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What happens when an ancient heiress falls ill.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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Mrs. Astor Regrets

The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach

by Meryl Gordon

Houghton Mifflin, 336 pp., $28

Brooke Astor's Park Avenue apartment, stuffed in her old age with red velvet Louis XV chairs, her late husband's 3,000 Moroccan-bound first editions, and an expensive Childe Hassam painting of American flags whipping in the breeze (which turned out to be the only true love of her life), was always emblematic of its owner: very old, very moneyed, a fortress of affluence, that--like New York's premiere philanthropist--hid a large pile of insecurities.

The former Roberta Brooke Russell was neither really pretty nor born rich, and she married badly; two out of three times, at least. Her first husband broke her jaw and also very likely raped her. It was this last felonious assault, as Meryl Gordon concludes in an especially incisive moment, that accounted for the birth of Brooke's son Tony and all that happened subsequently between them.

And thereby, of course, hangs not simply a tale but the tale that continues to both thrill and spook gossipy New York to this day: the story of Tony Marshall, as Brooke's son came to be called (he was adopted by the doyenne's second husband), and the slender, distant, upwardly mobile mother about whom he clearly has feelings so raw that he is, at 84, about to face trial for swindling her in her dotage out of millions.

Mrs. Astor Regrets is actually the second account of Brooke's relationship with her only child. The first, written two years ago by Frances Kiernan, a biographer evidently so embarrassed by all the sordid details that emerged that she could barely bring herself to mention them, was reviewed by me in these pages. However, Gordon's is the only account worth reading, and she tells it very well. It is a fascinating story of the problems that bedevil all the most interesting families: mismatched kinship and thwarted affection.

Tony was meant to have a better, more loving mother. Brooke was meant to exit life much as she lived it: in a blaze of glory. She blighted his youth. He helped ruin her old age. If you're a fan of the New York papers (and here I'm definitely including the New York Times, which savored the greed and humiliation that defined this story every bit as much as Page Six), then you already know the bare-boned facts.

These include intergenerational alienation, rapacity, and, most remarkably, a will revised by Brooke, while she was suffering from Alzheimer's, which provided her son with "an additional outright gift to you of $5 million .  .  . to assure Charlene's comfort." Charlene, as it happened, was her son's third wife, and the daughter-in-law Brooke famously detested. As Gordon remarks in one of her few ironic asides, "Who could say that Brooke Astor was not a good mother? In poor health, she had still remembered to make financial concessions to a woman whom by most accounts she loathed."

Brooke was 103 years old when these and other details emerged, two years away from death, and the combination of accumulated years and accumulated wealth, of terminal tragedy and the great good fortune that had preceded it, compelled all sorts of people to come to her aid. The cast of Brooke champions included David Rockefeller, Tony's alienated son Philip, Annette de la Renta, Henry Kissinger, many lawyers equipped with many axes, and Barbara Walters.

The cast of villains--a group whose members, as Gordon cautiously suggests, may not have entirely deserved the epithet, or at least not in every instance reported by the breathless media---was very much smaller: Tony, his wife Charlene, and yet another lawyer. Aside from Barbara Walters, the author appears to have managed to get everyone to dish, including the reserved Annette de la Renta. That, among other things, is her triumph.

In March 2006, as Tony Marshall's son Philip complained at the time, Brooke's nursing staff had been reduced; her insubstantial meals consisted of pureed carrots and liver. The Park Avenue duplex was "in such a dirty and dilapidated state" that she was "forced to live among peeling and falling paint and dusty and crumbling carpets." But there were other allegations, equally repellant, which made fine headlines, but contained little or no substance. Word had it that a living room couch was stained with dog urine, which turned out to be untrue; and that certain of the old lady's medications had been halted, which was true, but done at a doctor's behest.