Brooke Astor Didn't Recognize Family in Final Years

Grandsons: Brooke Astor was 'disoriented, terrified' at the end of her life.

May 18, 2009, 12:32 PM

NEW YORK, May 19, 2009— -- Brooke Astor's mental state had deteriorated to the point that she did not recognize her own family members in the last years of her life, a period when her son Anthony Marshall is accused of stealing millions of dollars from her estate, Astor's grandsons testified today.

The grandsons, Philip Marshall and his twin brother Alec Marshall, both 56, testified for the prosecution today in the criminal trial of their father, Anthony Marshall, who is accused of manipulating his wealthy socialite mother during the final years of her life and changing her will to give himself millions of dollars from one of New York City's great family fortunes.

Astor died in 2007 at the age of 105.

In June 2004, Anthony Marshall and his wife Charlene told son Philip that Astor had planned to leave him and Alec $10,000 each, but Marshall "was able to change it so we got $1 million each," Philip Marshall said.

By that point, both grandsons testified, there had been several instances in which Astor did not seem to recognize her family and appeared confused and disoriented. Philip Marshall said he visited Astor in March 2004 at her Park Avenue apartment and helped her get into her car.

Philip Marshall said his elderly grandmother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, did not recognize him, was "very disoriented" and "appeared terrified."

"I said, 'We're family, we love you,' And she relaxed and squeezed my hand," Marshall said, breaking into tears on the witness stand.

Philip Marshall went to court in 2006, accusing his father of neglecting his grandmother and skimping on her care to the point that Astor, a member of one of New York's wealthiest families, 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. Anthony Marshall has said he voluntarily stepped aside as his mother's guardian.

Judge A. Kirke Bartley today prevented Philip Marshall from discussing the guardianship proceeding, other than to say he initiated the court case. Marshall was also not allowed to discuss the condition of Astor's Park Avenue apartment, other than to say it was "very, very dirty."

Among other allegations, Anthony Marshall, 84, 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.

While Marshall would have inherited a substantial amount of money, he is also accused of arranging changes to her will to give him control over her fortune, most of which was previously intended to go to charity.

Francis Morrissey, 67, an estate planning lawyer, has also been charged with fraud and forgery. They've both pleaded not guilty.

As early as 2000, Astor's mental state began deteriorating, her grandsons said. Alec Marshall testified that Astor offered to give him her Westchester County, N.Y., estate in 2001 or 2002 , which he declined, saying that "I knew it was too late" to change Astor's will.

Astor's alleged living conditions, as described in Philip Marshall's guardianship case, were a dramatic fall for the wife of Vincent Astor, a real estate mogul and the son of John Jacob Astor IV, who died on the Titanic. Astor, once the grande dame of New York high society, donated tens of millions of dollars to the city's libraries and museums. 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.

But as she aged, prosecutors contend, she came more and more under the control of her son. Earlier in the day, Emily Rafferty, the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, testified that Anthony Marshall withdrew a $115,000 gift that his mother had promised to the museum to buy a $235,000 Buddha sculpture. Marshall said the cost of his mother's around-the-clock care prevented her from giving more than $250 to $1,000 in the future, Rafferty said. He also cancelled her membership on the museum's chairman's council, an annual $50,000 cost.

Astor gave more than $23 million to the museum between 1963 and the early 2000s through her charity and her personal donations, according to Rafferty.

The trial has focused to a large extent on Astor's mental state in the last years of her life, when the changes to her will were made, and has detailed the sad decline of one of the city's most celebrated philanthropists.

On one occasion in December 2003, Rafferty said Astor did not recognize her when she saw her at the museum's office, though the two had known each other for years. During a 2002 Christmas party, Astor asked Rafferty who all the children were, though there were no children at the party, Rafferty testified.

Anthony Marshall, a former ambassador and Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, has pleaded not guilty to charges including grand larceny and conspiracy. Francis 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 witnesses include the bold face names who made up Astor's circle of friends. Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger are scheduled to testify this week. 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, may also testify.

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.

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