Inside the Astor Trial: Lord William Astor Testifies

05/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is it possible that Brooke Astor, the patron saint of New York City charitable giving, was a snob? The prosecution and its first two upper crust witnesses -- Lord William Astor, Brooke's British cousin by marriage, and Linda Gillies, the former director of the defunct Vincent Astor Foundation -- have gone to great pains to paint Mrs. Astor as an aristocrat with the common touch. When she visited the Metropolitan Museum she didn't only hang out with Philippe de Montebello, its director, or her fellow members on its high powered board; she also hobnobbed with the security guards. On visits to the Bronx Zoo, which named a baby elephant after her -- "Astor" -- she was just as interested in the worker who shoveled out his enclosure as she was in the head of the zoo.

But when it came to at least one person -- her own son, Anthony Marshall -- her sociability seemed to fade. And the testimony in the opening days of the trial seemed to suggest that her skepticism towards him may have been the result of something more fundamental than her well-documented disapproval of his third wife, Charlene. She almost seemed more enchanted by the British branch of the family than her own flesh and blood.

Lord Astor flew in to testify that Brooke was great fun, a real character. The anticipation of his appearance was sufficiently great that one half expected him to float into the courtroom in flowing ermine robes (instead he was all Turbull and Asser in a tailored navy suit, with perhaps a touch of Hermes thrown in.) In addition to being a hereditary lord he's also an elected member of Parliament and a former Conservative government minister.

Lord Astor, 57, told the jury that Brooke had confided to him that her relationship with Charlene, her daughter-in-law who isn't charged in the case but whose name gets routinely dragged through the mud, was "difficult, because she seems so envious of what I've got." He also said that Tony repeatedly warned Brooke that she was "short of cash" and that she shouldn't be squandering her diminishing fortune at pricey London hotels such as the Connaught. The news so concerned Lord Astor that he made inquiries with her bankers. "It was all there," he told the jury.

He went on to detail the sad decline in Brooke's mental state, the linchpin in the prosecution's case that Mrs. Astor had no idea what she was doing when she changed her will several times well past her 100th birthday in Tony and Charlene's favor. The vivacity and bristling intelligence he'd admired since he was a young boy spending summers with his cousin at her third husband Vincent Astor's country estate overlooking the Hudson in Rhinebeck, New York, gave way to frequent bouts of confusion and forgetfulness. When he visited her Park Avenue apartment for tea in the autumn of 2002 with his college age daughter, Brooke turned to him and said, "I'd forgotten how young your wife was." Mr. Astor gently explained, "That's not my wife, that my daughter." He told the jury, "She'd known my wife for thirty years."

But in earlier, happier days, their relationship had seemed to turn on her reverence for the Astor family and the Astor name. "She was very focused on being a member of the family," Lord Astor said. "It was something that gave us, and her, a great deal of pleasure." Lord Astor said that "Cousin Brooke," as she was known, seemed fond of her own son, but on her frequent visits to Europe she seemed less interested in sharing stories and news about her own family than in basking in her Britishness by marriage. "She wanted to hear about the Astor family and everything we were doing," Lord Astor said. She'd even left Lord Astor some family heirlooms in her will -- "silver and glass that had the Astor family crest." And when she decided to wind down the Vincent Astor Foundation in the late Nineties it was only after Lord Astor declined her invitation to take it over. She hadn't offered that plum to Tony. Why not? Her explanation was because he wasn't an Astor.

As a matter of fact, so focused did Brooke seem on her British relations when she was with them, and so little contact did Lord Astor have with Brooke's own family, that when the prosecution flashed a photograph on the courtroom screen of Brooke's 100th birthday party, which David Rockefeller threw at the Rockefeller family estate at Pocantico Hills, the only people Lord Astor was able to identify in the photograph were Brooke, David Rockefeller and Philip Marshall, Brooke's grandson. He didn't recognize Brook's other grandson and Philip's twin, Alec, or Philip's wife Nan Starr.

It's unfortunate, to say the least, when a son's freedom turns on trashing his own mother. But that seems to be the defense's strategy if the opening statement the previous day by Frederick Hafetz, Tony Marshall's lead lawyer, is any indication. Mr. Marshall is accused of taking advantage of his mother's Alzheimer's disease to loot her estate. If convicted of the charges, which include grand larceny, he could face 25 years in prison -- a rather harrowing prospect for an 84 year old man who walks with a cane.

Mr. Hafetz made the rather bold assertion that instead of being the saintly figure portrayed in countless newspaper and magazine profiles Mrs. Astor was actually a social climber who used her wealth to secure her position "in the highest echelons of New York society." And that the reason she gave away her money was because "she had to" according to the terms of the Vincent Astor trust.

Mr. Hafetz went on to claim that until the early 1990s Mrs. Astor gave not one cent of her personal fortune to charity, putting up a graphic with a big round zero on the courtroom screen. If Mr. Hafetz was to be believed, Brooke Astor's decades of good works -- her gift for using her money, talent and charm to seed and leverage projects great and small throughout the city for decades -- was but a career move.

Under normal circumstances a loving son, at hearing his mother's memory thus besmirched, would at least display some discomfort. But Mr. Marshall sat at the defense table impassively. And when Mr. Hafetz completed his presentation the old man rose from his seat and extended a hand. Whether that was in gratitude, even congratulations, or simply the courtly reflexes of a well bred gentleman is hard to say. But both Mr. Marshall and Charlene, seated a couple of rows behind him, seem to suffer little remorse as they watch Brooke Astor demythologized.

If nothing else it must be a relief for Charlene on the rare occasions when her own problematic reputation gets a rest. At Brooke's 100th birthday, Lord Astor testified that Brooke was insistent that he, and he alone, accompany her in her car to her party at David Rockefeller's. Tony and Charlene followed in a second car. "She became slightly intimidated by the combination of the two of them," Lord Astor told the jury.