NEW YORK – A story of wealth, family and the indignities of aging, culminated Friday with an 89-year-old heir to one of America’s first mega-fortunes being taken to prison in a wheelchair.
Almost seven years after a family feud over the treatment of philanthropist Brooke Astor erupted into public view, her son, Anthony Marshall, started serving a one-to-three-year prison term for his conviction on charges of taking advantage of his aged mother’s slipping mind to loot her millions.
Marshall’s incarceration, which appeals had delayed for more than 3 1/2 years, was a subdued but climactic chapter in the saga of a society doyenne eroded by Alzheimer’s disease, the privileged scion who earned a Purple Heart but not always his mother’s approval, the wife he worried about providing for, and the grandsons who testified against their own father. As Marshall sat, looking quietly downward, in his wheelchair in sweatpants and slippers, the judge who sent him to prison said he did so unhappily.
“I take no pleasure in following my duties,” said Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Justice A. Kirke Bartley, who had sentenced Marshall to the minimum for his conviction.
Marshall declined to speak during the brief proceeding, which came after he lost a series of bids to get a new trial or to get his prison term nixed because of his failing health. But one of the sons who had taken the witness stand against him pleaded in a letter to the court that Marshall be spared prison, pointing to his military service and saying the trial and aftermath were punishment enough.
“I am very concerned about his future,” son Alec Marshall said in a section Bartley read aloud. “... My father once said, about the events that happened before the case, that ‘you can’t change the past.”’
But Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said Marshall’s imprisonment represented long-awaited justice for Astor and a clarion call about the financial exploitation that can befall older people.
“I believe that the legacy of this prosecution will be that it raised public awareness of the silent epidemic of elder abuse,” Vance said in a statement.
The case cast the subject in the rarefied setting of Manhattan’s Park Avenue, featuring such Astor friends as Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters as witnesses.
Astor was a fashionable fixture of New York society before she died in 2007 at 105, and her charitable largesse was recognized in 1998 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s top civilian honor. She had inherited the money from her third husband, Vincent Astor, a descendant of real estate and fur baron John Jacob Astor, one of the nation’s first multimillionaires.
Marshall, who was wounded while leading a Marine platoon in the battle of Iwo Jima, later became a U.S. ambassador and Broadway producer. He was Astor’s son from her first marriage, and the trial portrayed a fraught relationship between son and mother. She once told a friend, “I wish Tony had made something of himself instead of waiting for the money.”
Their affairs spilled into court in 2006, when Marshall’s son Philip accused his father in a civil case of letting Astor live in squalor while helping himself to her fortune. Anthony Marshall denied the claims but agreed to step aside as his mother’s guardian.
Those allegations were never substantiated and weren’t part of the criminal case. But prosecutors said Marshall exploited his mother’s dementia to buy himself a $920,000 yacht and other pricey gifts with her money, take valuable artwork off her walls and engineer changes to her will that benefited him – all of it largely to win the favor of a wife she disliked.
Marshall’s lawyers said Astor knowingly changed her will to benefit her only child and that he had legal authority for gifts he gave himself from her money.
Marshall and Francis Morrissey Jr., a former estates lawyer accused of forging Astor’s signature on a change to her will, were convicted in 2009. They remained free on bail during appeals until this week; Morrissey, 72, was sent to prison Thursday.
Charlene Marshall, the wife prosecutors portrayed during the trial as a greedy social climber, sobbed as she accompanied her husband to court Friday. “My heart has been ripped out of my body,” she said as she left.
Defense lawyers plan to continue pressing appeals based on a juror’s newly sworn statement she felt threatened into a conviction by a fellow juror’s hostile gestures and curses. While the assertions were aired in the unsuccessful appeals so far, the defense lawyers argue reconsideration is warranted.
Marshall’s lawyers also say prison could kill him. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease, depends on a wheelchair, needs oxygen from a tank at night and can’t get out of bed, go to the bathroom or dress himself without help, his doctor has said.
“Incarceration will simply make his final days more tortured and undoubtedly fewer in number. There is truly no just purpose for this punishment,” attorneys Kenneth Warner and John Cuti said in a statement Friday.
Marshall, who turned 89 last month, will be the fourth oldest inmate in New York state prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The oldest, John Bunz, is 93 1/2. He pleaded guilty to killing his wife and was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison in 2010.