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Laura Winston dies at 85; philanthropist's companion sought legal rights

Laura Winston, who fought a 15-year legal battle to win recognition as the companion of multimillionaire-philanthropist Ben Weingart, defend her inheritance rights and free him from the conservatorship that deprived him of his liberty in his last years, died Feb. 3 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was 85.

She had pancreatic cancer, said James Burt, her partner of 20 years.

Starting in the late 1970s, Winston made headlines for challenging the court-ordered conservatorship that placed Weingart under the control of three business associates. She argued that Weingart was capable of handling his own affairs.

From that point on it was a David-versus-Goliath story. "For the next 15 years she fought them in court over what they had done to him," said her attorney, Michael Larin. "She had no money, they had law firms."

Weingart, who had no children, left a fortune valued at $200 million, the bulk of which was held by the private Weingart Foundation. His will granted Winston $2,000 a month for 15 years after his death, about $50,000 in cash, a rent-free apartment, a luxury car, a diamond ring and part ownership of one of his apartment buildings.

Arguing that Weingart meant to leave her a larger inheritance, Winston presented a codicil that he drafted shortly before the conservatorship took effect saying that he wanted to give her $2 million, but the conservators denied her claim.

Immediately after gaining control of Weingart's care and finances, the conservators evicted Winston from Weingart's home and refused to pay her the income he had promised her unless she agreed to cut off all contact with him.

She did not agree to their terms, sparking a court battle that ensued for years after Weingart's death in 1980 at 92.

Weingart's was a rags-to-riches story, beginning in Georgia where he was orphaned by the age of 5 and culminating in Los Angeles, where he delivered laundry to skid row hotels and eventually owned the hotels. After World War II, he and two partners developed the city of Lakewood. He became what The Times, in its obituary on Weingart, called "one of the least-known and most influential members of the Los Angeles financial community."

He was also an eccentric who was known to wear the same $5 shirt and 30-year-old suits for days at a time. He ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch every day and, as Winston told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1978, always went to sleep with a jelly bean in his mouth.

Winston met Weingart in 1959, two years after the death of his wife, Stella. Like Weingart, Winston had known hardship. Born Mary Grace Hertz in Cleveland on March 16, 1924, she had moved to Los Angeles in 1942 with a dance troupe and won a few bit parts in movies but never found the success she had dreamed of.

She married an Oklahoma oil man, but his alcoholism ruined their marriage. Her second husband was a Las Vegas con man whose debts nearly bankrupted her. That marriage produced her only child, a daughter, who died of a brain tumor at age 5.

By the time Winston moved back to Los Angeles in 1959, she had changed her name to Laura Winston. She met Weingart when she got a job raising funds for a mental health charity. Weingart was 71. She was 34. He gave her a $10,000 donation. Soon they started a romantic relationship. Eventually, Weingart put her on his payroll as a real estate agent.

For the next 15 years, Winston said, she was "like a wife" to him.

She moved in with him in 1974. A few months later, Weingart's associates went to court and convinced a judge that their business partner was too senile to handle his own affairs. Weingart was not present at any of the hearings that led to him being placed under conservatorship.

The conservators included discount store mogul Sol Price, Weingart aide John Poag and investment counselor Jack Rosenburg. Rosenburg later asked to be removed as conservator and was replaced by a public guardian, Gordon W. Treharne.

They fired hundreds of Weingart's employees, against Weingart's written wishes. They cut off Winston's $60,000-a-year income, even though he had written a letter saying that he wished her income to continue for the rest of her life. They also posted guards to keep her out of Weingart's house and the hospital room where he spent the last three years of his life.

The conservators said that they kept Winston away from Weingart because she upset him. Winston countered that the conservators felt threatened by her. "They knew if I got to Ben and told him what was going on, he would have fired them all," she said.

Questions she raised about Weingart's care, burial and the execution of his will led to an investigation by the L.A. County district attorney's office, which raised ethical questions, particularly about the propriety of having conservators who all owed the multimillionaire substantial sums of money. However, no charges of wrongdoing resulted.

The battle dragged on through several courtrooms, with Winston often trying to represent herself because she could not afford a lawyer. It so depleted her finances that for years she existed on fast food, according to Larin, her attorney.

In 1988, however, she won a private settlement from Weingart's estate that Larin described as in the low seven figures. By the time she died, he said, she had spent it all, mostly on gifts for friends.

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