October 21, 1999
A Battle With No Winners
The High Holy Day period that just ended is, for most Jews, a time of solitary reflection, aptly called the Days of Awe for its mood of confrontation with the Eternal. For some of us, though, it's also a season for family togetherness, a cozy time to snuggle up with the ones you love most.
That, at least, is what billionaire investor Ronald Perelman seemed to be telling the judge in New York family court last month, just before he stormed out of the courtroom for the umpteenth time in what has to be the ugliest custody war in America.
Perelman and his third wife, Patricia Duff, are locked in an epic battle over the moral upbringing of their daughter Caleigh. Perelman contends that Duff, who converted to Judaism when she married him, is not fully abiding by their prenuptial agreement to rear Caleigh as an observant Jew. He wants certain guarantees from the judge, like keeping Caleigh with him until after Yom Kippur ends at sundown.
Duff insists she is giving the child a genuinely Jewish upbringing, even if it doesn't meet Perelman's expectations of Orthodoxy. She claims Perelman is simply seeking control, which wouldn't be out of character. Both say they just want what's best for the child. They've been at it for three years. Caleigh is almost five.
Religious custody fights are one of the rawest nerves in American marital law. They touch every religion, cutting to the very core of parental love and loss. In one landmark 1938 case in Amarillo, Texas, a mother contested the father's sole custody on grounds that he was a Jehovah's Witness. She claimed he wouldn't let the child salute the flag or celebrate Christmas. The judge agreed, and ordered the child placed in an orphanage.
That decision was overturned on appeal. Thanks to it and others like it, courts now tend to let parents pass their values to their children unhindered. Most states give the last word to the parent who wins custody. The only limit is the child's safety. One mother in Mississippi in 1977 had her custody challenged after she joined a snake-handling church. An appeals court judge ruled in her favor, saying there wasn't much evidence the child would get bitten.
Even a prenuptial agreement won't limit parents' religious choices in most states. An influential 1989 Pennsylvania decision held that enforcing a religious prenuptial would violate "the First Amendment principle that parents be free to doubt, question and change their beliefs." Courts now routinely permit parents nationwide to bring the kids to Mass en route to Hebrew school, or take them out for Chinese food after yeshiva. There are boundaries, though; in 1997, a Massachusetts court barred a born-again Christian father from teaching his children that their mother, an Orthodox Jew, was doomed to hell.
The exception is New York. Courts there routinely enforce prenuptial agreements, even when the parent's beliefs have changed. That's the core of Perelman's case.
Looked at in the abstract, the Perelman-Duff case echoes some of the most painful dilemmas in modern Jewish life. Perelman, a prodigious giver to Orthodox Jewish causes, claims he's fighting for his daughter's Jewish soul. His lawyers suggest that Duff, despite her Orthodox conversion, never became fully Jewish. Duff, once a prominent Democratic fund-raiser, counters that civil courts shouldn't be allowed to dictate a Jew's level of religious observance, implicitly raising images of Israel's religious pluralism battles.
But that's in the abstract. When you get to specifics, this case is a one-of-a-kind doozy. Legal observers can't remember a New York custody dispute this nasty or expensive. It's already taken up most of Caleigh's young life, and seems certain to scar the rest of it. Duff has been through 23 lawyers, by one count.
Perelman, 55, is one of the world's richest men, with a fortune estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion. Associates describe him as domineering, acquisitive and "crudely charming."
Raised in a Conservative home in Philadelphia, he's become known for his passionate, if eccentric, devotion to Orthodoxy. He's reputedly one of the biggest donors to Lubavitch. He's also been known to throw parties featuring live actors posing as nude statues. Last winter, he reportedly flew a planeload of yeshiva students down to the Caribbean island of St. Bart's, so he could have a minyan for Sabbath while reveling in the legendary topless paradise.
Duff, 45, is one of the most celebrated femmes fatales on the Washington-Hollywood glamour circuit. She's been, by turns, a congressional aide and an aspiring actress. She reputedly introduced Gary Hart to Donna Rice. Even hostile interviewers feel compelled to comment on her beauty.
Duff and Perelman met in 1992. She was married, at the time, to movie executive Mike Medavoy, her third husband. He was married to gossip columnist Claudia Cohen, his second wife. They were wed in early 1995, a few weeks after their daughter -- her first child, his sixth -- was born. They separated 20 months later. They've been in and out of court ever since.
Religion is only half of their battle. They have a separate dispute raging over child support. Perelman pays $12,000 a month for Caleigh's care, in addition to a reported $1.5 million a year in alimony. She wants the child support raised to $132,000 a month. She claims that since Perelman is a billionaire, while she is only a multimillionaire -- she got about $20 million in the divorce settlement -- she needs a little extra to give the tot a home life comparable to those visits with Dad.
Perelman dismisses the demands. He noted in one court session last spring that he fed Caleigh on $3 a day. That prompted a local tabloid to dub him "New York's Cheapest Billionaire."
In the end, if the Perelman-Duff battle teaches us anything it's that you can have too much money. Both sides have spent endlessly on lawyers and publicists to ruin each other's reputations. Perelman has accused Duff of taking Caleigh to an Easter egg hunt and baking cookies on Passover. Duff has accused Perelman of insisting Caleigh come for visits even when he wasn't there. Court-appointed psychologists have testified that they're both suspicious, self-centered tyrants. Nobody wins, least of all the child.
How the judge will rule is anybody's guess. Some wags are suggesting the best path to follow would be the Amarillo precedent: send the poor kid to an orphanage.
Or better still, one legal expert suggests, send the parents.
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal. Gene Lichtenstein is on vacation.