Sunday, December 21, 2008


By Meryl Gordon

Houghton Mifflin, $28, 336 pages


“Mrs. Astor Regrets” is a saga about sex, avarice, jealousy, betrayal, infidelity, alcoholism, social position, gossip, power, vanity and ultimately money - lots of it, and Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor, the doyenne or queen of New York City, is at the center of it all.

Born in 1902 into the world of Edith Wharton and Henry James where good breeding, good manners and constrained social strictures dominated the lifestyle of the city, the diminutive, flirtatious and manipulative pillar of society reigned supreme, dispensing millions to charity and attracting the haute monde, along with the jet and literary set to dine at a variety of her exquisitely appointed mansions for more than 50 years. She remained a living landmark and social icon until her death at 105, at which point she was caught up in a lurid, tabloid scandal.

Her octogenarian son Tony Marshall had been accused of elder abuse, theft, looting her estate and falsifying her will in his favor. (His wife Charlene, whom Brooke supposedly “loathed,” was also embroiled in the complex drama.) It was one of his twin sons, Philip, who initiated some of these charges along with three of New York’s finest and Brooke Astor‘s closest friends: Socialite Annette de la Renta, the wife of famed designer Oscar de la Renta, David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger. This is not a story ripped from the headlines; it is one that created headlines all around the globe. A prime-time soap opera depicting the foibles of the ultrarich and the shattering of a privileged life. (“Law & Order” based an episode on it.) Journalist/author Meryl Gordon, who wrote about this brouhaha for New York Magazine, has used her reporter’s edge and eye to get the back story and, with a plethora of detail, reveal the vicissitudes of this troubled, fabled clan.

The source of all the sturm und drang was the enormous wealth Brooke inherited from her third husband, the reclusive Vincent Astor, scion of a famous family that made its fortune in the fur trade and New York real estate. Vincent was a lonely 20-year-old in 1913 when he inherited more than $60 million from his father, John Jacob Astor V, who went down with the Titanic. Vincent married twice, and his second wife, the glamorous Minnie Cushing, decided to set him up with Brooke, a nobody on the fringe of society, when she wanted out of a boring, loveless union. In 1953, Brooke’s second husband, Buddie Marshall, had recently died and she was concerned about both her finances and her future. With incredible timing, the laconic and possessive Vincent Astor came into her life, and although Brooke knew he was an alcoholic who disliked her son, she decided to follow the money, and within six months marched down the aisle to become the newest Mrs. Astor. “If she married him for his charm, I’d have said she ought to be put in an asylum,” observed the noted novelist, Louis Auchincloss.

Five and a half years later, the morose Vincent died. She described those years as difficult, “her fallow years.” He had showered her with jewels and houses, but did not allow her to talk on the phone, entertain or go out. She was suffocating - a cosseted bird in an airless gilded cage. There had been talk of divorce, but nothing came of it. Vincent’s death unleashed the true Brooke Astor. Now in charge of the Vincent Astor Foundation, worth $60 million and a trust worth another $60 million, she quickly became the belle of the city, on every prestigious board, at every swanky party, the star of the social register. She adored the opposite sex, flirted endlessly, and when David Rockefeller asked for a guest list for her 100th birthday she suggested “99 men and me.” She was infatuated with a number of high-profile males: Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and, in her last years, Charlie Rose. She was rumored to have had a long-time romance with the married Laurence Rockefeller. Since she was everywhere, simply everybody embraced Brooke. When she visited the recipients of her philanthropy in Harlem or the Bronx, she was impeccably garbed in a Chanel suit, a hat, white gloves, a splash of diamonds, sapphires or pearls. “They want to see Mrs. Astor,” she explained, “they don’t want to see me schlepping there in slacks. I don’t intend to disappoint them.”

(She carried this sartorial philosophy to her private life. I remember meeting Brooke Astor in North East Harbor, Maine, where she owned a home, on a Labor Day weekend many years ago. It was an informal party on a chilly, foggy night. We were all dressed in jeans and sweats and there she was a startling, slim figure in a frilly summer frock, complete with hat and pearls, a fur shrug around her neck and one of her beloved dachshunds cradled in her arms.)

Despite her public insouciance, in private she was a troubled woman and a distant, dismissive parent. Ms. Gordon suggests this is because Tony is the product of her disastrous first marriage, and probably the result of marital rape. At 17, a total naif, Brooke’s mother bamboozled her into marrying J. Dryden Kuser, a dashing millionaire who turned out to be a drunken, brutish lout who cheated on her and frequently beat and abused her. He knocked her to the ground and broke her jaw when she was six months pregnant. She would later repeat on many occasions, “I married a perfectly horrible man.”

Her second marriage, to Buddie Marshall, an outgoing New York stockbroker, was a happy union. Tony, who disliked his father, changed his name to Marshall but was never legally adopted and was shipped off to grandparents and various schools. He became incidental, an impediment to his mother’s hectic life. Ms. Gordon speculates he was a reminder of her painful past and figured too prominently in those hateful memories that haunted her until the very end of her life.

Although she began suffering from dementia, on the surface Brooke’s life seemed serene. She kept up appearances until, suddenly, around the time of her 100th birthday, strange things began to happen. Her prized painting by Childe Hassam slated for the Metropolitan Museum of Art had disappeared. (Sold by her son for $10 million. He also got a $2 million commission.) A diamond necklace and other massive baubles and beads were spotted on her daughter-in-law Charlene. The famous Astor silver went missing. Longtime servants were summarily fired. Her house in Northeast Harbor was transferred to the Marshalls. She was not allowed to visit her beloved Westchester estate Holly Hill. Strange men in suits arrived instructing her to sign codicils to her will in favor of Tony. Rumors spread that she was spending her days on a filthy couch stained with dog urine. Alarmed, her phalanx of nurses kept a coded book detailing suspicious activity and odd infractions. Finally, her devoted butler decided to alert David Rockefeller that something was definitely not kosher.

In July, 2006, the press blasted the news of the sad decline of New York’s beloved philanthropist and a bitter battle for her guardianship ensued. Shortly after her death in 2007, the case escalated into a major melodrama. The 83-year-old Marshall was handcuffed and fingerprinted and faced an 18-count criminal indictment alleging mismanagement of his mother’s assets.

Ms. Gordon has written an intriguing look at the social mores of New York. Although she maintains she had no special access or arrangements, she managed to push enough buttons to wangle interviews with 250 of its most well-heeled denizens. Some of these tend to be a bit breathless and overwrought, but Ms. Gordon seems to have established a comfortable rapport with the A-listers she assiduously courted, and spun an interesting tale about the world she claims she knew so little about. But the saga is not over. Tony Marshall’s case and Mrs. Astor’s have yet to come to trial.

In some sort of a fitting finale, Brooke Astor’s gravestone reads simply “I had a good life.” But that made me think back to an evening in 2001 when she received an award at the New York Public Library. Unsteady on her feet, she began to ramble about the past. “I was an only child and I had a father who was very sensible and a mother who was insensible. So here I am, a very mixed-up person, who has had a wonderful life but also a hard life at times.”

It was a life few of us could ever imagine much less comprehend. One that changed New York forever and was certainly never dull.

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist.

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