On Nov. 3, 2003, Lionel Pincus was standing in a tuxedo in the New York Public Library’s Astor Hall. It was the Library Lions gala, and everything was lovely. The venture capitalist’s longtime companion, Princess Firyal of Jordan, was there, and so were Lord Conrad Black, Veronica Hearst and Henry Louis Gates. Trumpets called guests into the dining room, where there was cinnamon in the branches by the tables.
“Smile!” a photographer told the poet Billy Collins, a gold medallion around his neck, and the night’s other honorees.
“Lions don’t smile,” one snapped.
“Not until they’re fed,” said Mr. Collins. Dinner that night was quail, pheasant pie and poached pears.
In the six years since, Lord Black was imprisoned for mail fraud, Ms. Hearst lost her mansion to foreclosure and Anthony Marshall allegedly exploited his dying mother, the library hall’s namesake, before her death at 105. But even the Astor case doesn’t touch the tremendous dazzle and profound weirdness of what’s happened with the princess and Mr. Pincus, a 78-year-old who’s been legally incapacitated for three years.
One way to tell the story is to say that Mr. Pincus’ two sons want to sell off their father’s $50 million, 7,000-square-foot, 14-room duplex at the Pierre, where the monthly maintenance is over $27,000, and give the proceeds to charity. The princess, the type of person who can spend $6,508 of Mr. Pincus’ money on towel warmers, wants it for herself. “They feel,” a source close to the sons said after they sued in August to ensure a sale, “like she’s going to stop at nothing.”
The real story is immensely more complicated. There are, according to years of documents obtained by The Observer, ferocious emails, unreliable letters and a failed agreement to give the princess the Pierre duplex, plus well over $100 million, if she limited her time with Mr. Pincus to four chaperoned meals and an outing per week. She would not have been involved in burial service plans.
“They think she’s a menace,” William Zabel, the sons’ attorney, said. “That’s what the whole thing is about. It’s not about preserving money. Above all, they want their father to be left alone.” The problem is that the Pierre duplex is hers, or at least it seems to be.
“Do they wish Dad had never met this nice-looking woman who showed him things he had never experienced?” a source close to the princess said. “Sure, greedy little sons of a bitch.”
>>MORE FROM MAX ABELSON ON THE PINCUS-PRINCESS DRAMA
THE JERUSALEM-BORN princess, who attended a British boarding school and married one of King Talal of Jordan’s sons before her 20th birthday, is very beautiful. By the mid-’80s, a news story that needed to rattle off a group of chic names mentioned her in between Princess Caroline and Catherine Deneuve. “Opulent and classic, with a great sense of color,” is how Gotham’s best-dressed list put it this year. In her 60s, she resembles Annette Bening, except she’s not from Topeka.
She has dated very rich men, but not wimpy ones. “She was the first woman to operate in his league,” Vanity Fair wrote in a 1992 profile of the monolithic tycoon Stavros Niarchos. “He really cared for her.”
In 1996, Princess Firyal says in an affidavit, she met and fell in love with Mr. Pincus, who co-founded the multibillion-dollar private-equity firm Warburg Pincus. He had lost his wife to cancer a year earlier. “We soon became an inseparable couple and we have been devoted partners ever since.”
The princess changed his life. By 1997, they were sipping Champagne with Denise Hale, a goddess of the San Francisco social scene. They went to St. Petersburg for the dedication of the restored Edmund J. Safra Synagogue, just after the banker’s infamous Monaco death.
“He had lived like a New York banker—very well, very comfortably, with a wife and children,” New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia, a longtime acquaintance, said. “She opened up this world to him that he really had no access to before.”
There was an outdoor Champagne reception with Prince Charles, in his Gloucestershire garden under ancient Lebanon cedar. There was the Library Lions gala, and then another. “She’s charming. She’s amusing. She’s stylish. She’s incredibly attractive,” another New York socialite on that best-dressed list said. “I’m sure he was swimming.”
By the new decade, Mr. Pincus was said to be buying her a $7.5 million co-op on the fourth floor of the Pierre. A deal for the apartment closed, but it was back on the market by 2003. “Here is your history of personal expenses,” he wrote her that September, in an unsigned letter filed by the sons in court records. “I find them to be unacceptable for clothes, etc. It seems unreasonable and I think you have a problem, which in turn is a problem for me.”
“Lionel and I never exchanged letters, except love letters,” Princess Firyal says in the affidavit. (She and the sons would not give interviews for this story; their quotes are from court filings.) “We, like many in our circle in New York, chose to live our life in our way and style.”
In 1998 and 2001, Mr. Pincus bought up the duplex. Even though the sons’ suit says he was pushed by his companion, he was still healthy then, a sophisticated executive helming a massive global firm.
The “glitz and spectacle of the Pierre were not to Lionel’s liking,” says 37-year-old Matthew Pincus, who runs a five-year-old music publishing company. “Despite his wealth and success, Lionel always has been a modest and private man. … He often said he was up to his eyeballs in the Pierre and was not happy.”
“He is a very generous man,” the princess says, “as evidenced by the $2-3 million weddings he paid for.”
She would know. In photos of Matt’s nuptials in September 2005, the bride and groom are on a dock at sunset, smiling hugely, with Mr. Pincus’ arm around the groom and the princess’ arm around the bride. Then here they are dancing the hora—raised high on their seats above the circle, really beaming, but holding on.
Dave Eggers was scheduled to be there, giving one of nine readings on everlasting love. “Relationship adviser to bride; gave pivotal advice: if you like him, touch his elbow while walking,” the program said. The princess had a reading, too, the last before the vows: “Early, constant supporter of Matt & Sarah, many flashes of her brilliance appear this weekend.”
Mr. Pincus, who had undergone cancer surgery in November 2003, the month of the Lions and poached pear, signed two letters the day after Matt’s wedding. One told his trustees to give the princess the respect of a spouse, and the other asked his sons to remain close to the princess, and to “help and love each other.”
IN EARLY 2006, Mr. Pincus left 733 Park Avenue, his home for decades, for the Pierre. He and the princess spent the rest of the year in a rented room, because the duplex wasn’t ready yet. If you ask one side, he got the kind of loving care that his rich, absent sons, who are both apt to use his first name, wouldn’t provide. Or he was wasting away in a kitchen-less rental, sequestered and jeopardized by a woman who wanted him to go to a fitting with his tailor instead of the emergency MRI appointment that revealed a subdural hematoma.
In November, Matt Pincus and 40-year-old Henry, a filmmaker who’d done work with MTV, came to take their father back to Park Avenue. Guards had been hired. “As a result, we were able to keep Henry and Matthew from completing their plan,” the princess says in the affidavit.
The sons brought a guardianship proceeding. By the end of the year, a judge declared Mr. Pincus to be legally incapacitated, and his sons were named co-guardians (though the files have been sealed). Matt and Henry brought him back to 733 Park in early 2007.
If it was a fight over control, it was also a fight over money. In mid-2006, trustees told the princess that her distributions were going to be nearly 30 percent lower than the year before, when her annual spending was $9.31 million.
The sons’ suit reports that Pierre renovation and furnishing costs were up to $17 million as of autumn 2006: The console table was $129,000; the pair of pottery horses cost $750,000. But that was before Mr. Pincus was declared legally incapacitated.
In mid-2007, her spending was reduced by another 40 percent, she says. That November, when the sons put the duplex on the market for $50 million, New York City’s second most expensive listing, her attorneys asked in separate letters for the apartment to be de-listed. It wasn’t.
Still, settlement negotiations began. By Dec. 14, she and the sons had signed a term sheet. The princess would be given the Pierre duplex, an $85 million trust, $15 million in cash and $10 million more at his death, among other things. In exchange, she didn’t just agree to deliver her key to 733 Park and to refrain from litigation, but to see Lionel for only four meals and one outing per week, all chaperoned, and none at the Pierre. The princess would be contacted after a life-threatening event. She would be involved in planning for his memorial service, but not his burial.
What about Mr. Pincus’ request that she be helped and loved? The sons now believe the two letters had been written by the princess: She tore up her first drafts into tiny pieces, their court papers say. Then she emptied the trash herself. (One of Mr. Pincus’ attorneys has said, though, that the letters were similar to one Mr. Pincus had asked the lawyer to write.)
She filed a motion to enforce the settlement, and to stop the sons from dealing off the duplex, but it was dismissed in summer 2008 on jurisdictional grounds. This time around, the sons’ August suit wants the princess stopped from interfering with the duplex’s sale. And the proceeds, the suit says, goes to the Pincus Family Fund—the philanthropic trust they control.
The trouble is that Mr. Pincus’ estate plan seems to plainly give the sprawl to the princess. Until recently, even the sons’ own attorneys were saying in court papers that she gets the money when the duplex is sold. In August 2008, in fact, one of Mr. Pincus’ trustees wrote that a sale was O.K. precisely because she was obviously left with the proceeds.
But because a sentence in the estate plan defines his duplex as the Pierre realty he owns at his death, the sons now say that she gets nothing if he’s still alive.
Like all good tragedies, it only gets more complicated from there. The suit also says that she cajoled juicy changes to the estate plan while Mr. Pincus ailed. “They didn’t have a problem with Firyal until they found out she was ripping off their dad,” Mr. Zabel said. If that reminds you of Anthony Marshall and his late mother, it’s because it’s supposed to: “Oh, choreographed like Nijinsky, my friend,” the source close to the princess said.
But! If the sons drive hard at the Astor angle, they may be in trouble: In the most recently-revised estate plan, they were suddenly provided with an option to buy their father’s Ram Island, off Southampton, for the relatively piddling price of $7.5 million. They had never before been given a chance to own the private isle outright.
If the princess was up to no good, you might say, then they were, too.
“WE PLAY THIS middle-class card that we only play when it’s convenient, and say she’s a money grubber,” Mr. Columbia, the social diarist, said. “That’s what everybody’s after! The sons, the lawyers, the PR people, everybody.”
But if a gigantic apartment, even if its asking price is down from $50 million to $35 million, can be sold for charity or kept for a princess, aren’t the moral implications clear? “What did Lionel want,” one of her lawyers, Les Fagan, said. “If he wanted her to have this money, then nothing else matters. It was his to give away. If he wanted her to have it, she should have it.”
What Mr. Pincus wanted will be up for discussion over the next few months. “One night at dinner at Swifty’s, after he could no longer talk, she asked him, ‘Do you love me?’” Mr. Columbia said. “And he nodded and nodded. And she said, ‘How much?’ And he opened his arms as wide as he could. And Lionel is not some guy who could be tricked by a hooker.”
More from Max Abelson: