Family Business

How the doyenne of New York society ran afoul of her own relatives.

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Reviewed by Amanda Vaill
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page BW15


The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach

By Meryl Gordon

Houghton Mifflin. 320 pp. $28

If you've ever heard Cole Porter's classic song "Miss Otis Regrets," with its ironic use of the formal third person, you know that the reason the eponymous heroine can't accept her lunch invitation is that she has shot the man "who led her so far astray." There's no shooting in Meryl Gordon's Mrs. Astor Regrets -- everyone is much too polite and repressed for that -- but this story of the vicissitudes of the late New York grande dame Brooke Astor is also, in its way, about a crime of the heart.

Left a fortune on the death of her third husband, the irascible real-estate magnate Vincent Astor, the former Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall became an icon of New York society, as well as one of the city's most generous and discerning philanthropists. Instantly recognizable in her Chanel suits, ornate hats, pearls and trademark white gloves, she was famous for personally visiting every one of the causes to which she gave money, from the Bronx Zoo to after-school programs in inner-city neighborhoods -- continuing to do so well into her 90s. Her 100th-birthday celebration in 2002 was attended by such diverse luminaries as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Barbara Walters, George Plimpton, Henry Kissinger, the past and current directors of the New York Public Library (Vartan Gregorian and Paul LeClerc) and the designer Oscar de la Renta, and made headlines around the globe. But these were superseded a mere four years later when her grandson Philip Marshall filed a petition in a New York City court charging his father -- Mrs. Astor's only son, Anthony Marshall -- with elder abuse of the now frail 104-year-old woman. "DISASTER FOR MRS. ASTOR," screamed the front page of the New York Daily News. There was worse to come: In November 2007, Tony Marshall and the man he had hired to be Mrs. Astor's lawyer, Francis X. Morrissey, were indicted on charges of criminal fraud and grand larceny in the handling of her fortune.

Thus began what New York Magazine journalist Meryl Gordon calls an "upper-crust reality soap-opera" that illustrates what happens when families confuse money with affection. Cantering briskly through the first nine decades of Brooke Astor's life (a pace that may account for the breathless prose style), Gordon points out the essentials: the cash-poor but well-connected upbringing; the early marriage (at 16) to a wealthy boor who beat her when he wasn't cheating on her; the birth of an only son, who friends say would always be a reminder of his "terrible" father and who was quickly shunted off to boarding school; divorce and remarriage to the love of her life, Buddie Marshall, who died in her arms after 20 years and left her "feeling poverty-stricken"; the five-year marriage of convenience with Astor, one of the richest men in America, who ignored his now-grown stepson but adored his twin step-grandsons; Astor's death and his widow's apotheosis. But the bulk of Gordon's book is given over to her painstakingly researched account of the events surrounding the lawsuit and the subsequent indictments, a tale that is more sad than scandalous, but nonetheless riveting.

Drawing on sources as varied as caregivers' notes and videotapes of ceremonial speeches, as well as interviews with everyone from David Rockefeller to Mrs. Astor's gardener, Gordon details her inexorable slide into fragility and dementia, beginning with the forgetfulness about names and details that led to her decision to close down the Astor Foundation; the making of inappropriate, meandering remarks during public appearances; the falls and fractures and seemingly baseless fears. And she follows the steps by which Anthony Marshall, a former CIA recruiter and diplomat turned Broadway producer, gradually assumed a larger and larger role in running his mother's affairs -- and a larger and larger share of the proceeds.

First there was the puzzling sale of a beloved Childe Hassam painting, "Flags: Fifth Avenue," which Mrs. Astor had long promised to the Metropolitan Museum -- "Tony wanted me to sell because I'm running out of money," she explained -- and Marshall's pocketing of a $2 million commission on the deal. There was the transfer of the title of her cherished Maine retreat to Marshall, who then deeded it to his third wife, a woman Mrs. Astor reportedly loathed -- all the while billing the former owner for its considerable upkeep. Then there were the restrictions placed on Mrs. Astor's visitors' list and the firings of key personnel: the social secretary, the butler and finally the lawyer -- all replaced by people Marshall hired. Finally, fully two years after Marshall had discussed with his mother's geriatrician the fact that she had Alzheimer's disease, there were the codicils to her will -- documents signed by a frail, disoriented old woman, who had to be "dragged down a hallway" to do so -- in which she withdrew the substantial bequests originally made to the institutions she had always supported and instead bestowed the bulk of her fortune on her son. No wonder the 102-year-old Mrs. Astor cowered in a car rather than emerge for a lunch date with her old friend David Rockefeller: She was afraid he was one of "the men in blue suits [who] make me sign things."

None of these pitiable and appalling facts would have come to light if Marshall had not tried to isolate his mother from her friends and associates or to economize by selling off properties -- like the Hassam painting and her Westchester estate, Holly Hill -- that gave her comfort. But in Gordon's view, Marshall suffered from the feeling that he "never had the security of unconditional love" from his mother, and when she was too ill and addled to protest, he comforted himself with the money and property looted from her estate. Gordon further develops this theme by suggesting that Philip Marshall sued his father for Mrs. Astor's guardianship not only because he was outraged by what he felt was neglectful care of the grandmother he revered, but also as a way of acting out against the father he believed "neither knew nor liked him."

Thankfully, Gordon doesn't overdo the Freudian components of her story; she doesn't have to with protagonists like these. Listen to Tony Marshall, giving Brooke Astor's funeral eulogy to a packed congregation at St. Thomas Church that has just heard from David Rockefeller, one of the co-signers of Philip Marshall's guardianship petition: "New York and her many friends have lost a wonderful person," he says. Then, adds Gordon, "his voice choked up, as he added in a tone of almost childish disbelief, 'But I've lost my mother.' " To judge by Mrs. Astor Regrets, he never had her to begin with. ยท

Amanda Vaill is the author, most recently, of "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins."

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