Monkton man at center of feud that has gossip columnists abuzz

Former actor wants body of his father exhumed, suspicious of stepmother

February 22, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In a posthumous family feud that has gossip columnists from New York to Palm Beach, Fla., abuzz, a Monkton man of prominent and notorious lineage wants his father's body exhumed and autopsied, seeking evidence for what he considers a suspicious death and his stepmother's odd behavior in its aftermath.

F. Warrington Gillet III, 40, a descendant of the Tydings family whose own colorful background includes an acting role in a classic slasher movie and a part in a Wall Street scandal, says his father was in perfect health when he died in May. His father, F. Warrington Gillet Jr., 71, was a Realtor and a former liquor distributor in Maryland who had moved to Palm Beach about 35 years ago.

"I just want justice done," Gillet said yesterday. "The entire family thinks something is wrong."

Gillet III and his sister, Susan Chewning, 45, of Virginia were left nothing by their father, whose will turned his entire estate over to his widow and their stepmother, Elesabeth Ingalls Gillet, a steel and shipping heiress. The siblings have nasty things to say about her, and decry the way she sent them only old clothing and odd items as mementos of their father after his death.

"I decided to take action after she sent me the license plate," Gillet III said of the tag from his father's truck that he received in the mail. "You look at it and cry and you are devastated. You send the kid a license plate. ... Take this in memory of your father."

The case is one of those rich-people-squabbling stories, but just the latest in a string of scandals that seems to have followed the Gillet family through the generations.

Gillet Jr., known as "Big Warry" to distinguish him from his son, "Little Warry," made the pages of The Sun when he was 6 years old. The boy was the subject of a bitter, seven-week custody dispute in 1937 between his father, a war ace, and mother, the granddaughter of a former Maryland governor, Edwin Warfield.

The judge, apparently scandalized that Gillet Jr.'s mother went and lived with her not-yet-divorced lover in the West Indies, awarded the boy to his father, a rare ruling during that era. The boy grew up to marry into a prominent political family: His first wife was Eleanor Tydings, the daughter of longtime U.S. Sen. Millard E. Tydings, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1964.

Gillet III lived with his mother, who later married John David Schapiro, the former owner of Laurel Race Course who died in January 2002, but says he remained close to his father, speaking to him five times a day on the telephone and frequently visiting him in Florida.

His suspicions over his father's death began, Gillet III says, when he arrived in Palm Beach on May 14 , the day after his father died, and his stepmother wouldn't let him enter his father's bedroom. He was also suspicious because authorities were not called to the Palm Beach house until hours after his father died, when rigor mortis had set in, Gillet III claims. Then, after the funeral - the elder Gillet was buried at St. John's Episcopal Church in Glyndon - the widow made an abrupt statement to him, Gillet III said.

"Don't think of getting anything - it all goes to me," Gillet III quoted her as saying. "I said, `Fine.' What are you going to say?"

Gillet III says his stepmother then went off on a cruise and has since taken up with another man. He also claims his father told him the marriage was in trouble and he was considering divorcing his wife.

A woman who answered the phone at Elesabeth Gillet's home in Palm Beach said she would have no comment.

Elesabeth Gillet, however, spoke recently to the New York Observer, a Manhattan weekly, and said her stepson and stepdaughter are simply "mad that they've been left out of the will."

As for the new man, a shoe designer named Andy Avello, they have "always been close friends," Elesabeth Gillet told the Observer. Avello, for his part, apparently denied a romantic relationship with this quote: "C'mon, she's 20 years older than me." He goes on to call Elesabeth Gillet "a spoiled brat," and proclaim that he likes Gillet III: "We've chased a lot of women, we have a good time together."

Gillet III said he has hired an investigator who worked on the O.J. Simpson case to look into his father's death, and he anticipates filing a motion in Baltimore County Circuit Court soon seeking an exhumation of his father's body. His sister, Susan Chewning, hopes it will provide some answers.

"In a nutshell, there are a lot of unanswered questions about my father's death," Chewning said. "I'd like to know for certain how he died. We requested an autopsy and a blood test when he died. But my stepmother put a stop to that, so it was never done."

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