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Mrs. Astor's Baby

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Brooke had long enjoyed Morrissey’s company (she’d met him independently). They talked books; he sent her volumes to read and also flowers. In 2000, she thanked Morrissey for that “lovely floral bouquet you sent me—it was so dear of you,” and for their conversations. “As ever devotedly,” she signed. Or, “as ever with love.” Morrissey escorted Brooke to the opening night of Tony’s plays.

“In the course of knowing and seeing him she became very comfortable talking to him,” says Tony.

Charlene recalls, “For months, Brooke said to Francis, ‘I’m worried about Tony. I’m worried about his finances.’ ”

Finally, Morrissey told Charlene and Tony, “Look, this poor woman is suffering. This is what she really wants to do.” He meant, Get Tony the money. And Christensen wasn’t moving.

“Everybody finally decided it had to be done,” says Charlene. Christensen was Brooke’s lawyer; it wasn’t Tony and Charlene’s will, but something had to be done. This is what Brooke wanted. Morrissey was hired.

And so at tea time on January 12, 2004, Morrissey was seated in Brooke’s red-lacquered library. Brooke wore a smart blue suit, lovely against the red Louis XV chairs. Tony, in his usual coat and tie, joined them. Morrissey had hired G. Warren Whitaker, an estate lawyer with solid credentials from Day, Berry & Howard. Morrissey knew what Brooke wanted; Whitaker provided drafting experience. (Tony and Charlene let Christensen go the following month.) In Whitaker’s account of the meeting, he and an associate arrived at 4:15. Tony—to Whitaker, he is Ambassador Marshall—greeted them, then left.

Morrissey handed Brooke the codicil to her will, which Whitaker had drafted.

“Good,” she said. “I am not going to be around much longer.”

She read the document, reading parts aloud.

In previous wills, Tony had received an annual stipend; in 2002, it was 7 percent of what remained of Brooke’s personal money after bequests, perhaps $50 million. When Tony died, the remainder was to go to charity. In 2003, Brooke had pronounced herself satisfied with that arrangement. In this codicil, Tony gets it all in one lump sum and, for the first time, Morrissey explained to Brooke that Tony can leave property to his wife, “deranging,” Chase claimed, her long-established testamentary plans.

Whitaker may not have met Brooke before, but to him she seemed cogent. That afternoon, according to his memo, Brooke said, “They are happy?” She’s referring to Tony and Charlene. She often made the same comment to friends. That afternoon she phrased it as a question. Morrissey assured her they were.

“Are they happy in bed?” asked Brooke. Everyone laughed.

Morrissey handed her a pen. “Should I sign Russell?” she asked, referring to her maiden name. She thought for a moment. “Tony likes me to.”

Tony was thrilled by the change. “I was delighted she was giving it to Charlene,” he says.

Charlene contemplates the fortune. “It would be wonderful,” she says. “It’s not going to change my life. I would give a hell of a lot of it away.”

Of course, they know that others think they are taking advantage of Brooke; that they are stealing. In fact, Annette, who was bequeathed four dog paintings from Brooke, has asked the court to invalidate every will after 1997.

“The only word that comes to my mind is jealous,” says Charlene.

“That we’re happy,” says Tony.

“That Brooke and I did get along so well,” says Charlene.

Two months later, in March 2004, Brooke signed a third codicil, which calls for her estate to sell Brooke’s properties before distributing the proceeds. It may have been a tax-planning measure, but it raises suspicions. Tony, now sole executor of Brooke’s estate, has named Morrissey and Charlene co-executors of the estate. The executors will benefit through increased fees. Whitaker didn’t attend this session. He had a scheduling conflict; an associate didn’t have a tie. Morrissey told him casual dress would be disrespectful. He didn’t come either. Morrissey is the supervising attorney and the notary on the document, which a handwriting expert later said couldn’t have been signed by Brooke.

For at least a decade, Brooke had planned her own funeral. She designated the hymns to be sung, and wrote a guest list. She put Tony in charge. Annette’s guardianship lapsed with Brooke’s death; a judge declined to appoint her administrator of the estate after Tony’s lawyer argued she would “pursue the vicious and self-aggrandizing vendetta.” Brooke expected her many friends to pack St. Thomas Church. Instead, many in Brooke’s crowd boycotted Tony’s event. For Tony and Charlene, it has become a painful and angry time. Tony’s health suffers; Charlene fears he may not survive the stress (it’s a threatening time, too; the grand jury could hand down indictments soon). Brooke’s generosity is contested, Tony’s reputation derided. Tony detests his son. Brooke’s friends detest Tony and Charlene. And others now claim Brooke’s loyalty and love. Tony knows his mother loved him—he consoles himself with thoughts of her. He thinks sometimes of the last months of her life.


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