The Dumaine Legacy
09/09/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
MY ADOPTIVE PARENTS ALWAYS TOLD me I was a chosen baby," says Elizabeth Ann Charney. Growing up in a redbrick row house full of love in a middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood, Betty Charney, now 35 and a public school teacher in Miramar, Fla., never gave a second thought to her natural parents or who they might be. Then in 1977, during her first pregnancy, she found herself worrying every time a doctor asked about her family history. "I had these questions," she recalls. "And I began to wonder, 'Who am I?' "
What began as a simple journey to find her roots has become a dizzying ride on the wheel of fortune. As it turned out, Charney's biological father was Pierre Dumaine, one of the heirs to a $200 million trust from a railroad and textile empire that includes Fieldcrest Cannon Inc., the towel manufacturers. Betty—divorced from Robert Charney since 1981 and sharing a modest house on a canal with sons A.J., 12, and Bobby Jr., 14, and her ex—mother-in-law, Katherine Cusato—now finds herself a Cinderella-in-waiting. There's only one catch: Her new family has so far resisted Charney's claim to her fairytale birthright.
Relaxing amid the Chippendale splendor of his estate in Weston, Mass., Charney's birth uncle Frederic "Buck" Dumaine Jr., 88, is unbending. He and other recipients of the Dumaine trust don't deny that Charney is a blood relation. But he also insists that Frederic Dumaine Sr., the patriarch who died in 1951, expressly stated that only "legitimate" heirs were entitled to share his legacy. In the eyes of the family, Betty, born out of wedlock, is ineligible. So Buck grins and dismisses her lawyers, who have taken the case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. "Let 'em be damned," he declares.
That's what the Dumaines said in 1955 when they discovered that Charney's parents, Pierre "Spike" Dumaine, then 43, and Evelyn Humphrey, also 43, a receptionist at the family's Boston-based headquarters, had fallen in love. After all, Spike was married, if unhappily, and was the father of two children. Evelyn was a twice-divorced mother of three. She soon left her job, and he was dropped from the trust. In 1956, Betty was born. She insists today that Pierre "stayed in his marriage because of his obligation as a father." Still, at about the same time that Evelyn surrendered her for adoption, Pierre's trust payments resumed.
By 1961, though, Pierre's marriage had collapsed; he and Evelyn married but had no more children. Betty was never forgotten. "My dad later told me that every year on my birthday, my mom became a recluse," Charney says. After her 21st, Betty asked her adoptive parents, John Scudder, a stockbroker turned schoolteacher, and his wife, Nelda, to contact the lawyer who'd originally arranged the adoption. He in turn notified the Dumaines, who then wrote to their long-lost daughter.
"Words can't explain how I felt," Charney says, recalling her first meeting with her birth parents. That was in 1978, in Birmingham, Ala., where she was living with her husband, a cafeteria manager. From the first, says Betty, she and the Dumaines found an easy closeness. And eight months later, Pierre and Evelyn threw a party for her at their home in Cumberland, Maine.
During that visit, Charney for the first time understood that her parents were wealthy. But not until after they died—Evelyn of heart failure in January 1987, Pierre of cancer seven months later—did she understand just how well-off they were. And just how much she believes she might inherit—$250,000 a year. "When you don't come from money, you can't comprehend it," she says.
Nor could she imagine that the other heirs, including half brother Peter, 53, and half sister Lael "Suzy," would want to exclude her from the inheritance. (Pierre specified in his will that he wanted Betty to be a beneficiary.) The battle began four months after her father's funeral when the trustees started legal proceedings to determine whether she was entitled to a share. All along, the family contention has been that Charney has no claim on the trust, though Pierre and Evelyn did eventually marry. Charney's attorney, Dort Bigg, insists that universal slate law legitimizes any child born out of wedlock when the parents legally wed and acknowledge the child. Charles DeGrandpre, attorney for Betty's half brother and half sister, disagrees. Adoptive children obtain all inheritance rights from their new parents, he says, and forfeit those of their natural parents. Which may be why Betty petitioned a New York circuit court in 1988 to annul her adoption. (The court has yet to act on her request.) Her adoptive parents made no objection. "Our relationship wasn't based on whether it was official, but on a lifetime of sharing," says John Scudder, 71, who, with his wife, Nelda, 70, took Charney in when she was 4 days old. "If this helps Betty, we'd do it."
The Dumaines insist that Frederic, a man obsessed with his strict moral code, didn't give a hoot about bloodlines, only about behavior. According to Charney's half brother, Peter, "My grandfather was so specific. He'd sit me on his knee and pound into my head that, if I ever got a woman pregnant and was not married, I'd be on my own. And my father told it to me too."
Taking the patriarch at his word, the New Hampshire Superior Court ruled in 1990 that the elder Dumaine's intent was to support only those heirs born "in wedlock." The decision, says Betty, "crushed me. I felt the judge was saying, 'You're not good enough to be one of them.' " She has appealed her case to the state supreme court, which could rule on it this fall. If she wins, Betty, who now makes $25,000 a year, hasn't the vaguest idea how she'd spend her new riches. But at least there would be plenty of money to send her sons to college.
And if fortune eludes her? "I'm proud of who I am," she says. "I always was, but now I know why. There's too much hate in this world, and you can concentrate on it, but I know my mother and father, and I know they loved me."
CINDY DAMPIER in Miramar, GAYLE VERNER in Boston, MARIA SPEIDEL in Brooklyn