|Peter Max is in a legal guardianship in which every aspect of his life is controlled by court-appointed strangers, says his daughter Libra Max. - John Lamparski/WireImage|
It’s not just Britney Spears who is trapped in a guardianship, isolated from friends and family, with all personal, financial, and legal decisions controlled by others.
In New York, legendary pop artist Peter Max also is being held against his will in a legal guardianship, in which every aspect of his life is controlled by court-appointed strangers, says his daughter Libra Max, 54.
She complains that she is not allowed to visit her 83-year-old father at the Upper West Side apartment that was her childhood home. She is permitted to see him only on a public bench in Riverside Park, and only for an hour at a time after requesting the appointment 48 hours in advance.
The visits are limited to three per week and can be canceled without explanation, as happened this week after she spoke to The Post.
“He is being treated like a prisoner,” she says. “Every single time I see him, which has to be approved and scheduled, he says, ‘Sweetie, please come up to the apartment.’ How many times can someone ask for companionship? He must feel tremendously abandoned.
“I see his disbelief when I tell him that I cannot accept his invitation to come up. . . . Instead, he is left with a cast of strange nurses [who] change constantly and he does not know their names.
“My father [is a] Holocaust survivor. His deepest fear was having friends and family taken away from him.”
Max, a counterculture icon of the 1960s and 1970s, whose works hang in the Museum of Modern Art, has an estimated fortune of at least $65 million. An intimate of the Rolling Stones, the German immigrant became rich plastering his psychedelic designs on postage stamps, cereal boxes, album covers, even a Continental Airlines Boeing 777. Nancy Reagan asked him to paint portraits of the Statute of Liberty at the White House, after which he helped raise money to restore the monument.
Now he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and was placed under guardianship in December 2016, after the court ruled that he needed protection from alleged physical, mental, and emotional abuse by his then-second wife, Mary.
Mary Max committed suicide at age 52, in June 2019, just before attorney Barbara Lissner took over the guardianship, when the previous court-appointed guardian resigned.
Libra applied to the court two months later to end the guardianship — but failed. Even though the reason for protecting Max had ended with Mary’s death, the burden of proof on those who want to end the guardianship is onerous.
“A guardianship is forever,” says lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a friend of Max’s since the 1990s, who was denied permission this week to visit him. “They never stop.”
Since Lissner’s appointment, says Libra, her father’s freedom has been savagely curtailed. His beloved cats were removed, and his friends are required to sign nondisclosure agreements before they can even talk to him on the phone.
More than $1 million per year has been drained from Max’s bank accounts to pay for his care, which Libra claims is excessive.
Max’s previous two guardians, who served from January 2018 to June 2019, charged $53,127 in fees over 18 months, while Lissner billed $598,654 over 13 months through July 2020, according to itemized accounting prepared for the court by Libra’s attorney, Linda Redlinsky.
At the time Lissner became Max’s guardian, he was receiving care from home health care aides for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at a cost of $528,039 in 2019.
Lissner hired additional registered nurses from Alliance Nursing Homecare for an extra $397,731.
Libra alleges that her father is the victim of the growing scourge of guardianship abuse and has enlisted the help of a dozen of his old friends and relatives, including hairdresser Edward Tricomi, Woodstock producer Michael Lang and Max’s former long-term lover, model Rosie Vela, to petition the court to set him free.
“This system of appointing guardians has become an ATM machine for some lawyers and guardians,” says Dershowitz. “I’m sure many are well intentioned but ‘family first, courts last’ has to be the rule.
“I just feel terrible for him. He’s my age and it could happen to me as easily as it happened to him. The only thing people like Peter need is loving contact with their children. . . . It is so inhumane [to] put him in the hands of strangers who bill by the hour. Really, what harm could there be in having old friends and relatives sit with him and schmooze with him?”
Lissner, Max’s “personal needs” guardian, declined to comment.
She and her husband, Michael, are partners in the Columbus Circle law firm Lissner & Lissner, founded by Michael’s late father Jerry to serve Holocaust refugees who had fled Europe.
The couple was criticized by the Supreme Court in Bronx County in 2014 over a case in which they sought to be appointed financial guardians of an unnamed 94-year-old woman at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale.
“It would be an understatement to declare that this court is outraged by the behavior exhibited by the interested parties,” read the decision, “parties who were supposed to protect the person, but who have all unabashedly demonstrated through their actions . . . that they are only interested in getting paid.”
However, Lissner does have the support of Libra’s brother Adam Max.
Adam, who is in a separate legal dispute with his sister, disputes Libra’s allegations about her father’s treatment and has opposed her attempts to end the guardianship.
“Peter is doing extremely well and receives visits from family and friends regularly including Adam multiple times every week,” said one of Adam’s attorneys Matthew Seidner.
“Libra has feigned difficulties with the guardianship for a long time.”
But Adam also is restricted in his visits with his father, which must be scheduled in advance through the guardian, and Seidner could not explain why Libra was not allowed into her father’s apartment.
Max’s friend of 40 years, celebrity hairdresser Tricomi, confirms that he was cut off from seeing his old pal the day Mary Max died. More than 40 phone calls went unanswered, and he says the doorman at Max’s building told him the new guardian would not allow friends up to the apartment.
Recently, Tricomi has been allowed to talk to Max on FaceTime, but says whenever they talk, his friend begs: “please visit me.”
A gregarious, hospitable man, Max always hated to be alone, Tricomi said.
“He would even call me up to come and watch him paint. He would say, ‘I have a cappucino and a brownie for you,’ and I would play music and stay till two or three in the morning.”
Max’s West 64th Street studio was always full of people. “You’d go there and find Keith Richards or Ronnie Wood hanging out, or President Clinton. There was always some celebrity at his studio.”
But after Mary died, Max was forced to become a recluse. “There’s no reason on earth he should have a guardian. This is a legal kidnapping.”
Max’s former live-in partner, Vela, said they remained “best friends [and] for the last 30 years, we have talked on the phone daily.
“Nearly a year ago, Ms. Lissner blocked me from all contact with my closest friend. I was not allowed to see or speak with Peter for 11 months. This year has been very difficult for all of us who love him, but surely it has been devastating to Peter.”
Vela said when she finally was able to FaceTime Max this year, he begged her to visit him.
The removal of Max’s cats was especially “cruel,” she said in an affidavit. “Peter’s animals have always been such a big part of his life. He loves them.”
Max’s cousin Susyn Gliedman, who grew up with the artist in Brooklyn, also complains that Lissner has “blocked us all from his life. He doesn’t deserve to be punished like this . . . Libra has always been the apple of Peter’s eye . . . She looks like his mother Sala. To deprive him of having Libra care for him at his age is abuse, pure and simple.
“He needed a guardian to protect him from Mary when Mary was alive, but he no longer needs that protection.”
The US system of court-appointed guardians originally was intended to protect the vulnerable elderly and incapacitated, but in some cases, it has become a money-making scheme for a network of unscrupulous lawyers, judges and care providers, who sell the assets of their charges and control their lives without their consent.
The Britney Spears case grabbed the headlines when the 39-year-old pop princess rang 911 to report herself as a victim of guardianship abuse, and went to court to remove her father as guardian. But cases of abuse have been bubbling through the courts for years. In 2019, former Nevada guardian April Parks was accused of stealing from hundreds of vulnerable people in her care and sentenced to 16-40 years in prison.
There are 1.5 million people in America in guardianships. If someone
as wealthy and famous as Peter Max, with lots of high-profile friends,
can be trapped, so can anyone.