Chuck Yeager—hero pilot, American icon, backseat driver. “Make a left at that stop sign, but stop first,” he instructs the visitor who is driving them down a narrow two-laner toward Yeager’s ranch house in Penn Valley, Calif. “This road is pretty winding, so don’t go fast.” Then again, when the guy who first broke the sound barrier decides he wants to navigate, you let him. “I take driving very seriously, like I did flying,” says Yeager, a hearty 81. “Complacency will kill you.”
And yet Yeager’s own children are now accusing him of being asleep at the controls. An ugly family feud erupted last year after Yeager—the ace World War II fighter pilot immortalized in 1983’s The Right Stuff—married Victoria Scott D’Angelo, 45, a former actress once profiled in the Los Angeles Times as aggressively ambitious. Yeager’s four grown children by his first wife, Glennis, who died of ovarian cancer in 1990, did more than disapprove; three of them filed lawsuits depicting D’Angelo as a gold digger who is alienating Yeager from his children—and challenging the ownership of his $1.35-million ranch house as well as other portions of his multimillion-dollar estate. Yeager’s daughter and principal plaintiff, Susan, 55, said in court papers that D’Angelo exerts “undue influence” over Yeager in an attempt to “manipulate [him] into transferring assets and property to [her].” Susan also claims D’Angelo slandered her by saying she stole $3 million from her father.
Yeager’s children—Susan, a businesswoman; Don, 58, a fishing lodge owner; Mickey, 56, retired from the Air Force; and Sharon, 55, a horse breeder—have not told their side of the story to the press but feel they are being unfairly portrayed. “The issue has been to show that us kids are jealous of my father’s new wife, and that is not the case,” Don Yeager told PEOPLE. “The issue was created by Victoria and put my dad in the middle. He loves her, but I am sure he loves us too.”
The man his pals call the General sees things differently. “It’s all about money,” says Yeager. “They hate Victoria with a passion, and they are trying to make sure none of my estate goes to her.” D’Angelo, seemingly unfazed by the charges, says, “All this nonsense is a decoy. I know who I am and he knows who I am.”
At stake in the squabble: the fruits of Yeager’s 60-year career in aviation, highlighted by cracking the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 plane in 1947. His 1985 autobiography, Yeager, sold more than 2 million copies, while his commercials for A.C. Delco, speaking engagements and shrewd real estate investments made by his late wife have brought in millions more. Yet Yeager lives mainly on his $80,000 annual military pension; this has allowed him, he claims, to give his children between $3 and $5 million over the years. By contrast, he says, D’Angelo “has never taken a penny.”
Yeager also says that when his first wife got cancer in the mid ’80s, he cared for her with little help from his children. “As I got older, I knew the kids were not going to take care of me,” he says. “It was obvious I’d end up in a rest home. I had to look for someone.”
He met D’Angelo while both were hiking on a trail near his house in March 2000. Raised in Philadelphia by wealthy parents—her mother was a corporate consultant on alcoholism, her father a lawyer—D’Angelo says she did not know who Yeager was until he told her. “Take me up in a fighter plane,” she then said.
“That would cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars,” Yeager answered.
“I’m a taxpayer,” she replied.
After she moved in with him a few weeks later, Yeager asked an attorney friend to do a background check on her. Last August they got married in a civil ceremony in Lake Tahoe—no rings, no relatives. Today “they hold hands and kiss and laugh,” Yeager’s neighbor Todd Piercey says. “It’s beautiful to see the love they share.” His fishing buddy Gary Loomis says, “They have something great together. If there’s anyone who is in his right state of mind at 81, it’s Chuck.”
When Yeager tried to wrest control of his finances from Susan, who had handled them since her mother died, and give it to D’Angelo, who has an MBA in finance from Columbia University, Susan refused to turn over the books. “That raised a red flag,” says Yeager. Since then he has changed his will to cut out his children but still provide for his grandkids and great-grandkids. As it stands D’Angelo will inherit most of Yeager’s estate.
A settlement hearing is scheduled for mid-April, but the Nevada City, Calif., judge handling the case has urged both sides to work out a compromise. Meanwhile, Yeager is teaching D’Angelo to fly and allowing her to fix him healthier meals. When asked if he loves her, though, he doesn’t set any speed records answering. “His generation doesn’t say that,” D’Angelo suggests before Yeager finally pipes up. “I’m not an emotional guy,” he says, “but, yeah, I do.”
Alex Tresniowski. Frank Swertlow in Penn Valley