The Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm, 94, with her husband, Frank Basile, 48, at their co-op on Central Park West. The couple have had a five-year legal battle with her sons.
IF you could script your life, how would it play out? Make movies, win an Academy Award, own an enormous apartment on Central Park West and then, in your declining years, marry someone half your age?
In February, Ms. Holm was sued for overdue maintenance and legal fees on her apartment, where she has lived since 1953.
“I don’t like it at all,” she said.
The stately apartment, where Ms. Holm has lived since 1953, reflects a full and fruitful life: mementos from her films “All About Eve” and “Gentleman’s Agreement”; sheet music on the grand piano for songs she and her husband still sing together. But it is now at the center of a bitter family battle that has poisoned her relationships with her two sons and exhausted all her other assets, including the trust fund that was supposed to pay her living expenses.
The couple have had to borrow money to stay in the apartment. They no longer have a housekeeper or a home health aide. Even now, Mr. Basile said, there is a very real chance that they could lose their home, or that Ms. Holm’s sons could force them to sell it.
“There is?” Ms. Holm said, staring at him.
To its various players, this story is about a young husband coveting his elderly wife’s fortune, or jealous sons guarding their inheritance or an independent-minded woman trying to maintain control of her finances even as her faculties decline. It is a cautionary tale for families trying to manage one of our age’s emblematic conflicts, between elderly parents who want to live autonomously and adult children who want to protect them, made more vivid by the presence of the Broadway and screen actress at its center. From all sides, it is a story of loss.
In February, the co-op building sued Ms. Holm and Mr. Basile for $51,000 in overdue maintenance and legal fees. They have since worked out a payment plan, but five years of litigation between Ms. Holm and her sons have taken a toll. All of her liquid assets — once close to $2 million — have evaporated in lawyers’ fees and other costs, with huge legal bills still outstanding. She and her sons no longer speak. Mr. Basile, who had hoped to further his career as an opera singer, is now her full-time caregiver, helping her bathe and dress and feeding her through a tube in her stomach.
Over four long interviews, Mr. Basile talked animatedly and at great length, even in response to questions directed at his wife. Ms. Holm, who has been treated for memory loss since 2002, appeared to agree with her husband, though she often could not remember the events described. The two sat close together on a couch, each occasionally reaching out to touch the other. Their faces showed the stress of their feud with Ms. Holm’s sons.
“My job for the last six years has been to get my wife through cataract surgery, two bouts of skin cancer, bleeding ulcers, a collapsed lung, hip replacements, pacemakers, and provide a quality of life,” Mr. Basile said, his eyes ringed by deep brown creases. “And then be her advocate in this lawsuit, and unfortunately be the one to take the heat when they pointed the finger at me through this whole thing. I’m the scapegoat for their actions.”
He shifted his focus to Daniel Dunning, the younger of Ms. Holm’s sons.
“Dan Dunning did the very thing to his mother that he claimed I was trying to do,” Mr. Basile said. “But he said I was out for half her money. He took it all. This whole thing could have been prevented. Every time her son seemed to care more about the money than her wishes, Celeste, how did you feel about that?”
“Pretty rotten,” she said.
“Did you hear that?” Mr. Basile said. “She said, pretty rotten.”
WHO can say how love begins or where it ends?
On another afternoon in the apartment on Central Park West, Ms. Holm tried to recall her first impression of Mr. Basile. On the couch was a script for the play “Wit,” which she was scheduled to read privately at the Manhattan Theater Club the next day.
The couple met in October 1999 at a fund-raiser at which Mr. Basile had been hired to sing.
“Celeste,” Mr. Basile prompted, “do you remember you said you thought I was the most beautiful man you’d ever seen?”
Ms. Holm did not remember, but she appeared to warm to the thought.
“I liked him,” she said.
After the fund-raiser, Ms. Holm began inviting him to dinner or to movies. Mr. Basile, who had a serious girlfriend at the time, skipped his shifts as a waiter to go out with Ms. Holm.
“I never realized there was an age difference,” Ms. Holm said. “What age?”
By the spring of 2000, Mr. Basile had all but moved into Ms. Holm’s apartment.
Family life never came easy for Ms. Holm. By age 30, she had married three times and had borne two sons by different husbands. Her older son, Theodor Holm Nelson, 74, was raised by her parents. In his 2010 memoir “Possiplex,” Mr. Nelson, who was an Internet pioneer and coined the term “hypertext,” described this and other choices as “entirely the right decisions.” He did not name his mother in the book.
Ms. Holm’s second son, Mr. Dunning, who lived with her until he began attending boarding school at 15, resented having to share her with the world, Ms. Holm and Mr. Basile said.
Mr. Dunning, 64, who manages real estate in Putnam County, also declined to be interviewed. His son, David, 30, said his father’s relationship with Ms. Holm was close and not resentful.
Betty Boetticher, 94, a friend who has known Ms. Holm for more than 80 years, described her as generous toward her adult sons. They “always resented that she didn’t have enough time to be a mommy and a grandma and make cookies, but that wasn’t her life,” Mrs. Boetticher said. “I don’t understand entitlement, but that was how the boys felt. Dan has wasted his life hating, and I’m very sorry for that.”
Ms. Holm said only: “I don’t blame them for how they feel. They had a reason.”
But if there were tensions over money, they lay dormant until Mr. Basile arrived in 1999.
During Ms. Holm’s 30-year marriage to her fourth husband, the actor Wesley Addy, she had let him handle their finances. Things changed with Mr. Addy’s death, in 1996. In a sworn deposition in May 2008, Mr. Dunning described becoming more involved in his mother’s finances at her request. He helped her transfer her investments, which were worth close to $2 million, and her apartment, which she had bought in 1953 for $10,000 cash, into limited partnerships. Then, in November 2002, Mr. Dunning arranged for the limited partnerships to be held by an irrevocable trust, of which he was the trustee and his son the successor. The trust would pay Ms. Holm’s expenses, about $300,000 a year, according to Mr. Dunning’s deposition. Mr. Dunning and his children borrowed $533,000 from Ms. Holm, and Mr. Nelson borrowed money as well.
The purpose of the limited partnerships and the trust, as Mr. Dunning described it, was to shelter the money from taxes. But Mr. Basile said the real purpose was to keep Ms. Holm’s money away from him.
He produced an August 2002 fax document, apparently sent by Mr. Dunning to the family lawyer, which asked whether, “by having Mom’s assets in LP’s, they were safe from any claims by MFB (Mom’s ******* Boyfriend) even if he manages to marry her.” (In his deposition, Mr. Dunning said “MFB” stood for “Mr. Frank Basile.”)
For Ms. Holm, though, the issue was not Mr. Basile or taxes; it was her autonomy.
“He took my control,” she said of her son.
“Honey, how did that make you feel?” Mr. Basile asked.
“Want it back!” she said.
IT is an easy thing to imagine: the wary son, watching a man much younger than himself court his wealthy, octogenarian mother. On their first meeting, in March 2000, Mr. Dunning found Mr. Basile “overbearing” and self-absorbed, according to his deposition.
“I didn’t tell them about Frank,” Ms. Holm said. “I just presented him.”
It is also easy to imagine the position of the older woman, a star, watching so many of her peers age alone or with husbands who needed nursing.
Mrs. Boetticher, Ms. Holm’s longtime friend, said that when she saw Ms. Holm together with Mr. Basile, “I just thought she was lucky.” She said her friend seemed much livelier and more alert after meeting Mr. Basile.
“She’s alive because of him,” Mrs. Boetticher said. “Her family would’ve had her in a nursing home five years ago. They were on the verge of it.”
Other friends did not share this opinion. Diana Walker, 64, who said she was close to Ms. Holm until Mr. Basile “turned on me big time,” wrote in a 2004 affidavit that Mr. Basile was cutting Ms. Holm off from her friends and family in order to “completely manipulate Celeste and, in my view, ultimately gain control of her finances.” As for the family tensions, she said in a recent interview: “Celeste loved her children, but she was never a good mother. She chose the young leading man over her children. It was basically the story of her life: showbiz was more fun than the nitty-gritty of family.”
In November 2002, Mr. Basile said, Mr. Dunning confronted him. “He said to me, ‘How much money do you want to get out of her life?’ ”
The following spring, Ms. Holm’s sons called an intervention. They were concerned about how much money the couple were spending, exceeding the $300,000 a year for which they had planned, according to Mr. Dunning’s deposition.
To Mr. Basile, it seemed the meeting was about condemning him. He said he and Ms. Holm were not living extravagantly. “Everything was starting to explode,” he said.
At that time, the couple had been discussing how much money Ms. Holm would leave Mr. Basile after her death, initially setting a figure of $200,000.
“She said to me, $200,000 seems like a lot of money,” Mr. Basile said. “I added up her worth, and it was somewhere around $13 million,” including the apartment, her investments and a family farm in New Jersey. “Then she said $200,000 wasn’t nearly enough. I think from that moment, she talked to her son and he got scared as hell.”
In April 2004, at a party at Sardi’s restaurant in Times Square to celebrate Ms. Holm’s 87th birthday, the couple surprised friends and family members with the news that they had just gotten married. Mr. Dunning had essentially forced the marriage, Mr. Basile said. “He kept throwing it in my face that I had no rights,” he said. “And I loved this woman, so damn it, we made clear what our rights were.”
Soon after, the couple sued to overturn the irrevocable trust, beginning a five-year battle that would cost millions of dollars and leave them with a fragile hold on their home.
MR. BASILE is a big man with expressive features, and in conversation, he often appears near tears. “To see someone you love deteriorate, to see them become less capable of doing what they were doing so beautifully when you met — that’s been hard,” he said of his life with Ms. Holm. “And the more she withdrew, the more I had to fill in the gaps. And the more I filled in the gaps, the more I started getting accused by people, because of the dynamics here, that I was taking over.”
Hanging over all parties is the question of why the lawsuit lasted so long and cost so much money — the very money they were fighting over.
According to Mr. Basile, it was because the other side refused to offer a reasonable settlement, hoping time would simply run out on Ms. Holm. “Every time she got sick, I said, this is exactly what they are waiting for,” he said.
David Dunning, Ms. Holm’s grandson, said the lawyers had worked out at least two settlements, only to have Mr. Basile renege. “And every time, the only thing that increased was how much he got,” Mr. Dunning said. “So there was nothing that benefited her.”
In the end, the parties settled: Mr. Basile would inherit one-third of Ms. Holm’s estate, most of which is tied up in her apartment. Ms. Holm never gained control of the trust.
David Dunning said his father had been made a scapegoat for trying to keep Ms. Holm from overspending. “Now she’s out of money and Frank’s telling everyone that we’re kicking her out of her apartment,” he said. “There’s no winning.”
He added that he had not seen his grandmother since 2007. “Frank won’t let anyone see her,” he said. Mr. Basile denied this.
For now, the couple have been able to live on Ms. Holm’s sizable pension and Social Security, which come to more than $12,000 a month. Mr. Basile said the legal bills for their side exceeded $1.5 million; the trust’s legal debts are also enormous. When the trust ran out of money because it was paying both parties’ legal bills plus other costs, it stopped paying Ms. Holm’s expenses, including the co-op maintenance bill, which is close to $6,000 a month.
To pay the arrears on the co-op, Mr. Basile said, he raised $51,000 by appealing to the members of Arts Horizons, an organization of which Ms. Holm is chairwoman. They have tried to refinance the apartment, which is worth millions, to shake loose some cash, but so far they have been unsuccessful.
Ms. Walker, who never renewed her friendship with the couple, said she gave Mr. Basile credit for staying with Ms. Holm for 11 years. “He definitely wouldn’t be around if she weren’t Celeste Holm and had that apartment, but I think Frank paid a big price,” she said. “That speaks a certain honor, as far as I’m concerned. He certainly is no longer in it for the money.”
Richard Agins, a lawyer for the co-op, said it would not evict Ms. Holm even if she fell behind again.
In the apartment, Mr. Basile fitted an oxygen tube into Ms. Holm’s nostrils and recalled a conversation they had as their relationship turned romantic.
“She said, ‘I don’t know how much longer I have to live,’ ” he said. “ ‘I probably won’t last another three years. So if I could just borrow you for the next three years.’ And all I could say was, ‘I hope it’s a lot longer than that.’ ”
Mr. Basile remains bitter about the settlement he said the court forced them to accept. But he said the lawsuit had not consumed his life with Ms. Holm. He held her birdlike hand in his.
“From a romantic point of view,” he said, “age never became a factor once you know Celeste Holm. The humor, the wit, the intellect, the support, compassion: it was the full package of an extraordinary woman, and any guy who couldn’t see that was blind, and anybody who did probably fell in love with her.”
His eyes appeared to grow moist.
“I just happened to be the lucky one,” he said.
Celeste Holm was born on April 29th, 1917 according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celeste_Holm
April 29th, 1917
29 +1+9+1+7 = 47 = her “secret” number = Famous. Name & fame. Notoriety. Name recognition. (Inter)nationally known. High profile. VIP. Well-known. Household name. Public life. Limelight.
April 29th, 1917
4 + 29 +1+9+1+7 = 51 = her life lesson = what she is here to learn = Lawsuit. Litigation. Lawyers. Attorneys. Legal advice. Harsh reality.
using the number/letter grid:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
A B C D E F G H I
J K L M N O P Q R
S T U V W X Y Z
A = 1 J = 1 S = 1
B = 2 K = 2 T = 2
C = 3 L = 3 U = 3
D = 4 M = 4 V = 4
E = 5 N = 5 W = 5
F = 6 O = 6 X = 6
G = 7 P = 7 Y = 7
H = 8 Q = 8 Z = 8
I = 9 R = 9
3535125 8634 45
her path of destiny / how she learns what she is here to learn = 45 = Ouch. That’s gotta hurt. Count what is left, not what is lost.
find out your own numerology at: