Brooke Astor Trial Verdict Latest in Long Family Drama

Brooke Astor was one of New York City's top philanthropists and socialites.

October 08, 2009, 10:48 AM

Oct. 8, 2009— -- Brooke Astor's son Anthony Marshall was convicted of tricking his late mother out of millions, and changing her will while the New York City socialite was incompetent and suffering from Alzheimer's in her final years.

After more than five months in criminal court, jurors convicted 85-year-old Marshall of 14 criminal counts, including fraud and grand larceny. Co-defendant Francis Morrissey, Astor's estate lawyer, was found guilty on all six counts of conspiracy, scheming to defraud and forgery.

The verdict comes as a surprise, after reports of upset jury members and a possible mistrial swirled, as the jury entered their 12th day of deliberation. The jury said that the verdict was reached unanimously.

Astor was the epitome of high society in New York and a respected philanthropist donating about $200 million to city landmarks such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. She died in August 2007 at the age of 105.

The trial brought to light what prosecutors say was a tragic end for the New York City socialite, whose mental state had deteriorated to the point where she could no longer recognize her own family.

Marshall, who could spend a minimum of one year and up to 25 in prison, faced the judge and then the jury as the verdict was read. His wife Charlene Marshall, who was cast as the villain in her husband's trial, sat silently. His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 8.

Marshall was found not guilty on charges of larceny, relating to the controversial sale of Astor's prized Childe Hassam painting, and falsifying business records.

Prosecutors asked for bail to be raised from $100,000 to a $5 million bond for each defendant, but Justice Bartley Jr. ruled that the current bail was sufficient.

"I hope this brings some consolation and closure for the many people, including my grandmother's loyal staff, caregivers and friends, who helped when she was so vulnerable and so manipulated," Astor's grandson, Philip Marshall, said in a statement.

When Philip filed for guardianship of Astor in 2006, accusing his father of neglect, some of the allegations caught the eye of prosecutors, who charged Tony Marshall, 85, on criminal counts of larceny and scheming to defraud. Marshall claims the charges of elder abuse were unsubstantiated. In October 2006, he settled the charges, returning some money, jewelry and artwork, and relinquishing control over his mother's finances.

"20/20" spoke exclusively to Marshall, his wife Charlene and son Philip in the weeks before the verdict.

Philip, who testified against his father for the prosecution, told "20/20" while he never wanted a public trial, it has cast a spotlight on an epidemic of elder abuse.

"[Brooke] didn't choose this. ...Certainly she wouldn't like what's happening, but look what it's doing, in terms of addressing an incredible cause," he said. "And I think what the result of what we're in the fray of now, and how this will extend beyond Brooke, is really personally very important, about how this will inform the greater discussion of elder justice."

The Astor case has cast a spotlight on an epidemic of elder abuse. Up to 2 million Americans, age 65 and older, have been victims of abuse or neglect by their caregivers, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse, and 60 percent of those cases are by a family member. If this could happen to one of the richest women in the world, couldn't it happen to anyone?

But the verdict is just the latest chapter in a long family drama.

"You rarely see a famous family like this falling apart in public," said Meryl Gordon, author of the biography, "Mrs. Astor Regrets." "I kept thinking whatever happened here, it started a long time ago."

Brooke Astor: Icon's Rise to Riches

The daughter of a socially ambitious southern belle, Brooke Astor was not born rich but she did marry well. In 1953 she married Vincent Astor, whose father, American millionaire John Jacob Astor, died on the Titanic in 1912.

Her courtship with her third husband Vincent was somewhat of a precursor of the scandals to come. Vincent was then married to socialite Minnie Cushing, who wanted a divorce and, in essence, handpicked Brooke as her replacement.

"Vincent wouldn't give her a divorce until he found someone else," biographer Gordon said. "Minnie was shopping for a replacement wife. And they invited Brooke to the country, for the weekend, and Vincent apparently proposed on the spot."

For Brooke Astor, who was in a financial bind after the death of her second husband, Charles Marshall, in 1952, the tremendously wealthy Vincent Astor provided the financial security and status to bring stability to the life of the bereaved widow. But was it a marriage of convenience or did she love Astor?

"She seems to have married him because she was panicked, and he provided a level of security and also a sort of social entree that ... she had been in society, but not of that high of an echelon," Gordon said.

Brooke Astor tried to make it a happy marriage, entertaining Vincent by singing and playing the piano for him, but he was both a difficult and jealous man.

And Vincent Astor wasn't the only man in Brooke's life. She had one son -- Anthony or Tony -- with whom some say she had always had a strained relationship. It was one that continued after her death, with a public battle for her fortune and a criminal case of elder abuse.

Tony's father was Dryden Kuser, Brooke's first husband, whom she referred to as "a perfectly terrible man."

"She implied that Tony was the product of marital rape," Gordon said. "That Dryden Kuser had beaten her up and broken her jaw when she was pregnant with Tony. You really get the sense that was one of the reasons she never really bonded with Tony."

Brooke Astor's second marriage to stock broker Charles "Buddie" Marshall was a happy one. Her son took Marshall's name although there still seemed to be little room for him in his mother's life.

"She seemed to be perfectly happy to go off for several months and travel and then she would suddenly remember her maternal responsibilities and be thrilled to see him again," Gordon said.

When Buddie died and Brooke married millionaire Vincent Astor, Tony Marshall was sidelined once again.

David Patrick Columbia, co-founder of, said there was an animosity between Vincent Astor and Tony Marshall, which came to a head "when Vincent Astor came into the room on a Sunday morning and saw Tony sitting in his suit and his tie talking to his mother, who was having breakfast in bed.

"Vincent Astor said, 'Get that man out of this house right now. I never want to see him again and if he does come back here and I do see him again, you're going to leave, too,'" Columbia said. "And, from there, he left. And Tony did not speak to his mother until Vincent Astor died."

Gordon said that Vincent Astor may have been threatened by Tony's role in Brooke's life.

"I think Vincent Astor felt very threatened by anyone being close to Brooke," she said. "That he really wanted her only for himself."

Astor Inherits $120 Million Fortune

Vincent Astor died in 1959, leaving Brooke a $120 million fortune; half in a trust for her personally and half in the Vincent Astor Foundation, which Brooke would run.

"Brooke, in a sense, came to life after her husband had died," ABC News' Barbara Walters said. "He left her all this money for a foundation and, you know, who was more popular than someone who's willing to give money to charity?"

Brooke Astor took control of the foundation in 1961. She focused on giving to New York City-based charities, giving back to the place where the Astor's made their fortune, funding major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York City Zoo and the New York Public Library.

"It wasn't just that Brooke gave $10 million to the library or $20 million," friend and film producer John Hart said. "She got Bill Blass to give 10 million. You know, she got Annette de la Renta -- a host of people to follow in her footsteps."

Biographer Gordon said, "The foundation gave her a sense of identity. It gave her a purpose in life. It made her feel like she was doing something more than wearing pretty dresses and going out on the town."

In a 1993 ABC News interview with Walters, Astor highlighted her charity as her life's defining work.

"When you get right down to it, the thing about my life that has been marvelous has been the foundation," she said.

Her work continued the Astors' historic legacy, as a family that left an indelible mark on New York -- from charitable donations, to landmarks like the historic Astoria Hotel, built by John Jacob Astor, which later merged with the Waldorf Hotel, the St. Regis Hotel and more.

Brooke Astor gave to smaller hand-picked charities. Linda Gillies, who was director of the now-defunct Astor Foundation, said Astor was deeply involved.

"She wanted to see the people who ran the project," Gillies said. "And she wanted to see the people who benefited from the project. She didn't care about the trustees or local politicians. She wanted to see the people who did the work. We never give to anything we haven't investigated thoroughly ..."

There was also a personal dimension to her charity work and her character: After meeting a homeless woman in a shelter, Astor was so touched by her story that she gave her one of her own coats.

"She [the homeless woman] was left with these enormous debts and absolutely not one penny, so she was out on the streets," Brooke Astor said once during an interview for a documentary about her. "I felt terribly, terribly sorry for her ... and I thought how lucky I am."

Gillies said, "She empathized with people. That was one of her wonderful qualities. That immediately she understood them and communicated with them and sometimes it ... it was emotional."

But the emotional bond she had with philanthropy seemed often lacking when it came to her own son. And, in 1997, when she decided she was too old to run the Vincent Astor Foundation, she decided to close it rather than hand it off to her son, Tony Marshall.

'Not An Astor': Tortured Mother-Son Relationship

"It won't exist," Astor said. "It goes with me. Do you think that's selfish? It's all going to be given away. I mean it's not going to be ... you see my son, he's not an Astor."

Not an Astor. It's a phrase that Brooke Astor would often repeat about her son, Anthony Marshall. In 1997 she closed the Vincent Astor Foundation rather than giving it Marshall.

"She kind of dangled it in front of him for many years and, then, ultimately decided that he was not an Astor," Gordon said. "This was an Astor Foundation, and she didn't want to hand it over to him."

Although Marshall had distinguished himself in many ways -- fighting at Iwo Jima, becoming a CIA officer, ambassador, author, Broadway theater producer and businessman, who for years managed his mother's personal fortune -- he was never really part of Astor's social circle.

"He was her son, she loved him, but I don't think she found his company exciting," Walters of ABC News said when asked about their relationship.

Aside from the foundation, Astor still had a personal fortune worth tens of millions of dollars. But, according to her will, she also wanted most of that money to go to charity.

"As the money was made in New York City, I wanted to give it all back to New York City and I have given it practically all," she told Walters during an interview on "Nightline." "I just have a little bit left to still give and leave in my will."

Astor was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in December 2000. In March 2002, at her 100th birthday party, she told Lord William Astor, her distant cousin, that she was afraid she wouldn't remember anyone's name.

"She could stand up and perform, which she did, and she was great," he told ABC News. "But she, it was a real effort."

In her final years, she was plagued by confusion and disorientation that left her vulnerable to the alleged deception that brought the family to criminal court in a trial that lasted six months and left her son facing prison charges.

ABC News' Eric Strauss contributed to this report.

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