Documentary on wealth gap divides Buffett family

NEW YORK Thu Feb 21, 2008 7:18am EST

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks during a hearing about ''Federal Estate Tax: Uncertainty in Planning Under the Current Law'' on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 14, 2007. BREUTERS/Jason Reed

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks during a hearing about ''Federal Estate Tax: Uncertainty in Planning Under the Current Law'' on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 14, 2007. B

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A documentary on the growing gap between America's rich and poor has inadvertently cast a spotlight on the relationship between the country's second wealthiest man, Warren Buffett, and his son's adopted daughter.

Nicole Buffett, the daughter of Warren Buffett's son Peter, talks about being part of one of the wealthiest families in the United States during a segment of "The One Percent," which is due to air on U.S. cable television on Thursday.

But the 31-year-old artist told Reuters her involvement in the film by Jamie Johnson, heir to the drug and consumer giant Johnson & Johnson fortune, had shocking consequences.

"My grandfather is a very private man and I decided to share what it's like to be his granddaughter and it created a huge estrangement from him to the extent that he disowned my twin sister and myself," she said.

Warren Buffett was unavailable for comment, but a source familiar with the family signaled the billionaire was concerned the younger Buffett was exaggerating the extent of their relationship.

The source said Buffett's son adopted Nicole and her sister in their late teens after he had divorced their mother, to whom he had been been married about 10 years.

"She doesn't seem to mention this history and instead gives the impression that she was born a Buffett," the source said. "Mr. Buffett saw the girls very infrequently when his son was married to their mother."

"I don't think he feels ill toward her," the source said. "She was adopted by his son, he didn't adopt her. ... I never got the impression they were a big part of his life."

'NOT LEGALLY OR EMOTIONALLY ADOPTED'

The source said Warren Buffett paid for Nicole's living and school expenses until she was about 28 years old, spending $109,000 alone during the past two years, and added that Nicole and her sister -- whose biological father is still alive -- also inherited $100,000 each from Warren Buffett's late wife.

Nicole Buffett believes her grandfather is unhappy at her involvement in the film and an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" because it has drawn attention to his family.

Johnson turned to Nicole Buffett for the documentary after his request to interview the elder Buffett was turned down.

Buffett said she received a letter -- in response to one she sent asking her grandfather to explain why he disowned her -- in which he told her she had "never been considered a real family member, that I have not been legally or emotionally adopted" by him. Nicole Buffett reads from the part of the letter in the documentary.

Buffett said that while her involvement in the documentary was "spontaneous," she felt comfortable because "everything that this film, 'The One Percent,' is about is completely what my grandfather stands for."

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing last year, Warren Buffett, who made his fortune through his insurance and investment company Berkshire Hathaway, lobbied for the U.S. tax burden not to be shifted away from the "super-rich."

"In a country that prides itself on equality of opportunity, it's becoming anything but that as the gap between the super-rich and the middle class is widening," said Buffett, who has pledged 85 percent of his net worth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and family charities.

The documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006 and is due to be broadcast on the U.S. cable channel Cinemax, seeks to explore the wealth gap by interviewing experts, including the late economist Milton Friedman and people are both ends of the wealth gap.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)