Home NEWS Business Henry Christensen III, Key Lawyer in Astor Case, Dies at 72

Henry Christensen III, Key Lawyer in Astor Case, Dies at 72

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Mrs. Astor died in 2007 at 105. Mr. Marshall was convicted of grand larceny, and in 2009 he was sentenced to three years in prison. He was granted medical parole after two months.

In 2012, Mr. Marshall’s inheritance was slashed in half, to $14.5 million, and his control of the estate’s charitable contributions was stripped away, in a settlement that finally ended the dispute over the family’s millions. He died in 2014 at 90.

Mr. Christensen was born on Nov. 8, 1944, in Jersey City to Henry Christensen Jr., a numismatist, and the former Margaret Louise Brooke. He was known as Terry, from the Latin word tertium, meaning third.

Photo

Mr. Christensen in 2009.

Credit
John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times

Raised in Madison, N.J., he earned a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale in 1966 and graduated from Harvard Law School.

He married Constance Cumpton in 1967. In addition to her, Mr. Christensen, who lived in Brooklyn, is survived by his children, Alexander, Gus, Elizabeth and Katherine Christensen; four grandchildren; and a sister, Karen Cheeseman.

In 1969, Mr. Christensen joined the Manhattan law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, which had represented Mrs. Astor since her husband, Vincent, died in 1959. He was a partner there from 1977 until he left to join another firm, McDermott Will & Emery, in 2007.

He was a founder and chairman of the Prospect Park Alliance, which has helped rejuvenate the once forlorn Brooklyn greensward designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux; a trustee of the Vincent Astor Foundation, the philanthropy that Mrs. Astor ran until 2002; and the chairman of the nonprofit Theater for a New Audience.

The author of “International Estate Planning” (1992), Mr. Christensen was the president of the International Academy of Trust and Estate Law, taught at New York University and advised the Treasury Department and other agencies on tax provisions related to offshore trusts and combating the financing of terrorism.

The Astors’ simmering family tension erupted publicly in mid-2006 when, after a lifetime of public service, Mr. Marshall was accused by his son Philip of mistreating Mrs. Astor and depriving her of necessary medical care.

A riveting six-month trial ensued, dominated by clashing accounts of tawdry greed and filial devotion delivered by boldface names and household help. Witnesses testified that Mrs. Astor was of unsound mind when she was bamboozled by her son into giving him control over the bulk of her $180 million estate at the urging of his wife, Charlene.

Mr. Christensen found himself in an unusual position: as a contemplative, combative, agitated and weary witness whose testimony was pivotal to both sides — and a victim of collateral damage.

The defense argued that Mr. Christensen, in effect, attested to Mrs. Astor’s competence when he supervised her execution of an amendment, or codicil, to her will in December 2003 that granted her son more control over which charities would receive millions from a family trust.

About two weeks later, though, Mr. Marshall complained to Mr. Christensen that he was still concerned about his own “economic welfare” and requested another amendment that would give him full discretion over the trust. When Mr. Christensen declined, Mr. Marshall dismissed him.

“I gave 15 years of devoted, undivided attention to Mrs. Astor and I was fired,” Mr. Christensen avowed from the witness stand. “And I resent the suggestion that I was doing anything other than what she requested.”

The defense reasoned that if Mrs. Astor was considered competent enough to sign the December codicil, she could not be judged incompetent less than a month later when, according to prosecutors, Mr. Marshall tricked her into agreeing to the even more generous second change.

The prosecution also accused Mr. Marshall of grand larceny for giving himself a raise for managing his mother’s finances, and for pocketing a $2 million commission when he sold a Childe Hassam painting belonging to his mother for $10 million after persuading her that she needed the money. (He was acquitted of grand larceny in the taking of the commission.)

Mr. Christensen, who testified that he was unaware that Mr. Marshall was taking a commission on the sale, said he had assured Mrs. Astor, “You have all the money you need for the rest of your life.”

Mr. Christensen said Mr. Marshall told him of a conversation with his mother in which she asked him, “Do you want all of my money?” Mr. Marshall said he replied that he simply wanted to designate which institutions received donations. But Mr. Christensen said he viewed Mrs. Astor’s question as ironic.

“Mrs. Astor was hoping that she had given him enough and that she wouldn’t have to give him any more,” Mr. Christensen said.

“I truly believe she understood what she was doing,” he added, “and hoped it would put things at peace.”

Correction: November 9, 2017

An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the maiden name of Mr. Christensen’s wife. She is the former Constance Cumpton, not Crumpton.

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