Mrs. Astor RegretsThe Hidden Betrayals Behind A Family Beyond Reproach
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2008 Meryl Gordon
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-618-89373-7
Trial by Tabloid
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When god created tabloids, that Tuesday after Thanksgiving was surely the kind of day he had in mind. On the morning of November 27, 2007, New York City's two leading practitioners of that irreverent style of newspapering were thirsty for blue blood. Though the New York Times maintained judicious restraint, both the Post and the Daily News bannered the latest twist in the most talked-about high-society scandal in years, the saga of the late Brooke Astor and her only child, Anthony Marshall. She was, of course, the glamorous socialite and philanthropist who had transformed herself, thanks to cranky Vincent Astor's charming fortune, into a beloved philanthropist and influential American icon.
Her son, a clubbable war hero, former ambassador, and award-winning Broadway producer, had been transformed at age eighty-three from the epitome of WASP rectitude to a handcuffed suspect facing an eighteen-count indictment. Tony Marshall's fall from grace was abetted by his mother, his son, his attorney (who was charged in the same indictment), and the tabloids (which were just doing their thing). Charged with grand larceny, falsifying business records, conspiracy, and possession of stolen property, Marshall was looking at the specter of a quarter-century behind bars. "BAD BOY," scolded the News. "CROOK ASTOR," snarled the Post.
The headlines referred to his alleged scheme to swindle his mother's millions from her favored cultural institutions (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library) into his own accounts. But the case was always as much about family as it was about money. It began sixteen months earlier with the seismic jolt from charges by Tony Marshall's son Philip, a college professor, who alleged that his 104-year-old grandmother had descended from Park Avenue splendor to gentrified squalor (despite eight squabbling servants). Taken up with lynch-mob ferocity by the tabloids were such allegations as Tony's seemingly selfish refusal to allow his mother to visit her country estate, his inexplicable sale of her favorite painting, and the claim that Mrs. Astor (yes, Mrs. Astor) was spending her declining days lying on a dog-urine-stained couch.
So began this upper-crust reality soap opera. Here in a nouveau riche age was America's true aristocracy, the arbiters of society, the twenty-first century's link to the New York of Edith Wharton and Henry James. But in this world of emeralds and Astors, things were not always what they seemed. Resentments seethed just below the surface, and ambition was cloaked in polished manners. The hired help, from the butler to the social secretary to Mrs. Astor's nurses, would be drawn into the fray, testing their loyalty and discretion.
Past and present intertwined during the final reels of the Brooke Astor story, harking back to her failures as a mother and to the girl she had been, a teenage bride married off to a dashing millionaire whose acts of violence would haunt her for more than eighty years. This family drama involved a son whose mother, father, and succession of stepfathers left him with no sense of how a loving parent might behave. And then there was the money, nearly $200 million, a ruthless American fortune built on the lust for fur pelts and Manhattan real estate.
At 7:58 a.m., Tony Marshall arrived at the Manhattan district attorney's office at One Hogan Place to turn himself in. White-haired and courtly, he wore a dark, well-tailored suit with his Marine Corps tie and clasp, clinging defiantly to these symbols of accomplishment and propriety. In the grim squad room on the ninth floor, Marshall was given paperwork to fill out-the business of being arrested. With its fluorescent lights, beat-up furniture, stacked water-cooler bottles, and jail cell with rusted metal bars, this setting must have seemed a harsh rebuke to a man accustomed to antiques, fine art, and regularly freshened floral arrangements.
In the upper reaches of society, it is not enough to acquire wealth; it must be protected from interlopers, some of whom are family members. As a young man in his twenties, Tony Marshall made his first court appearance, nearby in another Foley Square building, when his biological father unsuccessfully sued him in an effort to wrest away Tony's trust fund. Brooke Astor had been taken to court over money as well, battling to protect her full share of Vincent Astor's millions and fend off claims from one of her husband's aggrieved family members.
But these squabbles had been mere civil matters, quarrels among family members without the involvement of the authorities. Tony Marshall was handcuffed when detectives escorted him downstairs for his mug shot and fingerprinting. The latter proved surprisingly complicated. Modern fingerprinting machines are not calibrated for aging digits, which leave indistinct markings. Several attempts were made before the detectives finally resorted to the ink method. Back in the squad room, Marshall was offered a nutrition bar, orange juice, and a banana, but declined. A member of the Knickerbocker Club, the New York Racquet Club, and the Brook Club, on a normal day he would have been lunching among the city's elite.
By the time he was paraded in full perp-walk fashion across the street to the courthouse at 111 Centre Street, his face was ashen and his hair disheveled. Here was another photo opportunity in the unrehearsed spectacle of New York, seized on by the mobs of cameramen and journalists who had been staking out the building for six hours, eager to capture Tony Marshall's downfall in time for the news at five. A news vendor hawking a stack of newspapers yelled out, "The rich stealing from the rich, find out what happened." Spying the defendant, the vendor cried out, "Mr. Marshall, why did you do it? Do you have anything to say?"
Walking slowly into the courtroom, Tony appeared to have aged dramatically in just a few hours, the portrait of Dorian Gray. His alarmed wife, Charlene, hurried up the aisle and wrapped her arms around him, covering his face with kisses. As she ran her hands through his mussed hair, Tony wiped tears from his eyes. Grasping his arm in support, Charlene walked down the aisle by his side, repeating, "We'll be okay, we'll be okay." Moments later he joined his lawyers at the wooden table and faced Justice A. Kirke Bartley, Jr., a former prosecutor known for trying mob boss John Gotti.
Rising to her feet as the hearing began, the prosecutor Elizabeth Loewy solemnly told the judge, "Despite his mother's generosity when she was well, he used his position of trust to steal from her." Handed a copy of the indictment accusing him of fraud, conspiracy, and theft, Tony Marshall read through it slowly, as if having trouble comprehending the words. When asked to respond to the charges, he whispered, "Not guilty."
Three months earlier, at the age of 105, Brooke Astor had passed away at her Westchester country home, Holly Hill. For nearly a century she had presented herself to the world as a woman with a good-natured and witty persona, keeping her secrets and sorrows at bay. But as her life began to draw to a close, her dreams grew more vivid and disturbing; imaginary intruders pursued her. In her last year, she was dangerously fragile and afflicted with a Merck Manual of ailments. A voracious reader and the author of four books, she had lost the ability to speak in full sentences but could still communicate using gestures or facial expressions. Each morning the nurses would hold up a choice of outfits (mostly from Eileen Fisher) and Mrs. Astor would point to indicate her preference. "She could make her will known," says her social worker, Lois Orlin. "If she didn't want something or she liked something, you could tell." Even near the end, keeping up appearances still mattered, as she clung to her sense of dignity.
As Brooke drifted through the days, gazing idly out the picture windows at the trees and gardens of her estate, her staff devised ways to remind her of the glory of her life and past good times. A favorite tactic was propping up on a lectern the photo album with pictures from Brooke's one hundredth birthday party. "She really loved them," recalls her physical therapist, Sandra Foschi. "She looked in closely." The staff paged quickly past the photographs of Tony and Charlene, fearful that Mrs. Astor might find the sight upsetting. Sometimes Brooke would smile in recognition of the faces of her friends. Other times, overcome with memories, she would weep. "It was very emotional for her," says Foschi. "She would tear up, she would hang her head down. It brought great joy but also great sadness."
Perhaps her reaction reflected change and loss. But maybe in some corner of her mind she sensed the troubles that were tearing apart the family that she had come to care about too late.