The Family Astor

Brooke Astor, 2002, at 100 years old.Photo: Chester Higgins Jr.

Anthony Marshall and his wife, Charlene, live in a sunny apartment on East 79th Street, lushly decorated with a grand piano and a wall of books. Last fall, long before the accusations that Anthony was abusing his mother, philanthropist Brooke Astor, I interviewed the couple with the goal of writing about Astor, who was 103 at the time and reportedly in ill health.

In our phone conversation, Marshall had promised to discuss his mother, but he had changed his mind once I arrived. After serving iced tea, he announced, “I really don’t want to talk about my mother. She can’t talk for herself, so I don’t think I should talk for her. Maybe you should have your drink and go.” Instead, he offered an ­alternative. “I thought that maybe you wanted to talk to me about my life,” he said, “which I would be delighted to do.”

Yet over the next 40 minutes, Marshall proceeded to talk quite a bit about his mother—or at least talk around her, with a complex mixture of pique and pride. His dachshund Pichou lay at his feet. And his wife sat by his side, raising roadblocks whenever the conversation turned to her ­mother-in-law.

“I’ve had a very independent life,” Marshall began. He’s a courtly man with plummy upper-class diction. But even as he cited his accomplishments (enlisting in the Marine Corps and being wounded at Iwo Jima, a stint at the State Department, ambassadorships in Kenya and Trinidad, brokerage work and international consulting, writing seven books), all roads led to Brooke. Marshall said he put aside his own career back in 1979 to focus on managing her money. “I was very glad to do it, because once I got into it, I discovered that things were being mismanaged badly. Very badly.” He portrayed himself as a dutiful son, but he couldn’t resist a bit of upmanship: “I’m on the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. My mother was never on that.”

I noted that the Marshalls were not major players in Upper East Side society, and he replied, “You’re right. My mother loved people. I love people but on a different basis. My mother had”—he corrected himself—“has lots of friends, although a lot of them are dying off.” The Marshalls have become theatrical producers in recent years, in partnership with David Richenthal, backing the Tony Award–winning show I Am My Own Wife. When I remarked that the couple are not regulars in the New York Times society photos, Charlene snapped, “No. We’re not by choice.”

Marshall is the child of Brooke Astor’s first marriage, at age 17, to John Dryden Kuser, a wealthy New Jersey man she has described as an alcoholic, womanizing wife beater. After they divorced, she fell for stockbroker Charles “Buddie” Marshall, who left his family for her, and when they married, Marshall adopted Anthony. That act prompted Kuser to sue his own son to get back child-support money. Astor wrote about that court battle, which her son won: “I rather agreed with the judge­—people who fight over money never seem to me to deserve to have any!” Eleven months after Buddie Marshall died in 1952, Brooke married Vincent Astor—a pairing arranged by Vincent’s wife, who had promised to find him a replacement before she divorced him.

As we spoke, Marshall, unprompted, began to reminisce about the one family member who gave him unconditional love: his maternal grandfather, Major General John Henry Russell. “My grandfather was the compass of my life. Still is, although he died in 1947. He was a wonderful person. I spent a lot of time with him. He wrote me a great deal, gave me very good advice,” said Marshall, who named his boat after his grandfather. “He never dictated, never said, ‘You must do this, you must do that.’ ”

I asked whether his mother and step­fathers were similarly supportive. Charlene interrupted, saying, “You don’t want to get into that.” Marshall echoed her. “No, that’s too close.”

In the tabloids, the Astor saga has been framed as a tale of elder abuse, a legendary philanthropist deprived of proper care in her final years. And certainly it’s good to know that Brooke Astor—an iconic figure in New York society—will ­likely live her last days in comfort, surrounded by the fresh flowers she loves. But the story of the Astor lawsuit is also something simpler and sadder, a tale of parental neglect, repeated generations over. Brooke Astor is a magnificent benefactor and a legendary hostess, but she was, by her own account, a lousy mother. Marshall has little relationship with his own son Philip. For that matter, Vincent Astor, the one who left Brooke all the money, was neglected by his mother, Ava Astor—in one infamous story, he was left in a dressing-room closet to cry until a butler found him hours later.

A few weeks before he filed the legal papers that rocked the Upper East Side, Brooke Astor’s grandson Philip Marshall went to lunch with a friend, Sam Adams. As the two ate pizza at the Feast or Famine restaurant in Warren, Rhode Island, Philip anguished about his decision to file suit against his father. “Philip is mild-mannered,” says ­Adams, the director of new media at East Bay Newspapers. “I’ve never heard him express animosity towards his father. But he saw something wrong, and he felt he couldn’t shirk from it.” Naïve as it appears now, Philip thought this would remain a family matter. “He thought it would be quiet,” Adams says, “that he would just solve the problem.”

Despite his fancy lineage, Philip, 53, a tenured professor of historic preservation at Roger Williams University, was never part of the upper crust, according to his friends. He had no trust fund. His parents divorced in 1960, and at the time he filed suit, Philip had not seen his father in two years and had last spoken to him one year back, to wish him happy birthday. But during occasional visits to his grandmother, he had befriended her staff, whose concerns ultimately jolted him into action—along with the knowledge that potential allies, including Annette de la Renta (Oscar’s wife), were also stepping in. (According to her friends, De la Renta confronted Anthony last summer and persuaded him to bring Brooke Astor to her beloved country house at Holly Hill, near Tarrytown.)

Philip’s twin brother, Alec, a photographer, wanted to stay neutral; a source close to the family says that Alec refused information about the suit from both sides.

The response to Philip’s action was explosive. After Philip filed the suit—backed by affidavits from Astor’s staff, Annette de la Renta, David Rockefeller, and Henry Kissinger—Judge John Stackhouse removed control of his grandmother’s care from his father, who has been paid $2.3 million a year to oversee her affairs, and named De la Renta temporary guardian. Astor was whisked first to Lenox Hill Hospital and then to Holly Hill. “Mrs. Astor improved dramatically at Lenox Hill,” says Fraser Seitel, a De la Renta spokesman. “She’s eating and seeing visitors and walking with help.” The Marshalls have been besieged, periodically issuing angry rebuttals. De la Renta has not talked to reporters, but she’s burning up the phone lines. “Annette just wants the best for Brooke,” says a society-page name who had just gotten off the phone with De la Renta. “She’s glad she got her to Holly Hill. Annette told me, ‘I hope Brooke slips away up at a place she adores.’ ”

Brooke Astor was always candid about the fact that she was not the motherly type. “Brooke was intellectually curious, socially gregarious, a huge reader, but one of the top ten roles in her life was not being a mother,” says one socialite friend. Another friend takes it a step further, saying, “It was not a good relationship. Brooke just basically didn’t like [Anthony]. He was pretty drippy. He was what I call a ­‘manqué’—not quite made it.”But at the same time, many of her friends say that Marshall always seemed to be a conscientious son. After the Daily News revealed the details of the lawsuit, with its sordid allegations of Mrs. Astor’s sleeping in a ripped nightgown on a urine-soaked couch, her friends pointed the finger at Marshall’s ­twenty-years-younger third wife. As one longtime confidante of Mrs. Astor’s puts it, “Charlene is Lady Macbeth.”

The relationship between the two women did not begin well. Anthony was separated from his second wife when he met Charlene in Northeast Harbor, Maine, where Astor has a seven-acre estate; Charlene was married at the time to Paul Gilbert, the rector at St. Mary’s-by-the-Sea. According to one of Astor’s intimates, “Tony turned to Brooke and asked, ‘Who is that woman who walks by our house every morning?’ Brooke said, ‘That’s the minister’s wife.’ Tony said, ‘I think we should go to church.’ ”

Nan Lincoln, the arts editor of the Bar Harbor Times, recalls dinners at the rectory, where Charlene was a well-liked hostess, and the speculation that erupted when she left her husband: “Was she a gold digger, or was this a romantic love story—the poor stifled parson’s wife who finds the man of her dreams?”

Patricia Scull of Northeast Harbor, who is 88, used to invite Charlene and Paul over for Thanksgiving. “She had a hard time with the vicar, and she wanted to be rich,” says Scull. “She came from South Carolina, and she used to say, ‘My sister is married to the richest man in Charleston, and here I am, a poor minister’s wife.’ But she seemed like such a sweet girl. I keep thinking those three people—Kissinger and Rockefeller and the woman—wouldn’t have signed those affidavits unless they knew something. No one’s going to defend her here. She’s become the villain.”

Which is not to say that it was easy being Brooke Astor’s ­daughter-in-law. Astor could be capricious, using her wealth as a weapon. One night, when Astor and a friend went to visit the Marshalls, she naughtily announced that she planned to wear her sapphires, telling her date, “Every time I wear them, Charlene looks so envious, I know she wants them.”

When the women quarreled, Astor would hand over pieces from her extraordinary collection to make amends. “As Brooke told it, Charlene would take that jewelry down to Sotheby’s to see what she could get for it,” a male friend says. “A couple of times, Brooke gave her Kenneth Jay Lane, and Charlene thought it was the real thing,” the source says, laughing.

During my fall interview with Anthony Marshall, I mentioned his mother’s two autobiographies, and he went stone-faced and refused to comment. Small wonder, since these long-out-of-print memoirs, Patchwork Child (1963) and Footprints (1980), are wrenching in their honesty about mother-son relations. Astor admits that she was always more concerned with her husbands’ wishes than her son’s well-being. After she married for a second time, she fired the housekeeper who had been caring for Anthony (her new husband disliked the woman) and then shipped off her son at age 10. “I decided that Tony was getting spoiled and should go to boarding school, where he would not have everything his own way,” she wrote. Even years later, Marshall remembers how miserable he was then, saying quietly, “I didn’t like it very much.” Within days of arriving at the Harvey School, the homesick boy ran his sled into a tree and nearly died, an accident his mother described with intense guilt.

After she married Vincent Astor, she further reduced contact with her son, then married to his first wife. “Vincent was jealous of Tony,” she wrote. She adds that Astor “adored my twin baby grandsons … He said he thought we should adopt them, as we ‘had more sense than their parents.’ ”

Brooke Astor had become more involved with her grandsons in recent years, according to her friends and theirs. “I think they wanted to reconnect, because they didn’t really know her growing up,” says one source. The twins were present at Astor’s 100th birthday party at the Rockefeller estate.

In the wake of the accusations, friends of the Marshalls’ have rallied. “They’re nice people,” says Mary Wallace, wife of TV newsman Mike, who worries that her friends will never recover their reputations. “People will remember forever. When you’ve got David Rockefeller and Annette de la Renta and Henry Kissinger on one side, it’s pretty hard to fight.” In a written statement, Charlene’s friend Suzanne Harbour Kahanovitz praises Charlene as “the antithesis of a ‘gold digger.’ ”

Another friend says that Marshall felt especially betrayed by Rockefeller. “This spring, David Rockefeller, who sees almost nothing of Mrs. Astor anymore because he can’t stand to see her in this state, went to visit. He called Tony that day and said, ‘You know, the best thing that can happen is if your mother didn’t wake up one morning soon.’ No one, not even Mr. Rockefeller, thought she could do anything but stay in bed.”

David Richenthal, the Marshalls’ producing partner, has been their most vociferous defender, calling Philip “a disturbed attention-getting young man who is acting irrationally.” The producer, who had an office attached to Astor’s apartment until recently, says, “I can categorically say she’s taken beautiful care of.”

With estimates of Brooke Astor’s fortune ranging from $45 million to $200 million, there is tremendous speculation over what, exactly, is in Astor’s will—kept for years in a briefcase to which only she had the combination. “She’d change her will quite often; that was her declaration of independence,” says one friend. This source also recalls Astor’s reading to him from Andrew Carnegie’s book on ­philanthropy—“Very little good comes from inherited wealth”—and saying, “Tony won’t want me reading this.” “Brooke’s intention was that Tony was going to have a certain amount, but she was going to give most away … I don’t think Tony is a bad person, but you could see the anger. He wanted to be his own person, and he could never do that until she was gone.”

It’s quite an accomplishment to reach the century mark, much less in good health. Even into the past few years, Brooke Astor still lunched at the Knickerbocker Club. And then she dropped out of sight. Friends are now feeling remiss. “She wasn’t registering who was visiting her,” says Oz Elliott, a former dean of Columbia School of Journalism. “It just seemed to be not very productive for her or for us, so we tailed off.” Several friends insisted they tried to see her but were discouraged by Charlene Marshall or the staff.

Lord William Astor is a British cousin by marriage who has been close to Brooke for decades, and when he called from a vacation in Scotland, he said he is now haunted by his visit to her roughly a year ago. “She didn’t recognize me to start with, but halfway through, she squeezed my hand and said, ‘I’m having a miserable time, please take me away.’ She had a lucid moment.” In recent years, she had complained to Lord Astor that Anthony wanted her to cut spending, so much so that Lord Astor quietly contacted her investment advisers for reassurance that her funds were intact (they were).

There is much speculation that Philip stands to benefit financially if improprieties are uncovered; he has told friends that he was promised a cottage at his grand­mother’s estate in Northeast Harbor. In 2003, Brooke Astor signed over the property to Marshall—and six months later, Anthony deeded it to Charlene. Philip’s friends counter that by making these allegations, Philip has ensured that he will be cut out of his father’s will. And, in fact, the only people guaranteed to benefit are the lawyers.

After Vincent Astor died, leaving $60 million to his foundation and a roughly equal amount to Brooke after a five-year marriage, his younger half-­brother, Jack, sued unsuccessfully for a share. Vincent’s nephew Ivan Obolensky, now 82, was not part of that lawsuit, but he still bears a grudge. “Vincent Astor would be so horrified by this. Poor Brooke, who took all the money and ran—she pushed him to change his will. He was drinking; he was lonely, poor man. I loved him,” says Obolensky, the chairman of the Soldiers and Sailors Home. “Brooke was one of the great adventuresses of her time. This is sad, but I’m laughing,” he says. “You reap what you sow.”

Brooke Astor—now resting at Holly Hill, waiting for the noise around her to quiet—might hope for a legacy greater than that. “As a child,” she wrote in Footprints. “I was made to feel that I should create an atmosphere of good will around me. It is certainly a better way to live than to have a chip on one’s shoulder or be continually looking for flaws in someone else’s character. The French say, ‘To know all is to forgive all.’ Well, one can never know all, and one cannot in one’s heart forgive ­everything; but one can appear to do so, and then eventually, one forgets.”

The Family Astor