Which is not to say that it was easy being Brooke Astor’s daughter-in-law. Astor could be capricious, using her wealth as a weapon. One night, when Astor and a friend went to visit the Marshalls, she naughtily announced that she planned to wear her sapphires, telling her date, “Every time I wear them, Charlene looks so envious, I know she wants them.”
When the women quarreled, Astor would hand over pieces from her extraordinary collection to make amends. “As Brooke told it, Charlene would take that jewelry down to Sotheby’s to see what she could get for it,” a male friend says. “A couple of times, Brooke gave her Kenneth Jay Lane, and Charlene thought it was the real thing,” the source says, laughing.
During my fall interview with Anthony Marshall, I mentioned his mother’s two autobiographies, and he went stone-faced and refused to comment. Small wonder, since these long-out-of-print memoirs, Patchwork Child (1963) and Footprints (1980), are wrenching in their honesty about mother-son relations. Astor admits that she was always more concerned with her husbands’ wishes than her son’s well-being. After she married for a second time, she fired the housekeeper who had been caring for Anthony (her new husband disliked the woman) and then shipped off her son at age 10. “I decided that Tony was getting spoiled and should go to boarding school, where he would not have everything his own way,” she wrote. Even years later, Marshall remembers how miserable he was then, saying quietly, “I didn’t like it very much.” Within days of arriving at the Harvey School, the homesick boy ran his sled into a tree and nearly died, an accident his mother described with intense guilt.
After she married Vincent Astor, she further reduced contact with her son, then married to his first wife. “Vincent was jealous of Tony,” she wrote. She adds that Astor “adored my twin baby grandsons … He said he thought we should adopt them, as we ‘had more sense than their parents.’ ”
Brooke Astor had become more involved with her grandsons in recent years, according to her friends and theirs. “I think they wanted to reconnect, because they didn’t really know her growing up,” says one source. The twins were present at Astor’s 100th birthday party at the Rockefeller estate.
In the wake of the accusations, friends of the Marshalls’ have rallied. “They’re nice people,” says Mary Wallace, wife of TV newsman Mike, who worries that her friends will never recover their reputations. “People will remember forever. When you’ve got David Rockefeller and Annette de la Renta and Henry Kissinger on one side, it’s pretty hard to fight.” In a written statement, Charlene’s friend Suzanne Harbour Kahanovitz praises Charlene as “the antithesis of a ‘gold digger.’ ”
Another friend says that Marshall felt especially betrayed by Rockefeller. “This spring, David Rockefeller, who sees almost nothing of Mrs. Astor anymore because he can’t stand to see her in this state, went to visit. He called Tony that day and said, ‘You know, the best thing that can happen is if your mother didn’t wake up one morning soon.’ No one, not even Mr. Rockefeller, thought she could do anything but stay in bed.”
David Richenthal, the Marshalls’ producing partner, has been their most vociferous defender, calling Philip “a disturbed attention-getting young man who is acting irrationally.” The producer, who had an office attached to Astor’s apartment until recently, says, “I can categorically say she’s taken beautiful care of.”
With estimates of Brooke Astor’s fortune ranging from $45 million to $200 million, there is tremendous speculation over what, exactly, is in Astor’s will—kept for years in a briefcase to which only she had the combination. “She’d change her will quite often; that was her declaration of independence,” says one friend. This source also recalls Astor’s reading to him from Andrew Carnegie’s book on philanthropy—“Very little good comes from inherited wealth”—and saying, “Tony won’t want me reading this.” “Brooke’s intention was that Tony was going to have a certain amount, but she was going to give most away ... I don’t think Tony is a bad person, but you could see the anger. He wanted to be his own person, and he could never do that until she was gone.”
It’s quite an accomplishment to reach the century mark, much less in good health. Even into the past few years, Brooke Astor still lunched at the Knickerbocker Club. And then she dropped out of sight. Friends are now feeling remiss. “She wasn’t registering who was visiting her,” says Oz Elliott, a former dean of Columbia School of Journalism. “It just seemed to be not very productive for her or for us, so we tailed off.” Several friends insisted they tried to see her but were discouraged by Charlene Marshall or the staff.