The sad end of Brooke Astor was the "ultimate Upstairs, Downstairs story", says the New York Daily News. What did the butler hear? Could the peeved French maid and the combative former chauffeur be trusted? If only the pet dachshunds, Boysie and Girlsie, could talk... It would certainly have made life easier for the New York jury who heard five months of often contradictory testimony before deciding last week that Astor's son, Anthony Marshall, was guilty of fleecing her of millions. At 85, he now faces a possible 25 years in jail.
The once sparkling doyenne of the Upper East Side spent the last years before her death, aged 105 in 2007, in a pathetic state of neglect: the victim of Alzheimer's and a "rapacious" son. It was one of her twin grandsons, Philip Marshall, who blew the whistle. In a 2006 civil suit, he complained that his father had sacked the old lady's loyal staff and stinted on her medications, notes The Daily Telegraph.
That alerted the authorities to the money that had disappeared from the $200m Astor fortune. Paintings had vanished; so had the deeds to her cherished Maine retreat. Egged on by his wife, Charlene, Marshall had used his mother as "his own little piggy bank... his ATM", buying himself a $1m yacht while refusing her a $2,245 safety-gate to keep her from falling. For New Yorkers, Marshall's crimes were a civic as well as inhuman affront: the Astor millions were intended for them.
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On his deathbed in 1959, Vincent Astor predicted that Brooke was "going to have a hell of a lot of fun" with the charitable foundation he left her. And so she did, says The Washington Post. In her Chanel suits, pearls and trademark white gloves, she became a "New York icon" and "one of the city's most generous and discerning philanthropists". "A world-class flirt" with dancing blue-grey eyes, Astor charmed everyone, from the city's doormen to Henry Kissinger, says USA Today. When a commemorative medal was struck in her honour in 1976, thousands turned out to cheer her.
Born Roberta Brooke Russell in 1902, as the daughter of a Marine officer she spent much of her childhood abroad in Panama and China. At 16, she married J. Dryden Kuser, heir to a street-lighting fortune "a wealthy boor who beat her when he wasn't cheating on her". After divorcing Kuser, she hit Manhattan in the Roaring Twenties and was soon "playing tennis with Ezra Pound, dining with Cole Porter and holidaying with Max Beerbohm", says The Times. In 1932, she married the love of her life, Charles "Buddie" Marshall, who gave her son Anthony, from her previous marriage, his surname. She was, at best, an ambivalent mother. Of her third marriage to Vincent Astor, she wrote: "I saw very little of Tony. I concentrated on Vincent."
Anthony Marshall went on to have an eminent career as a US ambassador, CIA recruiter and Broadway producer. But it wasn't enough to impress Brooke, who also loathed her brassy daughter-in-law, once declaring she would rather spend Christmas alone with her dogs than with "that bitch". Indeed, for all the millions she gave to New York, and for all her talent for friendship, she never gave her only child what he wanted: "approval".
The Astor dynasty from trading furs to social royalty
Over two centuries, the Astor family amassed one of the world's biggest fortunes and then feuded over it. The dynasty's founder, John Jacob Astor, was a German butcher's son who arrived in America in 1784 and began trading furs. The real money, though, lay in the vast tracts of Manhattan farmland he bought up, says The Philadelphia Inquirer. His faith that New York "would become the dominant port and financial centre of the new republic proved colossally true". By 1840, he was America's first millionaire.
The Astors swiftly established themselves as New York social royalty, says The Washington Times: Mrs Astor's guest list formed the basis of Manhattan's elite "Four Hundred". But they "were essentially a frivolous family", obsessed with building sumptuous hotels. In 1891, William Waldorf Astor headed for Britain, became Viscount Astor and bought the Buckinghamshire estate that gained notoriety as the home of the pro-appeasement "Cliveden Set" in the 1930s and later the Profumo scandal. His cousin, John Jacob IV, stayed in New York.
In Britain, the Astors "multiplied like rabbits". The US branch, by contrast, has all but "petered out". Having courted scandal by eloping with an 18-year old, John Jacob IV went down with the Titanic in 1912; it was his son, Vincent, who became Brooke's third husband. Her great achievement, concludes Meryl Gordon in Mrs Astor Regrets, was "rebranding the Astor image with a newfound glamour and respect" sadly, now eclipsed by the actions of her son.
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