It’s a bit of a mystery what the specific dispute is, but that’s par for the course for notoriously private Robert De Niro, who in November announced that his 21-year-long marriage to wife Grace Hightower was ending in divorce. Hightower has also kept mum in the interim, leaving reporters and the public to speculate about what went wrong and what will happen next.
Friends of the former couple have let slip that Grace was blindsided by the news, although it’s also been reported that the pair were no longer living together when the divorce was declared. Perhaps because of their ages – De Niro is 75 and Hightower is 63 – and the fact that they have two children together, Hightower may have understood that the marriage, even if it had become significantly diminished, was a status quo that would be preserved. Apparently not.
Hightower, who grew up poor in rural Mississippi, is a woman who charted her own course from a very young age. Raised in a mixed African-American and Blackfoot Indian family with nine siblings, she went to work while she was still in school, taking whatever odd jobs were available to help the family put food on the table. In her 20s, with an itch to see the wider world, she became a flight attendant for TWA and immediately fell in love with Paris.
Eventually, she moved there, working as a mutual fund trader while she learned French and soaked in the atmosphere. She found that high finance required an appetite for risk taking that she didn’t like, so she found her way to London and took a hostess job at the famous Mr. Chow Chinese restaurant. The restaurant’s clientele includes a number of celebrities, and it was there that in 1987 she met Robert De Niro.
In a 2013 New York Times profile, she makes clear that the relationship didn’t begin in a frenzy. “It was an ease-in,” she said. “It wasn’t a whirlwind.” One point of evidence for that is that it was a full decade before they walked down the aisle together, and in classic De Niro fashion, even many of his close friends weren’t aware that he’d gotten married again until reporters came asking for their reactions. They wasted no time in making a family, with son Elliot born the next year.
Things weren’t easy between them though, and in 1999, they filed a divorce petition that was never completed. It got fairly heated before it went away, with Hightower at one point asking a judge to order De Niro to undergo drug testing as they fought over custody of Elliot, while De Niro claimed that Hightower was prone to fits of jealousy and violence.
De Niro himself had been married before, divorcing his first wife, with whom he has a son, in 1988. He had a subsequent long and serious relationship with model Toukie Smith, which whom he had twin sons through a surrogate. It’s no wonder that his relationship with Hightower took some time to come together, but after the 1999 trouble blew over – a process that took two or three years – they reconciled and renewed their vows in 2004.
His relationship with Hightower, from their first meeting to today, overlaps nicely with De Niro’s focus on and investment in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, which began in earnest in 1989. He first discovered the area while looking for space to study boxing for his role in 1983’s Raging Bull, and quickly fell in love with the then underutilized old industrial zone.
Along with several investors, he opened the Tribeca Grill restaurant in 1990, and in 2002, he launched the Tribeca Film Festival. He is also the prime mover behind Tribeca institutions like Nobu (prior to its departure to the Financial District in 2015) and The Greenwich Hotel.
For all his focus on the neighborhood, the family’s primary residence has been an opulent 78-acre estate in Ulster County. Built upon an old farm, over the last two decades De Niro has created a city-within-a-city on the property, including a 14,000-square-foot recreation center with amenities like a game room, basketball court, swimming pool, gym, steam room and sauna, and a boxing ring, as well as on-site film studio, some guest houses, a tennis court, and a small outdoor ski slope for wintry enjoyment.
The property is owned by a trust that has occasionally squabbled with tax authorities in the town of Gardiner, to much local angst. De Niro himself once had to step in and resolve what was seen as an overzealous attempt to limit his property tax payments by his own representatives.
It’s also possible that the Upstate locale may not have agreed with where Hightower wanted to take things in her own life. Since 2012, she’s owned and operated a philanthropic coffee line dedicated to investment in sustainable agriculture in Rwanda. Coffee of Grace, as the label is known, imports fair trade coffee from the African nation, the culmination of an idea Hightower had after seeing the film Hotel Rwanda and talking to officials from the country. It’s been carried at retailers like Whole Foods and Union Market, as well as the Ace Hotel, Salvation Burger, and De Niro’s restaurants and hotel.
From what reporting is available, it seems like the marriage fizzled in part because De Niro got tired of his wife’s spending, and may even have blamed her for needing to take roles in films in recent years that he wasn’t overly proud of. While the couple reportedly has a prenuptial agreement in place, it seems that their current dispute, requiring an in-person hearing at Manhattan Supreme Court at the end of January, has to do with custody of their daughter, seven year old Helen Grace.
According to reporting in the Post, De Niro attempted to slip into the courthouse unrecognized, but failed entirely. During the three hour hearing, he and Hightower avoided each other, and at one point, De Niro made his lawyers quiet down as they discussed custody matters amongst themselves a little too loudly for the actor’s comfort.
Justice Matthew Cooper is handling the matter, and he complimented both parties for the progress they had made toward a settlement. Another hearing is scheduled for February 7, when it’s likely that they will have exchanged statements of net worth and begun the process of allocating assets, cash, and debt between them.
If your marriage in Queens is ending, an experienced divorce lawyer can make a difficult process a lot easier. Call the attorneys at Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation with an experienced Queens divorce and child custody lawyer.