What a circus

By Yoav Sivan, May 12, 2011
Showtime: a Ringling Circus performer

Showtime: a Ringling Circus performer

A Washington courtroom settled down for a ringside seat this week at what must be one of Jewish America's most lurid family disputes.

The case is the latest chapter in a decades-old feud between two heirs of the Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus, estimated to be worth $750 million.

Karen Feld, a gossip columnist and Playboy contributor, is suing her brother, Kenneth Feld, the owner of the circus, for $110 million for allegedly ordering her to be thrown out of their aunt's shiva in Washington.

In court, Ms Feld claimed two security guards sexually harassed her and treated her with such force that she needed surgery on her brain.

Mr Feld's memory of the shiva is different, his lawyer told the court. He claims his sister was caught trying to sneak into a room in which important documents and jewellery were kept.

Hounded: Feld’s dog sat on her lap in court

Hounded: Feld’s dog sat on her lap in court

Ms Feld's lawyer said that his client had been anticipating seizures due a previous brain injury, and had been looking for somewhere to rest.

He added that Ms Feld's poodle, which sat in her lap in the courtroom, was trained to spot these seizures and had to accompany her in all times, shiva service included.

When Ms Feld approached the room, said her lawyer, she was manhandled by a security guard who had been waiting for her.

The court agreed that Ms Feld responded by shouting inappropriate comments. Mr Feld's lawyer said these included antisemitic slander that shocked those present at the shiva made the rabbi stop the service.

The lawyer said Ms Feld then attacked the guard, trying to hold onto his groin. He added that this behaviour was typical of Ms Feld, and cited occasions on which she had been ejected from an airport and a concert hall. In Ms Feld's defence, her lawyer ascribed her unpredictable conduct to a medical condition caused by a brain injury.

And in papers sent to the court ahead of the trial, Ms Feld alleges that her brother may be a member of "Jewish mafia" involved in money laundering.

For the Feld siblings, the shiva fight and the court proceedings are business as usual. The family feud can be traced back to 1984, when father Irvin died and bequeathed his empire entirely to his son. The daughter quickly sued and a settlement was reached.

Journalist Jan Pottker, who wrote a book about the circus family, claimed Mr Feld hired a former CIA agent to spy on his sister and obstruct her plans to write a book about their family. In the book, Mr Pottker also discusses their father's alleged homosexuality and the suicide of their mother.

Last updated: 2:39pm, May 12 2011