The strange story of the woman who left Charles Bronson a small fortune in her will – despite never having met the actor.
At the height of his box office powers, the late Charles Bronson was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Going back to the start of the 1970s, and off the back of successful ensemble movies such as The Great Escape and Once Upon A Time In The West, Bronson signed up for a bunch of action films that would bring with them a succession of hits for the actor. Chato’s Land, the original The Mechanic and The Stone Killer were just some of the titles that saw his stardom rise. His salary would bubble up to a world-leading $1m a picture at the time.
But the huge hit would come in 1974, collaborating not for the first time with director Michael Winner on the first Death Wish movie. He was in his early 50s when he took on the role of Paul Kersey for the first time, and he’d play the character across four sequels and a ZX Spectrum game too.
His star would fade over time, but the legendary Cannon Films was keen to make movies with him. Along with stars such as Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff, Cannon had signed Bronson to a rich deal, and was always on the lookout for new movies for him.
Not surprising, either, as Bronson’s loyal fanbase would more often than not turn those films into profitable ventures.
One such fan was a woman by the name of Audrey Jean Knauer. As it turned out, she was such a fan of Bronson’s, that she would change her will to make him the beneficiary of it. Knauer never got to meet Bronson in her lifetime, nor was it known that she ever wrote to him. But she did love his movies.
However, she sadly passed away in 1997 at the age of just 55. And it transpired that she’d updated her will, and as the Seattle Times reported her instructions were “scribbled on a typed list of emergency phone numbers”. She had previously written a will in 1977, that left the money to her relatives.
But then she decided to change that. Her relatives thus got two surprises. One, that her estate was worth more than ten times more than expected, amount to just shy of $300,000. And two, that she’d decided to leave her entire estate to her favourite movie star. More than that: she specifically instructed too that if Bronson didn’t want the gift, the estate was to pass to the Louisville Free Public Library, where she used to visit to research more about her favourite star.
And Bronson took at least a little of the money.
Whilst the will was contested, Bronson reportedly received half of the bequest. But the arguments were understandably well underway by this point. Knauer’s overlooked relatives began legal proceedings, with the argument being that the original 1977 will was the authentic and properly witnessed one. That the scribbled version was null and void.
The case thus was finding its way towards court. A spokesman for Bronson, around the time of all of this, said that the actor was planning to donate his bequest to a charitable cause rather than take the money himself. Which charity he picked was never disclosed, but in fairness to the man, it was a pretty unusual situation for him to be in as well.
Furthermore, Bronson offered to write a cheque for $10,000 to the Louisville Free Public Library. It apparently declined the donation, however, presumably believing it had a greater amount coming its way once the legal matters had run their course. The bequest would have had a transformative impact on the organisation, with a spokesperson telling the New York Post that the money could buy 10 to 20,000 books with the funds.
However, things all came to a head in the spring of 1999. That’s when an agreement was reached out of court between Charles Bronson and the Knauer’s sister. The amount everyone received as a result of the settlement was never disclosed, as you’d expect. But it brought to an end a story that had comfortably been a little on the bizarre side. The settlement presumably led to everyone getting at least something (with one exception, that I’m coming to). And for Audrey Jean Knauer, her name would be linked as a consequence with that of her hero. Hopefully, that’s something that would put a smile on her face.
As it turns out, though, it seems the only party who didn’t ultimately benefit was the library itself. In spite of declining the original offer of a cheque from Bronson, a further offer wasn’t forthcoming from any party, it seems. As a consequence, it was just the library that apparently ended up with nothing…
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