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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mrs. Astor and King Lear

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/11/10 at 01:07 PM

It is a truth commonly held that literature embodies knowledge of human affairs. I wish to exercise that commonplace by considering a real life course of events in view of a particular literary text. The events I have in mind climaxed in the recent trial of Anthony Marshall for tampering with the will of his mother, the late Brooke Astor.

This particular exercise was suggested by a remark made by one of the jurors in Marshall’s trial. She told a New York Times reporter:

“It’s not like he is this awful villain or anything, he’s just a product of the whole family dynamics,” Ms. Fernandez said. “I feel it’s almost like a Shakespearean play because there’s a flaw, we all have our flaws and his was greed and his thinking that he wouldn’t get caught.”

While Ms. Fernandez was thinking of Anthony Marshall as the protagonist of this tragedy, I believe that Brooke Astor herself, though she has been dead for several years, is the more likely protagonist for the play I have in mind. That play, of course, is King Lear.

I don’t intend to present anything like a full inter-interpretation of Lear and the trial. The relevant cast of players is too large, their many plottings too various and complex. I wish only to indicate some points of contact, and departure. First, as I assume that few Valve readers are familiar with the case (how many have heard of Brooke Astor? hands up, please), I’ll present a quick sketch of the life and of the trial. Then into Lear

The Basics: Mother, Son, and High Society

Let us start with the mother, Brooke Astor. Her third husband, Vincent Astor, was a decade older than she, rather willful, and quite wealthy (on her life see New York Social Diary). He wanted nothing to do with Anthony, her son by a her first husband, and in fact banished him from the house for a period. Brooke acquiesced in this, as if she had any choice in the matter.

Upon Vincent’s death in 1959 she inherited his wealth and proceeded to give it away in a grand style. Her devotion to philanthropic works earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. She was also the doyenne of New York high society. Though I’m a complete novice in such matters, it is my impression that philanthropy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving such status. It’s not clear to me just what one must do beyond philanthropy, but, whatever it is, Brooke Astor did it very well.

Her son, Anthony Marshall, managed her money for a considerable period and, according to David Patrick Columbia, “increased the size of his mother’s fortune from the low seven figures to the low nine figures.” During the last years of her life, which was scarred by Alzheimer’s disease, he took over a more general management of her affairs. In 2006 her grandson, Philip Marshall, alleged that Anthony Marshall (i.e. his father) was neglecting her care and enriching himself and his wife from her estate. A lawsuit followed and Annette de la Renta, a long-term friend, was appointed as her guardian while JPMorgan Chase Bank took over her financial affairs. Anthony Marshall was vilified in the press. A good many society folk, some of them in the know, approved and even participated in that vilification. Others were more skeptical; some of these, too, had intimate knowledge of the details.

Brooke Astor died in 2007 and was given a grand funeral. Anthony Marshall went on trial early in 2009 on 16 charges having to do with tampering with her estate and her will. On Oct. 8, 2009 he was found guilty on 14 of 16 counts, one of them being a felony that carries between one and 25 years in prison.

David Patrick Columbia, an outsider’s insider (who writes as an insider’s outsider), has some interesting remarks on this last wretched bit of business:

It was sorrowful watching the elderly son on 20/20 [the TV show], to imagine that his life with his mother – which lasted 82 years – might end with him in prison. And irony of ironies, it comes as a result of an action taken by the man’s own son and his mother’s friends. I don’t question their motives whatever they might have been and whatever they may be. And I don’t question their judgment, however that may have been arrived at – possibly with the able assistance of The Lawyers. But the final act of these people against the memory of this woman, their friend, was to, in effect, imprison her son for allegedly going against the will of the woman who lived to her centenary but only delicately and often uncertain.

Columbia goes on to observe that it was about the money:

It was about the money for the lady and about the money for everyone around her, including her staff, her son, naturally, and at least one of her grandsons, not to mention the Metropolitan Museum and The New York Public Library. . . . And the ultimate irony is that by the time it’s over, there will be much much much less for everyone, including every charitable institution.

Lear in Manhattan

How, then, can we see this story through the lens of Shakespeare’s play? They are so very different, after all. Lear is male, Astor female. Does this really matter, and in this feminist age? I think not. Lear a king, Astor only a socialite. Yes, but she had power, and she was surrounded by people who wanted to participate in it, who wanted it used on behalf of their causes, and on behalf of their own advancement In Society. Once she’d died there were those wanted to assume her position in New York philanthropic society. She was surrounded by her Gonerils and Regans, not daughters, but intimates and now supplicants to, if not the throne, then to the peak of Society. These protectors of the deceased doyenne figure prominently in news accounts, their solicitude duly noted. But any emotional ambivalence, any duplicitous motivation, that remains unreported — how could such things be known when they’re often opaque to the people themselves? And since these people are against Anthony, so press followed, as if it allowed itself any choice.

Then, of course, we have Philip Marshall, Anthony Marshall’s son. He’s the one who initiated legal proceedings against Marshall because grandmother Brooke Astor had given a certain house in Maine to Charlene Marshall, Anthony’s wife and his second stepmother. He’d been expecting that house for himself. Not exactly like Goneril or Regan, but it is the same kind of family business:  who gets what when the Old One Kicks the Bucket.

Anthony, of course, is the Cordelia of the tale, and an unlikely one at that. He expressed his devotion to Mrs. Astor, not through Cordelia-like silence in the face of a perverse question: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” No, he expressed his devotion through a lifetime of service, including skilled money management. In the end, of course, the court found some of that skill misused and convicted him of defrauding his mother. I’m certainly in no position to question the verdict of the court. I thus assume that Marshall was guilty, that, in the end, he abused his trust. Such behavior is most unCordelia-like, most.

But, of course, it is not just that Cordelia loved her father, once but no longer King, but that he misjudged and misused her, and that those who misused him, in the end, had Cordelia murdered. There is no doubt that many in her circle turned against her son; that is in the public record. Did Mrs. Astor herself in some way misuse her son? She married for money and brought her son into a home that became hostile to him. When she came into that money she chose to spend that money for the good of society. That she did much good, of that there is little doubt. And so she become a beloved public figure. What does such a public life do to one’s personal relationships, even the most intimate ones? Did her son live up to the company she came to keep?

Here we are moving deep into Lear territory. The King is by definition a public figure, THE Public Figure. But when he stood before his daughters that imagined day, he did so, not only as the King, but also as their father. It was the King who abdicated and divided the kingdom among his daughters. It was the father who asked for love. And it was a confused and conflicted man who made public duty and reward (the largest portion of the kingdom) contingent upon private affection. The confusion of public and private, that’s at the heart of this play, and that’s where I would seek a correspondence between our two stories, that of the doyenne of New York Society and that of the ancient British monarch.

The King’s estate is not merely private property; it belongs to the state. As such its disposition is a matter of public importance. And so, on a more restricted scale, is the estate of Brooke Astor. Some of the estate is bequeathed to public good as represented by a set of Astor’s favorite charities — and those charities most certainly took an interest in her son’s trial. But it is not just the tangible estate, but that more intangible thing, her position in society, which has been in limbo since her dementia removed her from public life. How better to secure that position that to be solicitous of the gossamer shell, the tissue of memory and reputation, of the woman who once held that position?

For that reputation was in play at the trial along with the money. And it is the reputation that most mattered to those who follow such things. In a sense, a deep sense I’m afraid, it is Brooke Astor herself who did the deepest damage to that reputation. She did that damage in the most natural of ways, by becoming old and frail, by becoming merely mortal. And that, of course, is when things began to unravel, just as Lear’s kingdom unraveled when he withdrew from power.

The mess that ensued in each case was the inevitable result of the social forces that kept the Public Person in Power, that made the Public Person the object of Envy and Admiration, that made the Public Person seem almost Transcendent and Immortal. When the body failed, as bodies do, there was nothing to keep the Public Person propped up from behind. Those social forces had nothing to work against and so they began working against themselves.

In the end Anthony Marshall was sacrificed in a magical effort to maintain the Astor myth at face value. It’s as though Whomever was trying to deny Brooke Astor’s mortality, and her dementia, by insisting the Marshall did her in – there were, for example, unsubstantiated of rumors urine-stained sheets — or, at any rate, he despoiled her surrogate, the estate. If The Son can be painted Evil Black, then She and We (oh yes, We) can paint ourselves the purest Immortal White. We can come to the rescue of one whom we had anointed to Rescue Us.

What a grand fantasy! And what a dismal implosion it caused.


* * * * *

The correspondence between the Lear story and the Astor story is abstract. It is what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein termed a family resemblance. One discerns such things, not by comparing part to part, but by looking for patterns of action and desire. That a juror at the trial could detect this resemblance is a testimony to Shakespeare’s living power over our imagination. I venture to say that many in this story were schooled on Shakespeare. But that schooling, apparently, was not enough to inoculate them against these follies. Shakespeare had lines for that as well, the concluding couplet of his 129th sonnet:

This the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

That particular sonnet is about lust, giving the reference to heaven has a rather particular meaning. Yet much of the couplet’s meaning stands if one thinks of heaven as New York Society. It may not seem heavenly to you and me, but then we didn’t dine with Brooke Astor. But we have our heavens as well, and are in danger of being destroyed by them.


* * * * *

Further Reading: The Wikipedia, of course, has an entry of Brooke Astor. You can find New York Times articles here, and New York Social Diary articles here. I recommend the latter, for they are more deeply informed by Shakespeare than New York Times reporting is allowed to be.


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