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Woman claims to be Dodge heir

DETROIT -- Frances Manzer Mealbach hopes to learn this week whether she is the long-lost daughter of auto magnate John F. Dodge, a separated Siamese twin secretly and mysteriously given up for adoption after her birth.

Last Wednesday, the state Court of Appeals reversed a probate ruling, ordering the Mealbach adoption records opened to her. This week, in the privacy of her lawyer's office, Mealbach, 77, will be handed three sets of the documents pertaining to her birth and adoption.

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Mealbach has memories of being taken at a young age to an elegant old home on Boston Boulevard. She recalls many details of the Dodge mansion, including the walks around the home, plants and the ornate interior and decor.

But they didn't mean much to her until 1968, when her father, Robert Manzer, died and referred to her in his will as 'my beloved adopted daughter.'

Years later, Mealbach saw the mansion again, first in a picture book, and then she drove by it. Right away, she said, she knew it was the image from long ago.

In the best circumstance for her, the documents will provide evidence that Mealbach is the daughter of Dodge, who died in 1920, leaving a $36.8 million estate. But just knowing her roots, she says, would be enough.

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'At 77 years old, I really am not interested in any money,' Mealbach said Monday. 'I am much more concerned about who my natural parents really were.

'I also expect that the birth records may not tell much,' she said. 'They could have covered them up back then, too. Money buys anything.'

Mealbach has scars on her neck and back of her head that she was told resulted from a childhood accident. However, she wondered if Frances Matilda Dodge Van Lennep was her Siamese twin. Dodge Van Lennep, a daughter of Dodge, died in 1971. Mealbach also wondered if she was given up after separation surgery because the family feared she would not be normal.

Dodge's will provided that when the last of his six children died, the trust would be broken up and handed over to the Dodge grandchildren. That date came on Jan. 3, 1980, with the death of Winifred Dodge Grey Seyburn.

The 12 heirs each received between $350,000 and $1.3 million.

Meanwhile, Mealbach and her family were getting closer to establishing a connection to the Dodge family. Six years ago, her lawyer, Jay Cunningham, filed suit against the Dodge trust seeking to be declared an heir to the fortune.

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He based the action in part on the discovery of a Michigan Department of State birth certificate for Frances Matilda Dodge Van Lennep. It showed a birth date of Nov. 27, 1914, and revealed she had a twin sister. Mealbach's own birth certificate, which mysteriously was never filed until 1941, shows a birth date of Nov. 23, 1914.

In 1985, Wayne County Probate Judge Robert Gregg denied Mealbach's motion to be declared a 'natural issue' of John Dodge, saying she waited too long to pursue the matter and refused to retract the disposition of the estate.

In 1987, Wayne Probate Judge Martin Maher denied a petition from Mealbach to open her birth and adoption records. The state Court of Appeals, however, reversed him last month, clearing the way for Mealbach to see the files this week.

In 1903, John Dodge and his brother, Horace, started building auto parts for Ford Motor Co. They founded Dodge Brothers Motor Car Co. in June 1914 with stock worth $14 million.

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