An Unorthodox Deal

It was a three-bedroom colonial on a little hill in Larchmont, nothing special, a rental with a garage, a finished basement, a perfunctory driveway. This was where she was living, the youngest daughter of a wealthy Korean family – a former child prodigy, a pianist and classical singer – now a mother of three with no savings, sharing a house with a man she feared.

There was a piano, but she doesn’t remember playing it. There were nannies, but none lasted very long. And always there was her husband, Lou, who, she says, rarely seemed to have a job, who forbade her to have visitors or make phone calls.

All that changed, Kay Lowinger recalls, one winter afternoon in 1980, when the bell rang and she opened the door to find a stout Hungarian matron standing outside. It was only the second time Kay had seen her mother-in-law in six years of marriage. She watched, slightly stunned, as Edith Lowinger walked into the living room.

In her low, Middle European accent, Edith explained that she wanted Lou’s three young children to be raised as Orthodox Jews, Kay remembers. For that to happen, Kay would have to convert. Edith had anticipated that her Catholic daughter-in-law might not be open to a new religion, and so, Kay says, Edith made her an offer: She would never want for anything, her family would live in a beautiful home, her children would be as accepted as Edith’s fourteen other grandchildren, Kay would finally be treated like Edith’s other daughters-in-law – all this if Kay would become a Jew.

A few months later, Kay flew to Israel with Lou and the kids and underwent an Orthodox Jewish conversion. When she returned, their belongings had been moved into a spacious fifties ranch house with separate kitchens for meat and dairy, set on two plush acres in Harrison with a grand semicircular driveway. The day they arrived, Kay says, Edith was waiting with the gift of a new set of linens, and the two women embraced for the first time.

“He’s not bad; he’s weird,” Kay says of Lou. “Something is missing. He’s like a little kid without a conscience. That’s what’s missing.”

It was the children who persuaded Kay to leave that home thirteen years later – and to take them with her. They were teenagers by then, old enough, they said, to see what their father was doing to their mother. First they moved into Kay’s sister’s house in New Jersey, then to an apartment in Scarsdale that Kay couldn’t afford to furnish. As the kids completed courses at the Westchester Day School, an Orthodox yeshiva, Kay sued Lou for divorce. Early on, he offered her a settlement if Kay would move back in, make his meals, and do his laundry. She demurred.

But it’s what Kay did next that makes this divorce different from all other divorces. At a standoff with her husband after two years in court, Kay Lowinger sued her mother-in-law for breach of contract – for failing to honor the promise Kay claimed Edith had made that day in 1980 to support her and her family if she raised her children as Jews.

Tell any divorce lawyer that you want to sue your in-laws for money, and he’ll patiently explain that they weren’t the ones who signed your marriage certificate, took the vows, pledged their support. But Kay Lowinger’s lawyer, Norman Solovay, heard in Edith’s alleged promise something special – an oral contract that could give her and her children access to assets that heretofore had been sealed from them.

Of course, there were obstacles. Edith insists she never promised Kay anything, never left her Borough Park home to visit Kay, never pledged her financial security, never even encouraged her daughter-in-law to convert. “I have never been to Larchmont in my life,” Edith, now an unflappable, 77-year-old great-grandmother, said under oath in September, when the civil action finally made it to trial. “Evidently, you can see that this was not a very functional marriage, but that has nothing to do with me.”

And there was a second hurdle: No one had even heard a word about the alleged agreement until more than a year into the divorce, when Kay mentioned it to Solovay in passing. “Getting facts out of Kay was like pulling teeth,” explains the genteel, white-haired litigator. “This was not something easy for her to discuss. We had all this trouble with Lou’s pretense that he didn’t have any money, but we knew he did. It really left me with almost no other alternative than to go after the mother.”

Edith, Solovay believes, controls one of the largest private fortunes in the country. Her invalid husband, Maurice, is the sole owner of the North American Foreign Trading Corporation, an electronics-import business that established trading relationships with Japan in the forties, just in time for the transistor boom. In 1997 alone, North American did $400 million in business. By then, Maurice had suffered a series of strokes, and Edith was essentially running the business.

The Lowinger family is prominent in the Orthodox Jewish community. While Lou may be something of a prodigal son, Maurice and Edith are Holocaust survivors, both of whom lost their entire families to the Nazis; they are regarded as heroes who helped keep thousands of Jews alive by smuggling food and supplies into the Budapest ghetto. Their other sons’ acts of charity on behalf of causes ranging from building yeshivas to providing health care for the poor are well known in the Orthodox world. The notion that an observant Borough Park matriarch like Edith would bribe a non-Jew to convert – an unambiguous violation of Jewish law – is all but inconceivable – unless, of course, she was desperate to do so for the sake of her family.

As soon as Kay’s suit was filed, Edith’s lawyers moved to have Solovay sanctioned. They called the suit frivolous and claimed First Amendment protection, arguing that the state couldn’t enforce a contract that mandated someone’s religion. It was nearly two years before a New York State Supreme Court judge allowed the suit to go forward, saying the government enforces all sorts of agreements involving the upbringing of children. The case took on a life of its own: Solovay cited a 1996 case, Lapkin v. Lapkin, in which a daughter-in-law sued in-laws who allegedly had promised her a trust fund. Poor Mrs. Lapkin went on to lose that case, but the strategy, at least, was recognized. “I had dreamed up that complaint with no precedent whatsoever,” Solovay marvels now. “Just faith that the system should have some remedy for something like this.”

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.

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.

Either way, the money phase of the trial has begun, and Kay’s lawyers, Solovay and Scott Greathead, are slowly starting discovery into the Lowinger family businesses. The other side vows to appeal at the same time that a source close to them suggests that Edith’s assets could conceivably be manipulated so that she technically leaves nothing to any of her grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Kay’s matrimonial case against Lou is still slogging along in the Westchester courts; the trial date is set for January. It’s easy to imagine the dickering extending well into the twenty-first century. “I am sure you will all be back here in the future, no matter what the verdict is,” Judge Kapnick told the lawyers at the end of the trial.

The three children are more estranged from their father than ever. The oldest child, for one, remains mystified about her grandparents’ motives. Until this month, she’d never even seen a photo of her own grandfather. “My dad used to mimic Chinese and Japanese voices,” she says. “Whenever I’d ask him why his parents do these things, he’d say, ‘My parents saved lives in the Holocaust. You can’t say such things.’ Maybe they’re so hurt because their son married a Korean that they have broken three people because of it. The last time I met with my grandmother was four or five years ago. She said, ‘You’re not Korean. You’re a Jewish-American girl.’ That’ll mess you up.”

With his medical training completed and no full-time job, Lou has been showing up for classes at the Weist-Barron acting school in midtown. One October night, a few weeks after the verdict, he asked a fellow student out for a cup of coffee. “I said, ‘Actually, I don’t have the time,’ ” the woman remembers, “and he said, ’Sure you do.’ “

Lou placed his hand at the woman’s elbow and escorted her to Starbucks. They were there about ten minutes, enough time for him to try all the old moves. “He told me that he had memorized days of the calendar,” she says, “and that I could name any date and he’d tell me what day of the week it was, going back 300 years. I said I used to be a flight attendant, and he said, ‘When I was younger, my family business took me to the Orient, and I used to fly all over the Orient.’ ” No mention of another flight attendant from long ago.

He told her he was a gynecologist, specializing in emotional problems. “And then he said, ‘By the way, do you mind if I tell you what I see in your eyes?’ ” She let him. “He said he could tell that I was a very sad person, and that I needed a lot of guidance – and that what I should do every day is say to myself, over and over, I’m a special person. He told me that I didn’t have anything to do with my childhood, and that the only important thing was to do what you wanted to do in life. This was all in just ten minutes.”

Then Lou said, “Now I want us to have dinner.” “I said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ ” He asked her out again as he drove her home, and she agreed, but she canceled a few days later. He’s called her four times since then.

“Every now and then in the car,” the woman remembers, “he turned to me and said, ‘Now, who’s a special person?’ “

An Unorthodox Deal