Kenneth and Karen Feld's Sibling Rivalry Is Headed to Court, Again
Friday, March 27, 2009
When prayerful mourners gathered that first evening to sit shiva for 92-year-old Shirley Feld, an arts patron and prominent member of Washington's Jewish community, everything went fine. But something unseemly happened during the next night of mourning at the dowager's penthouse. It's led to yet another Feld family drama -- this time a multimillion-dollar lawsuit pitting sister against brother.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, former gossip columnist Karen Feld alleges that her businessman brother, Kenneth Feld -- whose family-entertainment conglomerate includes the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus -- authorized her forceful removal from their aunt Shirley's shiva service. Karen Feld claims that a trio of "large, aggressive" bodyguards working for Kenneth beat her and threw her into an elevator, along with her ever-present toy poodle, Campari.
Feld v. Feld is the latest chapter in a family saga already rife with bitter feuds and whispered secrets. Karen and Kenneth, the only children of the late circus impresario Irvin Feld -- and the niece and nephew of Shirley Feld -- have been estranged for decades. Their last major court skirmish was 25 years ago over Irvin Feld's will, which cut Karen out of the family business.
Kenneth Feld declined to comment, but his attorneys filed court papers earlier this month to dismiss elements of his sister's complaint, which she brought against him last September, a year after their aunt's death. Karen Feld also would not comment, although one of her lawyers, Steven Gremminger, said, "Karen will litigate her claims as long as it takes for her to get justice."
Her suit alleges that the beating aggravated a brain tumor that later had to be removed, and caused her emotional distress, "symptoms of Tourette Syndrome" and "seizure-like episodes." For those and other alleged injuries, Karen Feld wants $110 million in damages from her younger brother.
Determining what really happened on the evening of Sept. 26, 2007, at the Colonnade building on New Mexico Avenue NW is a matter of billable hours -- and there are likely to be plenty, given the litigious parties. But clearly something went awry: Attendees recall hearing Karen Feld screaming and cursing outside of Shirley Feld's spacious penthouse not long after a rabbi commenced the service in the dining room.
"She was there one minute, everything was cool, calm and collected . . . then boom, suddenly she's on the outside," said an attendee who, like others aware of the incident, declined to be identified in the newspaper because of the case's sensitivity. "Everyone was startled. It was shocking."
The suit says that the alleged beating caused Karen Feld to "utter obscenities" while pinned down in the hallway after being ejected. She also alleges that her brother came into the hallway, tossed her purse to one of the burly men and said: "This is hers. Get rid of her. Her name is F-I-E-L-D. She is not family. She doesn't belong here."
Shirley Feld's death initially occasioned an opportunity for reconciliation between her niece and nephew, observers say. Decades ago, Karen, now 61, and Kenneth, now 60, lived in the penthouse and were raised by their aunt Shirley and uncle Israel (Irvin Feld's brother). Their mother committed suicide in 1958, when Kenneth was 9 and his sister was 10, and their entrepreneur father, who first prospered locally as a rock-and-roll promoter, traveled frequently on business.
In his eulogy at the funeral, the suit says, Kenneth joined the officiating rabbi, M. Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, in describing Karen Feld as "the apple of Shirley's eye." (Lustig declined to discuss the case. "It's not newsworthy," he said. "I don't think I serve any of my congregants well by sharing any of this.")
Irvin Feld, a man given to flamboyant suits and grand PR gestures, bought the Ringling Bros. circus in 1967, staging a contract signing ceremony at the Colosseum in Rome. Kenny, as he is known to family and friends, went to work with his father and rose to the top. Karen also did a stint in the promotions end of the business but has said that her father groomed Kenny while discouraging her. "There was nowhere to go in the organization because my father just made sure there was nowhere for me to go," she told the now-defunct local magazine Regardie's in 1990.
Irvin's death in 1984 only heightened tensions between the siblings. "The bottom line was, I got nothing. I did not inherit one penny according to my brother's interpretation of the will," Karen told The Washington Post in a 1990 profile. Kenny was executor of the will; she sued him for $10 million, about half of the estate at that time. The Post reported that she settled out of court for less than $1 million in property, which included a house in Georgetown.