I want to know how Samantha Perelman sleeps at night.
Does she toss and turn and feel a tad guilty that she allowed her billionaire father to unleash an epic frivolous battle against her dead mother's family? After all, in society columnist Claudia Cohen's will, she specifically begged that her ex-husband Ronald Perelman "preserve" these family relationships that she wrote, no boldly wrote in big splashy capital letters, "are EXTREMELY important to me."
Now in a Hackensack, New Jersey courtroom, 23-year-old Samantha Perelman will take the stand Monday and attempt to defend why a billionaire's daughter who virtually holds a key to Fort Knox allowed her father for five years to knock down and sucker punch her ailing wheelchair-bound grandfather in an attempt to grab a larger share of his estate and make as Robert Cohen said in an affidavit, "the remaining years of my life as unbearable as possible." However, unbearable didn't mean beatable.
As Fortune Magazine's James Bandler reported, "Perelman tangled with the wrong octogenarian invalid." Robert Cohen, though suffering from a Parkinson's like disease, was a street fighter who owned Hudson News. He fought back after being forced to undergo humiliating medical exams to test his competency as well as exhausting depositions, while his granddaughter sat on the sidelines as her father's lawyers threw a blizzard of lawsuits against the family.
The Perelmans lost 18 out of 18 court decisions in three states and five courts before Robert Cohen died in 2012. Eighteen decisions, plus an appeal last month, upheld that Perelman's attorneys engaged in a frivolous lawsuit abusing the court system, one that is considered by many as the largest in New Jersey history. Superior Court Judge Ellen Koblitz had ruled that "to say that Robert Cohen is obligated to leave his will either one-third or one half of his estate...to Samantha..is not reasonable. You have an estate directed by a former ex-husband seeking to limit an individual, who is very much with us, from the ability to determine where his wealth will go."
But if you have fistfuls of money, you can sue again. So now Samantha, saying that she is engaging this for her, and here I have to gag, her mother's legacy because her mother "taught me to stand up for what I believe," is suing her uncle, James Cohen, claiming that he had undue influence over his ailing father. James, who worked side by side with his father for decades and was the architect of the single most profitable part of Hudson News, the creation of the retail stores which sold in 2008 for $800 million. Since 1997, Robert Cohen in his estate and family succession planning had given 100% of the business to his only living child, James Cohen.
I have known James Cohen since childhood along with his dead sister Claudia and his deceased brother Michael. Yes, there was another sibling here.*
When Samantha takes the stand, she will have the added pressure of having to explain why a billionaire's daughter feels entitled to a larger chunk of her grandfather's estate even if it means stampeding over her orphaned cousin Michael Spencer. Her orphaned cousin.
Let's compare the two different dinner tables of the Perelmans vs. the Cohens.
James Cohen, a Wharton graduate, who built an empire the old fashioned way by bringing people together vs. tearing them apart, met his wife Lisa, a Barnard graduate, as a teenager in camp and was immediately smitten. They have been happily married for over twenty five years. Claudia Cohen in her will called them, "the best brother and sister-in-law anyone could ever have. I ask that they spend as much time as possible with Samantha and talk to her about her mother." They are the parents of four children and are a devoted loving family. Five years ago they opened up their arms to include their nephew Michael Spencer, following the death of his mother. (Claudia, Samantha's mother, had died in 2007. Michael Cohen, father of Michael Spencer, passed away in 1997). Michael Spencer now refers to James and Lisa as his parents.
Now let's imagine a visit at the Perelman house. Wife Number Five is oohing and cooing over her two brand new baby boys with Perelman. Also sitting next to Samantha vying for Daddy's attention is her half-sister Caleigh, who had to get her own court appointed attorney to help her during her parents' divorce trial battles. She subsequently claimed she was "fearful" of her mother, political activist Patricia Duff, and cut off contact with her, sparking New York Daily News' Jose Martinez to ask, "Is this any way to treat your mother?" and the New York Post's Andrea Peyser to wonder, "Do all little girls know how to use the legal system against Mom? Too scary."
Of the four children from his first marriage to Faith Golding, who divorced him after she discovered he had cheated on her with a florist, Perelman refused, according to Forbes, to attend his eldest son's wedding because he defied his request to sign a prenup. Not showing up at any gathering are Samantha's stepbrother and stepsister, the two children of actress Ellen Barkin, who lived with Perelman from 2000-2006 until their stepfather threw their mother out of the house with armed guards, and she subsequently sought revenge by selling off all his $20 million gifts of jewelry at Christie's so there would be no emotional memory of the marriage.
Is it any wonder that Claudia Cohen wanted her child to spend quality time at the Cohens including "parts of school vacations?"
Claudia Cohen knew what her ex-husband was capable of. In 1996, Claudia pressed charges against Perelman for "economic harassment" as "punishment for my refusal to permit him to exert control over me and my personal life." As the New York Daily News wrote, "Cohen's ex-husband Ron Perelman is a billionaire bully who is strangling her financially because of her romance with Sen. Alfonse D'Amato" and exacted financial revenge. Sound familiar? Once she was dying from ovarian cancer however, Perelman made nice and tried to help find a medical cure.
As someone who covers divorce and marriage issues, and wrote a book about adult bullies, I also know that in many divorces, the more powerful cash rich parent can influence their children in how they treat the other parent and the parent's family. It is very sad to witness. It's as though you are living in the Twilight Zone and narratives change to justify all sorts of rotten behavior. It's a form of parental poisoning. Do you think this is what is happening here?
I just wish that Samantha, who I do not know, would have listened to her grandfather. In his affidavit, he wrote, "it breaks my heart that after her 18th birthday and no longer subject to the dictates of her imperious father, she has proceeded with this lawsuit." Despite that blow, Robert Cohen still left her a 30 carat jewel, real estate and life insurance worth almost $30 million. What she has left the Cohen family is nothing but heartbreak and emotional anguish. But she has also energized the family to seek justice against these bullying tactics and luckily, unlike many families in America, the Cohens can afford to attack Goliath.
As I write in my book, The Need to Say No: How to Be Bullish and Not Bullied, saying no can happen at any time. Even after you say yes, you can change your mind, especially if that inner voice zaps you with guilt or whispers to pause for reflection. Our parents teach us who we want to be and not be. Samantha Perelman will be judged for the rest of her life on the choices she is making at this turning point. It could determine whether she has a good night's sleep or endless nightmares.
*This post has been updated to further disclose that Jill Brooke is a longtime acquaintance and friend of James Cohen.