Getty Images / Andreas RentzHer name is among the brightest in recording industry history, her songs providing the soundtrack for a generation and earning her a place as one of the most successful hit-makers of all time.
After more than five decades of music-making that won her five Grammy awards, more than 60 charted singles and global album sales totalling more than 100 million copies, Dionne Warwick might have been assumed to have earned herself a comfortable retirement.
Yet her bankruptcy filing last week reveals financial tangles that belie her musical success. At the age of 72, the pop and R&B legend who once reaped seven-figure pay cheques and a glittering lifestyle is down to her last $1,000 in cash and mired in $10 million of tax debt, it claims.
The 50-page document, lodged in a New Jersey bankruptcy court, provides in humiliating detail the particulars of Warwick’s personal finances, even down to her monthly $90 bill for garbage disposal and the fact that, on March 17, she underwent a debt counselling session over the internet.
Her income exceeds her outgoings by just $10 a month, she owes $20,000 on her credit card, and debts totaling $505,737 to a former lawyer and a former business manager. Personal assets total just over $25,000.
“We had no other resort other than to file bankruptcy so that we could get this off her back finally,” her bankruptcy attorney, Daniel Stolz, told Rolling Stone, declaring his client an “innocent victim of terrible mismanagement” during the 1980s and 1990s.
Though Warwick is up to date with her taxes, her debt to the Internal Revenue Service is the result of dues accumulated on tax bills dating back to 1991.
“Before she knew it, she owed a gazillion dollars in taxes. She’s actually paid more than the face amount of the taxes, but with all of the crazy interest and penalties that they add, the number kept mushrooming,” said Mr Stolz.
A cousin of singer Whitney Houston, who died of a cocaine-related drowning last year, Warwick first performed professionally in 1961 after she was discovered by the songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
She had her first hit within a year with Don’t Make Me Over and, over the ensuing decade, released 18 consecutive Top 100 singles, including Walk on By, Anyone Who Had a Heart, Alfie, Say a Little Prayer, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, and Do You Know the Way to San Jose? Later hits included Then Came You and Heartbreaker. She has had more hits in the charts than any other female vocalist except Aretha Franklin.
In the 1990s, she became the public face of the Psychic Friends Network, a telephone service that connected callers with clairvoyants for $3.99 a minute. It earned her $3 million a year before the corporation that owned the service went into bankruptcy.
Critics of Ms Warwick’s own bankruptcy filing have taken to web forums to joke that, given her experience with the Psychic Friends Network, she should have seen her money troubles coming. Some question the extent of her financial suffering.
“I have no pity for any celebrities who make more in a month than most Americans make in a year AND file their taxes on time, who cannot pay their debts,” stated one.
Another wrote: “Where did all the money go? Good God, she must have more than $25,000 in assets.”
With two children’s books, a best-selling autobiography, a fragrance line, a new album and a current world tour to supplement her 50 years of showbusiness cheques, the question of Warwick’s disappearing fortune is indeed baffling.
It is not the first time that money woes have surfaced; in 1993, she filed for so-called “Chapter 11” protection from tax debts – a case that was resolved after she surrendered three cars including her BMW.
Mr Stolz said: “Just because someone is a well-known, prominent celebrity doesn’t mean they’re conversant in their financial affairs. They rely heavily on people and frequently wind up waking up someday saying ‘Jeez, how did I get in this mess and how do I get out of it?'”
In Warwick’s case, the unnamed manager blamed for her financial troubles was fired years ago. Attempts have been made over the years to strike a deal with the IRS, to which she owes $7 million, and the California Franchise Tax Board, to which she owes $3 million, that would bring her debts under control, but without success.
Quite what she offered is unclear. In her bankruptcy filing, Warwick – who lives in a rented detached home in the village of South Orange, New Jersey – details monthly expenses of $20,940 and monthly income of $20,950, leaving her just $10 in float.
The monthly outgoings include $5,000 in rent, $5,000 for “housekeeping/sitting”, $4,000 for a personal assistant, $1,000 for electricity, $500 for the telephone, $500 for food and $750 for laundry and dry cleaning.
Most of her income comes from a $14,000 monthly pension, which is supplemented by $2,200 a month in Social Security benefits.
She also receives an average $6,250 a month in wages from Star Girl Productions, the company she lists as her employer. Successful artists commonly set up such entities – known as “loan out corporations” – through which to provide their services and reap legal tax benefits.
David L Neale, a Los Angeles-based bankruptcy attorney who has studied Warwick’s court filing, said: “If an entertainer’s business people show to the IRS figures stating that the person’s income is X amount and that there is Y amount available, then either the IRS buys into it or they don’t.
“The loan-out company could cover costs such as staff, travel, and pay the entertainer a salary that may be equal only to what that person requires to meet their monthly outgoings. It may be that there’s more money, in the form of royalties or other income, that’s paid to the loan-out company but which is not personal income to the entertainer.
“This is speculation, but part of the complication may be that the IRS sees her showing income equal to her expenses, but also having an interest in a company where money is coming in and going to others. That may lead the IRS to say ‘Wait a minute’.”
He added: “A bankruptcy filing is done under penalty of perjury and there’s no suggestion that Ms Warwick has been anything less than honest.”
Intriguingly for a woman who only last October told an interviewer, “My mainstay is shopping. I love going down to Givenchy and the boutiques. I don’t shop for what I need, just what I want,” Warwick lists her monthly clothing expenses as zero.
She is down to her last two fur coats and two pairs of diamond earrings, collectively worth $13,000, plus a wardrobe of “gowns and everyday clothing” valued at $5,000, her court filing reveals.
Her living room furniture, beds, dining room set and laptop computer are together valued at just $1,500. “Assorted artwork and paintings” make up the $5,000 remainder of her total $25,500 assets.
She personally owns no property, Mr Stolz said. A home she used to own in Bahia, Brazil, was sold in 2005, Warwick told an interviewer three years ago, though she has subsequently alluded publicly to living part-time in Brazil.
She tried marriage twice – both times with the same man, William Elliot, a television actor. They wed in 1966, divorced in May 1967, but then remarried three months later. “It was a case of can’t do with, can’t do without, so I married him again,” she later stated.
They had two sons, David and Damon – both of whom now also work in the music industry – but divorced for a second time in 1975. Mr Elliot revealed during divorce proceedings that his wife was, at that time, earning $100,000 a month – 200 times his own income. His demand for $2,000 in spousal support was denied.
“It’s hard when the woman is the breadwinner. All my life, the only man that ever took care of me financially was my father. I have always taken care of myself,” she stated in a 2002 interview.
She has been romantically linked since then with French singer Sacha Distel, Miami Vice actor Philip Michael Thomas and The Godfather star Gianni Russo.
Mr Stolz described her as having been reluctant to take the bankruptcy route because she is a “very proud woman .a very honourable person.”
He told a New Jersey television station: “Dionne’s a very warm, wonderful, giving person. She’s been extraordinarily philanthropic throughout her life. Not only has she not accumulated great wealth, but she is now living hounded by the IRS.”
Warwick’s work for good causes has been a major feature of her career. She was one of the first celebrities to become involved in the crusade against HIV and Aids, founding the Washington-based Warwick Foundation in the late 1980s to fund research, healthcare and public education and preaching compassion at a time when Aids was still taboo.
Her 1985 recording of That’s What Friends Are For, with Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder, raised over $3 million for Aids causes, won a Grammy and topped the Billboard charts.
She served as both a UN ambassador for health and an ambassador for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and has raised millions of dollars for causes including children’s hospitals, world hunger, disaster relief, music education and her old elementary school in East Orange – now named the Dionne Warwick Institute for Economics and Entrepreneurship.
In a poorly typed note posted to her official website, she tells fans: “i’m sure you have been made aware via the enternet that i have filed bankruptcy i am OK and don’t want any of you to worry about this as with so many things in our lifetime objects that are sometimes unavoidable will crop up just keep a positive thought going around me and as i have been told on many occasions ‘THIS TOO SHALL PASS.'”
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