Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The final chapter of the Astor saga

After the afternoon spritz. 4:10 PM. Photo: Jeffrey Hirsch.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Yesterday was another beautiful (almost) Summer day in New York. Sunny and warm, slightly humid, accompanied by a three minute spritz from Mother Nature around four in the afternoon.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Anthony Marshall, the son and only child of the late Brooke Astor will be surrendering himself to prison this week to serve a term of one to three years. Mr. Marshall, who was 89 last month, will not be — according to the Times — the only old guy in the prison. That’s about as sympathetic as the paper of record could be toward the man. The article pointed out that he will get no special treatment.
Anthony Marshall being wheeled from the courtroom by his wife Charlene. Better days, Mother and Son looking over an invitation in her apartment when she was in good health and her son was her financial adviser and helpmeet.
The Marshalls exiting the courtroom after the trial at which he was found guilty of "looting" his mother's estate.
That’s good, because besides being unable to stand up or walk for any prolonged (five minutes) period of time, he should be comfortable and be able to “learn the lessons of justice” for the crimes he was accused of by his mother’s devoted friends and supporters.

This drama began more than sixty years ago when Vincent Astor was married to another woman — Minnie Cushing. Minnie who was wife number two, was famous in New York and some parts of the world as one of the Cushing Sisters, daughters of the great Dr. Harvey Cushing, America’s first neurosurgeon.
The Cushing sisters, their husbands, their children, their brother and his wife, at the marriage of Babe and Bill Paley in July 1947 at the Paley estate, Kiluna Farm in Manhasset, Long Island.
The Sisters were famous not because of their father, however, but because they followed their mother’s guidance and each married rich, very rich men. The first to marry was Betsey, the middle sister, who married Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s eldest son James, a couple of years before FDR was elected President. This marriage was not a success because the Roosevelt fils evidently fooled around. However, through much of the 1930s, Betsey Cushing Roosevelt was a favorite of her father-in-law and often substituted as official hostess for her mother-in-law, the First Lady, when Eleanor was traveling or unavailable. 

Betsey and James Roosevelt had two daughters and the marriage was dissolved in 1940. Two years later, Betsey married John Hay (“Jock”) Whitney, one of the richest Americans at the time.

During the 1930s, the eldest Cushing sister, Minnie, then in her 20s, was the mistress of Vincent Astor, the main heir to the American branch of the Astor real estate fortune. Astor was still married to Helen Huntington Astor when he took up with Minnie Cushing. He had married Helen in 1914 when he was 23. He had known her since childhood (their families had nearby estates near Rhinebeck).

Vincent Astor and his first wife and childhood friend, Helen Huntington Astor. The couple were divorced in 1940 after 26 years of marriage, the last half dozen when he was involved with Minnie Cushing.
Minnie Cushing and Vincent Astor aboard his yacht The Nourmahal as they embarked on their honeymoon voyage in 1940.
The Huntington-Astor marriage was long distant by the time the much younger Minnie came along, and it surprised no one that Vincent had taken up with her. In 1940, at what was said to be at the urging of Minnie’s mother, Kate Cushing, to make her daughter a respectable woman, Vincent, who undoubtedly understood Mrs. Cushing, and cared about such things, divorced Helen and married Minnie.

The third Cushing sister, inarguably the most famous, was Barbara, always known as “Babe,” the youngest and only real beauty of the three. Babe first married Stanley Mortimer, a patrician heir to part of a Standard Oil fortune, with whom she had two children. They were divorced in the mid-1940s after only a few years of marriage, and in 1947, Babe, pregnant at the time, married William S. Paley, one of the founders of CBS (who had been recently — almost down to the day — married to Dorothy Hart Hearst, later Hirshon).

The Cushing-Astor marriage was not an exciting one for either partner. One of Vincent Astor’s brothers-in-law, described the couple as “low-voltage” sexually. Minnie, who was a very sociable woman and forged many relationships with artists and writers, as well as the perfunctory society people, conducted much of her life separately from Vincent. The person who got the most satisfaction out of the marriage apparently was her mother.

Mrs. Cushing was very proud of her daughters’ marital alliances and they treated her in kind, with great respect and adoration. It was said that every Monday morning, each daughter would have their chauffeurs deliver flowers from their respective greenhouses to fill Kate Cushing’s apartment. One friend reported that after a luncheon with friends, Mrs. Cushing liked to pass by Van Cleef and Arpels and check out the windows and display cases to pick out the items she felt were right for each daughter. Her sons-in-law (who adored and respected her too) would soon be informed and in some cases comply gladly.

Kate Cushing died in 1949, satisfied that her daughters had made marriages to three of the richest men in America. One of those daughters — Minnie — was already thinking of making a getaway from her marriage to Vincent Astor.

Vincent was a moody fellow who was possessive and alcoholic (although the term was not used in those days to describe compulsive drinking). It wasn’t unlike him to consume a bottle of brandy before lunchtime. When his wife complained (gently to avoid his predictable angry outbursts and tantrums), he justified it by quoting his personal physician, Dr. Connie Guyon, who told him he could drink and smoke as much as he liked and that it would not affect his health negatively. Dr. Guyon was a highly respected physician in the New York world of society and also had among her patients both brothers-in-law of Vincent Astor.

By the early 1950s, Minnie Cushing had decided that she’d had enough, and had enough of a separate life that she told her husband she wanted a divorce. She was now also free of whatever pressure her mother might have exerted about a divorce.

Whether the news surprised Vincent is unknown to this writer, but it’s not unlikely that he was unaware of his wife’s great unhappiness with the marriage. Nevertheless, he insisted that she not divorce him until he found another wife to replace her. He was a man who had been permanently deprived of maternal affection as a child, and as a rich man used to getting his own way, he was determined to avoid being solely on his own.

Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart swiftly rejected Vincent's marriage proposal (Photo: Irving Penn).
The hunt for a new partner began in earnest. Vincent made at least two attempts to engage other women in the idea of becoming his wife, but without success. One of them, Janet Stewart, the widow of one of Vincent’s great friends William Rhinelander Stewart and known in her day as “the most beautiful woman in New York,” was repulsed by the idea when he presented it to her.

“Marry you?” she asked, shocked. “I don’t even like you, why would I marry you?”

He is said to have explained that it might be to her advantage because he was now in his sixties, had all that Astor money and might not live much longer.

“But what if you did,” Mrs. Stewart is said to have replied, adding “I’m perfectly comfortable with what I have.”

Word soon got around society circles, of course, that Minnie and Vincent Astors’ marriage was on the rocks and that the heir was in the market for a new wife. As rich as he was, and as much as he was liked by his men friends, women were not attracted to him physically, sometimes to the point of revulsion. One of the biggest drawbacks was his heavy, daily drinking, rendering him inebriated by mid-afternoon. Another was his mainly charmless personality in the company of women. He was awkward and given to sullenness.

To his credit, he was aware of the disparaging effect his drinking had on others. Occasionally he would check into Silver Hill, a private sanitarium in New Canaan, to “dry out.” It was during one of those visits about the same time that Minnie wanted out, that he met Brooke Russell, a recent widow (who happened to live just around the corner from Minnie and Vincent Astor at 10 Gracie Square).

Brooke Russell, for some reason, had recently, coincidentally, volunteered to work at the private hospital. There were Astor relatives who later concluded she “volunteered” knowing that the head of the family was "recupterating" there and was also looking for a new, acceptable wife. She needed a new acceptably solvent husband.
The new Mrs. Astor, Brooke, at their penthouse apartment at 120 East End Avenue, circa 1954.
Brooke Russell was then in her early fifties. In those days, 50 was old, even ancient, in terms of marriage eligibility, especially for a widow with comparatively modest financial assets. She had been married twice — divorced from her first husband, father of her son and only child whom she had married at 17; and widow of her second husband Buddie Marshall (who had been first married to Helen Astor’s sister, therefore once a brother-in-law of Vincent Astor). These coincidences give you an idea of how small and closely connected Society in New York was in mid-20th century, and how cloistered were the lives of men like Vincent Astor.

Soon Minnie was made aware of the new “friendship” between Vincent and Brooke, and approved, wholeheartedly relieved. She even plotted to bring it to fruition by befriending Brooke and inviting her for weekends at the Astor estate Ferncliff in Rhinebeck on the Hudson. It was there that one afternoon, on a ride that Vincent and Brooke took to survey the 2800 acre property, that Vincent stopped the car and told Brooke the state of his marriage to Minnie. He then asked Brooke to marry him.
The "playhouse" at Ferncliff, the Astor's estate in Rhinebeck. The main house, an ark of a Victorian mansion which had been built by Vincent's grandfather in the 19th century, had been torn down by Minnie (who hated the place) when Vincent was serving in the Second World War. The playhouse, which was designed by McKim Mead and White, was converted into a full time residence. Brooke Astor wasn't crazy about the property either and sold it to a Catholic order after her husband's death. Chelsea Clinton was married at this house, which is now privately owned.
She later recalled in her memoir that she was shocked by the suddenness of his proposal, admitting that she hardly knew him. No doubt she also had heard of his famous drawbacks — the drinking, the petulance, the anti-social behavior. She also probably had learned by then that he was very direct and hardly subtle in expressing his opinions and needs (and grievances).

Brooke and Vincent Astor were married in 1953, very shortly after his divorce from Minnie was finalized (Minnie also soon after married James Fosburgh to whom she remained married until her death in 1978 at 72).

The new Astor marriage was not an easy task for the new wife, as she candidly recorded in her memoir. Her husband was jealous and as was his habit, disliked his wife to spend much time with others, even in telephone conversations. For a woman who was naturally gregarious, this was a difficult task to bear. Furthermore his drinking did not abate and she faced the support of Dr. Guyon who told her patient he could do as much of anything as he pleased and that it would not harm him. Whether or not his alcoholism was the cause, or his cigarette smoking, Vincent Astor died at home of a heart attack on the night of February 3, 1959, in the sixty-eighth year of his life.

John Jacob Astor IV, father of Vincent, about to board the train to the ship Titanic for her maiden voyage to New York in April 1912. Astor and his new wife, Madeleine were returning to New York so that their child would be born on American soil. They had been living for several months in Europe to get away from the scandal of their marriage -- he was more than 30 years older than his wife.
The Astors on a stroll in New York in the early days of their marriage. Vincent was very jealous of his new stepmother who was younger than he, and he never resolved his anger toward her.
The young John Jacob Astor VI, born four months after his father's death on the Titanic. His half-brother Vincent Astor loathed him and for the rest of his life called into question the legitimacy of his birthright.
At the time of his death, the marriage had already become a burden to bear for his widow, and there were rumors among their set that she was already aiming to get out of it to save her sanity.

On his death, the man left his wife a large sum (more than $20 million) and a large foundation of more than that with the instructions that it be given away to various philanthropies. Initially the foundation was run by a board Vincent had selected, and the board assumed that they, not the widow, would run things. However, the widow Astor knew she was quite capable to seeing through her late husband’s wishes.

He was the first Astor in generations to give away the family money. His philanthropy began when he first inherited his father’s fortune in 1912 when John Jacob Astor IV died on the Titanic, and he continued his philanthropy all through his life. Despite his often coarse and disagreeable social personality, he was always profoundly aware of the needs of especially children who were deprived and underprivileged. When he was in his early 20s, he even converted some of his very valuable real estate into playgrounds for children in the city’s working class neighborhoods.

Vincent Astor’s death raised another sore point in the Astor Family’s history. His half-brother John Jacob Astor VI, born to Jack Astor’s second wife Madeleine Force after the sinking of the Titanic, sued the estate claiming that the widow Brooke had unduly influenced her husband (allegedly always in an inebriated state) from directing a part of their father’s patrimony to him, the youngest son (whom the father never knew).

Vincent Astor never accepted that his half-brother was his father’s birth son. He always claimed that Madeleine Force (who was 18 when she married the 49-year-old Jack Astor) had been impregnated by another man other than his father. This most likely preposterous notion was backed, in Vincent’s argument, by the lack of specific bequests for the second son, except for the allowance of children “unborn” at the time of Jack Astor’s death. The child was born four months and three days after the sinking of the Titanic. The infant’s share of his father’s fortune (estimated to be more than 80 million or more than $2 billion in today’s dollars) was only a few million (although an ample fortune in those times when the dollar was worth 100 cents unlike today when its comparable value is 2 cents).

John VI in his suit claimed that Brooke Astor had exercised influence over her allegedly alcoholically unstable husband to gain more for herself. She settled without going to court by giving the half-brother $250,000 (about 20 times that in today’s dollars) and avoiding legal costs. He really didn’t have a case. She also continued to claim throughout her life that Jakie, as the brother was known to friends and family, was not the son of Vincent’s father.

There were other Astor relatives in the American side of the family who were also angry about Vincent Astor’s will because he was the first in five generations not to leave bequests for other members of the American Astor relatives. Further resentment toward his widow existed among them, also. Brooke was well aware of this and was dismissive of the matter.

So, another half century later, and a century since the tragic death of John Jacob (Jack) Astor IV on that night in April in the North Atlantic, the fortune has taken its second victim, also most definitely not a blood relative, but a natural heir to his mother, Anthony Marshall.

Mrs. Astor at her Park Avenue apartment in her tenth decade of life.
Son and mother in happier times.
The case brought against him in which he was found guilty — according to the Times — of stealing “millions” from his mother’s estate, has led to a man, a devoted (for 82 years) son now in his 90th year and close to being an invalid. Ironically, many millions of the lady’s estate have gone to lawyers (by the dozen) and to “maintaining” her property including staff and security staff  until said properties were or are sold.

Her son’s share that she intended one way or another, has either been decimated except for her property in Northeast Harbor, Maine which she had always intended in all of her more than two dozen wills to be his. When she signed the Northeast property over to him before she died, he soon thereafter signed it over to his wife Charlene. This move was one of the sparks that ignited this awful scenario because one of Anthony Marshall’s sons believed that his grandmother (Brooke) had intended it for him.

What the son didn’t know at the time the suit was launched against his father,  was that according to the divorce settlement Anthony Marshall made with his first wife, his sons’ mother, one-third of his estate would revert to them on his death. Leaving much less for the wife, for the woman he loved.  His mother did not love the wife, however; and made it known to all within earshot over the years.

This knowledge led to the campaign of besmirching Charlene Marshall in the press and among her friends — another blow to Anthony Marshall’s dignity, integrity and lifelong devotion to a mother who never paid much, if any, attention to him until she was an old woman who could depend on that support. Ironically, it was a relationship not unlike Vincent’s mother and her behavior toward her son, Vincent the boy. In many ways.

Tragedy begets tragedy, and now a very old man, stripped of all dignity, must pay for the resentments and duplicity accumulated in the generations that came before.

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