Friend: Astor disparaged Parker Bowles, Zeta-Jones

May 18, 2009 3:18:39 PM PDT
A witness testified Monday that the normally polite socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor made an awkward remark to Britain's Camilla Parker Bowles and criticized Catherine Zeta-Jones' dress during a 1999 luncheon. Longtime friend Vartan Gregorian - testifying at the larceny trial of Astor's son, who's accused of looting her estate - said the remark to Parker Bowles was in Astor's apartment at a reception to introduce Prince Charles' future wife to New York society.

Gregorian said when it came time to toast Parker Bowles, Astor said, "I drink a toast to Mrs. Keppel," an apparent reference to Alice Frederica Edmonstone Keppel, Parker Bowles' ancestor and the reputed mistress of King Edward VII. Astor then said to Parker Bowles, "Your grandmother would be proud of you."

Gregorian said Astor was suggesting that because of Parker Bowles' relationship with Prince Charles - whose first wife, Princess Diana, had died in a Paris car crash in 1997 - she was following in the tradition of her grandmother. He said Parker Bowles "received Brooke's comments graciously."

Parker Bowles, 61, married Prince Charles in 2005.

Gregorian, president of the charitable Carnegie Corp. foundation, said the dinner was organized by television personality Barbara Walters. He said that although Astor said she didn't recognize anyone at the party, most guests were people she had met before.

Gregorian said that earlier in the reception Astor asked him about a woman nearby and he told her, "That's Catherine Zeta-Jones," whom he described as a "great actress."

He said Astor responded that she had never heard of Zeta-Jones and said, "She's wearing the wrong dress for this occasion."

Gregorian said that because of Astor's hearing difficulties, she was unaware that others could overhear her talking about the Welsh actress, who in 1999 appeared alongside Sean Connery and Ving Rhames in "Entrapment."

The witness said he told Astor the man with Zeta-Jones was her husband, Michael Douglas, the star of movies such as "Basic Instinct" and "Wall Street." When Astor said she hadn't heard of him, either, Gregorian told her he was the son of Kirk Douglas, whom she knew.

Gregorian said Zeta-Jones pretended not to hear the remarks.

Gregorian was testifying in Manhattan's state Supreme Court, where Astor's son, Anthony Marshall, and his lawyer Francis Morrissey are accused of taking advantage of Astor's mental decline due to Alzheimer's disease to plunder her $198 million estate.

Astor's last will, created Jan. 30, 2002, left millions of dollars to her favorite charities. But later changes in the will, which prosecutors call frauds by the defendants, gave Marshall most of her estate.

Marshall's lawyer has contended Astor, who died in August 2007 at age 105, was lucid and rational when she changed her will three times within three months in late 2003 and early 2004 to his benefit.

Marshall, 84, is charged with grand larceny and faces up to 25 years if convicted. Morrissey, 66, is charged with forgery and faces up to seven years in prison. They have pleaded not guilty.

Gregorian said that at a dinner on Dec. 10, 2001, when Astor was given the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Philanthropy, Astor in her acceptance speech didn't recognize or thank the presenter, David McCullough, one of her favorite writers.

On cross-examination, defense lawyer Frederick Hafetz got Gregorian to acknowledge that during the brief speech, which the witness called rambling and "disastrous," Astor was witty a few times.

The lawyer, playing and occasionally pausing a videotape of the speech, suggested the witticisms indicated a rational mind. He also observed that Astor, a few months from her 100th birthday, was speaking without notes.

Gregorian testified that he once told Marshall that Astor was trying to give him gifts, including her vacation home in Maine, every time he visited her. He said he always refused, telling her, "I have everything that I want from you, and that is your friendship."

The witness said he cautioned Marshall that unscrupulous people might take advantage of her or others might think it impolite to refuse a gift from her.

Gregorian said Astor donated some $200 million to New York institutions, saying the money was made in New York so it should stay in New York.