Film icon's 'dream' and friendship shattered
Screen legend Maureen O'Hara is embroiled in a tragic conflict with her former close friend, writes Maeve Sheehan
Published 22/07/2012 | 05:00
THE west Cork village of Glengarriff is famous for two things: the lush vegetation that flourishes in its balmy Gulf Stream and its most exotic flower, the legendary Hollywood actress Maureen O'Hara, who made it her home many years ago.
In recent months, the climate has chilled thanks to a rather poisonous fallout from a dispute over the elderly actress's affairs.
Under an unpleasant spotlight is Carolyn Murphy, whom she personally entrusted with power of attorney over her personal affairs. Until recently Ms O'Hara, the flame-haired beauty who tamed John Wayne in The Quiet Man, robustly defended her friend, dismissing reports of elder abuse that found their way into the press. But, since her family told her of concerns they had about Ms Murphy's handling of her affairs, the 91-year-old actress mustered all her trademark feistiness to rail against her former friend.
Last Thursday week, the actress called a press conference at the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff which she said was to "set the record straight". Reporters, conscious of the stories that have swirled in recent months, gathered in the function room wondering what it was all about. She made her entrance in a wheelchair, pushed by her grandson Conor Beau Fitzsimons, 42, who lives in Idaho. By her side was Pablo O'Neill, the long-standing family accountant who is based in the US Virgin Islands, and Ed Fickess, an American tax lawyer and newly recruited as adviser to Ms O'Hara.
From her wheelchair, she beamed at a couple of reporters and asked: "Did Ireland win the match last night?" The reporters were confused. The European Championships had finished weeks ago. What match was she talking about? Then she revealed the reason why she had gathered them all there: it was to clear up the "rumours" and the "false information" about her personal life and the Maureen O'Hara Foundation that was to be her legacy to Glengarriff.
In a prepared statement, she said had recently made "discoveries" that caused her "grave concern" over Ms Murphy's handling of her affairs and had revoked her power of attorney.
She was "profoundly disappointed" at how her "original dream" for the foundation had been "so distorted". She demanded that Ms Murphy hand over all financial records to her accountant. In conclusion, she noted that the "silver lining" in the turmoil was her family -- previously isolated from her and now restored.
Afterwards, she answered questions with more of that famed feistiness. She wasn't just upset, she said, she was "damned upset".
What exactly Ms Murphy was accused of was not clear, but the insinuation of impropriety in the carefully worded statement was enough to leave her reputation well and truly challenged. Ms Murphy, who had no forewarning of the press conference, issued a short and dignified statement through a spokesperson that said she was, and would remain, a true and loyal friend of Ms O'Hara's.
But she was so stung by what she said were utterly unfounded allegations against her, that last week she felt compelled to speak publicly.
So on Thursday morning, Ms Murphy, 71, sat nervously in the living room of her restored farmhouse on the outskirts of Ballylickey, a village near Bantry, preparing to give her account of this sorry saga. Her husband, Bill, sat in an armchair nearby and her son, Brendan, served coffee and cakes. "They have annihilated my name in this community," she said. "I am just not capable of this kind of thing. I can tell you with all my heart and soul, I have not done anything wrong. I would never hurt Maureen."
Carolyn and Bill, both Americans, had what she called an "international family". They lived in Brazil and later Germany, and moved to Ireland in the Seventies, six young children in tow. "We loved it. The kids loved it. We decided that this would be a better place to raise the children, so we moved here and stayed here," she said.
Their friendship deepened over the years. Ms Murphy described herself as a "speech therapist cum housewife" but she also ran an Italian restaurant in the Nineties and volunteered with local projects. She met Ms O'Hara at a local environmental awareness project in Bantry in 1978.
It was the year the actress's husband died and she lived between America and her stunning home, Lundine, in Glengarriff.
According to Ms Murphy, they just clicked. "We just had an affinity to one another. I wasn't star struck. She didn't know who I was. But, you know, you just look someone in the eyes -- and we just clicked.
"She'd always come in June and go home before October. She'd always have family around her and I had a lot of children too. We were very busy but we'd always manage to have a lunch together or a dinner together and just talk about real-life things, not movies, or anything. We were just friends.
"When I had the restaurant, she would come two or three times a week. I was really, really busy those years. But we still managed to get time together. She spent a lot of time in the house with us. We've been very, very close friends since then."
According to Ms Murphy, their friendship became even closer in 2004 when Ms O'Hara, who was then in her early 80s, asked her for help. That day, Ms O'Hara dispatched her daughter and her carer out for lunch.
"She said, can we have a sandwich or something here, Carolyn. I need help and I don't know who to turn to. We sat down and she said: 'I have signed some papers. I've changed my will and I've changed my trust'."
Ms O'Hara said she wasn't happy with the changes.
Ms Murphy said she agreed to help. She flew with Ms O'Hara to the US where she re-instated the original will and trust.
Two years later, in 2006, she said Ms O'Hara, who due to her health was advised against foreign travel, asked her to accept power of attorney over her affairs. Ms Murphy is bound by confidentiality from discussing what she did for Ms O'Hara, but as a successful Hollywood actress, Ms O'Hara's financial interests are complex.
Entrusted with power of attorney, Ms Murphy said she carried out Ms O'Hara's instructions. They met on Fridays at Ms O'Hara's house. They called it "business day".
"We talked about what needed to be done. I never did anything without asking Maureen first. I never spent a penny without asking her," said Ms Murphy.
She said she was paid €500 "every now and again" to cover her expenses, but wouldn't take payment.
"I really have to say on behalf of Maureen, at least three times a year for the last eight years she has offered me wages, which I continually turned down," she said.
According to Ms Murphy, her involvement in Ms O'Hara's affairs was accepted by her family. There was some occasional tension. Things became fraught, however, after Ms Murphy returned from a business trip to New York, in her capacity as Ms O'Hara's attorney.
After that, she said, her relationship with Ms O'Hara's family deteriorated but she could not elaborate. "I am in a strange position. My hands are tied because of the confidentiality of my position."
In April, Ms O'Hara's nephew, Charles Fitzsimons, made a complaint about her over elder abuse to the health authorities. The family believed the elderly actress was being worked too hard, and attended too many functions. A social worker followed up on the complaint, interviewing Ms O'Hara for two-and-a-half hours, and later Ms Murphy. Ms O'Hara dismissed the claims, and signed a statement saying she was happy to do public appearances and with Ms Murphy as her attorney. The HSE social worker concluded that no harm had been done to Ms O'Hara.
Ms O'Hara said as much when that story reached the newspapers: "There is nothing scandalous about us or our behaviour, or what we are trying to do."
But the allegations against Ms Murphy became far more serious. At the end of May this year, the actress's long-standing family accountant, Pablo O'Neill, and an American attorney, visited Glengarriff to look into the actress's affairs. And according to Ms Murphy, rumours and gossip began circulating about her in the village, although she was never formally accused of anything.
Ms Murphy said she last spoke to Ms O'Hara in late May and Ms O'Hara seemed supportive of her.
Soon after, lawyers acting on Ms O'Hara's instructions wrote to tell Ms Murphy that her power of attorney had been revoked. Ms Murphy has refused to accept this. She hired a solicitor, Frank Buttimer, and plans to go the High Court in order to have her position legally clarified.
Why would Ms Murphy just not walk away?
She said: "I am honour-bound," adding that she is holding on to her papers, as her "proof" that she has done nothing wrong.
Although old friends, Ms Murphy and Ms O'Hara have not been out together since late May.
"Friday nights were our date nights. Bill picked Maureen and I up at her house on Friday nights, and she got dressed up beautiful for him. She just loved Bill Murphy. I think her heart must be broken right now. She had her own little corner in Casey's Hotel. We say she's holding court," said Ms Murphy.
"What was so nice about it was that families came in, with their children, and stopped to say hello to her, and touch her hand. Groups came down from Dublin, men playing golf, they were in there drinking their pints and they would come over and talk to her and sing to her. She spent two hours every Friday night with us in there, and she was a queen and she just thrived on it. And she called it date night."
Later on Thursday, Frank McCarthy, who runs an accountancy practice in Bantry, called to the Murphys' home in Ballylickey. He is chief executive of the Maureen O'Hara Foundation, and said he was "flabbergasted" when the actress claimed her "dream" had been "distorted".
"I met her in 2009 and I had a long chat with her. If I was going to take over formulating this foundation and making sure that the foundation stones were laid correctly, I asked every question in the book of Maureen to make sure I understood her dream," he said.
He incorporated the foundation in 2010, with the primary purpose of setting up an acting and film academy for children and young people in Glengarriff, with memorabilia displayed to boost local tourism. Cork County Council provided the site in Glengarriff; it has two awards ceremonies and a Classic Film Festival under its belt. It has no assets, little income and will be financed by fundraising.
Mr McCarthy completed a detailed business plan -- for which he charged no fee -- in February, which he talked through in detail with Ms O'Hara.
He said: "I was personally flabbergasted because there was no way I saw this coming from this business plan and two years of my work. I never saw that coming. It's out of the blue. It's like a bolt of lightning to me.
"This is her dream and I'm involved with it two-a-half years. This is her dream."
He does not believe the stories about Ms Murphy either.
"I think it is disgraceful to go for trial by media. I do not believe them. I am working two-and-a-half years with Carolyn and her reputation and professionalism is impeccable."
Others in the community have also rallied to Ms Murphy's support, including Fr Pat Coughlan, a Holy Ghost priest who has known the Murphys since their time in Brazil: "That Carolyn's generosity has been misconstrued is a travesty."
Speaking from Los Angles, Charlie Fitzsimons, Ms O'Hara's nephew, said the family had concerns about expenditure and claimed there wasn't enough consultation about Ms O'Hara with family members. He said his family wanted to conduct an audit of her affairs. As for the foundation, he claimed it was outrageously ambitious and far from Ms O'Hara's original idea of a small museum in Glengarriff.
Ms Murphy rubbished these claims, saying she was accountable not only to Ms O'Hara but to her team of advisers for every penny that was spent. Records, which she was prepared to submit to the High Court, would vindicate her, she said.
When business decisions had to be made, she consulted only Ms O'Hara and her advisers, because she considered her affairs confidential.
Mr McCarthy was equally dismissive: "Maureen has spoken to me about what she wanted. Her legacy is not a museum. Her legacy is all about children," he said. "The foundation was a separate entity charged with fulfilling Maureen's dream. If we had decisions to make, I would ask Maureen."
Mr Fitzsimons said he now holds co-power of attorney over Ms O'Hara's affairs.
Ms O'Hara, he said, was very well but worried about all that had happened: "On a personal note, I would like to see a quick and peaceful resolution to this and we can all get on with our lives."
At the centre of this unpleasant affair is a woman nearing the end of her life who now faces the prospect of having to prove her competency before a court of law as accusations swirl about her former friend.
Mary Twomy, a retired teacher who lives in Bantry and has known her since 1984, stills visits her at her home in Glengarriff. "Maureen's welfare is very important to me and my family," she said.
"I can see the difference in Maureen since Carolyn has taken over. I saw a massive change in Maureen's demeanour, and her quality of life. She was alive, and content and had peace of mind. You couldn't but notice the difference."
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