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11.17.08

Behind the Brooke Astor Affair

New York high society has reasserted itself in the tawdry battle for Astor's millions.

Society is dead. Even if it's alive, it has no power. No one cares about those people anymore.

If you believe any of those things, I have two words for you: Brooke Astor.

Last week, Meryl Gordon published a balanced and riveting book, Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach, about that dignified lady's undignified last days and death. It chronicles how one of Astor's grandsons, Philip Marshall, backed by her friends David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger and Annette de la Renta, accused Philip's father, her only child Anthony Marshall, of elder abuse, and how, Philip's best intentions notwithstanding, the sordid family feud became a public scandal. It was soon being said that the dying first lady of New York society had been manipulated to change her will by her now 84-year-old son, inspired by his oft-vilified third wife Charlene (the Wicked Witch of the North in this tangled tale, who'd left an Episcopal priest to marry him)—and hand $60 million she'd originally left to her favorite causes over to the Marshalls.

We've forgotten the persistence of what many dismiss as America's ancien regime.

Though Marshall was soon cleared of mistreating a 104-year-old mother who Gordon reveals had grown frightened, pathetic and child-like, he was also forced to let her self-appointed protectors take over her care, return money and property, re-open a country house he'd closed to save on expenses, and re-hire household staff he'd fired. And due to the cries of elder abuse, the authorities stepped in to investigate, leading to allegations, as yet unproven, that Charlene and Tony—who was still tied to his mother's purse strings and awaiting his inheritance—had been systematically looting her estate. Yesterday, a brief except from Gordon's book detailing some of the tawdriest aspects of the saga appeared as the cover story of the New York Post. It was only the latest in the fury of tabloid "wood" (or front-page headlines) that has beaten the Astors over the head from 2006 to the present, with more headlines surely yet to come. Those that have appeared so far are my Top Ten Exhibits in the case for the persistence of our voyeuristic fixation on the not-quite-extinct dinosaur, Society Rex.

Exhibits Nos. 11 and 12 are two related scenes, one included in the Post, the other buried deep in Gordon's book, telling moments that caught my eye because I've just finished a book of my own on an institution that figures large in this tale: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The other night, I had dinner at Swifty's, the Upper East Side watering hole that is a favorite of what remains of old Society. As I waited for my dinner companions, I chatted with a friend at the next table, a flaneur and Society wit, the sort of man who knows where all the bodies are buried, and told him I'd just finished Gordon's book.

"Is there anything new in it?" he drawled in his world-weary way, implying that whatever excited me wasn't news to him. So when I told him about one of those scenes, of course, he yawned, "Tell me something I don't know."

Truth is, my friend not only knows things many of us don't (you know who you are—can I please ghost your book?) but also things the rest of us have forgotten. And in the last ten years, distracted as we are by the grunting of hedge hogs and gob-smacked by public-private inequities, we've forgotten the persistence of what many dismiss as America's ancien regime. That's the motley amalgamation of land-grant families, descendents of merchant-class and industrial fortunes, and those who married into them that was our aristocracy for more than a century, at least until it went to ground sometime in the 1990s. That's when, fed up with scrutiny that was insufficiently reverent, Society pulled the covers over its head and abandoned public posturing (but not its fortunes, its real estate, its position or its prerogatives) to lesser lights with much bigger, much younger brokerage accounts.

We have all been so disgusted and distracted by the painful charges of age abuse in the Astor case that it's been easy to overlook a more peculiar side-show of this tawdry society wrangle, the role played in it by two of the greatest public institutions of old-ish wealth in New York, the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library. They and a few others were and are very much a party to the continuing squabble over Astor's fortune. After they learned that the sums they'd been left in Astor's will had been slashed by Marshall's maneuvers, and their ultimate bequests left to his discretion, they sent battalions of lawyers to the hearings in the case, eyes firmly fixed on the prize that really mattered, Astor's millions.

So now, Gordon reveals that Astor suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, that her son was one of the first to diagnose it, and that as her decline caused hairline cracks in the serene public face of the Astor family to widen into gaping wounds of distrust, many of those around the dainty, delightful, designer-dressed Brooke--her maids, nurses, butlers, and even some of her lawyers—began keeping those secret, and damning, diaries. Those accounts were central to both the investigation of Marshall and to yesterday's New York Post story, which claimed the ailing Astor was "literally dragged into a meeting" and bullied into changing her will in Marshall's favor.

Which brings us to those two scenes in Gordon's book, which show how quickly and brutally Society moves to protect its own interests. Brooke Astor was a longtime trustee of the Metropolitan, sitting on its board, the most powerful club in New York, from 1964 to 1983, when she was made emeritus. Her son took the Astor seat in 1986, and subsequently became an emeritus trustee as well. It was in that capacity that he appeared, in September 2006, at his first museum board meeting after the squabble over Mrs. Astor's affairs went public. No one expected him to show his face that day so "there was a collective gasp," Gordon writes, "when he strode in" to take his place at the board table. De la Renta promptly "conveyed her fury" with a grimace and Gordon quotes museum director Philippe de Montebello boasting, "I averted my eyes--my gaze never met his."

The shunning didn't stop there. Another shoe dropped shortly after Marshall was indicted on charges of swindling his ailing mother out of millions of dollars in cash and property. A few days later, Gordon writes, the museum's ruling executive committee "quietly took the unprecedented step of voting to suspend Tony Marshall as a trustee emeritus. The decision was never announced." Apparently, neither the presumption of innocence nor the public's right to know how institutions we pay for operate carry much weight in the inner sanctums of Society.

Astor's pet institutions do great work and are generally above reproach. The same can't always be said for the people who run them. Brooke Astor's last days remind us how tragically vulnerable the old can be, even when wealthy and surrounded by retainers. But Gordon's book also gives us a valuable insight into something we have forgotten. If anything good has come out of Brooke Astor's all-too-public death, it's the reminder that Society not only still lives but still craves—and still wields—power. Our gaze has been averted from that truth for too long.

Michael Gross' Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum will be published in May.