Point property would be better used as a public park, and in 1923 they donated their estate—10,500 acres plus the mansion—to the State of New Jersey. It became High Point State Park, the first state park in New Jersey.

Six years later, the Kusers donated the funds for the construction of High Point Monument, marking the highest point in the State. It was dedicated to veterans of land, sea, and air, in all wars of our country.

As such, the Kuser legacy in Sussex County is one of almost unequalled dedication to philanthropy and outdoor conservation. Of course, even the best families have their dirty laundry. Soon after Brooke Russell married Dryden Kuser, it began to be aired.

Brooke and Dryden Kuser had a son, Anthony Dryden Kuser, in 1924 (the son now accused in court papers). But otherwise their marriage rapidly fell apart. Dryden Kuser was a respected ornithologist, a State Senator, and gave the address when High Point Monument was dedicated in 1930. But Brooke Russell Kuser accused her husband of being, basically, a hard-drinking, physically abusive philanderer. In a later book, “Footprints: An Autobiography,” written in 1980, she called these years “the worst of her life.” In addition to raking Dryden Kuser over the coals, she had tart words for her father-in-law, Colonel Kuser, whom she regarded as a dictatorial martinet who enjoyed berating his household staff.

The Kusers divorced in 1932 (it made the papers), and Brooke Russell Kuser married Charles Marshall (related to the Marshall Field department store family) in 1932. Relations were sufficiently strained with her first husband that her son, Anthony Kuser, changed his name to Anthony Marshall when he enlisted in the Army during World War II. It seems that despite the genetic connection, the family never much looked back at their Kuser heritage, and are said to feel little connection to the High Point property and the philanthropy it represents.

Charles Marshall later died, and Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall married Vincent Astor in 1953. Astor was the last surviving member of the great Astor dynasty, and one of the richest men in America. The Vincent Astor Foundation, run by Brooke Astor for decades, was a preeminent New York charity, and Mrs. Astor ruled New York high society.

After a career in real estate, Dryden Kuser was hired by the State of New Jersey as a consultant at the park his parents had donated. He lived in a house at the park (on Route 23), and for a time operated a restaurant in the Nature Center building with his last wife. He died in the late 1960s. Kuser Mansion, as most people know, was for decades a focal point of High Point State Park. Neglected for many years, it was finally torn down in 1995.

It seems sad that Mrs. Astor, probably one of the last living people to have visited High Point when it was still the Kuser’s private summer estate, has nothing but bad memories of those days. Sad, too, that the surviving family feels equally divorced from the good deeds High Point State Park represents. And saddest of all that a life that attracted tabloid headlines early, but became known for unparalled good deeds, now seems to be playing out its last chapter in the same unfortunate way.