Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Final Act of the Astor Saga

Budding in Central Park. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Cloudy and bright in the city yesterday. Temps in the high 40s, low 50s.
Big clouds moving in mid-afternoon yesterday promising ...?
The New York Post reported yesterday that Anthony Marshall, the son and only child of the late Brooke Astor, has lost his appeal on his 2009 conviction for “trying to steal $60 million from his mother.”

Evidently Mr. Marshall who appeared in court in a wheelchair last December “begged the court to spare him jail time given his age, health, military service, public service and lack of prior criminal history.”

Justice Darcel Clark of the New York Appellate Court responded that “we are not convinced that as an aged felon Marshall should be categorically immune from incarceration.” Mr. Marshall will be 89 at the end of May.

Vincent Astor and his second wife, Mary Benedict (Minnie) Cushing, aboard his yacht the Nourmahal on their honeymoon voyage. It was Minnie who supported the idea of Vincent marrying Brooke (so that Minnie could leave).
“The lack of a criminal history is an ordinary circumstance that does not vitiate a prison term for obtaining millions of dollars through financial abuse of an elderly victim,” the judge declared and the Post reported.

And so ends The Final Act of  The Tale of Roberta Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor, daughter of a Marine Commandant (on duty) born in Portsmith, New Hampshire one hundred and eleven years ago, and died six years ago this August in her mansion at Briarcliff Manor, New York, a wisp of her former self at 105, and woebegotten. It is a saga, and the final chapters have yet to be told.

I did not buy the story the way it was presented in the media. The public relations strategy beginning with the innuendo accusing the son of elder abuse was entirely untrue and an outright smear. As much as its proponents reveled in it, they besmirched the memory of the mother with it. There were several forces operating and all, obviously, in their own interest, the son and his wife notwithstanding.

It may be that Mr. Marshall fiddled with the facts of his mother’s will. This is not an unusual circumstance, and yes it is illegal. Wills are Wars and often fought to the death beyond the death. Furthermore, the mother had made more than 30 different wills in her life and each of them saw substantial changes in terms of bequests and the bequeathed. So it remained a power tool for the lady as well it should.

Stories about wills always remind me of a story that took place years ago in Los Angeles with the will of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mogul Louis B. Mayer’s first wife Margaret. When Margaret Mayer made out her Last Will and Testament, she had left among her bequests, $100,000 to a niece.  That sum was quite substantial in those days – like $4 or $5 million in today’s currency.

The niece was a also contemporary of Margaret’s daughters, Edith Mayer Goetz and Irene Mayer Selznick. The daughters were left the bulk of their mother’s estate, which was considerably more than the bequest to the niece.

Mrs. Astor and her emeralds in the prime of her life as an independent, philanthropic woman of the world.
The bequest to the niece was a final thank you for love and loyalty. That had been crucial in the latter years of Margaret Mayer.  Her adored Louis had abandoned home and hearth after many years of marriage, and divorced his wife for a much younger, more glamorous woman. Margaret Mayer was heartbroken. She withdrew into a deep depression.

Margaret’s daughters loved their mother but were too active – and too self-centered -- with their young lives and marriages to spend much time comforting their mother. Their cousin, the niece, made up for it. The sisters were pleased that she became their mother’s companion.

However, after Margaret’s final will was drawn up, the sisters – who had access to the will – were offended by their mother’s generosity with the niece. Irene who was one to draw lines about where people fit in her scheme of things regarded her cousin as, among other things, Not Our Crowd. A small fortune seemed like an awful lot of money to give to a “poor” cousin.

According to Edie Goetz, who told me the story one afternoon three decades later in her mansion in Holmby Hills while recalling her family history, Irene talked her into seeing their mother’s lawyer – a major East and West Coast lawyer at the time – and having him change the will.

And so they did – Edie in the telling allowed that she thought it wasn’t right but Irene ... ”you know Irene.” And so it was, their mother’s grateful bequest cut substantially to more within the realm of what Irene thought her cousin was deserving of. Or worth.
And ready to celebrate with a dance!
The mistress and the maitresse. Years later, that same lawyer who accommodated the sisters’ wishes over his client’s directive, coincidentally, was married to a famously wealthy American woman. It was a second marriage for both. To the outside world, it looked to be ideal. More than twenty years down the road, however, the wife happened to pick up the phone to make a call one day, and accidentally overheard her husband talking to a woman he obviously knew quite well. The women, it turned out, was his mistress of long-standing, unbeknownst until then, to the wife, for almost as many years as he and his wife were married.

It so happened that the wife was also in very ill health when she made this wrenching discovery, and she died several months later. Her will, however, gave no indication of her late discovery. Everything  including her multimillion dollar collection of 18th century French furniture, went to her husband. Being a lawyer, his wife had trusted him with her estate. He inherited millions; her children -- not a candlestick.

Ironically, her husband -- Irene and Edie’s will-altering lawyer -- was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s within very few years. He had married his mistress, and she inherited “his” fortune “left” to him by his previous wife.

Son, mother, and daughter-in-law on the town.
The Saga of Tony Marshall and his mother is more compelling because of the history of a mother-son relationship. Despite the reams of adverse and often fabricated publicity about his treatment of his elderly and infirm mother, he had been a dutiful son for all of his eighty-two years. A boy’s loyalty, despite the fact that she was neither an emotionally or physically accessible mother for much of his childhood -- she was not the first of her kind – he remained attached to her wishes and commands.

He was her only child, born of a traumatic marriage made when she was 17. When she extracted herself from the relationship she was a very young woman. She married again, this time to a man whom she claimed was the love of her life. It was a second marriage for both and she gave her son a new last name.

The son went wherever she took him or sent him. He was not favored; that was apparent early to anyone who might want to notice. But he was dutiful, and he grew up to be a presentable young man, something that wouldn’t embarrass her. Like her adored father, he served in the Marines, and in the Pacific during World War II, he led a platoon in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Afterwards he was promoted to Lieutenant and awarded a Purple Heart. Returning from the War, he went to Brown.

In the late 50s he was US Consul in Istanbul. In the first Administration of Richard Nixon, he served as Ambassador the Malagasy Republic, then to Trinidad and Tobago, and later in the Seychelles under President Gerald Ford.

As she got older, long widowed, her son became a more valuable working ally, someone she could put out there as her company, watching over her. A good escort; very important when needed.

She admitted she wasn’t especially maternal. That is not as unusual as we’d like to think. She was helpful to him professionally. But she also quietly boasted openly about the political contribution she made that got him an ambassadorship under Richard Nixon, making it sound like she “bought” it for him, apparently unaware that ambassadorial posts come with price tags in one way or another.

Mrs. Astor near her centenary in her old reliable emeralds and diamonds (Photo: JH).
She did not especially like her third daughter-in-law, at least not in the beginning. She was openly vocal about this when among friends in the summer colony of Northeast where they both lived. She could see that her son was crazy about her, and that annoyed her too, looking upon it, as mothers can do, as the result of feminine wiles playing on a foolish heart. She believed that her daughter-in-law had been after the money, presumably the money Tony would inherit. She expressed this at times.

Mothers and daughter-in-laws are often a bad combination. Charlene Marshall’s mother-in-law situation was formidable. Perhaps Charlene was partly attracted to Tony’s would-be inheritance. In the world of Brooke Astor, practically everyone she knew bore that sort of thing in mind when considering a relationship. Although perhaps she liked the man who was kind and thoughtful toward her.

The world of Brooke Astor is a Money World.  It’s all about the money. It is true for everyone who inhabits it in one way or another. It’s the nature of the way we live. For some it is an albatross, for others an accomplice. For others it’s freedom. Greed is available as an addictive accomplice, no matter, and always hanging around.

Even Brooke Astor’s own arrival at the Astor fortune came from her strategy, and it was a strategy, in gaining notice from the man who would become her last husband and her vanquished benefactor in the latter day world of society and philanthropy.

This achievement of having obtained fortune and public stature did not come easily to her. From the beginning, Vincent Astor was considered by the women in his crowd to be obnoxious and someone to avoid as much as possible.

These same women also regarded the widow Brooke Russell Marshall as a woman who was in it for one thing and one thing only.  She wasn’t exactly an interloper, but she wasn’t the top of the crop either.

She knew this; she knew how that world worked and especially for a woman who had no money of her own. Edith Wharton territory.  Marrying Vincent Astor would change all that. She was seizing victory from the jaws of defeat.  The price she paid was dear. She would have to wait. In the meantime she became almost a virtual prisoner of her deeply insecure and tyrannical husband, even in his demanding that she entirely separate herself from her son. Time was on her side, however: Vincent Astor died after little more than five years of marriage.

The wife wheels her husband away from his court hearing.
After the death of Vincent, almost a half century passed in the Life of  Brooke Astor, philanthropist and national figure of poise and matronly elegance. She came into her own. It was a role which she cleverly and intelligently wrote for herself and relished, and it was her greatest role. Her son was there forever after, doing her bidding, following her wishes. That was his role. We can guess why. And it wasn’t for the money, at least not at the end of the day.

But that was then. Now she’s gone, and so too is the Astor fortune in America. Paradoxically that was what Vincent Astor really wanted out of life, to rent himself of that legacy. Unlike the four generations that preceded him, he was the first Astor not to leave the fortune to an Astor relative. For some reason he showed no sentiment of affection or respect for those members of his birth family.

Now we have left, the aged and besieged only child, Mr. Marshall facing a possible jail term in the ninetieth year of his life, for something which he did not achieve, even if he had intended to as many believe. Falsely or otherwise. And we have the memory of that mother he served for the first eight decades of his life, her departed image now stuck in the mud of history, and the politics of the rialto in a dark season.

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