August 14, 2006 12:00 PM

Once she lavished millions on museums and threw Manhattan’s most gilded parties, but by last fall socialite Brooke Astor had become a shut-in. She spent her days in bed or on the sofa in her Park Avenue duplex, her care supervised by her son Anthony and his wife, Charlene. “They called and asked me not to go see her,” says someone very close to Astor, now 104. “They said she was too frail and it took too much out of her to receive people.” But the source believes the couple were deliberately isolating her, contrary to the wishes of her powerful friends. “They thought they could get away with it,” says the source. “How stupid is that?”

Instead, the matter of Astor’s welfare has triggered a very public blue-blood feud. On July 20 her grandson Philip Marshall filed a petition charging his father, Anthony, 82, Astor’s only child, with “ignoring her health, safety, personal and household needs, while enriching himself with millions of dollars.” Among the allegations: that Anthony, who paid himself $2.3 million a year as Astor’s caretaker, fired many of her staff, let her sleep in torn nightgowns, denied her items like non-skid socks and stopped buying medicine she needed. Two of Astor’s more famous friends, Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, filed affidavits in support of the petition. “Tony systematically cut Brooke off from everything that gave her pleasure,” says someone familiar with the situation. “He’s stripped away everybody that was close to her.”

Anthony, a former diplomat, denied the charges in an interview with PEOPLE, and said no one came to him with concerns about Astor, whose estate is valued at $45 million. “As friends or simply as decent people they should have contacted me,” says Anthony, who got emotional during the interview. “I would have been receptive to their ideas and acted on them.”

Nevertheless, on July 26 a Manhattan judge removed Astor from her son’s custody and named her friend Annette de la Renta as her temporary guardian. Astor was taken to a hospital and admitted with pneumonia (she has reportedly suffered significant memory loss, among other ailments), but was soon strong enough to travel to Holly Hill, her 75-acre Westchester estate. The move, says Philip, 53, a college professor, has done wonders for Astor. “She is eating well, feeling much better and very happy to be home,” he told PEOPLE exclusively, adding that he filed the petition because “every family has an obligation to protect their loved ones from potential abuse.”

In recent years Anthony and Charlene, 61, his second wife, have dismissed a number of Astor’s staff. Alice Perdue, who handled Astor’s personal checking accounts for 12 years before being laid off last fall, says the couple became “aggressive” in taking over the finances. “I’m glad Philip came in and did something,” says Perdue. But Anthony’s supporters defend him staunchly. “He is a devoted son,” says journalist Mike Wallace, a friend. He “adores his mother and has given her all the attention, concern and love that a son could offer.” Anthony could try to reclaim guardianship of Astor at a hearing scheduled for Aug. 8. “The truth,” he says, “will come out.”

Both sides do agree on one thing: The dispute should have been handled in private. “It’s a shame it had to come out this way,” says a source with knowledge of the family. “But she is a great lady and she has to be protected.”

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