Charles Kuralt’s Montana Land
Would you be interested in a new privately published memoir by a Bozeman Montana lawyer, titled “Tilting at Montana’s Windmills for 50 Years”?
But what if he were my law school classmate?
But what if I told you my classmate-author had been the lawyer for Charles Kuralt’s long-time extramarital lover in her effort, after Kuralt’s death, to secure a valuable tract of land in Montana that Kuralt had promised her before he died?
Does that get you interested?
Kuralt was beloved by people all over the country, but especially in his native North Carolina, for his human-interest stories on CBS TV’s On-the-Road and Sunday Morning programs. His warm, authoritative voice with perfectly pitched rhythms was irresistibly convincing.
Kuralt was married for many years to his second wife, Petie, and they lived together in New York City. Only a few people knew about Kuralt’s dual life and his long-term friendship and financial support for Patricia Shannon.
My Yale Law School classmate, Jim Goetz, is a hero in Montana for his work saving creeks and rivers. In his memoir, Goetz writes that Kuralt, “who fished in Montana, particularly in September, purchased land located on the Big Hole River.”
Kuralt and Shannon had planned for him to convey this property to her in the fall of 1997 when Kuralt would be in Montana to fish.
Earlier, however, Kuralt became very ill, suffering from lupus.
To reassure Shannon about his intention to convey the parcel of Montana land on which she was living Kuralt wrote the following:
“June 18, 1997 Dear Pat – Something is terribly wrong with me and they can’t figure out what. After cat-scans and a variety of cardiograms, they agree it’s not lung cancer or heart trouble or blood clot. So they’re putting me in the hospital today to concentrate on infectious diseases. I am getting worse, barely able to get out of bed, but still have high hopes for recovery… if only I can get a diagnosis! Curiouser and curiouser! I’ll keep you informed. I’ll have the lawyer visit the hospital to be sure you inherit the rest of the place in MT [Montana] cx. if it comes to that. I send love to you … Hope things are better there! Love, C.”
Kuralt died in a New York hospital on July 4, 1997, at age 62.
Goetz agreed to represent Shannon. Although it was clear from the handwritten letter that Kuralt intended to give the land to Shannon, Goetz writes that the sole issue is whether the language or the letter “is sufficient to establish Kuralt’s intent to devise that property to Shannon.”
Goetz writes that most of the estate lawyers he talked to thought that the language was “well short” of what is required to constitute a valid will.
The judge in the first hearing agreed, ruling against Goetz and Shannon. But after four appeals to the Montana Supreme Court, “the first in 1999, the fourth in 2003,” they won. Shannon was awarded the property.
Goetz acknowledges, “Although we won, most estate lawyers I’ve talked to think the result was wrong. Nevertheless, the case is discussed routinely in many courses in law schools around the country, probably because of Charles Kuralt’s celebrity status.”
Goetz does not have a high opinion of Kuralt. He writes, “My impression, by the way, is that Kuralt, although a very warm public personality, had a dark, depressive streak. Rumor was around Dillon [Montana] that he and Shannon were heavy drinkers.”
Goetz is a good friend and is entitled to his opinion, but if he ever comes to visit, after I thank him for his fascinating book about lawyering for good causes in Montana, I will remind him that for me and most others in this state, Kuralt will always be one of North Carolina’s great heroes.
# # # # #
D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s Vice President for Public Affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.