In the movie “All About Eve,” the Broadway star Margo Channing befriends a stage-struck young woman named Eve Harrington.
Eve insinuates herself into Margo’s life, becoming an indispensable secretary and companion. But some of Margo’s friends are suspicious of Eve’s motives, especially as she gains more and more control over Margo’s affairs.
Friends and former employees of Julie Harris, the five-time Tony Award-winning Broadway star, say a real-life version of “All About Eve” played out at Harris’ seaside Cape Cod estate at the end of her life.
Harris died of congestive heart failure Aug. 24 at age 87. She’d suffered two strokes and was seldom seen outside her house in the last several years.
The role of Eve Harrington, her friends say, was played by Francesca Rubino, a minor soap-opera actress who goes by the stage name Francesca James. Several friends and longtime employees, who were fired by Rubino — including a housekeeper, a gardener and Harris’ lawyer, Herbert Nass — say she “wormed” her way into Harris’ life, took control of her medical and business affairs, and “isolated” Harris from her son, Peter Gurian.
Rubino and Harris’ attorney dismiss these allegations as sour grapes. Reached at her home in New York, Rubino said: “There is no truth to any of these accusations. They are being made by disgruntled, fired employees.”
Isaac Peres, who replaced Nass as Harris’ attorney and is also an executor of her estate, said in a statement: “We are aware of the rumors that have been circulated by discharged employees of Miss Harris and all of the unfounded accusations circulating about Miss Harris’ will and codicil and about access to her toward the end of her life . . . We categorically deny any such rumors and accusations.”
But the former employees tell a different story.
“Francesca was very alluring but very manipulative,” says Kathryn Bowden, Harris’ housekeeper for eight years until Rubino fired her — and barred her from entering Harris’ house — in 2009. “She worked her way into Julie’s life, and then she took it over and got rid of everybody who was close to her.”
Harris named Rubino co-executor of her estate, which sources say could be worth as much as $10 million. In that capacity, Rubino stands to earn commissions of up to $200,000. She also inherits $50,000 outright, and is permitted to select 10 items of Harris’ “tangible personal property of every kind,” including her Tonys.
The bulk of Harris’ estate was left to her son Peter. But there is an unusual codicil to the will: “In the event that . . . my son . . . physically assaults, threatens to assault, or otherwise harms, harasses, or intimidates myself or any of my friends . . . including Francesca R. Rubino . . . my trustees shall treat him as if he had predeceased me.”
Rubino took out a harassment prevention order against Gurian three years ago after he “made a threatening gesture” at her, a source says. He lives on his mother’s estate in a house she built for him next door to hers. But the prevention order barred him from entering Harris’ house. Even though he lived but a stone’s throw away, sources say he had no contact with his mother in the last three years of her life.
Gurian “lives like a hermit” and has a temper but is not violent, neighbors say.
Nass, who worked with Harris for many years, says he plans to raise objections to the will with the probate court in Barnstable, Mass.
“I believe the will and the codicil were the product of undue influence,” he says, “and that Ms. Harris may have lacked testamentary capacity when she signed them.”
Anita Ross, a Broadway stage manager who was one of Harris’ closest friends, says, “There is no way Julie would knowingly sign a document that could cut Peter out of her will. She worried about Peter all the time. ‘What will happen to him when I’m gone?’ she often said. She built the house next door for him. She wanted to protect him.”
The new attorney, Peres, said he is aware that Nass “has filed an objection to the will” but he claims Gurian wants Nass to “withdraw” it.
Gurian declined to comment.
Rubino began playing a central role in Harris’ life in 2005, four years after the actress suffered her first stroke. Rubino often told people, “I’m the daughter Julie wished she’d had but never did.”
“Frankly, she set my teeth on edge,” Ross says. “She had a saintly look that was overboard.”
Or as Birdie, Margo Channing’s longtime dresser, says of Eve Harrington: “Like an agent with one client.”
Battle of wills after Julie Harris’ death
November 22, 2013
New York Post