U.S. News

Brooke Astor's will finally settled; $100 mln to charities

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The bitter five-year battle over the estate of Brooke Astor, the socialite and philanthropist, was settled on Wednesday in a deal that allows $100 million to be dispensed to various charities, including New York parks, museums and schools.

Pallbearers carry the casket of New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor after a funeral service at St. Thomas Church in New York August 17, 2007. REUTERS/Jeff Zelevansky

The agreement ends a dispute over Astor’s fortune raging since her death in 2007 at age 105, one that brought to light ugly details about the high-society family and eventually resulted in the fraud conviction of Astor’s only son, Anthony Marshall.

The settlement, announced by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, sets aside $30 million to establish a new education fund that will make grants aimed at improving New York City education.

Other major beneficiaries include the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and funds that will funnel millions to Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and playgrounds around the city.

“Brooke Astor was at the center of New York philanthropy for nearly half a century,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “I am pleased that my office led the way to an agreement that honors Mrs. Astor’s final wishes and benefits New York’s landmark educational and cultural institutions.”

Astor family members, friends and former staffers will also receive their shares of the inheritance with the deal, which was based on a will dating from 2002. Among the issues in dispute is whether her 2002 will or another version should be used.

The deal was approved on Wednesday by the Westchester County Surrogate’s Court.

The settlement will cut Marshall’s inheritance to $14.5 million, less than half of the amount he stood to receive with the death of his mother, who he was accused of keeping in squalid conditions in her final years. Marshall’s own son, among others, said Astor was made to sleep on a couch stained with dog urine.

Those details another others that were equally unseemly came out as Marshall, now 87, went to trial on charges he looted his mother’s estate. A jury convicted the frail and tired-looking Marshall in October 2009 of grand larceny, falsifying business reports and other charges.

In amendments to Astor’s will, which she signed after she began suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Marshall was given tens of millions of dollars and valuable real estate, acts that prosecutors cited in bringing the fraud charges.

At trial, Marshall’s lawyers countered that Astor voluntarily made changes to her will, signing over the bulk of the money to her son after deciding late in life that she wanted Marshall and his third wife, Charlene Marshall, to be comfortable financially.

Marshall, sentenced to one to three years, is currently free pending the outcome of an appeal.

For years a cornerstone for cultural institutions and charities across the city, Astor was married to Vincent Astor and, when he died, inherited part of a fortune made in fur trading and real estate by John Jacob Astor in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Born Roberta Brooke Russell in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Astor was the child of a Marine Corps officer and his wife. She lived on Marine posts in Hawaii, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and China, where she learned “coolie” Chinese.

At 16, her mother arranged a marriage to J. Dryden Kuser. Astor later said it was her only regret. They had a son, Anthony, but after 10 years the couple divorced.

Astor’s second marriage, to stockbroker Charles H. (Buddie) Marshall in 1932, was a “true love match” in her words. Anthony, her only child who later became ambassador to Kenya, took Marshall’s last name.

The marriage ended when Marshall died of a heart attack in 1952. Less than a year later, Astor wed Astor.

New York Public Library President Anthony Marx said money from Astor’s estate would be used for research as well as “reading and literacy programs for disadvantaged children in New York City,” among other things.

“We are immensely grateful that her charitable intentions will be honored, and her dreams for the Library can be realized,” he said in a statement.

The cut in Marshall’s inheritance, meanwhile, will allow some $12.3 million in restitution to go to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Marshall.

Marshall is bound to the terms of Wednesday’s settlement regardless of the outcome of appeal in his criminal case, according to Schneiderman’s office.