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Mrs. Astor's Baby


DAUGHTER-IN-LAW Charlene Marshall leaving Westchester County Surrogate Court, September 27, 2007. GRANDSON Philip Marshall outside the gates of Holly Hill with Boysie, one of Astor's dachsunds. FRIEND Annette de la Renta and Brooke Astor, 2002.  

“That’s a little bit of an overstatement,” says Tony. Mainly, he points out, he managed her personal money. That he did quite well. On his watch, her assets grew from $19 million to $82 million. For his efforts, Brooke paid Tony a salary, eventually $450,000 a year. It was a significant amount, though not by Astor standards. “Brooke would always say, ‘Do you have enough? Do you have a cook? Do you have a housekeeper? Give yourself a raise, a bonus,’ ” says Charlene.

“Every time she’d say it, it would embarrass me,” says Tony. “I felt I’m doing this for my mother. Why should I get more money?” Besides, Brooke looked after her “baby,” as she called him even when he was a senior citizen. (“She’d embarrass me,” says Tony. “At age 70, you don’t like that. She meant it nicely, but really without a sense of humor.”) Brooke’s generosity was considerable, though mostly it came late in the game. In 1998, when he was 74, she gave Tony a duplex on 79th Street, near her place at 778 Park Avenue, and later a car and driver. In 2003, when he was 79, she gave him $5 million, his first real payday.

When I mention that it seems as if Brooke preferred to keep Tony dependent, Tony pauses a long time—21 seconds.

“If she did want to keep the reins in her hand, she did it unintentionally,” he finally says.

Besides, Tony received other compensation—after years away, he was her consort, always close by. He danced behind her, as she later described it. But then who didn’t? “There was no one like Brooke,” says friend after friend. “The most enchanting woman I’ve ever known,” says Auchincloss. At times, both David Rockefeller and his brother Laurance seemed to be in love with her. “She was great fun!” says David, “and she was always, always kissing.” Brooke was a gifted flirt. She quipped that she put herself to sleep by counting her lovers.

To Tony and Charlene, Brooke was trying to make amends by changing her wills. “I think a certain amount of guilt came into her decisions,” says Charlene, “for not being the best mother.”

Brooke passed her days giving away money, which she loved. She dressed for the role like the queen mother—it was expected of her, she said, and she wouldn’t disappoint. Then at night, she went out. At 94, she told a friend, “Sometimes I wonder why, at my age, I like to go out every night, but I do.” When she was 100, her doctor recommended less dancing.

Above all, Brooke hated to be bored. And “business,” as a friend explained, “was dull to her.” And so, no doubt, she was relieved to turn the details over to her son, a more practical person. “I don’t believe in wasting money no matter how much you’ve got,” Tony says. “You shouldn’t abuse money.” Tony tried to make Brooke aware of her spending—“Don’t buy a plane,” he joked. Her income was perhaps $5 million a year at the end, a royal sum, unless you’re maintaining three large properties and buying elegant clothes at a rapid clip. Brooke fretted; she always had. For at least fifteen years, she privately quizzed her staff: Do I have enough?

Tony’s job was to worry about expenditures. “One designer double billed my mother for a dress,” says Tony. “A very expensive dress, $25,000. I wrote to him and brought this to his attention.”

Had Tony involved his mother, he knows what she would’ve said: “Oh, I want him to like me. I don’t particularly care for him. But I want him to be friendly. Don’t bother with the bill.”

“It wasn’t right,” says Tony. “It was only after about five letters and more than six months that I was able to get him to repay.”

Tony feels he was simply being responsible; someone had to be. “I became the dirty dog,” he says.

As his mother aged, Tony says, his job turned more difficult. Brooke was increasingly “erratic” and impulsive. She fired her social secretaries one after the other—one because her skirts were too short. She spoke about friends “sponging off” her, which, as one confidant said, “was so unlike Brooke.”

When she was 98, Tony wrote to Dr. Howard Fillit, a geriatric specialist, to better understand the changes in her. She was delusional at times, he wrote. “Are you my only child?” she asked him. She misplaced eyeglasses, gloves, and blamed a maid for hiding them. And in lucid moments, she felt awful. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I feel I’m losing my mind,” Tony reports her saying.

Dr. Fillit diagnosed mild dementia/Alzheimer’s type, which comforted Tony when she turned on him. One day, she told Tony she didn’t want him to accompany her to the doctor. “You only want to see how soon I will die,” she told him.


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