Brooke Astor lived the kind of life that many people dream of. She had multiple homes, cars with drivers, and servants who catered to her every need. Brooke, however, made one mistake that would lead her to a life of squalor, fear, and danger. What was her mistake? She neglected to give her only son "enough" attention. When this spurned child reached adulthood, nothing could stop him from wreaking his brutal revenge.
Brooke Astor was actually born Roberta Brooke Russell on March 30, 1902 in New Hampshire. Her father was the 16th commandant of the Marine Corps and that meant moving around—a lot. Bobby, as they called her, had residences in quite a variety of places including Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and China. All this moving around kept Brooke on the lookout for some much needed stability in her life.
When she met her first husband, she thought she’d found it—boy was she wrong.
At the tender age of 17, Brooke got married. The groom was John Dryden Kuser, who was the son of a very wealthy family. Unfortunately, Kuser did not bring with him a wealth of kindness. Kuser had a reputation for his drinking, womanizing, and physical harm against Brooke—he also played daily $2,000 games of golf.
Brooke later called her first marriage some of the worst years of her life. There was, however, a silver lining.
After being in this difficult marriage for five years, Brooke, now 22, received the news that she was pregnant. But this came with a dark side. The pregnancy did nothing to improve her marriage, and Kuser—reportedly convinced the child wasn't his—broke Brooke’s jaw six months into her pregnancy.
However, Brooke still clung onto her unborn child as something to live for, and in May of 1924, she gave birth to a son, Tony Dryden Kuser. While this may sound like a ray of hope, we’ll soon see that this child would be nothing but a world of trouble for poor Brooke Astor.
By 1930—11 years into her horrible marriage—Brooke filed for, and received, a divorce from Kuser. She then gave herself a reward for surviving: a lover. This was the over-the-top handsome British film, TV, and radio star Brian Aherne. Brooke must have been on top of the world to be canoodling with a man who would go on to play King Arthur—not once but twice. This was definitely fun for Brooke, but was he marriage material?
Dating a handsome actor had its benefits, but Brooke had much different plans for herself in mind. For marriage, she chose to go with someone with actual money: Charles Henry Marshall, a senior partner in an investment firm. Brooke said that it wasn’t just about the cash, though, and that she truly loved Marshall. There was, however, one problem.
Marshall was not overly fond of her son Tony. Marshall had children of his own that kept him busy, and they seemed to take a lot of Brooke’s time as well. Sadly, Tony began to feel neglected by both his mother and stepfather. Even though Tony was still a child, he would remember this rejection for the rest of his life.
Brooke’s son Tony was getting harder and harder to handle. His grades were poor and he was openly hostile to authority figures—especially his mother. Even though Brooke's new husband refused to adopt him, Tony took his name anyway. He was now Tony Marshall and, in search of some attention, he signed up to fight in WWII.
Brooke seemed to finally be proud of him, but for a startling reason: He got shot in the leg while he was fighting at Iwo Jima. Tony finally had his mother’s attention, but fate was about to rip them apart again.
In 1952, Brooke’s husband suddenly passed. Not only was Brooke now lacking the love of her life, she was also lacking something else: an income. Sure, she’d contributed to Vogue magazine and been the features editor at House & Garden—salaries that would have satisfied an average person. But Brooke was used to the high life. No one could expect her to earn the kind of money it took to keep her happy.
A "real" job was out of the question, So Brooke developed a new plan.
Instead of working, Brooke knew she needed to find another man. She found one in the strangest place. American socialite Minnie Cushing was desperately wanting a divorce from her husband, William Vincent Astor, but there was a bizarre caveat: He wouldn’t divorce her unless she found him a new wife. Cushing almost immediately thought of Brooke.
Of course, Vincent Astor reputedly had a bad temper, a problem with drink, and was basically psychotic. Sounds like a real charmer!
Brooke didn’t quite know what to make of Astor, but others thought they’d be a perfect match. Some careful schemers managed to get the two sitting opposite each other at a dinner party and sparks flew—at least they flew for Astor. One thing that Astor had to his credit was oodles of money; his father had not survived the Titanic’s first and only crossing and left his fortune to his son.
But was money all Brooke was looking for? Before she could marry him, she needed to know more.
At this fateful dinner party, Astor asked Brooke to accompany him to his pool house at the family’s Ferncliff estate. Brooke saw this as a means to find out more about this very rich—but potentially horrible—husband. But even this came with a high cost. She only had one thing on her calendar stopping her from going to Ferncliff: her son's birthday party.
Of course, Tony was only turning 35, so she could skip it guilt-free. This was just one more insult to her son that would eventually lead them both down a dark path.
Whatever happened between Brooke and Astor at the pool house remains a mystery. What we do know is that a few days later, Brooke had a proposal on her hands. After receiving a few rather convincing love letters, Brooke agreed to the match. But what about all his bad points?
Brooke had had experience with a difficult husband, and now she was older and wiser. She used her charm, sense of humor, and a ton of patience to deal with her new husband’s vices. There was one problem she couldn’t fix, however, and maybe you can guess what—or who—that problem was.
Like Brooke’s previous husband, Astor wanted little to do with Brooke’s son Tony Marshall. In fact, he wouldn’t let Tony take the Astor name. By this time, Tony was an adult and had children of his own. Ironically, Astor really liked Tony's twin boys—born in 1953—and saw them as the children he never had. Poor Tony, he just couldn’t get a break.
Well, all this heartache was becoming a powder keg. One that would soon explode.
By 1959, Vincent Astor had passed and once again Brooke was a widow. Fortunately for her, this time she wasn’t broke—far from it. Vincent Astor’s passing left Brooke a very rich woman. The Vincent Astor Trust had a value of $60 million. She got that, but there was more.
There was also the Vincent Astor Foundation—also valued at $60 million—at her disposal. Of course, the foundation money was for various charitable endeavors, and Brooke was excited to get involved in any way she could. It did not go as planned.
Not everyone actually wanted Brooke to be involved in the fund. Both the Astor Trust and the Astor Foundation had people who took care of them. Astor had been pretty hands-off in recent years—but Brooke Astor wanted to be hands-on. When she made her desire known, one of the many men running things told her to take a trip around the world. In other words, to get lost.
However, Brooke wouldn't give up. She wanted in and she needed help getting there.
Brooke turned to her director, Linda Gillies, and together the two women worked on taking the power away from the men who were running the show of the Astor gold mine. With not just a little hard work, Brooke soon became a star in the New York world of philanthropy. Once more, however, this was a double-edged sword.
In reality, Brooke was in over her head with the many charities she had to deal with. She was busy and, once again, she neglected her son Tony. She was one step closer to her dark fate.
Getting a hold of the Vincent Astor Foundation was one thing, next she had to make sure the Vincent Astor Trust remained hers. When Astor passed, Brooke assumed that money was simply hers—as that was her late husband’s wish. There were, however, a few unhappy relatives who thought they deserved something from the estate. Brooke was in for a huge fight just to keep what was hers.
The first to take up fighting Brooke’s fortune was Vincent Astor’s half-brother, Jack, who was born after the tragic sinking of the Titanic that had ended their patriarch’s life. According to Jack, he had just as much a right to the money as Brooke. The socialite knew what she had to do. In response, Brooke put on her best black outfit and cried in front of the court. Her performance convinced them that, for the most part, the money was all hers. And she wasn't done yet.
After Jack’s failed attempt to take half of Astor’s money from Brooke, there was Astor’s sister to deal with. Alice Obolensky Von Hofmannsthal Harding Pleydell-Bouverie was not poor in the name department, but she certainly felt so when it came to her inheritance. Astor had left her out of his will because of one glaring issue: He believed she wasn’t truly his sister.
Astor was almost one hundred percent sure that Alice was only his half-sister, and that her father was a Cuban polo player who her mother saw on the side. This rumor helped dispatch Alice easily as well.
Brooke’s financial problems were far behind her, and she finally had time to focus on her son Tony. Brooke used her influence and wealth to get him interviews at both the Bronx Zoo and Metropolitan Museum. These organizations responded like Brooke’s previous husbands: They wanted nothing to do with Tony. So she made a dubious decision.
Brooke’s only option was to hire him herself. His job was taking control of her portfolio, which paid massive amounts per year. Tony was now getting involved in Brooke’s finances—and it was all part of his evil plan for revenge.
Tony had been burning through spouses like his mother, and soon he was looking for a third wife. Well, when you’re the son of someone as wealthy as Brooke, brides usually miraculously turn up on their own. His third wife ended up being Charlene Detwiler Tyler.
Charlene Tyler made Brooke suspicious on two accounts: She was 21 years younger than Tony, and she was poor...at least compared to the Astors). Only, the scandal didn't stop there.
The truth is, Brooke actually knew Tyler even before her son did. Scandalously, she was the wife of Brooke's priest, Reverend Paul Gilbert. The way Brooke saw it, Tyler was through with her holy husband’s measly salary and wanted to trade up to a life a little more upscale than a church wife. Brooke believed that Charlene married her son for one reason only: his ability to receive a huge inheritance one day.
In 1998, Brooke got a surprising invite. The White House was offering her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her philanthropy. This was great except for one thing: the man in the White House was Bill Clinton, and Brooke couldn’t stand him. She went, of course, but she promised herself she would simply be cordial to the president and no more. Well, that certainly didn’t happen.
It turned out that Brooke only disliked Clinton as a politician—not as a man. When the then-president started openly flirting with her at the ceremony, she couldn't help herself; she flirted right back. There was, however, another disaster waiting for Brooke at this event: her daughter-in-law.
Brooke watched in horror as Charlene pushed her way into photographs she hadn’t been asked to be in and approached celebrities for random conversations. These behaviors were big no-nos in Brooke’s world and caused her a world of embarrassment.
While Brooke’s assessment of Charlene—"she has no style and no neck"—may have been spot on, there were other things that were not quite so. That's because a dark truth was lurking in Brooke's life. It quickly became clear that Brooke was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her son Tony, with his eye on her estate, was keen to make this diagnosis stick. Around Christmas-time 2000, he took Brooke to a specialist in senile dementia to make it official.
Alzheimer’s was certainly taking its toll. One good thing was that Brooke was continuing to take long walks with her dogs. On the negative side, she insisted on continuing to drive. A clear sign that Brooke shouldn’t have been behind the wheel was when one of her dogs did something outrageous: it refused to get into the car with her. Even the animal knew that Brooke’s Mercedes-Benz was not a safe place to be.
Brooke’s mental health was quickly deteriorating, and this was Tony's cue to finally start his evil plan.
Tony was already Brooke’s power of attorney, but he shared the role with Henry Christensen III from the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. Tony went to Christensen with a valid concern: What if his mother outlived him? Tony, after all, had a pacemaker and had already had several heart attacks. He wanted to make sure his wife would get something from the Astor estate if he was gone.
Christensen wasn’t having any of this and instead of getting money for his wife, Tony walked away with a 2% raise. However, Tony had a plan B to get more of his mother's money.
Tony didn’t like having to go to Brooke’s other power of attorney when he wanted a cash bump, so sometimes he went straight to Brooke. Brooke had a favorite painting that hung in her library: Childe Hassam’s Flags, Fifth Avenue. This work of art was worth a ton, and Tony convinced his mother they had to sell it because they were broke.
He sold it for $10 million to a collector and then turned around and pocketed $2 million as a commission—pretty easy money if you ask me. Not only was this ruthless, it wasn’t good business. The dealer then turned around and sold it for $20 million. Tony, however, was just getting started.
Selling his mother’s artwork for his own personal profit wasn't quite enough for Tony. Next, he turned to her real estate. He secretly annexed Brooke’s summer property in Maine and handed it over to his wife Charlene Tyler. Tony of course, said he’d asked his mother’s permission to do this.
When asked, Brooke had no memory of gifting her favorite summer house, called Cove End, to the daughter-in-law she despised. But what Brooke did next made Tony's jaw drop.
Tony had covertly taken Brooke’s favorite property and given it to his wife. He then received a letter from the other power of attorney that stated something shocking: his mother was now offering Cove End as a gift. Two things were possible here: Brooke really was in an Alzheimer-induced fog, or perhaps she was messing with him.
Whatever means they had gotten Cove End didn't matter to Tony or his wife, and they got ready to move in. Getting a free estate, however, wasn’t quite enough. They wanted to redecorate. Sure, the place belonged to them so they could do what they wanted, but I think getting Brooke to pay for the redecoration—done by neighbor Martha Stewart no less—was beyond callous.
Once Tony and Charlene got into the house, things went from bad to worse.
Brooke had retained the same staff at Cove End for many years and had cultivated close relationships with the hired help. When Tony and Charlene moved in, they didn’t say anything to the staff about the change in the ownership of the property. Checks kept coming from Brooke’s bank account, so the staff had no reason to believe that Brooke was no longer their boss.
If the staff assumed it was business as usual, however, they were in for a shock.
Brooke had been a kind boss to the staff at Cove End. In fact, she’d even made arrangements for some of them to receive money or, in one case, even get a greenhouse. Brooke had made one provision, however. Many staff members could only receive their bequeathment if they still worked for her. It didn’t take Tony and his wife long to figure something out: They owed the staff nothing if they no longer were working at Cove End.
The firings began soon after.
It was becoming clear that Tony did not have his mother’s best interests in mind. But what about the other power of attorney, Christensen? Surely he could protect Brooke from her son. But the real story was far more heartbreaking. Sadly, Christensen was also conspiring against Brooke for his own motives.
He arrived one day and got a confused Brooke to sign a document. Later, when she asked her trusted butler Chris Ely what she’d signed, of course he had no idea. When the two called Christensen to ask, he refused to tell them. Brooke was a wreck: what had she agreed to?
Meanwhile, Brooke’s mental health was suffering and her nurses had some concerns. They felt Brooke needed two things for her own safety. A hospital bed because she kept falling out of her own bed, and a gate, because there was a risk she could fall down the stairs. The nurses felt that these were pretty small, inexpensive things to keep their boss safe.
According to the nurses, Tony and his wife said no to both requests. And their reason? It would cheapen the look of the apartment.
Brooke must have known that the end was near, because when guests she cared about visited she often gave them mementos. Of course, this was Brooke Astor, so the little trinkets to remember her by were not casual mementos but worth a good chunk of change. Tony noticed this and saw his future inheritance going out the window. He had to stop Brooke from seeing her friends, but how?
Tony had to stop his mother from slowly giving away his inheritance, and he did it in two merciless ways. First, he put the word out there that Brooke was too frail to receive visitors and would appreciate receiving postcards instead. Then, he fired Brooke’s secretary and replaced her with a friend of his wife's. The new secretary hovered over all of Brooke’s rare guests and made them feel uncomfortable and unwanted. Soon, the guests stopped coming entirely and Brooke was all alone.
Up until this point, most of Tony's underhandedness had to do with money. What he did next showed how deep his resentment of his mother was. Brooke had in her possession boxes of historically significant documents. Included in these documents were personal photographs of Brooke, and also photographs the press had used. All of these documents—70 boxes' worth—Tony tossed in the paper shredder.
Tony was revving up his diabolical plan, and now it was time to take down the mothership.
Tony seemed to grow restless with trying to get bits and pieces of his mother’s estate. He soon decided it was time to get it all. He hired Francis X Morrissey, an estate lawyer known to be "creative" when helping his clients. The two men aggressively attempted to change Brooke’s will. The beneficiaries would be only two people: Tony and his wife. Of course, Morrissey would get his share as well.
It was a frail woman with Alzheimer’s against two powerful men. Who could she turn to for help?
Brooke’s knight in shining armor came from a surprising place: it was Tony's own son. Remember, Tony had twins from his first marriage. One of them, Phillip C Marshall, noticed what his father was doing. He started a lawsuit to have his father replaced as power of attorney. When this happened the media finally took notice: this was a big story. The details were about to bring down the Astor name.
In addition to Tony's corrupt manner in dealing with Brooke’s finances, there was also another charge: elder abuse. He had strictly limited the number of visits from doctors, and he’d even put a cap on her medications—ones that she desperately needed. Worse still, under his supervision, his mother lived in squalor.
During the lawsuit, several shocking claims came out. Under Tony's care, Brooke was reportedly in a "vegetative state" and just a bed-ridden, check-signing machine for Tony and his wife. He also allegedly convinced her that she was poor. Brooke was often counting single dollar bills that she thought she desperately needed. But that wasn’t all; Tony seemed bent on making his mother’s life as miserable as possible.
Throughout her ordeal, Brooke had one constant: her butler Chris Ely. Ely was more than a butler, however. He was a companion who made her laugh and calmed her nerves by taking her for drives. Of course, then, Tony mercilessly fired Ely, depriving her mother of her one companion. Once Ely was gone, things spiraled for Brooke.
Brooke had always taken great care of her appearance. Her son and daughter-in-law, however, severely restricted money spent on cosmetics. Tony and Charlene had a rule when it came to beauty purchases: "nothing but Vaseline and Nivea," and even then Brooke's nurses often paid for any beauty supplies.
With Ely gone, all Brooke had left were her precious dachshunds, Girlsie and Boysie. Tony, however, was not through tormenting his mother yet.
Tony wanted to save even more money, so he fired the dog-walkers Brooke had for Boysie and Girlsie. Instead of walks in the park, the dogs lived in the pantry and, if they needed to do their business, they did it in the dining room. Servants eventually had to remove the soiled carpets only to have the wood floors warp because of the dogs’ urine.
Brooke could also only see the dogs rarely, as their paws threatened to scratch her frail skin. Brook was in a miserable state: no friends, no dogs, and no butler. Tony was giddily getting his sweet revenge.
In all this, Brooke’s former butler, Chris Ely, attempted to stay in touch with his ex-employer. Ely would talk regularly with Brooke’s nurses, who informed Brooke of his communication. One time, Brooke was having difficulty remembering Ely. She asked to see a photograph of him in order to refresh her memory.
The nurses located a picture of Ely and showed it to her. Brooke’s response was beyond eerie.
The nurses gave Brooke the photograph of her former butler—and friend—and Brooke stroked the picture, obviously missing her companion. This man who had been with her for decades and helped her through tough times. After looking at the picture for a long time, Brooke looked up at one of the nurses and asked: "Did they kill him?"
Even in an addled state, Brooke seemed quite aware of what her son was capable of.
Tony had given Brooke’s caregivers strict instructions not to call for an ambulance or take Brooke to an emergency room unless they had his permission first. But when Brooke got ill in July 2006, Tony and his wife were out of town. The nurses went against their orders and brought Brooke to the hospital.
Sadly, being under the care at a hospital—and away from her squalid surroundings—was actually a great improvement for Brooke.
Around this same time, there was a breakthrough in the lawsuit. The court took the guardianship of Brooke away from her son Tony and handed it over to Annette de la Renta, Brooke’s close friend. De la Renta quickly hired Ely back, and the butler set out to prepare one of Brooke’s houses for her return from the hospital.
More importantly, the court indicted both Tony and his lawyer, Morrissey. Could Brooke actually have a chance to beat her enemies?
In July 2006, Brooke left the hospital and moved to Holly Hill, the house Ely had prepared for her. It was at Holly Hill and other estates where Brooke spent her final days. She was in a safe home and with her constant companion, Ely. She eventually passed just over a year after returning.
It was August 13, 2007 and she was 105 years old. But what about her son? What was his fate?
Although Brooke didn’t get to see it, there was a trial for her son. The court convicted Tony of grand larceny and his lawyer Morrissey of forgery, among other charges. They both received sentences. Tony did go behind bars, but he only lasted eight weeks. His poor health—he had congestive heart failure and Parkinson’s disease—got him early parole. He passed on November 30, 2014.
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