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05.06.09

The Evil Daughter-in-Law?

Without changing a word of his mother’s will, Brooke Astor's son, Tony Marshall, stood to inherit millions. Did his third wife, Charlene, drive him to want it all?

There was a moment in the courtroom last week when prosecution and defense lawyers assembled in front of the judge for one of their innumerable bench conferences. Anthony Marshall, seated at the defendant’s table, took the opportunity to turn around and look for his wife, Charlene, a few rows behind him, as he does whenever there’s a break in the action. The two stood up and met at the low wooden bar that separates the lawyers and their clients from the spectators and press. Charlene affectionately wiped something from her elderly husband’s nose while the jury looked on with more interest than they’d shown for most of the testimony in this two-week-old trial.

“Her sister was being fabulous in Charleston,” said a friend. “She wanted to be fabulous, too.”

You could tell by the jury’s rapt expressions as they nodded and surreptitiously nudged each other that nothing engages and perhaps mystifies them about this case more than the relationship between the couple at the center of it. Tony Marshall, 84 years old, is accused of systematically changing his mother’s will through a series of codicils that gave less and less of her estate to her beloved charities and more and more of it, ultimately, to Charlene, 63, his third wife. This was even done at the expense of his own son from his first marriage; Brooke had intended to leave a cottage on her Maine estate to grandson Phillip; Charlene now gets that, too.

The question burning at the heart of this case is: Why? If he’d left his mother’s wills untouched, Tony Marshall was destined to become an extremely wealthy man—inheriting Brooke Astor’s multimillion dollar homes and an annual percentage of her estate. But something drove him to want it all, and the suspicion is that, at very least, Charlene wasn’t encouraging his better angels.

Whether or not that’s true, there can be little debate that Charlene Marshall—who fled the home of her hard-drinking parents in Charleston, South Carolina, for her grandmother’s house at 12, and was then sent to Ashley Hall, a prestigious boarding school whose graduates include Barbara Bush—was guilty of at least two sins. The first is that she left her first husband—the minister at the Episcopal church just down the road from Brooke Astor’s Northeast Harbor estate—and her three teenage children for Tony Marshall. The second and perhaps greater indiscretion in the eyes of the wealthy summer community on Mount Desert Island in Maine is that she married up.

To appreciate the magnitude of her crimes, one needs to understand something about the local culture. There are the locals and the summer residents, and then there’s a third group—year-rounders who by virtue of their jobs, education, or charm get adopted by the rich and invited to their cocktail parties, sailing on their Hinckley yachts, and sharing lobster bakes on far-flung islands. Come September, this third group—artists, merchants, boat skippers—is expected to return without complaint to their underheated houses while the rich depart for Park Avenue, Main Line Philadelphia, and Palm Beach.

Charlene, apparently, wasn’t content to return meekly to that other world. Nonetheless, people who knew her when she was married to Pastor Paul Gilbert (but who declined to speak on the record because they still have to navigate the shoals of the summer community, which now includes Charlene) said that contrary to her image as a harridan who abandoned her family for the Astor fortune, she was irreverent, fun, a devoted mother—“a lioness,” as one of them put it. Which makes her decision to leave her family for Tony, who was still married to his second wife, all the more shocking to them.

But there was apparently another side of Charlene. She had obviously rubbed shoulders with the rich in boarding school, and once again in Maine, where her husband ministered to them. And there is something seductively insidious about the wealth in Northeast Harbor, because it’s so understated it almost seems invisible, egalitarian. There are none of those Hamptons hedgerows. The Rockefellers may still own the best land and ponds and gardens, but the public has access to them. Indeed, a visitor taking a morning swim in Long Pond might well have bumped into Mrs. Astor walking her beloved dogs, Boysie and Girlsie. It’s only when one tries breach the divide that one becomes aware that it exists at all.

Charlene, whose ancestors are said to include President John Tyler—Tyler is her maiden name—and the painter George Inness, probably understood better than most that provenance is meaningless unless there’s money to back it up. Besides, she had rich relatives, including a sister, Towning Krawcheck, who married a wealthy Charleston businessman, and a niece, Sallie Krawcheck, who became a top executive at Citigroup.

“Her sister was being fabulous in Charleston,” said a friend. “She wanted to be fabulous, too.”

The irony is that Charlene’s trajectory bears similarities to that of her mother-in-law, who married Vincent Astor for his money and also had to battle for his estate. But at the risk of sounding cynical or superficial, Brooke had one distinct advantage over Charlene—she was stylish and thin. It would be easier to understand Tony’s infatuation with Charlene if she looked the part, if she wasn’t plump and didn’t wear sensible shoes.

And then there’s Tony Marshall’s own culpability—often dismissed as cupidity—as if he were nothing more than Charlene’s pawn. Another summer resident of Northeast Harbor said that Brooke was talking down her son years before he met Charlene. “She used to say she wanted to spend her money so that Tony wouldn’t get any of it. It makes me think there’s a failure of love there. The sins of one generation are repeated in the next.”

Tony certainly seems to be getting love now. Charlene falls in beside him during every courtroom break, even escorting him to the men’s room door. It would be easy to say that she’s only trying to protect her investment. But there are worse things than buying love if you’ve never had it before. From Tony’s point of view, it may seem like the best use of the Astor fortune—if he manages to beat the charges. And perhaps even if he doesn’t.

“It’s very difficult for Charlene to sit there and have to listen to the things being said about her,” her lawyer, Ken Warner, told me. “But the fact remains that she is a loving wife to Tony, and Brooke understood that.”

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