05.13.09

The A-List Witness List

How can the defense in the Brooke Astor trial possibly call witnesses as charming and believable as socialites Louis Auchincloss, Annette de la Renta, and Nancy Kissinger?

No offense to the defendants—Anthony Marshall, Brooke Astor’s son, and Francis Morrissey, his lawyer—who have yet to mount their case, but so far the prosecution witnesses have proved remarkably cultivated, droll, accomplished, and above all believable.

This reporter has covered other trials known for their flair—including those of Sean Combs, Sotheby’s honcho Alfred Taubman, and the irrepressible Martha Stewart. But the collection of club kids, high-end auctioneers, and hangers-on who distinguished those spectacles can’t compare to the swells who populated the late Mrs. Astor’s orbit.

Mrs. Kissinger also drew raves for her outfit—a green Oscar de la Renta coat dress with double rows of buttons. “All the women were into it,” Ms. Lipsky-Karasz said.

If Oscar Wilde were around today, he would undoubtedly be seated in Part 96 at the Manhattan Criminal Court Building, having had the foresight to have brought a cushion to protect his fanny, mining the testimony for its theatrical opportunities. No, come to think of it, the great man would have been one of Brooke’s walkers, called upon—as several have already, with more to come—to testify to her generosity and dazzling charm. Indeed, so amusing were her friends that journalists have taken informally to ranking their performances.

Foremost among them is Louis Auchincloss—though his supremacy may yet be challenged (Lord William Astor, Brooke’s British cousin by marriage and an early, elegant witness, seems already to be fading from memory). The society novelist gave Mrs. Astor’s life and the trial itself a narrative arc, because he’d known her since he was in law school and she was married to “Buddy” Marshall, through her gold-digging days with Vincent Astor, to her beatification by the news media in her later decades. So authoritative and arch was Mr. Auchincloss’ testimony that to have challenged it—the defense, wisely, hardly tried—would have been like taking a wrecking ball to Mount Rushmore.

Annette de la Renta may have proved a somewhat more dentable witness, though also delightful in her own right. Perhaps the most casually elegant witness thus far—and that’s saying a lot—and a surrogate daughter to Brooke, it was as if she’d descended into the courtroom from the Upper East Side on a cloud of money and good manners. If the jury found anything hard to believe about her, it was only her offhand recounting of the way she accepted from Brooke a diamond necklace that the average juror could have used as a down payment on a home, or to pay off a college loan or credit-card debt—and when Brooke was losing her mind, no less.

Contrast that to yesterday’s testimony by Patsy Preston, an old friend of Brooke’s who promptly returned an emerald and diamond bracelet that Brooke gave her over a 2003 lunch at the Knickerbocker Club. The befuddled doyenne had said it went with Patsy’s green sweater. The jury may wonder why Mrs. de la Renta didn’t also return her bauble.

Less impeachable was Nancy Kissinger. I must confess that I wasn’t in court for her testimony, but Elisa Lipsky-Karasz, covering the trial for Women’s Wear Daily, said Mrs. Kissinger’s comment that she’s just an “average housewife” sounded less outrageous in the courtroom than it did in the retelling. “She said it in a way it wasn’t disingenuous,” Ms. Lipsky-Karasz said. “She said it in a way that made you think she was ordinary.”

Mrs. Kissinger also drew raves for her outfit—a green Oscar de la Renta coat dress with double rows of buttons. “All the women were into it,” Ms. Lipsky-Karasz said.

While such impressions may sound cosmetic, or even downright frivolous, the cumulative effect of so many accomplished people, none of them seemingly resting on their laurels, testifying to the good times they had with Brooke feels like being a guest at one of her dinner parties. And when the mirthless Fred Hafetz, Mr. Marshall’s lawyer, challenges them on cross-examination, even if he’s just doing his job, he almost seems like a party pooper.

And speaking of parties, vying with Mr. Auchincloss for most charming witness may have been John Hart, the producer of such films as Proof, Revolutionary Road, and Nicholas Nickleby, and of the plays Guys and Dolls and The Producers. The smart, talented, sophisticated, and perhaps most of all hovering Mr. Hart got to know Brooke in the 1990s. He escorted her to dinners at the homes of Barbara Walters, Louise and Henry Grunwald, and, of course, to the theater. It was Mr. Hart who helped foster a lovely friendship between Mrs. Astor and the actor Matthew Broderick.

One of the trial’s most bittersweet moments came when Mr. Hart recalled a 2001 dinner at Orso after they’d seen The Producers. Brooke no longer recognized the actor, fresh from his performance, even though they’d socialized on many occasions, even with Mr. Broderick visiting Holly Hill, her Westchester estate. “I’m Matthew!” Mr. Hart said Mr. Broderick told her endearingly, trying to jog her memory. “You love me!”

Mr. Hafetz, who tries tirelessly to prove that Brooke still had her wits about her when she signed wills and codicils forking over more and more of her estate to Tony and his wife, Charlene, asked whether Brooke’s poor mental state that evening might not have been caused by pain—sciatica, for instance. Mr. Hart replied artlessly that if she was in pain, “She was just suffering from the boredom of the second act.” The dour Mr. Hafetz didn’t stand a chance.

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