Millionaire radio magnate Richard Eaton shared his simple, upbeat philosophy -- "life is what you make it" -- with thousands of Washingtonians for 33 years on his daily broadcasts. But when he died of cancer four years ago, he left a tangled legacy of money and relationships revealing a life style that was anything but simple.
Valued at $50 million, Eaton's estate was the largest ever probated in wealthy Montgomery County, according to Circuit Court officials. The contest of wills among heirs from his two families brought to public scrutiny the passions of a man described by his eldest son as a fiercely private "maverick." That contest was as complicated as the relationships among various family members and was decided, in part, on testimony and a document that later proved false.
Still, several themes emerge from court testimony and court papers, among them that this Harvard-educated Quaker was as committed to running the lives of his two families as he was bringing music and news to the black and Hispanic populations of Washington and other areas. Apparently, he also hoped to extend that control from the grave, according to some who knew him.
"Richard Eaton was apparently the kind of guy that set things up in documents so that his ghost could laugh from the grave while he watched his beneficiaries scramble," said Courtland Townsend Jr., one of a platoon of lawyers hired by those remembered and those forgotten in Eaton's will.
Eaton, who died at 81, left his fortune from a chain of radio stations and cable television systems to several business associates as well as 20 relatives: his first wife and lifelong companion, French-born Marguerite Georgette Eaton, now 76; his fiery second wife, Cuban-born Elsa Hurtado Eaton, now 44; 10 adopted children and eight grandchildren.
Eaton revised his will at least 10 times as his regard for various family members ebbed and flowed. But the final will was no less complicated than his affections.
In a deposition, Pierre Eaton, the eldest of the children, compared the family life to television "shows like Dynasty and Dallas."
"I would like to make a lot of money on his life story ," Pierre Eaton said.
During a four-year firestorm over the will, family members have stayed out of the public eye, declining requests for interviews. This story is drawn from court papers and interviews with court sources, lawyers and people who knew Eaton.
Eaton's estate included a $575,000 home on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda and other real estate and securities, including IBM stock valued at $1.5 million. But the bulk of the $49,791,000 was tied up in United Broadcasting Co. Inc., the Bethesda-based radio and television empire that Eaton started in 1947.
Eaton moved to the area from Europe in 1940, after losing a chain of newspapers in France when the Germans invaded. Once in this country, Eaton was struck by a racial segregation that contrasted sharply with the relaxed attitudes of Europe.
"Like Martin Luther King Jr., I was very impressed with the black community's need for equal representation," Eaton said during a 1980 interview in The Washington Post.
"It is our privilege in life to try to find the best means to serve those who need us," Eaton said in that interview.
Apparently guided by that philosophy, Eaton started the nation's first black radio station, WOOK-AM, in Washington in 1947, the first Hispanic station in Miami and the first Japanese station in Honolulu.
Eventually, United Broadcasting owned nine AM and FM radio stations -- including WINX-AM in Rockville and WOOK-FM in the District -- cable systems in New Hampshire and Vermont and a suburban newspaper in New Jersey.
Eaton's last will was relatively simple, on the surface. Eaton bequeathed 16 percent of the principal of his estate to his second wife, Elsa, and 16 percent to each of his two sons, Pierre and Daniel. To his eight daughters -- four adopted during his marriage to Marguerite and four adopted with Elsa -- he left 4 percent each. Two percent shares were left to seven of the eight grandchildren, 3 percent to the eighth grandchild and 3 percent to Gerald Hroblak, a United employe since 1968.
To Marguerite Eaton, his wife of more than 40 years whom Eaton had married in France when she was 15 and he was 25, he left generous living expenses and first choice of his belongings. The will contained detailed instructions for her lifelong medical care, including a prohibition on placing her in a nursing home. Marguerite Eaton was to be buried alongside her former husband in Rock Creek Cemetery in the District.
The strings attached to the will, however, caught the heirs in a virtual cobweb.
None of the money, save relatively small dribbles from a trust set up for his beneficiaries, was to be available until at least 10 years after Eaton had died and after taxes had been paid and his first wife had died.
Pierre and Daniel, both of whom had worked all of their adult lives for their father, were prohibited from assuming the helm of United Broadcasting. Instead, Eaton directed that for 10 years, Suburban Bank in Bethesda was to manage the estate and Hroblak was to be United's president.
Eaton also forbade Elsa to seek her right under Maryland law as the surviving spouse to demand a statutory one-third share of the estate. If Elsa elected to contest that, Eaton wrote in the will, she and the couple's four daughters would lose everything and their shares would be divided among Marguerite, Pierre and Daniel.
Even if she did not contest the will, Elsa was supposed to wait until she turned 50, on Aug. 23, 1990 -- assuming 10 years had passed since Eaton's death, Marguerite had died and all taxes had been paid -- to receive one-half of her 16 percent. Five years later, she would receive the remaining 8 percent.
The will dictated that Elsa would be left penniless if she remarried, lived with a man, or forced any of her four daughters to leave home before they turned 25. In addition, Elsa would lose all if she violated this commandment: "She shall not unduly harass, nor disturb my former wife, Marguerite Georgette Eaton, nor unduly interfere with her peaceful existence . . . . "
Nine days after Eaton died, Elsa, 40, contested the will to claim her statutory share of the estate.
Eaton's relationship to Elsa had grown tumultuous in Eaton's later years, according to court testimony, and Eaton clung more and more to his former wife.
He and Marguerite became closer after Richard Eaton Jr., 26, their youngest and most attentive son, was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his apartment on June 30, 1976.
"It was almost as though he was falling out of love with Elsa and back into love with Marguerite," Hroblak said of Eaton's last years, when Eaton's ill health made him totally dependent on the two women, who argued constantly over his care and his affections.
Eaton had crafted their rivalry himself. Eaton divorced Marguerite on the grounds of adultery in 1966 and went to live with Elsa. But before his marriage to Elsa in 1970, Eaton, then 70, required Elsa, then 29, to sign a prenuptial agreement that if he ever were to become ill, Marguerite, not Elsa, was to care for him. In addition, their yearly vacations to Europe included Marguerite.
"Do you know any woman who would go on vacation with her husband and allow the husband's previous wife to come along?" Hroblak asked. "He could accomplish that -- he had great influence over the women in his life."
Part of that influence, which extended to his children, may have been connected to his tight purse- strings. Although a multimillionaire, Eaton lived relatively simply, wearing shoddy clothes and driving an old station wagon. His only luxury was dining in good restaurants, according to friends.
"He kept Marguerite at a level of support where she was dependent on him. He kept the children at a level of support where they were dependent on him. And he kept Elsa absolutely dependent on him," said Stephen Moss, a Montgomery attorney who represents Marguerite.
According to court documents and testimony, Eaton visited Marguerite every day at her house in Bethesda, staying with the woman he called "Mum" through the evening television news. Then, he would return to the Bethesda home he shared with Elsa.
"He had a greater trust for Marguerite and a lesser trust for Elsa -- after all, Marguerite was giving him TLC tender loving care , feeding him dinner, holding his hand, while Elsa was threatening divorce and arguing with him," Hroblak said.
Exactly nine years after she married Eaton, Elsa filed for divorce. According to the divorce complaint filed on April 16, 1979, Elsa alleged, among other things that Eaton had deserted her, had tried to have her committed to a mental institution, had not provided adequate financial support and, "under the psychological influence of his former wife," had given away thousands of dollars worth of possession and assets "to deprive her and their children of any funds or assets."
Six months later, the divorce request was withdrawn, and Richard and Elsa Eaton stayed together. But during the turmoil, Richard Eaton had written his final, 24-page will with its loving bequests to Marguerite and its stern warnings to Elsa.
Ultimately those warnings were nothing more than the toothless roar of a paper tiger.
On May 4, 1983, Circuit Court Judge Rosalyn B. Bell overturned Eaton's Nov. 8, 1979, will and ruled that Elsa was entitled under Maryland law to one third of the estate.
Bell based her decision in part on a 1974 document, written over Eaton's signature, revoking Richard and Elsa Eaton's 1970 prenuptial agreement. In that 1970 agreement, Elsa had agreed to abide by the last will. The purported revocation was produced by Melvin A. Teplin, a former New York attorney of Richard Eaton and a felon twice convicted of unrelated fraud conspiracies.
Teplin, at a Feb. 4, 1984, meeting at National Airport with Elsa and her attorney Charles T. Duncan, asked Elsa to pay him off for making her a multimillionaire, according to court records. Teplin told them that he had fabricated the revocation agreement by typing it on a piece of paper that Richard Eaton had signed earlier.
On Sept. 14, 1984, in U.S. District Court, Teplin was sentenced to three years in prison on two counts of conspiracy in connection with that episode.
Maryland law, like the laws of most states, does not allow a judge's final order, such as Bell's ruling, to be invalidated except under very unusual circumstances.
Still, Pierre Eaton filed a motion to set aside Bell's ruling on May 14, 1984, citing the grounds of "fraud, mistake and irregularities," stemming from Teplin's perjured testimony. The next day, without explanation, Pierre withdrew his motion, leaving Elsa with the bulk of the estate.
But the legal battle over Eaton's millions is not over. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 27, in which a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge must decide which of Eaton's heirs must pay millions of dollars in estate taxes. Elsa's marital bequest, however, is exempt, as are three charities that received some money.
"So I guess there's two of us -- me and Marguerite -- that got what Mr. Eaton intended -- everyone else got more or less," United Broadcasting's Hroblak mused recently. Eaton, he added, "would have been terribly, terribly upset with Elsa."