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Pulitzer Divorce Trial: 1982

Plaintiff: Herbert Pulitzer, Jr.
Defendant: Roxanne D. Pulitzer
Chief Defense Lawyers: Joseph D. Farish, Jr., and Louis L. Williams
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Mark T. Luttier and Robert T. Scott
Judge: Carl H. Harper
Place: Palm Beach, Florida
Dates of Trial: September 20-November 9, 1982
Verdict: Divorce granted, and custody of the children awarded to Herbert Pulitzer

SIGNIFICANCE: While the Pulitzer marriage was dissolved simply under Florida's "no-fault" divorce law, sensational allegations about Roxanne Pulitzer's conduct caused the judge to rule that the state's "tender years doctrine" awarding custody of young children to the mother should not be applied in this case. Some of the testimony at the trial was graphic enough to border on the pornographic, which ensured that the trial received more news coverage than any divorce trial in recent history.

Until it ended, the marriage of Roxanne and Herbert "Peter" Pulitzer looked like a real-life Cinderella story. The couple came from very different worlds. The divorced Pulitzer, wealthy grandson of publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer, was considered to be one of the most eligible bachelors in the wealthy Florida enclave of Palm Beach. The recently divorced Roxanne Dixon, 21 years younger, was a former cheerleader from a small town in rural New York state. The pair met at a party, married, had twin sons, and seemed to have a happy marriage for 5Vz years until things went wrong. To the discomfort of Palm Beach society and the titillation of the rest of the world, tales of what went wrong between the Pulitzers made their televised divorce extremely popular.

When Herbert Pulitzer sued his wife for divorce, he offered her a substantial financial support settlement if she would relinquish custody of their children. Roxanne Pulitzer refused and was initially granted custody of their two young sons in an emergency custody hearing. When the Pulitzers' lawyers took their proposed settlements for child custody and the financial terms of the divorce before Circuit Judge Carl Harper, the case quickly became ugly. To little effect, Judge Harper slapped a "gag order" on all parties involved to prevent the case from being tried in the press. Palm Beach seemed to empty of socialites, many of whom feared being subpoenaed to testify about the Pulitzer marriage.

Herbert Pulitzer accused his wife of wrecking their marriage with adultery and drug abuse. His lawyers called a train of witnesses—many of them Pulitzer employees—whose allegations portrayed Roxanne Pulitzer as an unfit mother by virtue of her heavy cocaine use and alleged affairs with a race car driver, a French bakery owner, and a former nanny's boyfriend, whom the lawyers characterized as a drug dealer.

Both Pulitzers claimed that they had shared in sexual encounters with Jacquie Kimberly, socialite wife of Kleenex heir James Kimberly. Herbert Pulitzer further accused the two women of carrying on a lesbian relationship, a charge which provoked Jacquie Kimberly to retort that Pulitzer was "definitely deranged." When Roxanne Pulitzer counterattacked with accusations that her husband had an incestuous relationship with a daughter by his previous marriage, Pulitzer's daughter appeared on the stand and accused Roxanne Pulitzer of propositioning her.

Several witnesses testified about Roxanne Pulitzer's active interest in the supernatural. A psychic described seances in the Pulitzer bedroom, during which a trumpet lay on the bed. Wondering aloud how it could be relevant, Judge Harper allowed the trumpet to be entered as evidence. Newspapers immediately dubbed Roxanne Pulitzer "the strumpet with the trumpet."

Judge Harper did little to disguise his contempt for what he was hearing. "It surely made me appreciate my wife," said the judge. "I go home every night and give her a big hug."

Judge Harper ultimately ruled in Herbert Pulitzer's favor with a severity that struck many observers as peculiar. Contrasting Pulitzer's "doleful eyes and aging face" with his wife's apparently unconcerned "doodling" on a notepad during the trial (she later claimed she was trying to maintain her composure), the judge proclaimed that Herbert Pulitzer was a hard worker and loving parent who deserved custody of his children.

Judge Harper's decision intimated that Roxanne Pulitzer was a gold digger intent on profiting financially from the divorce. He wrote that her "exorbitant demands shock the conscience of the court, putting the court in mind of the hit record by country singer, Jerry Reed, which laments, 'She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft.'"

Herbert Pulitzer was ordered to pay his wife's legal fees, return $7,000 she had contributed toward the purchase of his yacht, and pay her $2,000 a month in "rehabilitative alimony" for two years so that she would have a means of support until she could become gainfully employed. All other alimony and financial claims were denied. In view of her husband's wealth, his pretrial offer, and the annual $144,000 alimony payment she had requested, Roxanne Pulitzer's cash award was minuscule. She was given two weeks to vacate the house for which lawyers had fought.

In 1982, Florida's "tender years doctrine" was based on the premise that a child forms a strong emotional bond with its mother during the first three years of age. Courts customarily awarded custody to mothers in divorce suits for fear of breaking this bond and damaging the emotional development of any children involved. Judge Harper, however, declared that Roxanne Pulitzer's "flagrant adultery and other gross marital misconduct" required abandoning the doctrine in her case. He ruled that the children would live with their father. Their mother would be allowed custody two weekends per month, holidays on alternating years, and for an annual four-week vacation.

The decision left Roxanne Pulitzer emotionally shattered. She contacted Los Angeles divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson, winner of the celebrated "palimony" suit brought against actor Lee Marvin by his former lover Michelle Triola Marvin. The flamboyant and expensive attorney offered to take Roxanne Pulitzer's case without a fee, but bowed out after the ensuing publicity faded, leaving her appeals in the hands of Florida attorneys.

Roxanne Pulitzer's three appeals of the custody ruling were unsuccessful, but she found a way to capitalize on her notoriety. Working as an aerobics instructor and occasionally lecturing in favor of joint child custody policies, she paid her legal bills with the help of $70,000 she received for posing nude in Playboy magazine. In 1987, she told her side of the story in The Prize Pulitzer, an immediate best-seller whose portrait of the Pulitzer marriage and its dissolution differed greatly from the scenario that emerged from the trial.

Roxanne Pulitzer claimed to be the victim of perjurers and a methodical character assassination that cost her custody of her children. She portrayed her ex-husband as a manipulator whose constant hints of reconciliation led her not to take his divorce action seriously until it was too late. "I had no game plan," she told the Houston Post during a promotional interview for the book. "I was sleeping with him right up to the trial and after the trial. And he evidently had a plan that was way beyond me.… I was an idiot."

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Axthelm, Peter. "The Palm Beach Fun Couple." Newsweek (January 10, 1983): 69.

Couric, Emily. The Divorce Lawyers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Pulitzer, Roxanne with Kathleen Maxa. The Prize Pulitzer. New York: Random House, 1987.

Thompson, Hunter S. "A Dog Took My Place." Rolling Stone (July 21-August 4, 1983): 18-22.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988