Brooke Astor’s story, part 2

The Battle for Mrs. Astor, cont.
John Richardson
October 2008
Vanity Fair

Brooke’s Decline

Tony took it upon himself to establish and document the seriousness of Brooke’s Alzheimer’s.  After taking her to see Dr. Howard Fillit, a specialist in senile dementia, shortly before Christmas 2000, Tony followed up with a lengthy letter to the doctor, dated December 26, reiterating in detail his mother’s symptoms, which he graded in gravity from 1 to 10. Brooke’s inability to remember whether Tony was her only child was Grade 7. Her “trouble with simple arithmetic”—on being given an estimate of her income, she asked, “Is that for the month or year?”—was Grade 10. Ironically, Tony’s categorization of Brooke’s senile symptoms confirms how easily she came to believe that she was going broke, when her annual income was between $5 and $6 million. A week later, Tony took his mother back to Dr. Fillit for further consultation. Her dementia was now fully established.

Nine months later, when terrorists struck the Twin Towers, Brooke was oblivious to the disaster. Chris Ely tried to explain it to her, but she was unable to grasp what had happened to her beloved New York. However, her eye had been caught by the panoply of stars and stripes wherever she looked, and she had Ely decorate her car and gates with flags.

Shortly after 9/11, Tony began pressing Christensen, with whom he shared Brooke’s power of attorney, to provide “sufficient financial assistance to my wife Charlene upon my death.” The attorney obliged to the extent of allowing Tony to give himself a raise, from 5 percent per annum to 7 percent, for looking after the Vincent Astor charitable funds. Brooke had become very confused. After complaining to the columnist Liz Smith that Charlene had been stealing her jewelry and that she was going to cut her out of her new will, Brooke ended up giving Charlene her snowflake necklace with 367 round diamonds. As for her famous emeralds—Vincent’s last gift to her—she had left them in a previous will to her dear friend Annette de la Renta, who had declined them, saying, “Better leave them to the Met and the Public Library. They could do with the money.” Brooke apparently never realized that Charlene, who has not been indicted for any crimes, liked to flash the emeralds at public events.

As the indictment states, Tony persuaded his mother to let him sell her favorite painting, Childe Hassam’s Flags, Fifth Avenue. This joyous view had always had a place of honor in her red lacquered library. It was by far the most valuable work of art she owned, and she had promised it to the Metropolitan Museum. Today it would be worth from $30 to $40 million. Tony sold it to Gerald Peters, a dealer in Americana, for $10 million, and pocketed a $2 million commission. Peters reportedly passed the Childe Hassam on to another dealer for double the price. One of the charges in Tony’s indictment claims that, besides defrauding his mother, he cheated the I.R.S. out of its cut. When the deal was completed, Brooke is said to have asked Tony, “Now can I buy some dresses?” She purchased three, and then worried that she was poor again. The Marshalls, meanwhile, bought a modest development house in New Jersey, which they soon resold.

On March 30, 2002, Brooke celebrated her 100th birthday. Instead of using it as a pretext for a big public fund-raiser for her favorite charities, as her longtime adviser George Trescher had done on her 90th birthday, she opted for a smaller, more private party. David Rockefeller suggested a dinner dance for 100 close friends in the beautifully appointed Play-House on the Rockefellers’ Pocantico estate. Looking gracious albeit bemused, Brooke entered the room on the arms of her host and her favorite British in-law, Viscount (William) Astor, rather than her son, who was reportedly somewhat miffed.

The party was predictably festive and nostalgic. It took me back to the time I met Brooke, at an intimate dinner dance she had given 40 years earlier. A very merry widow, Brooke adored dancing and twirled so vigorously that an emerald the size of a piece of soap but of no great value crashed to the floor from its moorings on a sash around her waist. “We’ll find it in the morning,” she said as she kicked it aside. It was not found.

That centennial evening at Pocantico, Brooke proved that she could still dance, still light up a room. Although greatly diminished, the birthday girl enabled us to relive the days of glory when she held sway over New York not only because she personified the dazzle of the Astor name but also because she had lavished so much love and munificence on the city: funds for schools and teachers, libraries and librarians, churches and synagogues in need of repair, swimming pools in Harlem, old people’s homes in Astoria, communal gardens, animal shelters, and much, much more, which, with the help of Linda Gillies, she had distributed in all five of the city’s boroughs. That is what we celebrated. In retrospect, Brooke would have been better off had she died that night; so indeed would her son.

Restoring Her Faculties

Tony could not very well hand over a major chunk of Brooke’s cash to Charlene; her real estate was another matter. It would be relatively easy to annex Cove End, her property in Maine, and then pass it on to Charlene. After the transfer was done, Brooke never seemed to realize that she had divested herself of the summer home she loved. Nevertheless, Christensen wrote Tony a letter on April 28, 2003, stating that “your mother has discussed the possibility of making a gift to you now of all of Cove End.” Had Brooke suddenly recovered from her Alzheimer’s? Given Tony’s description of her symptoms to Dr. Fillit three years earlier, what else can one conclude?

Six months later, Tony would make the place over to his wife—a wedding-anniversary present from his mother, he would later claim. The transfer of Cove End to Charlene via Tony would cost Brooke $3,562,500 in gift tax. This additional gratuity would have incensed the donor, had she ever known about it. With a twinkle in her eye, Brooke had told a friend that she was leaving all her property to Tony, but that he would have to pay all the taxes—and serve him right for being so stingy! While Brooke was recovering from a hip operation in New York, Charlene moved her children into the guest cottages at Cove End. One of the cottages was broken into, reportedly allowing one daughter to move into the main house. Charlene summoned a friendly neighbor, Martha Stewart, to help refurbish some of Brooke’s rooms.

The household staff was kept in the dark about the transfer. Tony had wage checks paid out of Brooke’s bank account—one of the many alleged transgressions for which he would be charged. It was nine months before the staff read in a local newspaper about the change in ownership. Shortly afterward, Brooke’s loyal housekeeper was fired in Brooke’s name, and local help was replaced by seasonal workers from Antigua. These mean moves disqualified some of the older retainers from receiving Brooke’s bequests, which were subject to the words “if still in my employ.” Victims of the new owner’s thrift included Steven Hamor and his sons, Scott and Steve junior, who had made Brooke’s cutting garden at Cove End the envy of New England’s horticulturists. In 2001, Brooke had promised to leave the Hamors the greenhouse and the cutting beds so that they could run them as a business. The promise was not kept. On the grounds that the flowers were causing Tony tearful memories of his mother in her prime, the beds were uprooted and plowed under.  Gone, too, were the gorgeous lawns.

Three months later, on August 12, 2003, Terry Christensen sent Tony a letter in Brooke’s name in which she declares her intention of making “an additional outright gift to you of $5,000,000. This should provide you with enough money to assure Charlene’s comfort assuming that she survives you.” The next day, Christensen followed this up with a visit to Holly Hill, so that, “in order to solve the rift between the Marshalls and [her],” Brooke could sign away “some of the money set aside for her charities.” Chris Ely kept an account of what transpired:

I saw Christensen as he departed, and he seemed to want me to agree with him that Brooke was very well and in good mind—this comment coming from a man who could not look at me straight.… After Christensen left, Judith the nurse asked Brooke how she felt. “Foolish,” Brooke said, later adding that she thought she had “done something stupid.” She was distant and in deep thought for the rest of the day. That evening Brooke asked me what Christensen had wanted. I told her that as she had asked for a pen I thought she had signed something. She asked me to get him on the phone. I tried the office, but the secretary told me he had gone home early. I called him at home and gave the handset to Brooke. She asked him what had happened that day. He changed the subject. He told her that he was going on holiday and would see her when he returned.

Ely goes on to relate how he and Brooke tried to obtain a copy of the document she had presumably signed—to no avail. Two weeks later, Ely approached Tony, who told him, “ ‘The lawyer says they are private papers and he does not want to send them, as they will become public, as the nurses will see them.’ ” (Terry Christensen could not be reached for comment.)

Sporadically alert enough to suspect she was being manipulated, Brooke was becoming increasingly panic-stricken, especially at night. People were robbing her, she cried, threatening to put her away in a home. “It’s awful here. Take me away with you,” she implored her British cousin Viscount Astor. Brooke’s nurses were terrified. They reportedly begged the Marshalls to get a hospital bed for Brooke’s apartment, since she kept falling out of her usual one, and to install a gate lest she stumble at night down the stairs leading to the offices on the floor below in the apartment. That was where Tony and Charlene would install the staff of her business venture: Delphi Productions, a theater production company that Brooke would not even know she was backing, let alone lodging. According to the nurses, the bed was vetoed; so was the gate: “It would look bad” and diminish the value of the apartment. (Marshall has disputed this account.)

In May 2003, Brooke’s secretary, Noemie Packard, had been fired and replaced with Erica Meyer, a close friend of one of Charlene’s daughters. Her surveillance made a few of the guests the doormen at 778 Park Avenue were allowed to let into the building feel uncomfortable. Meeting Charles Ryskamp, the former director of the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library, in the men’s room at the Knickerbocker Club, Tony had asked him to send Brooke postcards rather than pay calls on her. The Marshalls had caught Brooke giving away mementos, some of them quite valuable, to people she loved.

Chagrin at not being an Astor may explain Tony’s penchant for things that had an Astor provenance: for instance, Vincent’s collection of gold-headed walking sticks, one of which Tony carried at his indictment. In what would appear to be emulation of the Astors, Tony also bought himself a yacht. The vessel was large enough to warrant a skipper, but was a dinghy by comparison with Vincent’s Nourmahal. Tony charged the skipper’s more than $50,000-a-year salary to his mother. According to the indictment, this was illegal. To dignify himself at his maternal grandfather’s expense, Tony named his yacht General Russell. Evidently he had forgotten that, some 70 years earlier, the general had scolded his schoolboy grandson for being a
wimp: “Learn to box,” he wrote.

Brooke had promised to leave Vincent’s family things to the English Astors, who had fared so much better than the U.S. ones. Tony, however, failed to honor his mother’s promise. And what could explain Tony’s uncalled-for shredding of the historically important archive including valuable Astor papers that Brooke had accumulated? Bills confirm that the Marshalls shredded a total of 70 boxes of documents. The destruction of numerous press photographs and snapshots of Brooke—those that survived the shredders were torn up—seems to hint at the depth of Tony’s resentment.

Brooke was now 100 and mentally incapacitated. Tony set his sights on the principal jewel left in her crown: the Vincent Astor Trust. Unlike Brooke’s marriage portion, which was hers to do whatever she liked with, the Astor Trust money was hers to distribute to charitable causes—particularly educational ones—in New York. Brooke had spelled this out in the will that Christensen had drawn up in 1997, when her mind was presumably still clear.

She had not consulted Tony when she closed down the Vincent Astor Foundation—“He is not an Astor,” she said—and this had dealt a serious blow to Tony’s sense of entitlement. If he had the Astor Trust in his control, he and Charlene would then be able to fund whatever project—theatrical, musical, religious—they wanted. Once again, Tony’s actions suggest that he wanted Christensen to disregard Brooke’s stated wishes. On December 18, 2003, she signed a crucially important document entitled the “First and Final Codicil.” This authorized the transfer of 49 percent—some $50 million—of the assets of the Vincent Astor Trust to a new entity, the Anthony Marshall Fund. According to Linda Gillies, the former director of the defunct Astor Foundation, this arbitrary breaking up of Vincent’s trust was totally contrary to Brooke’s wishes: “Brooke would have been dismayed by the thought of going against her late husband’s expressed wishes and depriving her favorite organizations of promised funds.” Lawyers for these organizations—the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum, the Morgan Library, and Rockefeller University—are contesting Tony’s action. These cases have yet to be heard.

The unusual inclusion of the word “final” in the codicil suggests that perhaps Christensen had misgivings, and that this was as far as he was prepared to go. It was not nearly far enough for Tony. For almost a year he had been in touch with a notoriously creative estate planner, Francis X. Morrissey, who would help him prepare a second codicil. This would surpass the first one and hand all that remained of Brooke’s assets over to him and his wife. This next takeover, however, would require that Christensen be stripped of Brooke’s power of attorney.

Legal Aid

A spokesperson for the New York district attorney’s Elder Abuse Unit has pointed out that the crime of financial elder abuse sometimes requires the complicity of lawyers. The documents that surfaced in the course of the grand-jury hearings that would lead to the indictment of Tony Marshall and Francis X. Morrissey make this abundantly clear. According to the prosecution, they reveal in vivid detail the hypocrisy, cynicism, and sheer rapaciousness of Marshall and his enablers. It is especially sickening to watch Tony’s new team of lawyers, headed by Morrissey, eliminate Christensen. G. Warren Whitaker, who has not been charged, was deputed to handle the details. In successive drafts of a letter to Christensen dated February 12, 2004, Whitaker becomes increasingly unpleasant. “Ambassador Marshall and I, as well as several other people, have met and spoken with Mrs. Astor [about estate planning]. She is fully competent.”
Christensen had apparently told Tony that his mother was, on the contrary, “incompetent.” In the letter, Whitaker claims that Brooke had been “upset” by this assertion. “She wants me to advise you that she … understands precisely the changes that she is now making.” Since Christensen had witnessed the “first and final codicil,” Whitaker had him cornered. “Presumably you determined at that time that she was competent,” he writes. “I … wonder what personal knowledge you have that would lead you to question her competence now.” Whitaker further castigates Christensen for suggesting that the estate-planning documents prepared by his firm be “washed away,” i.e., shredded. These, he said, had to be delivered to Tony. For backup, Morrissey brought in—and billed Brooke for—another lawyer, Kenneth E. Warner, to help in the battle against Christensen. Warner is now Tony’s lawyer.

Francis X. Morrissey happened to own a summer house near Cove End—not the only property he would inherit from a client whose will he had drafted. According to The New York Times, Morrissey has “been accused of wrongfully meddling in the estate matters of wealthy individuals in order to enrich himself.” Tony had first consulted him during the “transfer” of Cove End. In gratitude for his radical new Marshall plan—a plan that would land both of them in court—Tony would now appoint Morrissey his mother’s lawyer. According to someone close to Brooke, Morrissey claimed to have been a friend of Brooke’s, but he does not figure in her list of suitable extra men, and he attended her dinners only at the Marshalls’ insistence, including the last big dinner she gave, for U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan and his wife.

Morrissey is a son of a Boston Irish judge. (A brother of his works for Sullivan & Cromwell in London.) Morrissey had originally practiced admiralty law, but he was reportedly caught misappropriating nearly a million dollars from his employer, a Spanish corporation called Mar Oil. After a lengthy legal battle, Morrissey was suspended by the New York State Supreme Court. According to The New York Times, Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University School of Law, uses the Morrissey–Mar Oil case as an example of “how not to treat your clients.”

His suspension over, Morrissey switched to estate planning. At a reinstatement hearing, according to The New York Times, he had confessed to having breached ethics and said that “something evil was inside me.” He promised “never [to] take advantage of another client.… I can never forget the shame I feel.” Seemingly an affable walker of considerable charm, with an infinite compassion for lonesome people, provided they are refined, wealthy, and very old, he in fact reportedly seeks out prospective clients in gentlemen’s clubs, the purlieus of the theater and the opera, and genteel gatherings on New York’s Upper East Side.

Morrissey’s softening-up procedures entail years of dancing attendance on his prospective clients and showering them with gifts: concert tickets for music-lovers, Virginia hams for the hale and hearty, and cheap cupcakes for those, like Brooke, who are too far gone to know the difference.

I happen to have known a couple of Morrissey’s alleged victims, including a long-lived, well-to-do portrait painter named William Draper, celebrated for the charming parties he threw in his large Manhattan garden. To draw up his will, Draper had chosen a New York lawyer famed for his expertise in matters of art. But along came Morrissey, who presented himself as a well-wisher.  Several sittings enabled Morrissey to entice the artist away from his original lawyer. On Draper’s death, at the age of 90, his offspring discovered that Morrissey had written himself into their father’s will. This case has yet to be settled.

Another alleged victim has posted her tale of woe on the Internet. Sue Lombardi Giovinco claims to have been defrauded of her half-share in her mother’s estate partly through Morrissey’s involvement. Despite his sleazy record and criminal indictment, Morrissey continues to ply his trade. One well-off New York woman has posted a defense of him on The Wall Street Journal’s law blog, calling him “one of the most decent, gentle, cultured, wise and noble individuals”—to which Mrs. Giovinco counter-blogs, “It’s a sorry world when you cannot even trust your … attorney. Have ethics and morality fallen by the wayside?” (An attorney for Morrissey says no one was defrauded.)

Two More Codicils

According to the indictment, in revising Tony’s original strategy, Morrissey was obliged to rewrite history. Although Brooke’s dementia had all too evidently worsened in the four years since Tony described her symptoms, she now had to be perceived as in full possession of her wits: a generous old lady intent on handing over her fortune to her beloved son and daughter-in-law of her own free will.

Tony claims that Brooke was never officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. However, one of Tony’s associates—David Richenthal, who had produced three Broadway plays with him, and who had been working out of an office on the first floor of Brooke’s apartment—told The New York Times that “her doctors had diagnosed Alzheimer’s several years ago,” and that she was “in an all but vegetative state. She had no idea where she was,” he said, “and doesn’t know [the Marshalls] are in the room.”

The year 2004 would prove to be Brooke’s annus horribilis. Tony spells out the master plan for his “future economic welfare” in a letter to Christensen dated January 4, 2004: “My major source of income will be that of the [Astor] Trust, of which I will be the first beneficiary of a seven percent income until my death.” He goes on to boast that in the bullish market of the 1990s he had “increased my mother’s personal assets by 350% … and the Vincent Astor Trust … from $30 million to $61 million.” However, according to a friend of Brooke’s, Tony said nothing of this to Brooke; in fact, she had come to fear that her fortune was shrinking. Tony took her checkbook away. The small sums she was allowed to keep in her purse scarcely sufficed for tips. She would spend hours counting and recounting her dollar bills.

All too soon, a second codicil was prepared by Morrissey with the help of Whitaker and Warner. It gave Tony everything that was left of Brooke’s personal estate—more than $70 million. Thus, Tony would replace New York charities as Brooke’s ultimate beneficiary, and Charlene would be in a position to benefit whether Tony survived his mother or not. Signed on January 12, 2004, the second codicil also appointed Tony to be his mother’s sole executor, with the power to name successors and co-executors. Bewildered at the arrival of Tony and a team of lawyers at her New York apartment to coerce her into signing more papers, Brooke turned recalcitrant. This was to be a “closed-door meeting,” the staff was told. The next thing they knew, their panic-stricken, 101-year-old patient, protesting that she was ill, was hustled down the corridor, with Tony on one side and Morrissey on the other, and out of sight. The staff was banished to the kitchen while the attorneys formalized the handover to the Marshalls of whatever was left. (An attorney for
Morrissey denies the allegations.)

Memories of men in dark suits would haunt Brooke. She told Chris Ely, “Some men came to see me. They knew a lot about me; I didn’t know them.” A week or two later, Ely drove her over to Pocantico to lunch with David Rockefeller. Terrified at the sight of two dark-suited men who happened to be standing on the steps of his house, Brooke cowered in the car until the host came over and identified himself. Even then she remained panicky and mistrustful, until Ely told her, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Astor, these are your friends. There’s no one here with papers for you to sign.”

This second codicil gives Tony the power to appoint Charlene as his “Successor Trustee” and Morrissey as co-executor of Brooke’s last will and testament, which he does in a legal document dated January 21. A letter dated January 27, drafted in Brooke’s name by G. Warren Whitaker with the help of Morrissey, gives Tony “sole Durable Power of Attorney,” thus eliminating Christensen once and for all.

This coup was soon followed by a public display of approval. On February 10, 2004, to advertise their love for Brooke and her love for them, the Marshalls organized a macabre luncheon at the Knickerbocker Club. It was held in a public rather than a private dining room. The guests included Brooke’s physician Dr. Rees Pritchett; Richard Thieke, the Deutsche Bank director in charge of the Astor Trust; and Morrissey.

The climax of this charade was the reading of a poem supposedly written by Brooke for the occasion. Her lightweight poems and essays had appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and she had once planned to publish a collection of them; however, the verse praising Tony, entitled “Mother Love,” that was handed out to the guests was drivel. At this stage, Brooke could barely sign her name, let alone write or read a poem. After praising Tony for “having done a magnificent job,” and “never making demands,” the poem eulogized the Marshalls. A framed copy was placed on Brooke’s sitting-room coffee table; it would have deeply embarrassed her had she ever noticed it. Being dolled up and honored had once been a source of enormous pleasure, but this nightmare meal, which, according to the staff, she did not even know she was paying for, let alone why she was there, set her against the dear old “Knick,” as she frequently referred to the club.

Tony and Morrissey did not need to coerce Brooke into signing the third codicil, dated March 3, 2004; according to the indictment, they are alleged to have simply faked her signature. If only for the record, Morrissey wrote a surprising memo to Tony, citing an occasion that supposedly had taken place the year before: “In retrospect on May 6, 2003, I realize that one reason why your mother wished to dine with me was to see as she said to me that night, ‘what can I do for Tony?’” Dine with her? May 6, 2003, had been the opening night of the Delphi production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Morrissey had been told to take Brooke to the theater—a chore for which he sent her a bill. After gushing on about “Charlene’s contribution to [Brooke’s] happiness,” Morrissey’s memo goes on to claim that “the strength of her signature on this third codicil reflects these truths.” Morrissey ends the memo with a characterization of Christensen that reads like a self-portrait. “We still must be vigilant and careful because his words to you and his letters to us reflects [sic] a treacherous and strategic mind which has not yet surrendered complete control over your mother’s matters.”

According to the New York Post, one of the witnesses to Brooke’s allegedly fake signature to the third codicil was an exceedingly timid maid from Romania, Lia Opris, who was thus a likely witness for the prosecution. After Brooke’s death, Opris returned to Romania. While recuperating from injuries suffered in a car accident, she received two visits from a couple who were supposedly royal friends of Morrissey’s. Although they are not recognized as such, the husband calls himself Prince Paul Philip of Hohenzollern, and his wife Princess Lia (née Triff, from the Midwest). Opris refused to see them.

Holly Hill

Tony’s next move, the takeover of Holly Hill, did not call for criminality; it was always going to be his. He closed the estate down in January 2005, presumably because it was very expensive to run. Brooke loved the place, with its marvelous garden, its outdoor and indoor pools, and its 68 acres of wooded vistas. There she could also enjoy the companionship of Chris Ely, who took her on drives, calmed her fears, and made her laugh. One of her last remaining pleasures at Holly Hill was to lie in bed watching through binoculars the birds gather around the feeder that had been set up in a tree outside her window. Suddenly all of these circumstances were reduced to a minimum. Ely was fired; so was the New York chauffeur, Marciano Amaral. The Marshalls had long since acquired a driver and a town car, flashier than any Brooke had ever owned. As usual, these extravagances were paid for by Brooke.

Ely’s departure meant that Brooke’s torn and tattered nightgowns were not replaced. As for the makeup and hair dye she had always used, Brooke’s nurses reportedly started paying for these out of their own pockets. “Nothing but Vaseline and Nivea,” Charlene allegedly decreed. The Marshalls did not even provide enough money for a dog-walker for Boysie and Girlsie, the dachshunds, so they were shut away in the pantry and let loose in the dining room, where, as photographs reveal, the carpet had been removed to permit them to make their messes and warp the parquet with their urine. Although Brooke doted on the dogs, she was allowed access to them only if her nurses covered up the increasingly fragile skin on her arms and legs so that Boysie and Girlsie would not scratch her. It is ironic that this should happen to a woman who had been so conscious of elderly people’s dependence on their pets that she set up a fund to provide the poor and infirm with veterinary help. Brooke would have been heartbroken had she known that Tony exiled her dogs to an animal medical center on the Upper East Side. Annette de la Renta stepped in and rescued them. The dogs are now living in Vermont with Brooke’s friend the archaeologist Iris Love and some 50 other dachshunds.

Anticipating an eventual sale of Holly Hill, the Marshalls summoned Sotheby’s with a view to doing an appraisal and a brochure. Brooke was not informed of the closure, nor were her friends. Ely kept in touch through the nurses. “You have to do something,” they pleaded. When they talked of leaving, he begged them to hang on: they were Brooke’s lifeline. Meanwhile, he was in regular contact with Brooke’s grandson Philip, who was increasingly concerned about his grandmother’s state.

The closure of Holly Hill prompted Annette de la Renta and Robert Silvers to pay Brooke a visit in order to see what could be done. They found her sitting on a grubby old couch in the back of her New York apartment, a dachshund on either side of her. The nurses had dressed her up. She was wearing a wig, heavy makeup to hide skin cancer, a hat, and gloves. The news that the Marshalls had shut down the house she loved made her weep. “It’s not right, it’s not right,” Brooke repeated. She no longer had an alternative to the cramped quarters to which she was restricted. Dementia had bolstered her fears of finding bogeymen in closets and of being packed off to a home. This made her little courtesies the more heart-rending: for instance, when she said to her friends Annette and Bob, “Do stay for dinner,” forgetting that the chef had long since gone and that the dogs had used the dining room as their lavatory. The visit left de la Renta and Silvers very upset. Knowing that David Rockefeller was also very concerned, de la Renta felt that they
had better discuss the situation with him.

By chance, I was able to question Tony about Holly Hill. A British friend had asked me to lunch at Wasp heaven, the Brook Club, where members and their guests forgather at a majestic mahogany dining table gleaming with gigantic silver candelabra. The talk happened to focus on the Marshalls’ treatment of Brooke. Members seemed unwilling to believe that one of their ilk could behave so shabbily. Suddenly I looked up and saw Tony, whom I had met at one of Brooke’s dinners, bearing down on the chair next to mine. Silence fell. I waited until he had unfurled his napkin before asking, as casually as I could, why he had closed down his mother’s favorite house. Was it perhaps for sale?

In his response, Tony put me in mind of Dickens’s awful, fawning Uriah Heep. He told all of us at the table how he and his wife had thought it much kinder to keep his precious mother—so fragile, so dear—in New York. This would save her the exhausting weekend trips to Holly Hill (a 40-minute drive from New York). Was it not more caring to keep her in Manhattan, he asked, within easy reach of her doctors, should she have another of her falls? In town, Brooke would also be in easier reach of her friends, he said, neglecting to add that few were allowed access to her. After Tony’s arrest, some people wondered whether he would resign from his clubs, as gentlemen involved in scandal traditionally do. I don’t know about the Brook, but he is allegedly still to be seen at the Knickerbocker.

Guardian Angels

Considering the seriousness of the alleged abuse, why hadn’t any of the victim’s friends sought to stop it? Brooke’s old-fashioned sense of privacy and discretion is the answer. A lady discusses personal problems only with her priest, her family, her physicians, and her lawyer—as opposed to even her closest friends. Alzheimer’s did not dim these precepts. Also, apart from Chris Ely, Philip Marshall, and the nurses, no one was fully aware of what was going on. And since Tony held Brooke’s power of attorney, and was thus in charge of her medical treatment as well as her purse strings, nobody was legally in a position to take action. Another consideration: Philip would not learn of the estate dealings until January 2006. He was at first averse to taking any overt action for fear that it might trigger further firings and cause his grandmother further deprivations.

A chance remark made by his father—“Two of your grandmother’s friends are giving me a rough time”—opened Philip’s eyes to where he might find allies. Guessing that the friends had to be Annette de la Renta and David Rockefeller, he contacted them and found them gravely worried and eager to take action. As Philip delved deeper into the scandal, he came to believe that his father’s maltreatment of his grandmother was more than a matter of elder abuse; it was at the root of an ongoing financial scam. He also felt that as a family member he alone was in a position to seek justice. Annette de la Renta’s tough love, implacable courage, and constant devotion energized the rescue operation. For the rest of Brooke’s life, de la Renta would devote herself to the well-being of this oldest and dearest friend, who had also been close to de la Renta’s charismatic mother, Jane Engelhard. De la Renta was especially supportive of the watchful, ever
wary Chris Ely, who had been denounced as a disgruntled employee by Brooke’s son.

In an effort to provide Brooke with suitable summer quarters, David Rockefeller convened a meeting including de la Renta at his New York office. The Marshalls maintained that they had shut down Holly Hill out of kindness. They even went so far as to claim that Brooke had taken a dislike not only to Chris Ely but also to the house itself. De la Renta felt that they were stonewalling. But there was nothing to be done, she thought, as they all got up to go. And then, abruptly, everything changed. On the way out, Rockefeller turned to the Marshalls and suggested that, since Holly Hill was unavailable to Brooke, he would fly her up to Maine in his plane so that she could spend the summer at Cove End. She could bring her nurses and anyone else she wanted. This suggestion apparently trumped the Marshalls’ ace. How could they possibly allow Brooke to see what they had done in her name to Cove End and its garden?

Under these circumstances, the Marshalls were obliged to reopen Holly Hill, which they did in the summer of 2005. Although Ely longed to return, the Marshalls would not reinstate him. However, he remained in regular touch with the nurses by telephone. Once, when told of his calls, Brooke asked to see a photograph of him. She reportedly stroked it and asked one of her nurses, “Did they kill him?”

Meanwhile, Philip had discovered how to neutralize his father’s principal weapon: Brooke’s power of attorney. The new estate’s strategy, which depended upon Brooke’s being perceived as compos mentis, ruled out any question of Tony’s going after her guardianship. That would have required the public step of having her officially declared a mentally incapacitated person. (Morrissey’s attorney says Brooke was compos mentis and able to sign the codicils.) Philip concluded that if he or another of Brooke’s protectors were to be awarded guardianship of her, that would take precedence over Tony’s power of attorney. On the advice of lawyers, Philip went ahead and filed a petition for guardianship. That way, Tony’s orders could be rescinded, and Brooke’s medical treatments could be reinstated.

According to the nurses, Tony had refused to allow them to call 911 or take Brooke to an emergency room without notifying him. In July 2006, however, Brooke fell seriously ill and had to be rushed to the hospital. Since the Marshalls were away, the nurses sent her to the emergency room at nearby Lenox Hill, where she remained hospitalized but safe and sound for a week. Meanwhile de la Renta, who had been granted guardianship, rehired Chris Ely. In five days he managed to bring Holly Hill back to life in time for Brooke’s return.

The allegations cited in Philip’s petition were described by the New York Post as “a bombshell.” And indeed they were, thanks partly to affidavits on his behalf filed by David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger. As a result, his father’s power of attorney was taken away from him. “Ludicrous distortions of the truth and outright lies,” Ambassador Marshall protested, to no avail.

Although the elder-abuse complaint was found to be not substantiated and Tony did not admit any wrongdoing, Cove End and the yacht had to be posted as collateral to cover millions of dollars of potential debt. Tony also had to pay back $1.3 million, return valuable artwork and jewelry, and relinquish all responsibility for his mother’s affairs.

On October 13, 2006, Manhattan supreme-court justice John Stackhouse awarded Brooke’s guardianship to Annette de la Renta and J. P. Morgan Chase Bank. Just as the dust was settling in civil court, the district attorney entered the fray, alerted by an expert’s findings that the signature on the third codicil appeared to be a forgery. In due course, the documents were handed over to the district attorney’s office; hearings before a grand jury resulted in the indictment of Tony Marshall and Francis Morrissey.

Brooke was able to spend her last year in peace. Despite her age-related afflictions, her stalwart heart continued to beat on, and she was once again surrounded by people who loved her. She made very little sense, but her spirits seemed to soar. She could sit in the garden with her dogs; she could even watch Frank Sinatra movies and sing along with the nurses.

Tony was now allowed to see his mother only by appointment. One Sunday, he appeared accompanied by an Episcopal priest to give Brooke Communion in her room. When the sacrament was placed on her tongue, Tony reportedly shot across the room to peer down her throat and check the condition of her teeth. On an unannounced visit to Holly Hill, he rushed up the stairs to his mother’s bedroom and allegedly ordered the nurse to remove the dressing on Brooke’s leg so that he could inspect a suppurating cancer that had developed. The nurse refused.

(In court filings last year, Tony said his mother “cared deeply about Charlene.” He and his lawyers denied the nurses’ and Chris Ely’s accounts in almost all particulars, insisting, for example, that he had never asked for his mother’s leg bandage to be removed, and characterizing all allegations of medical abuse and deprivation as “discredited.” “My mother and I had a deep and close bond and loved each other more than I am able to express in words,” he wrote. “I cared for her fully and with love and dedication. I never once stinted on her care, or her welfare. The allegations against me in the guardianship proceeding were heinous and false.”)

Last Respects

Brooke died at Holly Hill on August 13, 2007, at the age of 105. Two days earlier, Tony had been summoned from New York, but his mother rallied, so he returned to the city. The rally was not sustained. Brooke soon suffered a rapid decline. She died surrounded by Annette de la Renta, Chris Ely, and her nurses, Minnette, Pearline, and Michelle. Tony would tell the Daily News that his mother had died in his arms. According to Philip, Tony was in New York when she died.

The Marshalls took charge of the funeral, at Saint Thomas Church, in New York. Many of Brooke’s friends showed their disapproval by staying away from the church and the ensuing reception at the Colony Club. To add luster to the congregation, the Marshalls invited Whoopi Goldberg and other theatrical friends. Annette de la Renta, who had given a lunch for Philip Marshall and his family, David Rockefeller (the principal eulogist), the Kissingers, Chris Ely, and Brooke’s doctors and nurses, sat halfway back in the church. Brooke would have approved of the actual service, which was impeccably handled, but she certainly would have resented having Charlene parade behind her coffin with her offspring. Tony did his best to look ambassadorial.

The Marshalls buried Brooke secretly in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, near Holly Hill, on Vincent Astor’s left, as opposed to his right—the side she had wanted. A few months after the funeral, the New York Post ran a front-page story with a picture of Brooke’s untended grave; it was headlined grave insult. What a contrast to the immaculately kept mausoleum that Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” had erected nearby to herself and her husband. On November 26, 2007, Tony and Francis X. Morrissey were indicted. bad heir day was the headline in the New York Post. Among much else, Tony was charged in the indictment with cheating his mother out of $14 million in cash, as well as property and stocks, and with cheating the state out of the tax on the sale of the Childe Hassam. (Marshall and Morrissey both pleaded not guilty.)

A year after Brooke’s death, Judge Stackhouse wrote Annette de la Renta that he had “appointed hundreds of guardians. None have performed their duties as well as you have. Quite simply, you are the best guardian I have ever appointed.… You have made the quality of [Brooke’s] last year on earth the best that it could be.… You are a blessing to her and the court.” On Brooke’s death, de la Renta was relieved of her duties; J. P. Morgan Chase and a retired judge took over the estate. As Tony, who is 84, prepares for the upcoming trial this winter, he is said to be on his fourth criminal-defense lawyer.

John Richardson is an art historian.

Brooke Astor’s story, part 1

  • susan lombardi giovinco

    Just to let you know, Francis X. Morrissey and my brother Dr. George V. Lombardi also scammed an elderly lady, Stephanie C. Rascka, out of most of her estate as well. She died sometime in February 2005, I think. My mother died in March 2005. Dr. Lombardi was her personal physician and Morrissey was a friend who I understand she claimed to have “loved.” Again, the two parlayed with each other to obtain the majority of her assets, including her retirement investments as well as her NYC condo, while leaving her relatives with virtually nothing. My mother fell victim several years prior to her death as well in such a scheme and my brother was viewed as just being a “good” son, prescribing medication for her in her final year and considered deserving of all her assets…while Morrissey promised to have my brother act as her personal guardian in a special trust designed to give my brother all of my mother’s assets with Morrissey being named co-trustee. I was for all intents and purposes omitted from the estate with the exception of $25,000 which I have yet to see. Mr. Morrissey attended my mother’s elaborate wake and funeral at Frank Campbell funeral parlor althiough my mother never lived in Manhattan. When my portion of the estate was to be allotted to me, Dr. Lombardi claimed that there was nothing left of her assets as they went to cover her elaborate funeral expenses. Morrissey and he had hidden them in November 2001. I am still waiting for at least part of my share. It may be a long time coming.

  • susan lombardi giovinco

    By the way, the trust set up for my mother Joanne Lombardi was called a Supplemental Needs Trust……Morrissey’s doings, I suppose, as that type of trust is designed for those who are incapacitated in someway…usually physically or mentally challenged children for whom you would like to provide some long term care upon your demise as you are their parents! What a joke.

  • Curtis Archambault

    you’ve got a great blog right here! would you like to make some invite posts on my blog?

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