ANNETTE DE LA RENTA, DAY TWO: After a delay of two hours, many tears in the gallery from a distraught Charlene Marshall, and the dismissal of one juror, Annette de la Renta took the stand Thursday at the so-called “Brooke Astor trial” to finish up a few questions with District Attorney Elizabeth Loewy before facing off with Anthony Marshall’s defense attorney, Ken Warner.
The courtroom audience was less packed than the day before, but still drew gawkers like an Australian tourist and a few Astor-worshipping young women, as well as professional party crasher Richard Osterweil. Also in the stands was de la Renta’s personal legal team.
Any voyeurs weren’t disappointed — the entire video of the late Astor’s 100th birthday, heretofore unseen by the public, was played on a screen for nearly an hour. The jury and audience watched as the band played; Bobby Short sang; guests like Barbara Walters, George Plimpton, Peter Jennings and Kofi Annan danced; glasses tinkled, and Henry Kissinger and Lord William Astor spoke in David Rockefeller’s “playhouse” on his Tarrytown estate. Prince Charles and then-President Bush, who praised Astor for “always being a trail-blazer,” sent letters, which were read aloud on the tape. Also in the video was de la Renta, whose resplendent yellow and blue ensemble back then was in contrast to her strained expression and subdued stone-colored coat in court Thursday.
This story first appeared in the May 8, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
De la Renta’s manners, however, remained intact. She smiled graciously at the jury but had only hard looks for Anthony Marshall throughout her nearly three hours of testimony. The octogenarian, who was celebrating his 17th wedding anniversary with Charlene on Thursday, positioned himself sideways and did not look at de la Renta once.
The day’s testimony centered on the minutiae of Astor’s health and the locations of her various doctors; her relationship with her father, and the details of gifts exchanged between the two women. The de la Rentas gave Astor a fur rug, Verdura boxes for her homes, and at least three or four custom-made Oscar-designed dresses that Annette valued at $8,000 to $10,000. For her part, Astor gave de la Renta several pieces of jewelry, often taking them off herself and putting them on her friend. “Goodbye darling. Thank you for coming,” de la Renta recalled Astor saying to her as the grande dame took off a pair of gold and ruby earrings and pressed them upon her after one visit. The defense attorney was intent on finding out the value of the various pieces and even subpoenaed de la Renta to bring in a gold necklace studded with 33 carats of small diamonds and the matching earrings which he dangled in front of each member of the jury. (Two of the other pieces had been regifted, including a seed pearl lariat with rubies to de la Renta’s eldest daughter, Beatrice, and the other to a “friend of Mrs. Astor’s.”)
Warner pressed de la Renta to assign a dollar amount to the gifts, but she demurred. “Any piece of jewelry is expensive,” she said when pressed on the cost of the pearl and ruby lariat.
Also displayed was another handwritten note from Astor to de la Renta, which read, “There is no one in my life like you. My own dear Tony is so happy with at last a wife that [illegible] so that I hardly see them. You, darling Annette are my dearest child, and I am so proud of you and all the wonderfully good works you do, you work so hard but never show off — as my mother used to say to me, ‘Brooke, don’t get beyond yourself.’” That saying became a catchphrase of the day’s testimony — de la Renta even used it to respond to Warner’s query whether she agreed with Astor’s description of her in the same letter as “serious and fun.”
“I can’t get above myself,” responded de la Renta, eliciting a roar of laughter from the courtroom.
Despite her stoic good spirits, de la Renta looked visibly irritated by Warner’s continuous attempts to pin her down on points like Astor’s ability to speak over the years and whether her social circle is “pretentious.”
In the 100th birthday video, which was played twice, Kissinger made Astor’s rarefied world seem honorable if anything. “We don’t have a nobility here,” he said to Astor in his toast. “Our nobility is defined by their actions….You have shown us what we should be, what we would like to be but what many probably could not quite reach….Your nobility, courage and sense of dedication have inspired all of us.”
In keeping with her mother’s saying, Astor demurred. “I’ve gone very beyond myself tonight to have all these nice people saying nice things about me. I’m really not so extraordinary. I’m just an ordinary person who’s had a very good life.”