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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.

During the first three weeks of his trial, Anthony D. Marshall sat stoically at the defendant’s table. The former Marine and diplomat betrayed no emotion as witness after witness—many old acquaintances, some even friends—gave testimony supporting criminal charges that he plundered his senile mother’s estate.

Then his twin sons, Alec and Philip, added their voices to the government’s chorus of accusers.

Like many witnesses before them, the twins, 56, testified that their grandmother, New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor—“Gagi,” they called her—wasn’t mentally fit when their father orchestrated an allegedly fraudulent will change that increased his inheritance by tens of millions of dollars. Alec and Philip also described their distant, painstakingly formal relationship with their father. They even detailed Marshall’s demands that his sons make an appointment for the rare occasions they visited him.

The relationship, Philip Marshall recently told the AARP Bulletin, “isn’t what is typically looked for in a father.”

With his sons displaying their father’s failings to the world, Marshall’s stony countenance crumbled. During a break in testimony, Marshall, 85 and walking with a cane, made his way to a bench in the hallway outside the Manhattan courtroom. He sat and quietly cried as his wife, Charlene, tried to comfort him.

While the twins’ testimony about their relationship with Marshall had no direct connection to his criminal charges, it did provide an almost too personal glimpse into the generations of family dysfunction that provide the backstory of this case. Belonging to the family of Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor brings unimaginable wealth, power and privilege. It also comes with a debilitating inheritance of alcoholism, domestic abuse, divorce and parental indifference.

Elder abuse: a family issue

That a member of a family has been accused of abusing an older, more vulnerable relative isn’t surprising. Of elder abuse cases reported in a 2003 study by the National Center on Elder Abuse, two-thirds were perpetrated by a family member.

Nor should it be surprising that a person accused of committing elder abuse belongs to a family with long-standing interpersonal troubles, according to family therapists and elder abuse experts interviewed for this story. In such families retaliation “can certainly play itself out, particularly later in life when the roles are reversed and the child is in charge and the parent is dependent,” says Dan Neuharth, a family therapist in the San Francisco area.

And when it comes to money and family dysfunction, says Ronald Chester, who teaches wills, estates and trusts at New England Law School, there’s one basic rule: “The more money, the more dysfunction.”

In the case of Brooke Astor’s family, the more dysfunction, the more courtroom drama.

History of legal battles

People v. Anthony Marshall is at least the fourth family-on-family legal proceeding involving the defendant in his lifetime. Claiming to be upset that Marshall had adopted the last name of his stepfather, his biological father, J. Dryden Kuser, sued him 60 years ago in an attempt to recoup the trust fund he had provided for his son years earlier. The family of Marshall’s second stepfather, Vincent Astor, sued Brooke, claiming she coerced Vincent to change his will while on his deathbed in 1959.

In the summer of 2006, Marshall’s son Philip filed a petition in the Manhattan courts to have his father removed as Brook Astor’s guardian, claiming his father and stepmother were neglecting his grandmother, allowing her to live in squalor and denying her such essentials as quality food, heat and even medicine. Ultimately, the petition filed by Philip led the Manhattan district attorney’s office to open an investigation resulting in Marshall’s current elder abuse trial.

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