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.
Jane was devoted to Robert, whom she describes as handsome and broad-shouldered, with curly red hair. Robert spent his leisure time golfing and swimming, she recalls, and collected expensive glass owls from around the world. Over the years, Robert began leaving more and more often on business. But the marriage remained solid and loving. Or so Jane thought—until one day in 1979, when she happened to open an attaché case Robert had left in the living room.
Inside, Jane found pictures of a woman in alluring positions. She confronted Robert in the kitchen, and while Patsy, then a teenager, listened from the hallway outside, Robert unleashed a long, rambling confession. “He said that it was a prostitute,” Jane recalls. “He said that for most of his married life, he had been with prostitutes. He had bought them jewelry. Cars. Clothes. He would travel with them. It was horrifying. I’d thought I was living the greatest love story in the world.”
Robert promised that he would stop, and Jane forgave him. “I was still very much in love and wanted to go on with the marriage,” she explains. For a time, things returned to normal. Jane had doubts about his fidelity—she began accompanying him more often on business trips—but repressed her suspicions. “I wanted to believe him,” she says. “He hung the moon, and I was a fool.”
A year later, she discovered blisters in her genital area, which a doctor would later diagnose as herpes. Robert had passed it on to her, she says, from a prostitute. “I remember standing in the shower, taking luxe soap and rubbing and rubbing the blisters, as if they’d go away—how stupid was that?” Jane says, growing emotional over the memory. “Here I was, this well-brought-up girl, and now I had the mark of Zorro. It was unbelievably humiliating.”
But Jane was still not prepared to face life alone, and she persuaded herself to forgive him. A year later, after Robert had left for work one morning, the phone rang. Jane picked it up, and an unfamiliar woman’s voice said, “Do you know where your husband is?”
Jane’s heart started racing—it must be a prostitute, she thought. Robert had once dropped the name of one of his women, and Jane dialed a few motels near Robert’s office, asking if any had her as a guest. One did. Jane woke Patsy. (Lewis had been away for several years at medical school.) The two women drove to the motel and knocked on the door to Robert’s room. He opened it—and behind him, she recalls, sat a woman buttoning her blouse near a table set with two glasses and a bottle of champagne.
“He sat there and said, ‘I’ve hidden all the money, and your mother’s never going to get any of it.’ ”
Robert tried to make it up to her, and the couple went on several trips together, leading Jane to think the marriage could be saved. Which is where things stood when she returned to the house that afternoon in June 1983 and found him gone.
Robert moved at first to the Washington, D.C., area, and had left a phone number. Patsy left several messages; none were returned. Robert, however, agreed to meet Lewis at a D.C. airport, where the son tried to persuade the father to share the fortune with Jane. “He sat there and said, ‘I’ve hidden all the money, and your mother’s never going to get any of it,’ ” recalls Lewis Maharam, who is now the medical director for the New York City Marathon. “He was rocking back and forth with this hysterical laugh. I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, in this bizarre, sick tone, ‘Because I want to.’ ” It was the last extensive conversation any of them would have with Robert.
After the divorce became final in 1983, Jane—stunned, disoriented, broke—turned to the courts to get some of her money back. She also lodged a separate lawsuit against Robert—for giving her herpes. In 1986, a New York appellate court granted her the right to sue her ex-husband for a sexually transmitted disease, a landmark ruling that made news in tabloids as far away as London. (In 1997, Jane won a jury award of about $600,000, which she collected because Robert had been forced to put up the money in bond.)
In the late eighties, Patsy moved to Manhattan to pursue her musical career in earnest, and soon after, Jane followed. Jane became not only Patsy’s roommate but her full-time manager too. Patsy got drawn deeper into the case in part to help her mother and in part because she had a financial stake in the outcome, too.
Robert’s lawyers, meanwhile, stalled a trial, Jane and Patsy say, by filing dozens of motions and continually postponing depositions. As the years passed, the women began to worry that Robert would spend all the money before the courts reached a decision. So Jane and Patsy hired detectives to track Robert’s expenditures. When the trial finally took place in 1996—thirteen years after Robert left—the evidence collected by Jane helped persuade a New York State Supreme Court justice to rule in her favor. Two years later, when Robert was ordered to pay her a huge judgment—ultimately tallied at more than $4 million—the women thought they had finally won.
They hadn’t, of course. A couple of weeks later, at a meeting in court to tie up loose ends, Robert’s lawyer turned up without her client. The lawyer (now deceased) dropped a bomb: Robert had left the country. As Jane recalls it, Robert’s lawyer told the judge, “He’s fallen off the face of the earth.”
The money—the promise of millions—was like a mirage on the horizon, drawing mother and daughter deeper and deeper into the desert. They couldn’t believe it was so easy for Robert to ignore a court order. Surely all they had to do was locate him in another state or country, and they could extradite him to New York, where he’d be on the hook. Right?
The court that had awarded Jane the money held Robert in contempt for nonpayment—a good start. To find him, the court granted Jane the right to subpoena his credit-card receipts from American Express, which she used to track him to Canada.
As Robert shuttled from place to place, Jane and Patsy developed novel ways of keeping tabs on his movements. The two women acknowledge that they took some pleasure in this. At first, they would cold-call car-rental companies to see if he had reservations. If the answer was yes, they would innocently ask the clerk where he was intending to drop off the car. If the answer to that was, say, a particular airport, they would call all the airlines there and ask whether Robert Maharam had a trip scheduled, and if so, what was his destination. Little by little, they got a sense of his regular business trips and vacations. He seemed to have severed all contact with other family members, and also seemed to be constantly on the move, taking cruises and staying in luxury hotels as far away as China.
They were tracking him because they hoped to get a judge in another state, one that he was planning to pass through, to issue an arrest warrant. This wasn’t easy: They’d have to know where he was and then hire a lawyer there to plead with a judge to issue a warrant, so they could get local cops to grab him at an airport.
Through all this, they began to understand just how flawed divorce law really was. Even though Robert had been held in contempt in New York, and Jane had obtained a warrant for his arrest, officials in other states didn’t much care. Jane and Patsy tracked Robert to Florida, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, and traveled to those states brandishing their New York warrant, but in each case, local law-enforcement agencies refused to enforce it.
At this point, Jane and Patsy might have been expected to give up and get on with their lives—who wouldn’t? Was Jane willing to spend the rest of her life doing this? Was Patsy prepared to sacrifice time that might have gone toward her career and perhaps starting her own family?
The unwavering answer, in both cases, was yes—leaving their friends, at times, in disbelief. “I remember once that they went to some state, where they thought they were gonna get him for the umpteenth time,” says Nancy Preiser, a friend of Jane and Patsy’s since the eighties. “When they came back, we all went to breakfast, and they were really, really depressed. It was very clear that this was really taking a toll on them.”
Patsy, for her part, remains intensely angry at her father—or her “ex-father,” as she now calls him. She can’t erase her vivid memories of what he had done to her mother. Patsy remembers his confessions and his phony contrition and her mother weeping as she wandered through an empty house, trying to understand why the only man she’d ever known and loved had callously taken everything.
“I saw, firsthand, what he did to her,” Patsy says, jabbing the air with her finger, the emotions still fresh. “I heard the lies. I heard him make promises. And I saw him break them.”
And Jane? Her work on Patsy’s music career had taken her into new and interesting circles. She might have started another relationship. But Robert had been the only man she’d ever been intimate with, and to be lied to and then so casually dismissed from his life, to be left alone at the age of 52—not to mention the incurable disease he’d left her with—well, it left her feeling damaged and unprepared for a relationship with anyone else.
There was another thing, too. As the years passed, Jane realized that if she allowed Robert to walk away, she’d forever think of herself as pathetic—a sheltered woman whose worldly husband had made a mockery of her. But if she refused to give up, if she devoted herself to fixing the law that had victimized her and many others, she might turn the entire sordid experience into an achievement. As she told her story to more and more people, they congratulated her for not giving up, and even called her a crusader, and it made her feel good in a way she hadn’t in years.
“I am very proud of myself for not rolling over,” she says. “It became very important to my sense of self. This was a way to deal with the whole thing—it kept me going. I didn’t want to become a victim. I don’t like the word victim.”
Frustrated by the courts, Jane and Patsy turned to the media in an effort to humiliate him into paying. In 1998, Jane spoke of her plight on Sally Jesse Raphael, and the show sent a crew to California in hopes of recording Patsy confronting her father in an airport he was scheduled to pass through. But Robert never showed up. On the show, Sally said to Jane, “He gave you the slip!”
Last year, Jane and Patsy came closer than ever to nailing Robert. In August, they learned from a car-rental company that he would be flying out of Dulles airport in Virginia. A lawyer who had been working with them, David Rosenblum, had come up with a novel way of persuading a judge to order his capture. He exhumed a nineteenth-century provision from English common law called “the writ of no exit”—which still holds sway in some states but is almost never used today—that allows a court to temporarily detain someone when his victim has shown that he has no adequate legal means of recourse against him. The terms of the detention under this writ are ill-defined, but in essence, it means that a judge can hold someone until he proves he is making a good-faith effort to pay his debt. Miraculously, a Virginia judge ruled that Robert could be picked up.
Several days later, at dawn, Jane and Patsy waited for Robert at Dulles. Accompanied by half a dozen airport cops, the two women were trembling with excitement and disbelief. “My heart was pounding,” Jane recalls. “It was like a climax. It crescendoed as I walked, step by step, toward the gate.” The guns of the cops scared her a bit, she says, but what really terrified her was the possibility that he’d elude them again.
As Jane and Patsy waited, the cops searched the airport. Nothing. The women began to despair. Jane turned to Patsy and whispered, “Go find him.” Patsy took a quick lap around the airport and was about to give up when she saw a nondescript man sitting quietly with his hands resting atop his luggage. He seemed much older than she thought her father would look, and he had shaved his head. But Patsy recognized the hands. They belonged to Robert Maharam.
The cops surrounded him and took him to an empty part of the airport. Jane followed, her eyes full of tears. “I was elated,” she says. “I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream.”
Jane and Robert didn’t exchange a single word—but at one point, their eyes met. She was startled. “His eyes were cold and empty,” she recalls. “He didn’t look anything like the man I knew. His good looks were gone. There was a stiffness to his face. He had an empty stare.”
Under subsequent questioning from Rosenblum, Robert Maharam maintained that his money was socked away in banks in Europe and Bermuda. He said that there wasn’t as much of it as Jane had thought, and added that he had a heart condition and had to return to Europe. After making him sign a document directing the banks to release his funds and forward the money to Rosenblum, the judge let him go. That was all the law allowed.
At that point, Jane had been through enough to know that this would probably not be the end of it. But she held out some hope. “We thought that just maybe, after all this, he was ready to stop running, and would pay something just to keep us from chasing him,” she says.
But the money never came, and when Rosenblum called the banks, he was informed by executives at each one that the order to release funds had been rescinded by Robert Maharam.
Extensive efforts to contact Robert were unsuccessful. A spokesman for the Maharam company was unable to provide any clues to his whereabouts. Both his cousin Donald Maharam and nephew Michael Maharam say they haven’t had contact with him since at least the mid-nineties, don’t know where he is, and have no idea who does.
As each effort to get Robert failed, Jane and Patsy determined that the only way to solve the problem was to put teeth in divorce law. As things stand now, if a former spouse is declared by the courts to owe a certain amount but is determined not to pay, it’s hard to collect. It becomes all but impossible if the debtor claims to have no assets or manages to conceal them. Collecting in those cases would require that the offender be seized and incarcerated until he pays. That’s not something judges want to do in response to a noncriminal matter in another state. Bernard Clair, a Manhattan divorce lawyer who once represented Jane, estimates that thousands of women are victimized by this loophole each year.
The new bill based on Jane’s case would be similar to federal child-support law—the 1998 Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act—and make evasion of divorce-related debts a federal crime. Last year, Jane and Patsy began visiting New York lawmakers to ask for help in creating this legislation, and finally found a willing sponsor in John Sweeney. The bill, which has been drafted and is ready for introduction, would make it illegal to leave a divorce-related debt of greater than $5,000 unpaid for more than a year anywhere in the country. It would also be a crime to cross state lines with the intent to avoid payment. If you break the law, you can be forced to pay what you owe—and possibly spend up to two years in prison. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship, which should help bring it to a vote, and Sweeney promises an all-out push, including congressional hearings, to get it passed. “This thing is gonna get done,” he vows.
If it does, the law will apply retroactively, giving Jane and Patsy a new way to nab Robert. That doesn’t mean they’ll get him, though. He apparently spends much of his time in Europe, and international extradition is always tough. But Jane takes satisfaction in knowing that other women will be spared her fate, and that Robert Maharam will never be able to fully leave his old life behind, much as he’s tried to. “Let him live his life looking over his shoulder,” she says. “Is that a life, really?”