- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The last time Linda Silpe saw Mary Montgomery — one of Palm Beach’s most celebrated philanthropists — was at lunch at The Breakers in June, just before the 85-year-old traveled to Minnesota for a regular visit with her adopted daughter, Courtnay.
Montgomery excitedly talked about the upcoming social season on Palm Beach, and when Silpe asked Montgomery if she would be the honorary chairwoman at an upcoming “Take Home A Nude” art auction, she twinkled: “”Do I have to come naked?”
“We had a perfectly delightful conversation,” Silpe said. “She wasn’t as sharp as she was 25 years ago, but none of us are.”
Montgomery took her long-time administrative aide, Hilda Santana, with her to Minnesota, Silpe said. Santana came back alone, setting up what could be an epic court battle between the aide and the adopted daughter for control of millions — and the care of Mary.
What happens next could forever tarnish the carefully crafted legacy of Mary and Robert Montgomery.
Sure to come to the fore are Courtnay’s scrapes with the law — a crack cocaine arrest in the mid-1990s and an arrest more recently in Minnesota, where a sheriff’s investigator, worried about guns in her house, said she tried to bite him.
The opening salvo came when Courtnay fired all of the staff at her mother’s Palm Beach home, giving a list of their names — including Santana’s — to the police to deny entry, according to court documents.
Friends on Palm Beach contacted Minnesota authorities, claiming that Montgomery was being held against her will by her daughter and fearing that dementia had taken a bigger toll on the grand dame of Palm Beach, documents obtained by The Palm Beach Post show.
Mother and daughter showed up in Florida earlier this year, staying at Montgomery’s 50-room, oceanfront Mizner manse — known as Sin Cuidado, Without Care.
Silpe tried without success to reach Courtnay. When she learned they were back, she went to Sin Cuidado to speak to her friend of 25 years. She never got past the gate.
“I was asked to leave the premises,” she said.
Montgomery receives more than $1.5 million every four months from tobacco fee payments stemming from one of her husband’s crowning courtroom achievements, the landmark case that forced tobacco companies to pay $11.3 billion to Florida.
Santana is seeking a judge’s order to appoint her as Montgomery’s guardian, saying in 2014 she was named health surrogate, giving her power of attorney if Montgomery becomes incapacitated. New documents filed in August, however, put Courtnay in charge.
“I’ve worked with the Montgomery family for 34 years,” Santana wrote in her application to become a court-appointed guardian. “Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery both shared with me how they wanted to be cared for and trusted me to make sure their wishes were followed.”
A gloves-off hearing is set for Monday in front of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Phillips, where the Montgomery legacy will be on display. Courtnay’s attorney, though, has asked for a postponement.
Montgomery’s friends are closed lip about the matter, afraid of provoking Courtnay. They say Montgomery is being manipulated and controlled by her daughter, one of two children the Montgomerys adopted.
“Over time, I’ve gotten numerous calls from Mary’s friends inquiring about her health and they all seem quite concerned,” said Richard Rampell, the Montgomerys longtime local accountant. “Beyond that, I have no comment.”
Courtnay told The Post she is adamant about protecting her mother.
“Do you know who we are? We got one shot to protect my mom. I’ll tell you what is happening. Staff is taking advantage of my mother. There are some crooked lawyers and crooked accountants. It is bigger than Madoff,” she said before cutting off an interview.
Neither Courtnay nor her attorneys returned subsequent phone calls.
‘She is an artist’
Bob Montgomery, who died in August 2008, not only helped forge the $11.3 billion tobacco settlement, but, after he claimed to have been cheated on his fees, sued the state and won. The award: $206 million.
In his lengthy career, he represented the wealthy and the forlorn. He won a $10.5 million estate settlement for Kathleen DuRoss Ford, the third wife of auto industry magnate Henry Ford II. He sued the distributor of the handgun used by student Nathaniel Brazill to kill teacher Barry Grunow in 2000, winning a $1.2 million verdict before a judge invalidated it.
He represented local celebrity Burt Reynolds in his headline-grabbing divorce from Loni Anderson. Later, Courtnay became Reynolds’ assistant.
When asked about being the first to get a verdict against a gun seller, the Alabama-born lawyer mustered up another one of his paraphrased Southern colloquialisms in his tell-tale Alabama drawl: “Even a trip to China starts with a first step,” he said.
He and Mary were married for 54 years. Their financial support and willingness to serve on the boards of local cultural organizations earned them legendary status.
Montgomery was a principal benefactor of the $98 million Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts that changed the face of downtown West Palm Beach.
He credited his wife to opening his eyes to art and today the Robert and Mary Montgomery name adorns the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach.
The couple met at the University of Alabama where he played football and majored in math and chemistry. She majored in fashion illustration.
“She is an artist,” Montgomery told The Post in 1987. “She’s quite accomplished, although with the kids growing up, she put it aside and doesn’t paint anymore. So she receives her enjoyment vicariously now by attending various cultural activities, and I tag along.”
After her husband died, Mary Montgomery remained a benefactor of his beloved Palm Beach Opera, which he chaired for 25 years. She helped underwrite the opera’s annual waterfront concert.
While her husband often grabbed the headlines, it was Mary who redefined the contemporary Palm Beach socialite by organizing black-tie galas that brought tens of thousands of dollars for various causes and serving as chairwoman for numerous organizations. She dominated the society pages for decades.
The Montgomerys were intent on giving back to the underprivileged. They played a big role in raising more than $1 million to HomeSafe for at-risk children.
They adopted Courtnay as an infant. Their adopted son, Scott, died in 1992 of AIDS. Bob Montgomery didn’t talk about it publicly in deference to his son’s wishes but said his son’s battle with the disease would help inform him in his nationally publicized representation of Kimberly Bergalis, a Florida woman who contracted AIDS from her dentist and received an undisclosed settlement.
Courtnay, meanwhile, excelled in golf and worked in theater. She also worked as a confidential informant for police before she was arrested in 1995, passed out in her Cadillac, holding 24 rocks of crack cocaine.
She ended up in Minnesota where her father went to the Mayo Clinic to be treated for cancer. In Minnesota, the Olmsted County sheriff knew Courtnay well enough to fear her, court records filed after her October arrest show.
“If you enter without authorization, I will stand my ground,” Courtnay told deputies armed with a search warrant seeking to check on Mary’s well-being on Oct. 27, according to a charging complaint. “Do you hear what I am saying?”
Sheriff’s investigator David Rikhus wrote: “From past contacts, deputies knew that (Courtnay) Montgomery possessed firearms in her home and interpreted (Courtnay) Montgomery’s words as a threat to use deadly force against the deputies.”
The charging complaint, filed by prosecutors, said deputies feared Courtnay was “manipulative and controlling” of her mother, who had missed two neurocognitive appointments at the Mayo Clinic.
After more than an hour, deputies persuaded Courtnay to allow them to enter the home but she refused to allow her mother to be interviewed outside her presence. When deputies threatened to arrest her, Courtnay wrapped herself around the armrest of a bench.
“While in this position, Montgomery lunged her head towards investigator Rikhus in an apparent attempt to bite him,” the report said.
As Rikhus tried to take her into custody, she wrestled with him. “Montgomery was lying on her back kicking at deputies, thrashing and screaming,” according to the court document.
On Feb. 4, Courtnay pleaded guilty to one count of gross misdemeanor obstruction of the legal process and was sentenced to two years of probation.
Shortly, thereafter, friends saw mother and daughter at a Palm Beach restaurant together, a person close to the matter told The Post.
Fight enters court
Newspaper reports of the arrest are part of the evidence Santana provided in a Feb. 23 petition to the Palm Beach Circuit Court claiming Courtnay is unfit to care for her mother and remains under criminal investigation.
“She is not sufficiently stable or responsible for holding a fiduciary role,” it said.
“There appears to be imminent danger that the physical, mental health and safety of the AIP (alleged incapacitated person) will be seriously impaired,” Santana stated. She added that Montgomery’s wealth also is in danger of being misappropriated or wasted.
All indicators are that the court battle will be brutal and center on whether Montgomery was in her right mind when she replaced Santana with Courtnay in August. Montgomery’s attorney have filed motions intent on protecting her privacy and avoiding a guardianship.
Phillips has denied Santana’s petition to be named Montgomery’s emergency temporary guardian. And Courtnay already has won another court battle in Minnesota, where a judge found Montgomery “trusts her daughter for her care.”
“Accusations are being made against her from individuals in Florida who do not have the petitioner’s best interests in mind, who do not know her care needs and who are upset that she recently terminated their services,” Judge Kevin A. Lund wrote on Nov. 4.
Montgomery, as a showing of good faith to concerned social service providers in Minnesota, requested the appointment of a guardian and conservator. However, this arrangement for a third party to oversee Montgomery’s care and finances has since been terminated, according to court documents.
Daniel Biaggi, general director of the Palm Beach Opera, is one of the few people to visit with Montgomery since her return this winter.
“She was well when I saw her,” he said. “They (Montgomery and Courtnay) were always cordial and in many ways similar to the way their relationship has been in the last couple of years.”
But her friends say that the Mary Montgomery they knew would be mortified at how events have transpired and believe she is under the undue influence of her daughter.
Silpe said she can’t help but recall the last time she saw her friend at The Breakers in June. As Silpe left, Montgomery said she wanted to stay a little while longer and watch the ocean surf.
“I said, ‘Mary you live on the ocean, you get to see it every day.’ She said, ‘but I’m much closer to it here,’” Silpe said.