article

05.01.09

Is Brooke Astor's Son a Swindler?

In a colorful week of testimony, friends and family describe how Brooke Astor, the grande dame of New York millionaire society, was disabled by Alzheimer’s when her son forced her to revise her will.

Belt-tightening Broadway theatergoers could do worse than the free Shakespearian drama rife with greed, envy, and family conflict now unfolding in a courtroom in Lower Manhattan. Officially titled The People vs. Anthony Marshall and Francis Morrissey, but familiarly known as the Astor trial, the case involves allegations that Mr. Marshall, the 84-year-old son of Brooke Astor, the grande dame of New York society, took advantage of her Alzheimer’s disease to change her will in favor of him and his wife Charlene. Mr. Morrissey, a lawyer, is accused of fraud in connection with his role in revising the will.

“It was a great shock to me because she didn’t know me,” Louis Auchincloss, Mrs. Astor’s friend of 60 years, said of their last lunch in 2001.

If convicted, Mr. Marshall faces up to 25 years in prison. Mrs. Astor died in 2007 at the age of 105.

The case just wrapped up its first week. The heavy hitters on the witness list—among them Brooke Astor’s friends Annette de la Renta, Kofi Annan, and Barbara Walters—have yet to testify. But that doesn’t mean the proceedings have been lacking in drama.

In early testimony, the prosecution is trying to establish that Mrs. Astor’s deteriorating mental state made it unlikely that she could have understood the codicils to her will that her son’s lawyers put in front of her. Thursday morning, caterer Sean Driscoll of Glorious Foods testified that he’d invited Mrs. Astor, a client, to lunch at the company’s offices, along with Bill Cunningham, The New York Times' society photographer, in December 2003. Although the company’s dining room in no way could have been confused with a restaurant, he said, the gracious Mrs. Astor tried to pick up the check.

The date of the lunch is important, because a few days later Mrs. Astor changed her will so that 49% control of the Vincent Astor Trust was transferred to her son’s control. Subsequent codicils would move into his column even more of the trust’s assets, which had previously been designated for what Mrs. Astor affectionately called the “crown jewels” of New York—institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library.

Fred Hafetz, Mr. Marshall’s attorney, suggested that Mrs. Astor couldn’t have been that far gone at the lunch, because she was able to identify the designer of the dress she was wearing in some party photos that Cunningham had brought along—Bill Blass.

But Mr. Driscoll was only the warmup act. After lunch, the prosecution called Louis Auchincloss, the lawyer, society novelist, and biographer whose friendship with Brooke Astor dated back to 1939. At 91, Mr. Auchincloss is somewhat deaf, but his intelligence remains as fierce as ever, and—possibly more troubling for the defense—he possesses the terrifying self-confidence and forthrightness of someone who has overcome his own aristocratic upbringing to become a great success in his own right.

Mr. Auchincloss regaled the jury with recollections of Brooke’s relationship with “Buddy” Marshall, Tony’s father, who was her second husband and the man she described as the “love of her life.” After Buddy’s premature death, he told the jury, “she was very afraid she wouldn’t have enough to live on.” But at a subsequent meeting she was noticeably more upbeat and “laughed all the way through lunch,” he recalled. “I found out she was engaged to Vincent Astor.”

Mr. Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor IV, who died on the Titanic, didn’t like Brooke’s old friends. “Didn’t like me in particular,” Mr. Auchincloss added without going into detail. When Vincent Astor died in 1959, “that was a great relief,” Mr. Auchincloss stated matter-of factly to the amusement of the jury.

On Wednesday, the prosecution had called Lord William Astor, Brooke Astor’s British cousin by marriage, who flew in from London to share some scathing recollections of Brooke’s antipathy toward Charlene Marshall, Anthony’s third wife. Charlene had previously been married to Mrs. Astor’s minister in Northeast Habor, Maine, but left her husband and children to marry Mr. Marshall.

Lord Astor also testified that “Cousin Brooke” tried to tip the coat check girl $100 after a 2002 dinner at Le Cote Basque, which would have bolstered the prosecution’s claim that she was already becoming a hazard to herself. But Mr. Hafetz managed to undermine the peer’s credibility by producing evidence to contradict Lord Astor’s claim that he, not Mrs. Astor, had paid the tab that evening.

Mr. Auchincloss didn’t fall into any similar traps. By the late 1990s, he testified, he was noticing sad changes to Mrs. Astor’s mental state. First there was a 1998 event at the Union Club, where she was presented the Edith Wharton Achievement Award for the “Complex Art of Civilized Living.” Mrs. Astor wowed the crowd of several hundred by announcing that she’d known Edith Wharton personally. That came as news to Mr. Auchincloss, even though the two women could have conceivably crossed paths, because Mrs. Astor was born in 1902 and Mrs. Wharton died in 1937. “I’d written a biography of Edith Wharton,” Mr. Auchincloss testified. At the time, Mrs. Astor “told me that she didn’t know her but loved her books.”

Even more alarming were the dark changes in Mrs. Astor’s charismatic personality. “She became extremely critical of old friends, hostile,’ Mr. Auchincloss recalled. On one occasion, she went down a list of people invited to stay at Cove End, her summer home in Maine, and told Mr. Auchincloss they were only interested “in sponging off her.” In the next breath, she invited him to visit. “And get on that list?” Mr. Auchincloss asked, eliciting laughter.

The last time he saw her was at lunch at the Knickerbocker Club in September 2001. Before the author took the witness stand, and with the jury out of the room, prosecution and defense had sparred about whether Mr. Auchincloss, a trust and estates lawyer in addition to being a writer, would be able to testify to Mrs. Astor’s “testamentary capacity”—that is, her ability to understand a will. Judge A. Kirke Bartley Jr. ruled in the prosecution’s favor and Mr. Auchincloss testified flatly that, in his opinion, Mrs. Astor was in no condition to redo her will.

But the more-damning evidence he offered was from that last lunch, after which, Mr. Auchincloss testified, he didn’t see the point of trying to maintain the friendship. “It was a great shock to me because she didn’t know me,” he said. After a 60-year friendship, “she knew she ought to know—it was a familiar face—but she did not know me.” And that was more than two years before Mrs. Astor signed codicils that the defense claims she fully understood.

The trial resumes Monday.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The New York Observer, The New Yorker, and other publications.