In the summer of 2019, famed Woodstock producer Michael Lang dropped into his old friend Peter Max’s art studio on West 65th Street in New York City. Max, 84, one of the most celebrated and influential pop artists of the past century, was holding court at the studio where, for some 30 years prior, he’d painted portraits of everyone from Mick Jagger to presidents Clinton and Obama to Taylor Swift in his signature, rainbow-hued style. His colorful works lined the walls. Max’s only daughter, Libra, was by his side.
It was a visit like many others over Lang and Max’s 55-year friendship, in which the counterculture icons and other friends would engage in free-wheeling discussions about music and art until the wee hours. Though Max had been living under a personal needs guardianship due to dementia since 2015, his daughter says his social life and artistic output had remained robust. Under his guardians’ watch, he was free to work, though he reportedly hadn’t painted seriously during the period. When friends and family stopped by, she describes him chatting with them in the salon-like setting, still exuberant even in his diminished state.
But just three years after Lang’s visit, much has changed in the artist’s life. As his Alzheimer’s-related dementia has progressed, a series of legal battles surrounding Max’s care — marked by familial infighting, numerous challenges to the guardianship, suits and countersuits — have escalated. In the latest of these lawsuits, filed Tuesday in New York State, Libra, 55, alleges that Max’s current court-appointed guardian has, among other things, inflicted severe emotional distress on Libra by isolating Max from family and friends and withholding information about Max’s health from Libra. The suit also alleges that Max’s guardian has lied to the court in the guardianship case.
“My father should never have been put into a guardianship in the first place, and he should not be in one now,” Libra tells Rolling Stone. “[He] has a loving daughter, me, and he has been begging for me to come care for him, just as my father did for his own father. It is our family culture to care for our own.”
The recent drama began in the months leading up to Lang’s 2019 visit, when Max’s second wife, animal rights activist Mary Balkin, petitioned a New York court to install a new guardian. On June 9, 2019, the New York Times published an exposé about how Max’s dementia was allegedly being exploited by his business associates for financial gain. (Max’s estate is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.) The Times also reported allegations of abuse and neglect against Balkin, who took her life days later.
Within 24 hours of Balkin’s death, a court appointed Barbara Lissner, an attorney whose firm was founded by her father-in-law to help Holocaust survivors like Max, as the artist’s new guardian. But the situation quickly devolved. Three months later, with support from a group of Max’s friends and 17 of his cousins, Libra made the first of several so far unsuccessful attempts to end Max’s guardianship or at least to remove Lissner from the role.
In a 2020 affidavit submitted as part of these efforts, Lang alleged that he’d been unable to reach Max at home or in his studio since Lissner, 67, had taken over his care. “This is an absolute tragedy,” Lang stated. “I miss Peter deeply, and am very worried about him. … I’m sure that Peter’s current state — isolated and cut off from his family and close friends — is a depressing situation for him. This is simply not like the life he’s loved and lived.” (Lang never saw Max again; the legendary concert promoter died of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last January.)
Lissner, meanwhile, recently brought a defamation suit against Libra — a move Libra’s new filing alleges violates New York’s so-called anti-SLAPP law, which is meant to prevent the use of lawsuits brought to intimidate people from exercising their free speech and public petition rights. For her claims against Lissner, Libra is asking for damages in an amount to be determined at trial.
Libra says she is fighting the conservatorship system in order to have more access to her father, to be free to take him to a doctor and be more involved in his medical care. Libra and her brother, Adam, are already the co-heirs of his estate, and she insists that her quest to emancipate Max has nothing to do with money, although she does challenge the fees that Lissner has billed.
“I have been trying to free my father because of my love for him,” Libra tells Rolling Stone, “and because he has been subjected to such cruelty,” she adds, referring to his alleged isolation from family and friends.
“The word guardian sounds so loving and kind,” Libra says. “And if you look at [Barbara’s] website, she seems like a compassionate person that helps Holocaust survivors.” As the allegations in the dueling lawsuits reflect, Libra has come to view Lissner quite differently.
While Libra says her current preference is to care for her father herself, she acknowledges that his two guardians before Lissner “were actually wonderful.” Those previous guardians — Ruth Lippin and Sabrina Morrissey — both have expressed support for Libra’s efforts, with Lippin testifying in an affidavit that Libra, likewise, had “supported [Lippin’s] efforts to remain on as her father’s guardian, as she appreciated my advocacy efforts on Peter’s behalf.”
In her defamation lawsuit, Lissner alleges that, when Morrissey moved to resign in 2018, she had cited “difficulty getting along with Mr. Max’s family members […] referring to Libra.” But that doesn’t square with Morrissey’s 2020 testimony in support of one of Libra’s previous attempts to remove Lissner as guardian, in which she stated she would gladly serve as Max’s guardian again. And in her new lawsuit, Libra points to that support by Morrissey and insists that Morrissey’s resignation was actually the result of conflict between Mary Balkin and Adam.
Lissner’s defamation lawsuit states that it was Max who voluntarily sought guardianship back in 2015 and, quoting from an August 2020 ruling in the guardianship case, alleges that “Libra ignores the fact that [Peter Max] himself objected to having Libra appointed as his guardian, that he was found to have the capacity to consent, and in fact did consent to having a personal needs guardian appointed by the court.” (That same ruling notes that Max did not want to have to choose between his two children to be his guardian, instead preferring a neutral party.)
“Revisionist history and patently false,” says Libra’s attorney, Jeffrey Eilender, who filed today’s suit. According to Eilender, “Peter Max did not seek guardianship, Mary Max did. Peter Max never objected to having his beloved daughter as guardian and that notion is ridiculous — Peter was never given a choice as to who his guardian would be. In Peter’s estate planning, he named his two children as the people he wanted caring for him and making medical decisions for him; Peter does not want to be cared for by a stranger and has said this repeatedly since Lissner’s appointment.”
In any case, that original, 2015 appointment was well before Lissner entered the picture. Echoing previous allegations, Libra claims in her latest complaint, which was obtained by Rolling Stone, that Lissner has prevented her and her brother, Adam, from most contact with their father, with the exception of pre-arranged, 1.5-hour visits three times per week. In her defamation case, Lissner alleges that Libra is allowed to see Max on this restricted schedule only because Libra and Adam do not get along, which is upsetting to Max, so they cannot see him on the same days. (Adam, for his part, is not a party to Libra’s new suit; in media coverage of a previous effort by Libra to end the guardianship, he was quoted as siding with Lissner, saying “Barbara Lissner is giving my father excellent care. He’s never been treated better in his life.”)
While Max’s social life was somewhat limited even before Lissner’s appointment, several friends tell Rolling Stone that she erected “barriers” to seeing him that were “arbitrary and irrational.” Back in 2019, these friends add, Lissner presented them with an NDA as a condition for seeing Max. Even a casual conversation about his appearance, health, environment, or caretakers would result in a $10,000 fine for each mention under the terms of the NDA, which Rolling Stone has viewed. Those who signed it were barred from speaking to one another or to Libra about Max’s condition. (Libra says Lang, for one, refused to sign.)
“Why would an NDA supposedly meant to protect my father, censor his friends from talking about his environment or his caretakers?” Libra asks.
Lang’s affidavit is one of nine that were submitted in Libra’s 2020 effort to remove Lissner as guardian, which have been attached to the complaint in Libra’s latest lawsuit as well. All allege that the arrangements instituted by Lissner — ushered in well before Covid — came in sharp contrast to Max’s previous lifestyle. Longtime Max friends who spoke to Rolling Stone paint a similar portrait of substantially restricted access to their friend.
Mimi Gelb began working as a secretary for Max in 1976, at the height of his fame. “We always had a loving connection,” Gelb tells Rolling Stone. “This Barbara Lissner, I don’t know what the fuck is with her. I don’t understand why she feels she needs this power over him. I tried to see him in the city with another person I used to work with. We thought it would be so fun to see Peter together and remind him of the things that we did. And when we went to the house, she wouldn’t let us in. She’s like, ‘It’s not a good time.’”
Gelb, now a family therapist outside the city, says she has only been allowed into Max’s apartment once since 2019. Her sentiments are echoed by confidantes like Max’s former partner, singer-songwriter Rosie Vela, who claimed in a 2020 affidavit that Lissner’s employees “began forcing Peter to hang up while we were mid-conversation, usually after only a few minutes on the phone.”
Prior to Lissner becoming Max’s guardian, Libra describes traveling freely with her father to art shows across the country and even taking a father-daughter vacation with him to Barbados in 2018. But for a period up until November, Libra was not allowed at all in Max’s Upper West Side home, where she was raised.
“This is my childhood home,” Libra says, “and this idea of ‘visiting’ my father is just…. We’ve never used that word in our family. It’s crazy to me.”
(Lissner’s defamation lawsuit alleges that, “[i]mportantly, none of Libra’s proper requests to see Peter Max had ever been denied” and notes that “two judges have rejected Libra’s previous claim that Plaintiff’s prescribed visitation schedule for Peter Max was arbitrary or capricious.” The suit also alleges that Libra was not allowed to visit Max in his home because she refused to socially distance and wear a mask — a claim Libra flatly denies in her new filing.)
Libra’s visits were often relegated to a park bench, even in inclement weather, she says. She also claims that her visits are monitored by audio and visual electronic surveillance. “No normalcy or familial intimacy [is] allowed,” her suit states. “This is akin to visits in a high security prison with a convicted felon.”
In the August 2020 decision in the guardianship case, the court rejected Libra’s argument that Lissner was preventing her from interacting with Max, stating that “there have been multiple court orders clearly outlining the procedures for visitation” and setting times for phone calls, and that video evidence Libra had submitted showed that “her visits are completely unencumbered.” The court noted that the visitation rules established by Lissner had been approved by another judge, and that they hadn’t been an issue for Libra’s brother, Adam, nor for Max’s ex-wife Elizabeth Nance (Libra and Max’s mother), who, the court said, recognized that the rules helped avoid disrupting Max’s schedule. The court additionally noted that Lissner has purchased puzzles for Max, encouraged the aides who took care of Max to take him to the bookstore, bought him a radio so that he “could enjoy the jazz music he loves,” and enabled him to do yoga. The court further stated that “All the parties, except for [Libra], agree that Ms. Lissner has improved [Max’s] life greatly.” And in her defamation case against Libra, Lissner insists that “Mr. Max has never been isolated from friends and loved ones; requests to see Peter Max by friends and loved ones are always accommodated.”
In contrast, Libra’s suit alleges that “Lissner took one of the greatest minds of our time and thrust him into a world of deafening white noise, surrounded by a rotating cast of paid aides who know nothing of his life and who sat him in front of a television for three years. The shock to Peter’s system by being forced into this disorienting and empty world was not only devastating to Peter, but sent a ripple of devastation through Peter’s extensive community of friends and loved ones who had to hear him on the phone repeatedly begging for companionship and to be rescued from his loneliness.”
Max’s remarkable life began in Germany, where he was born Peter Max Finkelstein in 1937. The following year, his Jewish family fled Germany, settling in Shanghai before uprooting again to Israel, Paris, and eventually New York. As a teen, he began formally studying art and launched his own studio in 1962. Max’s art, which included everything from soda ads to flyers for the 1967 “Be In” political gathering in Central Park, began to define the hippie era with its vibrant swirls and thick brushstrokes. He went on to create album covers for the Band, Yes, and Aretha Franklin, later painted patriotic series of the Statue of Liberty and the American flag, and even designed the stages for Woodstock ’99.
Max married Libra and Adam’s mother, Elizabeth Nance, in 1963, and divorced her 13 years later. (The siblings were raised by Max.) His rich social life included famous friends like John Lennon and Steven Van Zandt, sex-symbol girlfriends like Tina Louise, and the yoga guru Swami Satchidananda Saraswati, with whom Max co-founded the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City.
But now, Libra says, Max is a shell of his former self. She says his health has declined precipitously since 2019, and, in keeping with her previous complaints, insists in her latest suit that this is as a result of an “inhumane and predatory guardianship” in which Lissner “has forcibly isolated Peter from his loved ones for the past three years.” Despite being Max’s beloved daughter — she is “the apple of his eye” according to one of the affidavits submitted back in 2020, and multiple friends of the artist who spoke to Rolling Stone or provided affidavits back this up — Libra also says she is not permitted to have adequate information about his health or medication. (A judge rejected a similar complaint back in 2020.)
“Libra is a damn good daughter. She loves her father. This is not about money. This is about giving him a better quality of life. That’s the only motivation for the people who know and love Peter,” says Allan Jacubowicz, who claims that he, too, has been almost entirely cut off from his close friend of more than five decades since Max has been under Lissner’s care. “The only reason [Lissner] is doing this is to control every aspect of his life, and that contributes to more billable hours. This is a gravy train.”
In her defamation case, Lissner vehemently denies allegations that she is financially exploiting Max, alleging that “Libra controls Mr. Max’s finances.” Lissner also underscores that she has never been paid for her guardianship services. But Libra, in her dueling lawsuit against Lissner, echoes charges she’s made publicly that Lissner has billed Max’s estate to the tune of $2 million, charging $550 an hour and allegedly overbilling for simple tasks like forwarding an email.
Libra’s new lawsuit also alleges that Lissner is preventing Libra from taking her father to a pulmonologist for a full evaluation and that “Lissner has been advocating for Peter’s oxygen to be denied to him unless his blood oxygen falls below the dangerously low level of 90%.”
“I cannot put into words how painful this is. It is completely unjustified and abusive to my dad,” Libra says. “I am totally in the dark, and he is failing.”
The lawsuit comes in the wake of the battle over Britney Spears’ controversial guardianship, which sparked a national conversation about the system’s rampant failings. Libra has actively tried to connect her father’s situation with that of the pop star. In October 2021, Libra submitted testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on toxic guardianships that “After more than two years of isolation, my father’s health has steeply declined; he appears to be under 100 pounds; he appears dangerously over-medicated; he is losing his will to live; and I fear for his life.” And she launched a #FreePeterMax petition that has been signed by such high-profile figures as MTV co-founder Tom Freston and musician Billy Squier.
“I have the best lawyers on the planet. And if I can’t move the needle, what chance does anybody in this situation have?” Libra asks. “You don’t have to be wealthy to be trapped in a guardianship.”
For her part, Lissner argues that Max himself sought out the guardianship and charges that, “apparently buoyed by the “Free Brittany [sic] Spears” movement, and hoping to capitalize on the public imagination, Libra is trying to undo her father’s wishes and accomplish what she could not in court.” (In her new lawsuit, Libra denies both of these claims, claiming that it was Mary Balkin – not Peter – who initially sought the guardianship, and that, rather than trying to undo her father’s wishes, “she is trying to ensure they are adhered to.”)
Though Lissner objected in her defamation lawsuit to any notion that she has behaved unethically – noting in her complaint that “[t]hroughout her involvement as Peter Max’s guardian, three judges have approved of each step” she has taken – Libra is doubling down. In her new suit, she alleges that Lissner has a history of “preying on the elderly and vulnerable,” having allegedly been involved in at least three contentious guardianships before Peter’s.
And another attorney for Libra, Jonathan Martinis, insists that Lissner should have been barred from serving in a guardianship post. Acknowledging that “guardianship is not bad, in and of itself,” Martinis adds, “Peter Max is going to die soon. Doesn’t he deserve to die surrounded by family and friends? Don’t we all?”
Philip Marshall, an elder-justice advocate, says Max’s predicament is far from an isolated case. “Mr. Max is famous for his timeless posters from the Sixties and Seventies. Now, Mr. Max is a poster child for what could happen to any of us in our sixties, seventies, or beyond,” says Marshall, who successfully fought to remove his late grandmother, philanthropist Brooke Astor, from an abusive guardianship and is troubled by the allegations that Lissner has isolated Max.
Though Libra’s suit against Lissner will likely move through the courts at a glacial pace, Libra feels a sense of urgency. As Max approaches his final days, she wants to ensure that the art-world giant who lost much of his extended family in the Holocaust is surrounded by loved ones. A visit on June 2 was emblematic of her three-year-long struggle. As she sat with her father, two cameras were trained on her, while three people sat at a nearby table, watching every move, Libra says.
“Normally, he tries to put on a happy face. But last night, I was like, ‘Daddy, what’s wrong? You’re not smiling.’ I could tell he was really, really depressed,” says Libra, who was sobbing as she recalled the conversation. “He barely talks anymore. And I asked him, ‘Please just whisper in my ear.’ And he said, ‘Scared and confused.’”