Iggygate: So much more than a dog’s tale

Ellen DeGeneres and Iggy.
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It started out lightheartedly enough: a custody dispute involving a TV comedienne, a hairdresser, a tiny mixed-breed puppy and the overzealous dog rescue organization that rocked their worlds.

But the flashpoint came when canine crusaders swooped in bounty hunter-style to take the dog back after Ellen DeGeneres violated her contractual doggie adoption agreement with the Mutts & Moms agency by giving her hairdresser the adopted pooch, Iggy.

And in the span of just three days, the DeGeneres vs. Mutts & Moms dust-up – call it “Iggygate” – had escalated into a morass of talk show tears and death threats, crying pre-teen girls (the hairdresser’s daughters) and bouts of “heart palpitations” (suffered by Mutts & Moms co-owner Marina Baktis after receiving death threats over her perceived dog-napping).

If the situation has taught us anything, it’s that the basic human impulse to have and to hold something precious can be a powerful thing, capable of overriding logic, reason and even reasonable bonds of animal-human love.

With a bit of magical thinking, however, you can understand the way Iggy’s ordeal fits into a larger continuum of high-profile, high-stakes custody battles – battles that have concerned small people, priceless antiquities, sports memorabilia and artifacts steeped in Hollywood lore.

Like Iggygate, these other headline-grabbing custody and ownership conflicts have pushed boundaries of logic and reason, but also have challenged existing divorce statutes, pushed boundaries of good taste – and even tested international law.

Among the more notorious custody disputes in the last 10 years:

Elián Gonzalez

It’s hard not to see certain striking parallels between Iggygate and the plight of Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose custody and immigration status set off an international incident.

In 1999, Gonzalez and 13 others including his mother fled Cuba for Florida in a decrepit boat. Everyone but the boy and two others drowned when it went down in the Florida Straits but he was rescued and taken in by relatives in Miami. Back in Cuba, Elián’s father, who did not know the boy had made the illegal crossing until he heard about it on the news, demanded Elian be returned to his care.

Relentless media coverage ensued. Republican lawmakers considered changing American law to allow Elián to become a citizen. And various congressmen, attorney general Janet Reno and the Spanish foreign minister all weighed in on the matter while a groundswell of popular support in Cuba called for the 7-year-old’s return.

Reno ultimately ordered Elián be repatriated but his American-based relatives refused. In April 2000, eight SWAT-equipped border control agents stormed the house where they lived in a pre-dawn raid, taking the child at gunpoint. And the next day, he was reunited with his father, although controversy and outrage surrounding the seizure didn’t subside in the Cuban expatriate community for years afterward.

Orson Welles’ Oscar

On Dec. 11, after years of legal maneuvering in a pitched custody battle, the 1941 Oscar statuette won by Orson Welles for co-writing “Citizen Kane” will go on the auction block at Sotheby’s.

The Oscar – for a film widely considered to be the best movie ever made – was thought lost for many years. But in 1994, it resurfaced when a cinematographer Welles had worked with put it up for auction; he claimed the writer-director had given him the Oscar as a form of debt repayment. In turn, Welles’ youngest daughter, Beatrice, sued the cinematographer and was awarded its ownership.

But when she tried to sell the statuette at auction in 2003, she was sued by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences because of a legal technicality (the academy claimed she had signed a document agreeing to never sell the Oscar). Although the suit went to court, it was ultimately thrown out and Beatrice was allowed to put the Oscar up for sale.

Apparently good things come to those who wait: over the four years the Oscar remained in legal limbo, its value increased from around $400,000 to an estimated worth of between $800,000 and $1.2 million.

Anna Nicole Smith and Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern

The birth and deaths occurred so close together it was enough to make your head spin: on Sept. 7, 2006, Anna Nicole Smith gave birth to a daughter she named Dannielynn Hope Marshall Stern. The birth certificate listed the father as Smith’s longtime attorney, Howard K. Stern. But just three days later, the model’s 20-year-old son Daniel died of a drug overdose while visiting his mother and newborn sister in a Bahamas hospital. Six months later, in February 2007, Smith was found dead of “combined drug intoxication” in a Florida hotel room.

The macabre spectacle was assiduously covered by the celebrity media but had an unexpected side effect. It set off a frenzied paternity guessing game with no fewer than six men stepping forward, claiming to be the baby’s father.

Among them: Alexander Denk, Smith’s former bodyguard, who told TV’s “Extra” he had conducted an affair with her and could have possibly impregnated Smith; Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, who stepped forward to announce that he had a 10-year affair with Smith and provided DNA to attempt to prove he fathered the infant; her former live-in boyfriend, Mark “Hollywood” Hatten, who claimed from prison, where he is serving a sentence for making terrorist threats to Smith, that he is Dannielynn’s father; Smith’s lawyer Stern, who married Smith in a legally non-binding ceremony shortly before she died; and entertainment photographer and Smith’s former boyfriend Larry Birkhead.

At stake is some serious money -- as Smith’s sole heir, Dannielynn is set to inherit upward of $80 million that the former Playboy Playmate of the Year inherited from her late husband, Texas billionaire J. Howard Marshall.

In April, a DNA test confirmed with 99.99% certainty that Birkhead is the child’s father. He was awarded custody and changed her name to Dannielynn Hope Marshall Birkhead.

Italian Cultural Ministry and the J. Paul Getty Museum

The custody squabble between the Italian Cultural Ministry and the J. Paul Getty Museum may have centered around 40 disputed art objects – statues dating back to the 5th century B.C. – but the situation rivals Iggygate in terms of hubris, finger-pointing and acrimony.

For two years, the ministry accused the museum of having purchased looted antiquities, such as a statue of the goddess Aphrodite valued at $18 million, and demanded their return. Despite overwhelming proof antiquities had been illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country, museum executives denied the allegation and resisted giving the artworks – among the Getty’s most exquisite antiquities holdings – back. A former Getty curator, Marion True, has been charged with dealing in looted goods and is currently on trial in Rome.

It took the threat of an all-out Italian cultural embargo to persuade the museum to change its stance. And last month, the Getty agreed to return the archaeological artifacts in return for future artwork loans.

O.J. Simpson

Possession may be nine-tenths of the law. But apparently O.J. Simpson forgot to take that adage into account when he made his ill-fated visit to a Las Vegas hotel room last month. Now, charged with 10 felony counts including kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon and the theft of some $80,000 worth of sports memorabilia, the former football great, 60, could face life in prison.

While different accounts of what happened – and why it happened at all, and whether guns were involved – have surfaced, this much is sure: Simpson and several accomplices showed up at room 1203 of the Palace Station Hotel & Casino to meet with sports memorabilia dealers. At the behest of the NFL legend, they intended to take back photos and personal mementos -- such as signed footballs and the suit Simpson was wearing when he was acquitted of the 1994 murders of Ron Goldman and ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson – that Simpson says were stolen from him. Some say guns were pulled; Simpson and his lawyers deny it. But Simpson et al, took the goods – including items from other sports greats – and left.

Although Simpson has denied having committed a robbery, on a recording obtained by, a man believed to be Simpson angrily questioned the man trying to sell his mementos. “Think you can steal my [property] and sell it?” he is heard shouting.

Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson

It was a quickie marriage even by Hollywood’s blink-and-you-missed-it standards: after just four months of matrimonial bliss, Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson went their separate ways in September.

The pair had dated and broken up before, getting together in the spring of 2001, getting engaged the following spring and then splitting up in June 2003.

But after Anderson rebounded from their divorce by quickly getting hitched to Rick Solomon -- Paris Hilton’s co-star in the notorious sex tape “1 Night in Paris” -- Rock experienced a bit of buyer’s remorse. He began hoping against hope to regain custody of the $474,000 wedding ring he bought for the “Baywatch” babe.

“Maybe she’ll send my ring back,” Rock mused in a recent interview. “I doubt it, but boy, that would be nice.”