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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.

Enter Mrs. Marshall No. 3

That’s when Charlene entered the picture, leaving her Episcopalian priest husband for Marshall. After that the Marshall twins’ relationship with their father grew increasingly distant. Philip Marshall recalls his father visiting him once after his first child was born in 1991 and then never again, not even after the birth of a second child. Eventually, Philip says, Charlene came to dominate his father, and there was no father-son contact whatsoever.

“My grandmother was such a dominant force in my father’s life,” Philip, a professor of historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, told the Bulletin. “And just when her influence waned along with her fading mental capacities, along came Charlene to fill the void.”

Prosecutors have charged that Marshall coerced his mother into changing her wills long after she was mentally capable of doing so and, with the aid of his codefendant, lawyer Francis X. Morrissey Jr., even forged her name on a will change. The will amendments shifted total control of the entire $185 million Astor estate into the hands of Marshall and his wife.

Though the mother-son relationship was complicated, Marshall’s attorneys have claimed, Astor loved and relied on Tony. The will changes near the end of her life—she died in 2007 at age 105—were an attempt to do right by her dutiful only child. “The fact that these people are not huggers in public doesn’t mean anything,” Kenneth Warner, Marshall’s trial attorney, told the Bulletin. “Ultimately it came down to a decision of Brooke to let Tony decide.”

Whether it’s a case of Astor finally relinquishing her “dead hand control” or Marshall taking through deceit is still to be determined by a jury. But one thing is for sure: The final will alterations not only shortchange Astor’s chosen charities our of tens of millions of dollars but virtually cut Marshall’s sons and subsequent generations out of the will.

New alliances

Around the time that he was losing newly found contact with his father, Philip Marshall rekindled his relationship with his grandmother based on her desire to spend time with Philip’s kids, her great-grandchildren. This “was really something,” testified Astor’s attorney and dear friend, Henry Christensen, because everyone knew “Brooke Astor did not like children.”

Astor had spent some time with her grandkids at her sprawling Maine summer home, Cove End, and discussed with Christensen the possibility of leaving the $5.5 million property to Philip and his children. When Marshall earned of the plans, he reacted angrily. He eventually gained control of the property through a suspicious will change and then quietly deeded it to the wife his mother despised.

In his courtroom testimony, Christensen recounted Marshall’s words on the subject: “ ‘I can’t be in a position that Philip has a vested interest. I won’t have him breathing down my neck and waiting for me to die.’ ”

Sean Gardiner is a veteran journalist who most recently covered the criminal justice system for the Village Voice.

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