The Long, Emotional Summer of the Astor Press Corps

“What’s odd is that a trial is a certain amount like a movie set, it becomes your real life. And

“What’s odd is that a trial is a certain amount like a movie set, it becomes your real life. And I think it’s going to be really odd for all of us that it’s over,” Astor chronicler Meryl Gordon said Friday, a day after the verdict was announced in the trial of Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall. “I’ve already heard from some of the other reporters by phone, and we all have to go back to our different lives and it’s going to be strange.”

For the mainstays in the press corps–Ms. Gordon, who is chronicling the case for Vanity Fair, and the reporters for The Times, Post, and Daily News–Courtroom 1536 became a second home, during a summer filled with probate and codicils.

“It’s the most collegial experience as a journalist I’ve ever had,” said Ms. Gordon, whose book Mrs. Astor Regrets became an almanac for others in the press. “Probably because it was a really long trial and everybody knew they were going to need some help at some point and it was sort of informal that we’d help each other. It’s just unusual that people kind of watch each other’s backs in that way. Usually we’re trying to kill each other with competition.”

From the first day, the courtroom gallery had a particular geometry that brought the press together. Charlene Marshall sat on the right side of the courtroom, in the second row (the first was reserved for legal assistants) directly behind her husband, who cocked his seat sideways so he could exchange glances with her. But the reporters wanted to see her too: They mostly sat in a loose cluster on the left side of the courtroom, where they could see the witnesses without missing Mrs. Marshall’s reactions.

In the beginning, things were airy. The notebooks were fresh, the witnesses were famous, and the Post had an “Astor Meter” tracking Anthony Marshall’s every day in court. Even the evidence sparkled. Annette de la Renta looked uncomfortable when a defense attorney dangled her gold necklace in front of the jury. Henry Kissinger came and went with a “charming waddle” and–ever the ladies’ man–the former Secretary of State charmed a female officer with a peck on the cheek on his way out. Mrs. Kissinger came too, testified, was elegant. So did Graydon Carter and Barbara Walters.

“You’re here every day?” Ms. Walters asked the dozen reporters crowded around her, after a cameo on the witness stand. “Now, do you sit in the courtroom? You just sit there for hours and hours?” That was in May.

Soon the sparkle faded–gave way to a thorny, litigious trial–and a slow slog began. Gone were the videos of Ms. Astor; in their place was a rolling cart of her wills. And it took attorney upon attorney to explain the complex maneuvering of probate law. Ms. Astor’s longtime estate lawyer testified for a full week. The lawyers on the stand had lawyers in the stands, making the daily dispatches much less glamorous, and also less fun. The peripheral press–the Transom included–slowly disappeared or was re-assigned.
In the dailies, the spreads got smaller. The Astor Meter came and went.
“As the trial wound down, they almost forgot about it,” said Marc Hermann, the dapper photographer for The Daily News who spent many long days in a small photographer stable set up outside the courtroom. His instructions had been to get every witness, and to get a shot of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall every day.

Over time, the close quarters meant the press got to know the Marshalls too. It was hard not to, as Frances Kiernan wrote in New York magazine. She ran into Mrs. Marshall in the bathroom. (In the men’s room, there was a quiet, awkward neutrality. Mr. Marshall might find himself next to Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann–who called Mr. Marshall “morally depraved” in his closing statement.)

The awkwardness was not limited to the restroom. John Eligon, the Times reporter assigned to the case, described Mrs. Marshall’s affinity for his dreadlocks in a piece on his Astor obsession this weekend.

Weeks [after she complimented them], she unexpectedly ran her fingers through my hair in the hall in a moment of supreme awkwardness I could answer only with a bashful smile,” Eligon wrote.

Mr. Hermann felt less awkward.

“For all the bad things that are said about Tony and Charlene, these are said by people who haven’t had the chance to get to know them,” he said. “The jury unfortunately, sees just two people sititng there and mountains of evidence against them. But if you don’t get to know them as people, you’re missing a great deal of what they’re about.”

“Once when I talked to Tony about his World War II experiences, I didn’t feel like I was speaking to the heir to one of the wealthiest people in New York. I felt like I was just talking to a guy who might be sitting on a bar stool at a VFW post somewhere,” said Mr. Hermann, a history buff who participates in World War II re-enactments as a Signal Corps photographer. He said Mrs. Marshall chimed in when her husband–a former U.S. Marine and C.I.A. intelligence officer and ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, among other places–couldn’t remember the base where he did basic training.

Mr. Eligon, on the other hand, couldn’t quite get past Mr. Marshall’s quasi-British accent.

But after months spent together, how was a reporter to feel when a verdict finally came down?

“It’s hard not to feel sad for Tony and Charlene and Morrissey. You’ve spent all these months in the courtroom together, you’ve seen them, you’ve chatted with them,” said Ms. Gordon, who added that she was somewhat surprised the verdict was so overwhelming. “I just didn’t think it would feel so emotional, oddly enough. I didn’t think that–I don’t know what I thought–but you know I’ve been watching this and talking to this cast of characters of three and a half years and so it’s a pretty powerful thing.”

Mr. Hermann said he was surprised too, and that for all the regulars, the closure has yet to come. “I think that because of that we’re there and we’ve spoken to them and seen them everyday, I think we have the same feeling that they might have, of it not being over yet. Perhaps for the people who just came down for the 9 to 5 aspects of the trial, it’s over. But because we’ve become so invested in every aspect of this case, there’s still a lot to play out.”

The Long, Emotional Summer of the Astor Press Corps