Tracking down Clarisse Mechanic's descendants

Theater owner refused to have an updated will

March 11, 2011|Jacques Kelly

A legal document filed at the city courthouse a few weeks ago and a hearing held this week sought to settle the estate of Clarisse Mechanic, the theater owner who also headed a philanthropic foundation. I also counted her as a family friend, a Baltimore character who, despite her personal wealth, did her own grocery shopping and rode public buses. The petition asked that her 37 distant cousins, most of whom she never knew or met, share in her estate.

She refused to make a will, one that would direct where her estate, valued at a little under $3 million, would go.

For some time before her death in 2009, her friends and acquaintances tried to persuade her to set out where the estate would go. She was approached on one occasion to leave funds to have a theater in the Baltimore School for the Arts bear the Mechanic name. She declined.

Attorney Shale D. Stiller proposed to draw up a will at no charge if she would leave her estate to the philanthropic enterprise, the Mechanic Foundation, she headed for many years. Again, she declined.

Her husband, Morris, owned Baltimore playhouses. He purchased the 1873 Ford's Theater on Fayette Street in the 1940s and ran it until it closed. Its successor, the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre at Charles and Baltimore streets, opened in 1967 and closed in 2003.

I sat in Stiller's law office and learned what happens when you don't make a will. Since her death in October 2009, he has been searching for Clarisse Mechanic's kin, her legal beneficiaries. This endeavor led to the former Soviet Union, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Israel and the U.S. He located 37 cousins on her father's and mother's sides.

"The firm suspected that the determination of Mrs. Mechanic's intestate successors would not be an easy chore," he wrote in a legal document. "During her lifetime, the firm encouraged Mrs. Mechanic to sign a new will and told her that if she did not sign a will, the estate would be distributed to cousins, second cousins, or more remote relatives, none of whom she knew or had ever met. On one occasion, when Mr. Stiller explained the search for these relatives, she replied, "There are none," he said. On another occasion, she told Mr. Stiller, "You will never find them."

This is not to say that she never had a will. An earlier will left her estate to her brother and his heir. Both her brother, the orchestra leader known as Blue Barron, and his son, Gary Barron, died before Clarisse Mechanic.

Stiller and his legal assistants, as well as genealogists, staged a painstaking hunt for the previously anonymous heirs, the next of kin Clarisse Mechanic predicted would never be found.

As an old friend, I knew Clarisse Mechanic was vague about her family. She often spoke of her home and childhood in Cleveland, and her travels on the road with her brother's orchestra, which she managed. In an obituary I wrote, her age was given as 85. It turns out she was actually five years older at her death.

Her maiden name was also a source of dispute. After Blue Barron achieved musical fame, the family, including her father, Nathan, went to court and altered their names from Freedlin to Barron.

The most amazing discovery concerns the family members who lived in a place called Tetiev in Ukraine, where a pogrom took place in 1920. Her mother, Gertrude, had a sister, Ida. Both had lived in Tetiev, a small town about 70 miles from Kiev. Many members of her mother's family were slaughtered in the incident. Stiller doubts that Clarisse Mechanic knew the details of this family tragedy.

It turns out that her father, Nathan, one of 12 children, who was from Pochep, Russia, sailed on the steamship Neckar from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore in 1908, but did not settle here. Instead, he settled in Cleveland. His siblings remained in Russia.

Stiller worked closely with a prominent genealogist, Miriam Weiner, to hunt down these persons. He took out inquiry ads ("seeking descendants") in the Jerusalem Post. He told me that most of her heirs had no knowledge of their Baltimore cousin. And not all were as wealthy. One California cousin was located and is living in subsidized housing.

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