Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus heirs head to trial in D.C.
Updated: May 3, 2011 - 02:11 pm
The late multimillionaire owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, Irvin Feld, left a renowned business stunningly at odds with a bitter family legacy. He built an empire of wholesome entertainment meant to bring families together, yet his own two children are so estranged they couldn't even mourn with one another in peace.
The often sad family history behind "the greatest show on Earth" is poised to go on trial May 9 before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in a Washington courtroom. Karen Feld filed a $110 million suit against her younger brother, Kenneth, for assault when they came together in the Jewish rite of sitting shiva for their dead aunt.
The suit filed by 63-year-old Karen Feld says her 62-year-old brother long wanted to harm her and control her life because he feared she would reveal facts about their father and family that could tarnish the image of the family business. Irvin Feld created Feld Entertainment, which Kenneth Feld now runs and bills as the world's largest source of live family entertainment, including the circus, Disney on Ice, drag racing and monster truck shows.
Kenneth Feld has gone to great lengths to protect the family's privacy; he even hired a prominent former top CIA covert operative to run a secret 8-year operation to spy on and divert an author who wanted to write a family history. The author's revelations included Irvin Feld's homosexuality, his wife's suicide and his children's long-running feud.
"What is more wholesome than Disney and the circus, on the surface?
But I think what people have to realize is sometimes there's a big difference between appearances and reality," Karen Feld said in an interview with The Associated Press, the first either sibling has given on the case.
Karen Feld says her brother's vendetta against her led to his ordering guards to throw her and the toy poodle that is her constant companion out of their aunt Shirley's shiva in the Washington penthouse where they grew up. She said the guards beat her, inflicting severe injuries that required surgeries on her brain and knee.
Kenneth Feld, who lives in Tampa, Fla., declined through his attorney to be interviewed, who said his client would prefer to make his case to the jury. But in court filings he denies Karen Feld's allegations and has filed a counterclaim against his sister for trespassing, accusing her of desecrating their aunt's memorial with a blasphemous outburst. "She acted in an absolutely outrageous manner, completely disregarding the feelings of myself and everyone else that was in attendance at the shiva service," Kenneth Feld said in a deposition, excerpted in court filings.
Karen Feld also sued to have her brother removed as the trustee of a $5 million fund of which they were the sole living beneficiaries because she says he is too hostile to her. They settled a month ago on splitting the fund, set up by their uncle Israel Feld in his will, into separate trusts for each.
The cases have been full of drama, including a delay for several months while Karen Feld said she was recovering from an altercation with Transportation Security Administration agents during a trip to her Bridgeton, Maine, lake house last year. She says besides the physical injuries from the shiva assault, she has been suffering from post-traumatic stress that has ended her career as a local political and gossip columnist and made her "hyper vigilant" around security officials.
Kenneth Feld says the TSA incident and another one, weeks after the shiva, at an Arlo Guthrie concert in which she was restrained after an explosive confrontation are examples of his sister's pattern of "temper tantrums" in which she behaves unreasonably, yells obscenities and becomes extremely aggressive. Feld's attorneys point out that Karen Feld tried to argue the same injuries and medical treatment arose after the concert as she did after the shiva.
Neither sibling is a stranger to civil litigation. Karen Feld has also sued a man she was in an auto accident with and her former private nurse, who countersued alleging Karen Feld was abusive. Karen Feld tried but failed to persuade Judge Huvelle to bar evidence of her nurse's suit and the airport and concert incidents from being introduced in this case.
Kenneth Feld has been a defendant before too. His former right-hand man, Charles Smith, sued after he was fired as a Feld Entertainment executive and eventually reached a settlement. The case revealed Feld's management of a multiyear, multimillion dollar plot against writer Jan Pottker, who had written a local Washington magazine article on the Felds in 1990.
Pottker's article described the entrepreneurial background of their father, Irvin Feld, a rock-and-roll promoter who bought the Ringling Bros. circus in 1967, and his homosexual affairs. She wrote that their mother, Adele, blamed herself for her marital problems before she committed suicide in 1958 by shutting herself in the garage with a running car. Young Ken and Karen were then raised in the penthouse with sweeping views of Washington by their uncle Israel and aunt Shirley and got little attention from their surviving parent, according to Pottker.
Feld responded to the article by hiring former top CIA operative Clair George to investigate Pottker. George was fired as the head of CIA covert operations after being convicted of lying to a congressional committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair. George was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992 and became a consultant.
As part of George's spying mission for Kenneth Feld, he obtained an outline of a biography of the Feld family that Pottker was writing, according to court documents. George oversaw a scheme to spy on Pottker and arrange to secretly fund other writing projects to divert her from the Feld book. George dispatched an associate to one of her appearances who offered assistance on her projects and successfully inserted himself into Pottker's life for eight years as an editor and confidant, while secretly sending Feld written reports on her activities.
George's associate even helped Pottker get a contract for a book about another wealthy family, which controls the Mars chocolate candy business, to keep her too busy to pursue her book on the Felds. When Pottker learned of the spy plot from the Smith suit, she sued Feld as well and the litigation lasted nine years before ending in a confidential settlement.
George also revealed that Feld authorized spying on critics of the circus, in particular animal rights groups that alleged the animals were abused.
The Performing Animal Welfare Society and People for the Ethical Treatment sued Feld, too. His company also went on trial on allegations from animal activists that it abuses its elephants, but the case was dismissed without a ruling on the merits.
"Just as he's treated animals cruelly, he treated people cruelly in some cases," Karen Feld said in the interview at her Georgetown home, with her dog Campari on her lap. "And I think I'm one of them."
Judge Huvelle rejected Karen Feld's request to introduce evidence of the covert operations in her suit to demonstrate what her brother is capable of. The judge also agreed with Kenneth Feld that there should be no testimony about anyone's sexual orientation or about his sister's allegations that he may be a member of a "Jewish mafia" involved in money laundering and murder.
Kenneth and Karen Feld have been in legal disputes since their father's unexpected death during his sleep in 1984. Irvin Feld gave his company to his son and left very little to his daughter. Kenneth Feld also took ownership of their father's properties, including the Georgetown house where his sister lived. Karen Feld filed a lawsuit saying he was trying to have her thrown out of her home. The eventual settlement allowed her to continue living there, surrounded by her photos with celebrities, including The Beatles on their first trip to the U.S., which her father promoted, and the sculptures of dogs and nudes she now creates for therapy and for hire.
The Feld siblings' relationship further deteriorated after the Pottker article. Karen Feld says her brother thought the personal details could only have been revealed by his sister, who has written for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, the Washington Times and the Washington Examiner.
Both siblings have said Kenneth was groomed from an early age to take over the company. Karen Feld said her father didn't believe women should go into business, and in her deposition she said he physically abused her to the point of giving her multiple concussions.
"I respect him for what he did in terms of his brains and creativity and what he built and his work ethic," she said. "That doesn't make him a good father. And I think that a lot of what he created after the time my mother died particularly was to divide Kenny and I, not to bring us together."
Kenneth and Karen Feld had not communicated for years when Kenneth called his sister in September 2007 to let her know their 92-year-old aunt was dying and that she was welcome to attend services. They even hugged upon Karen's arrival at the shiva.
That's where their shared version of events ends. Karen Feld's lawsuit explains that she had long suffered stress-induced seizure-like symptoms from previous brain injuries. The suit says her dog Campari was trained to detect an attack coming on and signal that she should retreat to a dark, quiet place.
Karen Feld says as the rabbi began the service, she detected signs of a seizure coming on and tried to retreat to a back bathroom. Her complaint says "large, aggressive men" hauled her out of the apartment, threw her and her dog out the service entrance onto the marble floor in the hallway and beat her with fists. She says she erupted into a seizure-like episode and began swearing in "Tourette's-like speech."
She says her brother then came into the hall, threw her purse at her and told the three men, "Get rid of her. She is not family."
"He was directing that as if he was directing one of his shows - very calmly, just stood there and said that," she said in the AP interview.
She says two of the men dragged her onto the elevator, beat her and sexually groped her on the ride down, repeatedly banged her on the elevator railing and ripped her right ear lobe until it bled. She said they dragged her across the lobby and threw her and her dog on the asphalt driveway. She says no one responded to her 911 call, so she eventually pulled herself to her Lexus and drove to an emergency room to be treated for the injured earlobe, fractured ribs and elbow, damage to her vision, a concussion, neck and back strains and other injuries.
Kenneth Feld responds that during the shiva only the den, dining room, living room and adjacent front bathroom were open to guests, and his sister tried to sneak toward a bedroom where family heirlooms and financial documents had been stored. One guard said in court filings that Kenneth Feld's wife, Bonnie, instructed them not to allow Karen into the back rooms for fear she'd take something.
Kenneth Feld's counterclaim says when a guard confronted his sister, she "exploded in a rage," began yelling profanities and threw a glass of wine at him. He says her outburst prompted a pregnant catering chef to hide behind a table and forced the rabbi to stop the service.
He says his sister continued to yell as she was escorted into the hall and that he tried to step out and calm her, but she swung at him and missed.
Kenneth Feld says he re-entered the apartment because he was upsetting her more and then she was escorted from the building, but he denies she was beaten by guards. One guard made an assault claim against Karen Feld for kicking him but declined to pursue it and a warrant for her arrest was dropped. Kenneth Feld says his sister was quickly discharged from the hospital and instructed to take over-the-counter pain killers.
Karen Feld says it's in nobody's interest to air their family's laundry and she would prefer to have settled without a public trial. But she said she will do whatever it takes to get her life back and feel safe.
"It is hard to believe that we could come from the same parents genetically and be so different and that a brother could do this to his only sister," Karen Feld said. "We don't have to be the best of friends, but a normal relationship. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that he would have me assaulted after inviting me to a house of mourning."
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