The breakdown of a motoring dynasty: Kathleen Ford is an 80-year-old heiress to the £260m Ford family trust fund. Now, in a bombshell court case, her daughters are accusing the lawyer who’s become her boyfriend of abusing her, writes TOM LEONARD
- Henry Ford died over 30 years ago but he and wife Kathleen making headlines
- Mrs Ford’s children have been trying to remove her from care of Frank Chopin
- He lives with the heiress, 80, as her chief carer at £35.4 million Florida mansion
An invitation to stay with Henry and Kathleen Ford at their country estate was not to be turned down lightly.
Set in 49 acres in Buckinghamshire, Turville Grange is a beautiful and rambling 18th-century house where the vivacious former model would play hostess to film stars, aristocrats and artists.
Guests ranged from Michael Caine, Liza Minnelli and the designer Nicky Haslam to the billionaire banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and the Duchess of Marlborough. The seriously wealthy were always well represented at Mr Ford’s shoots and his wife’s dinner parties.
Sir John Paul Getty’s widow, Victoria, was a friend and neighbour, as were the Sainsbury family, against whom the younger Fords would play an annual game of baseball.
Pictured: Kathleen Ford with lawyer Frank Chopin at a press conference regarding stolen gems
As for the beautifully decorated house, Mr Ford had bought it from his old friends Prince Stanislaw and Lee Radziwill, Jackie Kennedy’s chic, socialite sister.
The Fords’ social connections were not hard to fathom. After all, he was Henry Ford II, eldest grandson of automobile pioneer Henry Ford and boss of the car giant Ford Motors.
He and his third wife, both Anglophile Americans, were generous benefactors of the arts in Britain — and of others. After Margaret Thatcher was forced out of Downing Street in 1990, Mrs Ford lent her their spacious London home in Eaton Square, Belgravia, to live in.
The forthright and colourful couple were, friends said, perfect for each other.
Mr Ford died more than 30 years ago but the pair have once again been making headlines, as the fate of his widow was hammered out in court in a ‘plot’ that could have been lifted straight from a Hollywood melodrama — a wheelchair-bound and mentally incapacitated heiress at the centre of a battle royal between her one-time lawyer and boyfriend, now her guardian, and two daughters who say they have been cruelly separated from a beloved and beleaguered mother.
Mrs Ford’s only children — Deborah DuRoss Guibord, who lives in California, and London-based Kimberly DuRoss — have been trying to remove their 80-year-old mother from the care of 78-year-old Frank Chopin, a longtime Ford family lawyer who is now her chief carer at her £35.4 million mansion in the billionaires’ community of Palm Beach, Florida.
The daughters claim he abuses and neglects her; he says they are cynical gold-diggers.
Set in 49 acres in Buckinghamshire, Turville Grange (pictured) is a beautiful and rambling 18th-century house where the vivacious former model would play hostess to film stars, aristocrats and artists
Mrs Ford’s only children — Deborah DuRoss Guibord (left), who lives in California, and London-based Kimberly DuRoss (right) — have been trying to remove their 80-year-old mother from the care of 78-year-old Frank Chopin
Her family counter that their court case had nothing to do with her fortune but only the wellbeing of a beloved matriarch whom they believe became too dependent on domineering Mr Chopin after her husband died.
Kathleen Ford’s background was a far cry from that of the privileged Mr Ford. Raised in a working-class home in Detroit, she was 15 when she married a factory worker from a Chrysler car plant, with whom she had two daughters, Deborah and Kimberly. By 19, she was a widow after he was killed in a car crash.
To support her girls, she started working as a model and met Henry Ford at a Detroit dinner party in 1969. She had reportedly been British financier Sir Evelyn de Rothschild’s ‘date’ that evening but the hostess instead seated her next to Mr Ford and they sparked immediately.
The local Press described Kathleen — usually known as ‘Kathy’ — as the sort of socialite ‘who could party all night and then go to work without a hangover the next morning’.
Mr Ford was 25 years older and married to his second wife, Cristina. They had no children together but he had three by his first wife, Anne.
He and Kathleen began an affair and, six years later, she was in the car when Henry — still married to Cristina — was arrested for drunk driving in California. ‘Never complain, never explain,’ he said, when asked to elaborate.
The bullish tycoon — nicknamed Hank the Deuce — was chief executive of the Ford Motor Company for 34 years, from 1945 to 1979. And he features prominently in the recent feature film Le Mans 66 (titled Ford v Ferrari in the U.S.), which dramatises his successful bid for Ford to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
After being refused permission to marry in mid-Atlantic on the QE2, Henry and Kathleen settled for a five-minute ceremony in the Nevada casino town of Carson City in 1980, celebrating by purchasing another lavish home in Palm Beach.
When Henry was dying of pneumonia at the age of 70 in 1987, he left a video message to his family, imploring them not to fight over his £260 million trust fund — which didn’t prevent a bitter legal battle between his widow and her stepson Edsel.
The longtime Ford family lawyer is now her chief carer at her £35.4 million mansion in the billionaires’ community of Palm Beach, Florida (pictured)
Mr Ford left ‘darling Kate’ all his homes — she would spend half the year in the UK and still owns Turville Grange and the Eaton Square house — and made her the beneficiary of income from his trust fund, which controlled 10 per cent of the voting shares in Ford. This would pass to his grandchildren on her death.
Edsel launched a legal challenge, claiming his stepmother was a spendthrift. They bickered over everything, even down to Terylene chair covers, but the court ended up giving Kathleen an annual allowance of $10.5 million (£8.5 million) — far more than she had originally been guaranteed.
Now, in the latest court battle to embroil Mrs Ford, her two daughters — both from that teenage first marriage — have alleged their mother ‘lives at the mercy’ of a ‘dangerous and malicious caretaker’ (Frank Chopin), according to court papers.
‘She has been slapped, struck, dragged, force-fed, left in her own filth for hours, psychologically terrorised and forcibly and violently medicated,’ they added.
They cited the testimony of at least six care staff who claim they saw the strong-willed, 6ft 3in Mr Chopin hit Mrs Ford, force pills down her throat, drag her paralysed foot under her wheelchair and isolate her from friends and family.
The actress Lily Tomlin, a ‘lifelong soulmate’ of Mrs Ford, was among those who testified that Mr Chopin had prevented her old friend having any interaction with her in recent years. It was, said Tomlin, ‘a sign of something… being very wrong’.
A former housekeeper claimed Mrs Ford has been denied the ‘dignity and respect’ she deserves.
In court documents, former staff claimed Mr Chopin removed the phone from her bedroom and, if family or friends called, told them not to give her any messages. Mr Chopin dictated what she wore, ate and where she went, they said.
Mr Chopin, who strenuously denies ever abusing Mrs Ford, counters that the daughters are estranged from her and that she grew tired of their financial demands.
Deborah and Kimberly — who are backed by Mrs Ford’s sister and grandchildren — say they simply sued for visitation rights, although they have previously expressed fears that he might have persuaded Mrs Ford to change her will.
They insist it is Mr Chopin who is responsible for keeping them apart, only allowing them to see Mrs Ford infrequently and even then under ludicrous conditions.
Family insiders say these conditions were set out in a two-page list that laid down what subjects could and could not be discussed with her, insisted on the presence of a lawyer and put a 30-minute time limit on each meeting.
The daughters say they were at last forced to take legal action after an incident in October 2018 when Mr Chopin was barred from a Palm Beach hospital, where Mrs Ford was being treated for breathing difficulties, after a female doctor complained of feeling threatened by him.
In his absence, Mrs Ford’s family tried to see her and, while at the hospital, were approached by some of her carers, who told them about Mr Chopin’s alleged abuse.
But this month, a Florida judge found in Mr Chopin’s favour. Judge Scott Suskauer has left him in control of the Ford heiress for the rest of her life and said he was ‘devotedly loyal’ to Mrs Ford, the ‘proverbial drill sergeant’ she needed to look after her. He quoted three of Mrs Ford’s doctors praising Mr Chopin’s care for her.
Despite extensive testimony from former nursing and household workers who said they had been alarmed by his treatment of the invalid, the judge said Mrs Ford knew what was she letting herself in for — he cited the lawyer’s ‘irritability, impatience’ and tendency to yell — when she asked for Mr Chopin to be made her guardian if she ever became incapacitated.
While her family insist she is senile — a claim supported by the court’s medical experts — Mr Chopin told the Mail this week that she was simply ‘very weak’.
Although the court heard medical evidence that Mrs Ford is so unwell she believes she is 30 years old and still lives with her mother and father, Mr Chopin blamed her daughters for putting her through the ’embarrassment’ of having her critical faculties discussed in court.
Her family says the decision has left them ‘heartbroken and scared for her safety’; their lawyers claim the judge ignored damning evidence from staff and caregivers.
An appeal is a near-certainty.
In response, Mr Chopin said: ‘I don’t give a damn what they do. I just want Kate to have an opportunity to enjoy her life as long as God lets her.’
Mr Chopin, an enthusiastic Trump supporter, was personal lawyer to Henry and Kathleen Ford, later becoming the latter’s confidant, travel companion and, finally, boyfriend, following her husband’s death.
Family friends said he was very supportive of Mrs Ford in her battles with other trustees of her husband’s estate. He spoke for her in 1997 when thieves broke into her Palm Beach estate and stole jewellery worth up to £12 million.
Mr Chopin has described their relationship as ‘intimate’ but says they have never had sex.
The Ford family say they began to worry that something was amiss at Christmas 2016, shortly before Mr Chopin moved into Kathleen’s Palm Beach mansion.
Mrs Ford was famous for her lavish Christmases: the decorations included two giant inflatable nutcracker soldiers guarding the entrance to her estate and a life-sized Nativity scene. And each year her family would join her there.
One night, however, she ‘disappeared’. It turned out she was in a hospital in Pittsburgh, undergoing spinal surgery (Mr Chopin says Mrs Ford hadn’t forewarned her daughters, as she wanted to keep her health private).
Mr Chopin said that on an earlier cruise in the Middle East, she had developed back pains and a vertebrae infection was later diagnosed that had left her paralysed down one side.
It was after this that getting to see Kathleen became increasingly difficult, say her family.
The next Christmas, they had to choose from a list of times they could see her, but generally only at a local restaurant. Mr Chopin sat next to her at the meal, they added. Meanwhile, phone calls to Kathleen had to be conference calls with Mr Chopin present.
Mrs Ford’s daughters have conceded that they have argued with their mother, but said it was largely because they were upset at her sudden frostiness towards them.
In a legal deposition, Mrs Ford’s daughter Deborah claimed Mr Chopin became more controlling over her as her health waned.
‘Every time my mother got a little weaker, he’d get the claws in a little deeper,’ she said.
Mr Chopin denies he is maliciously blocking the family or friends from seeing Mrs Ford. Her doctors have worked out a strict therapy schedule for her and their visits and phone calls need to fit in with that, he says, adding that she is ‘disappointed in her children’.
Meanwhile, Mrs Ford’s granddaughter in London, Tara, 23, said: ‘Anyone who knew my grandmother would know she loved her family and spent as much time as possible with us.’
In deciding the case, the judge said: ‘While not a perfect situation in that Mr Chopin has traits in his manner that make him less than perfect, Mrs Ford has survived.’
Her relatives would doubtless say that is a verdict no loving family would want to hear.
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