Ralph Gardner Jr: Catching Up With Philip Marshall

Jun 23, 2018

I couldn’t make it to Philip Marshall’s keynote address at an elder abuse conference in Newburgh, NY last week. Then again, Philip couldn’t make it to breakfast at my house the following morning on his way home to Massachusetts.

The last time I saw him was under somewhat unusual – I might go so far as to describe them as unique – circumstances. It was 2009 and he was testifying against his own father, Anthony Marshall, in a packed Lower Manhattan courtroom.

The occasion was the trial where Tony Marshall was indicted on sixteen counts of mishandling his mother’s, the philanthropist and New York City grand dame Brooke Astor’s, will. After a six-month tabloid fodder trial Marshall was found guilty of fourteen of the sixteen counts, including grand larceny.

The 89-year-old was sentenced to one-to-three years in prison but served only eight weeks before receiving medical parole. He died in 2014.

Philip, a professor emeritus of historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, played a key role in protecting his grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, filing suit against his father for elder abuse and then helping send him to prison.

I was disappointed he couldn’t make it to our house, primarily because I had found memories of him. Not from the trial – though he did a good job of keeping his cool under cross-examination by his dad’s high-priced lawyers – but from second through sixth grade when we attended grammar school together.

Certain classmates don’t leave much of an impression, particularly after all these years. Or if they do you can sum them up in a single word – bully, nerd, wiseacre. 

But Philip seemed a gentle soul, someone with whom it was easy to be friends. At the time I had no idea who his grandmother was and if I had it wouldn’t have made any difference to an eight-year-old. 

That changed, of course, when I covered his father’s trial for the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. Which is how I came to be in the courtroom the day he testified.

Brooke Astor died in 2007 at the age of 105. But her death also marked the start of a remarkable second career for her grandson, as an advocate for the elderly.

Philip travels the country, sometimes sleeping in his truck as I understand it, advocating for seniors and lobbying on behalf of legislation such as the Senior $afe Act. That’s a bi-partisan bill to protect seniors from financial exploitation that President Trump signed into law at the end of May.

Philip blamed his inability to stop by our house on his way home to an accident. He was rehearsing his keynote on the banks of the Hudson – his modus operandi is apparently to set up a traveling podium in nature and practice his delivery -- when he took a spill, trashing both his phone and his body. The problem, he said, was the progressive lenses he was wearing that weren’t progressive enough.

“I got through the keynote,” he reported, “and then dealt with stuff that wasn’t anticipated.”

But his message encompasses more than seniors and elder abuse. He wants to turn us, as a culture, from bystanders to “upstanders,” as he calls it – empowered citizens who fight injustice and take responsibility for each other.

The Senior $afe Act is a step in the right direction, he explained, protecting the likes of banks and financial advisors when they report the suspected exploitation of seniors. 

Philip said he realized that if his grandmother, who he described as “ageless,” could be the victim of elder abuse anybody could.

Part of the drama of the trial included the prosecution presenting the brilliant doyenne’s decline -- from proudly hosting elegant dinner parties at her Park Avenue duplex, the guest list including the likes of David Rockefeller, Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger – to her confusion and disorientation at the hands of Alzheimer’s.  

“How could anybody with that ageless attitude be abused?” Philip asked rhetorically. “There are millions of seniors with an ageless attitude subject to abuse. Probably five million. The idea that they’d be abused was not on my radar.”

Until, of course, he saw what his own father was doing – changing his mother’s wills to his own benefit and at the expense of the major cultural institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum, to whom his mother intended to leave the bulk of her $130 million fortune.

“That’s what catapulted me from case to cause,” Philip recalled. “’If this is not elder abuse,’” he remembers thinking, “’this is going to be open season on seniors.’ It didn’t take long to realize my grandmother’s case was going to inform the discourse.”

One of the keys, as Philip said at a recent conference at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Law, Brain and Behavior, is to have professionals from different fields – from financial experts to neuroscientists – come together on behalf of seniors.

“Breaking that isolation between disciplines is a lot of what I’m doing,” he explained.

It sounds like the man today advocating on behalf of seniors isn’t all that different from the gentle fellow I knew in second grade. I hope our paths will cross again. In the meantime he may need to curb practicing his keynotes on rocky outcroppings. 

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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