05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Inside the Astor Trial : The People vs. Anthony Marshall and Francis Morrissey

I ran into Brooke Astor's son Tony Marshall and his wife Charlene at Martha Stewart's trial -- I've known Charlene since she was married to her previous husband, a minister back in Northeast Harbor, Maine -- and the couple told me they'd dropped by "to support a friend". This would have been in February, 2004 right around the time that Tony was presenting his mother, addled by Alzheimer's disease, new codicils to her will to sign. It's these codicils that form the centerpiece of the trial just underway in a lower Manhattan courtroom, where it's being alleged that Tony plundered his mother's $200 million fortune for Charlene's benefit, and at the expense of some of New York premiere cultural institutions, who were beneficiaries of earlier versions of her will. (If there's a moral to this sordid tale it may be not to fuck with the Metropolitan Museum of Art when they stand to inherit a Child Hassam painting. Tony sold it instead and pocketed a $2 million commission.)

So one can't but help but wonder at the time when the Marshalls visited Martha Stewart's trial if they could have guessed, or feared, that several years hence they might find themselves the recipients of their own star-studded trial -- one with rows of scribbling reporters, satellite trucks, their antennas hoisted, idling on the street below, an armada of high priced lawyers, and a witness list of celebrities. Among those scheduled to take the stand include Henry Kissinger, Annette de la Renta, Kofi Annan, and Barbara Walters. All of them will undoubtedly testify to Mrs. Astor's greatness and her desire that at least a portion of her wealth go to her favorite charities. They might also get in a couple of digs at Tony on their good friend's behalf. According to various accounts, including Meryl Gordon's excellent book Mrs. Astor Regrets, Brooke Astor didn't consider her son the sharpest pencil in the case, and thought even less of him when he married Charlene, the wife of the minister of her beloved stone church on Mt. Dessert Island in Maine, where she spent her summers.

While Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lowey took the jury through an inventory of the charges and of Mrs. Astor's wealth -- a Park Avenue duplex, an estate in Westchester, the seaside mansion in Maine; not to mention trusts, Tiepolos, and the Child Hassam that Tony sold allegedly telling his mother she was running out of money while she had millions in the bank -- Tony sat pokerfaced at the defense table surrounded by lawyers and looking every one of his 84 years. Charlene sat a couple of rows back, next to her grown daughter Inness Hancock in a demure, almost Puritan themed black suit over a white blouse. She appeared equally stoical until the prosecutor lit into her, charging that Tony essentially committed his alleged crimes for her - to make sure that should he predecease his mother, a distinct possibility when you're in your eighties yourself -- she wouldn't be left out of the will, which was Mrs. Astor's apparently fervent desire "There was no love lost between Mrs. Astor and Charlene," Ms. Loewy told the jury. "Mrs. Astor simply didn't care for Charlene."

It was at zingers like this that Charlene reached for a pad -- one assumes lawyers coach their clients to always have a pad at hand so they look unfazed when the prosecutors say horrible things about them and the press gallery's eyes turn upon them to be able report that they're squirming -- and appeared (one is reluctant to say pretended) to take notes.

The prosecutor's presentation would have been helped by a couple of bathroom breaks -- a promise that Judge A. Kirke Bartley Jr. promised the jury but failed to keep, Ms. Lowey's opening statement rattling on for a couple of uninterrupted hours. Nonetheless the charges, among them that Tony got his mentally impaired mother to deed over her Maine home to him (he promptly transferred it into Charlene's name) and that he bought a yacht and hired a captain with her money made for riveting listening. Also charged is Francis Morrissey, 67, an estate lawyer with a checkered past. Mr. Morrissey, who sits a couple of seats away from Mr. Marshall at the defense table, is accused of fraud and forgery as Tony's accomplice in altering his mother's will.

Yet as egregious as the charges sounded one can't help but ask whether Mr. Marshall's behavior was any worse than other scions whose wealthy mothers threatened to outlive them. Ms. Lowey documented how Mr. Marshall made off with a Tiepolo drawing valued at several hundred thousand dollars from her Park Avenue apartment, leaving nothing behind but an empty space and an exposed nail. But if his mom was really as out of it as prosecutors claim was there that much harm in taking the work of art for his own enjoyment? It was eventually going to him anyway.

If some of this stuff seems like inside family baseball that's because it is. While the prosecutor painted Brooke Astor as a secular saint, all the people of New York are the recipients of her generosity and by deduction now Tony and Charlene's victims, this matter was never intended for public consumption. When Tony's son Philip Marshall alleged in 2006 that his father was neglecting his grandmother his desire was only to have her friend Annette de la Renta quietly named her guardian, not to provide fodder for the Daily News and the New York Post.

In a world of swine flu and economic calamity, the mere couple of hundred million that Tony may or may not have stolen from his mother's estate seems decidedly small potatoes. Having said that the human heart (or is it the adrenal gland?) quickens at a tale of unmitigated greed -- particularly a tale where ones' favorite celebrities pop in to give their version of events. There's something almost quaint, even reassuring, about the government taking the time and resources to prosecute a case that hearkens back to a more genteel era of fine silver, fresh flowers, and Hudson River views. One can only hope that when the defense offers its opening statements today they give us additional peaks into Mrs. Astor's rarefied world. Also, a small suggestion to the prosecution: with the trial scheduled to last a couple of months could you show slides of the allegedly purloined art in question so we have something nice to look at. The Criminal Courts Building, where the trial is taking place, is a rather seedy place.