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An Unorthodox Deal


And so, in late September, after six years, Solovay got to test-drive his breach-of-contract notion before a jury of six in a small, garish courtroom on the third floor of 80 Centre Street. Only four witnesses took the stand: Kay, Edith, and two Jewish scholars, each side's expert witness on the centuries-old debate on conversion for money. For four rainy days, Kay and Lou's grown children sat behind their mother in the courtroom, exchanging not a word with their fidgety, gray-haired father sitting just a few rows away.

On the stand, Edith came off as both defiant and deeply offended. While other Orthodox parents might have said the mourner's kaddish for a child who married outside the faith -- Maurice, for one, has never met his daughter-in-law or the grandchildren -- Edith had supported Lou's family for years, providing him with a paycheck and interest-free loans through a family corporation, paying every Visa bill, sending envelopes of cash to the house in Harrison. Now Maurice was an invalid, unable to speak, and her son's ex-wife was taking her to court for supposedly abandoning her and the children.

"I thought when I grow to my old age, I would have a chance for a little peace and quiet and private life," Edith testified, sighing behind large glasses that cover half of her face. "Unfortunately, I have to get involved in something that is so below my dignity and so unnecessary, because all my life, I voluntarily, whatever I could afford, I gave. I think he is the victim in this case, as am I, as are his children, because they are sacrificed for some dream of somebody's financial gratification."

During a lull, Kay and Lou's 22-year-old son, Alan, made eye contact with his grandmother and repeated the word "evil" over and over. Edith, who had paid his living expenses for most of his life, coolly responded, "That was not necessary."

Kay Lowinger is girlish and fragile, looking more like a sister than like a mother to her children, with wide eyes and an incandescent smile. Still slight and ebony-haired at 50, she lives in East Harlem, in a three-bedroom apartment with a white slanted work table near two tall windows. She is establishing a career as a decorative artist. The kids stay with her intermittently. Two graduated from Penn; one is a junior at Brandeis; all three have extensive student loans to pay off. "My mother loved me the most among all her eight children," she tells me, sitting in her kitchen with her furry white Maltese, Biscuit, and a pack of Parliaments. "That's why I stayed a baby. Instead of a daughter, I was a pet."

Her English is still tentative after twenty years here, and her account of her marriage is as profoundly weird as it is difficult for her to explain. To explain why she can't explain it, Solovay even had her examined by a therapist from Bellevue, who diagnosed her with a post-traumatic disorder. Kay's mother owned a hotel, two factories, and a taxi company; her father operated a salt mine. A singer in child talent contests on Korean TV, she was driven through the streets of Seoul by a chauffeur. After she earned a fine-arts degree, she shrugged off all family support and entered the stewardess-trainee program at Northwest Orient Airlines -- fairly prestigious, cosmopolitan work at the time for a South Korean woman. But when she met Lou Lowinger in 1973, she was turning 23, long past prime marrying age in that culture.

Lou, a plump, persistent 28-year-old, came up to her in the lobby of a Hong Kong hotel and asked her out for coffee on the spot. Before her cup was empty, he asked her to dinner. She says he told her he was a vice-president of his family's business. Somehow, Kay adds, he never mentioned his religion. Instead of a yarmulke, she says he wore hats and toupees. "He told me he doesn't ride in an elevator because he is exercising," she remembers. "He always came with his own food, so I thought he must have had a strict diet."

In person, Kay still makes some allowances for the man she married and divorced. "He's not bad; he's weird," Kay tells me. "Something is missing. He's like a little kid without a conscience -- that's what's missing."

Her lawsuit against Edith expands on that theme in lurid detail. After their wedding in Seoul in 1974, they spent the next four years in hotel rooms in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, and Milan -- with Lou sleeping in front of the doors, Kay says, so that she wouldn't escape. The suit alleges that Lou regularly forced her to undergo "body searches," which "included his smelling her all over to see if he could detect the odor of another man." She says sex was more an act of extortion than an act of love, that he insisted on watching her even when she went into the bathroom. (Both Lou and Edith Lowinger declined repeated requests to comment for this story.)

Edith was right about one thing: This wasn't a very functional marriage. "I did not have any other thinking," Kay said on the stand, "other than trying not to get hurt more."

In early 1975, Edith Lowinger received a phone call from a man named Jimmy in Hawaii, who told her that his sister was Kay Lowinger, and that their mother had died in a fire. He asked Edith if she knew how to reach Kay, and she said she had no idea -- she had heard nothing about Kay or any wife, and she hadn't heard from Lou in six months. But by late summer, she tracked the couple, through credit-card receipts, to a hotel in Lake Como, Italy.

Edith decided to confront her son; Maurice did not join her. On an August day at the Milan Hilton, Kay stayed upstairs in her room as mother and son reunited. Eventually, Lou brought her down to meet his mother. The two women didn't say much; Edith didn't even give Kay the news about her mother. "It was completely beyond my understanding what was going on," Edith testified. "I did not have much conversation, even with Lou. I was very upset, and I just had to digest the situation. I presumed her family found her and gave her the news."

Kay says she wouldn't hear about her mother's death until Lou told her -- months later. But during these hard times, Kay didn't leave Lou. She has trouble explaining why, even now. "It was mostly pride," she offers. "I didn't want to ask for help. I had wanted to show my mother I was okay. But after that, I didn't care about myself or what I became."

"I think when we were 2 or 3, some part of her died and she decided to live for us," says their oldest child, now 23, who has asked that her name not appear in this story. "We were all affected by it. We did horseback riding, dancing class, everything, and we were straight-A students because she'd do our homework with us. Then I'd ask my mom something and she'd answer, and then I'd ask my dad and he'd act as if her opinion didn't matter."

Lou is the Fredo Corleone of the Lowinger family -- a little hapless, craving respect from family and associates, overprotected by his mother. Edith said he was her "miracle child," the one born just after the war, after his parents escaped Hungary. Kay's lawsuit contends he's been overindulged his whole life, and Kay isn't the only one who sees him as overbearing. "He treated her like an object," recalls Batsheva Rifkin, a friend of Kay's, in a sworn affidavit. At Alan's bar mitzvah, she said, Lou "made derogatory remarks about how stupid she was, that she should mind her own business and shut up. We overheard a maître d' commenting on the fact that 'he treats her like a slave, not a wife.' "

After bringing his family back to New York in 1978, Lou took acting and voice lessons, garnering bit parts as an Arabian king on Columbo and a Turkish guard in Midnight Express. He developed a little nightclub act, in which he'd correctly guess the day of the week of any date going back 300 years. His acting résumé lists seven languages he speaks fluently -- English, Hungarian, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, French, and Italian (though no Korean). Spurning the family business, he finally finished college while in Harrison, then flunked out of medical school at suny Health Science Center in Brooklyn, flunked out of a physician's assistant program at Touro College, and in 1998 graduated at last from Long Island's New York College of Osteopathic Medicine.

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