05.22.09

The Astor Circus

Barbara Walters, Graydon Carter, and Henry Kissinger joined the chorus of witnesses at the Brooke Astor trial who say the society doyenne lost her marbles before she changed her will.

In the real world, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, wouldn’t be shown up by a self-described “parlor maid” at Brooke Astor’s Maine estate. But such is the cruel democracy of the courtroom that you’re no better than the quality of the anecdote you offer up to help nail Astor’s son Tony Marshall to the courthouse wall. And in that regard, Mr. Carter’s charming recollections of the grande dame couldn’t compare to Carol Stanley’s harrowing memories of her employer losing her mind.

The biggest news from Mr. Carter’s testimony was that he was paying Mrs. Astor to write pieces on such weighty topics as flirting and the slow torture of attending charity benefits when she was already starting to suffer from dementia (which should give hope to freelancers everywhere).

The biggest news from Mr. Carter’s testimony was that he was paying Mrs. Astor to write pieces when she was already suffering from dementia—which should give hope to freelancers everywhere.

By contrast, Ms. Stanley recalled a 2001 incident at Cove End, Mrs. Astor’s summer home, when she was standing in the downstairs butler’s pantry and heard her employer calling from the top of the stairs. “It sounded very urgent,” said the tidy, middle-aged woman with wire-rimmed glasses and gray hair who’d traveled from Maine to deliver her testimony. When she rushed to the aid of the 99-year-old woman, Ms. Stanley said, “I was faced with the specter of Mrs. Astor with no clothes on.”

The defense is trying to persuade the jury that Brooke Astor still had enough of marbles in 2003 and 2004—two years after this incident—to understand what she was doing when she signed codicils to her will that gave her son Tony and daughter-in-law Charlene the bulk of her fortune, at the expense of the charities that helped stake her reputation as one of the nation’s foremost philanthropists.

Ms. Stanley was followed, the next day, by the tag team of Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters. Dr. Kissinger recalled a January 2002 dinner that Mrs. Astor threw in honor of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan at her Park Avenue apartment. At some point, Brooke turned to Kissinger, seated on her left, and asked, “Who is the black fellow sitting on the other side of me? Is he a distinguished man?”

Ms. Walters, looking lovely in a vintage Bill Blass blazer and pencil skirt, seemed reluctant at first to pile on. But then she unpacked a couple of scorchers, made more lethal by their flawless delivery. Describing the 100th birthday party David Rockefeller threw for Mrs. Astor at his Pocantico Hills estate, she sweetly recalled Tony Marshall’s “affectionate” toast to his mother. But just went you thought she might have gone over to the prosecution side, Walters added that Marshall concluded his toast by announcing that the Prince of Wales, a friend of his mother’s, had sent a greeting and flowers. At that point, Charlene Marshall appeared with a bouquet of roses, and Mrs. Astor, who witness after witness has testified seemed confused that evening and operating on ancient social instinct, “made a terrible face,” Barbara Walters remembered. “It stayed in my mind.”

Potentially even more damaging was her recollection of a final visit to her old friend’s apartment, on December 29, 2003. The date is important because less than two weeks earlier, and then again one week later, Brooke Astor signed the two codicils to her will that are at the heart of the fraud charges against Mr. Marshall and Francis Morrissey, an estate lawyer.

But according to Ms. Walters, the friend she’d shared gossip with over lunch at the Four Seasons for decades, no longer existed. “She didn’t know me,” said Walters, who became emotional when a photograph of the two friends, taken that afternoon and that she’d never seen before, was flashed on the courtroom screen. “There were words, but it was very slurred, very garbled. You couldn’t have a conversation.”

But although it was Henry Kissinger’s and Barbara Walters’ star power that filled the courtroom to capacity for the first time during the trial, it was the confrontation between Tony Marshall and his two sons earlier in the week that provided the greater drama. Philip Marshall, 56, set this family tragedy in motion when he filed papers in 2006 challenging his father for guardianship of his grandmother. But it may have been his soft-spoken twin brother Alec whose testimony did his father the greater damage.

Alec said that in 2001 or 2002—he wasn’t sure which—his grandmother offered him Holly Hill, her Westchester County weekend estate. “No, no,” he said he replied. “That’s fine.” He told the jury: “It was too late. Her demeanor was to the point where…” But the defense objected and Mr. Marshall was unable to complete his thought. Still, the jury couldn’t have missed the point: that Alec declined to take advantage of his grandmother’s dementia two years before the prosecution claims his father and his stepmother had no such qualms.

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