Hijacking Dr. Hofmann

Genevieve and Hofmann in front of his Paris apartment in April 2000.Photo: Courtesy of Genevieve Pignarre

Genevieve Pignarre decided she had no choice but to fly to New York to rescue—others would say kidnap—her 96-year-old husband, Dr. Herbert Hofmann, and sneak him back to Paris. On January 19, 2004, the 59-year-old former model arrived at Newark International, hopped into a cab, and headed to Lexington and 72nd, where she would camp out for the night in the apartment of her 87-year-old friend Lucy Sharock. Genevieve planned to bust her husband out of his Sutton Place apartment the following morning. Lucy would come along to help. If Genevieve’s plan succeeded, she and Hofmann would spend his final years together in his 2,500-square-foot Paris apartment. If it failed, Genevieve might never see her husband again.

It had come to this because of Dr. Hofmann’s fortune. His life had been equal parts Gatsby, Zelig, and Forrest Gump. A doctor and businessman, he made a massive and mysterious fortune overseas, and is said to have operated on Eva Perón and Chiang Kai-shek and lunched with Joseph Goebbels and Prescott Bush. But as his life approached its second century, he began to suffer from severe dementia. According to people who spent time with him, he hallucinated, chirped like a bird, and asked every woman he encountered to marry him and bear his children. Because of Hofmann’s frail mind, Arie David, the lawyer who drafted the trust that holds the bulk of Hofmann’s estimated $400 million fortune, considered Genevieve and Hofmann’s six-month-old marriage a scam—their wedding, at City Hall in July 2003, a shameless ploy for a senile man’s money. David told Genevieve to hire an attorney; he was coming after her.

But Genevieve was coming for Hofmann first. Stretched out on Lucy’s foldout couch that January night, she mulled over the threats to her plan. Two months shy of 97, Hofmann traveled poorly. He needed extra gear—his meds, his wheelchair. Genevieve also worried about the possibility of snow. If their flight was canceled, David’s team might find them and steal Hofmann back. Above all else, Genevieve feared Raissa, the large Russian nurse-housekeeper whom she believed David had hired to guard Hofmann.

When Genevieve and Lucy rolled up to Hofmann’s place the next morning, all systems were go. The sky was blue, and Raissa was nowhere to be found. The staff treated Genevieve like a returning hero, she says. Hofmann, who thought Genevieve was still in Paris for the holidays, was delighted to see her. Genevieve hurried Hofmann out of his pajamas and into a suit, packed his essentials into two Gucci suitcases, and wheeled him downstairs, where she hailed a minivan taxi. She told the staff she was taking Hofmann to visit friends upstate.

“See you Thursday!” she said as she slid the cab’s door shut.

Genevieve, Lucy, and Hofmann headed back to Lucy’s for a quick lunch before the flight. Whenever Hofmann flew, he first visited Lucy, an amateur psychic, to find out if he’d have a good trip. She read his cards on that afternoon as well.

“He said, ‘You read the card. It be good?’ ” Lucy recalls in her Spanish-accented English. She doesn’t remember which card Hofmann chose, only that it boded well.

“I said, ‘Yes, it be good.’ ”

Twenty months later, Hofmann lies in a hospital bed in a back bedroom of the Paris apartment he shares with Genevieve, his housekeeper Elvira, and his 16-year-old miniature pinscher, Wanda. The tug-of-war over him now spans the Atlantic. Depending on whom you believe, David is either fighting to save the severely demented Hofmann from Genevieve’s suffocating embrace, or playing fast and loose with Hofmann’s gigantic trust. And Genevieve is battling either for the right to be at her husband’s side for his remaining days or for the chance to bilk him for all she can get. They both claim to be looking out for Hofmann’s interests, not a share of his money. Each says the other is lying.

Genevieve met Dr. Hofmann, as she calls him to this day, at a loft party on Greene Street in Soho in November 1970. They made an unlikely couple.

Genevieve was 26. Born in Burgundy, she grew up in Paris. “My house was the Eiffel Tower,” she says. She spent lots of time there, she explains, visiting her uncle, who managed the restaurant at the top of the tower. Four days before her 15th birthday, Genevieve lost her father to “an illness of the heart.” Two years later, her younger brother, Gerard, drowned in the Seine. Genevieve lost her taste for Paris, and after stops in London and Martinique, found herself living at 55th and Lexington and freelancing as a model.

Hofmann, at 63, was 37 years older. He was born just south of Buenos Aires, the son of a wealthy Swiss-Argentine pharmacist, and became a prominent and connected gastroenterologist. He claims to have befriended Juan Perón when Perón was still an ambitious military officer. Though Hofmann doesn’t show up in history books and Perón’s biographer hasn’t heard of him, Hofmann told friends that he was the one who diagnosed Evita’s cancer and recommended the American surgeon who treated her. (Evita, Hofmann told Genevieve, was a bit of a pill.)

Hofmann with his Yorkie, Nicholas, circa 1982.Photo: Courtesy of Arie David

Already wealthy when the war began, Hofmann parlayed his family’s money into a vast fortune after it ended. He sold wheat to China and built airplanes and ran a bank and invested in tanks. At one point, he owned 75 percent of Bolivia’s sovereign debt, he told friends. Most of Hofmann’s tales hint at underworld connections. “You ever hear the stories of the nuclear submarines being sold from Argentina to Taiwan?” one of his oldest friends asked me.

Hofmann’s central trait, according to his friends, was his sympathy for the lonely, the tragic. Or even for mere symbols of solitude: One of the first things his will provides for is a pine tree he kept in his apartment for over 35 years. “Every day when he left the apartment, he kissed the tree,” says Genevieve. “He loved that tree.”

Hofmann also cared deeply for tragic women, particularly young, beautiful ones. His first wife, Anita, suffered from depression before dying young, in the early fifties. A girlfriend named Nancy worked as a model and performed in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1957; she’s now buried near Hofmann’s parents. To another girlfriend, Elsa, Hofmann sent more than $100,000 a year until she died, alone, in 2000 in the Paris apartment he provided for her.

And then there was Genevieve.

The hosts at the Soho party were designers, and the guests stylists, models, and French expats—Genevieve’s usual crowd. She arrived fashionably late, around nine o’clock, wearing pants and a jacket. “But not jeans!” she says. “I was chic.”

Hofmann, five foot six, his receding hair closely cropped, arrived around 9:30, impeccably dressed, with Nancy on his arm. Genevieve was standing in a circle with some other French models when Hofmann—three decades older and six inches shorter than most everyone in the group—stepped up to the cadre of hotties, and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Dr. Hofmann,” he said in French, “and I’m living in New York.”

Genevieve considered it a bold move and let out a giggle. “We were all laughing because we were all young and he came over just like that,” she recalls. The group chatted for a while before Hofmann turned to Genevieve and handed her his card.

“I’m leaving soon for Geneva,” he told her. “When you come back to Paris, call me.” Three months later, she moved into his suite at Geneva’s Hôtel du Rhône.

A central issue in the fight over the validity of Genevieve and Hofmann’s marriage is the question of just how tight they were in the seventies. If Hofmann didn’t love Genevieve, then, the theory goes, he certainly didn’t love her when she wheeled him down to City Hall half-demented 30 years later to get hitched. Genevieve claims she lived with Hofmann, as veritable husband and wife, until 1978. David contends that Genevieve was one of Hofmann’s many girlfriends, not even a favorite. Hofmann, he says, preferred Genevieve’s younger sister, Evelyne, whom he dated off and on in the seventies and eighties.

As evidence of their relationship, Genevieve points to her passport for the years 1972 to 1977. The passport bears 124 stamps from Paris, New York, Geneva, Rome, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid, Santo Domingo, Buenos Aires, Panama City, Lisbon, Morocco, Acapulco, Aruba, Athens, São Paulo, Jamaica, and points in between. Each city has its own story of their life together.

Genevieve hurried Hofmann out of his pajamas into a suit, packed his essentials into two Gucci suitcases, and wheeled him down to the taxi.

From Buenos Aires, where Hofmann maintained an apartment, he flew them in his personal plane to ski at Bariloche, swim at Punta del Este, and visit his late brother’s wife, Paulette, at her campo near Santa Fe, Argentina. Hofmann introduced Genevieve to heads of state. In 1973, when Juan Perón was celebrating his return from exile, Genevieve stood just feet away from him on the balcony of the Casa Rosada. She met Manuel Noriega when Hofmann flew to Panama to discuss building a new, alternative canal. “He was a little bit fat,” she remembers. “The skin was not nice.”

Genevieve and Hofmann dined out every night. In New York, that meant French standards—La Goulue, La Caravelle, Plaza Athénée—or, of course, the ‘21’ Club. Hofmann disdained public displays of affection, except in restaurants. He called her “Pupi,” she called him “Beto.”

“He was like my father, who died when I was 15. He was like my best friend,” she says. “Maybe I wanted to find another father.”

Eight years after the loft party, Genevieve left Hofmann because, she says, he could not father children. She had two kids with a man named Patrick Spalter, though they never married and little changed between her and Hofmann, she says—later passports show more trips to their old haunts. In 1991, with financial assistance from the then-84-year-old Hofmann—a $6,000-per-month allowance—she left Spalter. She saw Hofmann frequently over the next six years, sometimes romantically, sometimes not. On March 25, 1997, Hofmann’s 90th birthday, Hofmann asked her to move to New York, Genevieve says. They slept in the same bed until May 1999, when Hofmann’s health, and mind, began to fail.

Genevieve in Hofmann's Paris apartment in September 2005.Photo: Magnum

Arie David sees things quite differently.

David grew up in Israel and moved to the U.S. in the sixties to attend Yale Law School, where he later taught international law. Now in his sixties, he runs a solo practice out of his Westport, Connecticut, home, specializing in joint ventures and “meta-national” trusts.

David met Hofmann in the early eighties through a mutual friend, Tony Pell, who had gotten to know the doctor through their mutual girlfriend, Genevieve’s sister, Evelyne. In 1984, David drafted the trust that controls the vast majority of Hofmann’s assets. By most accounts, Hofmann has less than $2 million outside the trust and somewhere between $400 million and a gazillion dollars inside it. David saw Hofmann only sporadically until 1999, when Hofmann asked David to amend the trust. At that point, David came to play, for better or worse, a more active role in safeguarding the well-being of Hofmann and his estate.

An attorney and academic of comparatively modest success, David looked up to Hofmann as both a businessman who had brokered deals with Josip Tito after the war and a physician who read medical journals into his nineties. “He was a scholar and a gentleman,” David says. “He was one of the smartest people I’ve met.” But after a May 1999 hospitalization for pancreatitis, Hofmann’s mind began to slip. By 2002, he barked like a dog, waved at invisible people, couldn’t recognize friends. He didn’t even remember his own apartment, recalls David, who checked in on him regularly. “He’d say, ‘Which hotel is this?’ ”

David appreciated that Genevieve took care of Hofmann until, over lunch at Artisanal in November 2003, she told him her big news: She and Hofmann had secretly married.

“I was shocked,” David says. “Everyone knew he was not well. She knew.”

Over the next few months, the tension between David and Genevieve escalated. After Genevieve flew her husband to Paris, David and Pell asked the court to appoint a guardian, David’s daughter Charyn Powers, to look after Hofmann. Genevieve’s supporters believe that Powers’s appointment undermines David’s credibility; with a pool of thousands of guardians who are objective, why use the only one who isn’t? Many involved in the case believe that David is like the Wizard of Oz. Trustees man the trust and Powers controls most everything else, but David, they say, is pulling the strings.

A month after her appointment, Powers petitioned the Manhattan Supreme Court to annul Genevieve and Hofmann’s marriage. If the court dissolved the marriage, Genevieve would no longer have the legal authority to keep Hofmann in Paris. More important, she’d lose her claim on a piece of Hofmann’s estate.

The annulment proceeding stretched out more than a year. Genevieve’s attorney, Sandra Katz, calls the trial the most “vicious” of her 36-year career. Matrimonial attorneys familiar with the proceedings say that Genevieve’s team was thoroughly outmatched. David and Powers took advantage of their access to the untold fortune in Hofmann’s trust. By the midpoint of the trial, they had paid their lead attorney, Donald Frank of the firm Blank Rome, more than $225,000. To date, Genevieve’s lawyers, Katz and Rachel Hirschfeld (daughter of the late parking-lot tycoon Abe Hirschfeld), have been paid less than their expenses. Frank called on high-priced physicians, including David’s cousin, to testify about CAT scans and other evidence of the severe, irreversible dementia that afflicted Hofmann at least a year before he and Genevieve tied the knot. Hirschfeld, 59, but just out of law school, was chastised by the judge for eating a sandwich in court.

This July, Justice Laura Drager annulled the marriage, ruling that in July 2003, Hofmann lacked the mental capacity required by state law to marry. The decision was faxed to a court-appointed French guardian, who ordered Genevieve to leave the Paris apartment. (Genevieve plans to appeal the decision, and remains in the apartment.)

David insists that he is acting with his client’s best interests at heart. “I care a lot about Dr. Hofmann,” David said. “The only interest I have is, I’d like to get Dr. Hofmann out of being a hostage.”

But Genevieve’s attorneys—Katz, Hirschfeld, and, in France, Alain Cornec—suggest that David is motivated by greed. “There are many signs that the David group”—David, Powers, Pell, and their attorneys—“will profit,” Cornec says. “There are a number of things that raise questions.”

Only David knows the terms of the trust, which he revised for Hofmann in March 1999, just two months before the hospitalization that precipitated Hofmann’s decline. “After that, we know nothing,” Cornec said. “It all disappears into the deepest possible fog.” The trustees reside in Gibraltar, a more unusual tax haven than, say, Bermuda or the Cayman Islands. David did not present a copy of the trust to the court, and told me if I wanted to see it, I’d have to fly to Gibraltar.

Genevieve in the Sutton Place apartment, circa 1974. Photo: Courtesy of Genevieve Pignarre

“It doesn’t smack good,” says Cornec.

Because they haven’t been able to see the terms of the trust, some of Hofmann’s associates are concerned that David might benefit financially in ways that Hofmann never intended. They speculate about scenarios in which David pockets anywhere from 2 percent to 20 percent of Hofmann’s millions when Hofmann dies. Even Justice Drager, who found against Genevieve in the annulment, wrote in her decision, “Both Mr. David … and [his daughter] are trustees for a [second] trust that may become funded after Dr. Hofmann’s death. It is unknown what, if any, benefits they may then receive as trustees.”

I visited Hofmann twice in Paris. The apartment he shares with Genevieve is in the center of the 16th Arrondissement, the Upper East Side of Paris. The balcony overlooks City Hall and Genevieve’s childhood home, the Eiffel Tower. Hofmann and his roommates live on 1,200 euros per month, the limit set by the French guardian, an austere budget compared to the $60,000 a month Hofmann spent before David and his attorneys stepped in.

Hofmann, now 98, no longer leaves the hospital bed in the back bedroom, where nurses sit by his side 24 hours a day. Both sides of the dispute have a keen interest in his mental state. Genevieve claims he still has good days, in which he expresses his love for her and his desire to remain in Paris. The David group maintains that Hofmann’s brain is so badly atrophied that he couldn’t have been lucid in 2003 when he married Genevieve, let alone now.

My first visit with Hofmann lasted five minutes, and he stared at me the entire time. He looked angry, I thought, although reading emotion into his eyes seemed hopeful at best. His hair had been recently trimmed, his face recently shaved. He wore a white hospital gown, but no teeth. He didn’t respond to Genevieve’s questions: How are you doing? How do you feel? Where are your teeth?

My second visit got off to an equally inauspicious start for Genevieve and her claim that Hofmann remains, on occasion, aware. As we entered the room, a blind, heroically muscular physical therapist massaged Hofmann’s legs. Genevieve and I stood by the side of the bed in silence.

After a minute or two, Hofmann spoke. In a soft, slurred, raspy voice, and apropos of nothing, he told Genevieve she has two children and she is right-handed. “Yes, Dr. Hofmann, two children!” she said sweetly. She held his bare, oiled calf as she spoke. “Yes, Doctor, I am right-handed!” Hofmann asked Genevieve if she has a brother. (She does.) He spoke mostly in Spanish, though he dropped in an occasional English word.

Hofmann again stared at me, the anger, if that’s what it had been, now gone from his eyes. He raised his hand toward me, slowly, like E.T. “Camisa Hermosa,” he said—beautiful shirt. He lowered his hand to his face, rubbed his chin, and said my face looked dark, which Genevieve took to mean I needed a shave. (For the record, both observations were accurate. I hadn’t shaved since New York, and I was wearing a checkered shirt that has garnered many compliments, not just from Hofmann.)

Hofmann—three decades older and six inches shorter than the French models—stepped up to the cadre of hotties and introduced himself.

Genevieve asked Hofmann why he wasn’t wearing his teeth. “Broken,” he said—a bald-faced lie. They hurt his mouth, she confided, and he refused to wear them, even for company. Hofmann looked at Genevieve’s watch and said, “Cinco,” meaning five o’clock. It was actually four, but I considered the observation a check mark in the lucidity column, its out-of-the-blue-ness notwithstanding. “En una media hora, yo quiero hablar con alguien,” he said. “With who, Dr. Hofmann?” Genevieve asked. “Who do you want to speak with?” Hofmann didn’t answer.

Soon, he said that his legs felt good, which seemed perfectly reasonable, considering they had just been massaged. He added, in Spanish, “I want to leave. On my feet.”

As we left Hofmann alone with his blind masseur, Genevieve smiled. She considered this a good day.

Genevieve has aged with the grace of a woman who has never held a job. Her face is lightly lined, her hair a perfect platinum. With her model’s posture, she seems taller than her actual height of five foot eight. But she looks tired. When I saw her in August, she wore the same black Ann Klein pants and the same plain white shirt every day, a far cry from her chic New York days. The ferocity of the fighting seems to be taking its toll as the endgame approaches.

Cut off from Hofmann’s cash by David’s lawyers, she has become increasingly desperate and paranoid. At one point during my stay in Paris, she showed me a document, its date apparently doctored, purporting to be proof of Hofmann’s lucidity near the time of their marriage. Another time, she called me at my hotel: “You are a spy for Arie David!” she yelled. “I will not talk to you anymore.”

David has accused Genevieve of stealing more than $1 million in the years preceding her flight to Paris. His group has presented the court with copies of nearly 200 checks that Genevieve allegedly duped Hofmann into signing. David says charges may be brought against Genevieve for kidnapping or theft, and hints at other avenues of possible attack. His primary goal, however, is to regain control of Hofmann. Genevieve took Dr. Hofmann “out of his home where he wanted to be, where he wanted to live, where he wanted to die,” David says. “Tell me why.” David believes that Genevieve is not motivated by love. He points to Hofmann’s precious pine tree: Genevieve had it chopped down and thrown out. (She had no choice, she says; the tree was infested.) If she loved Hofmann, David says, she never would have let that happen.

Genevieve is petitioning the court for alimony and equitable distribution of the couple’s marital property—after all, under New York law, she and Hofmann have been technically married for more than two years. The controlling law remains fuzzy, particularly if Hofmann dies before the dust settles. The legal precedent concerning men whose guardians successfully petition for annulment but are then dragged to Europe and pass away while the decision is appealed is surprisingly sparse. But it’s worth noting that the courts have consistently sided with David, however suspect his intentions may appear. And if Genevieve is a gold digger, she isn’t a particularly skilled one: With the bulk of Hofmann’s fortune tied up in what David calls an “ironclad” trust, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for her to get to it, whether or not she manages to remain married to Hofmann until he dies.

Genevieve is ready to settle. She wants enough money to maintain the admittedly lavish lifestyle Hofmann subsidized for most of her adult life, or at least enough to ensure she doesn’t become homeless. (The offer she allegedly made prior to losing the first round of the annulment battle—$50 million or half of the estate, whichever is higher—now appears comically optimistic.) She also wants a new guardian appointed, one with no personal stake in the dispute. And she must be allowed to care for Hofmann until his last earthly day. “Nobody will separate me from Dr. Hofmann,” she says. “No one.”

Recently, Lucy read the fortunes of all the dispute’s major players. She uses a regular deck of playing cards, not tarot cards, which terrify her with their images of devils.

She pulled a card for Arie David: the king of hearts. “The lawyer, something happen to him, not too strong like before,” she said, rather presciently. David at the time was recovering from pneumonia.

Lucy revealed Genevieve’s fate. “Queen, the diamond,” she said. “She is very unhappy, very unhappy now. But that’s normal.”

Finally, she looked into Hofmann’s future. She spread the cards across the table and picked one from the middle. A heart, which is promising, but a low one, the five. “Something trouble on the way,” Lucy told me. “But in the end, everything come out better. It take long time, but everything come better in the end.”

Hijacking Dr. Hofmann