Thursday, July 27, 2006

Astor Lives and Astor Wives, Part I

Brooke Astor at 100 at the Living Landmarks Gala. Photo: JH.
7.28.06 - Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, known in her lifetime and long after as the Mrs. Astor, died in 1908 in the double mansion that occupied most of the block on Fifth Avenue between 65th and 66th Street, which she shared with her son and his family. She was 78.

In her dotage, around the turn of the 19th/20th century, Lina Astor (as she was known to friends) had become isolated by her failing mind. Her son John Jacob Astor IV and her grandson Vincent looked after her, allowing her to live in the splendor to which she had long been accustomed with a staff and caregivers who accommodated her whims which included her “entertainments,” all a charade, of course. Vincent, who was in his mid-teens at the time, was often the only other family member in residence, and was solicitous and sympathetic about his grandmother’s failing mental health.

A century later, Vincent’s widow, Brooke Astor, now in her 104th year, is at the center of a scandalous controversy over the quality of her care. She is unaware of any of this, according to reports, because she is suffering from Alzheimers. But her grandson, Philip Marshall, has accused his father, Mrs. Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, of basically depriving Mrs. Astor of the finest care her fortune could allow, while also implying that the Astor millions are being used to enhance his father’s lifestyle.

Utter neglect of the aged and infirm is not an uncommon story, although rarely discussed or addressed: they are easy and frequent targets for deprivation and other cruelties, and often by members of their own families, including their children. Resentments harbored over generations are activated late in life sometimes explain the circumstances, and the elder generation has no recourse but to take what they get. That may or may not partly explain Mrs. Astor’s dilemma, although it’s only a guess.

The great irony, if the accusations have any truth, is that Mr. Marshall’s birth father J. Dryden Kuser, who was Mrs. Astor’s first husband (they married when she was 17) was, in her words, a sadist who was frequently physically abusive toward her and she divorced him after a little more than ten years of marriage.

On Wednesday, the allegations of abuse and neglect came to light when Philip Marshall petitioned the court to remove his father as his grandmother’s guardian and appoint Annette de la Renta, a longtime close friend of Mrs. Astor, in his place. That day, Justice John Stackhouse of the New York State Supreme Court granted an order appointing Mrs. de la Renta guardian and JPMorganChase in charge of her finances.

The question everyone was asking: were the charges true? Was Mr. Marshall neglecting his mother’s best interests while enriching himself with the Astor millions? Mr. Marshall said he is "shocked and deeply hurt by the allegations against me, which are completely untrue." For those close to the situation, it is obviously not a new story. Mrs. de la Renta as well as David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, all old and close friends of Mrs. Astor, had supplied affidavits supporting Philip Marshall’s petition for a change in guardianship. None is inclined to make decisions based on paltry evidence.