When Brooke Astor's name flared into the headlines in July 2006, many people didn't even realize the great lady was still alive.
She had, after all, celebrated her 100th birthday more than four years earlier, and then virtually disappeared.
But when it was revealed her only child, Anthony Marshall, then 82, had been charged in court papers of mistreating his mother and enriching himself and his wife at her expense, it launched a cascade of coverage — all captivated by the battle over her almost $200 million fortune.
Almost as scandalous as the allegations themselves was that they were made by Philip Marshall, one of Anthony's twin sons. Young Marshall accused his father of abuses that ranged from skimping on Astor's medications to selling off some of her favorite pieces of art to downsizing the number of aides who looked after her.
Anthony Marshall was also alleged to have invested his mother's money into his own theatrical production company. Philip asked that his father be removed as Astor's legal guardian and replaced by his grandmother's longtime friend Annette de la Renta and the bank J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
For months, charges and countercharges were made almost daily, at times by some of New York's most aristocratic names. Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller joined de la Renta in offering affidavits supporting Philip's accusations against his father.
Days after those accusations were made, New York State Supreme Court Judge John E.H. Stackhouse appointed de la Renta and J.P. Morgan Chase as Astor's temporary guardians, an arrangement that became permanent under terms of a settlement reached in mid-October.
Although the mainstream press provided ample coverage — The New York Times alone published close to 30 major articles on the affair between July 27, 2006, and mid-October — it was a story with enough sordid aspects to ensure equal space in the tabloids. Little of it concerned the actions of Astor herself, focusing instead on the behavior of her relatives and the lawyers they hired, all of it so at odds with the discretion and dignity usually associated with Brooke Astor.
There was, for example, the accusation — never proven — that because her bedroom was too chilly, Astor had been forced by her son to sleep on a couch soiled by urine from her pet dogs, Boysie and Girlsie.Then there was the matter of Marshall's second marriage and the influence of his new wife, Charlene, on the disposition of some Astor assets: a painting by Childe Hassam, worth millions and said to be one of Astor's favorites, that wound up in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art, and a compound in Northeast Harbor, Maine, that became Charlene's property in 2003.
It was in Northeast Harbor, one of Astor's favorite vacation spots, that Marshall met Charlene, then the wife of a local minister. In 1992, shortly after Marshall divorced his first wife, Charlene abandoned her husband and ran off with Marshall, a man 21 years her senior. It was a major scandal in that little New England community and a deep source of embarrassment for Astor.
Marshall — who had been a combat Marine, a CIA officer and a U.S. ambassador, and went on to become a Tony-award-winning Broadway producer — denied any improprieties toward his mother. He said he loved her and he defended moving some $900,000 of her money into Delphi Productions, his theater company, as an act she approved.
Those investments began in 2003, the year Astor was hospitalized after breaking her hip. Her health spiraled downward from then on.
Shortly after Philip's allegations became public, the New York State Attorney General's office began asking questions about a charitable organization called Shepherd Community Foundation. Formed in 2002, it had never registered with the state but gave as one of its addresses the Manhattan home of the Marshalls.
Shepherd's primary contact was listed as Francis X. Morrissey Jr., a lawyer with a troublesome track record. Morrissey, who was once suspended from practicing law because he mishandled a client's money and who had been accused of taking advantage of other elderly clients, was hired by Marshall in 2003 to oversee Astor's financial matters. He is on the board of Marshall's theater company.
Finally, in December 2006, Marshall was given some measure of absolution. Amid a lengthy document about lawyers' fees for the case, Judge Stackhouse ruled that the allegations of neglect and chicanery against Marshall were "not substantiated." His ruling came two months after Anthony and Charlene Marshall, under a settlement, relinquished their positions as co-executors of Astor's estate. Under that agreement, any future legal action concerning Marshall's handling of his mother's finances were to be handled in Surrogate's Court after Astor's death and left to the discretion of an executor.Still to be resolved, however, was the question of whether Astor's signature on a revised will in 2004 was forged, a matter that was being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney's office, and whether she was mentally competent at the time.
Earlier this summer, The New York Times printed details of Astor's will — which she signed on Jan. 30, 2002 — for a personal fortune estimated at about $130 million, as well as a trust left to her by her husband, Vincent, that was estimated at another $60 million. According to the Times, the will stipulated that she be buried next to her late husband and that her gravestone read, "I had a wonderful life."
While Astor naturally bequeathed millions to many of the New York institutions she loved — from the New York Public Library to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to New York public school teachers — the public was most fascinated by the individuals named in it. Despite the drama surrounding the document, her son Anthony was left the bulk of her fortune, as well as artworks and any funds raised from the sales of her New York City apartment and her 65-acre estate in Westchester, the Times article said.
De la Renta, according to the report, was given four dog paintings; Freddie Melhado two cache pots, and Rockefeller a stone Buddha head sculpture.
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