Elegant yet homely, weathered by the Cotswold wind and rains, few doubt that Lyegrove House, would have made a wonderful family home. Certainly not Manny Davidson when he bought it more than a quarter of a century ago.
After decades of unstinting hard work and commercial success, Manny and his wife Brigitta had hoped to spend their final years at the Jacobean mansion, surrounded by friends, family and their multi-million-pound collection of art, antiques and silverware.
Yet, for all the harmony of its architecture, Lyegrove House – with its gently curved gables and much-praised formal garden – sits at the heart of a troubling family drama, one which has caused them to question a lifetime’s work in providing for their children.
For, today, Manny and Brigitta are effectively banned from Lyegrove. The reason? Their own flesh and blood, Maxine and Gerald, have staged what their parents term a quite extraordinary coup.
The Davidson family has been torn apart by a legal feud over their estate – including Lyegrove House
In better times: Manny Davidson with his son Gerald and daughter Maxine at his 70th birthday party
With the full backing of the law, their children have taken over not just Lyegrove but also vast portions of the family estate, including a Cote d’Azur villa and millions of pounds worth of valuables.
And in the process, they have cut their parents from their lives completely. Communication has been through lawyers, whose bills have so far cost Manny and Brigitta a cool £10 million.
Shy of publicity, the Davidsons have kept their counsel until the past few months when, not knowing where else to turn, they decided to write a remarkable book. In it they describe in heartbreaking detail how they first built their safe, comfortable family life from the ruins of the Second World War, only to have it shattered by an act of unthinkable betrayal.
It is, they say, a cautionary tale – of luxurious living, multi-million-pound trust funds and the corrosive effects of sky-high expectations.
Not only have all attempts at reconciliation failed, but things reached an offensive new low just a few weeks ago when their children issued a statement through their lawyers dismissing the book as lies and comparing Manny and Brigitta to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. For two Jewish octogenarians, one of whom fled Germany with her life, it is a harsh analogy to bear.
When I meet Brigitta (Manny has a heart condition and is unable to be with us) I am expecting a furious denunciation of her children, the cuckoos who took over the nest. Yet Manny and Brigitta prefer to take the blame themselves.
‘Our children have cut us out,’ she says. ‘But I would very much like to explain that it is their parents who did the wrong thing. What has happened is our fault. We gave our children huge sums of money to use in whatever way they liked.
‘But they wanted total autonomy so they threw us out. It’s been a coup. It felt horribly cruel, but now time has passed, we understand our children’s frustrations far better.
‘By giving them everything, we have made them poorer, not richer. They didn’t have to struggle and it’s the struggle that makes you strong.’ Manny and Brigitta, aged 87 and 82 respectively, had particular reason to be generous in life.
Born in London in 1931, Manny escaped death after the family home in Willesden, North-West London, burned to the ground during the Blitz. After a stint in the RAF, he joined forces with his father, buying and refurbishing properties.
Brigitta, too, is a survivor. Originally from Poland, her Jewish family somehow managed to find a place on one of the last ships from Hanover to England before the ports closed. Her father later found work as a bespoke tailor. ‘For me,’ as she puts it, ‘family was the heart of everything.’
The pair married in 1958 and their first child, Maxine, soon followed. By the time Gerald was born three years later, Manny’s property business had taken off.
As it became ever-more successful – the trust fund eventually reached a value of around £600 million – he built a remarkable collection of art and antiques: Old Master paintings including a Gainsborough and Hogarth, Burgundian tapestries, George III furniture, and a silver collection worth millions in its own right. The Davidsons became major charitable donors.
More important than the wealth, they say, was the life they built for the children. According to Brigitta, they were a close and loving family, and she keeps boxes of birthday cards from her children. ‘I’m tempted to look at them but I don’t want to cry,’ she says.
By the early 1970s, the Davidsons were keen to secure their children’s financial future and established a ‘discretionary trust’. As the business grew, the best of the properties were put into this trust, several in the children’s names. It was a move which could save them a huge sum when, in time, they came into their inheritance, but it sowed the seeds of the disputes to come.
Although Brigitta insists the family was not extravagant, the Davidsons were certainly living well. And when Manny joins our conversation on the telephone – he is in hospital being treated for a heart condition – he suggests that even at an early age Gerald was taking certain things for granted. At Millfield, his public school, he says, the boy became ‘infatuated with the idea of wealth’.
As the children grew into adults, they were given homes in London – in Hyde Park for Maxine and a four-storey Queen Anne house in Hampstead for Gerald. Together, they received a staggering £20 million a year from their trust fund.
Then, in 1992, Manny and Brigitta purchased Lyegrove, a Grade II listed Jacobean house in Gloucestershire set in 18 acres, not far from Prince Charles’s Highgrove estate, and poured every resource into restoring it.
‘We bought Lyegrove in the first place because of the grandchildren,’ Brigitta says. ‘It was a place for the family to get together.’
As with so much else, Manny put the house in his children’s names. ‘We could never have guessed that Lyegrove, our pride and joy, would become the focal point of the rift,’ says Brigitta. ‘I still walk around that house in my mind.’
Her children might remember things differently, but Brigitta first noticed a significant change in Gerald’s attitude in late 2010. By then, Manny had sold his claim in the business for £270 million – £165 million of which was diverted to the children’s trust fund.
The couple had retired to a rented flat in Monaco, expecting to use the Cote D’Azur villa and their home in England.
Yet Gerald’s relationship with Manny was growing increasingly strained and, according to Brigitta, he started behaving as though he were the proprietor of Lyegrove.
‘I raised my eyebrows but I never confronted him about it. I never confronted either of them about anything,’ she says.
In February 2011, she threw a party at the house for Manny’s 80th birthday, and it was then, in his speech to the 60 assembled family and friends that Gerald said: ‘Maxine and I would be happy to welcome our parents back to Lyegrove next year.’ His parents were astonished. ‘I never thought of Lyegrove as anything other than our family home,’ says Brigitta. ‘I said to Manny I had a feeling we were not going to be allowed to return.’
When Brigitta attempted to retrieve an inventory of the art and antiques collection, the legal letters began. Then, when Manny and Brigitta attempted to visit Gerald in London ‘to ask what the hell was going on’, they say he threatened legal action against Manny to prevent him from approaching.
The last time Brigitta saw Maxine was in Monaco when she asked Brigitta if she could have an 18-carat gold peridot ring featuring a coiling snake. As ever, Brigitta said yes. When she later drove Maxine to the airport, however, her daughter simply turned and walked into the terminal. ‘I didn’t see her look back,’ Brigitta says. ‘I stood there for a minute thinking what on earth was that about. She had come to say goodbye. That was the end.’
Manny and Brigitta Davidson with their son and daughter, Gerald and Maxine, who have effectively banned them from the home they created
Last year, the Davidsons say they had no choice but to take their own children to court. Both sides agreed to settle, with some items – although not the houses or Manny’s beloved silver collection – returning to Manny and Brigitta. Neither side is happy with the outcome. The Davidsons remain well-off, with homes in Monaco and Paris. They want no sympathy on that score.
It is the collapse of the family that has hurt them, and while it might seem odd that a couple so reluctant to court publicity would write a book, it was, Brigitta says, a ‘compulsion’.
‘Other people go to a psychiatrist and vent – we wrote the book,’ she adds. ‘Another reason was we have grandsons. They will have children. Somebody along the line they might like to know their roots. I would also like my own children to read it to see what they have done to us and perhaps question it.’
The response to the manuscript was truly shocking, as Brigitta explains: ‘Their lawyers wrote saying, ‘Perhaps your clients, in common with Joseph Goebbels, believe, that if you tell a lie big enough, and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.’ ‘
What on earth could have caused such resentment? It is a question which continues to haunt the Davidsons, although Brigitta concedes that: ‘Maybe Manny was domineering in that there was an expectation Gerald would follow in Manny’s footsteps? Gerald once said to me, ‘It’s all about him’, meaning Manny.’
If they were asked for an explanation, says Brigitta, her children might say they couldn’t please their father no matter what they did.
Whatever the true reasons, it is perhaps little wonder that the remainder of their fortune will be left not to their offspring, but to the new Manny and Brigitta Davidson Charitable Foundation.
Today, they have little knowledge of their children’s lives. ‘I understand from others that my daughter’s hair is grey,’ Brigitta says, tears falling. ‘I know they live in Jersey.’
She doubts they will live to see a reconciliation, but is clear about how Manny, at least, would react. ‘If Gerald walked into the room all would be forgiven,’ Brigitta says. ‘He would throw his arms around both children and cuddle them. I don’t know if I could be as generous at this stage, with my husband lying sick in hospital. I am too angry.’
Setting up the trust was ‘the biggest mistake of our lives,’ Manny concludes. ‘If we had not done that, our family would be whole.’
And Brigitta can only agree: ‘We’re certainly not happy – I don’t think they are either.
‘It’s a family disaster. All the money in the world doesn’t make for happy families.’
To Trust Or Not To Trust, by Manny and Brigitta Davidson, is published by John Blake Publishing on Thursday, at £18.99.