The law is ultimately still the law, even if you are Brooke Astor’s son, even if you are 89 years old.
So the moment finally came on Friday afternoon when Anthony Marshall was rolled in a wheelchair into a Manhattan courtroom. He was there to begin his long-delayed prison term for looting his philanthropist mother’s riches as she slipped into dementia and finally death in 2007, at the age of 105.
The wheelchair was pushed by his wife, Charlene, a former pastor’s spouse turned aspiring dame in white and pink, accessorized with a gold bracelet and pearl earrings. Her hair was combed straight back from her reddened face. Her tears brought to mind something a court officer had said to an armed robber’s wife in similar circumstances some years back.
“Lady, did you cry when he brought home the money?”
Marshall himself had a nearly blank expression that could have been taken as stoic if you remembered he was a Marine who still had shrapnel in his body from the horrors of Iwo Jima during World War II. His look seemed to turn more forlorn as his small procession of spouse and lawyers halted halfway into the 16th-floor courtroom to await the start of the proceedings that he had avoided with a variety of legal maneuvers for nearly four years since his conviction. He wore a grey knit top, blue sweatpants, plaid slippers and an expensive-looking wristwatch not likely to remain long in his possession.
His hands lay loose in his lap and he suddenly seemed less a Marine than an overgrown child sitting in a stroller, still feeling abandoned by mommy. His mother had written in her autobiography of going into labor while at a Broadway show and, six hours later, gazing upon her newborn son.
“He was perfect,” Brooke Astor wrote. “And what was more, I would never be alone again.”
He had been her solace during years and more years of marriage to an alcoholic and abusive husband.
“Mother and child played for hours, inventing games, going wherever their imaginations took them,” she wrote. “The greatest thing in my life was Tony. He was an adorable, round and rosy little boy.”
But the mother would privately say that her wonderful Tony had been the result of a marital rape. An ambivalence about her son had become more apparent as she married a man who seemed happy to have her send the boy off to a boarding school when he was not yet in his teens. “I felt it was a character builder,” she wrote.
After the stepfather died, the mother married again, this time to Vincent Astor. His death left her fabulously wealthy and charged with disbursing the millions of the Astor Foundation. She became one of the sparkling figures of New York society and, the more she shone, the more her son seemed to feel in her shadow.
She was still going strong as she turned 100 and his own health began to falter. He once said that his great fear was that he predeceases her, never to claim what he viewed as his rightful inheritance and shine in his own right.
That fear ended with her death, but it was followed by the fear of going to prison after he was convicted of grand larceny in 2009 and sentenced to a minimum of a year. He seemed beyond the comfort of his wife as she now bent down beside the wheelchair to kiss him and smooth his hair.
“We’ll always love each other,” she was heard to say. “Always, always.”
She crouched further down, looking up at him and then burying her face against his upper arm, crying. A harsh person might have wondered why she did not try to make it easier on him if she loved him so much.
“Come to order,” a court officer then said.
The wife’s purse was hanging on the back of the wheelchair. She removed it and sat in the front spectator’s row along with a minister who had come to offer her solace. The lawyers rolled her husband up to the defendant’s table.
Manhattan Supreme Court Judge A. Kirke Bartley took the bench and noted that Marshall’s lawyers had advised their client not to make a statement at sentencing because he intended to appeal. Bartley offered Marshall the opportunity again now the appeals were exhausted.
“You honor, Mr. Marshall has nothing further to say,” one of the defense lawyers replied.
The judge made clear that he took no pleasure in sending a man of this advanced age to prison in these circumstances and did so only in keeping with his oath of office.
“An oath not dissimilar from what you took when you became a Marine officer,” he told Marshall.
Bartley said he wanted to read aloud part of a letter that one of Marshall’s sons had sent the court asking that his father be spared prison. Bartley said that request was beyond his powers to grant, but he felt the letter might nonetheless be of some value to Marshall considering that he and his son had been estranged since before the trial.
“My father was a hero in World War II,” the son had written.
The judge said the son had gone on to describe the father’s heroic deeds and to ask, “Please consider all the good my father has done.” The son had recalled something his father had told him about the circumstances that culminated in the arrest, conviction and now incarceration: “You can’t change the past.”
The judge now urged Marshall to reconnect with his son. “Before it is too late,” the judge said. “You have a son who obviously loves you, who feels terrible about what occurred.”
During the trial, the courtroom witnesses had chanced to recount some of Brooke Astor’s spirited witticisms. One man recalled on the stand a day when somebody in a Maine church had asked her if she was a lesbian.
“No, my dear, I’m an Episcopalian,” Astor had replied.
As the courtroom erupted in laughter, it had seemed that Brooke Astor was the brightest spirit in the room even in death. That had seemed to make Marshall feel only more in her shadow and he had sat with the same blank expression that he now brought to the sentencing nearly four years later.
“I wish you the best,” the judge said. “And at this point as much as an oxymoron as it may seem, I am executing your sentence as previously provided.”
A court officer handed one of Marshall’s lawyer a folded white document. The lawyer said that he had been conferring with corrections officials and ensured that Marshall was allowed to bring his required medications.
“He also has the oxygen he needs,” the lawyer said.
A small oxygen tank was on the back of the wheelchair as a court officer took the handles and backed Marshall away from the defendant’s table. The officer turned the chair around to maneuver it toward the side door and Marshall swung around to face his wife.
He still looked less a husband or a father than a son who never got over the feeling of being abandoned by his mother. But he may yet find a modicum of salvation in his own son, who invites him to a better future even though there is indeed nothing that can be done about the past.
The officer turned the chair back around and in the next instant Marshall was gone, on his way to the cells. A supervising court officer called out a single word to signal it was over.