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WASHINGTON (AP) - 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 being aired in court at a trial that starts Monday before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. Karen Feld, 63, filed a $110 million lawsuit against her younger brother, 62-year-old Kenneth, for assault when they came together in the Jewish rite of sitting shiva for their dead aunt.
The suit says Kenneth Feld long wanted to harm his sister 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. Kenneth Feld now runs it. He bills the company 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 CIA covert operative to run a secret 8-year operation to spy on and divert an author who wanted to write a Feld 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 a recent interview with The Associated Press. It was the first interview that either sibling has given on the case.
Karen Feld says her brother’s vendetta led him to order guards to throw her and the toy poodle that’s 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 brain and knee surgery.
Kenneth Feld, who lives in Tampa, Fla., declined through his lawyer to be interviewed, preferring to make his case to the jury.
In court filings, he denies Karen Feld’s allegations and has filed a counterclaim against his sister for trespassing. He accuses 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, contending 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.
There was 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 Bridgton, Maine, lake house last year.
She says besides the physical injuries from the shiva assault, she has suffered from post-traumatic stress that has ended her career as a local political and gossip columnist and made her “hypervigilant” around security officials.
Kenneth Feld says the TSA incident and a separate one, weeks after the shiva, are examples of his sister’s pattern of “temper tantrums” in which she behaves unreasonably, yells obscenities and becomes extremely aggressive.
In that second instance, at an Arlo Guthrie concert, she was restrained after an explosive confrontation.
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