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The Family Astor

The Brooke Astor scandal may be a tale of elder abuse. But it’s also just another sad chapter in the family’s history of parental estrangement.


Brooke Astor, 2002, at 100 years old.  

Anthony Marshall and his wife, Charlene, live in a sunny apartment on East 79th Street, lushly decorated with a grand piano and a wall of books. Last fall, long before the accusations that Anthony was abusing his mother, philanthropist Brooke Astor, I interviewed the couple with the goal of writing about Astor, who was 103 at the time and reportedly in ill health.

In our phone conversation, Marshall had promised to discuss his mother, but he had changed his mind once I arrived. After serving iced tea, he announced, “I really don’t want to talk about my mother. She can’t talk for herself, so I don’t think I should talk for her. Maybe you should have your drink and go.” Instead, he offered an ­alternative. “I thought that maybe you wanted to talk to me about my life,” he said, “which I would be delighted to do.”

Yet over the next 40 minutes, Marshall proceeded to talk quite a bit about his mother—or at least talk around her, with a complex mixture of pique and pride. His dachshund Pichou lay at his feet. And his wife sat by his side, raising roadblocks whenever the conversation turned to her ­mother-in-law.

“I’ve had a very independent life,” Marshall began. He’s a courtly man with plummy upper-class diction. But even as he cited his accomplishments (enlisting in the Marine Corps and being wounded at Iwo Jima, a stint at the State Department, ambassadorships in Kenya and Trinidad, brokerage work and international consulting, writing seven books), all roads led to Brooke. Marshall said he put aside his own career back in 1979 to focus on managing her money. “I was very glad to do it, because once I got into it, I discovered that things were being mismanaged badly. Very badly.” He portrayed himself as a dutiful son, but he couldn’t resist a bit of upmanship: “I’m on the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. My mother was never on that.”

I noted that the Marshalls were not major players in Upper East Side society, and he replied, “You’re right. My mother loved people. I love people but on a different basis. My mother had”—he corrected himself—“has lots of friends, although a lot of them are dying off.” The Marshalls have become theatrical producers in recent years, in partnership with David Richenthal, backing the Tony Award–winning show I Am My Own Wife. When I remarked that the couple are not regulars in the New York Times society photos, Charlene snapped, “No. We’re not by choice.”

Marshall is the child of Brooke Astor’s first marriage, at age 17, to John Dryden Kuser, a wealthy New Jersey man she has described as an alcoholic, womanizing wife beater. After they divorced, she fell for stockbroker Charles “Buddie” Marshall, who left his family for her, and when they married, Marshall adopted Anthony. That act prompted Kuser to sue his own son to get back child-support money. Astor wrote about that court battle, which her son won: “I rather agreed with the judge­—people who fight over money never seem to me to deserve to have any!” Eleven months after Buddie Marshall died in 1952, Brooke married Vincent Astor—a pairing arranged by Vincent’s wife, who had promised to find him a replacement before she divorced him.

As we spoke, Marshall, unprompted, began to reminisce about the one family member who gave him unconditional love: his maternal grandfather, Major General John Henry Russell. “My grandfather was the compass of my life. Still is, although he died in 1947. He was a wonderful person. I spent a lot of time with him. He wrote me a great deal, gave me very good advice,” said Marshall, who named his boat after his grandfather. “He never dictated, never said, ‘You must do this, you must do that.’ ”

I asked whether his mother and step­fathers were similarly supportive. Charlene interrupted, saying, “You don’t want to get into that.” Marshall echoed her. “No, that’s too close.”

In the tabloids, the Astor saga has been framed as a tale of elder abuse, a legendary philanthropist deprived of proper care in her final years. And certainly it’s good to know that Brooke Astor—an iconic figure in New York society—will ­likely live her last days in comfort, surrounded by the fresh flowers she loves. But the story of the Astor lawsuit is also something simpler and sadder, a tale of parental neglect, repeated generations over. Brooke Astor is a magnificent benefactor and a legendary hostess, but she was, by her own account, a lousy mother. Marshall has little relationship with his own son Philip. For that matter, Vincent Astor, the one who left Brooke all the money, was neglected by his mother, Ava Astor—in one infamous story, he was left in a dressing-room closet to cry until a butler found him hours later.


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