By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The postwar Soviet occupation of Hungary was not kind to the Count, who fled in 1948 with a pair of solid-brass door studs from the family's ancestral castle. After drifting around the Continent and settling for a time in Egypt, he spent three years in Cuba. And in 1954, carrying the business card of his friend Fulgencio Batista, president of Cuba, he moved to Miami.
Adrian de Menasce, the English son of a Hungarian baron, first met the Count in the summer of 1948, on the Italian island of Capri, at the villa of his cousin, the Countess Madeleine Pozzo di Borgo. "He was exceedingly direct," says de Menasce, who today lives the quiet life of a gentleman painter in London. "I suppose his occupation as a test pilot must have produced that element. He was a bit of a daredevil, but warm, too. And extremely popular. There were quite a few other Hungarian refugees on Capri at that time; in general there were many kings and aristocrats in exile, and the Count and my parents knew quite a lot of them. Count Szechenyi struck up a relationship with the English writer Norman Douglas, and with Peggy Guggenheim."
In the ancient Egyptian port city of Alexandria - an even bigger nexus for exiled blue bloods - Szechenyi soon took up residence with de Menasce's family, and began flying back and forth to Beirut as a pilot for Middle East Airlines. It was the first real job the 37-year-old aristocrat had ever held. "His leaving Hungary represented a tremendous financial loss," de Menasce explains. "But he accepted it very aggressively. I don't think he had regrets, or if he did, he covered them up."
In the United States, in 1966, Count Tassilo Szechenyi met the man who would become his business partner, constant companion, and trusted confidant. Mike Phelps would later emerge - to his own great astonishment - as the principal beneficiary of the Count's will. And within days after Szechenyi's ashes were scattered over the Everglades by airplane in accordance with his last wishes, Phelps would witness the birth of what he believes to be an insidious judicial grave robbery that continues today.
Sorting out Count Tassilo Szechenyi's affairs should have been fairly simple. A pathetically small fraction of Hungary's beneficence survived the nobleman's freewheeling final years, a period during which fast living, flashes of extravagant generosity, and a spate of financial problems shrank his holdings from roughly $2.9 million to $1.6 million. A last will and testament signed five weeks before the Count's death seemed to lay out a clear plan for disposing of the remaining cash and property.
But instead, as Mike Phelps wrote in an August 1990 complaint to the Florida Bar, the dead aristocrat's estate became the battleground for a mammoth "war of lawyers," which engendered "great expense in attorney fees; great delay in the administration of the estate and trust; and great delay in providing sums due to the beneficiaries."
In the three years following Szechenyi's death, a score of Miami bankers, accountants, and attorneys involved themselves in the estate proceedings, each chipping off another cash crumb for their own consumption. According to the latest estimates of estate accountant Paul Salver, less than $220,000 remains from the Count's original wealth, and that amount or more is the target of claims by as many as 100 creditors. "It's my understanding that...we're sitting on what's now a bankrupt estate," Salver said in August. Three Dade probate judges have handled the case so far, one retiring, one recusing himself, and the latest tending the vegetative growth of thousands of pages of motions and pleadings that show no particular sign of settling anything.
A kaleidoscope of administrators ad litem, personal representatives of the estate, and individual co-trustees fills the court files, while several of the beneficiaries meant to profit from the Count's will have accepted the likely eventuality of getting zip. Baron Adrian de Menasce, for example, was supposed to receive $50,000, but hasn't seen a cent. "Alas, I wish I could tell you why I haven't received my bequest," he says. "I have found the whole thing quite painful."
In the view of Mike Phelps, the unwholesome mess is the fault of two men: Miami lawyer Peter M. MacNamara and former AmeriFirst trust company president Richard Jackson. In his bar complaint against MacNamara, Phelps claims the lawyer has used "warlike tactics" and "possibly unethical conduct" to systematically obstruct the disbursement of the Count's assets while allegedly milking the estate for attorney's fees, assisted all the while by an unholy alliance with the former AmeriFirst executive. (AmeriFirst, the nation's oldest federally chartered savings and loan, was seized March 15, 1991, by government regulators. Its downfall was largely the result of an overreliance on commercial real estate investment.)
In a motion filed three months ago, Phelps accused MacNamara of lying in open court and conspiring with Jackson to commit "legal malpractice, civil fraud, possible criminal wrongdoing, conversion of assets, and other acts" in their handling of the Count's estate. He also charges that MacNamara carried on illicit private conversations with Dade Circuit Court Judge Moie Tendrich, attempting to poison the judge's impartiality in the complicated case. "I was set up by AmeriFirst Florida Trust Company and a lawyer hired by them," Phelps alleges. "They have cheated me out of more than three-quarters of a million dollars."