It's hard not to gawk.
And it's easy to mock.
At least, when it comes to the legal trials of America's rich and famous. And not just any rich and famous Americans, either, but those for whom status and its obligatory accoutrements seem wholly untouchable by the masses. We're talking about serious One Percenters here, folks, the likes of whom flamboyant New Yorker Ron Perelman has worked hard all his life to become.
And I'd say he's arrived, wouldn't you? Not to be confused with the thick-lipped actor Ron Perlman, this Perelman is short, bald, and currently worth $14 billion, making him the 69th richest person in the world. Owner of Revlon, the cosmetics company, he's churned through five wives - well, the fifth marriage appears to be holding, for the time being, at least. Eight children have been produced from his serial monogamy, as well as plenty of salacious fodder for New York's tabloids between his marriage episodes.
One of those marriages was to New Jersey heiress and socialite Claudia Cohen, a one-percenter in her own right, and their marriage, which ended in 1994, produced a daughter, Samantha, who is now a 23-year-old business major at Columbia University. Perelman's relationship with Cohen experienced a revival of sorts after their divorce, and when Cohen was dying of cancer, she made her ex-husband executor of her will. A will that included approximately $700 million from the estate of her father, the man who started Hudson News, the airport concessionaire, which Cohen's brother now runs.
A guy who lives in a 25,000-square-foot house in New Jersey that Perelman thinks should be beyond his means.
Can you see where this is going?
Suffice it to say that Perelman has never been one to shy away from a lawsuit. He's waged a long-running battle against Morgan Stanley, and even sued his Chief Financial Officer over a $30 million salary dispute that accrued while the man was caring for his Alzheimer's-stricken wife. So when, as he was settling his ex-wife's affairs, Perelman's legal team discovered suggestions of impropriety in the inheritance his daughter, Samantha, should have received from her grandfather, the Hudson News mogul, Perelman pounced on his late ex-wife's brother.
Five years, and upwards of sixty million dollars in legal fees later, there's no end in sight for the saga between Perelman the father, Perelman the Ivy League daughter, and James Cohen, Ron Perelman's ex-brother-in-law. The Perelman's have already lost one round in court, and when the New York Times tracked her down for a quote explaining why she and her father are pressing forward with their claims, Samantha was luxuriating on her father's yacht anchored off of Greece.
She said that what her Uncle James had done regarding her inheritance "was greedy and not nice." Which displays an eloquence that must make any parent paying for a Columbia U education proud.
Okay, so that was a cheap shot. But it's the only cheap thing about this entire story. If you read the whole article about this lawsuit in the Times, there will likely be several points along the way where you'll have to stop and re-read what you've just read. Yes, that's $60 million in legal fees so far. Yes, Perelman has already had to pay a previous court nearly $2 million in fines for filing what that court claimed was a frivolous lawsuit. Yes, Perelman willingly forked over millions of dollars for his ex-wife's cancer treatments.
At least there was some love there, right? Or, at least, it looks that way. By most accounts, Perelman is generous to his children, even if his relationships with their mothers weren't laudable. He's an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath, praying for three hours every Saturday, and running a strictly Kosher home. Well, "homes," plural. And yacht.
Still, with $14 billion, you'd think the curmudgeon wouldn't be so tight. So what if you think a daughter of yours was cheated out of $700 million? Yeah, it's a lot of money, but several million dollars ago, shouldn't you have realized that your lawyers can't find a case for you to make? Is it the money that really bothers you, or might it be your own injured pride? Pride injured by the possibility that the elderly grandfather might have honestly changed his mind about where he wanted his money to go, and not to the offspring of his daughter's marriage to you? Might the ex-brother-in-law really have owned that much of the company selling newspapers, magazines, and breath mints in airports around the world, since he has been the one running it for years?
Actually, considering Perelman's stern upbringing in North Carolina, where his father was a successful businessman, and his own business tactics as a buyout king and corporate raider, taking umbrage when somebody else appears to cheat you wouldn't exactly be out of character. Perhaps, having taken advantage of other people - and even financially abusing them - himself, Perelman may likely be well aware of how other people could do the same things to him. If you can prove in a court of law that, at least if not morally, but legally, somebody else has defrauded you, why not make them pay?
Not to say that you should, but you can. And what billionaire has gotten that way by shying away from opportunity?
As typically happens in these things, lawyers appear to be the only winners in this saga, even if Ron and Samantha may have forged closer ties to each other, having waged such a valiant battle together. The ex-wife and ex-father-in-law are deceased, which, barring somebody's legal team uncovering a long-hidden silver bullet amongst the paperwork, seems to make this a "he said - he said" case.
It might be polite - and, indeed, expected - of us little people to simply let the Perelmans have their day in court without us drawing our own conclusions. Predictably, free-market Republicans would likely support the Perelmans in their gutsy quest, even if the ex-brother-in-law, a legitimate businessman in his own right, should be able to defend his wealth, even if it isn't in the same league as his opponent's. Democrats, on the other hand, would likely lament the waste of all this money by spoiled rich people on a lawsuit based mostly on ego than honor, even if people have the right to protect their assets, however enormous those assets may be.
Behold the irony: people who've made money selling the news being the news because of news makers with even more money. One way to sell more news is to make it yourself.
Meanwhile, if I was in any way related to any of Perelman's other ex-wives, I'd be so, so busy covering my tracks. Wouldn't you?