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by Robin Gerber, AARP Bulletin, - January 26, 2009
Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach is full of unforgettable characters: the widow Astor, an elderly grande dame of fabulous wealth and storied name; her only son and his grasping wife, a couple whose questionable management of Brooke Astor’s fortune is at the heart of the story; and an unpretentious grandson who sues his father to protect his grandmother from abuse. Swirling around this main cast are supporting players whose names are stripped straight from newspaper headlines, including de la Renta, Kissinger and Rockefeller.
Author Meryl Gordon, 58, set out to infiltrate this blue-blooded world and explain how the disbursement of an estate worth tens of millions of dollars had torn a family apart. Although from a modest background herself, Gordon was a longtime New Yorker who was familiar with the Astor family’s hold on the city both philanthropically and socially. After Astor grandson Philip Marshall’s lawsuit made international headlines, Gordon was gripped by the psychological mystery that led this family to erupt, and by the breach that had exposed the closed social circle of the superrich.
The book quickly became a bestseller [read an excerpt from it here]. Readers responded to its in-depth exploration of upper-crust society and identified with the teeth-gnashing anguish of settling even modest estates. And the story is not over. Astor’s son, 84-year-old Anthony "Tony" Marshall, faces an 18-count indictment, including charges of grand larceny, conspiracy and forgery. His trial is scheduled to begin in late February. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life not in the grand homes his mother left him, but in jail.
Q. As a journalist, you’ve interviewed so many famous people—Kofi Annan, Mike Bloomberg, Susan Sarandon, Nicole Kidman, to name a few. What was so compelling in this story that it led you to write your first book?
A. Like many writers, I’ve been trying to write a book for many years. I wrote a piece for New York magazine on the Astor case and turned it in on a Friday. That weekend I realized I was obsessed with these people. How do you get a son suing his father over his grandmother? I realized that there had to be more to the story. It made me think of a plane crash and how you talk to everybody about their lives leading up to the fateful moment. It made me think about the people around Brooke Astor and what had happened leading up to the lawsuit.
Q. You do a masterful job in the book of keeping your authorial feelings under wraps, but who do you think were the heroes and villains?
A. I was trying to learn as much as I could about everyone. No one is all good or all bad. Readers tell me their feelings toward the players change as they read the book. But it’s true that Brooke Astor had a better final year of her life thanks to her grandson, Philip Marshall, and the lawsuit. I think it was really hard for Philip because he knew his family would explode, but he felt he did the right thing.
Brooke was really having a hard time before the lawsuit. Her son, Tony, didn’t want people to see her in a deteriorating state, so he kept her isolated. Annette de la Renta [Brooke’s best friend, who became her guardian after the lawsuit was filed], brought back Brooke’s old employees, like her chauffeur, who had been fired by Tony. Brooke was very close to these people. You could argue that Tony fired the chauffeur because Brooke wasn’t going out very much, but the chauffeur was her companion.
Tony is indicted for looting her estate. He says she didn’t treat him well when he was younger and that’s why she gave him what she did. I think Tony took advantage of his mother financially in the final years of her life. He may have loved her and cared deeply for her, but there’s a pattern of transactions that is really surprising. It’s hard to believe that a 100-year-old woman would suddenly move $60 million from charities she had supported her whole life.
Q. How would you assess Brooke Astor’s condition in her final year?
A. In her last year, Brooke was physically wasting away, but once she was back at Holly Hill, the Astor country estate, after Annette became involved, Brooke started eating again and gained 15 pounds. This was the most visible evidence that she wanted to live. Right up to a week before she died, she still indicated she wanted to be brought downstairs and not just kept in her room.
But she wasn’t legally competent. She was remarkable in the way an actress is remarkable. She could rise to the occasion for 10 or 20 minutes, but it was by force of will and by rote. She would fail to recognize people or to know what day of the week it was. It’s one thing to make the sign of the cross for her minister, but another thing to sign complicated legal papers, as Tony had her do.
Q. Why did Tony treat his mother the way he did?
A. Brooke Astor didn’t like Tony’s first two wives, but she especially disliked his third wife, Charlene. Brooke made it clear in her will that Tony was always going to be very rich. He was getting over $4 million a year plus properties in the will, but if he had died before Brooke, almost everything would have gone to charity. She only left Charlene two used fur coats and a diamond necklace.
Brooke Astor wrote in her autobiography that she had not been a good mother, and that her second and third husbands didn’t have much use for her son. She chose her husbands over Tony. Also, some people who grow up with money feel entitled to it. And Tony had great concern about taking care of Charlene, who is more than 20 years younger than he is.
Q. What were your greatest psychological insights in this story?
A. Tony reminded Brooke Astor of her first husband, Dryden Kuser. She was still haunted by that terrible first marriage. Tony’s father had beaten her when she was pregnant with Tony. Kuser was an alcoholic and a womanizer. Tony ended up feeling unloved.
This is a book filled with multiple marriages and divorces, and you can see the impact on children. There were Brooke Astor’s divorces, Tony’s divorces, the breakup of Charlene’s marriage so she could marry Tony—people in this book led messy, complicated lives and there were repercussions.
Brooke Astor always put on a positive, cheerful front. She didn’t confide problems to anyone other than close friends. Yet I think she felt very guilty throughout her life that she didn’t have a better relationship with her son. It was too hard for her to bond with him, so they had a push-pull relationship where she showered him with money at times. But he told friends he never had intense love in his life until he met Charlene. I last saw Tony and Charlene in the fall, and they are even closer despite the legal situation.
Q. You conducted more than 230 interviews, many of them with well-known people such as Barbara Walters, David Rockefeller, Nancy Reagan and Henry Kissinger. Which interviews stand out?
A. I loved talking to Nancy Reagan. I didn’t think I’d be able to reach her, but I did. She was warm and funny, not guarded, as I feared. Annette de la Renta was hardest to get, but when she agreed to see me, she gave me lots of time. The reporting process did make it hard to write the book because some of the main interviews came through at the end, when the book was nearly due. But it was thrilling for me when someone who had said no finally said yes.
Q. Were you ever worried about the reliability of some of your older interviewees’ memories?
A. One of the things that was enormously helpful was that I was able to get hold of Brooke Astor’s appointment calendars. I was able to find out when people had seen her and remind them if necessary. Louis Auchincloss is in his eighties or nineties, and he was sharp as a tack. He could reel off places and times, and when I checked, he was very accurate. People remember the things that are important. Maybe not where they left their keys, but whether they were insulted at a dinner party 30 years ago.
I was able to interview Arthur Schlesinger Jr. just before he died. But I stopped counting how many people that I hoped to interview died before I could talk to them. Memories are precious and when these people died, it was like living history was gone.
Q. What can readers learn from your book about caring for and protecting parents?
A. Brooke Astor really thought she had taken care of her future. She trusted her son. She gave him power of attorney. She had told many people she was happy with her estate plan. The district attorney’s office said that if Philip Marshall hadn’t raised a fuss, his father would have easily gotten away with all the changes to Brooke’s estate plan. It’s hard to live to 105, hard to know who to trust. We saw how many people trusted Bernard Madoff [the New York financier charged with perpetrating the largest investor fraud in history]. Brooke contributed to the dynamics of what happened by writing this will that disinherited Charlene, Tony’s wife. I’m not blaming Brooke for what happened, but the effect of her actions was to raise Tony’s concern.
Q. Do you have advice if a reader suspects financial elder abuse?
A. Do everything possible to get your hands on the paperwork, including actual bank statements, receipts for expenses and contracts for services. Figure out where the money is going and what is going on without being confrontational.
Q. What are the lessons for young people?
A. It’s a generational saga. It’s about a family and family dysfunction. At book signings, people are buying Mrs. Astor Regrets for parents and children.
Robin Gerber is a lawyer and the author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.
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