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Russian Roulette

The first surprise in Warner LeRoy's will was that he left control of his restaurant empire to his 22-year-old daughter. The second: Along with Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room, the legendary bon vivant left a mountain of debt. Can Jennifer LeRoy revive the foundering Tea Room -- her father's last extravagance -- before she loses it?

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Daddy's girl: Jennifer LeRoy.  

Warner LeRoy, the outrageous showman behind such memorable New York dining scenes as Tavern on the Green and Maxwell's Plum, didn't expect to die. After beating cancer five times, he had convinced himself, and everyone around him, that he was invincible. But in his final days at New York Presbyterian Hospital last February, when he realized the end was near, LeRoy began manically dictating memos ("He was really on fire," says his youngest daughter, Jennifer. "I got fifteen notes") and leaving urgent e-mail messages ("I got ten in one day," says Tavern managing director Allan Kurtz), desperate to pass on final words of advice.

If he was frantic, it was perhaps because LeRoy knew he was bequeathing his four children a troubled legacy: prodigious debts, a money-losing Russian Tea Room that had never lived up to his extravagant vision, and the lingering scars left by his lurid divorce from his second wife, Kay.

Warner LeRoy died, at age 65, on the night of February 22 from an infection that hastened his worsening lymphoma. On the day after the funeral, his children and his sister, Linda LeRoy Janklow, gathered at 4 p.m. in the office of his opulent West Side apartment to learn the contents of his will, updated last November. Bridget, the wisecracking daughter from Warner's first, short-lived marriage to playwright Gen LeRoy, is a writer and mother of three who lives in Amagansett. "I was the one with the completely blank look on my face," says Bridget, 37, who was unfamiliar with her father's finances. Awaiting the news, she held hands with her half-sister Carolyn LeRoy, 29, who had quit as Tavern general manager in 1998 to attend grad school and then care for her ailing father full-time. "I told him I'd rather be his daughter than his vice-president," Carolyn says. She, too, wasn't sure what to expect: "We didn't know anything."

Max LeRoy, 25, had flown in from Los Angeles for the funeral; a former bar manager at the Russian Tea Room, he had moved to California in November to raise money for a music documentary. As for Jenny LeRoy, 22, she had dropped out of Fordham to work for her father, most recently as the Russian Tea Room's director of operations. She was miserable that she hadn't visited him during his last month, and she was still upset over their final conversation. "The last time I talked to him, we had a fight," she says, remembering Warner's infuriated call to the restaurant. "Michael Jackson had come in, and my father was upset that we hadn't pulled out all the stops."

Nevertheless, the eighteen-page will named Jenny, the baby of the family, CEO of his $54 million company, LeRoy Adventures. He set her salary at $250,000. "None of this should be construed as any preference for Jennifer over my other children, all of whom I love equally," he wrote, "but rather a practical solution which I believe will benefit the family. Unfortunately, there can only be one boss."

Although Warner had whispered to Jenny, while in the intensive-care unit last year, "If I don't make it, it'll be yours," she didn't think he'd actually hand her the pots and pans and balance sheets. The words startled her: "It was right there," she says. " 'You will have control.' "

But the real shocker in LeRoy's will is still sinking in to his previously well-subsidized heirs: There isn't much money left. During the LeRoys' 1998 divorce trial, Warner's reputation as the last of the big-time spenders was cemented by such details as the $75,000 Parisian couture dress he bought for Kay, the $2 million the couple went through in personal expenses each year, the home he bought for former assistant and mistress Cherian Koumbe, and the BMW, the $20,000 diamond ring, and the $11,000 Valentino pant suit he gave "good friend" Allison McNay (to whom he bequeathed $200,000 in his will). For LeRoy, who grew up in the extravagant world of Hollywood, the son of producer-director Mervyn LeRoy and Doris Warner, such grand gestures were the done thing.

The estate was valued at $48 million, but much of that is an estimate of the value of the restaurants; unless they are sold, they don't translate into cash. LeRoy's liabilities topped out at a whopping $31 million (including $9 million still owed from the more than $22 million divorce settlement won by Kay, the mother of Carolyn, Max, and Jenny). Add to that an estate tax that could top $11 million and it's not a pretty picture. In fact, the pretty pictures -- Warner's famed modern-art collection, including a Picasso and a Louise Nevelson -- are being auctioned off to pay his debt.

"Everyone thinks we inherited a big bucket of money," says Bridget LeRoy. "None of us did." LeRoy had established trust funds in the $1 million range for each of his children, a nice chunk of change but not all that much for a family used to living large. LeRoy's 8,200-square-foot apartment, complete with a plush screening room that seats 25, is on the market for $24 million, an optimistic price given its less-than-glamorous location in a high-rise at 66th and Amsterdam. Carolyn LeRoy, who is handling the estate, says the family's best-case scenario, assuming the apartment sells at the listing price, is "we'll be solvent. The estate will break even."

All this arithmetic puts Jennifer Oz LeRoy -- her grandfather Mervyn produced The Wizard of Oz -- on the spot. Her inheritance, and that of her siblings, rests on the profitability of the restaurants. LeRoy indicated in his will that he hoped they would generate at least $100,000 yearly per child.

"You couldn't imagine this happening to a girl of 22, but it's happened," says Kay. "I think Jenny is a perfect mixture of daunted and determined." The other adult closely watching this emotionally fraught family predicament is Linda LeRoy Janklow, wife of Über-agent Mort Janklow. "Clearly, Warner didn't think he was going to die and leave a 22-year-old with this much responsibility," Janklow says. "Carolyn, who he wished very much would stay in the restaurant business and who was excellent, did it for several years and wanted to do other things. He would have been thrilled if all of them were in it." Janklow, who talked to her brother daily, adds, "I know Jenny must be frightened, although she never says that. She's lost her father, who was her mainstay. Her siblings aren't jealous, but they're concerned because there's so much pressure on her."


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