Even into her late 90s, Brooke Astor was young at heart — literally. “She always had an ongoing crush,” said theater and film producer John Hart during his testimony Monday in the trial of Astor’s only son, Anthony Marshall. One such crush was on actor Matthew Broderick, whose play, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” she saw five times and who visited her at her Westchester estate Holly Hill, Hart said. When her memory began to lapse, and she failed to recognize Broderick after seeing “The Producers,” he said, “Brooke, I’m Matthew. You love me.”
Astor was a shameless charmer. “I know you are flirting with someone,” Hart recalled telling her when he heard Astor giggling on the phone.
This story first appeared in the May 12, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
When asked whom she wanted to invite to her 100th birthday, Astor cheekily replied, “99 men,” attested Alice Victor, David Rockefeller’s personal secretary, in the continuation of her testimony.
Bill Clinton could have been one of them. “She thought he had flirted with her, or anyway, she was pleased with the attention,” recalled Hart, recounting the encounter between Astor and the then-President when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As for Astor’s social schedule, it was conducted at breakneck speed. Every day brought board meetings for institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library, as well as “lunches, dinners, teas, doctor’s appointments and afternoon shopping trips,” said her former secretary Jolee Hirsch, in her testimony Monday. Astor’s one moment of leisure, it seems, was breakfast in bed served by one of her staff, but even that included writing thank you notes for whatever fete she attended the night before.
“She had lots of younger friends,” attested Victor, and hated slowing down, or using her cane.
“[Astor] always thought she could do more than she could,” said Hirsch, who worked with Astor following a stint with Sandy Hill Pittman and before heading to the White House to work with former first lady Laura Bush’s social secretary.
And despite declining memory and health, including problems hearing and sciatica, Astor’s legendary sense of humor remained sharp. “I’ve never had a facelift” was one of her favorite sayings, according to Victor, as well as “Do you think I would wear this jewelry unless I was here today?” said Hart.
She even seemed to have sense of humor about her declining mental health. “I’m gaga,” Hart recalls her saying in 2003.
The relationship between Astor and her only son hardly seemed as carefree. “Sometimes weeks would go by without seeing him,” said Hirsch. “Sometimes he would come two or three times a week, if something was going on. Sometimes [their relationship] was good and fine, and other times there was tension,” she continued. Astor would even “roll her eyes” about her son, said Hirsch, and at his wife, Charlene, said Hart. “[Astor and Charlene] had a difficult relationship with each other,” said Hirsch. “Often it was tense when everyone was together.”
“I had a row with Charlene and I had to give her jewelry,” Hart remembers Astor saying on more than one occasion.
But Astor told them both that “Charlene makes Tony happy.” (Charlene, sitting in the gallery wearing seemingly the same powder blue twinset as last Thursday and no jewelry, listened to the testimony without expression.)
And in a poignant twist, considering that Marshall is being charged with taking advantage of his mother’s condition to alter her will, Hart also recalled Astor reading a quotation from Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography: “Very little good comes of inherited wealth.” Then Astor reportedly added a nugget of her own: “Children should have enough money to live on but not enough not to do anything.”