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Seven Minutes With Charlene Marshall

A run-in with Brooke Astor’s daughter-in-law, in the courthouse ladies’ room.

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Even freshly scrubbed, the fifteenth-floor ladies’ room at 100 Centre Street is one of the dreariest rooms in an irredeemably dreary courthouse. The trick is to get there early, before the one tall wastebasket is full to overflowing. You don’t want to linger, in any event. Except this past Monday, when I did. It’s at the paper-towel dispenser that Charlene Marshall and I briefly bonded.

We are the only two women in the room. After washing our hands, we pause, not quite sure who gets to be first to pull the lever. Neither of us can claim seniority. We’re more or less the same age. In fact, we both have the same coloring; the same white hair, blue eyes, and pink skin that easily turns red.

Of course, Charlene, the wife of Brooke Astor’s only son, Anthony Marshall, can lay claim to fame, or at least to notoriety. Referred to as “Miss Piggy” by the tabloids, she fares little better in the Times. What it comes down to is this: According to the prosecution, all the changes in Tony’s mother’s will and all the money siphoned off from her fortune were to ensure that Charlene would be well provided for after his death. Without her, none of this would have happened. By many she is regarded as the villain of the tale—mean to the help, terrible to her stepchildren.

Although I am fairly new to this courthouse, I am not new to Tony or Charlene. My book The Last Mrs. Astor pleased neither of them when it came out in 2007, not quite a year after Tony’s son Philip charged him with elder abuse. (As of this writing, the jury is still out.)

“How many times did you actually meet Mrs. Astor?” Charlene asks me in the bathroom as we are about to part. “Six,” I say, counting out the lunches and teas on my fingers. She nods, seemingly satisfied. Only then do I realize this is the same question she’d asked me at a talk I gave at a Barnes & Noble two winters ago. I had spotted Charlene in a back row, taking notes. It didn’t feel friendly—I felt like she was stalking me. When it came time for questions, she raised her hand. “Why didn’t you say the Vincent Astor Foundation didn’t actually shut down in 1997?” she began by asking. “Because your husband asked me not to,” I answered. She’s going to hate me forever, I thought. In her place I would have.

Our next exchange was on my first day in court, when I spotted her coming toward me, smiling. In the two or three times I’ve met her, I have never seen Charlene smile. What could I do but smile back? “You look great,” I said. “No, no,” said Charlene. “You do.”

At that moment, I remembered Louis Auchincloss telling me how surprised he’d been when she came up behind him and hugged him one day when he was walking up Park Avenue. They were not on that sort of basis at all. Chris Ely, Brooke Astor’s butler, had recently told me that as Charlene and Tony were taking their leave of Holly Hill after Mrs. Astor’s death, she’d hugged most of the staff good-bye. “Didn’t she know how they felt about her?” Chris asked.

At one point, catching my eye across the aisle, Charlene reached into the canvas bag where she keeps cushions—the wooden benches in court are hard—and offered me one. No, thank you, I whispered.

In that ladies’ room, however, one thing leads to another. Just as we are about to leave, Charlene draws me back toward the window. Something seems to be troubling her, something she wants me to understand. It’s not a confession. It’s not exactly a revelation—I have the feeling I’ve read some of it before. And, even if I haven’t, it doesn’t come as a surprise.

Her mother-in-law had wanted Tony to marry Pamela Harriman, which was the last thing Tony wanted to do. But with time she seemed to get over that disappointment, to make peace with the fact that Charlene was Tony’s wife. Always Charlene saw to it that Tony continued to see his mother. She tried very hard to make things work. And then Charlene began hearing the terrible things that were being said about her.

I speak of my own mother-in-law, who loved me like a daughter for thirteen years until one summer she didn’t. Paranoia, anger, nightmares, fantasies, they all come with Alzheimer’s.

Even as I say this, I understand that Charlene is making a case for herself. That she is trying to explain away things that may defy all explanation. But I do believe that at that particular moment she believes everything she tells me.

A few days later, I tell Philip Marshall about our encounter. Yes, he says, Charlene can be warm. Charming and confiding. Then he adds, “She’s sort of like a sugar-coated poison pill.”

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