Inside the Astor Trial : The Babe Witness

06/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As soon as prosecutor Elizabeth Lowey asked Naomi Dunn Packard-Koot about her job history before she was hired as Brooke Astor's social secretary in March 2002 the jury could have guessed that the Princeton graduate's testimony was not going to be run-of-the-mill. The lovely, blond Ms. Packard-Koot listed, and I may be leaving out a couple of careers -- firefighter, financial analyst, high school teacher, private tutor, publicist, think tank staffer, actress, and art dealer.

On the final day of testimony last week, the assistant district attorney also asked whether Ms. Packard-Koot, 39, had had any brushes with the law. Indeed, she had. While at Princeton, she testified, she and her roommates left prank calls on a girlfriend's answering machine. In Hungarian, no less. The victim -- not getting the joke because she'd been harassed by a male earlier the same day -- concluded there might be a connection between the two incidents and supplied the tape to the police. The cops, in turn, called in a translator, thinking the culprits might be a band of roving gypsies committing crimes in the Princeton area. From the best I can tell, Ms. Packard-Koot avoided arrest, or at least conviction, but her testimony seemed to gloss over the disposition of the case.

The prosecutor led her through some of the events of her employment with Mrs. Astor, which lasted until May 2003 when Ms. Packard-Koot was fired by Mrs. Astor's son, Anthony Marshall. That made her the second social secretary in a row to suffer the ax and for the same reason -- their loyalties lay with the charming Brooke Astor rather than with Mr. Marshall, 84, or his wife Charlene, 63. According to the secretary, the Marshalls were trying to curb Mrs. Astor's spending while selling her art by allegedly telling her she was going broke and needed to raise cash if she wanted to keep shopping at Bergdorf's. Mrs. Astor's fortune, at the time, was estimated to be slightly shy of $200 million. Ms. Packard-Koot's predecessor in the job, Birgit Darby, a soft-spoken North Carolinian, testified the previous day that she was fired after she failed to prevent Mrs. Astor from taking her annual winter vacation in Palm Beach. Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, she told the jury, thought the trip to Florida, which included hiring a private jet to ferry her and her beloved dachshunds, Girlsie and Boysie, was too extravagant.

Ms. Packard-Koot testified similarly that the Marshalls tried to stop Mrs. Astor from going to Cove End, her beloved Maine estate in the summer of 2002. She wouldn't have any fun, they warned her, because she no longer had friends there, she'd have trouble getting around her house, and she'd be too far away from her doctors. When the helpful Ms. Packard-Koot suggested they get Mrs. Astor one of those stairway chairlifts, she said Anthony Marshall told her it was too expensive and would reduce the value of the property.

"I investigated it on my own," she told the jury. "She was talking about how much she loved Maine and I saw her eyes light up. I was able to find a really good deal and somebody who would do it at a really good price."

Whether or not the jury eventually decides the allegations against Mr. Marshall are true -- he, along with co-defendant Francis Morrissey, an estate lawyer, are charged with changing Mrs. Astor's will in he and his wife's favor and to the detriment of His mother's favorite charities, when she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease -- one thing is certain: the Marshalls could have done a better job of charming the servants. Ms. Packard-Koot seemed almost too eager to tell the jury everything she knew, heard, or overheard that cast the Marshalls in a negative light. Perhaps her most damning claim was that Mr. Marshall denied her permission to purchase a security gate to prevent his wandering mother from falling down the stairs of her Park Avenue duplex. However, her most colorful anecdote was reserved for the daily vilified Charlene Marshall. Ms. Packard-Koot was prepared to testify that on one occasion during her tenure the Marshalls borrowed some of Mrs. Astor's gold-plated flatware for a dinner party they were throwing.

When Mrs. Astor ordered her assistant to call the Marshalls and demand that her then septuagenarian son report to her residence shortly before his guests were scheduled to arrive, Ms. Packard-Koot said that she overheard Mrs. Marshall in the background issue a combination of expletives, referring to her mother-in-law, more appropriate to a Rikers Island cellblock than to the rarefied confines of the Upper East Side. To the palpable disappointment of the media covering the trial, before the social secretary took the witness stand, and with the jury out of the courtroom, Judge A. Kirke Bartley Jr. ruled the testimony inadmissible.

Fred Hafetz, Mr. Marshall's attorney, tried to staunch the bleeding by challenging Ms. Packard-Koot's credibility, memory, motives, veracity, and finally her personality and character. First he raised her job history -- "How many jobs have you had?" he sniffed. Then he brought up her brief acting career, apparently mostly in friends' films. "You have a flair for the dramatic," he accused her. "You like to be on stage, don't you?"

Mr. Hafetz's relentlessly combative demeanor while cross-examining witnesses has puzzled even fellow lawyers. But by midafternoon of her second day of testimony, Ms. Packard-Koot may have actually have accomplished what the surly lawyer could not have done -- make him seem almost sympathetic. It didn't help that she was chewing gum during most of her testimony. Or that while the lawyer shuffled through his notes, trying to decide what to hit her with next, she grinned serenely at the prosecution lawyers and occasionally at the jury, as if to say this guy should know better than to tangle with a comparative literature major.

Judge Bartley could have dismissed the exhausted jury for the weekend after Ms. Packard-Koot finally descended the witness stand. Instead, he called the prosecution's next witness, Catherine Dunn, the Senior Vice President for External Affairs at the New York Public Library, one of Brooke Astor's favorite charities. When Ms. Dunn explained that she'd grown up in South Dakota and attended the University of South Dakota one could almost feel the cleansing winds of the prairie entering the courtroom and rinsing away the lingering tension of Mr. Hafetz's and Ms. Packard-Koot's confrontation.