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“Island Lady” Seeks Divorce

by marcia chambers | Aug 25, 2013 10:08 am

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Mary Johnson Photo Nearly three years after their storybook wedding on one of her Thimble Islands, Christine Svenningsen, known as the “Island Lady,” and her landscaper husband are divorcing.

Back on June 26, 2010, when Svenningsen married John G. Chiarella, Jr., a landscaping entrepreneur who manages her Thimbles Islands (9 in all), their union was considered Stony Creek’s wedding of the decade. (It’s pictured above.) She even took Chiarella’s name. Click here to read about the wedding.

Now Svenningsen, who has reclaimed her name, has filed a divorce suit against her husband. The divorce suit was filed in Waterbury Superior Court on May 22, about a month before the couple would have celebrated their third anniversary. A court date is scheduled next month.

According to the court papers Svenningsen sought the divorce because “this marriage has broken down irretrievably.“ No specific reasons were given.

Connecticut is a no-fault divorce state. This means that either party can seek a divorce based on grounds that the marriage has irretrievably broken down.

The court was asked to order a divorce and “a fair division of property and debts” No alimony was sought.  Typically a judge will take into consideration how long the couple has been married and the reason for the breakdown of the marriage when weighing how their assets are to be divided.

Chiarella started his company, Ultimate Services, in 1971 while still in high school. He began with just one employee, a push lawn mower and a handful of clients, according to the company website. Now his staff numbers 100 and is located in Greenwich, Westport and Wolcott, the company headquarters.

The couple’s attorneys did not return phone calls Friday seeking comment. She is represented by Helen Murphy of Murphy & Nugent in New Haven. He is represented by Michael Whalen of Branford.

Between the couple, Svenningsen is believed to own nine of the islands through various corporations, although in April 2010 Chiarella signed off as the owner/agent for Cut-in-Two East Island LLC when a proposed renovation of a house on the island was outlined.  Svenningsen purchased this island in 2003 for $3.4 million.

At the time they married, Svenningsen was the wealthy widow of John Svenningsen, a party goods magnate who died in 1997 at age 66.  He went from running his business out of a garage in 1960 to becoming chairman and CEO of Amscan in Elmsford, N.Y., one of the world’s largest suppliers of party goods.  The Svenningsens first came to Stony Creek when they purchased West Crib Island in 1976 for $121,500.

Svenningsen was 52 and Chiarella was 57 in 2010 when they took their vows at her home on Rogers Island, a 7.75-acre hideaway with a 27-room Tudor-style mansion built in 1902, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a golf course and elaborate formal gardens.

With the help of Chiarella’s company, Svenningsen transformed her islands, conducting major renovations on the houses and grounds, employing contractors, landscapers and a host of other workers who daily boat to her islands from Stony Creek. Her family flag along with Palm trees adorn the islands.  On the mainland of Stony Creek, she has purchased several houses and a studio with five bays.

Svenningsen has become one of the top three taxpayers in Branford and is also a top employer.

She spent $22.3 million for Rogers Island in 2003, a price that astounded some Creekers.  She now owns 9 of the two-dozen inhabitable Thimble Islands; two of her islands are now on the market.

Svenningsen usually spends the summer months in the Thimble Islands; her main home is in Katonah, New York. Chiarella now lives in a single family home, 4-bedroom home in Prospect.  His previous marriage also ended in divorce.

She has five biological children.  She recently made headlines in the New York City tabloid press after a Westchester County surrogate judge ordered her to give a portion of her $250 million estate to a Chinese girl she and John Svenningsen adopted in 1996 when the girl was an infant. She put the girl up for adoption when the girl was 8 years old.

In February, the judge ruled that John Svenningsen meant to provide for all of his children, both biological and adopted, and included the girl in the Svenningsen estate.

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