‘Impish’ Brooke Astor Seemed Out of It at Lunches, Betsy Gotbaum Testifies

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum testified on Tuesday afternoon, May 5, that her longtime friend, the late philanthropist Brooke Astor, was “wonderful,” “absolutely charming,” “very flirtatious”–and, something of an imp.

Ms. Gotbaum first met Ms. Astor at a dinner the wealthy society maven hosted for Ronald Reagan in the mid-1970s. Pairing Mr. Gotbaum, an outspoken Democrat, with the soon-to-be Republican president, well, “that’s a pretty impish thing to do,” she told jurors.

Ms. Gotbaum was the latest witness to testify in the high profile case against Ms. Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, who stands accused of stealing from his mother’s $200 million fortune.

Jurors have so far heard from Ms. Astor’s ear doctor, caterer and cousin, a British Lord, among others.

On Monday, May 4, Philippe de Montebello, former head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, testified that Ms. Astor had promised to give the museum a painting by Childe Hassam, which Mr. Marshall wound up selling instead for $10 million. (Prosecutors have charged that Mr. Marshall had tricked his mother into selling the painting, pocketing a $2 million commission in the process.)

Prosecutors are trying to convince jurors that Ms. Astor, who died in 2007 at the age of 105, was of unsound mind when she signed over some $60 million to her son, Mr. Marshall.

Ms. Gotbaum described an incident in November 2002 after lunch at the Knickerbocker Club when Ms. Astor strangely walked toward Madison Avenue, instead of heading toward her waiting driver. “She had not done that before,” Ms. Gotbaum told the jury.

When the two met at the Four Seasons in April 2003, Ms. Gotbaum said she noticed an even further decline in Ms. Astor’s faculties. “What I recall the most was that Brooke was decidedly not as connected to us and the conversation as she had been at the lunch [the prior] November,” she said.  

Ms. Astor did not say anything relevant to the conversation, and was looking around the room. Asked who made most of the conversation, Ms. Gotbaum replied: “I did, because I was nervous.”

“Did Mrs. Astor appear to be rational during this lunch?” prosecutor Elizabeth Loewy asked.

“No,” Mrs. Gotbaum replied.

Defense attorney Fred Hafetz questioned whether Mrs. Astor may have been disengaged as a result of her poor hearing. The private Knickerbocker Club may have allowed her to hear and understand better than the public Four Seasons, he said. Ms. Gotbaum conceded that the restaurant was busy, but stated that she believed Mrs. Astor was close enough to hear the conversation.

Ms. Gotbaum said she was so concerned by the incident that she discussed Ms. Astor’s deteriorating condition with the doyenne’s close friend, Annette de la Renta, though she stated she could not testify as to the exact details of that conversation.

Ms. Gotbaum indicated the April luncheon was the last time she was Ms. Astor.

‘Impish’ Brooke Astor Seemed Out of It at Lunches, Betsy Gotbaum Testifies