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Mrs. Astor's Baby

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Tony and Charlene saw things in equally stark terms. “Annette was pushy and wanted to ingratiate herself with Brooke,” says Charlene. She had an eye on Brooke’s social throne. “Brooke was a rung on the ladder for Annette,” says Charlene.

Brooke’s circle, including Annette, were never particularly interested in Tony and Charlene. “It’s not Tony’s fault that he’s kind of boring,” says one. They didn’t credit his accomplishments.

“Madagascar?” a friend had ribbed Brooke. “Have you ever heard of a bad ambassador to Madagascar?”

“That’s enough out of you,” Brooke said.

And then came the inevitable refrain. “She bought the ambassadorships, didn’t she? Why would anybody make Tony an ambassador otherwise?”

Brooke loved Tony, they conceded. And they knew, too, that Tony had a happy married life. “He has a real marriage, unlike everyone else in that circle,” says one of his friends. Tony sometimes thinks he and Charlene might have been married in a former life. They hold hands, engage in long embraces. Still, says a friend, “no one is going to a party at Tony and Charlene’s.”

Indeed, their relationship, for this crowd, seemed tawdry. Tony and Charlene had met in Maine, in Northeast Harbor, where Brooke summered. For 23 years, Charlene was married to the local Episcopal priest, Brooke’s priest. “He was a good priest, but not a good husband,” says Charlene. “We’d grown apart.” Charlene left her husband in 1989, moving out of the rectory.

“We weren’t naughty,” says Tony.

“Not that I didn’t think about it,” says Charlene. “I thought, Wow! What a gorgeous man.”

Six months later, Charlene moved to New York. Tony soon decided that his 30-year marriage to his former secretary had run its course. “When I got to know Charlene,” he says, “I decided not to live on in misery but to marry in happiness.”

“I know that Charlene has not been permitted to visit my mother in a year,” Tony said to Annette. “But I would like it if she could come up and see my mother. This may be the last time.”

Ugly gossip followed them. What did the young minister’s wife see in the 65-year-old son of the town’s richest resident? It didn’t help that Charlene left three kids behind. Abandoned them, said the papers, though her kids didn’t feel that way. “Granted, she wasn’t in the room next door anymore, but she didn’t abandon us. She’s always there for all of us,” says her son Robert, 30. But Brooke was displeased, and complained to friends that she didn’t know how she could still go to church.

Of course, Brooke hadn’t cared for any of Tony’s wives. In front of Charlene, Brooke suggested that Tony marry Pamela Harriman, the Washington socialite and widow of Averell. (“I sort of swallowed hard,” says Charlene.) Charlene’s emotiveness, her weight, her laugh—a cackle, one thought—marked her as not one of the club. “Brooke rolled her eyes,” the friend said.

To Tony and Charlene, this was just snobbery. She ministered to the needy, she worked for charity, too. “I think they hate her because she doesn’t fit into their clothes,” says one of their supporters.

Some of Brooke’s friends are sure that Brooke hated Charlene. “That wasn’t my experience of Brooke. I thought we were close,” Charlene says. “If I bought a pink sweater, I’d buy her a pink sweater, too. I was going to say we exchanged gifts, but she gave me more than I gave her. We did a lot of things together. We shopped.”

Brooke picked out Charlene’s clothes when they shopped. Brooke also lent Charlene pieces of her remarkable jewelry collection. Charlene wore Brooke’s spectacular emerald necklace, Vincent Astor’s last gift, to the Tony awards. She took it as a token of Brooke’s affection; Brooke’s friends saw it as bad form—Brooke wasn’t dead yet.

Whatever her true feelings, Brooke realized that Tony loved Charlene and Charlene Tony. And Brooke, as everyone said, loved Tony. “She makes Tony very happy,” Brooke often said. Tony took this as a great comfort; Brooke’s friends, of course, heard it as tight-lipped dismissal.

Even Tony knows that the fight over his mother’s legacy is in ways a fight about Charlene, the interloper. “There are a number of people actively interested in the case, beginning with my son Philip, who were hoping that this would separate us if not kill us. Instead, we love each other even more.”

Brooke enjoyed making changes to her will in the library at Park Avenue, one of the most beautiful rooms in New York, it’s often said. The bookshelves are detailed in brass, the walls lacquered in red. She had 3,000 leather-bound volumes—“I’ve written some of them,” she said. She’d hung her lovely Childe Hassam painting over the mantel of French marble, not far from an inconveniently located call button—once, one of her many suitors accidentally leaned on the bell in mid–marriage proposal.


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