The rich are different from you and me, but only by amount. When storied philanthropist and New York Synonym for Rich Brooke Astor died at the incredible age of 105, her family, like any family, fought over her remains. It's just that the things they were fighting over were not who would get the good china, but who got the New York City Public Library.
Instead of divvying up cabin time, they rotated visits between four impeccable New England estates and a luxurious apartment the size of Rhode Island. The helpful neighbors in this case happened to be Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and the De la Rentas. Other than that, par for the course. Meryl Gordon's "Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach" is full of heavy names and detailed lavishness, but what really turns pages is Gordon's elegant familiarity. The players are royal as ancient Greeks, but not as remote. Any family should recognize the ambivalence simmering in the House of Astor -- a family tragedy that's also the best food-court conversation you've ever overheard.
When 83-year-son Tony Marshall was arrested for allegedly looting his mother's estate, his son had sued him over the care he'd provided her. There had been the usual flurry of terse e-mails and opining letters. There was the unusual addition of four public relations firms to write them.
The scandal held New York in thrall, but Gordon saw only a tip of an iceberg. Underneath, she discovered a huge amount of darkness and cold, a decades-long tale of disaffection, divorces and disappointment, emotional and financial abandonment. Neglect? Maybe. Indifference, avarice? Probably.
If a hero emerges at all in this tale, it would be grandson Phillip Marshall, a man whose life as a respectable and financially comfortable academic he claims his father scorned. But with this kind of money at stake, with this much power in a speckled, shaking pair of 100-year-old hands, can anyone's intentions be completely pure?
Gordon interviews Astor's friends, family, servants and nurses with interesting results. Like a fluorescent bulb, her will, and her Will, cast a cold white glare on everyone around her. It infuses the grotesque into something that should be simple and sacred -- seeing an elder through their final days.
The last picture in the photo section sums up this tension. A frail old figure reclines in a wheelchair that is really a mobile chaise longue. You can hardly even see her; she's nothing but a stick figure in a tiny hat. Around her is a crowd of five people; three of them white, two brown. The foreground is taken up by the flat rolling grass of the estate-sized lawn, and the primary figure grounded in the front is a dachshund. A crowd was gathered around this woman. And the fact that this dog was in the foreground tells you that whatever she wanted at the moment, whatever was paramount to her, was paramount. She is the reason for the gathering.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some." She lives in Minneapolis.