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An Operatic Decline : Sir Rudolf Bing, Once the Ruler of the Met, Has Lapsed Into a Legal and Mental Limbo

July 31, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Every morning, just around 10 o'clock, a haunted-looking woman descends from the elevator at the Essex House. Her eyes scan the lobby, seeing everything and nothing. Looking disheveled, in clothes that are shabby and sometimes outlandish, she stands out in this bastion of sedate business people and well-heeled tourists. Sometimes she stops to talk to a child. But adults who would like to speak to her are dismissed with a vacant stare and barely a word.

The ritual is repeated at 3:30 each afternoon in this luxurious hotel and apartment house on Central Park South. And again each evening at 9, Lady Carroll Douglass Bing must vacate for two hours the apartment she shares with her husband, Sir Rudolf Bing, the former opera impresario who is 86 and suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

This is the arrangement agreed upon by lawyers for Lady Bing, 48, and her husband. Following complaints that Lady Bing refused to allow nurses to care for her husband, allegedly shoving one nurse, berating another and on several occasions accusing female nurses of displaying romantic interest in Bing, a court decision late this spring blocked out six hours each day when Lady Bing must leave the apartment her husband has lived in for 39 years.

'She Wanders Around'

"That is when I see her," said Richard Boehm, a literary agent and longtime friend of Bing's, who often dines near Lincoln Center and attends cultural events there. "When she has to get out of the house at night, she wanders around. I see her then."

The strange tale of the man who fired Maria Callas, chose not to hire Beverly Sills and ruled the Metropolitan Opera for 23 years with an autocratic manner and an acerbic tongue, took on operatic proportions of its own Jan. 9, 1987.

That day, on his 85th birthday, Bing married a former mental patient named Carroll Douglass. Soon they embarked on a bizarre trek from the West Indies to Great Britain that earned worldwide attention when they ran out of money and ended up, for a time, at a shelter for the homeless in Leeds, north of London.

Bing's lawyers moved immediately to freeze his funds and, reluctantly, because it seemed so undignified, to have their client declared incompetent. They have since launched a battle to annul the marriage that remains in legal limbo.

Heartbreaking Story

"I think the whole thing is so sad, it breaks my heart," said Paul Goldhamer, an attorney for Bing. "He's just an old man at the end of his life." Lady Bing, Goldhamer said, "is a sick, sick woman."

Many people close to the case refuse to discuss it. Repeated calls to Lady Bing's family and to her attorneys went unreturned. Some people agreed to speak about the Bings, but only off the record. The Bings themselves consent to no interviews.

"It is very, very sad for someone who knew him," a longtime Bing associate said. "I can see him the way he was, savoring his cigarette, eating the piece of cake he had every afternoon with his tea. That is the way he wanted to end his days, in peace, at the Essex House.

"Now when I see him," the associate said, "even that enjoyment is gone."

Friends said Bing's condition is most clearly manifested by his complete lack of short-term memory. He began to slip several years ago, they said, worrying aloud that he was turning senile. Widowed and childless, Bing sought legal advice at that time to help him prepare for what he feared was his own deterioration.

He had always been a man of routine. Particularly since the death in 1983 of his wife of 53 years, ballerina Nina Schelemskaya-Schelesnaya, Bing ate the same thing at the same time, every day. He sat at the same table and dined at least five nights a week at the Fontana di Trevi restaurant, two blocks from his apartment. On Fridays he always ordered his favorite zuppe di peschia, fish soup.

In earlier years he was also a man of strong will and determination. A tough executive and commanding leader, Bing as general manager oversaw the Met's move to its present location at Lincoln Center. He terrorized divas with his forceful demeanor and biting wit. This giant of the cultural world was, a good friend said, "used to getting his own way."

Bing's decline from Alzheimer's was steady. At first he lost track of conversations. He became confused. In restaurants he would forget if he had ordered, whether he had paid the bill and, sometimes, whether he had eaten.

By 1986, his short-term memory had all but evaporated.

"Sir Rudolf doesn't understand the concept of what is happening," said Goldhamer, the lawyer. "He doesn't know what has happened from one minute to the next. He has no memory of events that have passed."

Exactly how Carroll Douglass entered his life is a matter of speculation. His lawyers learned that a connection had been formed between the two sometime in 1986. "She just moved in on him," Goldhamer said.

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