Will of "Yuppie Guru" Inspires an Un-Zenlike Battle

New York Times/March 28, 1999
By Debra West

White Plains -- When Frederick P. Lenz III swallowed 150 tablets of Valium and stepped off a dock into the bay behind his Long Island home last year, he left behind a collection of mansions, private jets and luxury cars valued at $18 million, and a will that practically invited a lawsuit.

Mr. Lenz, who called himself Rama and was frequently referred to as the Yuppie Guru, made his fortune through lectures on meditation and computer science that drew hundreds of fee-paying followers, but he was best known for his two spiritual novels, "Surfing the Himalayas" and "Snowboarding to Nirvana" (St. Martin's Press, 1995 and 1997). In his will, he was clear on two points: His family should be disinherited and all of his pets should be killed. His plans for his riches, however, were much more ambiguous. The will says his entire estate should go to a foundation to promote his ideas, unless he had failed to take "significant steps" to establish the foundation before his death. In that case, all his money was to go to the National Audubon Society.

By the time he died, in an apparent suicide pact with a female devotee (who survived) last April 13, Mr. Lenz, 48, had not formed a foundation.

Now, the executor of the estate and the National Audubon Society are fighting over Mr. Lenz's money in Westchester County Surrogate's Court here. The executor, Norman Marcus, claims that the money should go to the Frederick P. Lenz 3d Foundation for American Buddhism, which Mr. Marcus established and made himself president of after Mr. Lenz's death. The Audubon Society, on the other hand, is taking an extraordinary legal tack, arguing that Mr. Lenz was a fraud and a cult leader and that the world would be better off if the money went to the society. It has filed a lawsuit seeking the entire estate.

Throughout their legal papers, the Audubon Society's lawyers refer to Mr. Lenz as a charlatan whose claim that he believed in Buddhism was a sham. They say that toward the end of his life he was more interested in scuba diving and writing computer software than in spreading his gospel. They do not mention that a gift of $18 million would equal more than a third of the Audubon Society's annual $49 million budget.

"The sincerity and extent of Lenz's belief in Buddhism is disputed," Susan F. Bloom, a lawyer for the Audubon Society, wrote in an affidavit. "He lectured about something called 'American Buddhism,' which, by all accounts, was a belief system consistent with his lavish life style."

Included in the society's submission to the court is a three-inch-thick binder of news clippings that are relentlessly critical of Mr. Lenz.

The articles portray Mr. Lenz, who received a doctorate in literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, as someone who could convince an auditorium full of young people that he was the incarnation of a Hindu god. The articles say Mr. Lenz taught his followers computer skills and then sent them out into the business world, using his control over them to exact increasingly large tuition payments, sometimes charging followers as much as $3,500 a month to study with him. The articles also include tales of sexual coercion by women who say the blond, 6-foot-3 Mr. Lenz convinced them that they needed to sleep with him to become enlightened.

Audubon Society officials and their lawyers refused to comment, but Guy B. Maxfield, an expert in tax and estate law who teaches at the New York University School of Law, said the legal strategy was a gamble.

"It's kind of an interesting legal tack to say, 'This guy's a terrible person; give us the $18 million,' " Mr. Maxfield said. "But, if you assume he really is a screwball or a charlatan and so on, then a court may say, 'Who would make better use of this money, a foundation set up to promote his screwball ideas or a pristine group like the Audubon Society?' "

Mr. Marcus, the executor, was Mr. Lenz's accountant and chief financial officer. He left the accounting firm Ernst & Young in 1993 to work for Mr. Lenz.

Mr. Marcus refused to comment on the dispute, but his lawyer, David M. Warren, said Mr. Lenz's life work was to disseminate his ideas. In death, his money should be used to continue promoting his beliefs, Mr. Warren said. Moreover, he asked, why should Mr. Lenz's money go to an organization that seems to sneer at him?

"Their papers are filled with attacks on him personally, and that strikes us as being fully inconsistent with their stance of them being the objects of his generosity," Mr. Warren said.

The executor, who has asked the court to dismiss the Audubon Society lawsuit, has until April 7 to respond to the society's legal motions.

In legal papers, Mr. Marcus contends that after Mr. Lenz signed his will in 1994, he did take "significant steps" to create the foundation. He ordered a trademark search on a name he had planned to use for the foundation, the papers say, and he inquired into the Asian and Buddhist studies programs at Stony Brook and the University of Connecticut, where he earned a bachelor's degree, with the idea that the foundation might contribute money to the universities. Mr. Marcus also contends that Mr. Lenz had hardly any relationship with the Audubon Society during his lifetime.

Like 550,000 others, Mr. Lenz belonged to the Audubon Society. He joined in 1975 and continued his membership off and on until his death. In 1997, he contributed $1,000 to the society. Other than the donation, some musical recordings Mr. Lenz marketed with names like "Ecologie" and "Cayman Blue," and some vague statements that he made about being kind to the earth, Mr. Lenz showed little interest in conservation or birds.

Mr. Lenz owned estates in Greenwich, Conn.; Santa Fe, N.M; Old Field in Suffolk County, and Bedford (which is why the will was filed in Surrogate's Court in Westchester County). He also had two Lear jets and several Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes and Range Rovers, and told Newsday in a 1991 interview, "I'm just a fun New Age guy." From Mr. Marcus's point of view, however, Mr. Lenz was a holy man who has been wronged by the press.

"The decedent's life was bound up and imbued with an abiding dedication to Zen Buddhism and meditation and related Eastern philosophy," Mr. Marcus wrote in an affidavit. "One of the reasons that the decedent delayed the formation of the charitable foundation that he wanted to establish was his fear that the creation of such an organization during his lifetime might attract unwanted attention."

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