One From the Spleen: Coppola Battles Biskind on the High Seas

There was more than shuffleboard to hold the interest of the film-industry crew that was invited aboard the 330-foot, 45-room yacht that New Line Cinema chairman Robert Shaye had chartered. The Transom hears that an angry Francis Ford Coppola injected the high-seas idyll with a few moments of tension when he became rather aggressive with journalist and author Peter Biskind during one of the cruise’s daily “salon” discussions.

Although Mr. Shaye had been inviting guests onto the boat, Le Levant , since December, this particular leg of the journey, around the northern coast of Venezuela, occurred in mid-January around the time of America Online’s merger with Time Warner, and included such guests as directors Renny Harlin and Penny Marshall, actors James Coburn and Michelle Phillips and, cue the nerve-jangling soundtrack, Francis Ford Coppola and journalist author Peter Biskind.

Film-industry followers may remember that Mr. Coppola was quite unhappy with his portrayal in Mr. Biskind’s 1998 book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-’n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

So, when Mr. Biskind got up to give a presentation (as everyone on the ship apparently had to do) that dealt with his book and his work as a journalist, Mr. Coppola sat real close to the front of the room, and, according to members of the audience, threw a number of hostile questions at Mr. Biskind. “He was really aggressive,” said one witness of Mr. Coppola. “He was firing off questions, and when Biskind would try to answer, he didn’t get much out,” before Mr. Coppola came at him again.

Mr. Coppola apparently took issue with, among other points, the fact that Mr. Biskind had not allowed him to review the transcript of the interview that he did with the director for Easy Riders before the book was published. (The visibly uncomfortable Mr. Biskind tried to explain that this was not a journalistically kosher thing to do.) Mr. Coppola also contended that Mr. Biskind had relied on material about the personal lives of the directors to sell the book. And he also vocally disagreed with Mr. Biskind’s conclusion in Easy Riders, which was that many of the directors who came of age in the 70′s had burned out. (Indeed, one boatnik remembered Mr. Coppola turning the burnout subject into a bit of a running gag over the course of the trip and making comments like “I think I burned out in the 70′s.”)

Finally, after Mr. Coppola had had his fill of needling Mr. Biskind, witnesses said, the director grabbed the microphone and told the crowd: “I forgive Peter Biskind.” Naturally, the moviemaking crowd quickly remembered that in Godfather II , Michael Corleone forgives his brother Fredo right before the scene in which he has him killed. Through a spokesman, Mr. Coppola declined to comment on the story, and Mr. Biskind did not return our calls by deadline.

According to one person on the boat, this was not even the high point of the trip. That came, he said, when Mr. Shaye, out on the deck, got a cell phone call informing him of the AOL-Time Warner merger. The source claimed that Mr. Shaye then smacked himself in the head with his cell phone and said: “AOL just bought Time Warner. I’m a billionaire!”

Rockefeller Skank

The Rockefeller name once stood for vast wealth and inviolable privacy. George O’Neill Jr., the son of Rockefeller & Company chairman Abby O’Neill and a great-great grandson of John D. Rockefeller, may change all that.

The 49-year-old Mr. O’Neill’s bitter divorce and custody battle with his 32-year-old wife, Amy Whittlesey, the daughter of former Ambassador to Switzerland and Reagan White House staff member Faith Ryan Whittlesey, has torn a hole in the opaque curtain of secrecy that once cloaked the family’s secrets and finances. In addition to the acrimonious divorce proceedings, which began in 1997 in an Orlando, Fla., court (they are expected to resume in May), a January Vanity Fair story about the split, for which Ms. Whittlesey was interviewed, portrayed the marriage as a “nightmare of infidelity, perversion and guns that led to her hospitalization for depression.”

Now, all of that hostility may be about to migrate north to the city with which the Rockefeller name is most associated. Mr. O’Neill’s alleged inability to pay for his five children’s private school tuitions has prompted his estranged wife to file a petition at State Supreme Court in Manhattan seeking relief via at least three Rockefeller family trusts that are based here and of which Mr. O’Neill and his descendants are potential beneficiaries.

At a Feb. 17 hearing, Ms. Whittlesey’s New York attorney will seek about $200,000 from the trusts to help what her court papers describe as an “urgent” situation. “Throughout our marriage, Mr. O’Neill has supported himself and our family on his income from various trusts and his investments. However, he has taken the position in the Florida matrimonial litigation that his income has dropped precipitously and he cannot continue to support me and the children even in the insufficient manner he has until now,” reads Ms. Whittlesey’s affidavit, filed in Supreme Court.

“There is an urgent need of approximately $50,000 to pay outstanding bills and to keep current. In addition, I have other pressing outstanding debts to pay, including approximately $150,000 to my mother from whom I have borrowed for the support of the five children and myself. I am therefore forced to seek relief in New York, the [location] of the trusts of which Mr. O’Neill, myself, and-or the children are beneficiaries.”

Mr. O’Neill, who is a sculptor (but also lists his occupation as investor on one set of court documents), is currently paying Ms. Whittlesey $7,000 a month in temporary alimony and $5,800 a month in temporary child support. But Ms. Whittlesey, who does not work, noted in court documents that, with that income, she is left with a $15,000 deficit every month.

Picking up the slack for Ms. Whittlesey is her mother, the former Ambassador to Switzerland. Amy Whittlesey has moved into her mother’s Delray Beach, Fla., home and, she noted, has “borrowed extensively” from her. “As of Dec. 31, 1999, I have incurred attorneys fees of approximately $165,000. Even so, I cannot pay all the monthly bills for the children and myself.” Ms. Whittlesey added, “My credit has been ruined,” and, “My only credit card is almost at the limit. The car leasing company is now demanding that I pay double the scheduled monthly payment in order to keep the car.” As of Dec. 22, Ms. Whittlesey stated in court papers that she also owes the Gulf Stream School, which her children attend, $6,465.35 in tuition.

“Amy had five children with a Rockefeller heir who lived off the family money,” said Ms. Whittlesey’s attorney, Edward Hayes. “I don’t think it’s fair to turn to her now and say, ‘Because you’ve had a falling-out with your husband, the children can’t go to private schools.’ We know there’s a lot of hard feeling over this divorce, but we’re not asking for the world here. If the maternal grandmother is willing to help with the children’s education, we think it’s fair that the family’s trust from the father’s side help out with the education as well.”

Mr. O’Neill’s attorneys suggest otherwise. In opposition papers, they contend that Ms. Whittlesey’s petition should be denied. They allege Ms. Whittlesey has never made an application to the Florida court where her divorce case is being heard to increase her support payments. “Instead, conspicuously avoiding an evaluation of her claims of ‘dire’ need by the Florida court,” the papers noted, Ms. Whittlesey has asked the New York court “to force the trustees of three New York trusts … to use trust funds to subsidize the life style” sought by Ms. Whittlesey.

Mr. O’Neill’s lawyers say those three trusts involve dozens of living relatives and in-laws as well as future generations of descendants and spouses. The lawyers argued: “No court, here or elsewhere, has ever overridden the ‘absolute discretion’ of trustees in any even remotely analogous situation.”

Yet, Ms. Whittlesey’s affidavit suggests that, without any help from the trusts, her financial situation will only become worse. “Mr. O’Neill claims that he cannot support even the lesser standard the children and myself are currently living. He states that his net monthly income decreased from $26,029 in 1996 to $11,445 in 1997.”

In a financial statement included in court papers, Mr. O’Neill puts his net worth at $2,239,626. The Vanity Fair article reported, however, that “individuals who are familiar with the family documents” believe that, when he does get access to his trust funds, Mr. O’Neill’s stake in the Rockefeller fortune could be as much as $200 million.

It is not surprising then, that, in her affidavit, Ms. Whittlesey asserted, “It is my belief that Mr. O’Neill has manipulated his financial circumstances to exert pressure on me so that I will capitulate to his demands in the divorce, including relinquishing custody of the children.”

Ms. Whittlesey’s mother characterized the situation in a much harsher manner. “He’s trying to break her like you break a prisoner of war,” she told The Transom. “They are trying to punish her, humiliate her and litigate her to death, because she exposed his marital misconduct by fleeing from him with four little children [Amy Whittlesey has since given birth to a fifth child, a daughter. DNA tests proved that Mr. O'Neill is the father.] She fled from him in fear of her life because of all his guns.”

Mr. O’Neill listed approximately $15,500 worth of guns on his financial statement. He is also reportedly a National Rifle Association instructor. The episode to which Faith Whittlesey is referring is recounted in the Vanity Fair story. According to Amy Whittlesey, one night she encountered a female employee of her husband allegedly performing oral sex on Mr. O’Neill. (The woman in question denied this story, but said that she, Mr. O’Neill and Ms. Whittlesey did spend the evening smoking pot in his parents’ living room.) When Ms. Whittlesey called the woman’s ex-husband to inform him of the incident, she said, Mr. O’Neill became enraged. The scene ended, Ms. Whittlesey told Vanity Fair , “with her husband stomping around with a gun threatening to kill himself.” That’s when Ms. Whittlesey apparently gathered up her children and left the couple’s rented Mountain Lake, Fla., home.

The Vanity Fair article also carried reports of Mr. O’Neill’s alleged attempts to get his wife to participate in group sex, and his alleged physical contact with the family’s 19-year-old baby sitter and the Lost Classics Girls, a group of buxom, tube-top-wearing women he had hired to staff his Lost Classics children’s book company. However, the article noted that, in addition to Mr. O’Neill denying in court that he cheated on his wife, “The case is rife with accusations that Mr. O’Neill’s soon-to-be ex-wife was “hallucinating about all that kinky sex, and that insanity runs in the family.”

After the Vanity Fair article ran, Mr. O’Neill’s lawyers sought a court order to prevent anyone in the Florida divorce case from talking to the press. Judge Jay Paul Cohen stopped short of imposing a gag order but warned both sides, “At some point, somebody’s got to remember these are children, not inanimate objects.”