When acting legend Robert De Niro announced last fall that his two-decade-long marriage to philanthropist Grace Hightower was ending, he may not have expected the minor circus that is increasingly engulfing him. While the couple has a prenuptial agreement, they’ve been to court repeatedly to negotiate custody terms for their 7-year-old daughter, Helen Grace.
For the notoriously shy Academy Award winner, being dragged through a throng of New York’s finest tabloid reporters and photographers ranks very, very low on his list of enjoyable activities. The strain is increasingly showing, prompting De Niro to lash out at reporters and his own driver.
The initial reports about the split came around the Thanksgiving holiday last November, and true to form, it took De Niro more than a week to release a statement to the press confirming his plans to divorce. It was simple and to the point, and suggested that the matter would be handled quietly. “Grace and I have two beautiful children together,” it read. “We are entering a period of transition in our relationship which is a difficult but constructive process. I honor Grace as a wonderful mother and ask for privacy and respect from all as we proceed to develop our roles as partners in parenting.”
It seems that the statement was correct about the difficulty of this period, but incorrect about the constructiveness of it all. Moreover, contemporary reporting said that Grace herself had been blindsided by the news. This may provide clues as to why the process is playing out as it is. After all, when a prenup is in place, divorces often happen with neither party setting foot in a courtroom. Instead, De Niro and Hightower have had at least two hearings in front of Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Matthew Cooper, despite initially prevailing with a request to keep the case private by naming it Anonymous v. Anonymous. Courts are only authorized to caption a case that way in very rare circumstances, usually having to do with protecting the privacy of children.
It was just another part of the story suggesting that, as with a great many high dollar divorces, the matter would be governed by the prenup and any issues that arose would be handled between the former couple. But that’s not at all what’s been playing out in Manhattan, much to the chagrin of De Niro. At the heart of the dispute is something to do with custody of the pair’s two children. Their 20-year-old son Elliot is on the autism spectrum and reportedly requires considerable care.
The New York Post has reported that scheduling visitation with Elliot is one part of the dispute, while custody and visitation with Helen Grace, who was born via surrogacy, is perhaps the more pressing matter. An associate of De Niro told Page Six, “He just wants to see his kid, but she’s being difficult. He’s 75. He doesn’t really care about the money.”
One issue may be that, while De Niro is closely associated with the Tribeca neighborhood that he’s championed since training there for Raging Bull, his primary residence isn’t in New York City at all. Instead, De Niro primarily resides at a 78-acre estate in the town of Gardiner in Ulster County, about an hour and a half from Manhattan.
The property is an old farm that De Niro purchased around the same time that he and Hightower married, and in the intervening years he’s reshaped the estate into a state-of-the-art complex housing a 14,000-square-foot recreation center complete with a basketball court, pool, gym, steam room, sauna, boxing ring, and game room, as well as constructing a film studio, guest houses, a tennis court, and even a small ski slope for the family and their guests to enjoy in the cold months.
It seems like a lovely arrangement – tax disputes with the city of Gardiner notwithstanding – but one that might not be a comfortable fit in Hightower’s endeavors today. In 2012, she launched a philanthropic company called Coffee of Grace, which imports Rwandan coffees and supports sustainable agriculture among coffee growers in the country. She was inspired to pursue the endeavor after seeing the film Hotel Rwanda. Seeking a way to help the country continue to recover after the genocide of 1994, and being the wife of Robert De Niro, she was able to meet figures like Rwanda’s United Nations representative and even its president, Paul Kagame.
The message she received was clear: Rwanda needed investment, not charity. Over the years, Coffee of Grace has grown and is sold and served at a number of establishments in the city and beyond, as well as direct-to-consumer via a website. De Niro owns a vast empire of property and business, mostly centered in Tribeca, but Hightower may be finding that at this time of her life, she wants to pour herself into her children and her company – and not make frequent trips to Ulster County.
During a break in a February hearing, De Niro left the Manhattan courthouse and braved the scrum of reporters and photographers outside only to find that his driver and car weren’t waiting for him there. According to Page Six, De Niro began berating the driver via his black LG flip phone, saying, “On Worth Street! Then you’d see all the photographers here! You’re not where you dropped us off!” Eventually, his lawyer escorted him back into the courthouse while they awaited the arrival of the car.
De Niro was in similar spirits at an April 9 hearing, shielding his face from photographers with a newspaper and greeting the assembled press as “scumbags.” When he left the court two hours later, Page Six says that he asked photographers, “Don’t you guys have a better job?” before getting into his car – which was where he expected to find it this time – and being driven away. It’s not clear how much longer the legal case will proceed, but if the publicity is on purpose, it seems that Grace Hightower is getting a measure of revenge as their marriage ends.
When your marriage in Queens is ending, an experienced Queens divorce attorney can make a big difference for you. Call Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation.