A $110m legal circus as Ringling Brothers owner is sued by his sister

Warring Feld siblings prepare for courtroom battle this week over damages for alleged assault

Roll up, roll up! It isn't quite the greatest show on earth, but it promises to be what observers might call a full-blown legal circus. Tickets are free, but the drama due to commence in 24 hours will be priceless. At stake, ladies and gentlemen, is the princely sum of $110m (£67m).

You won't need a ringmaster to warm up the courtroom in Washington DC, where Karen Feld, whose father owned the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, will begin proceedings against her younger brother Kenneth. The airing of the family's dirty laundry should instead generate a great quantity of heat.

At issue is an alleged assault in September 2007 at the penthouse flat of the warring duo's late aunt, Shirley, that left Karen requiring brain surgery. Principal witnesses will be friends and members of the extended Feld clan, who had gathered to take part in the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva for the deceased.

Both protagonists are nothing if not colourful. Karen Feld is a Washington-based gossip columnist and socialite who has been a contributor to Playboy and over the years dated a string of minor DC celebrities, including the actor Jack Cassidy, former FBI director Bill Webster and the late Texas politician Charlie Wilson.

Kenneth is the secretive multi-millionaire owner of Feld Entertainment, which bills itself as the world's "largest source of live family entertainment". In addition to the internationally famous circus, he owns the Disney on Ice stage show and several monster truck and drag-racing franchises.

A shared bloodline has done nothing to help the duo get along, however. Bad feeling between Karen and Kenneth, 63 and 62 respectively, stretches back to 1984, when their father Irvin died suddenly in his sleep. He left behind a disputed will that passed his entire estate, including the circus, to his only son.

Karen swiftly brought legal action and eventually received a portion of the estate in a court settlement. But her brother kept control of the business, which he eventually built into a $750m empire. For many years afterwards, the siblings communicated only through lawyers.

Relations were not helped by Kenneth's efforts to keep himself out of the public domain. At one point, he hired a former CIA operative to spy on and disrupt the activities of an author who was writing a family history and with whom he believed Karen was co-operating. The book would have explored Irvin's alleged homosexuality, his wife's suicide, and the subsequent court cases between the two siblings.

In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Karen said that her brother's obsession with secrecy suggests that he has something to hide: "What is more wholesome than Disney and the circus, on the surface? But I think what people have to realise is sometimes there's a big difference between appearances and reality."

The death of aunt Shirley in 2007 was supposed to help thaw relations, since it would force Karen and Kenneth to interact in a cordial fashion at the shiva. Although they hugged upon meeting, a heated argument later developed. It ended with Karen in a Washington hospital, where she had emergency surgery on her brain and knee.

Further details are a matter of dispute. Karen claims the argument began when she visited the bathroom and was attacked in the corridor by two "large, aggressive men" employed as bodyguards by her brother. She claims to have been beaten and sexually assaulted by the men.

Kenneth, for his part, claims that his sister was discovered attempting to get into a bedroom where financial papers and family heirlooms were kept. When a guard interrupted her, she "exploded in a rage", began yelling profanities and threw a glass of wine at him. The outburst prompted a pregnant chef to hide behind a table, and forced the rabbi to halt proceedings. As a result, Karen was forcibly ejected, sustaining injuries in the process.

Although Kenneth has refused to comment on the trial, in which he is being sued for $110m, largely for personal injury, his court papers describe his sister as "narcissistic" and prone to violent outbursts. On the night in question, she behaved "outrageously", he added.

The dispute isn't the way Irvin Feld wanted his name to appear in lights. "I would like to be remembered for having made a contribution to the continuance of the circus," he once said. "It's practically all we have left of good, wholesome, clean entertainment that the whole family can enjoy."

From the Big Top to a multimillion-dollar business

1884 Five of the seven Ringling Brothers start the circus.

1907 The Ringlings acquire the Barnum & Bailey circus.

29 March 1919 Two become one with the debut performance of the newly merged Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The acquisition of Jumbo the elephant means the show grosses $336,000 in its first six weeks. Six and a half tons and 13ft tall, the elephant becomes the greatest circus attraction in American history.

6 July 1944 The Hartford Circus fire, triggered by an insufficiently fireproofed tent, kills more than 100 spectators. It signals the end of "big top" performances for the Ringling Brothers.

11 November 1967 Irvin Feld purchases the circus conglomerate, establishes the Clown College and restores the circus to its former glory.

6 September 1984 Feld, "The Greatest Showman on Earth" (Time magazine), dies. The business passes to his son, Kenneth. Daughter Karen is cut out of the will and sues for her share, but The Washington Post reveals she settles out of court for a measly sum.

1996 Feld Entertainment is set up. The company name is tarnished when journalist Jan Pottker claims Kenneth paid a former CIA officer $2.3m to disrupt her plans for a Feld family biography. The book would comment on Kenneth's mother's suicide and his father's alleged homosexuality.

July 2006 The Feld empire is honoured by Kenneth's induction into the International Circus Hall of Fame.

2009 Legal battles continue as animal rights campaign Peta reveals footage of circus employees abusing elephants.

3 May 2011 Back in court, the Feld siblings quarrel over an alleged assault.

Rachel Bradley

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