April 27, 2009 -- Opening statements are scheduled to begin today in the criminal trial of Anthony Marshall, the son of the late New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor, who is accused of stealing millions of dollars from his ailing mother.
Marshall, now 84, has been accused of manipulating Astor during the last years of her life, when she suffered from Alzheimer's disease, changing her will to give himself millions of dollars from one of New York City's great family fortunes. Francis Morrissey, 67, an estate planning lawyer, has also been charged with fraud and forgery.
Astor, once the grande dame of New York high society, who charmed heads of state and donated tens of millions of dollars to the city's libraries and museums, died in 2007 when she was 105 years old.
Filled with allegations of greed and excess, the trial promises to expose the inner feuds of the famed Astor clan. Astor's late husband, Vincent, was the descendant of 19th-century tycoon John Jacob Astor. The trial is expected to focus on Brooke Astor's mental state in the last years of her life, when the changes to her will were made, and will likely detail the sad decline of one of the city's most celebrated philanthropists.
"If she were alive she would be mortified that her name has been dragged into this," said Vartan Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation, who befriended Astor when he was the head of the New York Public Library, one of her favorite charitable causes.
"She set the standard for everybody, about philanthropy, about generosity, about kindness," he said. "She was the last of a classy generation of people."
Witnesses in Astor Trial May Include Kissinger, de la Renta
Marshall, a former ambassador and Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, has pleaded not guilty to charges including grand larceny and conspiracy. Morrissey is accused of, among other things, forgery for allegedly faking Astor's signature on an amendment to her will. He has also pleaded not guilty.
The potential witnesses include the bold face names who made up Astor's circle of friends: Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state; Kofi Annan, the former head of the United Nations; David Rockefeller; and Annette de la Renta, the wife of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.
Astor Grandson: Brooke Astor Lived in Filth
"I think everybody's shocked. I don't think anyone thought it would ever come to this," said Meryl Gordon, author of the book "Mrs. Astor Regrets," who is covering the case for Vanity Fair magazine. "When this all started, it wasn't meant to be a criminal case."
The criminal case was sparked when Astor's grandson, Philip Marshall, went to court in 2006, accusing his father of neglecting his grandmother and skimping on her care so much that she slept in tattered nightgowns on a dog-urine-soaked sofa. Philip Marshall asked to have his father removed as Astor's legal guardian. A judge awarded guardianship to Annette de la Renta in 2006.
Marshall was indicted the following year. Philip Marshall declined to comment. Through his lawyer, Anthony Marshall also declined to comment.
Astor's alleged living conditions, as described in Philip Marshall's lawsuit, were a dramatic fall for the wife of Vincent Astor, a real estate mogul and the son of John Jacob Astor IV, who was on the Titanic. According to a 2006 court decision, Brooke Astor inherited more than $120 million when her husband died in 1959 and gave away more than $200 million to various charities.
Marshall is Astor's child from her first marriage, and they reportedly were not always close. "They had a complicated relationship," Gordon said. "She loved her son, but I don't think she always liked him."
Prosecutors are expected to argue that Marshall and Morrissey knew of Astor's declining mental state and exploited it to trick her into giving him millions of dollars.
Among other allegations, Marshall is accused of telling his mother that she was running out of money in order to convince her to sell one of her beloved Childe Hassam paintings for a reported $10 million, taking $2 million as commission.
Though Marshall would have inherited a substantial amount of money in any case, he is also accused of arranging changes to her will to give him control over her fortune, most of which was previously supposed to go to charity.
Marshall Lawyers Expected to Argue Brooke Astor Approved Changes to Will
Lawyers for Marshall and Morrissey are expected to argue that Astor was mentally capable of approving the changes, and that Astor loved her son and wanted to reward him financially.
"We are confident that Mr. Marshall will be vindicated," one of his lawyers, Fred Hafetz, said. A lawyer for Morrissey did not return a call for comment.