John Leland, The New York Times
Published: 2021-11-21 10:33:53 BdST
On the day after Thanksgiving 2018, Marvin Stein’s two adult sons removed him from the home he shared with his third wife and took him to three banks, where he withdrew nearly $400,000. Then they transferred the money to a trust account that they controlled.
Within days, the sons — from Stein’s second marriage — helped him change his will to make them the only beneficiaries. Two months later, twin sisters from Stein’s wife’s family, his grandnieces-in-law, petitioned the court to declare him legally incapacitated and to appoint a guardian to manage both his person and his finances. And, they argued, they were the right people for the job. They were 23.
Here is where things become more contentious.
On a recent afternoon, Todd Stein, 56, the younger of Marvin’s two sons, showed a photograph of his father, taken shortly after that Thanksgiving, that he said revealed his father’s condition at the time. Photographed from behind, Marvin, then 88, appears shirtless, his skin mottled and loose on his frame.
Is this just the body of a man in late life? Or is it, as his son maintains, evidence of potentially life-threatening neglect that his father, a lifelong fitness buff, had suffered at the hands of his wife’s younger relatives?
Had Todd Stein and his brother saved their father? Or had they, as the twins claimed in court papers, taken advantage of his frail state to kidnap him and siphon off his life savings?
In the months after the bank tour, police officers, a judge, a court evaluator, a dozen or so lawyers and two very assertive families would all throw themselves at these questions, setting the trajectory of Marvin Stein’s late years and consuming hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now Todd Stein, who runs a management company for actors, is trying to make a documentary series about the battle between the two families. He proposed calling the series “Fight of His Life: The Marvin Stein Story.” The production company that bought the rights preferred something juicier: “A Mafia Marriage.”
Marvin Stein, born in 1930, grew up poor in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, in New York, where, he said, he was the only Jewish kid boxing at the Flatbush Boys Club. Stein was small but tough, fighting his way to Golden Gloves lightweight championship titles in 1946 and 1947. Boxing brought his first contact with organised crime figures, Stein, 91, said in September, in the Upper East Side apartment where he lives with Todd and Todd’s mother.
Stein sat low in a wheelchair at one end of a table piled with shrimp, grapes and other noshes. Felicia Stein — Todd’s mother — sat in a wheelchair at the other end.
Marvin and Felicia Stein, who divorced in 1986, sleep in separate bedrooms, each with a second bed for a home attendant. Todd Stein, who had moved back to New York from Los Angeles to help care for his mother, created a third bedroom for himself from a section of the living room.
A few years ago, Marvin Stein had two transient ischemic attacks — like very brief strokes — and he now has memory lapses that disrupt his narrative flow.
Todd asked his father, “How’s your memory today?”
Marvin thought about it. “I look back, it’s a movie,” he said. “I’m very fortunate I’m hooked up with Todd and this apartment.”
The High Life
In Todd Stein’s mind — or in his patter — the documentary series is a sure smash. A production company, Fremantle, the makers of “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” bought the rights. The powerful Creative Artists Agency was already pitching it to streaming services like Netflix and Peacock. It had a story with real-life gangsters and celebrities, a health club — owned by Marvin Stein — with a vault where members checked their guns. And it had a guardianship battle.
Boxing never developed into a professional career for Marvin Stein, but it began his affinity for the gym. Stein rode the fitness wave of the 1960s and 1970s. After divorcing his first wife, he married his second, Felicia Ann Selvi, a former dressmaker’s model, in 1961. He managed the health club at the Shelton Towers hotel in midtown Manhattan. Stein started his own Shelton clubs in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. He bought property in Amagansett, New York — $27,000 in 1969 — and built a house.
The club in Brooklyn became a hangout for wiseguys and judges from the nearby courthouse.
Todd Stein, born in 1965, attended Manhattan private schools, including the elite Professional Children’s School for young working performers. At 13, he started to land roles in commercials, soap operas and off-Broadway plays.
Marvin Stein lavished his children with money, especially after he and Felicia separated, when Todd was 16.
Todd Stein, who also goes by TJ, moved to California after college, eventually starting a management company for young actors. In court papers, Marvin Stein’s future guardians said Todd and his father had little contact after Todd moved west, except when Todd wanted money, which Marvin resented. Todd and Marvin denied this. But when Marvin Stein married a woman he met at the Brooklyn exercise club in 1991, he did not tell his children.
The woman was Anita Montemarano, who worked for New York City in social services. She was also the sister of a high-ranking Mafia captain.
Marvin Stein’s new wife was the older sister of Dominic Montemarano, who was known as Donny Shacks and at the time of the wedding was serving what would be a decade in prison for racketeering and extortion. The federal indictment described him as a captain in the Colombo crime family.
Relations between the in-laws were fraught. Members of Anita Montemarano’s family and their lawyer declined to be interviewed for this article, but in 2013, she wrote a scathing two-page letter to Todd Stein and his brother and their half-sister from Marvin’s first marriage. In it, Montemarano called them “a self-centred, self-absorbed, ungrateful group of adults” who enjoyed “free rides financially and emotionally” from their father.
When Montemarano got a diagnosis of kidney cancer in late 2016, the conflicts between the two families — over money, over control — escalated. Despite the tension, Marvin Stein said that he had loved her and that she had been very brave during her decline.
Just before Thanksgiving 2018, Todd Stein was on a business trip to Chicago when he called his father. He thought Marvin Stein did not sound right. He flew to New York, he said, and found his father — unwashed and in poor condition — living in the basement of his home in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn.
At this point, Montemarano was in the terminal stages of cancer, with a hospice nurse visiting three times a week and her niece and twin grandnieces caring for her and Marvin Stein.
There were financial questions. Four months earlier, in July 2018, with cancer ravaging Montemarano’s body, someone had helped Marvin Stein change his will to leave the Dyker Heights house, worth more than $1.2 million, entirely to the grandnieces, rather than to be shared among the two families, as it had been before. Other accounts were changed to favour Montemarano’s family, including the beneficiaries of Montemarano’s will and $368,000 in life insurance policies, Todd Stein said.
That Friday, a few days after Todd Stein’s initial visit, Todd and his older brother, Ralph, showed up at the Dyker Heights house and announced they were taking their father to lunch. Instead, they began the tour of their father’s banks to remove his assets.
Police officers, notified by Montemarano’s family, sent Todd Stein text messages telling him to bring his father to a police precinct station. They reported to a precinct in Manhattan, then to one in Brooklyn, and then to a hospital, because Marvin Stein’s blood pressure was “off the charts,” Todd said. Finally, sometime around 2 a.m. and without warning his mother, Todd Stein took his father to the apartment he was sharing with Felicia.
It was the first time Marvin and Felicia Stein had seen each other in at least a decade.
When Montemarano died, on Dec. 10, 2018, her family did not notify Todd and Marvin Stein. The brothers went to the Dyker Heights house around Christmas and found it had been largely cleared out. This was how they learned of her death.
About a month after that, in late January 2019, the grandnieces petitioned to have Marvin Stein declared incapacitated, and to be appointed guardians of his person and property. They tallied his known assets at close to $2 million, in addition to the house.
Without meeting with Marvin Stein, a judge in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn granted their petition.
Todd Stein hired a team of lawyers for himself and for his father, and petitioned the court to release Marvin from guardianship or appoint Todd as the guardian instead of the twins.
Finally, in June 2019, the two families agreed to a settlement and together asked the court to end the guardianship. Marvin Stein regained control of his life.
On a recent afternoon in the Steins’ apartment, Todd estimated that the cost of getting his father out of guardianship ran to about $300,000.
Marvin and Felicia Stein, now 87, sat facing each other across a table. Their challenge now is to imagine their remaining lives together. The two exercise in the gym downstairs; Todd Stein takes them for meals at the corner restaurant. The couple’s combined incomes cover their living expenses.
“Luckily, my father is considered a success story,” Todd Stein said, acknowledging that many people never get out of guardianship. “He lived. Imagine if they didn’t have the money to fight it.”
He paused and then corrected himself. “If they didn’t have money,” he said, “this never would have happened.”
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