The father of US talk show host Oprah Winfrey, 79 year-old Vernon Winfrey, is reported to be in the midst of a drawn-out and bitter divorce from his third wife Barbara.
The allegations, listed in court documents which have just come to light, are a celebrity journalist’s dream: infidelities, threatened shootings….even overdrafts!
Vernon, a barber who lives in East Nashville, Tennessee, filed for divorce from 64 year-old Barbara in June, just a few days past their 12th anniversary. He claimed irreconcilable differences and inappropriate conduct on her part, which she has denied.
Barbara struck back with claims of her own, which he has in turn denied: that he had allegedly had “more than one adulterous relationship” and had made a number of violent threats, including chasing her with a gun one occasion. She has also claimed that father and daughter have tried to force her out to leave the $1.5 million home she shared with Vernon, although she has nowhere else to live.
Barbara is seeking spousal maintenance – also known as alimony or spousal support in the US – from Vernon, as well as assistance with legal fees. She alleges that he receives a $25,000 allowance receive every three months from a trust fund established by his daughter.
Vernon, by contrast, claims to make only $282 a month from the barbershop where he works. This was recently purchased by his daughter for $425,000 in order to rescue it from foreclosure – shortly before Vernon filed for divorce. He also claims that his bank account is overdrawn.
Anyone familiar with the iconic talk show host will find the latter claim startling. Oprah is widely reported to be a billionaire and perhaps the wealthiest single African American of the 20th Century. She has been a millionaire since the age of 32, when the hugely successful Oprah Winfrey Show was nationally syndicated in 1986.
Away from the divorce wranglings Vernon Winfrey sounds like a man enjoying a vigorous old age. A former coalminer, he has now run a barbershop in East Nashville for 50 years, and has no plans to retire. At the recently opening of new premises, he noted how:
“Some folks say, “Winfrey, you’re kind of old to be doing it.” I say: “You’re right, but I feel good.”
A spokesman for Oprah told Nashville TV station WSMV:
“Vernon Winfrey has been a fixture in the community for decades and will continue to manage the business on a day-to-day basis.”
Look beneath the gloss of celebrity and the shine of wealth, and the claims and counterclaims of Oprah’s father and his soon-to-be-ex-wife sound terribly familiar.
Emotions usually run high at the end of any relationship. People feel hurt, guilty, or vulnerable – often all three – and the urge to make wild claims about the person they once loved can be too much. They lose that all-important sense of perspective. As a family lawyer I have seen all this hundreds of times – perhaps thousands.
No, I cannot claim that any of my former clients have alleged gun threats! But America is a nation famously in love with armaments, so claims that would sound wild and lurid on this side of the Atlantic raise fewer eyebrows over there.
Reading this story made me ponder that sometimes difficult relationship between parents and adult children. Of course it is not uncommon these days for such children to be wealthier than their parents – any decent parent, after all, hopes that their offspring will have more than they did. But if you are such a son or daughter, how do you draw the line between making life comfortable for your Mum or Dad in their latter years and respecting their autonomy and dignity? It is a fine line but it sounds to me as though Oprah is doing a good job with Vernon.