On Sunday evening, Mary Max, the wife of the pop artist Peter Max, left a lengthy voice mail message for a friend in London with instructions for what to do after she passed away.
For the past several years, Ms. Max had been embroiled in a vitriolic legal dispute over her husband’s art, wealth and legacy, as he has struggled with increasing dementia. A stepson and household staff had made accusations that she had been abusive to her husband, and even attempted to kill him, while she countered with accusations that the stepson had “kidnapped” his father.
But in her final voice message to her friend, said her lawyer, John Markham, she did not rehash that dispute. Instead, he said, she left farewell messages for people she loved: her husband; her closest friends; her brother, Daniel; and her 94-year-old mother, Ruth.
The police said Ms. Max was found dead of an apparent suicide in her Upper West Side apartment at Riverside Drive and 84th Street at about 8:30 p.m. on Sunday. The exact cause of death is under investigation by the office of the chief medical examiner.
The death of Ms. Max, 52, in the home she shared with Mr. Max, 81, comes in the midst of continued infighting in recent years regarding her husband’s legacy.
In May, The New York Times wrote about how business associates and his son, Adam, had taken control of Mr. Max’s studio, with the intention of increasing production using assistant artists even though Mr. Max himself had not painted seriously in four years, according to nine people with direct knowledge of his condition.
Mr. Max’s psychedelic renderings helped define the hippie aesthetic of the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, his brightly colored works regularly sold for five figures in auctions, The Times reported.
Mary Max, nee Balkin, was born on Oct. 20, 1966, and raised in Buffalo, N.Y. In 1996, she was walking on a Manhattan sidewalk, when Mr. Max, already an internationally renowned artist and 30 years her senior, walked up and said, “Hi, I’m Peter Max, and I’ve been painting your profile my entire life.”
They married a year later.
Mr. Max had two children from a first marriage, Adam Cosmo and Libra Astro. The children had significant shares in Mr. Max’s studio, which is named ALP after his and their first names. He and Mary Max had no children together.
By 2012, The Times reported, Mr. Max’s mental faculties were beginning to wane and he struggled to create art. Adam, The Times reported, began to take a more active role in the studio.
Ms. Max became concerned and in 2015, she asked the Supreme Court of the State of New York to appoint a guardian to oversee her husband’s business. She told the court she was being followed by private investigators and once was stopped on the street by men warning her to stop interfering in the studio.
Ms. Max also told the court that Adam had taken custody of his father and concealed his whereabouts from friends and family, according to court filings.
But Adam said in court filling that he was protecting his father from his stepmother’s abuse. In a transcript of a recorded conversation with her driver that was entered into evidence, Ms. Max asked about hiring a goon to intimidate her husband and damage his painting hand.
A judge ultimately ordered Mr. Max to be returned to his wife’s care, and appointed a guardian to oversee both his business and personal matters.
Mr. Markham said on Monday that the accusations of abuse against Ms. Max had been false and were deeply hurtful.
“It’s very sad that she could not convince some others that she was as dedicated as she was,” Mr. Markham said. “She finally gave up.”
Ali Watkins contributed reporting and Susan Beachy contributed research.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
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