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Trial shines a spotlight on New York's high society

Final arguments are underway in the trial of Anthony Marshall, the 85-year-old son of the late Brooke Astor, and an attorney. They are accused of coercing Astor to change her will to favor her son.

September 16, 2009|Tina Susman

NEW YORK — What did the butler hear? Can the peeved French maid and the combative ex-chauffeur be trusted?

If only the pet dachshunds, Boysie and Girlsie, could talk. It would make it far easier for the jurors -- who this week are expected to begin reviewing four months of often contradictory testimony -- to decide if the son of Brooke Astor, the late philanthropist and New York social doyenne, fleeced his mother of millions.

Final arguments began Monday in the trial of the son, Anthony Marshall, and Astor's estate attorney, Francis X. Morrissey Jr. They are accused of altering Astor's will to ensure her roughly $198-million estate went to Marshall when she died in 2007 at the age of 105.

On Tuesday, defense attorneys sought to portray Astor as a mother driven by love for her only son to change her will in 2004. She was not, they argued, a demented old woman strong-armed by Marshall and Morrissey, as the prosecution has alleged.

"Underlying this case is the love of Brooke Astor for Tony Marshall," his attorney, Frederick Hafetz, said as defense summations stretched to the 10-hour mark.

The trial has revealed the clashing worlds of New York -- where Wall Street's collapse and the Bernard Madoff scandal have ended many high rollers' lavish ways, but where a rare few still have untold millions to spend. In Astor's case, those millions often went to supporting institutions geared toward improving life for less-fortunate New Yorkers -- libraries, universities, hospitals, public gardens and conservation groups among them.

Packed courtroom

The idea of the city's most famous giver being duped by defendants allegedly motivated by greed has drawn a regular crowd of spectators, and as opening statements got underway, the courtroom was packed nearly to capacity.

Anyone expecting fireworks, however, had to have been disappointed.

The closing arguments for the defense, which are expected to last at least through today, have in some ways mirrored the trial testimony: slow-moving, repetitive, exhaustively detailed and aimed at convincing jurors that the prosecution failed to prove beyond all doubt that Astor did not know what she was doing when she changed her will.

Thomas Puccio, representing Morrissey, and Hafetz said the only issue to consider was whether Astor was lucid during the minutes she spent with her lawyers signing changes to the document in 2004.

"There's a lot here that just didn't matter. It was nice, it was amusing, but it didn't really matter," Puccio said as he derided prosecutors for calling 72 witnesses, compared with the two called by the defense.

Many of the prosecution witnesses -- including Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger -- testified primarily to anecdotes about Astor's diminished capacity in her final years. They included stories of Astor not recognizing then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at a dinner party; of Astor pulling out her American Express card to pay for a meal in a private dining room; and of Astor intentionally dropping the leashes of her beloved dachshunds as she walked them, forcing her companion to chase them down as they dashed through Central Park.

Prosecutors said such incidents bolstered their claim that Astor, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, did not know what she was signing when she amended her will. They said Astor, who was said to have had a tense relationship with her son and disliked his wife, Charlene, would not have willingly signed over so much money to him.

Marshall, 85, a Broadway producer and former diplomat, faces 25 years in prison if convicted on charges including grand larceny and forgery. Morrissey faces seven years if convicted of forgery.

The staff speaks

Among the prosecution's witnesses was a litany of former Astor staff members:

A butler was called to bolster allegations that Marshall had tricked his mother into believing she had to sell a prized $10-million painting or she might run out of money. The butler, Christopher Ely, testified that when Astor heard the sale had gone through, she asked her son if she could finally afford to buy some new dresses.

A former maid, Mily de Gernier, said Marshall told her to cut costs by buying flowers from corner grocery stores rather than the florist who had long supplied weekly bouquets.

And the ex-chauffeur, Marciano Amaral, said Astor was so confused in old age that she didn't recognize Morrissey.

But Puccio and Hafetz said that conflicting testimony shot down such claims, and that the most important thing to consider was Astor's state of mind when she was signing the changes to her will.

Everything else amounts to "diversionary evidence," said Hafetz, going over testimony that suggested Astor was aware enough to joke with her lawyer, ask astute questions and offer visitors tea before they left.

"If you keep your eye on the ball, you understand the only issue is the moment in time," Hafetz said, insisting that will changes were nothing new to Astor. According to a chart he displayed, she made 38 wills or will changes between 1953 and 2003, and was so obsessed with estate planning that she even took her will with her on holiday trips.

In the end, he said, she wanted to reward her son by leaving him her storied fortune, once held by John Jacob Astor IV, who died on the Titanic.

"Brooke Astor did it because she loved her son, Tony," Hafetz said, describing their relationship as the only one that endured until her death.

--

tina.susman@latimes.com

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