As Nasty as It Gets
Room 243 is where the fabulously wealthy takeover artist and head of Revlon, Ronald O. Perelman, 55, is squaring off against his just plain wealthy ex-wife, socialite and Democratic fund-raiser Patricia Duff, 44, over their 4-year-old daughter Caleigh. The battle of the twosome, who divorced in September, has prompted an unlikely airing of dirty designer laundry. "We're in uncharted waters here," said Justice Franklin Weissberg early in the proceeding. "There aren't too many cases where a billionaire and a multimillionaire slug it out."
Duff, for instance, has referred to her ex as "socially inept"; Perelman has called her paranoid. Both have charged the other with physical abuse, allegations each has strongly denied. Then there was the time that Perelman, worth about $6 billion, was asked in court by Duff's attorney to estimate what it costs to feed his daughter. "When Caleigh eats with me," he replied, "she eats $3 worth of food a day"–a remark that made for juicy tabloid headlines and led a local deejay to mount a mock food drive. "There is an obscene quality about this," says Raoul Felder, a prominent New York City divorce lawyer with no connection to the case. "They're making the public a party to this unbounded greed and avarice."
In the middle of it all is Caleigh Sophia, a little girl who likes Beethoven, ballet and Barbies. "She's the light of my life," Patricia Duff told PEOPLE. "I don't think we were separated for more than two hours until the visitation process began in April 1997." Under a temporary custody agreement, Caleigh lives with her mother two-thirds of the year, split between a Manhattan apartment and a 14-room colonial mansion (known as Rock Meadow) on Duff's 21-acre estate in Southport, Conn. Caleigh spends the rest of her time with Perelman, either in his Georgian townhouse in Manhattan, his $16 million Palm Beach, Fla., mansion (Casa Apava) or his 57-acre estate in the Hamptons (the Creeks).
Not surprisingly, Duff and Perelman, who split in 1996 after 18 stormy months, are at odds over finances. According to Perelman's camp, Duff has received $30 million in cash, real estate and jewelry, plus $1.5 million a year in alimony. They add that she is trying to increase the court-ordered monthly child-support payment of $12,000 to pay for a Manhattan rental for Caleigh or obtain $7 million for a new townhouse (Duff's side disputes these figures). A spokesman for Duff, who has gone through five teams of lawyers since her legal troubles began, says, "The wealthiest man in New York owes his daughter a certain level of support."
For his part, the high-living Perelman–who declined to comment to PEOPLE–has amended his $3-a-day remark by stating he spends $360,000 a year on his daughter's schooling, tutoring and nannies. "He's hardly a deadbeat dad," says someone who is close to the family. "He wants the very best for his children. But he's a hard bargainer." Perelman, seeking full custody of Caleigh, has pointed to an 800-page report by a court-appointed psychiatrist suggesting that Duff has a "narcissistic-personality disorder." Duff calls the report ludicrous, claiming that Perelman tried to influence the psychiatrist during a lunch at his Hamptons estate. Resolving such issues won't be easy. "These are two people," says a friend of the former couple's, "who are used to getting their own way."
Perhaps that is what drew them together in the first place. The Los Angeles-born daughter of a Hughes Aircraft executive, Duff married her high school sweetheart Tomas Zabrotsky, but the couple split after only a year. In 1980 she wed Washington lawyer Daniel Duff, a union that lasted five years. "She's full of life, a knockout with brains," he says. "People liked to be in her orbit." Duff was a highly regarded Democratic consultant when she married motion-picture executive Mike Medavoy in 1986; they befriended the likes of Bill Clinton and Barbra Streisand before splitting in 1994. "The way she goes from one power husband to another," says a former classmate, "is phenomenal."
The son of a wealthy Philadelphia businessman, Perelman began amassing his own fortune at age 35 by gobbling up ailing companies and then turning them around. Married for 18 years to heiress Faith Golding, and for nine years to New York City gossip columnist Claudia Cohen–whose 1994 divorce netted her $80 million–Perelman has five other children. He was introduced to Duff by mutual friends Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and they married on Dec. 12, 1994, a day before Duff gave birth to Caleigh, her only child.
But tensions mounted faster than the interest on Perelman's riches. "The marriage was difficult from the beginning," says a Perelman associate. Miffed that Duff attended a 1996 party for Al Gore without him, Perelman boarded his Gulf-stream jet and left Duff and Caleigh behind in Chicago. A reconciliation attempt backfired when Perelman discovered a tape recorder, which wasn't turned on, in Duff's purse. But Duff soon landed in the arms of N.J. Sen. Robert Torricelli, 47. "She's a real person," insists Torricelli. "She mows the lawn, she weeds the garden. And she's totally dedicated to Caleigh."
So, says a close associate, is Perelman, adding that the mogul is driven by an interest in fairness: "He is a very rich man, but nobody wants to be made a fool of." Others see a more sinister motive. "He spends his days wheeling and dealing and crushing opponents to get the best deal," says a Duff associate. "I think he just wants to win."
Lawyer Felder blames both parties. "They're tying up the court while other people wait to have their cases heard," he says. "It makes a mockery of the law." What it will do to their daughter remains to be seen.
Julia Campbell, Cynthia Wang and Ward Morehouse III in New York City, Susan Gray and Vicky Moon in Washington, D.C., Marianne Stochmal in Southport and Don Sider in Palm Beach