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 May 9 before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle. Karen Feld filed a $110 million suit against her younger brother, Kenneth, for assault when they came together in the Jewish rite of sitting shiva for their dead aunt.
The suit filed by 63-year-old Karen Feld says her 62-year-old brother long wanted to harm her 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, which Kenneth Feld now runs and bills 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 top CIA covert operative to run a secret 8-year operation to spy on and divert an author who wanted to write a 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 an interview with The Associated Press, the first either sibling has given on the case.
Karen Feld says her brother’s vendetta against her led to his ordering guards to throw her and the toy poodle that is 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 surgeries on her brain and knee.
Kenneth Feld, who lives in Tampa, Florida, declined to be interviewed. But in court filings he denies her allegations and has filed a counterclaim against his sister for trespassing, accusing 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.
In court filings, Kenneth Feld’s lawyers describe his sister as narcissistic and prone to “temper tantrums” during which she behaves unreasonably, yells obscenities and becomes extremely aggressive. They point out other incidents in which she was restrained by authorities after explosive confrontations in the months after the shiva, including a fight with Transportation Security Administration agents before she boarded a flight and another confrontation during an Arlo Guthrie concert. Feld’s attorneys say Karen Feld tried to argue the same injuries and medical treatment arose after the concert as she did after the shiva.
Karen Feld responds that besides the physical injuries from the shiva assault, she has been suffering from post-traumatic stress that has ended her career as a local political and gossip columnist and made her “hyper vigilant” around security officials.
Neither sibling is a stranger to lawsuits. Karen Feld has also sued a man involved in an auto accident with her, and her former private nurse, who countersued alleging Karen Feld was abusive. And Ken Feld was sued by writer Jan Pottker for a long-running covert operation to stop her from writing a book on the Felds that went as far to divert her as secretly funding a book deal for her to write about another wealthy family that controls the Mars candy business.
Kenneth and Karen Feld have been in legal disputes since their father’s unexpected death during his sleep in 1984. Irvin Feld gave his company to his son and left very little to his daughter. Kenneth Feld also took ownership of their father’s properties, including the Georgetown house where his sister lived. Karen Feld filed a lawsuit saying he was trying to have her thrown out of her home, and an eventual settlement allowed her to continue living there.
Both siblings have said Kenneth was groomed from an early age to take over the company. Karen Feld said her father didn’t believe women should go into business, and in her deposition she said he physically abused her to the point of giving her multiple concussions.
“I respect him for what he did in terms of his brains and creativity and what he built and his work ethic,” she said. “That doesn’t make him a good father. And I think that a lot of what he created after the time my mother died particularly was to divide Kenny and I, not to bring us together.”
Kenneth and Karen Feld had not communicated for years when Kenneth called his sister in September 2007 to let her know their 92-year-old aunt was dying and that she was welcome to attend services. They even hugged upon Karen’s arrival at the shiva.
That’s where their shared version of events ends. Karen Feld’s lawsuit explains that she had long suffered from stress-induced seizure-like symptoms from previous brain injuries. The suit says her dog Campari was trained to detect an attack coming on and signal that she should retreat to a dark, quiet place.
Karen Feld says as the rabbi began the service, she detected signs of a seizure coming on and tried to retreat to a back bathroom. Her complaint says “large, aggressive men” hauled her out of the apartment, threw her and her dog out the service entrance onto the marble floor in the hallway and beat her with fists. She says she erupted into a seizure-like episode and began swearing in “Tourette’s-like speech.”
She says her brother then came into the hall, threw her purse at her and told the three men, “Get rid of her. She is not family.”
“He was directing that as if he was directing one of his shows — very calmly, just stood there and said that,” she said in the AP interview.
She says two of the men dragged her onto the elevator, beat her and sexually groped her on the ride down, repeatedly slammed her on the elevator railing and ripped her right ear lobe until it bled. She said they dragged her across the lobby and threw her and her dog on the asphalt driveway. She says no one responded to her ambulance emergency call, so she eventually pulled herself to her Lexus and drove to an emergency room to be treated for the injured earlobe, fractured ribs and elbow, damage to her vision, a concussion, neck and back strains and other injuries.
Kenneth Feld responds that during the shiva only the den, dining room, living room and adjacent front bathroom were open to guests, and his sister tried to sneak toward a bedroom where family heirlooms and financial documents had been stored. One guard said in court filings that Kenneth Feld’s wife, Bonnie, instructed them not to allow Karen into the back rooms for fear she’d take something.
Kenneth Feld’s counterclaim says when a guard confronted his sister, she “exploded in a rage,” began yelling profanities and threw a glass of wine at him. He says her outburst prompted a pregnant catering chef to hide behind a table and forced the rabbi to stop the service.
He says his sister continued to yell as she was escorted into the hall and that he tried to step out and calm her, but she swung at him and missed. Kenneth Feld says he re-entered the apartment because he was upsetting her more and then she was escorted from the building, but he denies she was beaten. One guard made an assault claim against Karen Feld for kicking him but declined to pursue it and a warrant for her arrest was dropped. Kenneth Feld says his sister was quickly discharged from the hospital and instructed to take over-the-counter pain killers.
“The evidence will show that Karen Feld acted as badly as a person can act on the second night of the shiva,” Feld’s attorneys wrote in court documents.