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he got burned to death
The Ludlum Conspiracy: Was the master storyteller and creator of the blockbuster Bourne movies murdered by his gold-digging wife?
By KENNETH KEARNS
UPDATED: 22:12 EDT, 5 March 2011
You will know my uncle as a writer of compelling thrillers. Robert Ludlum is one of the bestselling authors of all time, with works including The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Those books have been turned into astonishingly successful films starring Matt Damon as CIA assassin Jason Bourne.
Robert was, of course, a wealthy man. He sold more than half a billion novels around the world and earned millions of pounds to match. With it came the lifestyle and acquisitions of an international playboy. There were beachfront homes, private jets and globetrotting adventures.
To me, though, Robert was family, the husband of my mother's sister. Not only was I his nephew, I later became his personal physician. My earliest memory of this larger-than-life character is him arriving at our house in the Fifties behind the wheel of his pink Cadillac convertible. As a child I had often played at his home, and as an adult - he was nearly 20 years my senior - we became very close.
We spent many happy hours together in his study. Robert would have a Dewar's whisky with ice in a Lalique goblet, and when I became a doctor, we routinely discussed the medical aspects of what could befall some of the characters in his books.
He often called me, even when I was in surgery, saying: 'I'm sending the jet - we're going to the Bahamas for the weekend.' There are few people in my life I can claim to have known better.
This was why, long ago, Robert asked me to write his biography, a project that I finally began, following his death aged 73. I had hoped to publish a tribute to the man and his achievements. And it is that same sense of loyalty and friendship that means - knowing what I know now - that I am determined to bring the circumstances of his death to as wide an audience as is possible.
Robert Ludlum's name is synonymous with murder and suspense, but it is no exaggeration to say that the greatest mystery of all may lie in the previously undiscovered circumstances of his own fate.
I enlisted the aid of writer Jeffrey Campbell as co-author and, together with a team of former FBI and CIA agents plus a forensic analyst, we have conducted an exhaustive investigation which now forms the basis of my new book. Among the many questions it raises, one stands out: Was Robert Ludlum murdered?
The story of my book, The Ludlum Identity, begins like many a good old-fashioned murder mystery - with the changing of a last will and testament.
On the face of it, Robert had few concerns when, on January 24, 2001, he signed a new will bequeathing a vast chunk of his wealth to his second wife, Karen Dunn. Her legacy was to include a $3.5million mansion in Naples, Florida, his sprawling estate in Bigfork, Montana, a $1 million lump sum and all his personal possessions.
To casual observers, Robert was still enjoying life to the full. Seventeen days later, however, he was in hospital desperately fighting for his life.
When firefighters arrived at his Florida home on the morning of February 10, 2001, they found the author on fire, lying immobilised in a reclining chair. He was screaming. Smoke and the stench of burning flesh filled the house. Robert had undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 1994 and this, coupled with osteoarthritis, left him unable to escape the flames.
The cause of the fire was inexplicable. Fire crews were astonished to find Robert still ablaze a full six minutes after the emergency services had first been called. Our investigators have also established that fire extinguishers throughout the house had been left untouched. Certainly, Karen had not bothered to put out the flames.
Instead firefighters found her in the kitchen, belligerent and uncooperative. 'F*** off, I'm fixing myself a drink,' she told them.
Robert had severe burns and was suffering from the effect of smoke inhalation, yet she refused to accompany him to hospital in the ambulance.
We have established that she was ordered out of the home but, for reasons of her own, she tried to re-enter before all of the smoke had been cleared by fire crews.
Robert's son Jonathan is perturbed by the chain of extraordinary circumstances. He has told me he believes that an accelerant was used to fuel the flames. It is a terrible thought, but it is only one of many such suspicions to arise during our research.
If Robert's friends and relatives had doubts about Karen's loyalties, she did little to dispel them in the aftermath of the fire. She did not visit her husband once throughout his stay in hospital and her subsequent behaviour - more of which later - was strange to say the least.
Several weeks after the fire, my uncle left hospital and returned home to recuperate. Perhaps it was too soon - he was in such extreme pain that he required morphine.
Then on March 12, 2001, just 30 days after the blaze, the famous author was dead.
How Karen had come to be with Robert is a story in itself. My uncle's childhood had not been a happy one. Adopted without ever knowing who or where his birth parents might be, he spent years pondering the mysteries of his own lost origins, just as his fictional hero Jason Bourne spends his days struggling to discover his true identity before spymasters 'wiped' his brain clear of his past in order to transform him into a killing machine.
I believe that my uncle never felt truly whole. He tried to join the U.S. Navy during the Second World War but was rejected for being too young - he was only 15 at the time. At 17 he joined the U.S. Marines.
Then, in 1950, while studying at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, he found the love of his life in actress Mary Ryducha. They married the following year and moved into a small apartment in the Bronx.
Mary was intelligent, strong and worldly and got along famously with her co-stars, including William Shatner. She was the anchor for Robert's life and career - and the unsung heroine who secretly edited the rough drafts of his novels.
Robert's own theatrical career was not without success. For two decades he thrived as an actor and director, and admitted that voicing a mere three words - 'Plunge works fast' - on a TV commercial for a lavatory cleaner paid enough to put one of his three children through college.
He appeared in minor roles on Broadway and in some 200 TV films, often as a lawyer or a thug. Over time, he helped launch the careers of stars including Alan Alda and Martin Sheen.
It wasn't long, though, before he started writing and by 1970 this became his full-time job. Robert was the master of detail, conveyed in a powerful, heavily crafted style that kept the reader turning the pages.
His first novel, 1971's The Scarlatti Inheritance, about the financing of the Third Reich, sold a respectable 75,000 copies, but the best was yet to come. Books such as 1978's The Holcroft Covenant, which became a film starring Michael Caine, and The Apocalypse Watch were both bestsellers.
The Cold War proved a fruitful backdrop, and Robert's insights into the world of spies and international intrigue won acclaim from serving agents. Indeed, three of his college room-mates went on to become intelligence officers, several of his best friends worked for MI6 and the CIA, and his wife Mary had ties to the Pentagon.
Some suspected that Robert himself might have been a spy. As hostilities with the Soviet Bloc diminished, the author switched his attention to the threat of terrorism, with novels such as 1988's The Icarus Agenda and the 1993 drama The Scorpio Illusion.
Robert and Mary used the proceeds of his literary success to buy a historic mansion in Southport, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, which became known as Club Lud. Their neighbours included Paul Newman, Rodney Dangerfield and Martha Stewart.
With royalties from his books pouring in, a two-decade party had begun. Robert and Mary travelled the world by private jet, stopping off at various exotic locations that would find their way into future novels. In 1984 they purchased a mansion in Naples, Florida, overlooking the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
No matter where the wheels of Robert's jet touched down, he was taking notes, snapping photographs and observing people for possible new plot lines.
A craggy-faced bull of a man, he seemed to be unstoppable - until, that is, Mary was diagnosed with cancer. After a painful illness, she died on November 11, 1996.
Robert was distraught and when, less than two months after Mary's death, he was introduced to a woman called Karen Dunn, it is fair to assume that he was vulnerable. Karen had been married three times; Robert was apparently searching for anything that would help ease the pain of Mary's passing.
His family and friends, though, were sceptical to say the least. Karen did not seem to be the woman that Mary had been. In fact, they could not see what he saw in her and urged him to slow down. 'Give yourself time to mourn,' they told him.
Neither Robert nor Karen were to be deterred, however. His lawyers insisted that should Robert marry Karen, she should sign a prenuptial agreement, but she would hear none of it. She said that if he persisted with the idea, then she would refuse to marry him.
Although he was a commanding presence, a man capable of filling a room with his charisma, my uncle seemed cowed by this woman. On March 7, 1997, he walked her down the aisle in Florida without the protection of a prenuptial agreement.
Robert and Karen made their home in Florida, while Club Lud was sold.
The ink was barely dry on the marriage licence when a different Karen began to make herself known to her new husband and those around him. Whatever passion the couple may have had before they were married quickly melted away. Karen slept in a separate bedroom. Intimacy was out of the question.
She also began to pull Robert away from family and close friends, who in turn described her as greedy and manipulating.
The engagement ring that Robert had bought for her, expensive though it was, just wasn't good enough. She traded it in for an even larger, more ornate, diamond ring without Robert's knowledge.
Robert's daughter Glynis publicly referred to Karen as a gold digger.
For Robert, this isolation was disastrous. He already had agoraphobic tendencies that left him anxious among unfamiliar people and in strange places. Karen's behaviour hardly helped matters.
She, meanwhile, began complaining to friends that she feared she would not be 'well taken care of' when her new husband eventually died. She failed to understand, apparently, that under Florida law, the lack of a prenuptial agreement meant she was guaranteed a substantial portion of her husband's wealth.
Karen needed more than mere reassurance. She wanted Robert to change his will, to set out in black and white the fortune that she would inherit. Two years later, he appeared to do just that.
It was initially claimed that my uncle had died of a heart attack. This might be true. But we will never know because our investigation has found that there was no post-mortem. His corpse had been whisked away and cremated before it could be studied by the coroner. With it went whatever evidence of foul play there may have been.
No one can say what link there was between that extraordinary fire and Robert's death or, indeed, if there had been a further twist in the story. If this really was a plot, it was so clean and elegant that even my uncle might have admired its efficiency.
He was a loss - to most of us, at least. Karen's reaction to her husband's death was not, however, the conventional one. If she suffered any grief, it was over how she could get at his fortune, say Robert's friends. Karen demanded that her housekeeper phone her dead husband's accountant, Jeffrey Weiner, shouting: 'I want you to call Jeffrey right now and ask him where my other $2million is.'
By now even the most hard-bitten of friends in the police and the shady world of espionage were whispering about the curious events before Robert's death.
It seems that Robert had already complained about an apparent attempt on his life at the lake behind his Montana home, just months earlier. The event so worried his family that I filed a request with the local sheriff's department for a police investigation.
Then when it came time to read my uncle's last will and testament, yet more suspicions arose. The total value of the estate in 2001 has never been ascertained. (Since then, the vast success of the Bourne films has brought about an exponential increase in its value). But the new will gave Karen a share estimated to have been worth between $7million and $10million.
Moreover, it was evident that the Robert who signed his will had been a very different man from the one who had been signing unrelated paperwork just a few weeks earlier.
The earlier documents show the signature of a man with a strong hand, firm grip and calm control. To me and others who have seen it, the signature on the will appears weak, frail and tentative.
But there were more shocks and surprises in store. For example, Robert had apparently added a new codicil shortly before his death, stating that anyone who contested his will would automatically forfeit half their inheritance.
Our investigations suggest that Karen continued to show a studied disregard for her late husband's wishes, even in death.
Robert had requested that his body be interred at a beloved spot in New York, the city of his birth. Indeed, Karen let it be known, and it was widely reported, that he had been buried at a cemetery in Manhattan.
But in reality, she left the author's ashes sitting in an urn on a mantelpiece of his estate in rural Montana, according to a trusted estate employee.
Robert's friends from the neighbourhood took it upon themselves to take the urn for a final journey, though not the one he had planned. They boarded Robert's pontoon boat and puttered out to the middle of Flathead Lake.
There, without his family or the hundreds of friends that he had amassed in his adventures, they dropped his ashes into the icy dark waters. It was a fittingly mysterious end for the man whose life was defined by mystery.
My uncle's three children have received some money. Fortunately for them, the bulk of their inheritance lies in royalties from the lucrative literary estate - part of the fortune that Karen could not grasp.
Two years before his death, he had signed a deal with St Martin's Press worth $4million a book, with an even larger fortune expected in film rights and royalties. In 2001, the year Robert died, Forbes magazine ranked him as the 13th highest earning dead celebrity, with an income of more than $5million.
The many mysteries we have uncovered are enough to fill yet another thriller, but satisfying explanations are in short supply. Karen may have known the truth, but she is in no position to help. She died on December 10, 2008, the result, we believe, of an overdose. She carried the answers with her to her grave.
But for me and for those who knew and loved Robert, the evidence points to the possibility that one of the greatest thriller writers of the past century may have fallen victim to a plot as elaborate as any that he had conceived.
I have asked the law enforcement agencies in Florida and Montana to investigate his death. For my uncle's millions of fans, this may be one murder mystery where they cannot turn to the final page to find a satisfying ending. Real life is not always so obliging.
Additional reporting by Peter Sheridan