Brooke Astor: Blue-Blood Battle Royale

For many years, Brooke Astor was New York City's seemingly ageless Lady Bountiful. "Money is like manure," she liked to say in her disarming way. "It should be spread around." She gave away nearly $200 million, inherited from her late husband, Vincent Astor, to libraries, museums and charities large and small. She was always fun—she liked jewels and parties and flirting—but also very much the grande dame. Once approached by a would-be mugger, she is said to have rattled him by saying, "Excuse me, we have not been introduced properly. I'm Mrs. Astor."

So it was sad to read last week that Mrs. Astor, who at the age of 104 is bedridden with various maladies, had become the object of a most undignified family squabble. Under the headline BATTLE OF N.Y. BLUE BLOODS!, the New York Daily News reported that Mrs. Astor's grandson Philip Marshall has gone to court to remove his father, Anthony Marshall, as her guardian. Marshall senior has been neglecting his mother's health and well-being "while enriching himself with millions of dollars," the younger Marshall alleged in court papers. "Her bedroom is so cold in the winter that my grandmother is forced to sleep in the TV room in torn nightgowns on a filthy couch that smells, probably from dog urine." He claimed that his grandmother had been deprived in a number of ways, forced to use Vaseline instead of Estée Lauder face cream, parted from her beloved dogs, Girlsie and Boysie, and, more seriously, deprived of medication that relieves her anemia. The lawsuit, requesting that the court replace Marshall senior with new guardians—Annette de la Renta (wife of fashion icon Oscar) and JP Morgan Chase Bank—was supported by affidavits from Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller.

The back story to this sordid drama may turn out to be worthy of Truman Capote. Anthony Marshall protested his innocence in a statement to the press. "I am shocked and deeply hurt by the allegations against me," said Marshall. "I love my mother, and no one cares more about her than I do. Her well-being, her comfort and her dignity mean everything to me." Walking to the hospital last week to take a bouquet of flowers to his mother, Marshall was accompanied by his wife, Charlene, who scoffed at the notion that Mrs. Astor was being made to suffer. "Not everyone has a Park Avenue apartment, not everyone has eight servants, not everyone has this man," she told The New York Times, pointing to her husband.

The gossips and society watchers hinted, none too subtly, that Charlene was somehow to blame. Columnist Liz Smith told NEWSWEEK that Mrs. Astor often complained to her about her son's second wife. Charlene had been married to the rector of St. Mary's-by-the-Sea, an Episcopal church in tony Northeast Harbor, Maine, where the Astors and the Rockefellers summer. In a much-chattered-about scandal in the early 1990s, Charlene left her husband to marry Anthony Marshall. Mrs. Astor did not approve. In conversations with Smith, Mrs. Astor "would say Charlene was stealing her jewelry and things like that. "Tony and Charlene are quite nice socially, as I know them," Smith said. "If they were really mistreating her, I didn't know it. I don't recall her saying anything negative about Tony."

Marshall, 82, has the sort of résumé that would make most mothers proud. As a Marine in World War II, he landed at Iwo Jima. He was an intelligence officer at the CIA in the 1950s and an ambassador with the State Department. In later life, he became a Broadway producer who has won two Tony Awards. David Richenthal, a coproducer who keeps an office in Mrs. Astor's apartment building, vigorously defended Anthony and his wife last week. "They cut down from six nurses to three. But she was comatose. Frankly, I never knew why there should be six in the first place. She was getting wonderful care. Any other suggestion is just bunk."

Marshall was clearly taken aback at the suit brought by his own son, apparently without warning. "This is basically an estranged son," said Richenthal. "This is a son from a first marriage. This is a disturbed young man who wants attention or something." (Stephanie Pillersdorf, a spokesperson for the Marshalls, says the claim of stolen jewelry is simply untrue.) A professor of art history at a small college in Bristol, R.I., Philip Marshall was not speaking to reporters, but his cousin Richard Cryan, 50, told the Times that he was acting out of "concerns about the well-being of his grandmother" and not "greed." Cryan described Anthony Marshall as a "classic father of the '50s" who was devoted to his career and "not very accessible to Philip emotionally."

Mrs. Astor was always known as a game lady who had a certain way with men. Not long ago, while she was still in her 90s, she fell as she was touring South Street Seaport and tore her stockings, said Liz Smith. Summoning a group of workmen, she instructed them to form a circle around her and face outward. Then she reached into her handbag, pulled out a new pair of pantyhose, and changed on the spot. It is painful for her friends to see her now helplessly dragged into the tabloids. "I think she would have rather died than have these stories in the paper," Smith said. "Her life was such a triumph."