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.
Tony’s early years
An argument can be made that Tony Marshall owes his existence to family dysfunction. At the age of 16 in 1919, Brooke Russell married J. Dryden Kuser, a drunken, womanizing, wife-beating grandson of a U.S. senator. Five years later she conceived what would be her only child after her husband forced himself on her, Meryl Gordon writes in Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach.
In her 1980 autobiography, Footprints, Astor recorded her reaction to learning she was pregnant: “having not participated very willingly in this future event, I was perturbed.” While she was still pregnant, Astor claims, Kuser, a New Jersey politician, broke her jaw during one beating. But she stayed for the sake of her unborn child, whom they would name Anthony Dryden Kuser.
After her son was born, Brooke dealt with the anger of being abused by Kuser “by spending as much time as possible in Manhattan with friends,” Gordon wrote. “She professed to love her son but handed off his daily care to nannies.” By 1930, she was having an affair with a stockbroker named Charles “Buddie” Marshall. Brooke flew to Reno, Nev., spent three months there to establish residency and divorced Kuser, according to newspaper clips from the time. Buddie Marshall left his wife and handicapped son to marry Brooke. Tony was 8. Marshall didn’t like the boy’s beloved nanny, so Brooke fired her. Within a year or two, the Marshalls sent Tony to boarding school.
In 2001 Tony Marshall self-published Dash, a fictionalized account of his life, Gordon writes in Mrs. Astor Regrets, as a pitiful boy born a “solitary scion of a rich British family with a distant mother and a tyrannical, cruel father.”
Marshall wrote: “As the infant developed into childhood he was regarded in both physique as well as in manner as a hereditary mistake.” Sent to boarding school, the boy “was lonely, friendless, forever hungry and physically exhausted when he rose each morning after a night in the clutch of terrifying nightmares.”
The parent “pleaser”
Children who grow up in dysfunctional families typically follow one of three routes, Neuharth said. They rebel against their parents; they “go away,” often drifting toward alcohol or drugs; or they attempt to “endlessly please their parents.” Prosecutors and defense attorneys in Marshall’s trial have found little common ground, but they agree that Tony Marshall chose a role of “pleaser”—at least for a period.
Though Marshall would later live extremely well off his mother’s wealth, at first it was the other way around. After Brooke married Buddie Marshall, the substantial alimony she had been receiving from her first husband was placed, by divorce agreement, into a trust fund for Tony. When her second husband’s finances took a turn for the worse, Brooke Marshall approached her son with hand out. Tony dutifully gave her money, even paying for an in-ground swimming pool at their summer home and buying his mother jewelry from Cartier and Tiffany, Gordon writes.
And Tony was getting pressure from both sides. By then Kuser, addicted to alcohol and gambling, was broke and chronically borrowed money from Tony until the son had to cut him off. That’s when Kuser unsuccessfully sued Tony for his trust fund. Tony had changed his last name to Marshall, and as a result, his biological father claimed, he didn’t deserve the “Kuser money.”
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.
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.
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.
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.