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November 20th, 2002 Chris Lydgate | News Stories
 

FAMILY FEUD

Who's gonna wind up with Reuben Lenske's millions?

     
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Aug. 11, 1998, was a perfect day for a wedding, with the mercury hovering in the 80s, and Rabbi Joshua Stampfer had no particular reason to fret. He had joined together hundreds of couples in his career, and the ceremony for Reuben Lenske and Shirlee Leveton promised to be a pleasant if modest affair.

The proceedings took place in the little chapel of Congregation Neveh Shalom on Southwest Dosch Road. Sheltered by the chuppah, or wedding canopy, the glowing bride and groom exchanged rings, tossed back the kiddush wine and ground the glass underfoot.

But before the rabbi could close the deal, there was an unusual interruption. Reuben's son from a previous marriage, Moshe Lenske, jumped to his feet to protest.

"I object to this wedding," he declared. His father, he said, didn't understand what he was getting himself into.

The rabbi was taken aback. In 50 years of tying knots, he'd never seen anything like this. But Reuben didn't bat an eye.

"Sit down, Moshe," he snapped. "I know what I'm doing."

It's not hard to imagine what was running through Moshe's mind. His father, Reuben, was a multimillionaire. He was 99 years old. And he was marrying his secretary.

But Stampfer overruled Moshe's objection. "I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but Reuben seemed to be as competent as anybody I ever met," Stampfer recalled later. "So I'm not going to refuse to marry them because of his age."

Reuben Lenske died a year ago, at the age of 102. He played many contradictory roles during his long and colorful career. An outspoken civil-rights lawyer, he was tarred as a communist during the McCarthy era. Paradoxically, he also built a sprawling real-estate empire comprising hundreds of run-down rentals, and he frequently tangled with city inspectors. He raised cattle, felled lumber and blasted rock from the earth. He wrote hundreds of letters to the editor. "He was clear, he was concise, he was critical, but he was constructive," says former Oregonian editorial-page editor Bob Landauer.

"Whether it was fighting for the rights of the persecuted or the defenseless, Reuben always took on their causes as his own," declared U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in a eulogy. "He was willing to stand up and speak out for them when others kept silent."

But of all the controversies that surrounded his life, none was as bitter as the one that followed his death.

When his last will and testament was unveiled, his children discovered to their horror that he had signed away control of the vast majority of his estate, worth an estimated $20 million, to his new bride, Shirlee--a sultry temptress of 73.

"I was absolutely shocked," said one longtime friend of the family. "I never thought this would happen."

Three months after Lenske died, two of his three children, Moshe Lenske, 77, and Judy Temko, 75, sued Shirlee, claiming that their father suffered from a "weakened mental state" and that she "contrived and schemed" to write them out of his will.

"Shirlee Lenske was able to take control of his mind and actions," the children argued, "to the extent that he would do whatever she suggested he do."

Shirlee categorically rejects the suggestion that she is Oregon's answer to Anna Nicole Smith. "Anybody that knew Reuben knew that when he made his mind up...you could stand on your head, and you could not make him change his mind," she told WW. "It was his decision. Period!"

Lenske's children declined to speak to WW about the suit. But interviews, court filings and public records reveal a painful feud over the legacy of a man who was utterly devoted to his family, but whose final wishes tore that family apart.

Without question, Reuben Lenske was one of Portland's most fascinating public figures. Born in 1899 in the Russian town of Gomel (now in Belarus), the youngest of seven brothers, he emigrated with his family to Wisconsin, where his father peddled dry goods in a horse-drawn buggy. When he was 6 years old, Lenske lost two toes to a La Crosse streetcar. Despite this handicap, he became a champion featherweight boxer in high school, and he was the first in his family to go to college. He graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 1924, married Rose Mirviss, moved to Portland and set up shop as a lawyer.

Over the next 50 years, Lenske gained notoriety for three different reasons: his willingness to tackle unpopular causes, his running battle with the U.S. government over alleged tax evasion, and his sprawling property holdings.

Lenske was never one to shy from the spotlight. In 1949, he defended a group of merchants accused of illegally selling horsemeat. In 1954, he defended Herbert Simpson, a truck driver who was charged with communism, before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which held its inquisition at the unlikely venue of Reed College.

But the most sensational case of his career was the probably the trial of William Mackie, a housepainter and World War II veteran who was charged in 1960 with "membership of a subversive organization." Although Mackie had lived virtually his entire life in Portland, his family had emigrated from Finland when he was 8 months old, and federal authorities tried to deport him. Lenske fought the case all the way up to the Supreme Court but lost on a 5-4 vote.

Lenske's defense of accused communists--combined with letters to the editor criticizing U.S. policy toward Cuba, Laos and China--came back to haunt him. In 1959, spurred by a secret FBI dossier on his alleged communist sympathies, the Internal Revenue Service launched a lengthy probe into his affairs. Five years, 359 witnesses and two judges later (the first died of a heart attack), Lenske was convicted of tax evasion to the tune of $6,000 and sentenced to two years in jail.

In 1967, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the verdict. "This court will not place its stamp of approval on a witch-hunt, a crusade to rid society of unorthodox thinkers and actors, by using federal income-tax laws and federal courts to put such people in the penitentiary," thundered Judge J. Warren Madden.

For an accused communist, Lenske was a ravenous speculator, snapping up houses, apartments, farmland, timberland and herds of cattle. "He was pretty sharp," says business associate Raymond Smith.

By the mid-'80s, Lenske owned as many as 300 houses--most of them low-income rentals in Southeast Portland. One city housing inspector remembers driving out to a Lenske property on a bleak stretch of Southeast Powell Boulevard in the dead of winter. The house itself had been demolished, but there was a stand-alone garage with a tarp slung over the door. Inside, he discovered a young couple from Idaho who were living there with a baby, free of charge, courtesy of Reuben Lenske.

"I drove over to his office, and Reuben looked me in the eye, and he said, 'Do you want me to make these people homeless?'" the inspector recalls. "For a guy like that, a guy who had been born in 1899, and lived through the Depression, giving someone a roof over their head--even a garage with a tarp--was an act of charity."

Lenske also gave generously to conventional charities, including $100,000 to the Jewish National Fund and $50,000 of property to the Albina Ministerial Alliance. But despite his enormous wealth, he lived simply. He never smoked, never drank and never drove a new car. "He was a gentleman's gentleman," says former tenant Taud Coffman, who grew close to Lenske in his later years. "You never knew he was wealthy. It wasn't something he flaunted."

Friday-night dinner at the Lenskes was a neighborhood institution. The Lenskes' children and later their grandchildren, plus assorted friends, neighbors, visitors and orbiting Reedies, descended on the modest Eastmoreland home to discuss the issues of the day over a crackling fire and Rose's blintzes.

When Rose died, in 1986, many people expected Lenske to slow down. On the contrary, he stayed busier than ever, showing up at the office every day in a tweed Cotswold cap. And at his elbow there appeared, with ever-greater frequency, a vivacious, brown-eyed widow named Shirlee Leveton.

From her pearl earrings to her white thatch of curls to the mischievous twinkle in her eye, Shirlee Lenske is the grandmother of Jewish grandmothers. Her desk groans with knickknacks, including a teddy bear, a frilly pillow and a notice warning, "CAUTION: This Office Protected by Attack Receptionist." She runs around in an enormous Cadillac, and her speech is coated in "honey" and "sweetheart." Meet her and you want to hug her.

Shirlee presides over her late husband's empire from the cozy offices of Lenske Properties on Southeast 52nd Avenue, across from the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge 291. She insists on serving a reporter a cup of tea and seating him at Lenske's own desk, which sports a snapshot of the couple with Sen. Wyden. "There's a lot of energy in that chair!" she exclaims.

Ask her about Lenske, and the adjectives spill out of her. "He was a really brilliant, sweet, gorgeous guy," she says. "He would do anything for anybody at any time. He was very giving and generous.

"He was as sharp as anyone could be," she continues. "People used to tell him, 'I wish I had your mental abilities.' He'd say, 'I chop wood, run instead of walk, and I get lots of oxygen to the brain. That's what keeps your brain active, you know: oxygen.'"

Originally from Minneapolis, Shirlee moved to Portland in the 1950s. Her first husband died of Lou Gehrig's disease, leaving her with three sons. Later, she married one of Lenske's business partners, William Leveton; they were divorced in 1982.

Shirlee went to work for Lenske after Rose's death. At first, her duties were confined to the office, but her portfolio quickly expanded. When Lenske quit driving, she became his de facto chauffeur. Then one day, Lenske confessed that he'd been keeping a baked salmon in the oven at his house and snacking on it for days. "When Shirlee discovered he'd been leaving it in the oven for a whole week, she realized someone had to do something," says family friend Jean Miller.

By the late '80s, Shirlee was much more than a "Gal Friday." She helped Lenske around the house. She orchestrated the Friday-night dinners. She moved in--and slept in the same bed. (Asked if she was intimate with Lenske, Shirlee did not answer directly. "We were together many years," she said with a smile.)

"She took care of him," says one person familiar with the situation. "She was his office manager, chauffeur, cook, lover--everything a 90-year-old man could want."

Shirlee describes their relationship as a natural "evolution" for two lonely people in the twilight of their years. But others see a darker motivation. "She moved in on Reuben within months of Rose's dying," says a source close to the family. "She had a target and moved in on it in a very cold and methodical way."

By most accounts, the Lenske clan was close-knit. The eldest son, Moshe, lives in a modest bungalow a dozen blocks from the home where he grew up. A retired businessman (he made stuffed animals) and an active Reed alum, he is a stalwart in the local Democratic Party and drives a battered old Volvo. The middle daughter, Judy Temko, lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., with her husband, Philip, a Plato scholar. The youngest son, Aryay, is a carpenter, violinist and expert Scrabble player who lives in Humboldt County, Calif.

None of the three siblings would speak to WW about the lawsuit, but friends say the family doted on their patriarch. "His children, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren were all devoted to him, and they loved him and they were attentive to him," says one family friend.

Friends say the family shrugged off Shirlee's vacations to New York, Florida and Paris; they chuckled over her new Cadillac. But the jokes went flat in 1998, when the lovebirds got married.

Lenske was apparently thrilled. "He would beam like a teenager and introduce us to his 'new bride,' says Gail Shelton, who works at Lenske Properties as a bookkeeper. "He was very, very happy."

"Reuben was an old-fashioned Jewish man who felt marriage was very, very important," Shirlee says. "Over the years he brought it up several times. One day, he said, 'We're gonna go get a marriage license,' and I said, 'OK'...and tears came out of his eyes."

In July 1999, Lenske threw a huge party to mark his 100th birthday. Three hundred friends and relatives from across the country descended on the Hilton Hotel, where Shirlee and Lenske waltzed to the strains of Die Fledermaus. But beneath the surface, relations between Shirlee and the children were frayed. "The tension intensified after the wedding," said one family friend. "You could see that."

By last year, Lenske was clearly losing his grip. He quit chopping wood. He quit going into the office. Taud Coffman used to keep him company, playing old Jewish folk tunes on the piano while Lenske dozed beside the fire. On Nov. 15, 2001, the inevitable finally happened: Lenske died in his sleep.

If the emotional temperature between Shirlee and the children was chilly before Lenske's death, it plunged into the arctic afterwards. Unveiled within five days after his demise, Lenske's last will and testament turned over control of his entire estate to Shirlee.

You can still hear the after-echoes of the shock when you talk to certain family friends. "She gave 15 of her best years to him faithfully," says one. "But she didn't earn it all."

The case of Lenske vs. Lenske will probably take years to grind through the court system, but its outcome will turn on two key questions. Was Reuben sound of mind when he signed his will? And did he sign it under pressure?

Lenske's will, which runs to 17 pages, was signed May 3, 2000, shortly before his 101st birthday. In their lawsuit, the children claim that Reuben began to show signs of mental deterioration in 1995. By the time he signed his will, they argue, he was no longer capable of managing his complex business holdings, which increasingly came under Shirlee's sway.

Several friends insist he was sharp as a tack until the very end. "There was nothing wrong with his mind, nothing," says Coffman, who played the piano at Lenske's birthday parties. "He was as bright as a hundred-watt bulb."

"I can remember his 99th birthday," says "No-Fault" Walt Pelett, the owner of City Liquidators. "The guy was clear as a bell."

Others disagree. "By the age of 100, he was not all there," says one friend. "Sometimes he would play with words, to stall for time, so he could figure out who you were--he was very clever. I remember a gathering where he told us an old story about his college days. Then, five minutes later, he told it again! We all smiled like we'd never heard it before. Nobody wanted to say anything, but there was definitely diminished capacity."

"He practically lost his mind the last two years," says another longtime friend. "He was terrible for everyone. They had one caregiver after another. It really commenced before she persuaded him to marry her. He was not of clear mind. He repeated himself all the time. He'd say, 'Shalom! Do you know what that means? Do you?' He'd say that to everyone."

This friend relates one episode when Lenske threw a pillow on the fire at home, perhaps mistaking it for kindling. "He scared everybody," she says. "It's a wonder the house didn't burn down."

It's not uncommon for old people to wander in and out of lucidity. Even if Lenske was sometimes confused before he signed the will, he may very well have been clear when he signed it--as Shirlee's lawyers will doubtless claim.

The children have another legal argument, however: They contend that Shirlee bullied Lenske with the one threat the old man would not dare ignore--the threat of leaving him all alone.

This argument, known to legal beagles as "undue influence," carries considerable force if it can be substantiated. If a court decides the final will was signed under emotional blackmail, it would resurrect Lenske's previous will--handing control of the estate back to the children.

Several friends reject the idea that Lenske was under Shirlee's thumb. "I don't think anybody could have talked Reuben into anything he didn't want to do," says Jean Miller.

"You know, Frank Sinatra said, 'I did it my way,' but Reuben said it a long time before that," says another family friend. "When he made his mind up, you couldn't change it."

"I never saw anything at the parties, at the office, at their house, that was anything but kindness," says Coffman. "She was never demanding or pushy with Mr. Lenske. Nothing. Nothing."

But others say Shirlee came to dominate Lenske in his later years. "She made all the decisions--where to go and what to do," says a family friend. "He was less and less in control, I would say."

It would be foolish to predict the outcome of such a complex dispute, but experts say that most wills in Oregon survive legal challenges. "The majority of these cases are thrown out," says Portland probate lawyer Richard Pagnano.

In fact, the children appear to be willing to cede Shirlee half the estate. Their lawsuit demands only $6,666,666, or two-thirds of half of the estimated value of Lenske's holdings. (Lenske's third son, Aryay, is not a party to the dispute.)

Whoever winds up with the cash, however, the lawsuit has clearly put the Lenskes under enormous strain. The Friday-night dinners are a thing of the past. The chances of a nice, friendly Thanksgiving feast look slender, to say the least. "I miss the great-grandkids," Shirlee confesses. "It's hard. But they'll come home when this is all over."

If you want to see Shirlee Lenske as a generous soul who gave comfort and joy to a lonely old man, you'll certainly find plenty of evidence, from the 15 years she spent with him to the dozens of photos and tributes that make her office seem like a monument to her husband.

At the same time, those who wonder if her motives were more complex may see a clue glinting in a horoscope item from July 31, 2002, tacked to the wall above her desk.

"ARIES: Despite delay, you are going to be a big winner," it reads. "Intuitive intellect serves as reliable guide. You will be at right place at critical moment."


Reuben Lenske's parents did not give him a middle name, so he bestowed on himself the middle initial G, which stands for gornisht, Yiddish for "nothing."



Lenske was one of the earliest supporters of a young Portland lawyer who burst into prominence in 1980 with a stunning upset in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Congress. The lawyer's name? Ron Wyden.



One of the few indulgences Lenske allowed himself was a 1934 fire truck he bought at an auction, which he parked in the driveway and allowed neighborhood kids to play on.



Lenske's voluminous empire has included whimsically named entities such as Manifold Business and Investment Inc., Skyline View of Mountains Over Columbia River Inc., Triway Investment Company and Lucky Six Inc.



In the first six months of the legal battle, Shirlee Lenske racked up more than $40,000 in legal fees, which will probably be paid by Lenske's estate. It's a good bet the children have spent a similar sum.
 
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