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An Unorthodox Deal


The cul-de-sacs of Harrison are rampant with Lou Lowinger stories. There's the time he sued a member of his shul for $1 million after getting into a fistfight during Sabbath prayers (the courts threw the case out, and Lou now walks several miles to another shul), and the two separate times he sued the medical programs that had flunked him (also in vain). But the Lou Lowinger story that Kay's friends still tell is the one about how he married a Korean woman, brought her home, and treated her like his own personal geisha.

They still recall her dashing home from shopping excursions in a panic, terrified that she'd be late to fix Lou's dinner. They remember opulent birthday parties for the kids, with goody bags filled with expensive toys. And they remember Lou never socializing and rarely letting Kay out of his sight. "He had some kind of psychosis," says Darina Silverman, "because he would go into the bathroom and wash his hands endlessly."

Each night, he'd dine alone in the den, nearly always on stir-fried vegetables and a hamburger patty on paper dishes and Diet Coke in a paper cup, the family says. He'd watch four or five hours of TV, cultivating a collection of thousands of videotapes, a whole wall of them, and he rarely left the TV before bedtime. Kay would spend evenings with their children and days shopping with a bottomless Visa card in the name of one of the Lowinger family businesses. Her nights, however, weren't as tranquil. Barbara Cooke, another friend of Kay's, remembers a day in 1989 when Kay turned to some women in an art class and asked, "Is it true in America that if your husband wants to have sex with you, you have to have sex?" "A number of people," Cooke recalls, "started telling her that what was happening at her house sure wasn't American.

"I grew up in an Orthodox household, but there was no religious component to this at all," Cooke adds. "This was about lunacy, ego, total control. It was about him being God."

None of Lou's eccentricities stopped the money from coming. For years, he has received a salary, at times as much as $88,000, from a company called Baldwin-Gordon Enterprises. Edith is Baldwin-Gordon's president; Lou is the sole employee; Gordon happens to be his middle name. On June 11, 1996, Lou was asked in a deposition what it was that Baldwin-Gordon Enterprises actually did. His answer was "I am not sure."

"We are still waiting for Lou to come to a point where he will make a living," Edith testified, "and live up to his responsibilities."

Through Baldwin-Gordon, Edith subsidized Lou's acting and singing lessons, his children's tuition, his wife's winter coat, his medical-school tuitions, the lawsuits. Even the house in Harrison was owned by a company of Edith's. Every week in Harrison, Kay contends, an employee of North American Foreign Trading Corporation would come personally to their house with envelopes full of cash, usually $2,000. "My mother knows the terrible straits I am in," Lou Lowinger explained in the deposition. "These are loans from my mother, God bless her. You only have one mother."

"These loans were given in trust; we didn't have any official notes," Edith said months later in her deposition, her son sitting a few feet away. "That's all it is. This was a family problem -- that Lou had to be supported sometimes with a loan. We are still waiting for Lou to come to a point where he will make a living and take care of all his responsibilities."

At the time, Lou Lowinger was 51 years old.

Judge Barbara Kapnick, who had worked for five years to get the parties in this case to settle, instructed the Lowinger v. Lowinger jury that the central question in the case was the promise. Edith's lawyer, Nathan Lewin, wondered aloud why Kay kept quiet about it for thirteen years. "It is not something I am proud of," Kay replied. "I thought it would be getting better in the future, hopefully. Once they were treated almost equally as other grandchildren, I don't have to talk to them about what I did for them."

During cross-examination, Lewin asked Kay directly why she didn't phone home for help during those early years. "I was prisoner!" she snapped. "I did call home, but my mother made it clear I was disgraced! She was my mother -- I didn't want to concern her! If it was your mother, would you tell her you were prisoner?!" The jury never saw any pity from Edith, though: She denied even having embraced Kay at her new home. "Generally, I'm not hugging anybody," Edith said with a slight smile. "Especially people I don't know that well."

She also denied reports of her son's misbehavior. In the final months of the marriage, the police were called to the house. In an affidavit, the Lowingers’ oldest child later said Lou had pushed her brother down a flight of stairs and gripped her mother's neck with his hands during a fight. "I would wake up at two or three in the morning and hear my mother screaming for help and yelling, 'Get off me, you're hurting me, I don't want to do this,' " the 16-year-old wrote.

"The children were enticed to call the police for no reason at all," Edith insisted on the stand. "And they were involved in all kinds of stories about their father. I was not present, but knowing Lou, I know it could not have been true."

"We've been there a number of times for domestic disputes," confirms Chief David Hall of the Harrison Town Police. The latest record of a complaint, Hall says, is August 7, 1998, well after Kay and the children had moved out, when a disheveled 33-year-old woman from the Bronx flagged down a neighbor on Lou's street and asked for help, claiming that she had been held by Lou against her will. Lou Lowinger was arrested. The charge was unlawful imprisonment.

He was arraigned, and scheduled for court a week later. But the case never made it to court; Hall says it can be difficult to get alleged victims to testify in such cases.

In court, the question of conversion for money reached an ideological stalemate. Speaking rapidly and stroking his beard, expert witness Barry Freundel -- the chief rabbi of Joseph Lieberman's shul in Georgetown -- told the jury that it was "unlikely" that an observant Jewish woman would even think of offering her daughter-in-law money to convert. He invoked Moses Maimonides, the architect of medieval Jewish law, who insisted that rabbis always ask converts if they're doing it for monetary gain. Kay's lawyers brought in Zvi Zohar, an Israeli author of a book about conversion, who said that as a practical matter, converts today are rarely asked if they're converting for money.

But what the jury never learned was that converting Kay was indeed easier said than done. "We ran into a lot of static," Lou told lawyers in his 1996 divorce deposition. "The low-level rabbis refused to convert her. They said it was a suspicious situation, because why didn't she convert for six years? And her answers did not sound credible." But Lou had an ace in the hole -- his mother.

"We had a rabbi in Israel who sometimes stays at our house," Lou said. "And he was able, because of his good relationship with the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, to persuade him to expedite the process. My mother asked this rabbi to help me."

On Friday, September 29, a few hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah, the jury found for Kay on all but one claim of her lawsuit. They believed that Edith and Kay had an oral contract, that Kay and Edith did indeed meet that day in 1980, and that promises were made to give Kay a home and acknowledge the children. Kay Lowinger could be the first person in the history of American jurisprudence to successfully sue her mother-in-law for support.

What the jury did not find, however, was that Kay was promised unlimited funds, as she specified in her lawsuit. Still, the barn door has been opened: The ruling, Solovay believes, says that Kay and the kids are entitled to at least half the house in Harrison, and the children may inherit whatever the other grandchildren of Maurice and Edith Lowinger inherit. Kay's lawyers believe that in the end, Edith's cold denials of interest in her son's wife's religion simply didn't hold water. But Lou's supporters suggest the jury simply took pity on Kay and hoped to help her regardless of whether a deal in Larchmont ever really had been struck.

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