SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Former showgirl Erin Fleming is a merciless 'gold digger' who should pay nearly $1 million damages for abusing and exploiting an aging Groucho Marx, a bank attorney told jurors today in his closing arguments.
'If she was only a gold digger it would have been all right,' Bank of America attorney Brin Schulman said, 'but what she did was dig away at his heart, dig away at his soul, dig away at the man.'
The bank, executor of the late comedian's estate, filed suit against Miss Fleming claiming she cheated Marx of $428,000 in gifts. The suit is seeking return of gifts plus $500,000 in punitive damages.
Schulman asked the jury to decide in the bank's favor 'to make an example of Miss Fleming and to show that in our society old people cannot be treated and threatened as Groucho Marx was.'
During his closing arguments Monday, Schulman portrayed Miss Fleming as a greedy woman who dominated and terrorized Marx, who was 50 years her senior, and that she swindled the comedian during six years as his live-in companion.
'It cannot be permitted,' Schulman said. 'That's going to be your ultimate answer, that it was wrong ... that that is not the way we treat old people.'
Miss Fleming, the attorney said, isolated Marx from his family so she could dominate him.
'What she was doing was creating a dependence where he needed her,' he said. 'She was isolating him from his family. She used him as the platform for her self aggrandizement.
'She didn't have to destroy a family relationship, but it was necessary because that's where she was going. She knew she had to do this to get total control of him.'
Schulman said Miss Fleming sometimes paraded naked in front of Marx to taunt him and at other times threatened and humiliated him.
He said she forced Marx to take tranquilizers 'when she wanted to get rid of him for the day' and said she once told him, 'If you don't take it I'll slap you from here to Pittsburgh.'
The attorney cautioned the nine-woman, three-man jury not to be awed by the celebrities -- including George Burns, Sally Kellerman, Carrol O'Connor and George Fenneman -- who testified on behalf of Miss Fleming during the two-month trial.
'George Burns, Mr. Fenneman and all the other people who went to parties at Mr. Marx's house never saw Erin and Groucho in their natural setting,' Schulman insisted. 'What she did to him, the abuse and all, was done when no one was around.'
Schulman said Miss Fleming's outbursts in court -- where she once hit a bailiff who searched her purse and called the bank attorney an 'assassin' -- exemplified her behavior in the Marx home.
'She was loud, she was abusive and she didn't respect anyone else,' Schulman said. 'She did everything she pleased. She made the place shake and quake.'
Miss Fleming, who hugged famed trial attorney Melvin Belli outside court but left before arguments began, has claimed she saved Marx's life by revitalizing the life of a lonely man abandoned by friends and colleagues.
Belli's firm is representing Miss Fleming without pay because the attorney was a friend of Marx, who died in 1977 at age 86.
Schulman reminded the jury of testimony that Marx saw his friends and three children regularly before Miss Fleming drove them all away.
'They had a regular family atmosphere,' he said. 'When Erin came in she caused a total change in the man's environment ... He wasn't the type of person that liked parties.'
The jury was expected to begin deliberations this week.