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Charges of Financial Fraud Dominate the Beginning of Brooke Astor’s Son’s Trial

When stories of the desperate living conditions that New York City’s leading socialite and philanthropist, Brooke Astor, was being forced to endure first surfaced in the press, details of physical abuse and neglect caused the most shock and anger.

Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, it was reported, refused to buy his mother, then 104 and once one of the richest and most stylish women in the country, new clothes, forcing her to wear a tattered nightgown and live on a smelly couch. Her favorite expensive makeup and face creams were replaced by drugstore brands and Vaseline. Her beloved dachshunds, Boysie and Girlsie, were sequestered from her in a pantry because her son and daughter-in-law didn’t want them to destroy the furniture they stood to inherit.

Three years removed from the sensational headlines, Marshall’s trial on charges of defrauding his mother’s estate, which started April 27 in Manhattan Supreme Court, has thus far focused on a more calculated, much less emotional form of elder abuse—financial fraud.

For 3 1/2 hours on the opening day, prosecutor Elizabeth Loewy, who heads the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Elder Abuse Program, walked jurors through a trail of will changes and property transfers and alleged forgeries and secret commission deals. Loewy outlined what she said was Marshall’s “systematic” scheme to take advantage of his mother’s failing mental capabilities and divert tens of millions of dollars she earmarked for charity, what she hoped would live on as her “legacy,” into his own pockets.

“What is this case about?” Loewy asked the jury. “This case is about greed.”

From Mother

Today, defense attorney Fred Hafetz offered a different take on why Marshall’s mother, who he said was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease but far from being a “vegetable,” changed her will the way she did.

“It’s as simple as a mother decides to leave her money to her son,” Hafetz said.

Hafetz painted Marshall, 84, as a “dutiful and loyal son” who years after earning a Purple Heart in World War II as a Marine cut short his subsequent diplomatic career to return to New York in the late 1970s and help run his mother’s empire. Years after all her “big shot” socialite friends stopped paying her regular visits, “the person who was there for her, her rock and her support, was her son,” Hafetz said.

Marshall and his lawyer friend Francis X. Morrissey Jr., 66, are charged with multiple counts of conspiracy and scheming to defraud. Marshall, who is also charged with grand larceny, faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted. Morrissey is also charged with forgery. The trial is expected to take up to two months and may include celebrity witnesses like Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters.

Loewy started off the trial saying Brooke Astor, who died in August 2007 at age 105, was “the grande dame of New York,” who will always be “remembered for her philanthropy and her spirit and her love of all things New York.” Through the foundation established by her real estate mogul husband, Vincent Astor, over the years she gave away nearly $200 million to such charities and institutions as the New York Public Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Beginning of the End

Although Astor remained incredibly active well into her 90s—hosting galas, sitting on boards, passing summers in Maine and winters in Palm Beach, Fla., even doing yoga—she told friends as early as 1997 that she was “losing it” mentally or going “gaga,” in her own words.

And Marshall knew it, Loewy said. He also knew that doctors had diagnosed Astor as suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s as early as 2000, the prosecutor said. To show that, she read from letters Marshall exchanged with his mother’s physicians that year, quoting Marshall as saying that his mother was growing more confused and told him, “’I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It would be better to die than to go on feeling this way.”

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