An Operatic Decline : Sir Rudolf Bing, Once the Ruler of the Met, Has Lapsed Into a Legal and Mental Limbo

Times Staff Writer

Every morning, just around 10 o'clock, a haunted-looking woman descends from the elevator at the Essex House. Her eyes scan the lobby, seeing everything and nothing. Looking disheveled, in clothes that are shabby and sometimes outlandish, she stands out in this bastion of sedate business people and well-heeled tourists. Sometimes she stops to talk to a child. But adults who would like to speak to her are dismissed with a vacant stare and barely a word.

The ritual is repeated at 3:30 each afternoon in this luxurious hotel and apartment house on Central Park South. And again each evening at 9, Lady Carroll Douglass Bing must vacate for two hours the apartment she shares with her husband, Sir Rudolf Bing, the former opera impresario who is 86 and suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

This is the arrangement agreed upon by lawyers for Lady Bing, 48, and her husband. Following complaints that Lady Bing refused to allow nurses to care for her husband, allegedly shoving one nurse, berating another and on several occasions accusing female nurses of displaying romantic interest in Bing, a court decision late this spring blocked out six hours each day when Lady Bing must leave the apartment her husband has lived in for 39 years.

'She Wanders Around'

"That is when I see her," said Richard Boehm, a literary agent and longtime friend of Bing's, who often dines near Lincoln Center and attends cultural events there. "When she has to get out of the house at night, she wanders around. I see her then."

The strange tale of the man who fired Maria Callas, chose not to hire Beverly Sills and ruled the Metropolitan Opera for 23 years with an autocratic manner and an acerbic tongue, took on operatic proportions of its own Jan. 9, 1987.

That day, on his 85th birthday, Bing married a former mental patient named Carroll Douglass. Soon they embarked on a bizarre trek from the West Indies to Great Britain that earned worldwide attention when they ran out of money and ended up, for a time, at a shelter for the homeless in Leeds, north of London.

Bing's lawyers moved immediately to freeze his funds and, reluctantly, because it seemed so undignified, to have their client declared incompetent. They have since launched a battle to annul the marriage that remains in legal limbo.

Heartbreaking Story

"I think the whole thing is so sad, it breaks my heart," said Paul Goldhamer, an attorney for Bing. "He's just an old man at the end of his life." Lady Bing, Goldhamer said, "is a sick, sick woman."

Many people close to the case refuse to discuss it. Repeated calls to Lady Bing's family and to her attorneys went unreturned. Some people agreed to speak about the Bings, but only off the record. The Bings themselves consent to no interviews.

"It is very, very sad for someone who knew him," a longtime Bing associate said. "I can see him the way he was, savoring his cigarette, eating the piece of cake he had every afternoon with his tea. That is the way he wanted to end his days, in peace, at the Essex House.

"Now when I see him," the associate said, "even that enjoyment is gone."

Friends said Bing's condition is most clearly manifested by his complete lack of short-term memory. He began to slip several years ago, they said, worrying aloud that he was turning senile. Widowed and childless, Bing sought legal advice at that time to help him prepare for what he feared was his own deterioration.

He had always been a man of routine. Particularly since the death in 1983 of his wife of 53 years, ballerina Nina Schelemskaya-Schelesnaya, Bing ate the same thing at the same time, every day. He sat at the same table and dined at least five nights a week at the Fontana di Trevi restaurant, two blocks from his apartment. On Fridays he always ordered his favorite zuppe di peschia, fish soup.

In earlier years he was also a man of strong will and determination. A tough executive and commanding leader, Bing as general manager oversaw the Met's move to its present location at Lincoln Center. He terrorized divas with his forceful demeanor and biting wit. This giant of the cultural world was, a good friend said, "used to getting his own way."

Bing's decline from Alzheimer's was steady. At first he lost track of conversations. He became confused. In restaurants he would forget if he had ordered, whether he had paid the bill and, sometimes, whether he had eaten.

By 1986, his short-term memory had all but evaporated.

"Sir Rudolf doesn't understand the concept of what is happening," said Goldhamer, the lawyer. "He doesn't know what has happened from one minute to the next. He has no memory of events that have passed."

Exactly how Carroll Douglass entered his life is a matter of speculation. His lawyers learned that a connection had been formed between the two sometime in 1986. "She just moved in on him," Goldhamer said.

Lady Bing has said they met at a performance of "Parsifal" at the Met. But Boehm, who worked with Bing on his books, "5,000 Nights at the Opera" and "A Knight at the Opera," said that is impossible.

"He hates 'Parsifal,' " Boehm said. "If anyone were to ask Sir Rudolf to attend 'Parsifal,' he would say one of two things. Either he would say, 'It's a bore,' or he would bellow 'Senza me! (Without me!)' "

Boehm said Carroll Douglass "appeared out of nowhere," and "just sort of plopped down at the table" at Fontana di Trevi where he and Bing were having dinner. Wearing "a dress printed with sunflowers, the kind one wears to the beach," and sandals, she "took over the conversation" and was "very, very domineering in a quiet way," Boehm said.

"I hadn't the foggiest notion of who she was," he said. "I thought, 'The man is being very clever. He has a girlfriend on the side.' "

Douglass, it turned out, was the twice-divorced daughter of a Washington insurance company owner. Reared as a Christian Scientist in suburban Potomac, Md., she studied at the Principia School and received a bachelor's degree from New York University in 1962. She was 22 when she married Jack Glenn, a 65-year-old documentary film maker, in 1961.

That marriage broke up in 1973, the same year Douglass married William Rickenbacker. The son of World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker was an investment counselor 12 years older than Douglass. He has said Douglass soon became fascinated with flying, and announced she wanted to get a helicopter license and become a traffic reporter.

Instead, Douglass, then 37, enlisted in the Army on June 30, 1977. She used false identification that declared her name to be Katherine Kelly and her age to be 26. Kelly, according to Army records, trained in helicopter school at Ft. McClellan, Ala., and Ft. Rucker, Ala. Kelly had been accepted to warrant officer school for further training as a helicopter pilot when she was discharged in September, 1978. Kelly's Army file does not disclose the cause of the discharge, but Rickenbacker has claimed that she was discharged after he informed her superiors of the mistaken identity.

A Fixation for the Pope

After the Rickenbackers divorced in 1978, Douglass returned to Washington. At one time she was voluntarily hospitalized for "irrational behavior." In a 1982 petition requesting conservatorship of their sister's estate, her brother John and sister Diane stated that Douglass had "acquired a romantic and unreasonable fixation for the person of the Pope and the plight of the people of Poland." The petition said she had tried to buy a Rolls-Royce for Pope John Paul II, and had also made efforts to buy him a helicopter.

Neither Diane nor John Douglass would respond to repeated requests for an interview. But Goldhamer, who has dealt extensively with Douglass in the ongoing court fight to annul the marriage, said, "She just has a fixation on various famous people. She likes to be near famous people."

"That first summer" of 1986, Boehm said, Douglass disappeared as mysteriously as she had appeared. "Allegedly," Boehm said, Douglass had gone off to Oxford University to study Shakespeare and romantic poetry, "allegedly" paid for by Bing.

His lawyers confirm he began making frequent and substantial withdrawals from his accounts sometime after he met Douglass. Heretofore a man of careful and predictable spending habits, Bing wrote checks to Douglass totaling $20,000. Douglass, for her part, receives an income of her own from her $250,000 estate.

Around Thanksgiving of 1986, someone close to the Bing case said, "She removed him to Washington.

"His condition had degenerated. He was already at a point where if someone said 'Come with me,' he would come."

There were hefty withdrawals from Bing's accounts, his lawyers said. The pair moved from one hotel to another. On Jan. 7, in New York, a court order was entered to have Bing declared incompetent. On Jan. 9, in a magistrate's office in Arlington, Va., Douglass and Bing were married. The license they filled out stated that neither had been married before.

In hearings in New York three days later to determine Bing's competency, the new Lady Bing was ordered not to remove her husband from New York. Summarily the Bings departed for the Caribbean island of Anguilla. Soon, with an eager tabloid press in hot pursuit, they were off to England and Scotland. For nine months, the couple flitted about, ignoring pleas from Bing's attorneys to return to the United States. With Bing's funds frozen, they eventually ran out of cash.

Graham Platt, an attorney and local politician in Leeds, was summoned to assist the Bings when a client of his who owned a guest house where they had landed "realized they had severe problems." Platt obtained "generous donations" from individuals and a British musicians' fund to help pay their outstanding debts. After the Bings spent several days in a shelter for the homeless, he helped find them a place to stay as well.

A large part of the problem for the Bings, Platt said, is that "they create around them a sort of turmoil of confusion, wherever they happen to be. If they are worried about something, or if Carroll is worried, that generates something of its own."

Bing, Platt said, "is supremely calm and detached. His concern is generally where his next cigarette and his next meal is coming from." Lady Bing, however, "gets very worried and will not stop talking."

In addition, Platt said Lady Bing showed "a tendency to attach herself to anybody, generally a female, who showed an interest and sympathy in their predicament." It was as if, Platt said, "she had the need for a dependent, a woman like a guardian, a close friend, a pal, a mate on whom she can rely entirely and who will devote herself entirely to Carroll." Once formed, "that link could be broken instantly."

Here again, Platt said Lady Bing's obsession with famous people came into play. One day, Platt got a telephone call to come and remove the couple from Harewood House, the home of the queen's cousin, the Earl of Harewood.

"Carroll was under the impression that there was an apartment there waiting for them," he said. "She had this conviction that they were going to get the patronage of the Earl of Harewood."

'She Was Bedraggled'

By then it was late September, and "it became clear to me that she was beginning to deteriorate," Platt said. "She was bedraggled."

Until then he had felt confident that the pair, the subject of endless "runaway love" stories in the British press, were quite happy together. He said he had heard Bing answer questions "without her prompting (that) clearly indicated to me that he knew Carroll was his wife."

With winter approaching, Platt was able to persuade the Bings to return to New York. There, Lady Bing in particular was convinced, Platt said, that they awaited the wrath of "their persecutor," the lawyer Paul Guth, Bing's court-appointed guardian.

But Platt said Bing appeared unfazed by any of it. In fact, Platt said he heard from a musician who had been in New York at the time, that when Bing was welcomed back by the staff at the Essex House. "He said, 'Where have I been? Have I been away?' "

That quality of disorientation is another of the earmarks of Alzheimer's. In court, Paul Goldhamer said, "He sits next to me and he says, 'Excuse me, what are we doing? Why are we here? Who are you?' And then he repeats the whole series of questions again, like a soliloquy."

Goldhamer said also that Bing "didn't have the faintest idea that he was getting married" when Douglass took him to Washington. "We have witnesses who saw her speaking to him at a restaurant" after they were married, he went on. "Five minutes later he turned to her and said, 'Who are you?' "

Boehm agrees that Bing does not understand that he is married.

"One night at the Metropolitan for a performance of 'Fledermaus,' he turned to me and said, 'Who is that girl?' " Boehm said.

"I have been told that when talking to the doctors, that he has denied that he is married," a close associate said.

Friends worry most of all that the disruption of Bing's longstanding routine will hasten his deterioration.

"Consistency is important," Boehm said. "That's exactly what he doesn't have with her."

Certainly some semblance of an orderly schedule has been imposed by recent court orders requiring Lady Bing to leave the apartment at specified blocks of time so nurses can care for her husband. To help defuse her jealousy, male nurses have been hired.

A Voodoo Chant

But while the courts sift through what bodes to be a lengthy dispute over the annulment, the atmosphere remains volatile. Several weeks ago, Boehm said, he was at the Ginger Man restaurant opposite Lincoln Center after a performance. "Around 20 after 10, Carroll marches in and just stands there." Boehm secured a table and excused himself to go to the men's room. "All of a sudden I see Carroll standing in the men's room saying the hostess had put a voodoo chant on the table."

He changed tables and ordered dessert for himself; asparagus, as she had requested, for her. "She decides there is a new dietary delight, asparagus over chocolate cake," Boehm said. "She then asked which Rudolf Bing she was married to. She then suggested that if she divorced Bing on Tuesday, she could marry me on Wednesday."

"If she were some sort of mean-spirited person, I think it would have happened," Goldhamer said of the move to annul the marriage. "The problem is, everybody is bending over backward because she is sick."

As the case stands, "My prognosis is that the courts are so slow and so jammed up that everyone will be dead" by the time it is settled, Goldhamer said, his voice marked with impatience and some degree of bitterness.

For Boehm, the situation is reminiscent of when opera star Birgitt Nilsson was to be sent back to Sweden for failing to pay U.S. taxes. Bing himself termed that matter "an ignoble end to a noble career." In many ways, Boehm said, "that applies to Sir Rudolf himself now."

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