A few weeks before he filed the legal papers that rocked the Upper East Side, Brooke Astor’s grandson Philip Marshall went to lunch with a friend, Sam Adams. As the two ate pizza at the Feast or Famine restaurant in Warren, Rhode Island, Philip anguished about his decision to file suit against his father. “Philip is mild-mannered,” says Adams, the director of new media at East Bay Newspapers. “I’ve never heard him express animosity towards his father. But he saw something wrong, and he felt he couldn’t shirk from it.” Naïve as it appears now, Philip thought this would remain a family matter. “He thought it would be quiet,” Adams says, “that he would just solve the problem.”
Despite his fancy lineage, Philip, 53, a tenured professor of historic preservation at Roger Williams University, was never part of the upper crust, according to his friends. He had no trust fund. His parents divorced in 1960, and at the time he filed suit, Philip had not seen his father in two years and had last spoken to him one year back, to wish him happy birthday. But during occasional visits to his grandmother, he had befriended her staff, whose concerns ultimately jolted him into action—along with the knowledge that potential allies, including Annette de la Renta (Oscar’s wife), were also stepping in. (According to her friends, De la Renta confronted Anthony last summer and persuaded him to bring Brooke Astor to her beloved country house at Holly Hill, near Tarrytown.)
Philip’s twin brother, Alec, a photographer, wanted to stay neutral; a source close to the family says that Alec refused information about the suit from both sides.
The response to Philip’s action was explosive. After Philip filed the suit—backed by affidavits from Astor’s staff, Annette de la Renta, David Rockefeller, and Henry Kissinger—Judge John Stackhouse removed control of his grandmother’s care from his father, who has been paid $2.3 million a year to oversee her affairs, and named De la Renta temporary guardian. Astor was whisked first to Lenox Hill Hospital and then to Holly Hill. “Mrs. Astor improved dramatically at Lenox Hill,” says Fraser Seitel, a De la Renta spokesman. “She’s eating and seeing visitors and walking with help.” The Marshalls have been besieged, periodically issuing angry rebuttals. De la Renta has not talked to reporters, but she’s burning up the phone lines. “Annette just wants the best for Brooke,” says a society-page name who had just gotten off the phone with De la Renta. “She’s glad she got her to Holly Hill. Annette told me, ‘I hope Brooke slips away up at a place she adores.’ ”
Brooke Astor was always candid about the fact that she was not the motherly type. “Brooke was intellectually curious, socially gregarious, a huge reader, but one of the top ten roles in her life was not being a mother,” says one socialite friend. Another friend takes it a step further, saying, “It was not a good relationship. Brooke just basically didn’t like [Anthony]. He was pretty drippy. He was what I call a ‘manqué’—not quite made it.” But at the same time, many of her friends say that Marshall always seemed to be a conscientious son. After the Daily News revealed the details of the lawsuit, with its sordid allegations of Mrs. Astor’s sleeping in a ripped nightgown on a urine-soaked couch, her friends pointed the finger at Marshall’s twenty-years-younger third wife. As one longtime confidante of Mrs. Astor’s puts it, “Charlene is Lady Macbeth.”
The relationship between the two women did not begin well. Anthony was separated from his second wife when he met Charlene in Northeast Harbor, Maine, where Astor has a seven-acre estate; Charlene was married at the time to Paul Gilbert, the rector at St. Mary’s-by-the-Sea. According to one of Astor’s intimates, “Tony turned to Brooke and asked, ‘Who is that woman who walks by our house every morning?’ Brooke said, ‘That’s the minister’s wife.’ Tony said, ‘I think we should go to church.’ ”
Nan Lincoln, the arts editor of the Bar Harbor Times, recalls dinners at the rectory, where Charlene was a well-liked hostess, and the speculation that erupted when she left her husband: “Was she a gold digger, or was this a romantic love story—the poor stifled parson’s wife who finds the man of her dreams?”
Patricia Scull of Northeast Harbor, who is 88, used to invite Charlene and Paul over for Thanksgiving. “She had a hard time with the vicar, and she wanted to be rich,” says Scull. “She came from South Carolina, and she used to say, ‘My sister is married to the richest man in Charleston, and here I am, a poor minister’s wife.’ But she seemed like such a sweet girl. I keep thinking those three people—Kissinger and Rockefeller and the woman—wouldn’t have signed those affidavits unless they knew something. No one’s going to defend her here. She’s become the villain.”