From time to time the news cycle offers up an event of such import and complexity that it can only be comprehended through the medium of musical theater. This week resident composer Ben Greenman looks at the past and future of Brooke Astor, long the queen of New York society.
[BROOKE ASTOR sits on a couch in a room. She eats peas and oatmeal and waits for her son TONY to visit. She eats some more peas and oatmeal, falls asleep, wakes with a start.]
When I got to a hundred and four
I figured I couldn't go on anymore
When I got to a hundred and five
It made no sense to still be alive.
Now I'm terrified
Nothing's been clarified
What if this ordeal never
ends? What if I go on forever?
[DEATH comes in through the window. He knocks over a stack of bedpans and newspapers that has been left there.]
It's filthy in here!
[DEATH takes out his iPhone and checks the calendar. He looks at the screen, looks at BROOKE ASTOR, and touches a button on the screen.]
Check and check
Time's up, Mrs. Astor
I wish that the last few years
Could have gone faster.
[BROOKE ASTOR realizes her visitor is not her son TONY.]
You've come to give me my final reward?
I'm much obliged. I've been so bored.
I'm glad that you don't seem nervous
If anything, I feel expectant.
Let me spray some disinfectant
And then I'll show you our new service
[DEATH sits down next to BROOKE ASTOR, shows her his iPhone, and taps it with its finger. A movie appears onscreen.]
Talking pictures on a tiny transistor
Will modern wonders never cease?
Select one memory to watch
And then it's time for sweet release
Choosing just one seems terribly reckless
It's like singling out just one diamond necklace
Most of my customers pick their first moment of being
There's something about it that they find freeing.
[BROOKE ASTOR agrees to watch her own birth. It is March, 1902, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. JOHN HENRY RUSSELL, JR. and his wife, Mabel Cecile Hornby Howard Russell, have just become the parents of a baby girl.]
JOHN HENRY RUSSELL, JR.:
This child's name is Roberta Brooke Russell
It's a lovely long name that trips off of the tongue
I'm in the Marines, so we'll travel all over
She'll live nearly everywhere while she's still young
First, off to China, then Hawaii, then Haiti
Roberta will be a truly worldly young lady
[DEATH taps the screen again and the movie vanishes.]
Pretty sweet, huh?
This thing makes it easy
It can also store
All of my MP3s, see?
Something in here really reeks
It's like milk's been left out for weeks.
And I don't know how you're enduring
Sleeping soaked in your own urine.
[BROOKE ASTOR isn't listening. She's lost in a reverie.]
We went off to China, to Hawaii, to Haiti
I did learn to be a worldly young lady
When I was just seventeen, I wed John Dryden Kuser
A cheat and a scoundrel, a drunk, an abuser
We were pledged to each other by rule of law
But when I was with child, John shattered my jaw
[DEATH, nonplussed that he's being ignored, interrupts.]
You usually get just one quick scene
And then I make the lights go dark
But I think you earn a bonus moment
When you pass the century mark
Would you like to watch
The birth of your son?
I'll show you that, too
And then we'll be done
[DEATH taps the screen again, and it shows BROOKE, in 1924, holding her son TONY.]
BROOKE KUSER, 1924:
This darling newborn baby boy
Will be a source of joy, indeed
No child of mine will ever know
The painful ache of want or need
Material comforts, yes,
Are part of what I mean by this
But also my love and devotion
A mother's touch, a mother's kiss
I will hold him to my heart
And I will hold him to my brow
And goodness will pass into him
Like lifeblood; I can feel it now.
[DEATH taps the screen again and the movie vanishes. DEATH and BROOKE ASTOR sit silently for a second. BROOKE ASTOR turns to DEATH and grasps his hand.]
When you first came in, I thought you were Tony.
He's my son, but he's old, and his fingers are bony.
Can you believe that he is eighty-three?
He's the one who takes care of me.
I may be mistaken, but I don't feel
You should live on a diet of peas and oatmeal
When you have two hundred million dollars
Why should you suffer these pitiful squalors?
He tries to do as best as he can
Still, it's too much to ask of an elderly man.
Let's not start a conversation
The train's about to leave the station.
I granted you an extra showing
But now we really must be going.
[BROOKE ASTOR eyes the iPhone.]
I'm really excited to get where we're heading
But could I please look-see at my second wedding?
After ten years of beatings, I got a divorce
Married again in a few years, of course.
He was Charles Marshall, a broker in town
I remember the weather and my wedding gown.
He was heaven on earth, my one and my only.
Not for a moment was I sad or lonely
We were joined at the hip. We were one and the same.
I even made sure that my son took his name.
He sounds great
A real prize
But we're running late
So say your goodbyes
If my call for my second husband won't be heard
Then perhaps you could give me a glimpse of my third.
He was not a man of great popularity
But he helped me develop a strong sense of charity.
I'll do you a favor
But I need for you
To sign this waiver
[BROOKE ASTOR signs. DEATH begrudgingly shows her a series of scenes from the fifties and sixties during and after her marriage to VINCENT ASTOR. Most focus on her altruism.]
BROOKE ASTOR, 1962:
Wealth is faintly shameful
That is what I've found
Money's like manure.
It should be spread around.
Is the topic. Let's start giving.
Here you go, museum—I think that you will find
That you made out as well as the Lighthouse for the Blind
The public library, too, received a gift from me
I bankrolled the Fresh Air Fund's recent jubilee
Sooner or later you'll all feel my generosity
I'm giving away money with a breathless velocity
[DEATH sets the iPhone on the table.]
That's it. That's curtains. That's the end.
It's time to hit the road, my friend.
Can I see one thing from sixty-four?
After that, I promise, I won't ask for more.
We have to stop.
The shop is closed.
Don't make me sorry
I showed you those.
[BROOKE ASTOR grabs DEATH's cloak.]
I'm not so sure
What I'm demanding.
I want to see another scene from long ago.
These final grueling years have been a horror show
Dotage, infirmity, Alzheimer's disease
They've all been killing me by degrees
I forget more than half of the things that I've said
My mind's unmade like a child's bed
It's bleak and it's wretched. I'm sick and depressed.
So please do your damndest to meet my request
And show me life when it was good.
I devoutly wish you would.
I can't. We're done.
That was the last one.
I'm using the john
And then we'll get gone
[DEATH goes to the bathroom, leaving the iPhone on the table. BROOKE ASTOR picks up the iPhone and taps it. She touches the wrong button. Instead of showing her the past, it shows her the present. In it, she sees her son Tony lying about her financial circumstance and siphoning money out of her estate. BROOKE ASTOR tries to turn it off, but inadvertently presses another button and sees the future, in which Tony is arrested for larceny and forgery. BROOKE ASTOR gasps.]
Could this be what's happening
And what happens later?
Could my own son mistreat me
And act the vile traitor?
I almost wish that I could remain
And smack him hard in the head with my cane
[DEATH returns from the bathroom. BROOKE ASTOR hides the iPhone behind her back.]
Okay. Good to go?
Let's get to the crypt
Young man, I must tell you
Your fly is unzipped.
[DEATH looks down, embarrassed. BROOKE ASTOR quickly replaces the iPhone. DEATH picks it up and holds out his hand to her. She takes it. She is light on her feet and he says so. She smiles graciously. An hour later, TONY MARSHALL comes to visit his mother. He finds her sitting in her chair. He feeds her some peas and oatmeal. He has her sign some papers. She mumbles "waiver," which he does not understand. He leaves. Five months later, she dies.]
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction. His latest book, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both, was recently published.