Coen family intrigue might be worthy of a movie plot

Ethan and Joel Coen
REUTERS/Mike Blake
Directors Ethan and Joel Coen display their Oscars for best director and best adapted screenplay at the Academy Awards in February.

The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, may be working well together, but the Coen brothers of an earlier generation — their father, Ed, and uncle, Lou — not so much. In fact, the moviemakers’ sister, Dr. Deborah Coen, has spent years suing much of the family, including the estate of her deceased aunt and her famous brothers, saying their father was swindled.

Ah, families. Just imagine a Coen clan Thanksgiving dinner.

The 222-page complaint, filed in March 2005, boils down to an accusation that Lou, who lives in France, cheated his brother when he bought Ed’s shares of Compayne (Hempstead) Ltd., which appears to be a London real estate company. She argued that Ed didn’t have the same information that Lou had when he sold his shares.

Dr. Coen, represented by her husband-attorney Nathan Busch of St. Louis Park, appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court last May, losing at every turn. The courts didn’t rule on whether Lou cheated Ed. Instead, they said the case didn’t belong in the United States.

But the courts found no evidence to support the claims, according to Christopher T. Shaheen, an attorney from Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis who represented the defendants, including Lou.

Shaheen said an English claim was initiated quite some time ago but was not actively pursued while the jurisdictional battle was being fought here. He doesn’t know its current status. Dr. Coen declined to comment. She sued on behalf of her father, because of his diminished mental capacity, according to Shaheen.

The genesis of this fracas is the will of Victor and Mariam Coen that bequeathed to each of their sons, Ed and Lou, 42 percent of the London company. The remaining 16 percent went to the care of their sister Lily, who was diagnosed a schizophrenic at age 16 and died in 2002. By the 1990s, Edward wanted to sell his shares.

The case is interesting on two counts. First, it involves the Oscar-winning hometown boys, who in some later documents are referred to as John Doe one and John Doe two. And because the deal was done pre-Internet with letters that were faxed back and forth across the Atlantic, all the negotiations are in writing.

Joel and Ethan are named in the suit because they acted as intermediaries and wrote to Lou that their dad “was very upset” that he and Lou “had quarreled,” and was “anxious to resolve this on any terms simply to put the quarrel behind him.” They said Ed wanted to take 25 percent, or about 300,000 pounds, for his shares, according to court documents. “The claim was that they didn’t gain monetarily but they facilitated in the negotiations,” Shaheen said of the brothers’ inclusion in the suit.

The file is a treasure trove of little Coen family intimacies. In a letter written to Joel and Ethan in March 1996, the year “Fargo” opened in movie theaters, Uncle Lou says, “Ed tells me that your film received good reviews. Congratulations. We’re waiting impatiently for it in Paris. It would be good if you could be here for the premier. Lots of American personalities do this and they get excellent publicity for their films. You would be much in demand, especially on TV. As you know, you two are really ‘in’ with the young crowd here in France, probably more so than in the US, and new films gather lots of attention in France.”

Two months later, the relationship was unraveling. Their dad Ed, a retired University of Minnesota economics professor, sent Ethan and Joel a draft of a letter to Uncle Lou with the heading, “This guy is beginning to piss me off.”

And then there’s the item in the suit that says in 1989, Uncle Lou admitted to tax fraud on an account in his mother’s name.

Might “A Serious Man,” Joel and Ethan’s next film about a Jewish academic family set in St. Louis Park, include scenes from the suit? We’ll have to wait to find out until 2009, when it opens.

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