On an ordinary afternoon in June 1983, Jane Maharam, a wealthy Long Island housewife, returned after a day in the city to her Manhasset Hills house and found the place a wreck. Cabinets were open, furniture missing. Her first thought: The house had been ransacked by a burglar. Then she found two typewritten notes from her husband of 31 years.
One was to her, the other to the Maharams’ daughter, Patsy. Robert Maharam wanted to inform them that he was leaving. For good.
When Jane recovered from her shock, she came to a startling realization: Her husband had ransacked the house. Everything of value was gone: Jewelry had been taken from drawers, art had been removed from the walls. Even the emergency cash they kept stashed in a dictionary was missing. “I had absolutely no idea this was coming,” she recalls. “I thought, Oh, how stupid of me. I had been duped by someone I’d loved since my teens.”
It got worse. The family bank accounts had been cleaned out. All the credit cards had been canceled. And Robert had secretly arranged to sell his share of the lucrative family business, Maharam Fabric Corporation, and pocket the profits himself. “I stood by him every step of the way while he built this business,” she says. “He ran off with the fruits of our marriage.”
Jane, then 52, filed for divorce several weeks later, and Robert promptly accepted. But he refused to give her a share of the assets he’d taken off with, and a judge ordered him to refrain from spending the family fortune until the financials could be resolved in court. It took fifteen years, but the courts eventually ruled that Robert owed Jane more than $4 million.
But Robert Maharam didn’t pay up.
Instead, he disappeared.
According to Jane—and she’s got evidence to support her version of events—her ex-husband has been running from her ever since, traveling the world in great luxury and spending what was once their money on high-end cruises and five-star hotels with the brazen abandon of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Catch Me If You Can.
Jane, all the while, has pursued him with seemingly limitless determination, convinced that somehow, someday, she’ll get him to pay. From a small apartment in Manhattan, Jane, with Patsy’s help, has been tracking his movements around the globe, using little more than a telephone, a computer, and an occasional bit of flattery to pry information from unsuspecting hotel clerks or car-rental agents. At the very time when she might have been easing into a comfortable retirement, Jane, now 73, has devoted herself to hunting down her ex-husband.
Now, after two decades of false starts and agonizing near misses, Jane is on the verge of a breakthrough. This week, after months of lobbying by Jane and Patsy, New York representatives John Sweeney, a Republican, and Nita Lowey, a Democrat, will introduce a federal bill to fix the glaring flaw in divorce law that has allowed Robert Maharam to skirt his debt. Jane’s personal saga may be about to become a national political issue.
Jane has been unable to get Robert to pay for a simple reason: He’s apparently stayed out of New York State. Robert Maharam is not a “deadbeat dad”; rather, he’s one of what the New York Post last fall dubbed “deadbeat husbands”—men who duck out of state to evade divorce debt. Since divorce cases are state civil proceedings, it is difficult to enforce them across state lines.
But the new bill—to be called “Jane’s Law”—would change that. If it passes, anyone who fails to pay a former spouse what he or she is owed will have committed a federal crime—and will be subject to arrest anywhere in the United States. It would be a powerful new law with potentially wide-ranging effects. Whether it will eventually get Jane her money, well, that’s another matter.
The first thing you notice upon entering the small apartment that Jane and Patsy share is that they are extraordinarily close for a mother and grown-up daughter. Patsy, who’s had a succession of boyfriends but has never married, has provided her mother with unending support during her lengthy legal battle. Jane, in turn, has functioned as a manager, flack, and all-around cheerleader for Patsy, who has had a reasonably successful career as a jazz pianist, songwriter, and author. On the floor of the apartment, there is a pile of warrants for Robert’s arrest, and the walls are adorned with paraphernalia related to Patsy’s career. The women refer to each other as “best friends.” (Jane also has a son, Lewis, who is a sports doctor and hasn’t been drawn into the case the way Patsy has.)
Jane grew up accustomed to a life of comfort. Her father, Edward Lowy, was a successful handbag designer, and as a child, she lived in a spacious home, with a maid, in Manhattan Beach. Jane met her future husband in 1944 when they were teenagers at an exclusive summer camp in upstate New York, and they wed in 1952 at the Plaza Hotel. Robert took over Maharam Fabric, the textile company that his grandfather had founded, and through the sixties, Jane and Robert’s marriage seemed to flourish. With their two children, the couple moved into a new Manhasset Hills house outfitted with a pool, bar, and billiard table. They vacationed in Hawaii and Bermuda.