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Trial Update: Brooke Astor's Staff Testifies

The housekeeper and butler tell of Mrs. Astor's lavish gifts and good temper.

THE STAFF’S VIEW: People say you can always tell a person’s character by how they treat the staff, and by that count, Brooke Astor was a legend.

The jury at Manhattan Criminal Court, where Astor’s son Anthony Marshall is on trial for scheming to defraud her, has heard how she showered lavish gifts upon her maids, secretaries and her housekeeper. The doormen at her 778 Park Avenue residence received equal attention: Astor tipped them every time she left for her Westchester estate, Holly Hill, and every Sunday when she returned.

She threw annual parties in Maine for her staff and was not above lunching with her housekeeper, Milly de Gernier, at the Knickbocker Club, where they shared ice cream, and giggled over one patron’s “loud dress” and the way that another put her roll on the table rather than her bread plate.

“She was very nice, very outgoing and very charming,” testified de Gernier, who worked with Astor for 40 years.

“Madam,” as her staff called her, even took de Gernier shopping and bought her a $2,400 suit from Astor’s favored store, Worldly Things.

“She was very generous and great fun to be with,” testified her butler, Christopher Ely, who once served Queen Elizabeth II as a footman at Buckingham Palace. Besides running Holly Hill, Ely escorted Astor on her legendary hikes and, as her stamina failed, drove her on lengthy car rides through the countryside. “She loved to take drives,” said Ely, who doted on his boss.

The feelings were clearly mutual. “I could not live without you,” wrote Astor in an undated note to Ely.

Her relationship with her son was more strained. “It was a little cold,” said Ely. “She would say that he had come to Maine and used the guest house and didn’t even ask her. And when she was trying to donate Asian art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she complained that he took all the best pieces [first],” as well as not returning furniture that had been loaned to him.

As for Marshall’s third wife, Charlene, it was even worse. “She hated her,” said Ely, recalling that Astor said, “She has no class and no neck.”

Ely’s testimony continues today in the lengthy trial, which is expected to drag on until July 19.

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