James Gill: Tom Benson’s ‘dignity has been shredded’ in sad soap opera _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Rita Benson LeBlanc and Tom Benson showed off the new Pelicans practice facility next door to the Saints' headquarters off Airline Drive in Metairie Tuesday, September 17, 2013.

It always has seemed impossible that we would have reason to feel sorry for Tom Benson, the richest man in Louisiana by a wide margin.

But the public humiliation of an old man is a spectacle calculated to distress regardless of how much moolah he has accumulated. That, in his case, would be close to $2 billion, thanks largely to the Saints and Pelicans franchises he acquired after making his initial fortune selling automobiles.

His daughter and her two children want Benson to suffer the indignity of interdiction so they can grab control of the businesses he proposes, in a sudden about-face, to leave to the wife he wed a decade ago.

Even if the courts do not require Benson to prove he remains capable of running his own affairs, his dignity has been shredded in the lawsuit filed by his family, which reads like the plot of a soap opera. His wife Gayle takes the role of stock villain as the scheming stepmother.

Daughter Renee and her children Rita and Ryan LeBlanc were set to take over on Benson’s death until he up and fired them from the various roles they had long occupied under him. That goes to show, they say, that he is ga-ga, and prey to Gayle’s machinations. So they want the shrinks to check him out.

He no doubt would agree with King Lear that it is sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child but responds more prosaically in court documents with the assertion that they got the heave-ho because they had proven incompetent.

How much Benson knows about Shakespearean tragic heroes is hard to say, but, according to the lawsuit, he is not exactly on the ball when it comes to recent events. Evidently someone — the suit does not say who — invited Benson to name the current president, and he said Ronald Reagan. Maybe he did have King Lear at the back of his mind, for one of the treacherous daughters in that play was called Regan. Asked to try again, however, Benson did not reply Goneril but was still way off the mark with Harry Truman.

Benson also is allegedly often unaware of where he is, or what day it is, and is said to subsist on candy, ice cream, sodas and red wine. He dismisses that notion as absurd, but, having reached the age of 87, he may have found a diet we should all follow. Altogether, though, the lawsuit makes him look so pathetic that he could hardly not feel aggrieved.

Although he has removed the younger generations from their executive positions, he points out in court documents that he has ensured they will not end up on the bread line. Still, wills can be amended, which is why aged moneybags can generally expect a display of filial piety. There is little evidence of that in the lawsuit, although the plaintiffs aver they are motivated purely by love and a concern for his legacy.

Benson responds that they just want to get their hands on his business empire. It has always seemed in their grasp, with Rita especially prominent as the face of the Saints in recent years. The current rift, however, is not the first indication that Benson was dissatisfied with her management style, and he put her on paid suspension in 2012.

Still, that had seemed a mere hiccup, for the same year he had the NFL approve the succession plan that would have made her boss when he moves on to his eternal skybox. That arrangement was confirmed last year, so his decision to put Gayle in charge came as a bolt from the blue to the fans.

The courts do not lightly grant interdiction requests, and we may be sure the lawsuit does not understate the anecdotal evidence of mental frailty. The only public misstep to suggest that Benson may have lost some of his acumen came last year when he considered buying the Fair Grounds, although he had chaired the NFL committee that came up with the rule that forbids team owners to get involved in the gambling business.

That hardly seems reason enough to hold him incapable of deciding what to do with his own assets. To the public, it may not make much difference in any case whether Rita or Gayle takes over, for the pros hired by Benson will still be calling the shots.

This soap opera by then will be a forgotten and minor distraction. Meanwhile, New Orleans will be the only city where football fans feel life can be unkind to an NFL owner.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.