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The fate of Brooke Astor, the endearing philanthropist with the storied name, has generated worldwide headlines since her grandson Philip sued his father in 2006, alleging mistreatment of Brooke. And shortly after her death in 2007, Anthony Marshall, Mrs. Astor's only child, was indicted on charges of looting her estate. Rarely has there been a story with such an appealing heroine, conjuring up a world so nearly forgotten: a realm of lavish wealth and secrets of the sort that have engaged Americans from the era of Edith Wharton to the more recent days of Truman Capote and Vanity Fair.
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A riveting look behind the gates of the house of Astor as a famous family falls apart in public
The fate of Brooke Astor, the endearing philanthropist with the storied name, has generated worldwide headlines since her grandson Philip sued his father in 2006, alleging mistreatment of Brooke. And shortly after her death in 2007, Anthony Marshall, Mrs. Astor s only child, was indicted on charges of looting her estate. Rarely has there been a story with such an appealing heroine, conjuring up a world so nearly forgotten: a realm of lavish wealth and secrets of the sort that have engaged Americans from the era of Edith Wharton to the more recent days of Truman Capote and Vanity Fair. New York journalist Meryl Gordon has interviewed not only the elite of Brooke Astor s social circle, but also the large staff who cosseted and cared for Mrs. Astor during her declining years. The result is the behind-the-headlines story of the Astor empire s unraveling, filled with never-before-reported scenes. This powerful, poignant saga takes the reader inside the gilded gates of an American dynasty to tell of three generations worth of longing and missed opportunities. Even in this territory of privilege, no riches can put things right once they ve been torn asunder. Here is an American epic of the bonds of money, morality, and social position. Amazon Exclusive: An Essay by Meryl Gordon
"Mrs. Astor Regrets--The Trial"
During the summer of 2006, as I began researching Mrs. Astor Regrets, I thought that I was in the midst of a deeply textured family saga about society, money, and betrayal. What I could not have imagined was that just three years later I would have a regular seat on a wooden bench in a shabby New York courtroom as Tony Marshall--Brooke Astor's 85-year-old patrician son--stood trial on charges of looting his mother's $185 million estate while she was still alive. What started in 2006 as a bitter but quaintly old-fashioned family fight over the care and custody of the 104-year-old grande dame of New York society had become an eighteen-count criminal indictment charging Tony Marshall with grand larceny and his trusts-and-estates lawyer, Francis Morrissey, Jr., with conspiracy and forgery.
Mrs. Astor Regrets ends with Tony Marshall's indictment. But rather than becoming outdated by events surrounding the trial, the book is more timely than ever. The father-versus-son theme, which was at the heart of the struggle over Brooke Astor's care, was acted out in court when twin sons Philip and Alec Marshall both testified against their father as prosecution witnesses. Afterward, I saw Tony Marshall and his wife, Charlene Marshall, weeping in the corridor in response to this wrenching Oedipal moment.
Ever since I heard the prosecution's opening argument in late April, I have been seized by a sense of déjà vu. The entire outline of the case has followed the trajectory of Mrs. Astor Regrets. I began my story with a richly detailed account of Brooke Astor's one hundredth birthday party in 2002--given by David Rockefeller at his country estate--because artistically it set up the contrast between the society icon’s glittering life and the sad isolation that would soon follow. The prosecution used the birthday party as a framework for their own narrative, quizzing witnesses like Barbara Walters, Annette de la Renta, Nancy Kissinger, and Viscount Astor (all quoted in Mrs. Astor Regrets) about the same party and showing the jury a video of the festivities on a huge courtroom screen.
The prosecutors and the defense lawyers have told me that Mrs. Astor Regrets was required reading as they prepared for the trial. In the corridor outside the courtroom, newspaper reporters (and even a police detective) have asked me to autograph their copies of the book. About the only group left out of the loop are the twelve jurors and four alternates sitting in judgment of Tony Marshall and Francis Morrissey. They are forbidden from reading it because the judge has not allowed into evidence many of the details from the guardianship lawsuit over Mrs. Astor's care that Philip Marshall (joined by David Rockefeller, Annette de la Renta, and Henry Kissinger) filed against his father in 2006.
As a fan of mystery novels, I get an eerie feeling spending four days a week right in the middle of one. I will say that authors must have a better sense of dramatic pacing than courtroom lawyers. The Astor trial is not expected to go to the jury until early August. I have lived with this story for three years, and there remains only one important question for which I have no answer: Will the jury find Tony Marshall and Francis Morrissey, Jr. guilty as charged?
What I do know is that Brooke Astor was so devoted to the rituals of society that she still dressed for dinner, with matching evening bag and dress, at the age of 104. Part of the code that governed Mrs. Astor's life was a sense of personal privacy even when she was a renowned philanthropist to New York's leading charities. To have all this being argued in open court--in a way that has torn her family asunder--is something that Mrs. Astor would indeed regret. --Meryl Gordon
(Photo © Nina Subin)
UPDATED WITH NEW MATERIAL FROM INSIDE THE BROOK ASTOR TRIAL "An even-handed and fascinating portrait of a wealthy family torn apart by money, jealousy, and emotional distance." ?USA Today
"Spellbinding." ?Town & Country
MERYL GORDON is a magazine journalist who has written for New York, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Elle, Marie Claire, More, and others. Currently the director of magazine writing at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Meryl lives in New York with her husband, Walter Shapiro.
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