Friends fear NYC art-world heiress is isolated by daughter

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Marie-Christophe de Menil’s East 81st Street home was, for years, a haven. The oil heiress and art patron used to host lively, inebriated parties that earned her the nickname Prosecco. After the overdose death of her adored grandson Dash Snow in 2009, de Menil opened her doors to the hell-raising artist’s  friends. But more recently, the baroque townhouse has become a crime scene.

On March 2, Alina Morini, a Romanian immigrant who told The Post she spent 15 years working for de Menil and six years living with her — as an assistant, caregiver and friend — was arrested at the home for trespassing. She was, per a summons-with-notice, imprisoned for 30 hours, partly at the notorious Manhattan Detention Complex.

“Christophe did not want me to be arrested,” Morini told The Post. “She put out her hands and said, ‘Arrest me with her.’”

Now, Morini has filed a lawsuit claiming her arrest was “planned” by Taya Thurman, the daughter of de Menil and her ex-husband, Robert Thurman. (He is also the father of Uma Thurman, making Taya and the actress half-sisters.) Morini seeks at least $5 million in restitution from Taya and others for charges including false arrest and imprisonment and wrongful eviction.

The filing also claims a “forced and ongoing isolation of [de Menil] at the hands of her daughter,” who was previously estranged from her mother for “more than 30 years.”

Oil heiress Christophe de Menil was married to Robert Thurman (left) —  the father of de Menil's daughter Taya and who also fathered actress Uma Thurman (right) — he and de Menil divorced in 1961.
Oil heiress Christophe de Menil was married to Robert Thurman (left) — the father of de Menil’s daughter Taya and who also fathered actress Uma Thurman (right). He and de Menil divorced in 1961.
Getty Images

Taya has not yet responded to the filing. But a growing group of de Menil’s friends has expressed concern that they can’t contact the 88-year-old.

“I get calls from people close to her. They say they are cut off and concerned,” attorney Robert Hantman, who represents Morini, told The Post.

“I’m concerned about her well-being. Christophe is one of my oldest and closest friends. I tried for a little over a year now to be in touch and I have not heard back from her. It is very disturbing,” playwright and director Robert Wilson told The Post. “I was told that she was no longer receiving telephone calls and not allowed to see anyone.”

Nico Iliev, a friend of de Menil’s for the last 15 years, wrote a letter to Catherine McCaw, an assistant district attorney in NYC. Included in the court filing, it claims that de Menil is being isolated. Iliev wrote: “I was [recently] allowed to visit [Christophe] for 17 minutes … During the quick visit … she shared that she is ‘in jail.’”

He added that Christophe’s “landline and cell phone were disabled.”

Taya’s attorney Sheila Tendy told The Post: “Christophe is not isolated from anyone.”

Both sides accused the other of greed. Heirs to the Schlumberger oil fortune and art patrons who have been called the “Medici of modern art,” de Menil and her five siblings are said to be worth over $100 million.

The summons alleges that Taya was aiming “to exercise greater control over Christophe for…selfish economic gain.”

Hantman told The Post: “[Taya] wanted to keep away anyone who is close to Christophe and could … influence her.”

Meanwhile, Tendy said, “Alina is asking for $5 million for herself. Her claims are to smear the family for financial gain, period.”

Nobody expected de Menil — a vibrant light on the social scene who has funded works by Philip Glass and  Twyla Tharp — to lead such a controversial life in her golden years.

de Menil was close to artist grandson Dash Snow (right) before his 2009 overdose death but reportedly didn’t speak to her only child, Taya Thurman (second from left, with son Max) for three decades.
De Menil was close to artist grandson Dash Snow (right) before his 2009 overdose death but reportedly didn’t speak to her only child, Taya Thurman (second from left, with son Max) for three decades.
Patrick McMullan

Her parents, John and Dominique de Menil, moved from Paris to the US in 1941, after France fell to the Nazis. Blossoming art collectors, they landed in Houston, Texas, where the family’s oil services firm, Schlumberger Limited, was based.

“Houston was the biggest city in Texas but, at the time, it had very little [in the way of culture],” William Middleton, author of “Double Vision,” a biography of the couple, told The Post.

So John and Dominique started buying art and working with local institutions before launching a privately funded museum of their own, the Menil Collection, in 1987.

Their eldest daughter, Christophe grew up around fine art, living in a home designed by Philip Johnson and decorated by couturier Charles James. In her early 20s, she had moved into her parents’ Manhattan apartment. At age 27, in 1960, she wed Robert Thurman, then 19. Taya was born that year, and the couple divorced in 1961.

Around that time, de Menil began hanging out with a group of avant-garde artists including musician John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham and painter Robert Rauschenberg. She put together “happenings” in the Hamptons, supported the work of her favorite performers and designed costumes for playwright Wilson before launching her own fashion line.

Thanks in part to her, the Menil Collection, loaded with some 20,000 works, ranks among the world’s finest small museums. It includes coveted pieces by Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst’s portrait of Dominique and a Renzo Piano-designed gallery devoted to Cy Twombly.

Wilson recalled how de Menil helped him. “I wrote a play called ‘A Letter for Queen Victoria,’ [about] an autistic boy. I performed it for two months to sold-out houses in Paris. We came to New York and [critic] John Simon said, ‘Robert Wilson takes advantage of a brain damaged boy and puts him on stage.’ Damn right, I did. [The rhythm] was mathematical and the words were constructed like Mozart. But the play was a disaster in NY. Christophe saw it. I woke up one morning and in the mail was a $25,000 check and a note that read, ‘Thank you for this wonderful work. I do not want mention of my name.’ She did not want her name celebrated. She was extremely discreet,” he said.

Taya has moved into her mother's home and allegedly cut off the phone line and banned de Menil's friends, like Alina Morini (left) from seeing her. Thurman claims Morini conned her way into living with de Menil for six years.
Taya has moved into her mother’s home and allegedly cut off the phone line and banned de Menil’s friends, like Alina Morini (left) from seeing her. Thurman claims Morini conned her way into living with de Menil for six years.
DANIEL TOROK

But pressure was building in her private life. As Wilson described it: “For a number of years there [had] been tension between Christophe and her daughter.”

It seemed that de Menil and her only child disagreed over how to handle Taya’s wild-child son, Dash. (Taya and musician ex-husband, Christopher Snow, also share son Max, an acclaimed photographer, and daughter Caroline, an actress.)

“Dash was put into a diabolical boarding school,” Morini told The Post. “He complained to Christophe and she got him out.”

Tendy responded, “Alina’s characterization of anything involving Dash is not credible. She is in no position to know.”

Morini alleges Thurman arranged for her to be arrested when she returned to the townhouse. As evidence to support her claims, Morini included a written statement that she claims was penned by de Menil that says: “live with me, in my home.”
Morini alleges Thurman arranged for her to be arrested when she returned to the townhouse. As evidence to support her claims, Morini included a written statement that she claims was penned by de Menil that says: “live with me, in my home.”

In Dash, de Menil saw a kindred spirit.

“She realized that there was suddenly, in the family, a great artist. She understood him in a way that very few people did. He had problems with drugs but that did not stop her from supporting him as an artist,” Wilson said. “They bonded and he did not have that kind of relationship with his mother.”

Middleton added of de Menil: “I know that she believed in Dash Snow as an artist. We discussed Dash and his importance.”

Dash ran with a crew of wild creatives, including Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley, who embodied downtown debauchery in the early 2000s. His work reveled in the controversial: inspired by his wild life of sex and drugs and incorporating his own semen, sometimes splashed across photos of cops. It earned him solo shows and a spot in the 2006 Whitney Bienniel.

In 1999, Dash, then 18, and his 19-year-old bride, Agathe Aparru, had moved in with de Menil. “Christophe was his life,” said Morini. “They were very close.”

It was through Dash that Morini — who described herself as Agathe’s “godmother” — met de Menil.

“Dash was excited for me to go meet his grandmother,” Morini recalled. “He said she would love me.”

Indeed, the two women became close friends, according to several sources.
Dash overdosed in 2009, leaving behind his wife and their daughter, Secret. Morini was there for de Menil.

“This woman is my best friend, my power, my strength. We became attached at the joint,” Morini told The Post. “The only thing we didn’t have was sex. About six years ago, Christophe broke her hand and asked me to move in with her.”

Some suggest that Morini was like family for de Menil. “Last time I saw Christophe was a Thanksgiving dinner in 2018. It was lovely,” Middleton recalled. “Clearly, Christophe and Alina were close. Members of the family were there, but it felt like Alina was co-host of the dinner.”

de Menil is said to be locked in her East 81st Street townhouse against her wishes.
De Menil is said to be locked in her East 81st Street townhouse against her wishes.
Helayne Seidman

According to Wilson, “No way, as far as I could see, was Alina taking advantage of Christophe. She is a friend.”

Taya, for one, doesn’t seem to buy this.

“We have tapes of her being [verbally] abusive to Christophe,” Tendy said of Morini.

Tendy told The Post that there is audio of Alina being “very condescending …  ‘You stupid’ this and ‘stupid’ that …  Nobody would want a person like [Alina] caring for their aging mother.”

Morini acknowledges in the summons that the tape exists. She told The Post that it was recorded by a “maid who was fired” and captures “a stupid argument about going to the Hamptons. Christophe called me names. I called her names … People fight once in a while.”

She claims in the filing that Taya “had her wrongfully and illegally expelled from Christophe’s residence” in which she had been residing for six years.

“Taya started harassing me, and she bullied me to go to a hotel,” which the de Menils paid for, Morini said. “They said they would get me a lawyer.”

That lawyer was Cesar de Castro, who is listed on the Tendy Law website as “counsel to the firm.” Morini claims in the summons that she was the victim of a “scheme.”

Refuting this, Tendy said, “Cesar de Castro has his own law firm. He is of counsel to my firm. While the family had no obligation to pay for counsel to Alina, they did so out of a courtesy to her. Alina could have chosen any attorney she wanted.”

After being in the hotel for more than a month, Morini told The Post, her attorney advised her to return to de Menil’s townhouse. “Christophe was very excited. She said, ‘Oh, my Lu Lu is back’ — that’s her nickname for me. [Then] the police came.

The exterior of the Menil collection. A private art museum located in Houston, Texas.
The exterior of the Menil collection. A private art museum located in Houston, Texas.
Alamy

“I want to be reunited with Christophe. She has a few good years left and I want her to live them with dignity,” Morini said.

In Tendy’s estimation, “Alina Morini is not a friend or a family member. She is a disgruntled person who was arrested for conning her way into Christophe de Menil’s home.”

As for Christophe, The Post was given a statement attributed to her: “I recognize Alina Morini’s words for what they are and I’m very sorry and disappointed. I love my daughter and she has taken good care of me. I don’t support this lawsuit and I wish it would stop.”

But perhaps it is Dash’s widow who delivered the most damning portrait of this art-world family and their friends. “Not trying to get involved in their messes any longer,” Agathe Snow texted The Post. “I cannot surround myself with such bad energy … It is the same story over and over again, no imagination, no soul and no care.”

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