The tragedy of Sita, heiress entangled in a murky business

Sita White should have led a charmed existence, but she died penniless and shunned by her family. Sholto Byrnes charts her demise
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The Independent US

Just before Lord "Gordy" White died in 1995, he handed his daughter, Sita, a note. "When you die, you die alone," it read. He was almost right.

Although when Sita died in May this year at the age of only 43 she was with Victoria, Gordy's third wife (who was two years Sita's junior), she was alone at her funeral. The ceremony was attended by 40 mourners, but none of her family, not her sister, her daughter, her half-brother, her mother or her stepmother, were present.

Her sudden death - she collapsed from an embolism in the lungs just before a yoga class - was a sad end to a life that failed to meet the high expectations of her father, a man whose money and fame overshadowed her even beyond the grave. Short of money and a single mother, in the years preceding her death Sita had been leading a druggy and purposeless existence in Los Angeles, preoccupied with her quest to receive what she regarded as a fair share of her father's fortune.

When Sita, the child of White's first marriage to Elizabeth Vasquez, was growing up, her father was just a few years into his partnership with James Hanson, a business arrangement and friendship that built the Hanson Trust and led to both men becoming millionaires and peers. White, who had served with the Special Operations Executive in the war, was a dashing figure and a ladies man who had escorted Jane Russell, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. (Of Kelly, he once said that she made "you feel that you were the only person in the world", adding, "as she's short-sighted, I don't suppose there could be anyone else".)

White had less time for his children, however. (As well as Sita, there was Carolina, also from his first marriage, and Lucas, from his second marriage to Virginia North.) Although Sita was well provided for, with homes in Los Angeles and London, she failed to emulate her father's success, a job on the set of the James Bond film Licence To Kill and some time helping the development fund at London Zoo being her most noteworthy endeavours.

The difficult relationship she had with her father, by whom she felt rejected, was mirrored in her own love life, updates on which made regular appearances in the gossip columns. In 1986 she married Francesco Venturi, an Italian photographer. A delighted Gordy spent £50,000 on the reception at the Duke of York's barracks in Chelsea and bought the couple a house in the Little Boltons, a select enclave nearby.

But before long she had begun a relationship with Imran Khan, whom she met in the Jermyn Street nightclub, Tramp. The Pakistani cricketer ended the affair after a few months, but after Sita moved permanently to Los Angeles in 1990 they spent one final night together. Sita later claimed she had asked Khan to father her child and that he had agreed.

Until the result of this assignation, Tyrian, was three, Sita kept the identity of her daughter's father secret. So did Khan, informing his biographer, Ivo Tennant, that he knew Lord White but making no mention of Sita. Neither was White exactly supportive of his daughter. He did invite her to live with him in his Bel Air home during her pregnancy, but, according to Sita, when Tyrian was born his only words were "that is not a white child" and he never made any effort to see her again.

When the news of Khan's paternity (which he has never publicly admitted) came out, he was by then married to Jemima Goldsmith, whose father Sir James was a friend of Gordy's. Campaigning for his own political party in Pakistan, Khan was attacked by opponents for violating the tenets of Islam. Sita promised "to do whatever it takes to prove him guilty" and later that year a California judge declared that Khan was the father after he failed to contest the paternity suit Sita filed.

She was to marry twice more, in 1996 to an actor and former "Marlboro Man", Alan Marshall, and again in 2002 to John Ursich, an Argentinian-born waiter. At the time of her death the couple were divorcing, with her levelling charges of abuse at her husband, and him accusing her of indulging in alcohol and cocaine.

By this point relations were better, having been strained for several years, with her younger half-brother, Lucas, who had inherited the largest part of Gordy's fortune (he is estimated to be worth around £50m) and became Britain's youngest tax exile at the age of 20. Tall and good-looking, Lucas went into business with James Hanson's son, Robert, who was best man at Lucas's marriage to the American model Normandie Keith.

A few years ago Lucas battled with testicular cancer, but made a good recovery. Unlike the LA drifter society which Sita frequented, Lucas and Normandie move among the young, wealthy set, with Jemima Khan, the model Jodie Kidd and the Duke of York among their friends.

Although Lucas's spokesman says that over the years he had assisted Sita financially, she insisted that the $13,000 (£7,000) monthly allowance she received from a family trust was insufficient to maintain the Beverley Hills house Gordy had bought her. In 2000 she made a suicide attempt, saying she had "had enough of begging for money".

Floods and a landslide had made her home barely habitable. At the time she said to her friend, the writer William Cash: "I am so tired of being in the dark about what was rightfully my inheritance, of simply dreading every phone call or fax, of living in fear of being cut off, of pleading with my brother Lucas to pay for repairs, to pay my taxes, with what he calls 'gifts'. I know my father would not have wanted me to spend the rest of my life begging for the occasional bone to be tossed my way."

In fact, Gordy had purposefully limited the inheritance Sita received because he thought she couldn't handle money well. But towards the end of last year, Sita and Carolina came to an agreement with Lucas, and in exchange for giving up the monthly allowances both received $3m from the family trust. Gordy's fears about her inability to manage money were to be realised after she was introduced to Cameron and Richard Saxby, a couple whom Sita was not to realise had been involved in numerous lawsuits.

Oddly, she met the Saxbys at a gathering at Victoria White's house. Sita's relationship with her stepmother had been difficult while Gordy was alive, but following his death their exchanges in the press became positively venomous. Sita, incensed by Victoria's renewed relationship with an old flame, the Texan businessman Tom O'Gara, took to calling her "the merry widow". Victoria responded by saying "she's bitter because I'm younger and prettier than she is."

Gordy had been introduced to Victoria Tucker, then a Californian model aged 17, in New York in 1981. "I just have to have that," he said to his friend, the actor George Hamilton. Despite his best efforts, however, it was another five years before the pair became an item. From the beginning of their relationship, Gordy always insisted that he would never marry a younger woman, having convinced himself that they all "want babies". Although Victoria had given up her modelling career to pursue the life of leisure that Gordy's wealth afforded her, it wasn't until 1992 that she became his wife.

Some time prior to their marriage, White was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Laid low by depression, he managed to alienate Victoria, and she returned to California where she met O'Gara, who proposed within weeks. When the news reached Gordy, he realised his mistake and summoned her home. Victoria promptly handed back O'Gara's engagement ring and returned to Manhattan, having agreed to become Lady White.

It was another dalliance with the Texan that persuaded Gordy to end the long engagement and tie the knot in 1992. He and Victoria argued after he discovered that she had visited O'Gara, and she once again fled to California. This time, White pursued her to the West Coast, and soon afterwards they were married.

O'Gara, nonetheless, remained in touch, and on New Year's Eve 1996, just eighteen months after Gordy's death, he married Victoria in Idaho. The marriage did not last, and after the pair separated in 2002 Victoria moved to LA. Victoria and Sita began to phone each other, and a new friendship developed (although a friend of Sita's claims that this was a tactic to pursue Sita's claim to Gordy's estate).

Within weeks of meeting the Saxbys at Victoria's house, Sita had appointed Cameron Saxby her executor and the guardian of Tyrian. Rather bizarrely, she wrote into the will that neither her mother, sister, brother, stepmother, Imran Khan or her then boyfriend, Peter Svennelson, should be appointed guardian.

Earlier this year, Sita wrote two cheques to the Saxbys, totalling $2.4m. She said she was told that the money would be invested, but after advice from a lawyer found out that the money had been borrowed. When she managed to have the Saxbys' bank account frozen $800,000 had gone from her original sum.

Sita then made Jemima Khan Tyrian's guardian. Her daughter had spent several months in 2002 and 2003 in London and had spent time with the Khans, while Imran now speaks to Tyrian regularly on the phone.

After Sita collapsed at the yoga studio she was taken to hospital, where she was declared dead on arrival. Carolina came to collect her, and although the Khans offered to be Tyrian's guardians, Carolina won temporary guardianship, and the child will be allowed to choose with whom she lives later this year.

The funeral arrangements were chaotic, with Carolina telling friends she would not be attending and going to court in an attempt to stop the funeral. Instead she conducted her own vigil at Sita's house. Perhaps it was fitting, as Sita's body would not be laid to rest after the funeral, but returned to the morgue until the LAPD decided the cause of death was not homicide. It was two months before it was concluded she had died of natural causes.

Ursich says that she was "stressed out" by her financial worries "for years and years. This thing destroyed our relationship, our love and everything. All her money issues - I tell you, it would give anybody a heart attack".

The irony is, of course, that although she received much less than her brother, the amounts she received from her father and the trusts he established would have been more than enough for those with more modest tastes. Modesty, however, is not a trait that comes so easily to the offspring of the super-rich.

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