Brooke Astor book offers behind-the-scenes detail

December 4, 2008 12:36:14 PM PST
The life and times of Brooke Astor have long been a source of fascination and intrigue, especially her final years that were marked by a nasty family squabble over her care and sprawling fortune.

"Mrs. Astor Regrets" offers a provocative behind-the-scenes look at those difficult last years, especially her son's alleged involvement in unraveling the world she knew and loved.

Author Meryl Gordon obtained a remarkable amount of access, landing interviews with bold-faced names such as Henry Kissinger, Nancy Reagan, David Rockefeller and Annette de la Renta, who helped flesh out the details of the family scandal that for months had played out in the media. Even Astor's son Anthony Marshall and his third wife, Charlene, talked to Gordon.

The many interviews, interwoven throughout the book, paint an enthralling and rare look of a respected blue blood family name that became tarnished by familial disloyalty, jealousy and greed in Astor's final years as she became stricken with Alzheimer's. She died in 2007 at 105.

Gordon writes that Astor also had a severe disdain for daughter-in-law Charlene - a contempt that was squarely on display at her star-studded 100th birthday party at the Rockefeller estate in 2002. The author interviewed 50 of the 100 people who attended the party.

When Charlene presented her mother-in-law with a bouquet of flowers sent by none other than Prince Charles, Astor "made a terrible face," Gordon said.

"She thought Charlene was horning in on her big moment. I was just horrified," celebrity gossip columnist Liz Smith said.

The main participants in the drama are Astor, Anthony Marshall and Philip Marshall.

Anthony Marshall, her only son, has been accused in an indictment of taking artworks out of her home, giving himself a $1 million raise for serving as her financial adviser and amending her will so he could get at the $60 million she had intended for charity.

Philip Marshall is Anthony Marshall's university professor son who filed a petition in 2006 to transfer legal guardianship of his grandmother from his father to de la Renta, Astor's closest friend. He claimed Marshall neglected Astor and made her a virtual prisoner in her own home as her health declined. The civil allegations led to the criminal charges.

Hundreds of other characters, including the monied elite of Manhattan's Upper East Side, give substance and credibility to the complexities and dynamics that led to Anthony Marshall's downfall. Gordon interviewed 230 people in all.

Marshall portrayed himself as a dutiful son who happily put aside his career to manage the Astor money. Perhaps underscoring his lifelong role in Astor's shadow, Marshall told Gordon: "I'm on the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. My mother was never on that."


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