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06.11.09

What the Butler Saw

There are no secrets from the servants. After weeks of celebrity witnesses, Brooke Astor’s maid and butler take the stand. Ralph Gardner Jr. reports.

The testimony of Christopher Ely, Brooke Astor’s butler, was briefly interrupted Tuesday morning to accommodate another witness, Miranda Kaiser, a 37-year-old lawyer turned cattle rancher in Montana. What kind of lawyer becomes a cattle rancher? A Rockefeller, it turns out. Ms. Kaiser is the granddaughter of David Rockefeller and she’d been called to testify against Anthony Marshall, Brooke’s son, because she’d served as her grandfather’s companion after his wife died in the mid-1990s and she saw a lot of Mrs. Astor, one of David’s best friends.

Asked why she hadn’t had more children, Mrs. Astor replied, “He was so unfortunate I decided not to have any more.”

Ms. Kaiser got in the obligatory dig at Marshall, recalling that on one of the first occasions she met Mrs. Astor she asked her why she hadn’t had more children. “He was so unfortunate I decided not to have any more,” she replied. (Court was called off Wednesday because the 85-year-old Marshall was ailing, and one can certainly understand why after six weeks of hearing witnesses describe what a disappointment he was to his mother.)

But after a few more anecdotes, Kaiser was off to Big Sky Country, and Ely was recalled to the witness stand. The case of The People vs. Anthony Marshall and Francis Morrissey has, if nothing else, provided the jury a tutorial on class differences in America. At the top of the pyramid reside the self-confident likes of the Rockefellers, the Kissingers, the de la Rentas, and of course the Astor family, who live in a charmed world of third and fourth homes and private jets to shuttle between them.

Just below them hover a professional class of Ivy-educated retainers—lawyers, curators, editors, foundation executives, writers—who sip at their trough, gaining admission through devoted service, and adding a dollop of democracy, or at least meritocracy, to what resembles an unreconstructed old-world aristocracy.

Finally, come the servants. And it was the servants who took center stage in recent days. First up was Mily de Gernier, Mrs. Astor’s Swiss housekeeper. Unlike the overachievers who strode purposefully to the witness stand earlier in the trial, de Gernier was a study in diffidence and discomfort. Her testimony, while damning Tony Marshall, was delivered with resistance and for apparent good reason—after working for Mrs. Astor for 41 years, starting in 1965, no one remembered to give her a pension when she retired in 2006.

“Are you hoping for a pension?” the prosecutor asked her before the defense objected. The answer was yes.

De Gernier detailed Tony Marshall’s cost-consciousness. He refused the housekeeper’s request for a security gate to prevent his mother from tumbling down the stairs of her duplex, citing the expense; he ordered her to stop ordering from Mrs. Astor’s florist—“they said I can get them from the Korean market”; and de Gernier was present when Mr. Marshall helped himself to one of his mother’s Tiepolos, telling the housekeeper that “his mother said he can have the painting and have a good time.” Nonetheless, he waited until the next day, when Mrs. Astor was off in her bedroom, to confiscate the work of art.

Whenever there was a lull in the action, de Gernier, a woman with short gray hair who appeared to be in her 80s, mumbled to herself or dropped her head into her hand, recalling one of those lost souls in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment being dragged down into hell. She clearly couldn’t fathom what she’d done to deserve this fate.

The same could not be said for Christopher Ely, 46, Mrs. Astor’s butler, who took the witness stand after de Gernier and came ready to rumble. With his bald head and deeply embedded dark eyes, Mr. Ely recalled a religious ascetic and in a way he was, though his devotion was not to the church but to the person of Brooke Astor, for whom he started working in 1997, after serving four years as a footman at Buckingham Palace.

Like many before him, Ely, who worked mostly at Holly Hill, Mrs. Astor’s country home in New York's Westchester County, testified to his employer’s deteriorating mental condition and her son’s chilliness and self-interest. According to Ely, Marshall vetoed cable TV at Holly Hill, citing the expense; he didn’t return from vacation in Maine when his 100-year-old mother was having hip surgery in New York; and he dismissed the gift of a photographic portrait that his son Alex had taken of his own daughter Hilary and sent to both his father and grandmother stating, “I got one of those, too; I just put it in the drawer.”

Ely also stuck a sharp stick in Marshall’s wife, Charlene, who hopefully has her own mental-health professional on call, or at least a publicist, after the indignities her reputation has suffered over the course of the trial. The butler recalled a 2000 conversation with Mrs. Astor where the grande dame described her daughter-in-law as having “no class and no neck.”

But the strongest of Ely’s testimony concerned his defiant devotion to his employer and her dignity when her son seemed eager to draw the curtains on her life. The butler shadowed Mrs. Astor, at times literally, and was thus able to recite almost verbatim conversations and phone calls between her and her son that go to the heart of the case—such as whether Marshall got his mother’s permission to sell the Childe Hassam painting, for which he stands accused of grand larceny after pocketing a $2 million commission. “I’d help hold the phone right up to her ear,” Ely told the jury, to explain why he was privy to the conversation after the painting had been sold.

Ely’s testimony about that conversation cut both ways. On the one hand, he reported that Mrs. Astor magnanimously told her son to “take one and give one to your wife,” meaning $1 million, suggesting she’d given her blessing to the sale. But in the next breath she asked, “Now can I buy some dresses?” bolstering the prosecution’s claim that Marshall had duped his demented mother into believing she was going broke.

Ely’s diligence and razor-sharp attention to detail (which are perhaps what calls one to the butlering profession in the first place) was on display again as he recalled his exertions to get Mrs. Astor a copy of a document she signed but whose contents she couldn’t remember, when Henry Christensen III, her estate lawyer, dropped by Holly Hill. The document transferred $5 million of her fortune to her son.

Despite being brushed off by Christensen’s office, Ely refused to relent, requesting the document be FedEx'd to his employer forthwith. “When Shirley called me back,” he said referring to Mr. Christensen’s secretary, “she wasn’t pleasant anymore. She was actually quite terse. She told me that document had been sent to Mr. Marshall and she couldn’t get a copy of it; it was in the [Sullivan and Cromwell] vault.”

The courtroom, and apparently Ely himself, was spoiling for a spirited cross-examination by Fred Hafetz, Tony Marshall’s lawyer. But the attorney met his match in the butler who, when Mr. Hafetz tried to cast doubt on his memory of events, actually corrected the lawyer about dates and details. No one, it seemed, knew the minutiae of Brooke Astor’s life better than he.

After a lunch break, Hafetz, apparently deciding to cut his losses, surprised the courtroom by telling the judge he had no further questions. The prosecutors, who had assumed he’d be hectoring Ely late into the afternoon, had no other major witnesses ready to go, so Judge A. Kirke Bartley Jr. dismissed the delighted jury almost two hours early. But he has advised them that they probably won’t get the case before the latter part of July.

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