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Mrs. Astor's Baby

The fight for a mother's love, and money.

MOTHER Brooke Astor, January 21, 1999  

Near midnight on August 11, Anthony Marshall and his wife, Charlene, approached the front door of Holly Hill, the Westchester estate that belonged to his mother, Brooke Astor, who was dying. As they drew close, Mrs. Astor’s British butler posted himself in the doorway and shot his arms to the sides.

"You can’t come in here," he told Charlene. "I have my instructions."

The instructions had been issued by Annette de la Renta, Brooke’s dear friend and now Tony’s adversary. The State Supreme Court in Manhattan had awarded her control over Brooke’s final days after Tony’s own son Philip charged that Tony had abused Brooke, denying her the care she needed. The accusations transformed Tony into a tabloid villain, the greedy, mean-spirited son of society’s grande dame. Now he was vilified even by the butler, whom he’d once fired and whom Annette swiftly rehired.

Tony entered Brooke’s country house alone. He made his way to a guest bedroom, where he found Annette sitting with the Reverend Charles Pridemore, his mother’s local priest. Tony, in tie and Marine Corps tie clasp, walked slowly to Annette and stood in front of her. He’s hard of hearing. He wanted to be close.

"I know that Charlene has not been permitted to visit my mother in a year," he told Annette stiffly, "but I would like it if she could come up and see my mother. This may be the last time."

"No," she said vehemently. "You have to talk with lawyers."

Tony thought this was cruel and unjust and horrible. But there was nothing to be done—he couldn’t disobey the court.

Tony walked to his mother’s bedroom, followed by the Reverend Pridemore. Out one window, he could glimpse the Hudson River and some of the 65 acres of the estate his mother loved to stroll with her dogs. Brooke Astor, who was once, as many a journalist said, the most popular person in New York, lay under a soft pink quilt. She’d been dressed in white, her hands folded, a prayer book placed under her arms. "I had a wonderful life," she often said, and left instructions to use the phrase on her tombstone. It was also an improbably long life. In her 105 years, she’d become a living monument, giving away $200 million from "my foundation,"as she called it.

Now she had trouble breathing, she could barely swallow; her arms were black from poor circulation. She weighed perhaps 75 pounds. Tony sat on the pink quilt and shuffled the frail woman into his arms. Her makeup was done. The nurses had put it on just as she liked. Red lips, blue eye shadow, pink cheeks.

Someone had removed photos of Tony from the marble-topped table next to her bed. Tony’s mother wouldn’t have stood for that, or any of this, he thought. But she hadn’t been able to communicate in a year.

His mother made a sound, a little groan. She knows I’m here, Tony thought.

The Reverend Pridemore read from the Book of Common Prayer, prayers for ministration at the time of death.

“Amen,” Tony said and cried.

Two days later, Brooke Astor, worth $132 million—plus a charitable trust worth an additional $60 million—and who once had been the beloved doyenne of New York society, passed away. And the fight over her legacy began in earnest.

“My mother loved me,” Tony tells me the first time we talk. He’s 83 now, with white hair and watery blue eyes and in the black tie he’s often worn since his mother died. We’re in the living room of his apartment on East 79th Street, an apartment his mother gave him. The room is compact, with chintz furniture, dark coffee tables, no decorator’s touch. Tony has an upper-class accent. (“A-gane,” he says for again.) Charlene sits by Tony’s side; their lawyer and two public-relations people are also in the room.

“Where would you like to start?” Tony asks me. “Trips we took together? How much I saw her in New York? Early years? Mid-years?”

Tony begins with the early years. “She was always there when I needed her,” he says. “Whenever I got sick. When I had a terrible nosebleed, my mother put me next to her in her bed. I stayed right in her bed till the next day.”

He skips ahead. “She loved me in many different ways through the years. She loved me by giving me gifts, whether monetary or an object or Cove End,” her summer estate in Maine. “She also loved me because she included me in trips. One trip was wonderful, starting in Venice, ending in Monte Carlo, where Grace Kelly and her husband came onboard and had a drink.”