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The dead heiress who is still the talk of the town

Brooke Astor was a fixture of New York society while she lived, and so it goes on after her death. David Usborne reports on the trial of the man accused of cheating his mother out of millions

Brooke Astor was surely a national treasure. Spoiled, of course, but always twinkle-eyed, elegant and a prolific giver to numerous charities and foundations, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. She belonged, sort of, to British aristocracy and lived astonishingly to be 105 years old.

Two years after her death, Mrs Astor is once more casting her spell over the gossip parlours of Manhattan's Upper East Side, but in ways that are regrettable, verging on tawdry. The stage is not the Connaught Hotel where she used to accept her London friends and relatives nor one of her former grand homes. We are now in a chilly New York courtroom and the talk is about greed, envy and loathing.

Nine days into the proceedings and the reputation of Mrs Astor has not been so badly tarnished. She may have been more than dotty in those last years – just how dotty is the crucial question – but who would not forgive her for that? Others are not coming off so well. No wonder her daughter-in-law, Charlene Marshall, was spotted weeping in the courtroom during a two-hour break on Thursday (which ended in the replacement of a juror.)

She is collecting mud but Ms Marshall is not actually on trial here. Of the two defendants, one is her husband, Anthony Marshall, a former Broadway producer and diplomat and only son of Mrs Astor (though not from her marriage to Vincent Astor, who gave her the storied name and fortune.) It is just that the witnesses are saying very unkind things about Charlene, wife No 3, along money-grubbing and social climbing lines. Mr Marshall, himself now 84 and frail on a walking stick, is accused of manipulating his mother in her less lucid years with the help of his lawyer, also a defendant in the case, Francis Morrissey.

Prosecutors say Mr Marshall forced her in 2004 to alter her will to direct $60m of her fortune earmarked for charities instead to himself and to Charlene. Among the 16 charges the most serious is grand larceny. If convicted, Mr Marshall could face 25 years in prison.

If the trial is getting big ratings, it is partly because of the witness list. There are the not-so-ordinary wives of New York City, for example, Nancy Kissinger, spouse of former secretary of state Henry, and Annette de la Renta, who is married to Oscar the famous fashion designer. Both testified last week and suffered some embarrassment to themselves along the way. We are still awaiting the TV celebrity interviewer Barbara Walters. Kofi Annan is expected on the stand too. Earlier in the trial, star billing went to Viscount Astor, the conservative peer and stepfather to Samantha Cameron, wife of the Conservative Party leader, David. With names like those on the marquee it has to be a blockbuster.

Under the gaze of Judge A Kirke Bartley, prosecutors are following a two-pronged strategy: to convince the jury that Mrs Astor was both too mentally unfit to have willingly changed her will as she did in 2004 – the lawyer, Mr Morrissey is charged with forging the heiress's signature on the amendment to the will – and that there was so little love lost between her and daughter-in-law Charlene she would never have been so generous to her anyway.

The case against Mr Marshall erupted only after his son, Philip, went public with claims that he was mistreating Mrs Astor, interfering with her medical care and even leaving her to rest on a sofa soaked in the urine of her own dogs (an allegation that prosecutors are under orders not to raise at the trial). "This case is about greed – it's the greed of two men, pure and simple," Elizabeth Loewy, a prosecutor, told jurors at the trial's opening. "Anthony Marshall's preoccupation for getting money for Charlene was actually motivation for the scheme to defraud." Jurors have been told that Mrs Astor was dragged physically from her nurses on the day she was made to change the will.

Prosecutors have also told the court that Mr Marshall had begun in the late Nineties to try to persuade his mother that her fortune was running out and that she risked going broke. It was these warnings, for example, that allegedly persuaded her to sell one of her favourite paintings, Up the Avenue From Thirty-Fourth Street, May 1917, by American Impressionist Childe Hassam. It fetched $10m in 2002.

"She thought she was running out of money," Mrs Kissinger said on the stand. Mrs de La Renta also recalled the episode when questioned by Ms Loewy. "Did she tell you she had to sell the painting because she was going broke?" the prosecutor asked. "Yes," said Mrs de la Renta. "Did she ever tell you she missed the painting?" Ms Loewy went on. "Yes she did." Among family members who found out about these unfounded claims of imminent penury was Viscount Astor. He testified that he contacted Mrs Astor's bankers to reassure himself that in fact her fortune was still intact. He said he learned her son had repeatedly told her she was "short of cash". As for her relationship with Charlene, Viscount Astor recalled her saying that it was "difficult, because she seems so envious of what I've got".

The loudest gasps at Charlene's cost may have come when a former doctor to the heiress, Kevin O'Flaherty, recalled asking if she was planning to spend Christmas with her family. She replied she would be far happier spending it with her two dachshunds. "She said she'd rather have Boysie and Girlsie, her dogs, there than her son and that..." he said before stopping himself and then spelling the word "bitch".

No exhibit has so far garnered more attention, meanwhile, than a diamond-encrusted gold necklace that Mrs Astor draped around the neck of Mrs de la Renta at Christmas 2001. It was Mrs Kissinger who testified hearing her say that she was giving it to her friend, "because I don't want Charlene to get them". On Thursday, Mrs de la Renta was obliged to display the necklace, bringing it into the courtroom in a zip-loc bag. "Am I correct that this necklace has 528 individual diamonds?" a defence lawyer asked her. "I never counted them," Mrs de la Renta answered.

With the necklace, the defence is hoping to make the point that if Mrs Astor, already over 100, was mentally equipped to be giving jewellery away she will also have been fully aware of the changes she made to the will. Yet, references to the diminishing power of her mind have been strewn all through witness testimony. Mrs Kissinger recalled that at her 100th birthday party in 2002, Mrs Astor apparently did not recognise her.

Then there was the experience of Viscount Astor when he visited "Cousin Brooke" in New York late in 2002 with his university-age daughter. The old lady turned to him and said: "I'd forgotten how young your wife was." Viscount Astor replied: "That's not my wife, that's my daughter." He told the jury: "She'd known my wife for 30 years."

Mr Marshall and Mr Morrissey have pleaded innocent and their lawyers told the court Mrs Astor was fully conscious of her actions when altering her will two years later in 2004. The trial continues

Dramatis personae

Brooke Astor

Born Roberta Brooke Russell in New Hampshire, the widow of Vincent Astor, a great-great-grandson of America's first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor.

Anthony Marshall

Only son of Brooke Astor, he took the name of her second husband, Charles Marshall, when he was 18.

Charlene Marshall

Formerly Charlene Gilbert, she married Anthony, Mrs Astor's son, in 1992. Arrived at court in tears on Thursday, her 17th wedding anniversary

Francis Morrissey

Co-defendant in the trial, a favourite legal adviser to New York's upper crust, specialising in the drawing up of wills.

Viscount Astor

William Waldorf Astor, the fourth Viscount Astor, Conservative member of the House of Lords. Step-father of Samantha Cameron.

Supporting cast

Nancy Kissinger, wife of former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. A close friend.

Annette de la Renta, wife of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. Another close friend, who told the court how she accepted a gold chain "sprinkled with diamonds" with matching earrings from Brooke Astor.

Barbara Walters, interviewer of the stars

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General