The divorce was going smoothly, as divorces go. After all, filmmaker Ernestine “Tina” Rathborne and real estate magnate Philip Y. DeNormandie of Cambridge had been through this before: They divorced back in 1987 only to remarry five years later.
But then Rathborne found out about the duck decoys.
DeNormandie, an avid conservationist, had recently spent a staggering $532,964.50 on hand-carved wooden ducks and other wildlife art, despite a judge’s order not to buy or sell anything significant during divorce proceedings. And the buying spree wasn’t reflected in the financial disclosures he filed with the court before the case went to trial.
Rathborne became convinced her soon-to-be-ex-spouse was trying to conceal the full extent of their considerable wealth. So she hired experts to look for undisclosed or undervalued assets in DeNormandie’s financial disclosures.
From there, the once amicable divorce turned mean. In court documents, he accused her of being unstable. He said she tricked him into marrying her the second time by getting pregnant. He said she lived an extravagant lifestyle with a large personal staff that included an employee whose duties include brushing her dogs’ teeth.
She countered that she had to leave DeNormandie because she had become afraid of his temper and he was so controlling he once refused to let her go to the bathroom during a four-hour car ride. And she said that his complaints about her lifestyle were unfair, considering his own.
“Here’s a man who would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on fine art and wildlife collectibles and in some instances not unpack them from their shipping materials and he’s complaining that Tina lived an extravagant lifestyle?” said her attorney Robert O’Regan.
Each side, of course, denied the other’s allegations.
At stake? Who gets what from a $220 million marital estate that includes iconic Boston properties such as the historic Blackstone Block, where the Union Oyster House sits, and Lewis Wharf, an enclave of luxury properties on the edge of Boston Harbor, not to mention properties in the French Quarter of New Orleans, as well as a private island off the Maine coast.
Beyond all the property that each spouse stood to lose in the divorce, there was another cost they pointed to that is harder to put a dollar value on: the sting of regret. DeNormandie, 75, choked up repeatedly during an interview at his lawyer’s office.
“I feel I’ve been in love with Tina my whole life,” DeNormandie said, his attorney John McGlone handing him tissues to dab his tears. “I still am to some degree.”
Rathborne, 72, said the couple had been growing apart for years, but she also recalled the happier times. The pair met at Lowell House at Harvard in the early 1970s. A mutual friend showed DeNormandie a poem she had written about her grandmother.
“He said the person who wrote that poem could give me a great deal of love,” Rathborne said in an interview at her lawyer’s office. “So he came and found me.”
They fell deeply in love, she said, and married within months of graduation.
“We loved doing the same things,” she said. “We loved hiking and sailing. He’s a nature boy. I loved walking in the woods with him.”
Now, their second divorce case, which has been grinding on since 2017, is finally coming to a close. Special master Anthony Doniger, brought in to handle the complex litigation, found that DeNormandie’s original estimate of the couple’s worth — $90 million — underestimated the value of their assets by more than $100 million. Doniger said that getting financial information out of DeNormandie was like “pulling teeth.”
DeNormandie said that Doniger was “totally biased” and greatly overvalued the couple’s property. His lawyer McGlone said that his client hid nothing; he just valued the property differently, but legitimately.
The final tally would be for Doniger to decide. Both DeNormandie and Rathborne had agreed beforehand to accept his ruling.
The 12-day trial offered a glimpse into the complicated lives of people who, to the outside world, have been wildly successful. Rathborne found some success as a filmmaker, directing two episodes of the classic 1990s series “Twin Peaks” and making a semi-autobiographical film, “Zelly and Me.”
DeNormandie, meanwhile, built a real estate empire while also playing a leading role in conservation, buying and protecting from development more than 15,000 of acres of land across Massachusetts including in Bourne, Lincoln, Concord, Fairhaven, and Mattapoisett. Some of the land he donated and some he sold to towns for open space or to conservation groups at below market value, McGlone said.
But none of that success insulated them from the messiness of life — and love.
In many ways, they had been a study in contrasts all along. She was the outgoing socializer who favored fur. He was the gentleman farmer in worn chinos. As DeNormandie said, “She drives a Mercedes and I drive a Jeep.”
Both were born into privilege. Rathborne’s family owned a successful cypress saw mill in New Orleans, but she was raised by relatives in New York from the time she was a small child after her parents died. She attended private schools, came out as a debutante, and graduated from Radcliffe College at Harvard. There, she was the president of the Signet Society, an arts and letters society club whose members have included such luminaries as Robert Frost, Leonard Bernstein, and John Updike.
DeNormandie grew up on a farm in Lincoln where they raised Guernsey cows. His father, a former state senator, and his family also owned farms in Concord and Southeastern Massachusetts. It was there that the young DeNormandie developed his passion for duck decoys, which he collected as a kind of rustic art.
“We’d go down the Cape in the summer and I’d ride my bike and go into antique stores. The only thing I liked were duck decoys since I was about 10. I built up a huge collection,” he said.
DeNormandie said, unlike his wife, he never cared about the trappings of wealth: “I’m much more interested in what I do than what the financial aspects are.”
But the unlikely pairing worked well for years. When the couple married in July of 1973, DeNormandie borrowed from Rathborne’s inheritance to buy his first major property, the Union Oyster House, though he later sold it. DeNormandie pointed out that he paid Rathborne back — $300,000 — by selling some of his duck decoys.
At first they lived modestly by the standards of the rich, according to the court documents, buying the smallest home on a very expensive street in Harvard Square. But eventually they settled into an upper-class lifestyle, according to the special master. They owned homes in Cambridge, Antigua, and New York and belonged to The Country Club in Brookline and the River Club in New York.
Eventually, Rathborne said, she moved to New York and Los Angeles to pursue her filmmaking career, and their relationship suffered. She sought a divorce in 1987.
“We were standing in front of the judge sobbing,” she said. The judge said, “Are you sure you’re doing this?” and DeNormandie said, “It’s geography, your honor. It’s geography.”
But they kept in touch and, after a few years, they reconciled when she got pregnant and gave birth to their first child (though DeNormandie would later say Rathborne threatened to not let him see the child unless he married her). She gave birth to a second son and basically became a stay-at-home mom though both children are long since grown up.
“I had been fulfilled,” she said. “I found the work I was born to do and I was longing for children. I had the privilege of being a mom. I didn’t look back over my shoulder.”
DeNormandie saw it differently as his wife got further and further away from the world of work. She had a staff of five — a housekeeper, secretary, personal cook, dog walker, and maintenance person. He claimed she spent $80,000 a year on dog walkers alone.
“I made all of the money. She was an incredibly capable person who did nothing,” said DeNormandie. “She had seven-day-a-week help all the time.”
Rathborne recoiled at the suggestion she was a spendthrift, pointing out that the jacket she was wearing during an interview was 30 years old.
“I was not spending my time on Newbury Street,” she said. “I was deeply upset when I read that characterization of me.”
O’Regan said Rathborne used her own inherited money to pay the household bills.
Rathborne said that when she asked for a divorce the second time, DeNormandie was angry.
“His reaction was rage,” she said. “He went to our close friends and asked, ‘Why is she doing this?’” Rathborne said one friend told DeNormandie: “This has been going on in front of you for years.”
Rathborne served DeNormandie with divorce papers in 2017, and blocked him on her phone. DeNormandie said they haven’t spoken privately since.
But the divorce process itself went along smoothly until 2020 when Rathborne began to suspect that DeNormandie was not being honest about the full size of their wealth. Her lawyers found receipts for the duck decoys and traced other purchases through bank records.
In early court filings, Rathborne made it clear she had no idea how much they were worth. She thought they had 18 pieces of property rather than the 139 they actually own, and guessed the hundreds of duck decoys that her husband collected were worth several hundred thousand dollars, not the $3.3 million they were eventually appraised for.
Doniger ruled that what DeNormandie described as a $90 million estate was actually worth nearly $221 million. And he rejected DeNormandie’s contention that some of their Boston holdings should be devalued as a result of the COVID pandemic.
Rathborne said she was “astounded” when she heard DeNormandie’s initial estimate of the couple’s assets — $90 million — and dumbfounded when she learned that the real value was actually twice that amount.
“I was mostly hurt because I had no idea,” she said.
In the divorce, finalized on Feb. 2, Doniger divided the estate exactly in half, awarding each ex-spouse real estate and other property valued at $110,379,691.
It wasn’t easy. Both wanted their $7.3 million, 7,000-square-foot Cambridge home, but the special master said he would give it to Rathborne because she viewed it as the “only real home she had since a young child.” He gave DeNormandie the couple’s house in Antigua, valued at $2.6 million.
After that, he loosely divided the real estate between north and south: most of New England for her and most everything out of state for him, including more than 100 pieces of property in Louisiana, including prime real estate in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
He also will keep his farms in Southeastern Massachusetts, property in Arizona and Foster Island off the Maine coast. And the trove of decoys, of course.
Doniger also ordered DeNormandie to pay a portion of his wife’s legal fees — $600,000 out of $2.77 million — because his failure to disclose all his assets prolonged the case unnecessarily.
In the end, neither DeNormandie nor Rathborne could be entirely happy with the ruling. He lost the iconic Boston properties and she lost the Louisiana real estate with ties to her family. She will also have to learn how to manage the real estate interests that her husband had always overseen.
DeNormandie seems bitter, but he’s glad to have some closure.
“I just want to live my life,” DeNormandie said. “I’m 75 years old. To take six years out of your life at 75 isn’t like taking six years of your life at 16. ... But I’m going to do very well and I’ll have my life back.”
Rathborne plans to move on as well, admitting that the last five years have been enormously difficult: “I’m deeply, deeply sad that it came to this. It’s not what either of us wanted.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com .