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Room 1536 of the Manhattan Criminal Court Building isn’t exactly a regular stop on the social circuit but it almost seemed so on Wednesday, when both Annette de la Renta and Nancy Kissinger testified in the trial of the late Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, and estate lawyer Francis X. Morrissey Jr. (Both men face charges of conspiracy and scheming to defraud.)
The courtroom was packed with observers, including de la Renta’s daughter Eliza Bolen, Marshall’s wife Charlene, and writers like Astor expert Meryl Gordon, Michael Gross, Andrea Peyser and Joanna Molloy. After both having to give their ages — which the district attorney admitted was an “impolite” question — Kissinger (75) and de la Renta (69) shared fond memories of their friend Astor in between more somber testimony about her declining physical and mental health.
This story first appeared in the May 7, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“[Brooke] was very peppy and full of life, with the best manners in the world,” said Kissinger in her approximately 30-minute testimony, also recalling Astor’s mischievous sense of humor and how Astor always repeated, “My mother always told me not to get above myself.” But even her favorites could make missteps: Kissinger recounted that at Astor’s 80th birthday, her husband Henry had offended the grand dame by mentioning her age. “She was furious,” said Kissinger, laughing. “Flowers were sent, telephone calls were made, letters were sent,” and eventually Henry was forgiven.
Though the contrast between the perfectly coiffed ladies, both impeccably attired in Oscar de la Renta, and the jury was stark, both Kissinger and de la Renta seemed to charm the courtroom. Chuckles were heard when de la Renta explained that Astor detested blue jeans, deeming them “unfeminine and awful,” and insisting on wearing skirts on her many walks through the country. “You would pray that you wouldn’t have to go walking with her, because she would just walk and walk up and down mountains,” said de la Renta, smiling. “And she would go swimming in that freezing water [of Maine] and you would have to go in with her, because you couldn’t say no.”
But during her nearly five hours of testimony, de la Renta was clearly irked by the defense attorneys’ frequent objections. At times, she jutted her chin at them, glaring, or turned to the jury, shaking her head in disbelief and frustration.
De la Renta, who was with Astor when she died in 2007, was also visibly saddened when speaking about Astor, who she met through her mother, Jane Engelhard, and who she visited “hundreds” of times at her 778 Park Avenue apartment; at lunch at her favorite, the Knickerbocker Club; at her Maine home, and at her Westchester estate Holly Hill. Photos of the apartment and Holly Hill, Astor’s “puppies” Girlsie and Boysie, as well as Tiepolo drawings, the famed Childe Hassam painting “Up the Avenue from Thirty-Fourth Street” were shown, as were several handwritten notes to de la Renta from Astor. “How can I find the words to tell you what you meant to me.…I feel that you are like a daughter to me,” read one. “Darling Annette, How can I find enough words to thank you for your wonderful Christmas gifts. The fur rug…it could only come from heaven which of course you are. Dearest girl, I’m not joking,” read another.
Astor showered de la Renta with gifts, including a pair of pearl earrings, gold earrings with rubies, a seed pearl lariat and a diamond-studded gold chain with a pendant and a pair of long gold and diamond earrings (the defense was anxious to determine the value of the last two items, even asking Kissinger, who said, “Well, I’ve never questioned if it’s fake or real when she [Astor] wears it.”) “I don’t want Charlene to get them,” Kissinger recalled Astor as saying.
De la Renta raised eyebrows when she testified about when Charlene met Marshall. “She and Anthony met because Charlene was walking up and down in front of Mrs. Astor’s house in Maine,” said de la Renta. (Charlene was not without her fans — she had a row of supporters sitting next to her and doted on her 84-year-old husband during every break, kissing him on the cheek and handing him medication from a gold pill box.)
But de la Renta also described their numerous trips together, Astor’s close relationship with her staff, and her decline into senility, recounting lapses of memory at her 100th birthday party, during dinners with close friend Kofi Annan and meetings with Metropolitan Museum head Philippe de Montebello.
As for her apartment, “it was getting to look a little bit sad,” sighed de la Renta. Astor gave both of her friends the impression that she was running out of money, which the prosecution pointed out wasn’t possible when her personal wealth was $180 million.
De la Renta will continue to testify today, with appearances also expected from Alice Victor, David Rockefeller’s secretary, as well as possibly Astor friend Patsy Pulitzer Preston and Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter.