Producer David Merrick Casts His Wife, Karen, as the Golddigger of '83

updated 05/09/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

David Merrick watchers are used to seeing the unbelievable. Besides his acknowledged flair for producing hit plays—Hello, Dolly!, Gypsy, Irma La Douce, Becket and Marat/Sade among them—he also has a wizardly knack for attracting outrageous publicity. Almost three years ago, for instance, when the New York Times gave Merrick's current Broadway smash, 42nd Street, a mixed review, Merrick responded by trying to place a front-page ad in the Times soliciting arsonists to burn down the newspaper. As Merrick expected, the stunt got him plenty of publicity.

Now, at 71, the abrasive impresario is back in the headlines bigger than ever. In the process of filing for his fourth divorce, Merrick, according to one of his legal advisers, fears that his 26-year-old wife might be trying to wrest control of his $50 million theatrical empire. She, in turn, claims that he has suffered a near-fatal stroke and is being imprisoned by an old friend. The story, which reaches a climax of sorts in a Korean noodle factory, goes quite beyond anything the old media maestro, even in his most grandiose moments, could have drummed up.

It began in June 1980, when Merrick met dancer Karen Prunczik. She was playing the role of Anytime Annie—the girl who "said 'no' only when she didn't hear the question"—in the Washington preview of 42nd Street. At first, says Karen, "it never occurred to me that David would want to marry me." But love blossomed, and Merrick and the bouncy, apple-cheeked Pennsylvania kid tied the knot last July 1. Money, she insists, played no part: "To me the most important things in life money can't buy—flowers in the springtime and bunnies hopping across grass." Yes, she actually said that.

Not everyone is convinced that the match was quite so idyllic. Wanda Richert, who had the lead role in 42nd Street at the time—and who was Karen's roommate for a few months—is among the cynics. "Karen knew exactly what she was doing," says Richert. "I think David has been victimized."

In any case, the marriage proved shaky. Last Christmas Eve, for example, Merrick persuaded his wife to take the role of Annie in the touring company of 42nd Street; on Jan. 9 he fired her. In the nine months of their marriage Merrick and Prunczik have been separated twice, for a total of three months. It was during one of those separations, on Feb. 13, that Merrick was felled by a stroke. According to his personal physician and his lawyer, Merrick was partially paralyzed and his speech was impaired. Karen returned to New York and brought Merrick home from the hospital because, according to her attorney, Lester Wallman, "she has a deep and endearing affection for Mr. Merrick." Raoul Felder, David's counsel, views her less charitably: "Being the wife of an extremely wealthy man who's not in good health has a certain attractiveness to a 26-year-old girl." Merrick had Karen served with divorce papers two weeks ago. Under New York law, she might gain little or nothing in a divorce settlement after so brief a marriage; if she remains Merrick's wife, though, she could be in line to inherit a substantial part of his estate.

After her return, Karen says, she lavished attention on her ailing husband. On March 7 she admitted David to the Rusk Rehabilitation Institute in Manhattan. The next day, according to papers she filed in New York Supreme Court, "he a the pouring rain without a coat. He was ultimately picked up by the police in a Korean noodle factory." The police took Merrick home, but on April 13, with the help of longtime aide and associate Morton Mitosky, he was spirited away. Karen claims her husband is being held by Mitosky under "imprisonment and restraint" and that the stroke "has virtually eliminated David's capacity to reason." Mitosky claims that Merrick "begged me to get him out of Karen's control." Indeed, in a petition to the court to have Mitosky named as the conservator of his estate, Merrick wrote, "I do not want my wife, Karen, in my presence or to have any control over my affairs. I do not trust her."

Felder insists that Merrick is happily staying with friends, and that, aside from moderately slurred speech, he's well. "Every psychiatrist," claims Felder, "has found that David has two problems—his speech impediment and his wife. And he's gonna get rid of both problems in short order." But in the best tradition of the Broadway musical, Karen insists that she still loves her husband and expects to get him back. "I don't want his money, I want him," she maintains. "I'll never believe this is solely his choice."

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