Lady Bing and the Law: at Stake Is Sir Rudolf

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

During his 22-year tenure as director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, Sir Rudolf Bing was an imposing cultural figure—famous both for his bold artistic vision and his imperious manner with high-powered divas such as Maria Callas. Today, at 86, the victim of Alzheimer's disease, Bing appears dazed and disoriented, with only a jaunty white scarf to signal his former glory. He is also, acquaintances say, a prisoner in his own marriage—an addled old man held in thrall by a 48-year-old woman whom he met in the spring of 1986 and married six months later.

For most of 1987, while Bing's lawyer and friends looked on appalled, Sir Rudolf and Carroll Douglass, the new Lady Bing, honeymooned in the Caribbean, then began a tumultuous tour of Great Britain. But last November they were persuaded to return to Bing's pricey suite in Manhattan's Essex House hotel, and that's when the real fireworks began. The Bings' life in New York has been a running melodrama played out in both the tabloids and the courts. The couple is frequently spotted wandering through midtown in dirty, somewhat threadbare clothes, trailed by detectives. In March Lady Bing was led away in handcuffs because of her disruptive behavior. And now Sir Rudolf's longtime friend and court-appointed guardian, attorney Paul Guth, is attempting to pry the hapless couple apart, charging, among other things, that Carroll poses a present danger to her husband. When the couple appeared recently before a Manhattan judge who was considering whether Lady Bing should be physically isolated from Sir Rudolf, the beleaguered Bings were confused and combative by turns. Within days, Lady Bing had violated the court's temporary orders and was again arrested. Meanwhile, Guth has also filed an action to have the marriage annulled, which may come to trial this summer.

From the very beginning of Sir Rudolf's relationship with Douglass, Guth—whom Bing in 1985 selected to be his guardian, if the need arose—thought he smelled a gold-digging rat. Soon after the couple met, the lawyer discovered that Bing had already written his new friend checks totaling $20,000, and he petitioned the court to freeze Sir Rudolf's remaining $900,000 in assets. Then, a week before the couple eloped, Guth started the proceedings to have Sir Bing declared legally incompetent so he could take full control of the old man's affairs.

Guth clearly has grounds for concern. Three days after the Bings were secretly married in Arlington, Va., Douglass attempted to file a will with her husband. (They failed because they weren't Virginia residents.) Witnesses have also reported that she sometimes treats Bing cruelly—slapping him, shouting at him and refusing to let nurses bathe him or change his clothes. But as the full story of this strange union comes to light, it is also clear that Douglass—who has her own income from a $250,000 estate and her own history of mental illness—may have been less a fortune hunter than a troubled woman in search of companionship. "We've been totally in love from the moment we met," Lady Bing has said. In some sad way, she may be speaking the truth.

It is not clear how Douglass first managed to meet Bing in the spring of 1986, but she was soon dining regularly with him at his favorite Manhattan restaurant, Fontana Di Trevi. "One of the first times they ate here, I overheard her telling him that she loved him and they should go to Europe and honeymoon together," remembers owner Roberto Mei. "He was agreeing with her the whole time, and they were holding hands. Then the next thing I heard him say was 'What's your name again?' " But even in his confusion, Bing surely welcomed the attention. He confessed in his 1982 autobiography, published a few years after his first wife, Nina Schelemskaya, suffered a severe stroke, that he was "desperately lonely."

Douglass, for her part, had become increasingly erratic since the breakup of her second marriage in 1978. The daughter of a Washington, D.C., insurance company owner, she had a "normal childhood," says her brother, John, 41, and received a degree in English from New York University. In the early '60s, Carroll married John Glenn, a film producer twice her age. They divorced in 1973, and later that year she married William Rickenbacker, a New York investment counselor and the son of World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. He remembers Carroll as "a very beautiful woman," but also "batty" and a "pathological liar." Toward the end of their marriage she enlisted in the Army under an alias to learn to fly helicopters.

After her divorce from Rickenbacker, Douglass suffered a breakdown. Deciding that she was meant to be the Pope's private pilot, she laid out $40,000 for a helicopter before her brother and sister stepped in to have her declared incompetent in 1982. By the time she met Bing, she had been in and out of several mental institutions.

In December 1986, after months of intimate dinners, Carroll whisked Bing away to Washington, D.C. A month later, they were husband and wife. Guth, who insists that "Sir Rudolf was not competent to contract a marriage when he did," obtained a court order for the couple to return to New York. But Carroll ignored it and trundled her compliant spouse off to a beach cottage in Anguilla. The press followed. Bing, it was reported, seemed attached to his bride but kept asking what day it was. "I knew she was a little off the deep end," says Helen Trebby, an Anguilla neighbor, "when she said they had gone to hear the Vienna choirboys and wanted to adopt one."

The newlyweds next crossed to England. But the frequent changes of scenery further disoriented Sir Rudolf, who at several points during the Bings' British holiday wandered off and could not be found for hours. Finally, last November, Diane Douglass persuaded her sister to return to the U.S. Guth had agreed to give the couple a $750-a-week stipend and 24-hour nursing care if they would only stay put in New York. And Carroll's family was convinced that the couple could have a stable life if they were spared the constant travel, the avid press attention and legal harassment. "Left alone I think they could do fine together—sort of like the old David and Lisa movie," said Carroll's brother, John. "They are very good for each other."

But the newlyweds did not settle easily into life at the Essex House. Intensely jealous of Sir Rudolf's female nurses, Carroll barred them from the apartment and kept her husband out for 10 to 12 hours a day, walking the city streets. Because Bing had once been on the board of Columbia Artists Management, the couple often showed up there, as if for work. They once even gained access to an inner office and began rearranging the furniture. In March Carroll was arrested after slapping a CAM executive who refused to cash a check for her. Fed up, Guth took legal action.

On May 5 the Bings sat close together in Manhattan's Supreme Court while witnesses detailed Douglass's strange behavior. Swathed in a tattered, fur-collared coat, Lady Bing stared fixedly at her husband and frequently shouted objections at Judge Carmen Ciparick. Sir Rudolf clung to his wife and more than once exclaimed, "I haven't the foggiest idea what is going on."

After three days of testimony, Judge Ciparick issued temporary restraining orders, pending a final ruling later this month. Douglass may remain with her husband, she decreed, but must leave the apartment at appointed hours so that hired nurses—male, not female—can see to Bing's needs.

Only three days later, Carroll was arrested for ignoring the schedule. As police led her from the hotel lobby, a reporter asked her why she had disobeyed the judge's order. Replied Lady Bing, with some anguish: "I wasn't used to being without my husband. It's normal to want to be with your husband, isn't it?"

—By Kim Hubbard, with Toby Kahn in New York

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