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

Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
Sport
Vincenzo Nibali rides into Paris on the final stage of the 2014 Tour de France
Tour de FranceVincenzo Nibali is first Italian winner since Marco Pantani in 1998
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Sport
Red Bull Racing's Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo (C) celebrates with Scuderia Ferrari's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso (L) and Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton
sport
Arts and Entertainment
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmComedy was dominated by the romcom at its most insufferable
Sport
Tour de France competitor Bartosz Huzarski’s legs have highlighted the gruelling nature of the race, after he posted a picture on Facebook showing extremely prominent veins stretching from his feet and all the way up his legs
Commonwealth Games
Life and Style
Elle Kaye demonstrates the art of taxidermy
food + drinkFood revolution taken a step further in new ‘edible taxidermy’ class
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
Halsall broke her personal best in the 50m butterfly
Commonwealth GamesEnglish swimmer is reborn after disastrous time at London 2012
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Voices
The Express offices in the 1930s when writers (such as Orwell) were paid around £2 weekly
voicesWebsites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
A cut above: Katy Guest at The Ginger Pig
food + drinkThe Ginger Pig's hands-on approach to primary cuts
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

Application Support Analyst / Junior SQL Server DBA

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established professional services...

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried