While Britney Spears’ nightmare conservatorship has ended after 13 years, thanks partly to the tenacity of the “Free Britney” movement, family and friends of renowned pop artist Peter Max have been fighting a legal battle since 2019 to free the 84-year-old Holocaust survivor from a guardianship his family and supporters describe as abusive and exploitive.
At a protest outside the law office of Phillips Nizer LLP in Midtown Manhattan on Nov. 4, his daughter Libra Max rallied for her father’s freedom with the support of animal rights activists and family members of victims of guardianship abuse.
Peter Max, who has Alzheimer’s and made a name for himself with his colorful psychedelic paintings in the 60s and 70s and whose works hang in the Museum of Modern Art, was placed under guardianship in 2016 because of alleged mistreatment by his wife Mary, who committed suicide in 2019 at the age of 52.
Libra Max shared that they didn’t encounter any problems with the first two guardians because they didn’t interfere with her dad’s life. The older Max’s nightmare began in 2019 when his court-appointed attorney Elizabeth Adinolfi, a partner with Phillips Nizer LLP, picked attorney Barbara Urbach Lissner of Lissner & Lissner LLP as his legal personal guardian.
Libra Max and her supporters allege that Adinolfi and Urbach Lissner and Peter’s legal property guardian, Lawrence Flynn, worked together in the past and that his estate is being depleted under their guardianship and that they control all aspects of his life.
“The problem is when somebody steps into that role, a court-appointed role, and they don’t have proper motives, and they don’t have proper ethics, and they’re there for greed. There is no oversight, and you can’t get them out,” Peter Max’s daughter said.
Speaking to about thirty supporters holding up signs reading “#FreePeterMax” and depicting some of his most iconic paintings, Libra Max shared that she can only see her dad three times a week for an hour under strict supervision -on a public park bench in Riverside Park. She is prohibited from entering her childhood home on the Upper Westside, where her father lives in complete isolation. She claims that her dad has to ask for permission to call his family and friends – something four of Peter Max’s long-time friends attested to in an affidavit to the New York State Supreme Court– and the guardians even got rid of his five beloved rescue cats.
Libra Max said that her father, who she estimates barely weighs 100 pounds, has been begging to be released to the care of his family.
“That is what was in [Peter Max] estate planning documentation, which has all been voided by the guardianship system,” Libra Max explained. “When you are put into guardianship, all of your estate planning is voided. All of your documentation is voided. Your human rights are voided. Your constitutional rights are voided. You have less rights than a convicted felon!”
Libra Max pointed out that about 1.3 million Americans are in guardian and conservatorships in the United States. While some guardians certainly represent the interests of their wards, many might have more sinister motives since $50 billion are in the care of conservators.
“This is a money-making industry. This is not about protection,” Libra Max, who recently submitted a written statement to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution regarding Toxic Conservatorships: The Need for Reform, said.
“My father escaped the Holocaust,” Max said. “He came to this country as a teenage immigrant with nothing. He started from nothing. He believed in the American dream. And because he achieved the American dream, it has now made him a target.”
Every person who ever crossed paths with Peter Max described him as a deeply caring, warm-hearted man with an abundant love for animals.
Animal rights campaigner Donny Moss joined the rally to help free vegan Peter Max from his alleged predatory guardianship and support Libra Max in her quest to get her father back.
“Peter Max, for as long as I can remember, opened his legendary art studio to the animal rights community,” Moss said. “And now he’s being abused in many of the same ways that he was fighting against. He’s being stripped of his freedom, of his family, of his dignity.”
Edita Birnkrant, executive director of NYCLASS, a non-profit animal rights organization, has known Peter Max for many years and was grateful for his support of NYCLASS and his efforts banning the horse carriage industry.
“It’s so wrong what’s happening,” Birnkrant said about Max’s situation. “That someone who fought against injustice and cruelty and exploitation for people and animals is now suffering and doesn’t even have his freedom. It’s like he’s in jail.”
Birnkrant promised to fight as vigorously for Peter Max’s freedom as he fought to free abused and exploited animals.
“We’re just so heartbroken that his own freedom and dignity is being stripped of him,” Birnkrant expressed.
Animal rights activist Rachel Levy Ejsmont worked with Peter Max on the “Surrender Your Heart” video by Missing Persons in 1983 and described him as a “sweetheart and gentle, gentle being.”
“There’s absolutely no reason for him to be held in captivity,” Levy Ejsmont said and pointed out that like animals, humans don’t thrive in isolation. “Animals are driven to lunacy, and they’re driven to madness when they’re kept isolated and captive from their loved ones.”
In a statement, which the law firm handed out to protesters and signed by Marc A. Landis, Managing Partner, Phillips Nizer LLP wrote that the firm supported the First Amendment right to peaceful protest and referred to the firm’s long history of First Amendment advocacy. It rejected the claims made by Libra Max and her supporters.
“Phillips Nizer is providing legal services to a client as ordered and approved by the New York State Supreme Court. We serve this client, as we do all of our clients, in accordance with our professional and ethical responsibilities as attorneys.
The claims made by Libra Max and her allies are demonstrably false and defamatory to our firm and attorneys. We will address this at the appropriate time and in the appropriate forum.
Due to the sensitive nature of guardianship proceedings, and pursuant to the duty of privilege that we owe to our clients, we will not offer any further comments at this time.”