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May 29, 2009 6:07 PM

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Astor Court: Covering the Brooke Astor Trial

Brooke Astor with a portrait of her husband Vincent in the background, 1976.Courtesy of the Fairchild Archives "What's it like?" That is the question almost everyone asks me about covering the criminal trial of Brooke Astor's only son, Anthony...

Brooke Astor with a portrait of her husband Vincent in the background, 1976.
Courtesy of the Fairchild Archives

"What's it like?"

That is the question almost everyone asks me about covering the criminal trial of Brooke Astor's only son, Anthony Marshall -- Tony, to friends and his defense attorneys -- who is accused of a laundry list of charges including grand larceny and scheming to defraud his mother. Prosecutors say he stole paintings and valuables and also unduly influenced Astor to change her will by $60 million in his favor when she was suffering from Alzheimer's.

It's definitely been a surreal experience to sit in the drab courtroom at Manhattan Criminal Court and observe not only Marshall, but his third wife, Charlene, and a parade of very grand witnesses including Annette de la Renta, Nancy and Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, Patsy Pulitzer Preston, Met curator James Watt, Vartan Gregorian and Graydon Carter dissect the life of one of New York's legendary personages in a place where it's not unusual to see a perp being marched around in handcuffs. (In fact, the other day when I was going through security another visitor got nabbed for bringing pot with him to the courthouse.)


Nancy Kissinger showed up dressed in an elegant forest green Oscar de la Renta coatdress that had all the women in the gallery sighing -- plus her behavior on the stand was both charming and funny. "I'm just an ordinary housewife," she demurred when asked her occupation.

She even charmed the defense. "How about that Nancy Kissinger?" said one of the defense attorneys after court that day.

Her friend Annette de la Renta also showed up perfectly turned out, though her bouffant hairstyle confounded viewers. "What do we call that hair?" all the other reporters asked me. I was more interested in the little embossed leather envelope clutches she carried for both days of testimony -- once in caramel and the second day in chocolate brown. It definitely answered the question of 'What bag does one carry to court?'

De la Renta seemed extremely nervous and was very careful about weighing her words to the defense attorney Ken Warner -- no surprise, though, since Astor was like a mother to her and de la Renta was appointed guardian of Astor's estate in 2006.

One of the more amusing witnesses was Pulitzer Preston, who seemed confounded by the judicial process. In particular she was flustered by the many objections raised by Marshall's lead lawyer, Fred Hafetz, a famously aggressive criminal defense attorney (his Web site boasts Hafetz has obtained acquittals for defendants such as "a prominent businessman charged with giving illegal contributions to a United States Senator," and "a union leader charged with causing a strike in order to extort money").

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you," she said in her very proper New England accent the first time Hafetz objected. The second time, she looked very aggrieved and asked, "Have I said something wrong?" And when the prosecution and defense lawyers were arguing, she said, "Perhaps I can make both of you happy."

The jury has also been entertained by endless exhibits of evidence including personal photos of Astor and her relatives, video of her 100th birthday party at David Rockefeller's estate, photographs of her residences (778 Park Avenue, Cove End in Maine and Holly Hill in Westchester County) and descriptions of her daily habits (breakfast in bed at 9:30, followed by being dressed by her French maid, followed by endless rounds of lunches, teas, dinners and galas -- not to mention shopping, one of her favorite pastimes. She loved Bergdorf Goodman).

In addition, there have been numerous Astor anecdotes -- she had a sharp wit and never seemed to take herself too seriously. Even when suffering from a mental decline, she would tell friends and family, "I'm gaga." Her generosity also carried over -- she started to give things away randomly, offering spur-of-the-moment gifts to nearly everyone. The most poignant day by far was when Marshall's twin sons took the stand to testify against their father. (They mostly grew up with their mother, who divorced Marshall when they were age nine). Alec Marshall, who photographs regularly for Architectural Digest, seemed reluctant and shy. Philip Marshall -- who teamed with de la Renta and Rockefeller to wrest guardianship away from his father -- seemed very edgy and aggressive, getting into arguments with Warner during his cross-examination. I guess who can blame him, but it was extremely sad to witness a family that has been so torn apart. Anthony Marshall and his wife were spotted shedding a few tears in the hallway that day. (They often sit alone on the wooden benches to eat homemade sandwiches for lunch while the tabloid photographers shoot them with long lenses).

(Charlene Marshall, who is generally being painted the villain of the trial even though she hasn't been charged in the case, is very understated in court -- lugging the same plain green canvas tote every day, as well as recycling outfits. She wore seemingly the same powder blue twinset four times over the course of eight days in court.)

Charlene's look-alike daughter, Inness, joined her mother in the gallery one day, while Marshall's school chum Sam Peabody has been a regular supporter. Actor Jefferson Mays also came to support the couple -- the Marshalls produced "I Am My Own Wife," in which he starred.

Otherwise, Charlene Marshall sits there alone while fairly sordid details are exposed about her chilly relationship with Astor. Nearly every prosecution witness has testified that Astor did not like her daughter-in-law, and in fact made faces when asked about her. Not that there were many kind words from Charlene, either, and it turns out both Astor and Charlene are no strangers to swear words.

Astor had much kinder feelings toward her longtime butler, Chris Ely, and her doctor, Rees Pritchett, both of whom are expected to testify this week.

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