Remembering New York's Grand Dame

Many a famous old family has been torn apart over money ... and that certainly goes for one of America's most enduring dynasties. Erin Moriarty of 48 Hours has the tangled story of the Astors:

Until she died last year at the remarkable age of 105, Brooke Astor gave "money" a good name.

As head of the Vincent Astor Foundation, the legendary philanthropist gave away millions to revitalize New York: transforming institutions like the Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Bronx Zoo into city jewels.

"It was like every single human being in New York felt she was their friend, and had stories," said writer Meryl Gordon.

"She always looked so happy. Every single picture she looks, you know, she's got her hats on and her pearls and her jewels. She just looks like New York's fairy godmother."

But in a new book, "Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach" (Houghton Mifflin), Gordon says that Brooke Astor's charmed life became terribly sad in her later years:

"She was so lonely because, you know, when you get to be that old, nobody's visiting anymore."

Even more tragic, says Gordon, is that Brooke Astor - suffering from Alzheimer's - may have been swindled out of her immense fortune by her only son, Tony Marshall.

Early next year, Marshall goes on trial, along with his attorney, accused of coercing his mother into changing her will.

"She signed away $60 million that was going to go to charity, directly to Tony," said Gordon.

On that day, Gordon says Mrs. Astor's nurses (who kept detailed notes) described a terrible scene.

"One of them wrote that she was having trouble walking down the hall, and that Tony and his lawyer didn't quite know how to walk with her, so they kind of dragged her down the hall," Gordon said. "And she's banging her cane, saying that she didn't want to do this."

This portrait of a frail, frightened woman stands in sharp contrast to the public Brooke Astor who ruled New York society well into her nineties.

"Brooke was one of those characters that when she came to the room, everybody noticed her," said Lord William Astor, Brooke Astor's cousin by marriage, speaking from London.

"Everybody took instant interest in her, not because of who she was, but what she brought when she came in," he said. "And she was fun. She had a very good sense of humor. She had a twinkle."

Because the name Astor seemed custom-fit for Brooke, it is surprising to learn that she was actually born Roberta Brooke Russell, the daughter of the comfortable, but far from rich Marine officer John Russell. Brooke lived with her family in China, Haiti and Europe.

At age 17, she got her first taste of real wealth when she married Dryden Kuser. They had one child, Tony, but as she told Mike Wallace 68 years later, the marriage was a disaster:

Wallace: "He drank?"

Brooke Astor: "Drank. I didn't know it then."

Wallace: "Was unfaithful?"

"Astor: "Yes."

Wallace: "Physically cruel to you?"

Astor: "Cruel to me, yes, he was."

Brooke had much better luck with her second marriage to Charles "Buddy" Marshall.

"Nancy Reagan said that Buddy Marshall was just the love of her life,' Gordon said, "that she was unbelievably happy."

But at age 50, Brooke was widowed and left without money. So she married a man who had plenty: Vincent Astor, the great-great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, America's first multi-millionaire.

Brooke Astor: "He was really very funny, and I really had a lot of fun with him. But we went nowhere. We never went out at all when I was married to him."

Mike Wallace: "Apparently, he was jealous of you, jealous of Tony, jealous of your friends."

Astor: "Yes. Yes. Yes."

Wallace: "Jealous even of telephone conversations."

Astor: "Yes. Yes, he was. But, you know, we played back - I mean -- and I took a music lesson every day. I played the piano, and I had a sort of a nightclub voice and I'd sing to him."

It was after Vincent's death, when she inherited his foundation, that Brooke Astor truly began to live up to the family name.

"It took over her life," said William Astor. "It was her whole life, managing the foundation. And she took on extraordinary projects."

"Why do you think she chose to do that?" Moriarty asked.

"Well, I think she saw it as Vincent's legacy," William said. "And she saw it as, kind of, carrying on a family tradition. A tradition I have to say, that she really took much further than perhaps my original ancestors ever had."

Carrying on the family tradition also meant living well. There was a massive country estate in Briarcliff, New York; a 14-room apartment on Park Avenue; and a summer home in the village of Northeast Harbor, Maine.

"She had four or five gardeners," said Alicia Johnson, "and in the house, she had her cook, her upstairs maid, downstairs maid, butler, chauffeur …"

She also had Johnson as her chief housekeeper in Maine.

"She was 90 years young. Never 90 years old," Johnson said. "She was hiking, I couldn't keep up with her! She was just full of energy."

And that same energy made her the life of every party she attended. She was always surrounded by boldfaced names … especially men.

"She was always looking for the next eligible man who she could flirt with," said newspaper columnist Liz Smith, a close friend.

"Even in her 90s?" Moriarty asked.

"Even in her 90s!" Smith said. "One of her great things, she would always say to me, 'Liz, is that man married?' And it would always be someone famous, like Peter Jennings or Charlie Rose. And she would always just be crestfallen when I'd say, 'Well, of course.'"

But the one man who didn't seem to play much of a part in Brooke Astor's life was her son, Tony.

"I don't remember her ever saying a word to me about him," Smith said.

"Isn't that a little strange?" Moriarty asked.

"Well, he wasn't the focus of her life," Smith said.

If there were problems between mother and son, they may stem from the early 1990s That's when Tony left his marriage for another woman: Charlene Gilbert, the wife of the minister, no less, who ran the congregation at Brooke's own church in Maine.

"She came here to the library and she sat down and she said that she was humiliated, that she felt deeply hurt, deeply hurt," said Bob Pyle, the director of the Northeast Harbor Library.

"I was taken aback by that, and by the fact that she, to some degree, for a little while, kind of crawled into a shell."

Brooke Astor never warmed to Charlene, and she closed up the Astor Foundation rather than leave it to her son and his wife.

"She particularly did not like Charlene, and took out a lot of rage towards Charlene," said Gordon. "She was not kind to Charlene in public, and she also structured her will in such a way that it would cut out Charlene dramatically had Tony died before his mother did."

So how to explain Brooke Astor's signature - signed when she was nearly 102 - on documents that changed that will?

(AP)
Tony Marshall (left) - who declined to be interviewed - says his mother simply had a change of heart, and wanted to take care of the couple.

But her cousin Lord Astor says that never would have happened.

"Brooke throughout her life always made it clear to me that the foundation would be spent in New York," William Astor said. "And on her death, whatever she had would go back to institutions in New York."

"But do you think she might have changed her mind in her very last years?" Moriarty asked.

"I think that most unlikely," he said.

A New York jury will decide whether Brooke Astor was victimized financially in the last years of her life.

She would have hated this kind of publicity, but it is not likely to diminish her legacy.

On her gravestone, she sums it up best: "I had a wonderful life."

"I think people should remember her as a New York grand dame," William Astor said, "who used her position to benefit New York City, the people in it. She was loved and respected by a huge variety of people in New York. And that's how she should be remembered."