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Mrs. Astor's Baby


As she aged, she increasingly turned to Tony to manage the households. And Tony to Charlene—“We’re married, you know,” he says. “Brooke was very thankful that he was there for her,” says Auchincloss. By 2006, when Brooke was 104, her life was increasingly limited. She’d outlived a generation of friends. Younger ones drifted away; Brooke didn’t always recognize them. Tony and Charlene warned some off.

By then, Brooke used just a few rooms in the vast Park Avenue duplex. Tony felt sensible economies were in order. Brooke’s chauffeur had been with her forever, but now his principal duty was to walk her dogs. Tony and Charlene let him go, saying she could use their driver. In early 2005, Tony and Charlene closed the Holly Hill house and fired the butler.

Brooke’s friends hated that they closed Holly Hill, where they were sure Brooke would prefer to be. One day in spring 2005, Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, visited Brooke with Annette. “It isn’t right,” Brooke told them. “I want to go to the house.” She was crying. Tony and Charlene felt it important that she remain in the city, near doctors and friends.

Philip Marshall, one of Tony’s twin sons, was the first to become alarmed about Brooke’s living conditions. Philip, a tenured professor of historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, isn’t close with Tony. His father had left Philip’s mother when Philip was 8. Since then, father and son had spent some pleasant vacations together. Still, for Philip, the word fatherly in relation to his father provokes a laugh.

Philip insists he has no animus toward his father. “My concern was for my grandmother’s well-being,” he says. At times, Philip seems to feel sorry for his father, suspecting he’s subject to stronger wills, like that of Charlene. Whatever sympathies Philip felt, on July 24, 2006, he filed an aggressive petition with the court. He wanted his father stripped of responsibility for his grandmother, and he painted a Grey Gardens–like picture of her living conditions. “My father,” Philip’s petition says, “has turned a blind eye to [my grandmother], intentionally and repeatedly ignoring her health, safety, personal and household needs, while enriching himself with millions of [Brooke’s] dollars.” Philip evinced special concern for his grandmother’s well-being, and her dignity. “Why should my grandmother who was accustomed to dining with world leaders and frequented 21 and the Knickerbocker Club, be forced to eat oatmeal and pureed carrots, pureed peas and pureed liver every day, Monday through Friday, months on end?” “Her Park Avenue duplex is in such a dirty and dilapidated state.” … “Her bedroom is so cold in the winter that my grandmother is forced to sleep in the TV room … on a filthy couch that smells, probably from dog urine.” Nor was she permitted a visit by her beloved dachshunds, Boysie and Girlsie.

Most disturbing, according to Philip, doctors’ visits had been cut back. “Needed prescriptions are inexplicably stopped,” says the petition. Tony refused to let nurses call 911 without permission. Tony, the petition seemed to imply, was trying to hasten Brooke’s death.

Philip approached David Rockefeller, Brooke’s longtime friend, and afterward Annette (Rockefeller also helped pay Philip’s legal bills). Philip proposed that Annette take care of his grandmother. A judge swiftly appointed her temporary guardian, a decision that became permanent as part of a settlement with Tony.

That Philip’s charges of elder abuse proved unsubstantiated hardly mattered. The process he initiated led to other troubling allegations. The court had appointed JPMorgan Chase as Brooke’s financial guardian. Chase alleged that over the past several years, millions had indeed shifted from Brooke’s account to Tony and Charlene’s, and at a time when Brooke was “incapacitated.” Susan Robbins, the attorney appointed by the court to advocate for Brooke, fueled the suspicions, noting that Tony and Charlene received more in the wills as Brooke declined.

In Tony and Charlene’s living room, the sound of a passing siren grows so loud it seems to be in the room. Conversation halts. Charlene serves Perrier. She grew up in modest circumstances and still likes to bake. She sets a plate of chocolate-chip cookies atop a pile of books on a table. “People ask us if we’re going to move to 778 Park Avenue,” says Charlene, referring to Brooke’s address. “No! This is our home.”

The siren fades. Tony returns to an earlier theme, his mother’s love. He has dug up some letters that reveal her feelings. Most date from 30 years ago, when Tony was an ambassador. Tony is interested in sharing them, particularly since he believes they show his mother’s true attitude toward Philip and his brother. “She thought they were only interested in her money,” Tony tells me with raised eyebrows. Charlene has the butler fetch the letters.


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