INSIDE STORY: The Sensational Trial over Brooke Astor's Fortune

INSIDE STORY: The Sensational Trial over Brooke Astor's Fortune
The late Brooke Astor
Serge J-F. Levy/AP

05/05/2009 03:00PM

For centuries, the Astors have been New York City's unofficial royal family, with an entire neighborhood named after them in Queens and a Manhattan hotel – the Waldorf-Astoria – bearing their name in gold-leafed lettering above the door.

Yet fame and fortune never shielded the clan, whose Gilded Age fortune was derived from fur-trapping and real estate, from the meaner side of life. John Jacob Astor IV went down on the Titanic, and now the heir to his fortune, Anthony D. Marshall, is at the center of courtroom drama unfolding in Manhattan Supreme Court that proves money doesn't buy happiness.

Marshall, 84, is accused of swindling his mother, the late philanthropic and social legend Brooke Astor (who died in 2007 at the age of 105), out of $50 million and forcing her to live like a pauper in her Park Avenue apartment.

Sordid Details

The sordid details read like a Shakespeare play. Among the state prosecutors' more juicy allegations are the following:

• That Marshall conned his mother into selling a favorite painting by famed artist Childe Hassam for $10 million by telling her she was broke – Astor was reputedly worth more than $100 million at the time – then pocketed a $2 million "commission" for himself.
• That he fired his mom's dog walker and housed her dachshunds, Boysie and Girlsie, in her dining room, where they urinated on the parquet floor.
• That he made his mother sleep on a stained couch and put her on a diet of peas and porridge.
• That he refused to let servants install a gate atop a staircase at his mother's duplex apartment when she became unsteady and wandered in the dark.
• That he used unscrupulous lawyers to get his mother to sign a will leaving him and his wife $60 million.

Dreaded Daughter-in-Law

Prosecutors further charge that Marshall siphoned money from his mother's estate to please the tastes of his much-younger wife, Charlene, 63, who was married to the pastor of the Episcopal church near Astor's Maine summer estate when she and Marshall met. Apparently, Astor was no fan of her social-climbing daughter-in-law. In court Monday, Astor's ear doctor recalled a 2000 conversation with his patient: "I asked if she would be spending Christmas with her family. She said she'd rather have Boysie and Girlsie, her dogs, there than her son and that B-I-T-C-H."

The family rift spans at least three generations: Brooke's grandson (and Tony's son) Phillip Marshall was the first to point a finger at his dad when he petitioned to transfer legal guardianship of his grandmother from Marshall to Annette De La Renta, wife of clothing designer Oscar De La Renta. The younger Marshall wrote that his grandmother was "forced to sleep in the TV room in torn nightgowns on a filthy couch."

Sad Decline

If these reports are true, Brooke Astor's final years were a far cry from the posh life to which the society grande dame was accustomed. The third wife of Vincent Astor, heir to the name and fortune, Brooke contributed hefty sums to New York City's educational and cultural institutions, often visiting schools, soup kitchens and public libraries – always impeccably dressed in white gloves and hat.

Her only child is now accused in state court of grand larceny and conspiracy, with estate lawyer Francis X. Morrissey, to defraud his mother as she sank from Alzheimer's dementia. If convicted, Marshall, who maintains his innocence, faces a possible 25-year prison sentence. The trial continues Tuesday.

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