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The Nation

Outrage Over the State of a Socialite

As reports swirl that Brooke Astor's son has let New York's grande dame live in squalor, local media react with protective indignation.

July 28, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Mrs. Astor wouldn't have wanted it this way. Into her late 90s, she rarely left her apartment without a fresh manicure and a string of pearls, explaining, "People want to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old woman." She sent handwritten thank you notes. She did not believe in gossip.

This week, though, New Yorkers were given a painful -- even pitiful -- view of Brooke Astor, 104, who ruled for decades as the grande dame of New York society.

On Thursday, she was in stable condition at Lenox Hill Hospital as allegations swirled that her only child -- former U.S. Ambassador Anthony Marshall, 82 -- had discontinued some of her medications, dressed her in torn nightgowns, stopped physical therapy sessions, refused to let her see her beloved dachshunds, and allowed her apartment to become chilly and run down.

Astor's grandson, Philip Marshall, has filed a petition asking that Astor be placed under the guardianship of Annette de la Renta, wife of clothing designer Oscar de la Renta. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 8.

Since Wednesday, when the New York Daily News reported the story, the local media have reacted with protective outrage. New York Post columnist Cindy Adams described Anthony Marshall as "the ingrate useless underemployed disgusting male heir to whom she gave birth."

Anthony Marshall said Thursday that he was "shocked and deeply hurt" by the allegations, which he said his son never raised with him before filing the petition. In a statement released by his lawyer, Kenneth Warner, he said he had spent $2.5 million a year caring for Astor, and paid eight staff members who were told to buy her whatever she needed.

"I love my mother, and no one cares more about her than I do," he said. "Her well-being, her comfort and her dignity mean everything to me."

Astor had largely withdrawn from public view after a life that combined glittering privilege with extraordinary philanthropy.

At 56, she inherited the Astor family's real estate fortune after the death of her third husband, Vincent Astor. She since has given about $200 million to libraries, museums, schools and social programs.

Although some viewed her as a social climber when she married Vincent Astor, "she became the queen, above all those women who were her detractors," said David Patrick Columbia, editor of the online journal New York Social Diary. "That was her cleverness."

Calls to Philip Marshall and his lawyer, Ira Salzman, were not returned Thursday.

Philip Marshall's affidavit, which was sealed Wednesday, says his father "has turned a blind eye to her, intentionally and repeatedly ignoring her health, safety, personal and household needs, while enriching himself with millions of dollars," according to the Daily News.

It goes on to say that Astor has been forced to use Vaseline instead of the Estee Lauder face creams she prefers; that Marshall refused nurses' requests for her hair bonnets and no-skid socks; that Astor has not been allowed to move to her estate in Westchester County, where she wants to die; and that the flower arrangements she prefers have been replaced with bouquets from a local grocer, according to the Daily News.

Among the friends who filed supporting affidavits in the case were former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and David Rockefeller, onetime chief executive of Chase Manhattan Bank. Rockefeller spokesman Fraser Seitel said Rockefeller got involved "out of friendship, pure and simple."

"He has known this woman for 60 years. They're very close friends, and he admires her greatly," Seitel said.

"She's done miraculous work for many, many people and he is just concerned that, especially at this moment, she receives the kind of treatment she so amply deserves."

David Richenthal, a close friend of Anthony Marshall's who has produced Broadway plays with him, said the allegations about Brooke Astor's care grew out of a grudge between Philip Marshall and his father.

"If there's any story here, it's what is emotionally troubling a young man to create smoke where not only is there no fire, but there's no smoke," Richenthal said.

Richenthal worked in an office in Astor's apartment for two years, ending several months ago. He said Marshall attempted to save money by firing some of Astor's household staff and reducing spending, which displeased some of them -- since "it was not as easy as it once was to take advantage."

Most of Astor's social connections believe the allegations are founded, said Columbia, who writes about New York high society.

The story "has been leaking out for a while, and it's been leaking out through the staff," he said. "It's definitely a mark against her son, no matter what the truth of it is. It's really a story that's not uncommon. The irony is that Mrs. Astor did so much for people in need."

Through the 1980s and 1990s, when New York's social structure was in turmoil, Astor was a touchstone -- never without her hat, her gloves or her dogs.

Vartan Gregorian, who served as president of the New York Public Library when she was its chief donor, likes to tell the story of a mugger who accosted her on Fifth Avenue.

She "turned to him, extended her hand, and said, 'I'm sorry, but I don't believe we've been introduced,' " Gregorian wrote in his memoir, "The Road to Home: My Life and Times."

"What was important is not the money she had. There were richer people than her. But she was what New York conceived for three decades as class," said Gregorian, now president of Carnegie Corp. "Here is a woman who read. Here is a woman who at 85, 90, wrote poetry. Here is a woman who knew the names of most of the porters and doormen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

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