UPPER EAST SIDE — She was a globe-trotting beauty squired by Hollywood icons, wealthy socialites and heads of state — including President John F. Kennedy — but a few average Joes may have mattered most to her.
Three doormen at a fancy Fifth Avenue apartment building could inherit $1 million each if an alleged February 2001 will of Upper East Side dowager Alicia Corning Clark proves to be the real deal.
Clark, an actress who became rich from a two-week marriage to an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, died at 79 on Feb. 10, leaving behind at least $17 million in property, jewelry and money, but no children or living family.
Shortly after Clark’s death, the alleged 2001 will was filed in probate court in the Bahamas, where she had apparently written and signed the document and had lived on and off during the second half of her life.
The will says that Clark, who once claimed she was engaged to Kennedy in the 1950s, wanted to give the millions to her dearest doormen for taking care of her.
“She always gave hints. She always said, ‘You’re life is going to change,’” said William Courtney, 62, one of doormen, who knew Clark for 30 years. “I guess she wanted us to know that what we were doing wasn’t in vain.”
'MY WIFE FREAKED OUT'
Courtney also said Clark told him about the $1 million inheritance about three months before she died.
“My wife freaked out. She said you gotta be kidding me," said Courtney, who plans on retiring at the end of the year, living off his pension and the potential windfall.
In the alleged 2001 will, Clark, a British citizen, made Dwayne Finley, her longtime Bahamian assistant, the executor of her estate and left him her home there and the remainder of her fortune. She also bequeathed $1 million to Wesley Newbold, the caretaker of the Bahamian property, according to the 2001 document.
The two other 955 Fifth Ave. doormen who are named in the 2001 will are Felix Afanador, who handles the building’s service elevator, and George Rodriguez, a Bronx resident who retired from the job four years ago.
“Now that this is happening, I got plans,” said Afanador, 59, also of the Bronx, who wants to use the possible bequest to retire early and start a business. “Once everything happens and I get the money — whatever it is — and I put it to work, in less than two years, I’m out.”
But the odds of getting the money are stacked against them.
A lawyer whose firm has represented Clark since 1962 has challenged the alleged 2001 will in the Bahamas, calling it a fake.
Meanwhile, the lawyer, Leonard Boehner, filed a type-written will in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court in March that he said was signed by Clark in 2004. That will, which names Boehner as executor, has three witnesses who have all submitted affidavits attesting to its veracity.
In the 2004 document, the doormen get nothing. Instead Clark, who was an animal lover, leaves all of her money to the Humane Society.
"Mrs. Clark's 2004 will specifically and unequivocally revoked all prior wills," Boehner's lawyer, Richard J. Miller Jr., said in a statement.
'ALL HER HUSBANDS'
Courtney insists that the 2001 will — which is scrawled on a sheet of paper, with Rodriguez simply referred to as “George the Bell Man” — is authentic, saying he knows her signature well.
Courtney said he was one of her closest confidantes in her twilight years, escorting her to doctor’s appointments and on shopping trips to Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
The two became friends five weeks after Courtney started his job at the building three decades ago.
Clark, a night owl, would help him while away his graveyard shift, telling him about her romances with screen legends William Holden, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, and about her first husband, British actor Edmund Purdum, and their divorce.
Alicia Corning Clark and ex-husband British actor Edmund Purdom. (Courtesy of GlamourGirlsofTheSilverscreen.com)
“I used to sit up with her for hours upstairs and talk about everything under the sun. She told me about all her husbands, everything,” Courtney said.
Clark’s second husband, Singer heir Alfred Corning Clark, died in his sleep 13 days after they married in 1961. He left her $10 million, according to news reports at the time.
Clark’s third husband was Dr. Norman Gay, a former bodybuilder who became the Bahamas’ minister of health. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1985 after nearly nine years.
Courtney’s chats with Clark also touched on her personal relationship with one of the most important men of the 20th century, John F. Kennedy.
Sometimes the talks included visuals as Clark kept a picture of Kennedy on her nightstand and had a picture of her and him dancing, Courtney and Afanador both said.
There was good reason she had the photos.
While living in Rome in 1961, Clark gave an interview to the Italian magazine Le Ore saying she and Kennedy had been engaged once, but his father nixed the nuptials because she was Jewish.
In one document, then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy on June 4, 1963, informing him that a court case involving Clark and her former lawyers had information about a relationship between her and the president that endangered his reelection.
The court case, which was sealed, apparently included details about Clark threatening to go public in 1960 about her romance with JFK, and Robert Kennedy being dispatched to New York to pay her $500,000 in hush money.
Journalist Seymour Hersh further detailed the FBI documents on Clark in his 1997 book “The Dark Side of Camelot,” revealing that Hoover also sent reports to Robert Kennedy in 1960 stating that federal investigators and New York police said Clark worked as a high-priced prostitute and madame in Manhattan in the 1950s.
Hersh said he found no records of a $500,000 settlement with Clark. However, his book also details how shadowy operatives tried to peddle information to Republicans in Washington about Kennedy impregnating Clark before his first presidential campaign.
In an interview with Hersh for the book, Clark denied having a child out of wedlock with Kennedy.
Courtney said Clark always spoke fondly about Kennedy and felt sorry for him.
“She said the father pushed him to be president. I said, ‘That’s nice to know. That’s history right there what you’re telling me,’” Courtney recalled.
Clark’s romances were just one part of her cinematic life.
THE GOLDEN AGE
She was born in Poland in 1936 and moved to Boston with her mother after World War II under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.
She went by many names in her life, including Barbara Maria Kopszynska, Alicia Darr, Alicia Purdom and Barbara Clark.
She was a magnet for gossip columnists like Walter Winchell, who described her as an artist and actress and chronicled her dates with the leading men of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Alicia Corning Clark in Egypt. (Courtesy of Wells Legal & Corporate Services)
She traveled the world, mixing with high society ex-pats in Rome, Paris and the Bahamas. In the Bahamas, she lived in the exclusive Cable Beach section.
John Fondas, a designer who lives in Manhattan and the Bahamas, said his grandmother and Clark were close friends because they had homes next to one another on Cable Beach.
He described Clark as a self-made woman whose life had its ups and downs.
“She and her mother were really stuck in poverty-stricken circumstances,” Fondas said. “I think that had a big effect on Alicia. She sort of identified with being poor and making her way.”
He described Clark as a vivacious eccentric who loved to water ski.
He recalled how he would spot her during the day walking down the beach’s main strip wearing a bath robe “looking like a homeless person,” but later, for parties, she would slip into a stunning gown and drape herself in the most expensive jewelry.
“She was an incredible character,” Fondas said.
He and the doormen said that they don’t remember Clark spending time in the Bahamas after 2001, instead staying mostly on Fifth Avenue. Courtney added that she didn’t have too many friends in New York.
Court records show that in 2011 her health deteriorated. A doorman found her disoriented on the floor in her apartment, according to the records.
She was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital, which petitioned a Manhattan Court judge to appoint a guardian over her.
A court evaluator said in findings that he found her apartment — now valued at $4.5 million — in shambles. The evaluator also initially determined that she was mentally incompetent but on subsequent visits she seemed to regain her coherency.
The hospital withdrew the proceeding after the court was satisfied that she had a home health aide to live with her.
BATTLE OF WILLS
Each side in the battle over Clark’s estate has called the other’s will a fake.
The Bahamian lawyers for Finley, Clark’s former assistant and the executor in the alleged 2001 will, said they hired a handwriting expert who examined the 2004 will and determined it was bogus.
Finley’s lawyer S. Anne Darville said she witnessed Clark signing the 2001 will and that leaving money to the doormen made sense.
“Family doesn’t necessarily have to be your blood family,” said Darville, who estimates Clark’s fortune at $40 million. “Family is really whoever takes care of you in life. The people she left funds to are the ones who took care of her in life. Those doormen and those persons who worked for her for years only had her best interest at heart. It’s understandable that she would want to leave some of her earthly possessions to them.”
But lawyers for Boehner, the executor of the 2004 will, have filed paperwork undermining the credibility of Curt Baggett, Finley’s handwriting expert.
The filing shows that Baggett was convicted of felony theft and felony aggravated assault in the 1990s. The filing also cites a decision by a judge in a federal criminal case in which the judge threw out Baggett’s testimony because he was deemed unqualified as an expert witness.
Boehner’s lawyers have also submitted exhibits of Clark's passport challenging whether she was even in the Bahamas in 2001 to write the alleged will. (Darville has countered that medical records put Clark in the Bahamas at the time.)
Boehner also notes in court documents that his firm, Morris & McVeigh LLP, helped Clark write seven wills over four decades before executing the 2004 document in its offices.
A Manhattan Surrogate’s Court judge has granted Boehner's authority over the estate, allowing him to marshal Clark’s assets in New York, including her apartment. But no payments have been made to beneficiaries.
Meanwhile, in the Bahamas case, Clark’s assets have been untouched until the court hears arguments from both sides.
Afanador, who has worked at 955 Fifth Ave. for two decades, said he believes the 2001 will is bona fide. As proof he points to Clark’s generous tips over the years to the building’s employees, the cable man and delivery workers.
“She was something beautiful,” Afanador said. “She used to say, ‘Felix, don’t worry. Don’t worry. You’re going to be blessed.”