Perplexed Brooke Astor Confused Son With Husband, Secretary Testifies

In 2002, when Brooke Astor was being fitted for the Oscar de la Renta gown she would wear to her 100th birthday

In 2002, when Brooke Astor was being fitted for the Oscar de la Renta gown she would wear to her 100th birthday party, the grande dame of Manhattan high society was saying strange things about her son, Anthony Marshall.

“She kept referring to Mr. Marshall as her husband,” Naomi Dunn Packard-Koot, Ms. Astor’s social secretary at the time, testified in Manhattan Supreme Court on Wednesday, May 13.

Ms. Astor’s mental state is a central focus of the prosecutors’ case against her son, Mr. Marshall, who stands accused of taking advantage of his frail mother’s Alzheimer’s for his own financial gain. The late philanthropist, who died in 2007 at the age of 105, had changed her will three years earlier to provide some $60 million previously earmarked for charity to her only son, Mr. Marshall, and his wife, Charlene Marshall.

The prosecution has portrayed Mr. Marshall as misleading his mother about her finances, and Ms. Packard-Koot testified that she was asked to make arrangements for Ms. Astor to return dresses to Bergdorf-Goodman and at least one boutique in Palm Beach, Fla., where Ms. Astor often rented a home.

Ms. Packard-Koot also recounted a conversation that followed the sale of Ms. Astor’s beloved Childe Hassam painting. Standing in the library of Brooke Astor’s apartment at 778 Park Avenue, where the painting had hung for decades, Mr. Marshall explained to Ms. Astor that it was sold so she could buy dresses, the secretary testified.

“Yes, he sold it so I can buy dresses,” Ms. Astor echoed, in a conversation that was “upbeat,” according to Ms. Packard-Koot’s testimony.

Ms. Packard-Koot told the jury that Mr. Marshall and his wife had earlier photographed works of art at the apartment, along with one of Ms. Marshall’s daughters, while Ms. Astor was away at her home in Westchester.

Earlier in the day, testimony had focused on the works of art that Ms. Astor gave away, as defense attorney Fred Hafetz grilled James C. Y. Watt, curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, about the Met’s stake in the case.

“The Met stands to gain if Mrs. Astor is found incompetent at the time she made will changes at the end of 2003 and early 2004?” Mr. Hafetz asked.

“I wouldn’t put it that way …” Mr. Watt began to reply.

“My question is: ‘Do you know?’” Mr. Hafetz pressed.

“I don’t know.  I have no idea why I’m here,” Mr. Watt replied.

In the courtroom, a woman who later identified herself as Mr. Watt’s wife, sat anxiously erect, smiling or cringing with each question and answer. When Mr. Watt was excused from the stand, she exchanged a relieved smile with the Met’s attorney.

Ms. Marshall kept her own emotions restrained as the judge heard arguments about whether to allow testimony that included Ms. Marshall calling Ms. Astor a “c-blank-blank-t“ in the background of a phone conversation between Ms. Packard-Koot and Mr. Marshall.

The day before, Ms. Marshall had visibly reacted when Judge A. Kirke Bartley, Jr. decided not to allow testimony that would have included Ms. Marshall saying her mother-in-law was “fucking killing him.” That conversation had earned Ms. Marshall the morning cover of the Daily News under the headline “CHARLENE THE MEAN.”

Judge Bartley may have been alluding to that cover in his afternoon admonition to the jury, when he reiterated that they are to avoid the press coverage of the case. “I’m not telling you if you see a newsstand you have to go across the street,” the judge said. “You’re the best arbiter of how to do this.”

Perplexed Brooke Astor Confused Son With Husband, Secretary Testifies