Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproachby Meryl Gordon
A riveting look behind the gates of the house of Astor as a famous family falls apart in public
The fate of Brooke Astor, the endearing philanthropist with the storied name, has generated worldwide headlines since her grandson Philip sued his father in 2006, alleging mistreatment of Brooke. And shortly after her death in 2007, Anthony Marshall, Mrs.
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A riveting look behind the gates of the house of Astor as a famous family falls apart in public
The fate of Brooke Astor, the endearing philanthropist with the storied name, has generated worldwide headlines since her grandson Philip sued his father in 2006, alleging mistreatment of Brooke. And shortly after her death in 2007, Anthony Marshall, Mrs. Astor’s only child, was indicted on charges of looting her estate. Rarely has there been a story with such an appealing heroine, conjuring up a world so nearly forgotten: a realm of lavish wealth and secrets of the sort that have engaged Americans from the era of Edith Wharton to the more recent days of Truman Capote and Vanity Fair.
New York journalist Meryl Gordon has interviewed not only the elite of Brooke Astor’s social circle, but also the large staff who cosseted and cared for Mrs. Astor during her declining years. The result is the behind-the-headlines story of the Astor empire’s unraveling, filled with never-before-reported scenes. This powerful, poignant saga takes the reader inside the gilded gates of an American dynasty to tell of three generations’ worth of longing and missed opportunities. Even in this territory of privilege, no riches can put things right once they’ve been torn asunder. Here is an American epic of the bonds of money, morality, and social position.
The New York Times
The indictment in November 2007 of Anthony (Tony) Marshall, the only child of the late legendary philanthropist Brooke Astor, for misuse of his mother's fortune led to an unheard-of scrutiny of America's discreet aristocracy. Gordon, a journalist whose New York magazine article on the scandal in August 2006 formed the germ of this extended work, delivers a balanced, dogged-and ultimately sad-detective account of how Astor's grandson Philip Marshall ended up betraying Tony, his own father. Horrified by accounts of the shamefully reduced conditions under which his then 103-year-old grandmother was being cared for (attested to by servants and Astor's good friends Annette de la Renta and David Rockefeller), Philip legally challenged his father, the custodian of her considerable estate, and Tony's wife, Charlene, citing in particular the uncharacteristic altering of Brooke's will in the last years before she died (she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's). Gordon sifts painstakingly through the rubble of the extended Astor family history, from Brooke's disastrous first marriage at age 17 to her dazzling reinvention in her 50s as the celebrity widow of Vincent Astor (who died in 1959), firmly ensconced at the helm of the venerable and very useful Astor Foundation. In the end, Gordon tells a sad and moving story of elder abuse. (Dec.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
This is a behind-the-scenes account of the scandal sparked when the grandson of world-famous philanthropist Brooke Astor sued his father for neglecting to properly care for his grandmother. Gordon (New York magazine) conducted 230 interviews for the book and interweaves Astor family history with insights provided by Astor's family, friends, caregivers, and servants. Shortly after Astor's death, Tony Marshall, her 83-year-old son, was indicted on 18 counts of grand larceny, falsifying business records, conspiracy, and possession of stolen property, reigniting a frenzy in the tabloids that began 16 months earlier, when grandson Philip Marshall first raised the allegations that his aged grandmother was living out her final days in neglect. Intimate details of the family life and interpersonal relationships of the New York society icon are exposed by Gordon in this impeccably researched, thoroughly detailed, and absorbing profile of a sadly dysfunctional family. Recommended for public libraries.[See Prepub Alert, LJ8/08.]
Donna L. Davey
"With a journalist's eye and a New Yorker's raised eyebrow, Meryl Gordon weaves a web of fine detail into an enthralling, enraging story of Mrs. Astor's failing years. There are characters here that no novelist would ever dare to invent, and the plot has more twists than a pretzel. This is a sometimes heartbreaking story of greed and betrayal, but also one of loyalty, love and ultimate redemption." —Geraldine Brooks, author of People of the Book and the Pulitzer prize-winning March
"Meryl Gordon's riveting account of the legendary life and sad final days of Brooke Astor is an American epic. It's all here— high society, big money, blue blood, family feuds and criminal charges." —Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation and A Long Way From Home
"All of New York loved Brooke Astor— for her philanthropy, glamour, and Old School style. So everyone was shocked at charges that her only son and his wife had stolen her blind. Meryl Gordon, a meticulous reporter, persuaded all the players to give her interviews: everyone from Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, to Mrs. Astor’s son and wife. In a spellbinding account of “the crime” and the betrayal, Ms. Gordon unwinds the whole saga in a nifty book that reads like a cross between an Edith Wharton classic and a Linda Fairstein crime novel. Except in this case, it’s all true. I loved it!" —Lesley Stahl, 60 Minutes/CBS News
"So the rich are different: they’re sadder. The story of America’s ultimate real-life Edith Wharton heroine is inherently fascinating. But Meryl Gordon, by means of extraordinarily thorough reporting and sensitive, un-sensationalist writing, has produced a full-fledged tragedy of manners, a book worthy of the woman whose life it chronicles." —Kurt Andersen, author of Heyday and Turn of the Century
"With a wealth of revealing interviews and diligent reporting, Meryl Gordon has produced an inside account of the saga of Brooke Astor and her son Anthony Marshall. She provides both color and shadings to all sides of the story, turning it from a tabloid tale into a revealing social chronicle." —Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of The Aspen Institute and the author, most recently, of Einstein
"With depth and sensitivity, Meryl Gordon reveals the disquieting story behind the glamour and gaiety of Brooke Astor's life. Part Edith Wharton, part Charles Dickens, Mrs. Astor Regrets is a gripping read, filled with surprising details about the high stakes legal battle that shadowed Astor's final years, and the misunderstandings, betrayals, disappointments and resentments that tore her family apart." —Sally Bedell Smith, author of For Love of Politics: Inside the Clinton White House
"Gordon delivers a balanced, dogged--and ultimately sad--detective account ... Gordon sifts through painstakingly through the extended Astor family history ... [and] in the end, she tells a a sad and moving story." Publishers Weekly
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Prologue — Trial by Tabloid
When God created tabloids, that Tuesday after Thanksgiving was surely the kind of day he had in mind. On the morning of November 27, 2007, New York City’s two leading practitioners of that irreverent style of newspapering were thirsty for blue blood. Though the New York Times maintained judicious restraint, both the Post and the Daily News bannered the latest twist in the most talked-about high-society scandal in years, the saga of the late Brooke Astor and her only child, Anthony Marshall. She was, of course, the glamorous socialite and philanthropist who had transformed herself, thanks to cranky Vincent Astor’s charming fortune, into a beloved philanthropist and influential American icon.
Her son, a clubbable war hero, former ambassador, and award-winning Broadway producer, had been transformed at age eighty-three from the epitome of WASP rectitude to a handcuffed suspect facing an eighteen-count indictment. Tony Marshall’s fall from grace was abetted by his mother, his son, his attorney (who was charged in the same indictment), and the tabloids (which were just doing their thing). Charged with grand larceny, falsifying business records, conspiracy, and possession of stolen property, Marshall was looking at the specter of a quarter-century behind bars. "BAD BOY," scolded the News. "CROOK ASTOR," snarled the Post.
The headlines referred to his alleged scheme to swindle his mother’s millions from her favored cultural institutions (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library) into his own accounts. But the case was always as much about family as it was about money. It began sixteen months earlier with the seismic jolt from charges by Tony Marshall’s son Philip, a college professor, who alleged that his 104-year-old grandmother had descended from Park Avenue splendor to gentrified squalor (despite eight squabbling servants). Taken up with lynch-mob ferocity by the tabloids were such allegations as Tony’s seemingly selfish refusal to allow his mother to visit her country estate, his inexplicable sale of her favorite painting, and the claim that Mrs. Astor (yes, Mrs. Astor) was spending her declining days lying on a dog-urine-stained couch.
So began this upper-crust reality soap opera. Here in a nouveau riche age was America’s true aristocracy, the arbiters of society, the twenty-first century’s link to the New York of Edith Wharton and Henry James. But in this world of emeralds and Astors, things were not always what they seemed. Resentments seethed just below the surface, and ambition was cloaked in polished manners. The hired help, from the butler to the social secretary to Mrs. Astor’s nurses, would be drawn into the fray, testing their loyalty and discretion.
Past and present intertwined during the final reels of the Brooke Astor story, harking back to her failures as a mother and to the girl she had been, a teenage bride married off to a dashing millionaire whose acts of violence would haunt her for more than eighty years. This family drama involved a son whose mother, father, and succession of stepfathers left him with no sense of how a loving parent might behave. And then there was the money, nearly $200 million, a ruthless American fortune built on the lust for fur pelts and Manhattan real estate.
At 7:58 a.m., Tony Marshall arrived at the Manhattan district attorney’s office at One Hogan Place to turn himself in. White-haired and courtly, he wore a dark, well-tailored suit with his Marine Corps tie and clasp, clinging defiantly to these symbols of accomplishment and propriety. In the grim squad room on the ninth floor, Marshall was given paperwork to fill out — the business of being arrested. With its fluorescent lights, beat-up furniture, stacked water-cooler bottles, and jail cell with rusted metal bars, this setting must have seemed a harsh rebuke to a man accustomed to antiques, fine art, and regularly freshened floral arrangements.
In the upper reaches of society, it is not enough to acquire wealth; it must be protected from interlopers, some of whom are family members. As a young man in his twenties, Tony Marshall made his first court appearance, nearby in another Foley Square building, when his biological father unsuccessfully sued him in an effort to wrest away Tony’s trust fund. Brooke Astor had been taken to court over money as well, battling to protect her full share of Vincent Astor’s millions and fend off claims from one of her husband’s aggrieved family members.
But these squabbles had been mere civil matters, quarrels among family members without the involvement of the authorities. Tony Marshall was handcuffed when detectives escorted him downstairs for his mug shot and fingerprinting. The latter proved surprisingly complicated. Modern fingerprinting machines are not calibrated for aging digits, which leave indistinct markings. Several attempts were made before the detectives finally resorted to the ink method. Back in the squad room, Marshall was offered a nutrition bar, orange juice, and a banana, but declined. A member of the Knickerbocker Club, the New York Racquet Club, and the Brook Club, on a normal day he would have been lunching among the city’s elite.
By the time he was paraded in full perp-walk fashion across the street to the courthouse at 111 Centre Street, his face was ashen and his hair disheveled. Here was another photo opportunity in the unrehearsed spectacle of New York, seized on by the mobs of cameramen and journalists who had been staking out the building for six hours, eager to capture Tony Marshall’s downfall in time for the news at five. A news vendor hawking a stack of newspapers yelled out, "The rich stealing from the rich, find out what happened." Spying the defendant, the vendor cried out, "Mr. Marshall, why did you do it? Do you have anything to say?"
Walking slowly into the courtroom, Tony appeared to have aged dramatically in just a few hours, the portrait of Dorian Gray. His alarmed wife, Charlene, hurried up the aisle and wrapped her arms around him, covering his face with kisses. As she ran her hands through his mussed hair, Tony wiped tears from his eyes. Grasping his arm in support, Charlene walked down the aisle by his side, repeating, "We’ll be okay, we’ll be okay." Moments later he joined his lawyers at the wooden table and faced Justice A. Kirke Bartley, Jr., a former prosecutor known for trying mob boss John Gotti.
Rising to her feet as the hearing began, the prosecutor Elizabeth Loewy solemnly told the judge, "Despite his mother’s generosity when she was well, he used his position of trust to steal from her." Handed a copy of the indictment accusing him of fraud, conspiracy, and theft, Tony Marshall read through it slowly, as if having trouble comprehending the words. When asked to respond to the charges, he whispered, "Not guilty."
Three months earlier, at the age of 105, Brooke Astor had passed away at her Westchester country home, Holly Hill. For nearly a century she had presented herself to the world as a woman with a good-natured and witty persona, keeping her secrets and sorrows at bay. But as her life began to draw to a close, her dreams grew more vivid and disturbing; imaginary intruders pursued her. In her last year, she was dangerously fragile and afflicted with a Merck Manual of ailments. A voracious reader and the author of four books, she had lost the ability to speak in full sentences but could still communicate using gestures or facial expressions. Each morning the nurses would hold up a choice of outfits (mostly from Eileen Fisher) and Mrs. Astor would point to indicate her preference. "She could make her will known," says her social worker, Lois Orlin. "If she didn’t want something or she liked something, you could tell." Even near the end, keeping up appearances still mattered, as she clung to her sense of dignity.
As Brooke drifted through the days, gazing idly out the picture windows at the trees and gardens of her estate, her staff devised ways to remind her of the glory of her life and past good times. A favorite tactic was propping up on a lectern the photo album with pictures from Brooke’s one hundredth birthday party. "She really loved them," recalls her physical therapist, Sandra Foschi. "She looked in closely." The staff paged quickly past the photographs of Tony and Charlene, fearful that Mrs. Astor might find the sight upsetting. Sometimes Brooke would smile in recognition of the faces of her friends. Other times, overcome with memories, she would weep. "It was very emotional for her," says Foschi. "She would tear up, she would hang her head down. It brought great joy but also great sadness."
Perhaps her reaction reflected change and loss. But maybe in some corner of her mind she sensed the troubles that were tearing apart the family that she had come to care about too late.
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Meet the Author
MERYL GORDON is a full-time magazine journalist who for the past fifteen years has been a contract writer for New York magazine. She has profiled such influential figures as Kofi Annan, Mike Bloomberg, and John Kerry, and such stars as Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. She has written major features for the New York Times Magazine, Gourmet, Elle, Marie Claire, and More. Earlier in her career she covered the police and court beats in Cincinnati and Rochester, and then became an economics writer in Washington, D.C. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she lives in New York City with her husband, Walter Shapiro, who is the Washington bureau chief for Salon.com.
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