Desperate Housewives

“We were two crazy broads who went on a shopping spree in New York.”

Debbie Harris and Kristen Saverin met nearly six years ago at the College School, the private Webster Groves academy where both women sent their children.

The petite, brunette Harris was a stay-at-home mom, active in the Junior League and married to investment banker Eugene Harris. The blond Saverin was a former Palm Beach, Florida, television journalist, married to Dave Saverin, an investor in local Wendy's franchises. The couples' daughters shared the same birthday.

Play-dates for the girls soon led to their mothers' collaborating on charity work and confiding their racy domestic secrets over lunch. Before long, the Harrises were inviting the Saverins to their Ladue mansion for dinner prepared by a private chef.

"They had everything in the world that anybody could ever dream of at their fingertips," Kristen Saverin remembers. "Dave and I were often like, 'Wow.' I absolutely adored Debbie. She was quirky and fun."

The 38-year-old Webster Groves resident never guessed that her close bond with Harris would end in a courtroom tussle.

The trouble centered on Art & Accents, a gallery that Saverin opened in her basement in 2000 and eventually moved to a Manchester storefront. "It wasn't some hobby," she recalls. "It's not like I showed up in my Tahari suit and Prada pumps and took the money."

When sales went south in 2004, Saverin was forced to balance the budget with personal loans, and in January 2005 she decided to sell the gallery to her store manager, Russell Corn.

Debbie Harris, a longtime art collector, was a regular customer. During a casual conversation about how to turn the business around, Harris suddenly offered to become Saverin's partner. Recalls Saverin: "I was going to sell it to Russell for $150,000. So I said, 'OK, why don't you just pay me half?' She said, 'No problem. Eugene loses $75,000 in the stock market sometimes in one day.' She was so laid back about it. She said, 'Besides, I need a distraction right now.'"

Albert Watkins, Saverin's Clayton-based attorney, says the 41-year-old Harris considered the venture a potential exit from a souring marriage: "According to my client, Debbie Harris complained that her husband was controlling and obsessive about grooming his pubic and anus hair. She said he was also fixated on currying eccentric sexual role-playing from her. My client told me Harris wanted into the business in the first place because she was planning to divorce her husband and position herself to have cash-flow during the process."

Saverin would neither confirm nor deny Watkins' claims. Harris declined to comment for this article. Her husband, Eugene Harris, did not return repeated phone calls. Says Debbie Harris' Clayton attorney, Robert Eggmann: "I don't respond to things like that."

On February 22, 2005 — the date deemed most favorable by Saverin's personal astrologer — Debbie Harris purchased a 45 percent stake in Art & Accents for $100,000. The women sealed the deal by conference call, with Saverin faxing her signature on the agreement while vacationing in Florida.

A week later Harris and Saverin flew to New York to buy artwork at a three-day trade show. But first, they treated themselves to $6,000 monogrammed mink coats on sale at Bloomingdale's — two for each of them.

Harris charged three of the four furs to Eugene Harris' credit card, believing she would be reimbursed for two coats "out of profits" from the gallery, according to court records. But Saverin thought her second mink was a gift from Debbie Harris.

"When we got home," Saverin said in her deposition, "I asked her if she was sure, and she laughed and said, 'Eugene thinks I bought an $18,000 coat,' and I said, 'Thank you for the gift,' and she said, 'You're welcome.'"

Immediately afterward, problems developed. "We came home and it was like the honeymoon was over," says Saverin. "I think the romance of being in business together was really exciting, but the reality of it was more than Debbie cared to participate in."

In June 2005 Saverin left with her family for a three-week Mediterranean cruise. A few days after she departed, Harris made an unexpected early-morning visit to the gallery and walked out with the corporate checkbook and financial statements in hand, according to court papers.

Financial documents show that Harris proceeded to open a new bank account, transfer the gallery's remaining funds into it and list herself as the only authorized signer.

Saverin, meanwhile, was still in Europe and buying souvenirs for Debbie and her daughter. When she tried to purchase the gallery some art from an Italian street vendor, she was shocked to find her company debit card had been cancelled. "There was no prior indication that there was any problem with things whatsoever," she says. "She ambushed me."

And that was the beginning of the end of their friendship.

On July 5, 2005, Harris filed a lawsuit in St. Louis County Circuit Court accusing Saverin and Art & Accents of "fraudulent misrepresentation." According to the suit, Saverin stated that Harris' $100,000 investment "would be utilized as operating capital for the betterment of the company and to help increase its chances of profitability."

Instead, Saverin had written checks for her children's school tuition, along with payments to her housekeeper, her astrologer, Lord & Taylor and Pier 1, court documents say. The checks were drawn on the company's old bank account, containing $75,000 of Harris' investment. Saverin was "knowingly spending company funds for personal reasons to the detriment of both the company business and plaintiff personally," Harris claimed.

Harris asked for actual and punitive damages, in addition to reimbursements for two items — a $75 golf outfit from Westwood Country Club and a $91 decorative wine glass — that she bought for Saverin. Harris also said that her ex-friend owed her $6,000 for one Bloomingdale's mink.

Saverin says she was blindsided by the suit, noting that she told Harris that $40,000 of her investment would repay Saverin for loans made to the company over the years. "That was crystal, crystal clear," says Saverin.

Harris asked the IRS and the St. Louis County Police Department to investigate Saverin for white-collar crime, according to Saverin. Last September the women finally broke ties.

"We were two crazy broads who went on a shopping spree in New York, and somebody later decided they bought too much," Saverin says.

Late last fall the women tried to resolve their dispute with mediation, to no avail. On January 19 Saverin countersued Harris for taking over the company bank accounts without her permission. Two months later, Saverin sold the business' remaining inventory to the store manager for $115,000 and repaid Harris $75,000.

Last month the case finally went to trial. Saverin said she regretted writing personal checks from the Art & Accents account. In hindsight, she says, she would have put some of Harris' investment directly into a private account to repay her loans. Jurors also heard Harris deny that she and Saverin went to New York City and purchased "three sable minks," in Watkins' words.

"Sables cost $100,000," Harris corrected him. "They were shearedmink."

In the end, the bemused-looking jury decided Saverin did not misrepresent herself, but still determined that she owed Harris for the golf outfit, the wine glass and the fur. Judge Colleen Dolan ordered Saverin to write Harris a check for $6,461.

"All that was missing," Watkins concluded in a closing statement, "was the kitty-litter box and Jerry Springer."

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