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Brooke Astor

Tears, Trials, and Other Troubles for Famous Family

Testimony at the elder abuse trial of Anthony D. Marshall reveals family plagued by dysfunction.

In 1952, Buddie Marshall died of a heart attack after a 20-year marriage described by Astor in a 1980 New York Times interview as “perfect.” Eleven months later, Brooke married Vincent Astor, who 40 years earlier had inherited an $87 million estate after his mogul father, John Jacob Astor, went down with the Titanic. By then, the 29-year-old Tony was living in Washington, D.C., and working for the CIA when he had his twin boys, Alec and Philip.

Irene Deitch, a professor emeritus of psychology at the College of Staten Island and a practicing family psychologist, says children of emotionally detached parents often treat their own children with similar coolness. “We can only transmit as parents what we know, even if it’s all negative, because you don’t know anything better,” Deitch says.

Fatherhood

Tony Marshall proved to be only marginally better at parenthood than his own parents. In 1961 he divorced his first wife, Elizabeth, when the twins were 8. At first, Tony attempted to maintain regular contact with his boys, though he refused to kiss or hug them because he regarded it as “unmanly,” Philip says.

By 1965, the boys, their mother and new stepdad lived in the suburbs of Boston and later in Vermont. The boys would only see their father, who had also remarried, maybe three times a year, Philip said. The fact that the visits always required an appointment didn’t strike Philip as being odd at the time because that’s the way it had always been.

And so it remained, formal and distant but civil. As Philip and Alec grew into young men in rural Vermont eschewing the Astor money and lifestyle, their father settled into middle age and became completely dependent, both financially and socially, upon a woman who former New York Mayor Abe Beame was saying at the time “has done more for New York City than any other one person.”

Vincent Astor had died in 1959, leaving Brooke a $60 million foundation and a personal estate of about equal value, which she inherited after his relatives’ failed lawsuit claiming Brooke tampered with his will. That foundation’s principal and the interest earned from it enabled her to give away nearly $200 million to city charities over the next four decades and position herself atop New York society.

The ever-changing will

During that time, Astor changed her wills “like people change socks,” her son’s defense attorney Frederick Hafetz argued in his opening statement in April. Between 1953 and 2003, Astor changed wills 38 times. At first, many of the changes revolved around the foundation and how much the charities she handpicked were to receive.

As time passed, however, and Astor grew older, she began exerting what is known in the estates and trust business as “dead hand control”—that is, dictating how her family would spend her money after she was gone. Many of Astor’s friends and acquaintances have testified during the trial that one of her primary goals was to make sure that none of the Astor fortune ended up in the hands of her son’s third wife, Charlene, whom she came to openly detest.

“As we get older, we start sensing a loss of control,” says law professor Chester, author of From Here to Eternity? Property and the Dead Hand.“ Our children go out of our orbit. We feel our bodies deteriorate and we start looking at the day when we’re going to lose total control. We want to grab on to what control we still have, which in this case is basically the money.”

There was a time in the late 1980s when Marshall’s twin sons, then grown men, unexpectedly reconnected with their father. Philip and Tony Marshall took a couple of trips to Bermuda together, went sailing, sat on the beach, ate good food. Alec tagged along on one of these reunions. Tony Marshall was still formal and stiff, Philip recalls, but it resembled at least the beginning of the relationship they never had when the twins were younger.

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