|Thoughts about the Astor Trial as it proceeds.
Last night at Georgette Mosbacher’s party for Michael Gross, I had a conversation with Sam Peabody who has known Brooke Astor’s son Tony Marshall his entire life. Sam also knew Tony’s mother very well. They all shared many of the same lifelong friends and acquaintances in what used to be known as Society back in the day. Sam doesn’t see Tony and Charlene Marshall at all the way the Prosecution and the Accusers see them.
The prosecution has made mincemeat of the character and reputation of the late Mrs. Astor’s 84-year-old son and his wife. With the exception of actually sticking out their tongues at the couple, they have blasphemed Charlene Marshall’s character by calling her names in a manner not unlike a ten-year-old. They have also engaged in extracting testimony quoting how Mrs. Astor felt about her daughter-in-law (not favorable). This evidently is a method for developing proof that Mr. Marshall was party to changing his mother’s will in his (and therefore his wife’s) favor.
From this trial, we have heard (not learned because it’s old news) how Charlene is believed to have manipulated her way into Tony Marshall’s attentions when he stayed with his mother in Northeast Harbor, Maine, one of the citadels of old WASP society of the Boston and Philadelphia axis.
The story – which was told in Brooke Astor’s circle up there many many times over the years, and even long after Marshall married Charlene – was that she, then the parson’s wife, would walk by the house every morning and wave at the son until finally they made a contact that eventually led to marriage.
This may be so, at least figuratively. This is often how love relationships start between two people; at least two people who have an actual romance. This evidently annoyed Mrs. Astor who somehow didn’t see a parson’s wife as marriage material for her son. Furthermore Charlene was overweight (remember, for some people, you can never be too rich or too thin).
Among Mrs. Astor’s own characteristics was that she was also a snob. No, she was not a snob to those in her circle, but she was to others when she felt like it. After all, she was Mrs. Astor.
In the last four decades of her long life, Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor created a public (and in many cases private) image of herself as a grand lady, a great humanitarian, with a generous and loving character. She rather liked that image and she worked at it. With it she set a good example of How It Was Done. She had a lot of help with that image, not because it wasn’t entirely accurate – because in many ways it was – but because she had come from behind in the New York where she married Mr. Astor; and she was ambitious and had something to prove.
When Brooke Marshall married Vincent Astor, the ladies who presided over the town in those days believed that she married the man for his money. Period. That was a no-brainer because Mr. Astor was viewed at best as a boor and at worst as a jerk with a lot of money. That’s why they called him Ghastly Astor. The fact that he also engaged in far-seeing philanthropy did not impress them -- so did many of these women and their husbands.
They were not kind about Vincent Astor, and by association, they were not kind about his third wife. Brooke Astor was well aware of this. Just like thirty years later, Charlene Marshall, thanks to her mother-in-law and her friends, was well aware of this.
By the time Vincent Astor died, a little more than six years after Brooke had married him, most people familiar with the marriage believed she’d “paid her dues” ten times over, enduring that shipwreck of a marriage. This was no secret either. This eventually redeemed her in the eyes of many (although not all) of her detractors. After she inherited, however, she embarked on becoming Mrs. Astor, a charming, philanthropic, intelligent, stylish, civic and culture minded lady dispensing the Astor Millions for the people of New York. She did this very well, as we all know.
What the prosecutors in the trial seem to be doing now, however, is reviving the Brooke Russell Kuser Marshall Astor that annoyed those ladies of Vincent Astor’s New York. We have learned that ironically she believed Charlene was after Tony Marshall for his money, or rather, Vincent Astor’s money. A little like the pot calling the kettle black, although it’s classic mother-in-law material. Furthermore she was not discreet about sharing her opinions about the woman. It was talked about for years in Northeast and in New York.
Tony and Charlene Marshall married and apparently lived happily thereafter, unlike his mother and Vincent Astor. They looked after Mother for years and eventually Mother allowed that Charlene was a good wife. She even included them at times in her parties and her dinners. They even shared some of their “friends” with mother. There are people today who count themselves as friends of Brooke Astor who started out as friends of Tony and Charlene and eventually became friends of Mother. When this happened, these same people usually became less friendly, even estranged from Tony and Charlene, after they saw that Brooke would invite them (the friend or friends) and not always invite her son and daughter-in-law. This is not a unique experience for children of celebrated and/or wealthy parents, although it is not a pleasant one.
Brooke wasn’t much of a mother in the affection department. She wasn’t alone; a lot of her generation of American women were responsible and disciplined and not outwardly loving or affectionate.
But despite this kind of maternal effrontery, the son was not negligent throughout his mother’s life. He served her dutifully. (How she was when she was alone with him is known only to him.) Many of Mother’s friends claim with authority that the son needed his mother, that she provided connections and doors opening for him professionally, and not least, money.
So? What if she did? A lot of women of her class and financial circumstances and even those who aren’t, do whatever they can to help their sons along. And if they feel their sons can’t tow the mark, they still help them along so it won’t reflect on them. She certainly didn’t want a playboy of a son. Or an alcoholic, or drug addict. Or a gay one, because she did not like gays -- her own coterie of unmarried male friends and associates notwithstanding. There was a moment during the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic when some of her male friends met with her to secure a donation to a charity they were starting for AIDS. She surprised them when she told them flatly that she wouldn’t give a dime, that the AIDS victims were getting what they deserved.
Interestingly enough, all of these men were gay as she was well aware, and all of these men continued their friendship with her. So she had a solid man in her boy. He just wasn’t Nelson Rockefeller or Cary Grant or Bill Paley. So? Who is?
She was like many of the society women of her day, women of means who could afford staff to run their lives (and their family’s lives), she was often nicer to her friends, or her dogs. However, despite that, the boy looked after the mother, if only because he had been well-trained to be. By the time she was ancient, ironically, he was getting up there himself and thinking of his own happiness.
Children treating their parents in ways that seem objectionable to others doesn’t mean the parents weren’t asking for it. Loving parents tend to raise loving children. Distance with children provides a far different message and casts a far different influence on the child’s self-perception and self-worth. What Tony Marshall finally found at the last part of his life was a woman who was more like the mother he didn’t have – and even, like her, a Southern girl as well.
In the end, what made Brooke Astor different from many of her social peers was not her husband’s money or famous name. Like many of them, including her early detractors, she was prone to snobbishness and arrogance, which she herself said came with possessing a great fortune. She could be insensitive to those who were below her on the social ladder when she felt like it. But she knew this about herself. It didn’t stop her at times, but she was aware. It may be that because of her awareness, she changed somewhat with age, and learned some. That didn’t mean she was a changed woman. She was simply who she was, bright, ambitious, self-serving and self-centered. She probably would have preferred to be remembered entirely for all the good deeds she did for the community she presided over philanthropically. Had this trial not occurred, that probably would have been the case, alas, alack, and all that.