Taking on the Rich and Powerful; 'Countess' Cuts Local Charities out of Her Will Following Newspaper Story Disclosing Her Title Is a Fake

Article excerpt

The "Countess" was infuriated by the story, so infuriated she cut local charities out of $22 million in her will. She also demanded an apology from The News, Knight-Ridder's 28,000-circulation, Boca Raton, Fla., daily, and urged dismissal of its editor, Wayne Ezell, and reporter Sharon Geltner.

What triggered Henrietta de Hoernle's reaction was Geltner's Feb. 26 profile of her and her husband, known as Count Adolphe de Hoernle, an engineer who amassed a fortune operating a tool and die company in Yonkers, N.Y.

The story noted that their royal titles are fakes, purchased in 1981 for $20,000 from a huckster.

It depicted Mrs. de Hoernle as a kindly, well-liked socialite and workaholic for charity endeavors who thrived on publicity and often wore a tiara at important functions as if to flaunt her regality.

sidebar listed 39 charites that have shared in the couple's largesse and volunteer services.

"In essense, you've kicked Santa Claus in the teeth," the de Hoernles' lawyer Alan Kauffman and spokesman told a News reporter. "Where I come from, if someone has a wart, you don't point it out."

Only a display of public support might prompt reconsideration, Kauffman said.

Since settling in Boca Raton 11 years ago, he said, his clients have given local charities and needy persons more than $10 million.

"I'm 79 years old," said Mrs. de Hoernle, a twice-widowed native of Germany. "I don't need this."

Neither challenged the veracity of Geltner's story.

"They never claimed they came from landed aristocracy," Kauffman insisted.

In his eight years with the News, Ezell, 48, said no story has ignited as much heat and reader response.

Almost immediately after reporting the disinheritance in a Page One lead story, the newspaper was deluged with letters and phone calls, most highly critical its treatment of the de Hoernles.

Fifty-two out of 80 letters that arrived in less than a week were published, with anti-News sentiments running 4 to 1, and 28 readers registered their disapproval by canceling subscriptions, Ezell said.

De Hoernle supporters bought full-page ads in the News and the competing Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale to proclaim "support, appreciation and respect to the Count and Countess de Hoernle for their many acts of charity and the true humanitarian concern that they have demonstrated through their generosity to the city of Boca Raton . . . ."

The advertisements listed names of more than 500 persons. …