The Nurse Who Saw It All

Could Pearline Noble, who dubbed the Marshalls “Miss Piggy” and “the golden retriever,” help get Brooke Astor’s son Anthony off the hook by painting his wife as a villain?

07.15.09 1:12 PM ET

How’s this for a defense strategy if things look any worse for the ailing Anthony Marshall (though it’s hard to imagine how they could)? Blame it all on his wife Charlene.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office—in its wisdom and reportedly after long deliberation—decided not to indict her. So the defense could claim her husband was nothing but her pull toy, without any fear her golden years will be spent at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.

The curious fact is that Charlene Marshall does bear a striking resemblance to Miss Piggy—with her florid skin, stout body, short neck, feminine charm when she feels like turning it on, and alleged reputation for gluttony, at least as far as her mother-in-law’s fortune is concerned.

In fact, Fred Hafetz, Tony Marshall’s lawyer, tested a strategy something like this, perhaps inadvertently, during the last few days. Judge A. Kirke Bartley Jr. forbade the prosecution from introducing into evidence notebooks—kept by Pearline Noble, one of Brooke Astor’s nurses—which include mocking references to the Marshalls.

But in one of those quirks of the law, it was OK for the defense to cite the slurs, and so they did.

Striding over to Mrs. Marshall in the courtroom gallery, Hafetz placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, scowled at Noble on the witness stand, and demanded to know whether she’d referred to his client’s devoted wife in her notes as “Miss Piggy.”

Then the attorney—who’s kept his theatrical skills under tight wraps until now—crossed back to the defense table, dropped a similarly sympathetic hand onto Mr. Marshall’s shoulder and asked if the nurse hadn’t also called him “golden retriever.”

His point was that Noble, a 48-year-old Jamaican woman who started working for Brooke Astor in 2003 and was at her bedside when she died in 2007, bore a grudge against the good Marshalls so her incendiary testimony was tainted and therefore worthless.

“Are you a nurse?” the lawyer scoffed. “Did you go to a nursing school? Did they teach you to refer to your clients in the most derogatory words—to call Mrs. Marshall 'Miss Piggy' and her son by a dog’s name?”

But Mr. Hafetz was playing with fire by raising what increasingly looks more like a dominant/submissive relationship between the Marshalls. The curious fact is that Charlene Marshall does bear a striking resemblance to Miss Piggy—with her florid skin, stout body, short neck, feminine charm when she feels like turning it on, and alleged reputation for gluttony, at least as far as her mother-in-law’s fortune is concerned. Her courtly, white-haired husband, on the other hand, seems devoted to her and eager to please—just like the princely breed of dog Noble compared him to.

Indeed, the nurse recounted a Dec. 1, 2003, scene that made her caustic depictions of the Marshalls seem like a dead-on psychoanalysis of their marriage. Henry Christensen, Mrs. Astor’s estate lawyer, came to her Park Avenue apartment on that date to discuss changes to her will that her son was agitating for. According to Noble, while Christensen and Mrs. Astor were sequestered in the library, the nurse spotted the Marshalls in an adjoining room, with their ears to the wall, eavesdropping on the conversation.

Charlene was apparently alarmed enough by what she heard that she ordered her husband, “Get in there,” and shoved him twice for good measure, according to Noble. And get in there he did.

While the nurse added that she heard the meeting end in laughter, what the jury is more likely to remember when they get the case—which at this rate may not be until Labor Day—is the balance of power between husband and wife. The increasingly gaunt and pale 85-year-old Marshall appears to be failing before their eyes—his latest setback came last week when he fell in a stall in the 15th-floor men’s room of the Criminal Courts Building, hit his head, and was sent to the hospital on a stretcher with an oxygen mask pulled over his face. Charlene Marshall has never looked more robust.

The defense contends that, even though Brooke Astor suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, she had good days. But Pearline Noble’s daily nurse’s notes, including those for the day of Christensen’s visit—“Lots of flatus while coughing, no BM, complained that some people will be killing both of us”—paint a tragic portrait of old age, and of a paranoid invalid who outlived her mind and body.

Another of Noble’s vivid recollections concerned the events of Jan. 12, 2004, when the Marshalls and Francis Morrissey, an estate lawyer who stands accused of forging Mrs. Astor’s signature on a third codicil, visited 778 Park Ave. to have Mrs. Astor sign a second codicil giving the bulk of a $60 million trust outright to her son, rather than to charity as previous wills had.

The difference between Morrissey’s recollection of that afternoon’s events and Noble’s could not be more starkly different. According to a memo Morrissey wrote after the meeting that has been introduced into evidence, Mrs. Astor was “beautifully coiffed” and “extended her arm, and we both walked into the library side by side.” This was the meeting where Mrs. Astor supposedly gladly gave Tony and Charlene her money, asking only, “Are they happy in bed?”

According to Pearline Noble, Mrs. Astor had been agitated at a doctor’s appointment earlier in the day, had to be awoken for the meeting, and couldn’t walk under her own power. When she saw Morrissey she demanded, “Who is that man?”

Using Xhiljola Ruci, a 23-year-old paralegal in the district attorney’s office, Noble showed the jury how she guided her employer to the meeting by holding Ruci’s right hand, wrapping her left hand around her waist, and resting Ruci’s hip against her own to keep her upright. Noble explained that that was why Tony Marshall and Morrissey had such difficulty when they relieved her of Mrs. Astor to escort her into the library, Tony Marshall taking her by the left hand, Morrissey by the right. “It doesn’t work,” the nurse explained, “because she has no support. Both legs were shaking. Her legs started buckling. They pulled her into the library. Her legs were dragged.”

At that point, Mrs. Astor used her silver-handled cane. Not to prevent herself from falling, but to protest her treatment with whatever free will her atrophied brain had left. “I won’t be pushed into any business,” she shouted, according to Noble, pounding her cane on the floor. “Do you hear me?”

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.