Philip and Karen Berg with their son Yehuda at a 2009 event.
"She definitely has some sort of dementia," said Viki Brushwood, a niece who visited from Texas in December. "I don't know if it's Alzheimer's or what. She is somebody who is not making decisions anymore."
Public records and interviews show Davis' longtime financial advisor, John E. Larkin, has been instrumental in these expenditures. A veteran entertainment industry money manager, Larkin has been a devout student of the Kabbalah Centre's brand of Jewish mysticism for nearly a decade and is a key figure in the oversight of its substantial financial assets. He was handling his elderly client's personal finances when she made the donation. And Davis' Beverly Hills home is being built on a lot Larkin previously owned and sold to her at a substantial personal profit.
Larkin, 64, did not return messages seeking comment. Although the IRS' criminal division has been investigating the center and its controlling family, the Bergs, for tax evasion for more than a year, Larkin has not been identified as a subject of that probe and has not been accused of any crime in handling Davis' money.
Davis has no children, and her siblings are dead. Those relatives still in touch with her — three nieces — said they visit at most once a year. Neither they nor seven other family members contacted were aware of her donations to the Kabbalah Centre or of the home under construction in Beverly Hills.
Bunny Sumner, an 89-year-old niece who lives in Carlsbad, said that when she visited Davis two years ago she was "well into" dementia.
"She wasn't a bit well," Sumner recalled. "We just talked about old times."
The daughter of Frank R. Strong, a pioneering real estate mogul who made a fortune subdividing Southern California scrubland, Davis grew up in a turreted mansion in La Cañada Flintridge. Her family's dinner parties and vacations were detailed on the society pages. She became a professional ice skater, touring in the chorus line of Sonja Henie's ice revue. She married three times, including a 1951 union with British actor Richard Stapley that put her on the Hollywood party circuit. Her last husband, Frank Davis, died in a car crash in the 1980s.
"She was a free spirit before it was a free spirit time. [A] very Katharine Hepburn-ish type but only better looking," said nephew Thomas H. Dutton of Lodi.
Davis' lifestyle was underwritten in part by a trust fund set up upon her mother's 1962 death and supervised by a Los Angeles probate court. By 1981, the original trustees had died or become too ill to serve. At Davis' request, the court appointed Larkin one of two co-trustees. How he and the heiress had become acquainted is unclear.
Larkin operated a financial advising business in Sherman Oaks, and he had built up a clientele of TV executives, athletes and actors that eventually included the likes of Ricardo Montalban and Candice Bergen.
The court approved Davis' choice of Larkin and a second trustee, George W. Dickinson, a real estate developer who had known Davis for decades. The men took control of the trust, a portfolio of stocks, oil rights and other assets valued in a court filing last year at just under $11 million.
Larkin's intense involvement in the Kabbalah Centre began in the early 2000s, a period in which Madonna's devotion piqued the interest of many in Hollywood. Raised Roman Catholic, Larkin became close to founders Philip and Karen Berg. He converted to Judaism and took a top center official, Orly "Esther" Sibilia, as his fourth wife in a 2006 ceremony performed by the Bergs' son Yehuda. The couple bought a $2-million home on the Beverly Hills block where the Bergs and their sons live in side-by-side homes.
The family put Larkin in charge of an auditing committee that oversees center finances, and according to a suit pending against him and the center by a former member, he also managed personal investments for Philip Berg and his celebrity followers.
Relatives said that when they visited Davis in the mid-2000s she was lucid. They said she never mentioned kabbalah or Spirituality for Kids. Her family was nominally Protestant, but she had never demonstrated an interest in religion, relatives said.
"I never heard of her going to church," said Karen Molinare, a niece who lives in San Diego. "She's been known to go to a wedding and not show up at the ceremony, just the reception."
It is not clear what instructions Davis might have given Larkin about the donation. While Larkin was an almost daily presence at the Kabbalah Centre, former employees and members said they never saw her at center classes, religious services or other events.
Whether Davis made other donations is not known. Spirituality for Kids did not disclose its contributors before or after that year, and the center has never made public its donors. Through a spokesman, the center declined to answer questions about Larkin, Davis or her donations.
In 2009, a period in which Davis' relatives say her memory was failing, Larkin sold her the vacant lot he owned near the Kabbalah Centre's Robertson Boulevard headquarters for $1.4 million. Although it was one of the worst real estate markets in memory, the sale price for the land on South LaPeer Drive was $300,000 more than Larkin had paid for it in 2004, according to assessment records.
To facilitate the sale and construction of a home on the site, Davis has borrowed $2.65 million from the trust, according to property records and court filings. The trustees had informed the probate court of potential conflicts of interest in the past, including Larkin's handling of Davis' personal affairs. But their annual reports to the judge did not disclose Larkin's role in the home sale.
"The judge has nothing to say about it. It's not trust business," said Alan L. Rosen, a Westlake Village attorney who filed the trustee accountings.
Experts consulted by The Times disagreed, saying the real estate deal appeared to be a conflict of interest that called for a judge's review. Under the state probate code, a transaction "by which the trustee obtains an advantage from the beneficiary is presumed to be a violation of the trustee's fiduciary duty."
Arnold Gold, a retired L.A. County Superior Court judge, said a judge could determine whether such a transaction was legal only if trustees brought it to the court's attention.
By Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times