If come next Monday, Judge A. Kirke Bartley Jr. decides to sentence Tony Marshall, Brooke Astor's son, to prison for stealing from his mother, by law the 85 year old Marshall will have at least one year -- and as many as 25 years -- in the solitude of a jail cell (or hospital ward if his health is as precarious as his lawyer says it is) to contemplate where things went so wrong. It may occur to him as he reflects that his dotage would probably have been a lot more relaxing if he'd never met Charlene Gilbert, the saucy Maine minister's wife who set his heart and whatever else aflutter. Another regret might be not devoting more time and energy to his relationship with his two sons, Philip and Alec, who testified against their father in court. But at the very the top of decisions he might wish to take back was in 1997 hiring Christopher Ely as his mother's butler.
The People vs. Anthony Marshall and Francis Morrissey is a textbook case in how not to defraud your incredibly rich, famous and beloved mother's estate if you don't want to get caught. But lesson #1 -- perhaps exceeded only by not marrying someone of whom your purse strings-controlling mom disapproves -- is to do everything in your power to avoid alienating the help, at which the thrifty Marshalls showed singular skill. And foremost among those servants was Christopher Ely, a former footman at Buckingham Palace with a well developed -- the Marshalls might say over-developed -- sense of loyalty to the old lady. Mr. Ely saw his job description as including not just serving Mrs. Astor and her guests tea and biscuits, but also protecting her from her scheming son and daughter-in-law.
It was Mr. Ely who encouraged the maids to keep notes about all those meetings where the demented Mrs. Astor was hustled into her library to sign codicils to her will that gave away more and more of her assets to Tony and Charlene at the expense of such charities as the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library. And it was Mr. Ely who provided some of the trial's most dramatic and bulletproof testimony as he sparred with Fred Hafetz, one of Mr. Marshall's attorney's. (One suspects the Marshalls may have recalled the butler's star turn when they decided to part ways with Mr. Hafetz as soon as Mr. Marshall was convicted on October 8th of fourteen out of a possible sixteen counts, perhaps even in the town car on the way back from the courthouse to their Upper East Side apartment.)
And the butler's still going strong. This week Mr. Ely sent a letter to Judge Bartley explaining why he thinks justice would be served by throwing the book at his former employer. Mr. Marshall fired Mr. Ely in 2005. But after Mr. Marshall's son, Philip, took his father to court alleging that he was abusing Mrs. Astor and making her sleep on that famous urine stained couch, and Philip succeeded in having the socialite Annette de la Renta named as his grandmother's guardian, Ely was reinstated and spent the years until Mrs. Astor's death in 2007 caring for her at Holly Hill, her Westchester estate. Mr. Ely must be out by the end of this year -- the house apparently being delivered into the good hands of Sotheby's or some other high end real estate broker - so think of his letter to Judge Bartley as something of a valedictory.
He starts by taking issue with the seventy-five or so letters the defense has submitted to the court vouching for Tony's stellar character, among the letter writers Whoopi Goldberg and Today show weatherman Al Roker who is reported to have attested to what a good son Tony was. "This seems strange," Mr. Ely wrote, "as in previous reports he said that he hardly knew Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, let alone Mrs. Astor."
Then Ely, who most certainly did know the old dame, goes on to write of the Marshalls, "I cannot remember in the ten years that I knew Mrs. Astor of them doing anything for her unless there was something in it for themselves."
In an interview this week Ely, who will be moving into a Westchester condo and was waiting for his new rugs and furniture to arrive (one has little need for such things in a life spent "in service"), said the Marshalls have visited the house twice in recent weeks "to pick out things they wanted," though whether they get to keep them will ultimately be decided in surrogate's court where the case has now returned.
The butler wasn't there to welcome them when they arrived. "I don't go near them," he explained. "I don't even want them saying I gave them a nasty look. I've seen enough of them over the years."
He said that his intention in writing to Judge Bartley was to let the judge know, "what this process did," to Mrs. Astor. "The level of cruelty. The money's the money. I'm not really bothered about the money part of it. It is what it is. I just wanted the judge to know what this whole process did to her. Let's look at the human angle."
Mr. Ely contends that the Marshalls didn't just take advantage of Brooke Astor's Alzheimer's to enrich themselves but also that they hastened her deterioration, breaking her "spirit and trust." The grande dame became "increasingly paranoid, extremely insecure, deeply depressed, withdrawn and suspicious," he wrote in his letter to the court.
In the interview the butler recalled how Charlene would intimidate Brooke. "She'd stare her down. She'd show up at meal times and just stare at her. [Brooke] didn't want to eat. They had no respect for her. The sooner she died the better."
Mr. Ely believes that prison might allow Mr. Marshall finally to escape what he believes to be Charlene Marshall's Svengali-like control over her husband. "I hope he goes to jail and sits there separated from Charlene and Warner," he said referring to one of Mr. Marshall's lawyers, Ken Warner. "He needs to get into the process of admitting to what he did and get on with it."
Mr. Ely said he'll actually be relieved to leave Holly Hill. He reported that "all the really nice furniture, rugs and paintings are gone," and that the garden that Mrs. Astor once gloried in, "looks sad," the trees neglected, the two gardeners dismissed.
Mr. Ely said he looks forward to visiting his family in England after the New Year. "My notice is until the 31st," of December he said, of the date when his employment, and his part in the sordid saga, officially comes to an end. "After January I'm a free man."