Charlene, who is 62 and Tony’s third wife, interjects, distilling Tony’s points. “Brooke had a cluster of personal friends, but her closest companion for 83 years was Tony,” she says. “Not only was he her trusted adviser, but when she felt down, when she had a problem or a concern, it was always Tony she went to.”
Proving a mother’s love may seem a pathetic undertaking—but that’s the situation in which Tony now finds himself. The wills and codicils Brooke signed late in life speed up the process by which Tony comes into his inheritance, and give him more. Upon Tony’s death, Charlene stands to get much more—as much as $50 million—than she was due in wills Brooke signed as late as 2002. And Tony gets more control over Brooke’s charitable giving, and even his own, eponymous foundation. At stake are the millions she’d left in earlier wills to favored charities like the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which stand to lose some $10 million each. (Of course, they are some of Annette de la Renta’s favorite charities, too.) Annette and others have challenged the wills: It’s obvious to them that if Brooke had been mentally competent, she wouldn’t have favored Tony and Charlene in these ways. Lately, the district attorney has joined the accusers. A grand jury is considering indictments.
To all this, Tony has a simple rebuttal.“My mother loved me,” he tells me. “That’s what I’m trying to get over.”
Of course, being Brooke Astor’s son was never easy. Her boundless energy—her “pep,” as she called it—migrated toward her social life, at the center of which was one husband or another, none of whom had much affection for Tony. Tony’s biological father, John Dryden Kuser, Brooke’s first husband, couldn’t have cared less about his son. Buddie Marshall, Brooke’s next husband, was the love of her life. Tony respected him and took his name, a kind of reverse adoption, in the words of Brooke’s biographer, Frances Kiernan. But Buddie didn’t reciprocate. He felt Tony was spoiled, and selected a boarding school to which Tony was shipped off when he was 11.
After Buddie died in 1952, Vincent Astor entered Brooke’s life. Staggeringly rich and with a gilded New York name, he was also notoriously difficult. “Repulsive,” as Louis Auchincloss, the writer and Brooke’s longtime friend, puts it. “He had bad manners and he showed them all the time.” Astor’s wife, fed up, decided to leave, but first agreed to find a suitable replacement. The leading candidate was the beautiful Janet Rhinelander Stewart, according to Kiernan, whose insightful biography of Brooke appeared this year. Stewart, who had her own money, shot Astor down, even after he assured her that his doctors gave him just three years to live because of emphysema. “But Vincent, what if the doctors are wrong?” Stewart replied.
Brooke was next in line. And the second time they met, Astor proposed to her. Buddie hadn’t left Brooke enough to maintain her way of life. Astor assured Brooke she’d have $1 million for marrying him, $5 million if she stuck it out a year.
A short time later, Brooke asked Tony, then 29, for advice, He knew she wanted him to say yes. “Think about the life you would lead,” he said. Within a year of Buddie’s death, she and Astor married, another bit of sad paternal luck for Tony.
“Vincent was very jealous of me and any time I would spend with her,” says Tony. “He didn’t want us to see each other.”
And Brooke acceded. “I saw very little of Tony,” she writes succinctly in her memoir. “I concentrated on Vincent.”
“Brooke married Astor for the money,” says Auchincloss, now 90. “She kept her part of the bargain: to make him happy.” Astor’s doctors turned out to be wrong; he lived for six years. But when he died in 1959, he left Brooke $134 million, half of it in the Vincent Astor Foundation (almost $1 billion in today’s dollars).
Through all her marriages, Tony was often left to grow up on his own. By most measures, he did a fair job. At 18, he joined the Marines and earned a Purple Heart leading a platoon at Iwo Jima. He worked at the CIA, helping engineer the U-2 spy program. Later, he invested in the theater; he and Charlene won two Tony Awards, for Long Day’s Journey Into Night and I Am My Own Wife. He published seven books. He served as ambassador to Madagascar, Trinidad and Tobago, the Seychelles, and Kenya.
Then, in 1979, his diplomatic career at an end—his initial patron had been Richard Nixon—Tony went to work for his mother, supervising her finances. At age 55, he became Brooke Astor’s son, which followed him like a title.
“By the way,” Charlene explains proudly, “Mr. Marshall made all the money for Brooke [to give away].”