“Good Lord, what’s happened to the picture?” wondered Lord William Waldorf Astor when he saw the empty wall space in Brooke Astor’s red-lacquered library, where her cherished Childe Hassam painting had hung.
For decades, the two Astors had visited each other across the Atlantic—two sides of the same vast fortune—and Mr. Astor had often listened to his American cousin-in-law speak glowingly of the picture that hung above her fireplace.
“I was amazed,” Mr. Astor testified on Wednesday afternoon, April 29. “She said Tony had sold it because she needed the money, which was a somewhat surprising remark for her to make.”
He was referring to Anthony Marshall, the late philanthropist and socialite Ms. Astor’s only son, who stands accused of stealing from his mother’s $200 million fortune.
Pressed by Fred Hafetz, Mr. Marshall’s attorney, Mr. Astor admitted he did not remember the exact conversation, but insisted Ms. Astor told him that Mr. Marshall “wished for the painting to be sold.”
The painting presided over Ms. Astor’s library, and, having appeared twice on a giant projection screen during the first full-day of testimony, it may be a fixture on the courtroom’s wall throughout the state’s case. Prosecutors have charged that Mr. Marshall, 84, took an undue $2 million commission on the $10 million sale of the painting, a move the state claims was part of a larger raid on his mother’s assets.
Mr. Astor told the jury that “Cousin Brooke” also worried, at her son’s insistence, about the cost of traveling to London, and particularly, the expense of staying in the lavish Connaught Hotel. She fretted so frequently that Mr. Astor inquired, through a friend at Citibank, into the state of her finances, and was ultimately reassured as to her financial stability.
Mr. Hafetz questioned whether her son’s concern had simply become something of a “signature line” for Ms. Astor in her later years. And, upon cross-examination, Mr. Astor admitted that, for all her expressed concern about money, Ms. Astor still traveled by private jet, and maintained three staffed homes.
Mr. Astor also testified that Ms. Astor “didn’t particularly get on” with Mr. Marshall’s wife, Charlene Marshall, and seemed “slightly intimidated” by her. In discussing whether to leave Ms. Marshall some of her jewelry, Mr. Astor remembered Ms. Astor saying, “I find it difficult because she’s envious of what I’ve got.”
According to Mr. Astor, the tension was evident on Ms. Astor’s 100th birthday. “I’m so glad you’re here because I want you to take me. I don’t want to go with Tony and Charlene,” he recounted her saying. “She said, ‘You’re coming in the car with me, just the two of us.’”
Ms. Astor was concerned about her inability to recognize and remember guests, he testified, so he coached her to simply smile, shake hands and thank her guests for coming, he testified. Upon arriving, she employed his advice on a burly security guard, and Mr. Astor had to steer her back toward David Rockefeller, one of her close friends and the party’s host, he said.
After her birthday, “she became much more frail physically and mentally,” Mr. Astor testified. He recalled having tea with his daughter and Ms. Astor later that year. “I had forgotten how young your wife was,” Ms. Astor told him.
In a black suit with a red and blue tie, and with the enchanting title of an English peer (along with an accent that befuddled the court reporters), Mr. Astor brought an air of European distinction to a trial that is expected to feature the upper crust of American society. Luminaries including Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters are expected to testify. The Daily Transom spotted Manhattan power publicist Peggy Siegel in the courtroom on Wednesday, sitting in the fourth row.
Mr. Astor began by giving a brief, trans-Atlantic history of the Astor family fortune. The original John Jacob Astor had immigrated from Germany to the United States, where he built a fur trapping empire, and then invested in New York City real estate. Mr. Astor died in 1848 with more than $20 million dollars. (In 2006, Forbes estimated Mr. Astor’s fortune would be equivalent to $110.1 billion dollars today.)
The trial witness Mr. Astor is the fourth William Waldorf Astor (think Waldorf-Astoria), the first of whom took his share of the family fortune to England in the late 19th century. Mr. Astor, who sits in the British Parliament, remembered visiting Ms. Astor’s husband, Vincent Astor, as a child. Though the two had been married only briefly, the British Astor seemed to relish Ms. Astor’s assumption of the Astor mantle. “She was very friendly and very focused on being a member of the family,” he testified. “It was something that gave her and us great pleasure.”