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Mrs. Astor's Baby

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That Brooke’s generosity to Tony and Charlene accelerated in her last years is clear. But it was her wish, he insists. He remembers what his mother confided to him: “I want you to have everything.”

Tony wasn’t embarrassed this time. “Thank you,” he said.

Perhaps Brooke didn’t announce her intentions widely, but Tony and Charlene understood. “I think a certain amount of guilt came into her decisions,” says Charlene, “for not being the best mother.”

“Atoning,” adds Tony.

“Her values changed at the end of her life,” says Charlene. “She wanted to make it up to Tony. She realized more and more of what he did for her. I know it.”

For Tony, his mother’s love had been elusive, but, finally, it came. “It made me sad that she hadn’t felt that way in the past,” he tells me late one evening. “I’m not talking about money, though sometimes money does reflect how one feels.”

Chase doesn’t buy any of it. The bank proved a zealous investigator—“overly zealous,” a judge once said. Everything is suspect. The problem is that Brooke didn’t know what she was doing. “Incapacitated,” says Chase’s lawyer.

Tony, of course, had been among the first to notice the dramatic changes in his mother’s mental state. At the end of 2000, he wrote, she got lost on her Holly Hills estate; she washed up on a neighbor’s property, disoriented. “Difficulty in dressing.” “Writing/spelling are increasing problems.” She was confused about whether her income was an annual or a monthly figure. At a board meeting at the Met in April 2002, she couldn’t follow the proceedings. By the middle of 2003, Brooke would often trail off in mid-conversation; her short-term memory was extremely impaired. A staffer prepared a photo album of friends to help Brooke recognize visitors. “It is inconceivable,” says one person who’s examined the medical record, “that Brooke Astor could have understood what she signed.”

No doubt Brooke appeared to have good days. Enough people said so. Perhaps even Annette conceded as much. The day after Brooke amended a 2002 will, Annette accepted a gift from Brooke of a diamond necklace and diamond earclips worth $76,000. In August 2003, when Brooke gave Tony $5 million, her lawyer, Henry Christensen, of Sullivan & Cromwell, attested to her mental competence. He’d known her for years and knew about her diagnosis. “I had a good visit with your mother yesterday at Holly Hill,” he wrote Tony on August 14, 2003. And four months later, Christensen again attested to her competence when Brooke created the Anthony Marshall Fund. No one doubted that she was dramatically diminished. But often she seemed able to hold up her end of conversations. In February 2004, Freddy Melhado, Brooke’s longtime friend, dancing partner, and a supervisor of a significant part of her money, attended a luncheon at the Knickerbocker Club. Brooke read a good-natured 110-word speech thanking Tony for “what he has achieved managing my financial affairs.” Her physician, Dr. Rees Pritchett, also in attendance, doubted that Brooke could have composed that speech. She might have been able to read a text, but could she interrelate facts, process abstract concepts? Still, to Melhado, she seemed alert that day.

Tony didn’t take advantage of his failing mother, he says. Strong-willed Brooke knew what she wanted: to get him “everything.” The problem was that Christensen was dragging his feet. He’d taken almost a year to implement the Anthony Marshall Fund. It had also taken a year to transfer Cove End. “It was late in the game,” Tony says.

At this point a lawyer named Francis X. Morrissey Jr., a soft-spoken Harvard man whom Charlene had met in Maine a couple of decades earlier, entered the picture. Tony thought him generous and intelligent. Morrissey helped Tony and Charlene with their theater projects. He was involved with Charlene’s charity, Shepherd Community Foundation, which Brooke supported with a gift of $100,000. They say they didn’t know that Morrissey had for two years been suspended from the bar for an unauthorized withdrawal from a client’s account. “A shock,” says Tony. They knew he was kind, a friend to those in need, the elderly in particular, some of whom turned out to be rich. For his elderly clients, Morrissey seemed to always be there. He supervised health care, dressed them, even took them to the bathroom. “The best thing he would do,” remembers Charlene, “he would take them for lunch once a week just to make them feel loved and humanized and that someone cared about them. Francis has a very soft heart.”

Charlene says she didn’t know that he also had a knack for ending up in their wills. A woman from Maine left him 29 acres of choice Maine property. One man changed his will the day before he died, leaving Morrissey a Manhattan apartment. Morrissey was bequeathed a couple of Renoirs. The wealthiest of his clients once said Morrissey should have all of her $15 million estate.


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