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by Sean Gardiner, AARP Bulletin, December 2009
Had Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, simply allowed his famous and fabulously wealthy mother to comfortably live out her final days at Holly Hill, her New York country home, he probably could have stolen every last penny from her estate.
“That was [my] goal, to get her back to the country,” says Philip Marshall, Astor’s grandson and Anthony Marshall’s son. “That’s all it really boiled down to. Obviously, it became more complicated than that.”
Instead, Anthony Marshall’s refusal to grant his centenarian mother’s wish to die surrounded by loved ones at her 65-acre Hudson River estate pushed Philip into what became a seven-year odyssey seeking “elder justice” for his grandmother. When Philip Marshall embarked on this mission in 2002, he couldn’t know that his inquiries would snowball, then avalanche, into perhaps the most publicized case of elder abuse of all time.
Since Philip’s role in exposing Astor’s mistreatment became public in July 2006, barely a week passes without a stranger contacting him about elder abuse. Marshall, 56, is a professor of historic preservation, not a lawyer or elder abuse expert. All he has, really, are insights from his own “hard-learned lessons.”
He shared these insights in an interview at his home in South Dartmouth, Mass., several weeks after his father was convicted Oct. 8, at age 85, of stealing from Astor as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the twilight of her life.
Philip Marshall and his grandmother bonded through their shared passion for art and historic preservation. Giving Astor great-grandchildren brought them closer, Philip says. Later, as Astor became more fragile, their attachment deepened. During a visit with her in 2002, Philip first suspected something was amiss. While at Astor’s luxurious Park Avenue duplex, he noticed that her beloved painting Childe Hassam’s “Flags, Fifth Avenue” was missing from her library. Astor, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000, had agreed to let her son, Anthony, sell the painting after he falsely led her to believe she was going broke, household staffers told Philip. Once the painting was gone, she kept asking, “Can I buy dresses now?”
Philip’s probe started slowly and discreetly. When he visited Astor over the next year, her personal staff opened up to him. Philip learned that his father and his father’s third wife, Charlene, were compromising Astor’s care in ways large and small: authorizing the purchase of discount face cream instead of her favorite brand; locking her dachshunds away because they scratched the furniture; refusing to buy Alzheimer’s medicines.
“I was concerned not only about my grandmother’s compromised lifestyle, but her life,” Philip says.
“It would have taken comparatively little [money] to take care of my grandmother’s needs … much less than a week’s legal fees in Manhattan criminal court.”
Philip kept digging over the next few years. He spent thousands of hours amassing documentation in a ringed binder that grew a couple of inches thick, but he still wasn’t sure what it meant or what he would do with it.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
In January 2006, Philip finally had his “Aha!” moment. In New York, he met with Alice Perdue, his grandmother’s bookkeeper before his father fired her. For Philip, Perdue made the connection between the physical and psychological abuse he was hearing about and financial exploitation.
Soon after Anthony Marshall sold the Childe Hassam painting for $10 million, he bought a house in New Jersey. After he authorized a $1 million raise for himself for overseeing his mother’s finances, he bought a $900,000 yacht. While firing one staffer after another, Anthony Marshall transferred ownership of Astor’s $5 million Maine estate to Charlene and authorized checks totaling nearly $1 million drawn on Astor’s accounts to bankroll Broadway shows he and Charlene produced.
“They were not just enriching themselves while maintaining my grandmother’s lifestyle; they were enriching themselves at her expense,” Philip says.
LOOK FOR ALLIES
Still, Anthony Marshall might have succeeded had he not closed Holly Hill and laid off its staff in 2005. Longtime Astor friends financier David Rockefeller and Annette de la Renta, wife of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, interceded and pressured Anthony Marshall into reopening the estate. When Philip learned of Rockefeller and de la Renta’s intervention, he knew he had powerful—and much-needed—allies.
In February 2006 Philip took his documentation to a high-powered Manhattan law firm only to be told he didn’t have the money to mount a legal battle against the man who controlled the Astor fortune. Philip sent his evidence to Rockefeller and de la Renta. They reviewed Philip’s research, agreed to help, and hired the same law firm.
CONSIDER A DIRECT APPROACH
Many observers question why Philip Marshall didn’t approach his father about Astor’s care. Philip and Anthony Marshall’s relationship was distant at best, filled with long periods without contact, Philip says, and turned from poor to nonexistent when Charlene married his father in the early 1990s.
Philip was hamstrung. Divulging what he knew would jeopardize the jobs of the staffers. He also wasn’t sure what, if anything, could be done, leaving him “feeling both frustrated and impotent, just unable to do anything about it. That was the hardest part of this whole thing.”
Anthony Marshall held his mother’s power of attorney and health care proxy. That allowed him to control her finances and care—unless a court decided she was “incapacitated” and appointed a guardian to manage her affairs. The media have often repeated that Philip sued his father for guardianship of Astor. Technically, that’s not true. Using Philip’s materials as a road map and affidavits from Rockefeller, de la Renta and Henry Kissinger, attorneys filed Philip’s petition for a guardian to look after Astor, legal action more palatable than directly suing his father.
Finally, he called his father to explain. “I’ll never speak to you again,” Philip recalls his father saying before hanging up.
Negotiations produced a settlement in October 2006, six days before trial. Anthony and Charlene Marshall—while not admitting wrongdoing—agreed to repay Astor $11 million in cash, jewelry and art. De la Renta was made the permanent guardian and JPMorgan Chase was named as guardian of Astor’s property.
PREPARE FOR WORSE
No one involved in the guardianship petition had thought the case would become a criminal investigation, or wanted it to be, Philip says. But news of the petition somehow leaked out. “Disaster for Mrs. Astor,” proclaimed the front page of the New York Daily News. The case caught the attention of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, triggering a year-long investigation, an indictment, a grueling 19-week trial and Anthony Marshall’s conviction on 14 charges.
The media often cast the case as a family war over the Astor fortune. “For us, it was never about the money,” Philip says. “But it became all about the money.”
Trial rulings barred the prosecution from eliciting testimony about the allegations of physical and psychological abuse. So the abundance of bank statements, wire transfers and other financial documents set the prosecution’s course for a case centered on financial exploitation.
With annual financial fraud of older people estimated at $2.6 billion, raising awareness could be Astor’s most important contribution, Philip says. She gave away $200 million to New York charities, but “this issue extends nationwide. I’m hoping it will be her lasting legacy.”
FOLLOW YOUR HEART
The odyssey isn’t over. Anthony Marshall is scheduled to be sentenced in December. “Of course, I don’t want my father to go to jail,” Philip says, but laws may dictate it. And a civil court battle may still loom over the financial settlement of his grandmother’s estate, including $60 million she once earmarked for charity.
On his computer Philip keeps a picture he took in July 2007. In it, his grandmother rides in a wheelchair across the lawns of Holly Hill, amid family, two nurses and her beloved dog Girlsie. A perfect summer’s day.
Several weeks later, Brooke Russell Astor died peacefully in her sleep. She was 105.
Knowing what he does now, would Philip Marshall do it again?
“I would,” he says.
Sean Gardiner lives in Cranford, N.J. Read more Astor coverage here.
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