Despite $1.2 million advanced for construction by Davis' trust,… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Susan Strong Davis, an 87-year-old widow, spends the day inside her Palos Verdes Estates home, tended round-the-clock by nurse's aides. For company, relatives say, she has her dog, the television and, on increasingly rare occasions, memories of the glamorous socialite's life she once lived.
"She definitely has some sort of dementia," said Viki Brushwood, a niece who visited from Texas in December. "I don't know if it's Alzheimer's or what. She is somebody who is not making decisions anymore."
But decisions involving large amounts of money are being made in Davis' name. In recent years, she has borrowed millions to build a four-bedroom house in Beverly Hills featuring three fireplaces and a pool, according to property records, court filings and interviews. She has also given at least $600,000 to a charity to which relatives say she has no ties and which is run by the controversial Kabbalah Centre, the Westside spiritual organization now under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service.
Public records and interviews show Davis' longtime financial advisor, John E. Larkin, has been instrumental in these expenditures. A veteran entertainment industry money manager, Larkin has been a devout student of the Kabbalah Centre's brand of Jewish mysticism for nearly a decade and is a key figure in the oversight of its substantial financial assets. He was handling his elderly client's personal finances when she made the donation. And Davis' Beverly Hills home is being built on a lot Larkin previously owned and sold to her at a substantial personal profit.
Larkin, 64, did not return messages seeking comment. Although the IRS' criminal division has been investigating the center and its controlling family, the Bergs, for tax evasion for more than a year, Larkin has not been identified as a subject of that probe and has not been accused of any crime in handling Davis' money.
Davis has no children, and her siblings are dead. Those relatives still in touch with her — three nieces — said they visit at most once a year. Neither they nor seven other family members contacted were aware of her donations to the Kabbalah Centre or of the home under construction in Beverly Hills.
Bunny Sumner, an 89-year-old niece who lives in Carlsbad, said that when she visited Davis two years ago she was "well into" dementia.
"She wasn't a bit well," Sumner recalled. "We just talked about old times."
The daughter of Frank R. Strong, a pioneering real estate mogul who made a fortune subdividing Southern California scrubland, Davis grew up in a turreted mansion in La Cañada Flintridge. Her family's dinner parties and vacations were detailed on the society pages. She became a professional ice skater, touring in the chorus line of Sonja Henie's ice revue. She married three times, including a 1951 union with British actor Richard Stapley that put her on the Hollywood party circuit. Her last husband, Frank Davis, died in a car crash in the 1980s.
"She was a free spirit before it was a free spirit time. [A] very Katharine Hepburn-ish type but only better looking," said nephew Thomas H. Dutton of Lodi.
Davis' lifestyle was underwritten in part by a trust fund set up upon her mother's 1962 death and supervised by a Los Angeles probate court. By 1981, the original trustees had died or become too ill to serve. At Davis' request, the court appointed Larkin one of two co-trustees. How he and the heiress had become acquainted is unclear.
Larkin operated a financial advising business in Sherman Oaks, and he had built up a clientele of TV executives, athletes and actors that eventually included the likes of Ricardo Montalban and Candice Bergen.
The court approved Davis' choice of Larkin and a second trustee, George W. Dickinson, a real estate developer who had known Davis for decades. The men took control of the trust, a portfolio of stocks, oil rights and other assets valued in a court filing last year at just under $11 million.
Over the next two decades, Davis signed off on their pay and put Larkin in charge of her personal finances as well, according to court filings. Within a two-year period a decade ago, their compensation doubled to $100,000 a year, probate records show. Since 2002, the trust has paid Larkin and Dickinson a combined $900,000.
Larkin's intense involvement in the Kabbalah Centre began in the early 2000s, a period in which Madonna's devotion piqued the interest of many in Hollywood. Raised Roman Catholic, Larkin became close to founders Philip and Karen Berg. He converted to Judaism and took a top center official, Orly "Esther" Sibilia, as his fourth wife in a 2006 ceremony performed by the Bergs' son Yehuda. The couple bought a $2-million home on the Beverly Hills block where the Bergs and their sons live in side-by-side homes.