article

The Baby Monitor Diaries

The diaries of Brooke Astor's staff provide harrowing new accounts of the queen of New York philanthropy's tragic story.

11.17.08 11:55 AM ET

When sordid allegations surfaced in July 2006 that Brooke Astor—of all people—had been denied crucial medications and forced, aged 104, to sleep in a ripped nightgown on a filthy couch that reeked of urine, her only son, Anthony Marshall, now 84, became the white-haired poster child for elder abuse.

Since then, loyalists of Marshall and his third wife, Charlene, have floated theories that the couple is a victim of a vicious plot hatched by a disgruntled former employee–Astor’s longtime butler, Chris Ely, whom Marshall fired–and a cabal of powerful New Yorkers interested in controlling assets previously promised by Astor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other cultural institutions.

But the discovery of the Baby Monitor Diaries–a startling trove of 30 journals of alleged abuse, neglect, and cynical manipulation of Brooke Astor during her Alzheimer's-ridden twilight years–does not bode well for the upcoming trial of Marshall and his lawyer, Francis X. Morrissey Jr., in January 2009.

I was dazzled from the moment she descended the stairs, in a stylish leather miniskirt, aged 83.

The handwritten diaries, compiled over a four-year period by nurses who perceived mistreatment of Astor at her Park Avenue apartment and at Holly Hill, her country estate, are featured prominently in Mrs. Astor Regrets (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a new book by Meryl Gordon.

Astor repeatedly insisted that nurses leave her alone, Gordon reports, so a baby monitor was installed at Holly Hill that registered every sound from the room where she slept. On one occasion, a nurse overheard a lawyer discussing documents for Astor to bequeath $5 million to her daughter-in-law, Charlene, whom Astor had never liked.

The diaries include harrowing accounts of how Astor, the erstwhile queen of New York philanthropy, was manipulated by her son and his lawyers. One passage describes how Astor was dragged against her will into a meeting on January 12, 2004, to sign a codicil that bequeathed $60 million directly to her son, thus disinheriting charities that she had championed for decades. On another occasion, a night nurse reported, Astor spoke of dreaming “that someone was trying to kill her.”

“Every time I read the diaries I cried,” Gordon says. “She was so frightened, afraid, and depressed.”

The 18-count indictment by the Manhattan district attorney includes charges that Marshall stole two of his mother’s paintings; awarded himself a $2 million commission on the sale of her favorite Childe Hassam painting, which had been promised to the Metropolitan Museum; and coerced his mother into changing her will to his benefit. Morrissey was indicted on charges of conspiracy and forging Brooke Astor’s name to a codicil that altered Astor’s will to further enrich Marshall.

The book suggests that the dynamic between Marshall and his glamorous mother is infinitely more complex than the headlines first trumpeted by the Daily News in 2006.

“I present Tony as less of a villain than others have,” says Gordon, who thinks that some of the incendiary allegations about Marshall’s conduct initially voiced by his estranged son, Philip Marshall, may be somewhat overblown. “I don’t believe she was living in squalor,” Gordon says.

The central thesis of Mrs. Astor Regrets is that its heroine’s miserable first marriage at the age of 17 to Tony Marshall’s father, John Dyden Kuser, a wealthy Princeton graduate whom she met at a prom, adversely affected her relationship with Tony, and that she could never bond with him. After more than a decade, Astor divorced Kuser, whom she described as a philandering and physically abusive alcoholic. She told friends that Kuser broke her jaw when she was six months pregnant with Anthony, possibly because he suspected that he might not be the child’s father. (As a teenager Tony changed his surname to Marshall when Brooke married Buddie Marshall, who showed little interested in the boy.)

When Astor was honored at a reception at the New York Public Library in 2001, she startled the crowd by tearfully announcing, “I married a terrible man,” referring to Kuser.

"She was talking about a marriage that took place in 1919, when she was 17, and there she was, 80 years later, still talking about it,” Gordon says. Annette de la Renta, Astor’s closest friend, was astonished to witness the incident and was unsure how to react. “Mrs. Astor was becoming unglued about it,” Gordon says.

No matter how strained the mother-son relationship might have been, nothing, surely, could excuse the abuses described in her household staff’s diaries, which one of the nurses wrote using easy-to-decipher code names. “Brooke was Princess Polyanna,” Gordon reports, “Tony was Golden Boy or Golden Retriever, Morrisey was Tutor, Charlene was Miss Piggy or Poor Little Rich Girl.”

The scope of the alleged abuses is horrifying to anyone who had the privilege of knowing Astor, a woman of tremendous warmth, wit, and incandescent charm whose conversation was a delicious mixture of gossip and high-minded literary talk, punctuated with a rapt enthusiasm for the cultural institutions she championed.

Ever the coquette, she exuded winsome charm in 2004, at the age of 102, when she attended a lunch party given by Alexis Gregory, the publisher of Vendome Press, for her old friend George Embiricos, a Greek shipping magnate. Elegantly turned out as usual, she wore a hat, gloves, and a tailored Oscar de la Renta suit. Clearly bewildered by the proceedings, she had a beatific smile, delighted that everyone was making a fuss over her. But it was obvious to even old friends that she had no clue who they were. It is sobering to reflect that two months earlier she had signed over $60 million of her fortune to Tony.

I will never forget the first time I met Mrs. Astor, when my first New York boss, George Trescher, a fundraising genius and one of her closest friends, took me for tea at her duplex apartment at 778 Park Avenue to arrange the seating for a gala at Rockefeller University honoring a bevy of Nobel laureates. I was dazzled from the moment she descended the stairs, in a stylish leather miniskirt, aged 83, apologizing for being a few minutes late because she had been working out with her personal trainer. She and George bickered over who should sit where.

“You can’t sit him next to her!” he told Astor. “Don’t you know he’s sleeping with her husband?” She giggled and deferred to George. With an impish grin she confided that President Reagan and Nancy Reagan were coming to her apartment for dinner that evening and she was planning to prevail upon Mrs. Reagan to pull strings to allow her “wonderful new English butler,” a former footman at Buckingham Palace, to obtain a green card. Two years later, after Mrs. Astor hired me to write and perform a wry musical tribute to Rosamond Bernier, the Metropolitan Museum lecturer, for a party in Rosamond’s honor, I called her to ask if she would consider writing a letter in support of my green card application. I was flabbergasted when her chauffeur rang my doorbell an hour later with a handwritten note from Mrs. Astor, full of beneficent hyperbole.

That incident gave me a profound respect for her sense of civic responsibility, and her extraordinary kindness. Countless others who experienced her philanthropic largesse and delectable charm will probably weep, as I did, to read in Mrs. Astor Regrets of how terrified and vulnerable she felt at the end of her life.

For more on Mrs. Astor, read Michael Gross on New York high society and the battle for the Astor fortune.

Christopher Mason, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, is the the author of The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christie's Auction House Scandal . He is also a prolific writer and performer of musical tributes and satirical songs.