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The Right Stuff: Spaced Out

There’s nothing in this world that certain white, small-town, God-fearing, airplane-flying boys hanker af­ter so much as the right stuff. The right stuff cannot be described or explained. Anyone crass enough to try and put it into words ipso facto probably doesn’t have it. Tom Wolfe is crass enough to try and put the right stuff into words, which ipso facto probably means he doesn’t have it. The right stuff is a man’s “ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and ul­timately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”

Like Predestination, there’s no earthly, definitive way of knowing for sure if you’ve got the right stuff, which is no doubt why so many Protestant boys, accustomed to looking for signs of election, spend their lives trying to prove they’ve got it. According to Wolfe, you can even be fairly certain you’ve got the right stuff and then fuck up — at any time — and find out after all that you didn’t have it — usually at about the same moment you are dying, except you’re not caring about dying so much as discover­ing that you probably didn’t have the right stuff and eating your heart out thinking now everyone is going to know.

This business about the right stuff and death is where things get a little mysterious and paradoxical, although people with the right stuff, Wolfe says, usually don’t dwell much on mysteries and paradoxes because thinking like this can foul up the reflexes, the coolness, etc. While a good sign that you’ve got the right stuff is caring more about having it than dying, it is also true that anyone trying to prove he’s got the right stuff has a very good chance (one in four) of dying while doing it, and dying — ­almost more than anything — probably means that you didn’t have it (the moxie, the reflexes, etc. to pull it out, etc.). You fucked up.

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There’s something about thinking about the right stuff and writing about the right stuff that makes you talk like this, like a drawlin’, Appalachia-raised, country-boy — ­like Chuck Yeager, to be precise, the most righteous possessor of the right stuff who ever lived, according to Wolfe, the hottest of the hot-shot test and fighter pilot jocks. Nerveless, rocket-testing Chuck was the first man to fly past Mach 1, the man whose cooler than cool, aw shucks manner — “now folks, we’re just goin’ through a little tiny mite of turbulence” (the plane has just dropped 1000 feet, your heart is in your mouth) — was imitated by every post war pilot until it became standard pilotese: The voice of God, if God were good. But though writing about the right stuff and thinking about the right stuff from the point of view of the men who have the right stuff makes the white-knuckled jet-rider in you especially grateful for the captain-virtues that time and again have put your heart back in your chest, it tends to make you forget for a while that even though these men with the right stuff are brave and capable, they are also colossally infantile chumps. It’s a scary combination.

The reader might lose this complexity from time to time, but Wolfe never lets go of it — it’s his foremost achievement in this long-awaited book — although there are good things and bad things about his method. Wolfe describes the many parts of right stuffness by never allowing the reader to know what, precisely, he thinks of it. He steers our sympathies toward the pilots who seek the right stuff, and then abruptly cuts our feelings off. He writes from everyone’s imagined perspective — even that of rocket-riding chimpanzees — but because Wolfe is ev­erywhere, be is also nowhere. Wolfe does all perspectives in the same, “I am my subject and therefore you (reader) are my subject” style, sometimes using the same phrases to describe very different things; and eventually he winds up counterfeiting his own language.

While writing from the point of view of the first astronaut-contenders who endured grueling, sadistic tests at Lovelace Clinic, Wolfe coins the, phrase “White Smocks.” White Smocks are the cold, clinical, note-­taking dehumanisers. White smocks specialize in humiliating procedures, like giving barium enemas and then making the men walk two flights to a toilet. They “teach” chimps to be “astronauts” by zapping electric current through’ the soles of their feet when they fail to perform correctly. But later in the book, while writing from the perspective of Scott Carpenter — the only one of the seven Mercury astronauts who was at all interested in ex­perimental science — the term White Smocks is as­sociated with an enlightened, humanistic purpose which is foiled by NASA engineers, by pro-operational, anti­-science types whose champion is Wally Schirra.

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The effect is dizzying, and issues get clouded, not clarified. Wolfe’s “stuff” becomes very repetitious — lots of dummy-heads but one ventriloquist. Instead of high­-lighting the nuances of the events and personalities he is chronicling, too often Wolfe’s style homogenizes them, and by making all “the dramas” he writes about sound equally charged, Wolfe sometimes neutralizes rather than heightens their impact.

The essence for Wolfe is not the content of disputes but their disputeness. A particular controversy becomes Any Controversy, with absurdly reductive results. He writes with identical irony, identical identi­fication/alienation, often identical pitch when describing controversies as different in degree (and significance) as Kennedy versus Khrushchev in Cold War strategy, the astronauts’ self-concept as jock pilots versus NASA’s idea of them as “lab rats,” and Alan Shepherd’s “astronauts can fuck around discretely” line versus John Glenn’s “astronauts shouldn’t fuck anyone.” By the end of the book, Wolfe’s “politics” (what are they?) and sense of proportion about events are so askew that, explaining the  public’s diminished interest in the astronauts after 1963, he attributes this to the installation of telephone hot lines and the ban on weapons in orbit. Then the Cold War ended, he says; nowhere in The Right Stuff are Vietnam, the assassinations, or various civil rights movements ever mentioned with relationship to the space program, or American focus on it.

This is dumb. Throughout The Right Stuff, too, the press is “the Victorian Gentlemen,” a herd of toadying mush-peddlers, hawking pure-boy astronauts in the ’60s, possible Watergates-under-every-politician in the ’70s. But the important thing for Wolfe (even assuming he were entirely right about the press as “herd”) is not that these phenomena have had entirely different effects on society, but that journalists hawk. What a piddly thing to get huffy about considering all the shit — like the racism in the space program (let me not mention the sexism) — that Wolfe allows to go flying by.

Well, enough about the good stuff, now for some criticism. Despite the thwack this book ultimately delivers to the soul, a lot is very interesting, a good deal is funny, much is exciting, and there are some Wolfian set-piece gems.

The Right Stuff, a history of the pioneering Mercury missions, was expected about five years ago, but Wolfe’s delay probably benefits the book. Ten years after the American moon landing — 20 since Sputnik 1 — astronauts and space-race lore have receded enough into the past to warrant rethinking. Wolfe tells the early space story as if it were myth, and it is.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a Russian Menace who made a bid for possession of the heavens. American presidents, senators who appropriated billions to put a man in space, citizens who wept when freckled-face John Glenn talked about the flag — all looked to the astronauts to “represent” them in the sky. During the Cold War, the astronauts were invented to serve as “single combat warriors,” soldiers symbolic of the nation, or, to be more exact, as human sacrifices — since most American rocket-launchings up to this point had ended in ludicrous fizzle-outs or horrific fire storms. Everyone expected that the astronauts would die. Only one incen­tive could make otherwise ordinary American boys will­ing to sit on top of a rocket that was probably going to blow up: the lure of the right stuff, the military ideal of masculine virtue (rockets are dangerous, but we’re used to danger), the scent of glory to “the boys,” the ring in the bull’s nose to Kennedy.

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Wolfe’s descriptions of the evolution of the fighter jock ego are superbly on target, its source in the World War II fighters, its nurturance in the jet and rocket testing programs at Muroc (later Edwards Air Force Base). Wolfe also dramatizes  exceedingly well the way the right stuff mystique trapped the Mercury astronauts in a Catch-22 maze: The testing process was designed to select the most gullible, most serviceable (I would rather die than fuck up), least introspective, least curious pilots; but to the astronauts, their ability to play NASA’s game (there is no shit I will not eat) and get selected was evidence of their possession of “the stuff.”

And what was (is) the kick? First, the life: never growing up, fraternity days forever, living away from the wife and children, flying all day, then drinking, then driving fast cars while drunk (more pilots die in cars than in planes, Wolfe says), and screwing around — although women seem to be very, very low on the pleasure totem pole, and right-stuff women are, as described by Wolfe, “moist labial piping little birds.” (Who’s talking here? Pilots say “labial”?) Second, the glory: ticker-tape pa­rades, moms on national TV. Third, the “goodies,” every military man’s due, but extra for astronauts: money, meeting presidents and rich people, book contracts, etc.

As is probably clear, when they aren’t flying planes or rockets, the astronauts Wolfe writes about are not what could easily be called fun people. Alan Shephard liked to do Jose Jimenez routines, Wally Schirra was a “gotcha” kidder. After Wolfe’s splendid opening chapters on avia­tion history and the birth of the space program, where he freely exercises his eye for grisly detail, the middle of the book sags dully as Wolfe “becomes” each astronaut — Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton being pits in the valley. Their lives all seem pathetically bleak and circumscribed by callow needs. The lives of their wives and children seem bleaker still. Little wonder that “the wives” seldom looked enraptured to see their husbands returned from space. From the stories Wolfe tells, it might even have given a few of the wives some pleasure to see “the bastards,” their husbands, catapulted into the great blue beyond.

But the saga picks up momentum again as Wolfe describes how “the valiant lads” altered the Mercury program, little-by-little turning themselves from ex­perimental subjects into jock pilots who could, and in certain cases had to, control their space vehicles. The descriptions of the space shots themselves are ex­traordinarily exciting, Wolfe showing his journalistic “right stuff” each time, taking the story to “the edge” and pulling it out “with moxie, experience,” the works. It’s amazing, really. We know the outcomes — although not all the details, actual risks, human and mechanical foul ups — and still Wolfe makes the reader wonder, “Yeah, yeah, and then what happened? Did he crash?”

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At several other points along the way, Wolfe is in top form, summarizing and satirizing with wild Rabelaisian excess and grotesque Brueghelesque detail: The scene in which John Glenn, first man to orbit the earth, addresses the Senate, introduces his wife Annie as “the rock,” and the old curmudgeons stand up and shout “Amen.” The scene in which poststroke Joe Kennedy meets Glenn and starts crying, but only half his face can move. The scene of the astronauts’ welcome to Houston amid an indoor barbecue; whole steers are being roasted, and enormous greasy joints are served to the stunned pilots and their families who can barely keep the meat from slipping off the paper plates onto their laps. The scene of Alan Shephard in the first Mercury space capsule after a four­-hour delay in his launch, horrified that his unstaunchable need to urinate, for which no provision has been made, will be broadcast across the wires of the world.

Here is Wolfe on the first assemblage of potential astronauts: “Conrad … flies into a room with thirty-four other young men, most of them with crew cuts … and the unmistakable cocky rolling gait of fighter jocks, not to mention the pathetic-looking civilian suits and the enormous wristwatches. The wristwatches had about two thousand calibrations on them and dials for recording everything short of the sound of enemy guns. These terrific wristwatches were practically fraternal insignia among the pilots. Thirty-odd young souls wearing Robert Hall clothes that cost about a fourth as much as their watches: in the year 1959 this had to be a bunch of military pilots trying to disguise themselves as civilians.”

Here is Wolfe’s description of one of the fiascos at Cape Canaveral: “The mighty white shaft rumbles and seems to bestir itself — and then seems to change its mind … because the flames suddenly cut off … and there’s a little pop. A cap on the tip of the rocket comes off. It goes shooting up in the air, a tiny little thing with a needle nose. In fact, it’s the capsule’s escape tower. As the crowd watches, stone silent and befuddled, it goes up about 12,000 feet and descends under a parachute. It looks like a little party favor. It lands about three hundred feet away from the rocket on the torpid banks of the Banana River. Five hundred VIPs had come all the way to Florida, to this goddamned Low Rent sandpit, where bugs you couldn’t even see invaded your motel room and bit your ankles until they ran red onto the acrylic shag carpet — all the way to this rockbeach boondock they had come, to see the fires of Armageddon and hear the earth shake with the thunder — and instead they get this … this pop … and a cork pops out of a bottle of Spumante.”

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And here is Wolfe describing the grim staging setup by Life photographers when the first three Mercury astronauts were announced: “To show three astronauts having an outing with their families at the same time, even in different locations, would have been stretching the truth considerably. To present such a spectacle at the Cape — which was, in effect, off limits to wives — was an absolute howler. On top of that, if you were going to put astronaut families together for a frolic on the beach, you ­could scarcely come up with a less likely combination than the Glenns, the Grissoms, and the Shephards — the clans of the Deacon, the Hoosier Grit, and the Icy Commander … In fact, they looked like three families from warring parts of our restless globe who had never laid eyes on each other until they were washed up upon this godforsaken shore together after a shipwreck, shivering morosely in their leisure togs, staring off into the distance, desperately scanning the horizon for rescue vessels, preferably three of them, flying different flags.

“As for the Other Four, they might as well have dropped through a crack in the earth.”

There is much, finally, that is touching about the alienation of these men from one another, from their families, and from the images America had of them. There is also something extraordinarily moving about what the astronauts did, regardless of their personal motivations and the politics behind the money that financed their undertaking. I remember watching the launchings on TV (sometimes at school), absolutely spell­-bound by the whole thing, unperturbed by the tech­nolingo of “rogers ” and “a-okays.” I always appreciated the the sensation of speed under control, and I admired and still admire physical courage. I didn’t want the astronauts to die, and l don’t think this feeling had anything to do with Russia. I thought even the most clonelike astronauts were exceedingly brave. Some had more than bravery. Whether this sort of courage and the cool daring the astronauts and test pilots manifested is ever separable from the blockheaded nonsense of right stuffness isn’t answered by Wolfe, and it isn’t asked. For him, they are ineluctably of a piece.

The book ends with a harrowing account of Chuck Yeager’s escape from a careening NF-104 rocket in 1963. He had tried and failed to take it faster and higher than the Russians. He finally ejects. While sailing through the air, a piece of metal from the seat mechanism hits him. His eye is cut; it starts to bleed, then, suddenly, his face begins to burn under his helmet. His eye is bleeding, his face is burning, one finger catches fire as he tries to rip his helmet off, and all of this is happening as he’s parachuting toward earth. He lands, remains cool, and lives to tell about it. Just before this flight, Wolfe tells us Yeager was feeling particularly pissed off about Kennedy’s insistence that a black astronaut be trained. Yeager goes up and comes down, and the Russian record is never broken. And does Wolfe admire the right stuff and what it can get men to do more than he mocks them? I honestly couldn’t tell. ❖

THE RIGHT STUFF. By Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12.95.


The Late Great Orson Welles

Apocalypse, Nu?

When the cops broke into David Berkowitz’s Yonkers apartment upstairs from Craig who was “Craig” and around the corner from Sam’s barking black dog, they found a very small library. Young David, it seems, was a much more avid writer than reader. One of the few volumes in his otherworld-charm bachelor pad was a well-thumbed copy of The Late Great Planet Earth, a “theoretical” work by one Hal Lindsey that seeks to explain how and why Old Testament apocalyptic prophesy will come true in our lifetime. According to several of Berkowitz’s co-letter-throwers at the post office, the .44-caliber killer swore by the book, often re­marking, “Everything is in it.”

This being the case, you’ve got to feel sorry for Pacific In­ternational Enterprises, the distributors of the current four-walling movie version of The Late Great Planet Earth. An ad reading “EVERYTHING IS IN IT — David Berkowitz, Son of Sam” would really keep those shopping-mall and drive-in theatre turnstiles whizzing. Even better than “RATH­ER COMPELLING — Stuart Klein.” Too bad. Pull quotes from mass murderers are sadly out of the question. Still, anyone who knows that “cats are cats” cannot be totally without critical perspective so, on David Berkowitz’s recommendation, I went to Broadway to check out The Late Great Planet Earth.

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David Berkowitz and Orson Welles. Many so-called “auteurists” believe that Welles’s career has essentially been in eclipse since Falstaff. These “critics” discount all of Welles’s recent work as a sellout by a burnt­out. But I believe that if an artist is a true auteur, as Welles undoubtably is, his entire life’s work can be seen in completist context. From this point of view, Welles narrating The Late Great Planet Earth — as well as por­traying the voice of God speaking to the prophet Ezekiel — is a logical step.

For the better part of this decade, although he has made no major films, Welles has con­sistently been gaining in weighty seriousness. His early ’70s Dean Martin-Johnny Carson period simultaneously displayed the great di­rector at his most frivolous and his most despairing. Often, in the midst of Kane-like (and, one might add, Colonel Haki-like) dancing bouts with the Golddiggers, Welles allowed himself to degenerate into what ap­peared to be self-mockery. He repeatedly assumed, the role of the art-loving, museum­-going “intellectual,” making himself the butt and fodder of many boozy Martin guffaws. But, clearly, as we see now, this was not sim­ply the case of a great artist publicly humi­liating himself, as with Truman Capote, Ed­die Fisher, and Elizabeth Taylor. Here Welles was standing firm, peering into the single unwavering red beady eye of the TV camera, and measuring himself in terms of modern times.

This self-analysis has continued with Welles’s recent series of Vivitar-camera commercials. What better way for the filmmaker to come to grips with the basic tools of his trade than by convincing others to buy them? Much the same process is apparent in Welles’s stunning voice-over for Perrier. The schizophrenia inherent in Welles’s European culture lust (expressed in the Shakespeare films and most prominently in The Trial) has long clashed with his rambunctious Americanism (as Colonel Amberson began to un­derstand, one never really leaves Wisconsin). Again, what better way to reconcile these op­posing factors than to make a European product accessible to an American audience?

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As for Welles’s participation in The Late Great Planet Earth, should the creator of The War of the Worlds be any less interested in the demise of terra firma just because 40 years have elapsed? This film fits his oeuvre like a fat-fingered glove. In the first scene, a man in biblical garb is chased and killed by a mob of angry Hebrews. Then, in the very next sequence, Welles appears, carrying a skull. In his booming voice, he informs us that the man killed in the earlier scene was a false prophet and the skull he holds once be­longed to the charlatan. Then Welles tosses the head around in his ample hands. This scene is quite obviously a direct allusion to the glass-ball opening sequence of Kane.

But enough. The Late Great Planet Earth has a co-auteur, the aforementioned “theore­tician,” Hal Lindsey, who shares the film’s narration. Lindsey plays off the Big O’s brimstone quite nicely. He wears a dungaree suit, turquoise rings, and has hair that swoops like a flume ride in a theme park. All in all, Mr. Lindsey looks like a reformed smoker who was in the middle of teaching his weekly Evelyn Wood course the night he saw the flying saucers land on the Interstate. At­tempting to get some bio info on Mr. Lind­sey, I searched for a copy of The Late Great…  Booksellers on 8th Street said they were sorry, they had been expecting a slew of …Planet Earths to coincide with the movie opening but the huge snowfalls in the Midwest had fouled things up. I do not know whether this delay pleases Mr. Lindsey or not, inasmuch as it keeps him from making a lot of money but supports some of his theo­ries about the coming ice age.

In lieu of Mr. Lindsey’s book, a friend gave me a copy of The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore, a 1000-year-old Expositio in Apocaly­sim. This volume, which also predicted the imminent destruction of the planet, is chock­-full of snake-headed diagrams and talk of the Antichrist. Joachim, however, did not have juicy stuff like the A-bomb and mercury-­infested fish to throw in the face of the impla­cable progression of time. Much of Joachim’s antecedent philosophy was similar to Lindsey’s however. Both take on faith that the an­cient Israeli prophets — most prominently Isaiah, Zechariah, and Ezekiel — saw visions of the “end days,” a time in which the world would burn in fire. They wrote these visions into the Bible, and since then a large portion of their prophesies have come true. Like the Big O says in the narration, “70 per cent of biblical prophecy has already come true. The remaining 30 per cent will come true in our lifetime.”

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It is this 30 per cent that occupies the bulk of The Late Great Planet Earth and, needless to say, it figures to light your ass up. Accord­ing to Lindsey, it has taken 2000 years of “civilization” for us to fully realize what the prophets’ vision meant. Lindsey interprets the Prophet John’s vision of blinding lightn­ing to “actually be a very beautiful descrip­tion of the exchange of intercontinental bal­listic missiles.” Of Zechariah’s statements about men’s flesh being “consumed before they fall” and eyes being “consumed by fire in their sockets,” Lindsey says, “this could only happen in nuclear war.”

I couldn’t catch it all, but before the big bang, there will be a bunch of serious inter­national politicking, all of it predicted thou­sands of years ago. Orson says the Bible said the “end days” would commence as soon as the Jews returned to the Holy Land and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon. So, now that the State of Israel has been established and the Jews are in possession of the Wailing Wall, it’s just a matter of time. The battle over the Middle East, supposedly predicted by the prophets, will escalate. Soon “the kings of the North” ( obviously the Russians, says Welles) will begin to move their armies. “The kings of the East” (Orson says, “The Bible says they will come with an army of 200,000,000 … right now the People’s Army is estimated at 200,000,000”) will counter their northern enemies. Then, from the west will come another force. This “10-nation confederacy” risen “from the ruins of Rome” (The Common Market has nine members, dig) will be led by the Antichrist. And under his conniving leadership these three forces will meet in the Valley of Decision.

The Antichrist is a man who at first ap­pears to be the saviour of the world but really is a cat playing a riff to send humanity down for the count. As the Big O portended some stuff about the number 666, clips of Nixon, Ted Kennedy, Brown, and various “failed” antichrists like Hitler were shown. But since the Antichrist will first appear to die, and then rise up, I kept picturing John Wayne.

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The rotten part of The Late Great Planet Earth was its laborious “proof” section. I can understand the rationale behind trotting out whole platoons of “scientists,” like Desmond Morris — guys who are to Einstein as Herbie Mann is to Charlie Parker — to say “it’s later than you think.” For a ’70s pseudo-science like running or astrology, you’ve got to have pseudo-scientists. But Planet Earth‘s guys shed no light.

One “scientist” had a nifty modernistic rap about how when “replacement body parts became widespread the entire popula­tion will undergo a massive identity crisis.” But the rest was the typical hippie dreck about the ozone layer being brown.

Therein lies the major fault of The Late Great Planet Earth. To me, the Apocalypse is an intensely personal thing. I really don’t need some self-help creep handing out a cov­er version. Every thinking human can and should conjure up his own vision of doom, just like the graybeards in the Bible did. Screw ecologists. I stand with Carl Sand­burg — a factory is as beautiful as a tree. Nu­clear power doesn’t scare me either. Not at all. I like watching slow-motion films of mushroom clouds; they have a restful, nar­cotic effect on me. Some day I hope to watch a four-hour VTR tape of A-bomb explosions on a seven-foot TV screen as I drink beer. In fact, I think it’s fair to say I have a love-hate relationship with nuclear holocaust.

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I remember the only time doomsday got me scared. I was doing a story on reggae sing­er Jimmy Cliff, who was doing his best to avoid me. Determined, I went to Randall’s Island, where Cliff was scheduled to perform at a Black Muslim “Family Day.” Cliff was to go on right after the keynote speaker, Minister Louis B. Farrakhan, a fiery preacher of inordinate persuasiveness. Farrakhan was only supposed to speak for 15 minutes, but as he entered his third hour at the podium he launched into a sublecture on the apocalypse. Waving his white-jacketed arms above his bubble sunglasses, Farrakhan invoked num­erous images of Ezekiel seeing “blood-red seas.” As he spoke of “the hand of Allah be­ing set,” I tried to get real small. Which wasn’t easy since I was sitting in the first row, the only visible white in a rally of 20,000.

So I did not shudder one bit when Welles spoke The Late Great Planet Earth‘s final line, a quote from Isaiah, “even as the earth shall pass away, my Words will not pass away.” The only shiver I got was knowing that very same voice once ended a film by saying, “I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles.” But as the lights went on, I was snapped from this sentimen­tality. Behind me was a regular-looking guy in a white Banlon shirt. He seemed normal enough, but he had a strange vacant smile. His eyes were wet, like he had been crying during the film. I wondered why anyone would cry during a movie like The Late Great Planet Earth when this guy turned to me and said, “It’s all true, you know. Every word of it. True. We don’t have a chance. Every single thing is true.” I didn’t wait around to ask him if “cats are cats.” ❖


Meade Esposito, Runnin’ Scared

State Supreme Court Judge Alvin Klein’s recent dismissal of a legal motion to unseat Brooklyn Democratic boss Meade Esposito was in part the result of a series of compromises and a lack of prosecutorial zeal by State Attorney General Robert Abrams.

Abrams, who inherited the complaint against Esposito from former Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, cooperated with Esposito’s attorney in the selection of Judge Klein to hear the case, allowed Esposito to miss two default deadlines, failed to use important evidence he had gathered against Esposito, and did not even seek out other available and obvious evidence. Last week Abrams, who was supported by Esposito for attorney general in 1978, refused to answer specific questions about the case directly, despite repeated requests by the Voice. Instead, Abrams’s press aides selectively responded to some of the questions and issued a general denial, calling “any insinuation that the Esposito matter” wasn’t handled thoroughly and professionally “reckless and totally inaccurate.”

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The County Leader’s New Clothes
Klein’s decision itself represents a cynical attempt to isolate the law from the real world, surrounding Esposito with legal fantasies so bold as to nullify the last century of machine politics in this city. The essence of Klein’s ruling was that Esposito, who has become a caricature of the county party boss, is in fact no boss at all and thus cannot be penalized for breaking state laws that limit the commercial activity of a county leader.

The complaint alleged that Esposito violated a 25-year-old statute that requires public and party officials to forfeit their office if they do any business with a racetrack. Esposito was charged with sharing in the insurance and mortgage fees for the Parr Meadows racetrack in Suffolk County. (He was paid as a partner in two firms that represented the track.) Two weeks ago, Klein decided that Esposito couldn’t be required to give up the office of Brooklyn county leader on the novel ground that there is no such title in the Brooklyn party. A few hours after Klein’s decision was released, Abrams announced his intention to appeal. But indications are that Abrams contributed to the awkward result he is now challenging.

Klein based his decision on the fact that Esposito, like every other county leader in every borough for decades, holds the title of “chairman of the executive committee” of the Brooklyn organization. A strict reading of the rules of the organization, claimed Klein, reveals no reference to the term “county leader.” The language of the statute used against Esposito covers “county leaders” and a host of other titles, but does not specifically list the title “chairman of the executive committee.” So, concluded Klein, the law does not apply to Esposito. “He is not the county leader,” wrote Klein, “since no such position exists.”

Klein granted Esposito’s motion for summary dismissal of the case, meaning that the question of whether or not Esposito is a county leader is so beyond doubt that it is not a “triable fact.” Though Esposito’s attorney, James LaRossa, submitted an affidavit denying that Esposito was a county leader, Esposito himself was not even asked by Klein to do so. If Klein had asked, it would’ve blown the whole house of cards. Esposito wouldn’t have denied he was county leader in a sworn statement because that would’ve invited a perjury prosecution.

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Unless the appeal prevails and a trial before a jury is eventually ordered, Esposito may never have to admit in court that he is in fact the cigar-chomping, jowled, potbellied, gravel-voiced party boss he’s been playing these 10 years. If the facts stand as Klein left them, Brooklyn will have but a shadow leader, masquerading at Foffe’s Restaurant and on Court Street as a kind of historic replica of the old machine tradition. Klein has abolished the position in order to allow Meade to continue to hold it. But, after Klein’s decision, all Esposito will legally hold is an obscure and bureaucratic title having something to do with an executive committee. Brooklyn, the grand old county of organization politics, will have no official leader.

When I visited Klein and his law clerk, Steve Zarkin, I asked them why Esposito hired one of the most expensive criminal lawyers in town to defend a position he didn’t hold. Since the worst that could have happened to him under this statute was the forfeiture of the title “county leader” — not the loss of the executive committee chairmanship — why fight to keep a title that Klein insists doesn’t exist? Seemed to me, I said, that his willingness to pay to defend the title proved he had it. Klein looked bewildered. Zarkin laughed. “To tell you the truth,” said Zarkin, “we never thought of that.” Apparently neither did Bob Abrams. But then again, it might not be much of a legal argument. It makes too much sense. And Klein was bent on redefining the universe, turning his courtroom into an abstraction uncomplicated by the nuisance of real life.

There was a kind of “Free Meade” hysteria beneath the surface of both the decision and my interviews with Klein, Zarkin, and others about this case. The statute used against Esposito is viewed as ancient, and the violation as technical and ill­-matched to such a grand loss of power. As a result of this thinking, there were few limits on the willingness by Klein and others to invent frivolous dodges that sidestepped the obvious. But the statute is a sound and tested conflict-of-interest prohibition, and the clear intent of the 1954 legislature that adopted it was to bar political leaders able to influence racing legislation from acquiring an interest in those same racetracks.

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Picking the Judge
After years of watching election cases in Brooklyn courts, I learned that the critical moment in political cases is when the judge is assigned. I recall one case where countervailing political pressures twice succeeded in changing the judge assigned and, with each switch, the preordained winner also changed. Two powerful, regular Brooklyn organizations were battling over the assignment and, once the judge was finally in place, the leaders who lost the assignment battle never even appeared for the hearing. Everyone knew how the county had decided the case would go.

In his last month in office, prodded by insistent revelations in Newsday concerning Esposito’s interests in the racetrack, Lefkowitz brought the case against Esposito in Manhattan Supreme Court. The technical grounds he used to bypass Brooklyn courts was that the attorney general’s office is in Manhattan. Lefkowitz’s choice of venue was an implicit indictment of the Brooklyn judiciary. But the chances of finding an independent judge in Manhattan to handle so extraordinary a political case were only slightly better than in Brooklyn.

The Manhattan judicial district includes the Bronx, and Alvin Klein became a judge after a lifetime of politics in the Bronx regular Democratic organization. For 14 years he was personal secretary to the legendary Bronx county leader and congressman, Charles Buckley. In 1963 Buckley decided to reward Klein with a civil court judgeship. But Buckley’s antagonist, then mayor Robert Wagner Sr., balked momentarily, in part because the bar association had rejected Klein as unqualified. So county leader Buckley called a meeting of the Bronx executive committee, which he chaired, and they anointed Klein as the party candidate anyway. Wagner was subsequently forced to agree. So Klein knows something about executive committees and county leaders: that’s how he became a judge.

Esposito is the heir to a boss tradition symbolized by Buckley and his Manhattan ally, Carmine DeSapio. The best example of Buckley’s style of leadership was his boast once at a dinner honoring the Bronx district attorney that every assistant DA in the Bronx for the previous 50 years had been recommended by his district leader. “They were not Liberals or reformers,” he said, “they were honest-to­-God Americans.” It was a couple of decades of subservience to that kind of organizational mentality that prepared Klein for his decision in the Esposito case.

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I asked Klein if he regarded his former mentor Buckley as a county leader and whether Buckley held the same executive committee chairmanship as Esposito. Klein said yes to both questions, then conceded: “He was in the same position as Esposito.” Catching his own slip, he corrected himself: “I may have looked at Mr. Buckley as the county leader … But suppose 50 people call somebody a boss. Suppose the newspapers call somebody a boss. That doesn’t mean he’s a boss.” As one attorney familiar with both the case and the judge told me: “Klein couldn’t do anything but decide that way. His whole life has led him to certain feelings about these institutions — the party, the leadership. No one would have to buy a contract to persuade him. The instincts of a lifetime would only permit one result.”

If anyone should’ve known that about Alvin Klein, it was Bob Abrams. Abrams got his start as a Bronx reform assemblyman in the mid-‘6os, fighting against the Buckley machine. Klein says that he and Abrams met in Bronx politics and have known each other for years. Pat Cunningham, who came out of the same Bronx club as Buckley and Klein and eventually became Bronx county leader, used to call Abrams the “Hirohito of the Bronx reform movement” — meaning its kamikaze pilot, its cutting edge. It was Abrams’s archfoe Cunningham who elevated Klein to a Supreme Court judgeship at the 1972 judicial convention. Indeed, when I first talked with Abrams’s aides about the Esposito case, they were openly contemptuous of Klein’s machine roots and his shabby legal reasoning in this case. All of this made it only the more surprising when I later read the full court file on the case and discovered that Abrams had acquiesced in the selection of Klein.

Judge-shopping in Manhattan courts begins in something called Special Term Part I, where much civil litigation is processed. Judges are assigned to Special Term on a weekly, rotational basis by Administrative Judge Edward Dudley. As certain pretrial proceedings are filed in Special I, they are marked on the calendar of whatever judge happens to be sitting in Special Term when the papers are ready for what’s called “final submission” (that is to say when both sides are ready to have the matter heard). The judge who gets a case while in Special Term may often be the judge who eventually decides it.

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Alvin Klein was assigned to Special Term a total of five weeks in his first five years in the Supreme Court, far less than many of his colleagues. He has mostly worked the criminal courts, where he has never had any difficulty recognizing felons or understanding legislative intent. Klein was assigned to begin his first week of service as a Special Term judge this year on May 14. One of the first cases submitted to Klein the morning of his first day on the bench was Abrams v. Esposito.

What got the case before Klein was a stipulation signed on May 9 by Abrams and LaRossa, Esposito’s counsel, which specified that even though the case would not be ready for submission until June 6, both sides would accept May 14 as the submission date, putting the case squarely in Klein’s lap.

The scenario that preceded the stipulation makes it even more difficult to understand why Abrams agreed to it: Abrams filed the complaint on April 10, giving LaRossa the required 20 days to answer or default. The 20 days expired and LaRossa hadn’t answered. So Abrams gave LaRossa a five-day extension.

LaRossa filed his motion to dismiss the complaint on May 4 and, in his papers, set the return date as May 14. LaRossa could’ve picked any day for the next couple of months as a return date. He picked Klein’s first day. In leaving only 10 days between the filing of his motion and the date for final submission, LaRossa was giving Abrams the shortest amount of time to reply permissible under the rules of the court. Presented with this rushed deadline and having already granted LaRossa an extension, Abrams had a sound legal basis for requesting and getting an adjournment of the May 14 date, putting the case before a judge other than Klein. A check of the court calendar revealed there were several brighter prospects: Judge Oliver Sutton, whose leanings in a case like this are certainly less predictable than Klein’s, was scheduled for the next week; Judge Martin Stecher, one of the city’s most respected and independent jurists, was set for the second week in June, almost exactly to the day the final papers really were submitted.

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Instead of seeking another date, Abrams executed the stipulation, and on May 14 the stipulation was filed with Klein, giving him custody of the motion. Because the hearing date had been adjourned by agreement, no appearances were made by either side, and there were no submissions of any papers. Abrams met the deadlines set in the stipulation and submitted his final papers opposing the motion on May 31. LaRossa didn’t, and once again Abrams gave him an extension.

Abrams’s press aide told me they signed the stipulation because “the alternative was to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court” and go before Klein on May 14 “with the possibility that the judge would refuse the adjournment and not give us the time we needed.” This explanation, especially in view of LaRossa’s delays and the short response time, seemed implausible to the lawyers I asked about it. Abrams’s aide added that the attorney general didn’t want to ask for an adjournment because Newsday editorials had criticized Lefkowitz for his delay in bringing the case, and they didn’t want to open themselves to the same criticism. This argument doesn’t say much for Abrams’s willingness to take possible short-term flak to achieve long-term success. It is also a little silly since the stipulation was signed by Abrams and constituted a postponement anyway. Presumably Newsday might’ve been persuaded that some judge-shopping delays were justified.

Though Abrams’s press aides did their best to portray Abrams as having been forced to take Klein, the judge volunteered to me that he “understood that Abrams wanted this case before me.” Klein contended: “I wasn’t looking for this case. They signed a stipulation to put it before me. It is my understanding that Abrams’s office initiated the stipulation because Abrams knew I would decide this case solely under the law as I saw it.” After hearing this, I called Abrams’s office, informed them of the judge’s “understanding,” and asked if they’d “initiated” the stipulation. They never got back to me with an answer.

There are only two possible explanations why LaRossa and Abrams might’ve wanted the same judge: either Abrams miscalculated and, despite Klein’s background, thought him a worthy trier of this sensitive matter, or both sides were after the same result.

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Proving the Obvious
In an extensive reply-brief and affidavit, Abrams’s staff managed to devote no more than a handful of paragraphs to the issue of Esposito’s role as county leader. The document went on for pages on the intricacies of the Parr Meadows transactions and submitted an inch-thick stack of documents and exhibits supporting their analysis of these aspects of the case. But their only evidence establishing that Esposito is a county leader was a collection of half a dozen news clips. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know the probative value of a Daily News story calling him a county leader. Abrams also resubmitted the evidence Lefkowitz originally offered: a 1975 state Red Book listing Esposito as a “county chairman.” That was all Abrams could marshal to prove the pivotal fact in the case.

I thought he could have done better. I went to the archives of the Kings County Democratic organization at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Archivist Arthur Konop said that no one from the attorney general’s office had ever reviewed any of his records, including the minutes of every meeting of the executive committee from the 1880s to 1969. I started with 1969 and worked my way back to 1920. The record made it unmistakably clear that the titles of county leader and chairman of the executive committee are historically indistinguishable. In these records, every chairman of the executive committee in this century has been described — or has even described himself — as county leader.

The archives’ records end when Esposito became county leader. But since then, there haven’t been any rule changes that would alter the equation of titles that is already a century old. Nonetheless, I decided to try to see the recent records and called Bill Gary, secretary of the county organization (once listed by Jack Newfield among the 25 worst hacks in city government; Voice, December 8, 1975). When Gary did not return my calls, I went to see him at the party’s Court Street headquarters. He would not let me in his office, but I did make it into the reception area, where I could see him and he could see me. We shouted back and forth at each other. Gary, who is Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden’s former law partner and was editor of the City Record under Abe Beame, told me that the minutes of the largest county political party in the state are “not public record.” He sneered, laughed, and snapped: ”You’re not gettin’ anything outta here.” (The Voice has asked the New York Public Interest Group and the ACLU to examine the possibility of bringing suit to unlock the apparently private records of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.)

When I questioned Abrams’s office about why they hadn’t pursued these records, they called back with an answer that raised new questions. An aide said that Abrams had “substantial, additional evidence” to prove Esposito’s county leader role, but refused to say what the evidence was. He just described it several times as substantial and then said they didn’t submit the evidence to Klein because “it was not necessary at the initial stages of the case.” We all have to wonder what they are saving it for.

Of course, the evidence they chose not to use, as well as the archive records they never reviewed, cannot now be added to their appeal. The Appellate Division will only have whatever evidence Klein had. That makes it at least conceivable that the appeals judges will reach the same conclusion. Of course, they may be more willing than Klein to open the case to a common-sense nose test about Esposito’s county leadership. In that case, the paucity of the evidence won’t matter that much. But even if the Klein decision is reversed on appeal, Esposito has, at the very least, bought time.

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A Background of Relationships
Joe Conason (Voice, June 26, 1978) covered the state Democratic convention that nominated Abrams for attorney general. Conason described how reformer Abrams entered the convention with 76 percent of the delegate vote, including the support of almost all the regular party leaders, and then barely held on to the majority he needed. When Governor Carey, Queens county leader Donald Manes, and upstate party leaders subtly moved away from Abrams, and some of them lined up behind Abrams’s opponent, Delores Denman, Abrams was able to keep two county leaders behind him: Esposito and the Bronx’s Stanley Friedman. When Conason asked Esposito about Abrams becoming a regular, Esposito laughed and said: “He’s just come out of the closet, that’s all.” Esposito explained his persistent support of Abrams as “following his conscience.”

Conason also described the increasingly close political relationship between Abrams and Bronx leader Friedman. Friedman, who has spent his career working for Brooklyn regulars like city council majority leader Tom Cuite and Mayor Beame, is the county leader closest to Meade. Their recent two­-county partnership is the talk in regular party circles.

Judge Klein has a long-standing friendship with Friedman and Friedman’s law partner, the omnipresent, sometimes Esposito counsel Roy Cohn. Klein described Cohn to me as “a close personal friend for many years” and said he’d attended several of Cohn’s parties.

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Klein said, however, that he never discussed the case with either Cohn or Friedman. Cohn said he’d had nothing to do with the case, but the minute I asked him about Klein, Cohn went directly to the question of Abrams: “I never had a case with the attorney general’s office,” claimed Cohn, “where the AG didn’t have a strong say in picking the judge. He usually controls when it comes up.” These shifting relationships — Klein, Cohn, Friedman, Abrams, Esposito — form the important backdrop to this case.

The other leading Bronx reformers of the Abrams period — Jay Goldin and Herman Badillo — have become, respectively, an embodiment of the bus­-shelter scandal and a silenced, outcast deputy mayor. Their Manhattan and Queens reform colleagues, Manfred Ohrenstein and Jack Bronston, are now collecting legal clients such as shelter-scandal magnate Saul Steinberg. Brooklyn’s reform linguist Shirley Chisholm has become a fund-raiser and political bulwark for convicted felon and former councilman Sam Wright, as well as Esposito’s brightest black star. Ed Koch, the reformer who beat Carmine DeSapio 16 years ago, has a special relationship with Canarsie district leader Tony Genovesi, who comes from Esposito’s home club and has been chosen by Esposito to succeed him as county leader.

And now Bob Abrams has prosecuted Esposito on a dual track. For public consumption, he refiled the Lefkowitz complaint and is now doggedly appealing his loss. But on another level, he has left a trail of subtle omissions and gentlemanly concessions which allowed Esposito to win.

Reform in this town is but a phase in the political maturation process. When those who successfully use it grow up and reach an appropriately lofty height, they allow themselves to become the compromised, but still temporarily respectable, veneer for the same power relationships they previously campaigned to “reform.” ❖

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Harrison Goldin: A Very Small Town

At the beginning of [Donald] Trump’s campaign for Board of Estimate support of the Com­modore abatement plan in late 1975, Trump and attorney Sandy Lindenbaum met with Comptroller Harrison Goldin and Dick Wells, a Goldin aide. Goldin wound up the meeting by assigning Wells to meet with Trump and Lindenbaum to study the par­ticulars of the project. Wells didn’t handle Board of Estimate matters for Goldin then, nor was he experienced in assessing a compli­cated real-estate transaction. Instead, Wells, who managed Goldin’s recent statewide campaign, was described to me by a former Gol­din aide as the comptroller’s principal politi­cal assistant.

Those on Goldin’s staff who did handle Board of Estimate issues, as well as those ex­perienced in real-estate transactions, were ex­cluded from these early discussions. In place of them, Wells involved Charles Goldstein, a partner in the law firm of Baer and McGold­rick, to serve as a pro bono counsel to the comptroller in assessing the Trump proposal. The addition of Goldstein further politicized the issue.

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The Baer firm, which recently became Schulte and McGoldrick, has been the legal and fund-raising arm of Goldin’s political campaigns for at least a decade. Goldin says he’s known Thomas Baer, a founder of the firm, since he was 13 years old. He has known Charles Goldstein for 15 years. Elev­en partners and associates of the firm con­tributed $10,000 to Goldin’s 1978 race. Even when he had only minor opposition in 1977, the same 11 kicked in $6100. The return ad­dress on Goldin’s filings with the Board of Elections was 460 Park Avenue, the Baer firm’s address. In 1973 five different Baer partners were listed as treasurers for 15 diff­erent Goldin committees in his first campaign for comptroller. Goldstein is even listed as a treasurer for Goldin’s 1972 state senate race.

Goldstein began negotiations with Trump and city attorney Michael Bailkin, who de­signed the tax-abatement plan. The initial plan called for Trump to purchase the hotel, sell it to the city, and then lease it back from the city at a nominal rental (and no real-estate taxes). “Goldstein argued that the city lease­back might have constitutional problems,” recalls Bailkin. “So he suggested we use the state’s Urban Development Corporation.” Goldstein and Wells discussed the UDC con­cept with its president, Edwin Cohen, another close Goldin associate. Cohen and Goldin had been associates in the same law firm in the ’60s; Cohen’s wife worked in Goldin’s office as an assistant counsel.

Goldstein happened to be on retainer as outside counsel to UDC at the time. He represented the agency in co-oping apart­ments on Roosevelt Island, a business with­out much of a future since the project was near completion. His UDC fees had declined from $73,000 in 1974 to $29,000 in 1975. The negotiations — now between UDC, Bailkin, Goldstein (still representing Gol­din), and Trump resulted in the following ar­rangement: The leaseback arrangement would be with UDC, not the city; UDC would receive a $300,000 fee and Goldstein would be retained as UDC’s counsel on the deal (his fees would be paid by Trump and funneled through UDC). “I suggested that UDC retain Goldstein,” explained city anor­ney Bailkin, “because the comptroller trust­ed his judgment. I thought it would secure Goldin’s vote for the project.”

In the first of what has become a series of city-UDC business-incentive projects, Gold­stein earned $66,000 on the Commodore. Though Goldstein had done no economic­-development projects for UDC prior to the Commodore, he has since been paid $857,ooo in fees and expenses on a dozen in­centive projects. Every investment project represented by the Baer firm has been sup­ported by Harrison Goldin at the Board of Estimate, though his staff has sometimes re­quired changes in the terms. (Goldin subse­quently hired a staff assistant referred to him by Goldstein and assigned her to handle all of Goldstein’s projects at the board.)

Goldin’s support of the UDC tax-exempt projects is ironic since a recent draft audit by Goldin has assailed another city program of business tax exemptions as giveaways. UDC is not involved in this other program, whose abatement terms are not nearly as generous as are the Goldstein deals invariably supported by Goldin.

Goldin said that anyone who believed that Goldstein’s retainer would secure his vote for the Commodore and subject incentive pro­jects was “naive.” He denied that he had any special tie to the Baer firm and claimed that he’d known each of the 11 partners who con­tributed to his campaign before they joined the firm. “It’s really quite a small town,” he explained.

Goldin insisted that he would not have signed off on the project unless Walter Praw­zinsky, his deputy comptroller, approved it. I asked him if that meant Prawzinsky, a ca­reer civil servant known for his fiscal shrewd­ness, was an unelected comptroller. Goldin quickly explained that he made the policy de­cision as to whether or not the Commodore tax exemption and UDC/city agreement should be supported. He said Prawzinsky merely indicated when he’d extracted the best terms from Trump that he thought he could. Prawzinsky was not involved in Goldin’s initial meeting with Trump and Lin­denbaum. Nor was he consulted when Gol­din turned it over to Wells and Goldstein. He was brought in later in the process and by the time he was, he knew where Goldin, Wells, and Goldstein stood. All that was left for him was a salvage job.

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Sources close to UDC say that Goldstein’s firm has, in effect, run the UDC legal depart­ment in recent years. While the Goldin con­nection may have had something to do with Goldstein getting into the UDC contracts, it’s clearly not the only factor keeping him there. The firm contributed $7800 to Carey’s recent race. They’ve also established a close relationship with UDC’s new president, Richard Kahan, who was formerly staff di­rector for the incentive projects and worked closely with Goldstein.

When Kahan was named president by Carey, Goldstein co-hosted a formal celebra­tion at the Plaza Hotel. One partygoer described the scene: “I got an invitation to ‘meet the new president’ of UDC, and here it’s from a guy UDC pays fees to. I went and there was a Baer partner at the door. He would steer each dignitary that arrived over to a photographer who’d take pictures of Ka­han, the dignitary, and a Baer partner togeth­er.” Another Baer partner, who’d gone to law school with Kahan, did the closing when Kahan bought a $60,000 East Side co-op. Under Kahan, Baer fees at UDC have con­tinued to rise.

Last October, Kahan asked the Baer firm to handle negotiations on a new Trump/UDC project, the $400 million convention center. Earlier, Ed Koch had named Baer, formerly the head of the firm and still associated with it, as his pro bono representative on conven­tion-center negotiations. The city and state — in the person of Baer and Goldstein — could negotiate convention-center positions without ever leaving their office. Goldstein could now bill UDC for discussions with his own former partner.

Though his firm earned more than a mil­lion public dollars from UDC and city con­tracts he got through Goldin, Goldstein re­fused to talk to me. ❖


The Bowery and the UDC: Letter Perfect

Across the street from the Commodore is the main branch of the Bowery Savings Bank, with $5 billion in assets, second largest savings bank in the country. The Bowery’s stake in the renovation of the Commodore is unmistakable. The Bowery stated that inter­est in an impassioned letter to the Board of Estimate supporting the Commodore project and warned that the hotel would become “a major blighting influence in midtown Man­hattan” unless renovated.

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Bowery had a relationship with UDC. Its marketing vice-president, Pazel Jackson, had been appointed to the UDC board by Carey in 1975. UDC chairman Richard Ravitch was also a friend of the bank’s and would shortly be named to its Board of Trustees. Ravitch and Jackson voted for the UDC general pro­ject plan on the Commodore, as well as a batch of other resolutions authorizing aspects of the deal. When three resolutions went to the board in May 1978, making the project technically operative, Jackson voted for them (Ravitch had left the board by then). No one ever raised the issue of Jackson’s possible conflict, even after the Bowery became the second largest lender on the project, with almost a $15 million mortgage investment. Ra­vitch wasn’t named to the Bowery board un­til a month after he left UDC.

But the most curious aspect of the Bowery/UDC relationship is the striking similarity between letters sent by both to the city con­cerning the Commodore deal. Each letter makes the same four recommendations to the city on how to structure the deal. In several parts of the letters, the wording is identical.

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One of the issues on which the bank and UDC agreed — in almost exactly the same terms — was that Hyatt’s participation was re­quired. It is easy to understand why the Bow­ery took this position. Since critics of the Commodore plan, like the Citizens Union, had attacked it for ”subsidizing tourists at the upper end of the income scale,” it’s more difficult to explain UDC’s insistence on it as a condition for agency participation in the pro­ject. Neither Ravitch nor Jackson could ex­plain the striking similarities in the Bowery/UDC letters and positions. Nor would the Bowery tell me what its earnings or rate of in­terest was on the Commodore loans, one of three UDC projects it financed that were ap­proved by the Ravitch/Jackson board. ❖


Richard Ravitch: Ties That Bind?

The Village Voice once called Richard Ravitch “the city’s most honorable builder.” That quote wound up cited in The New Yorker and even in the court records of the Penn Central bankruptcy case (by brokers ­representing Ravitch who were trying to im­press a judge then considering a Ravitch bid). Considering the competition, it wasn’t much of a compliment even then. But his recent record makes it impossible to repeat it. For one thing, Ravitch recently sold his third-generation family firm, HRH Construction Co., so he’s no longer a builder. More important, the Commodore story led me into a series of possible conflicts concerning his role as the unpaid chairman of the state’s Urban Development Corporation:

When Ravitch took over UDC, he brought in his company’s law firm with him — Barrett, Smith, Schapiro and Simon. Since 1975 UDC has paid the firm $1.5 million in fees. They remained counsel to HRH and Manhattan Plaza, Ravitch’s most important housing project, throughout Ravitch’s two-year at UDC. Ravitch told me he saw “no conflict.” This dual role placed a difficult ­burden upon the lawyers in determining what portions of their conversations with Ravitch were to be billed to UDC and what portions to Ravitch’s own company, HRH.

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Two weeks after Ravitch resigned from UDC, he sold HRH to Starrett Housing Co. Starrett would become UDC’s principal builder, with almost $150 million worth of contracts on UDC jobs. Indeed, after the sale by Ravitch, as a Starrett subsidiary, received the contract to build the Commodore, the largest UDC project approved while Ravitch headed the agency. As part of his agreement with Starrett, Ravitch divested himself of any interest in HRH projects like the Commodore (though he set up his own office at Starrett and began working jointly with them on a number of unrelated projects). Ravitch’s longtime partner, Irving Fisher, still president of HRH, is building the Commodore ­and has become both a major shareholder and chief officer of Starrett’s domestic construction activities. The rest of the HRH staff has gone with Fisher.

A week before Ravitch voted to approve UDC’s role in the Commodore in 1976, he wrote the state Board of Public Disclosure: “No part of HRH Construction Corporation’s business has any involvement in any project or activity currently subject to UDC jurisdiction and I do not anticipate that there will be any future dealing with matters subject to UDS jurisdiction [itals added].” A few months after this letter, Ravitch began negotiations with Starrett to sell HRH and Donald Trump began negotiations with Starett to build the Commodore. These negotiations proceeded simultaneously through late 1976 and early 1977, and when they concluded, Starrett owned HRH and Trump was com­mitted to use HRH as his Commodore build­er.

Trump and Ravitch — who are not friend­ly — say they did not talk to each other about their simultaneous bargaining with Starrett. Starrett isn’t answering any questions about what either said to them. Though Trump ne­gotiated with Starrett — not HRH — his con­tract ultimately was made with HRH and he didn’t switch to Starrett until the Starrett/HRH negotiations had begun.

This complicated intertwine may have also affected UDC policy. There were dozens of decisions affecting the Commodore being made at UDC while both the Ravitch and Trump negotiations with Starrett proceeded. Trump and Starrett are partners in major ventures and Trump is the largest equity investor in Starrett City (Ravitch says he was unaware of this relationship). Were Ravitch’s UDC to create problems for Trump’s Com­modore, it might have affected Ravitch’s ne­gotiations with Trump’s friends and business partners at Starrett. Were Starrett assured of a major institutional job like the Com­modore, it might have increased the firm’s interest in acquiring HRH.

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In addition to the Commodore, UDC was at various stages of negotiations on four other projects where Starrett eventually acted as developer or builder. The discussions be­tween UDC and Starrett regarding all of these projects were going on while Ravitch was still at UDC and negotiating with Star­rett himself.

Several months after UDC designated Starrett on these projects, the agency re­quested an after-the-fact opinion from the state Board of Public Disclosure on the pro­priety of these relationships. The ethics guidelines for UDC staff during Ravitch’s reign stressed the need to avoid “not only real compromises of integrity but also the ap­pearance of such conflicts or compromises” and barred direct or indirect financial interest that have “or might soon have a substantial business relationship with UDC.” But the board’s staff secretary managed a decision dated one day after the request and — in one paragraph — found no conflict. There are no public filings about the HRH/Starrett mer­ger; so there is no way to penetrate these ne­gotiations. But the appearance is there: can anyone be sure that Ravitch’s influence over UDC projects was not what Starrett thought it was acquiring when it was negotiating to take over HRH? ❖


Stanley Friedman: Going Away Gifts

In January 1978, Stanley Friedman moved out of City Hall, where he’d been Abe Beame’s deputy mayor and principal political operative. There were some negative news stories about the fact that one of Beame’s last official acts was to name Friedman as lifetime chairman of the city’s water commission, a seldom-show, $25,000-a-year post, with extras like a chauffeured limousine. Jack Newfield had written in The Voice as early as No­vember 1977 that Friedman had also lined up another post for himself — he would become a partner in the law firm of Saxe, Bacon and Bolan, a firm noted for a name that does not appear in its corporate title — Roy M. Cohn. The firm acts as a kind of general counsel and adviser to [Donald] Trump and represents him on certain aspects of the Commodore. As predicted, Friedman not only joined Cohn’s firm that January but moved himself into Cohn’s office in the firm’s East 68th Street townhouse. Shortly thereafter, Stanley Friedman cashed in the chips he’d accumulated as dep­uty mayor and got himself elected Bronx Democratic county leader by vote of its district leaders. Roy Cohn at last had his own in-­house party boss.

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But before Friedman left the city to join his new firm, he had to clean up a few loose ends for longtime Cohn client Donald Trump. In the last two weeks of the Beame administration, Stanley Friedman frenetical­ly pieced together the final, extraordinary pieces of Trump’s Commodore deal and bound the city to it in ways that new mayor Ed Koch could not undo.

Friedman’s advance work for his new firm included forcing an “escrow closing” that ended on December 21, 1977, 10 days before the end of the administration. Hadley Gold, special assistant to the corporation counsel, told me it was “the only escrow closing I’ve ever been involved in or heard of in 11 years” of handling the city’s real estate transactions. The problem was that Trump was unable to close the deal because he hadn’t lined up his private financing. He didn’t have the bank’s $10 million to buy the hotel from Penn Central or the $60 million he needed to renovate it. Financing is usually an indispensable in­gredient for the closing of a real-estate transaction, but it was clear that Trump could not get his until after December 31, by which time Beame and Friedman would have left office.

No one was sure that the Koch administra­tion would accept the project on the same terms negotiated under Beame. In addition, Trump’s option with Penn Central had been timed to end 20 days after Beame left office. (The political timing of Trump’s options is now a familiar pattern — his options on the 30th and 60th street yards also ended with Beame.) The fear was that even Trump’s al­lies at Penn Central —because of the booming hotel market — might be forced to consider higher bids. A new developer might have been willing to renovate the hotel at less ex­pense to the city and state.

So, at Stanley Friedman’s hurriedly arranged escrow closing in late December, a three-party agreement was signed — between Friedman for the city, Richard Kahan for UDC, and Trump. The UDC lease and a host of other agreements with Trump were also executed and Friedman signed them as the mayor’s designee. All of these documents were placed in escrow with UDC anomeys, awaiting the final closing, when the agree­ments would be exchanged and the purchase price paid. The city and UDC were bound to the project. Trump could walk away if he failed to complete the financing. But if Trump got his financing, the new city ad­ministration could not change one word of the deal.

Participants described Friedman’s closing as “a marathon session that went on for days.” One said “Nobody knew what was coming next.” Another negotiator, who’s handled city real-estate transactions for 20 years, said he’d never known of any other es­crow closing and that the city would general­ly not participate in any, because it meant that the city would be taking all the risks, committing itself when the private develop­ers and lenders weren’t ready to make a commitment.

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Friedman told me he’d never been in­volved in an escrow closing before, either for the city or as a private attorney. He claimed he’d signed the agreements “on advice of city attorneys that everything was kosher” (so “don’t try to stick this thing on me,” he said). But participants in the closing said Friedman was pushing city attorneys, forcing them to complete their review of the docu­ments. “Sure I told them to move it,” Fried­man conceded, “but I don’t know if I’d call that pressuring them … my whole thing was to get it accomplished fast.”

In addition to the escrow closing, Fried­man, acting as the mayor’s designee, signed a lucrative franchise agreement — which he’d pushed through the Board of Estimate a month earlier — for Trump on December 29, two days before he left city government. The agreement permitted Trump to build a glass­-enclosed “Garden Room” restaurant 18 feet beyond the Commodore property line and extending over the city sidewalk. As part of the last-minute negotiations, the city’s Bu­reau of Franchises agreed to increase the length of the franchise from 10 to 25 years and cut Trump’s annual payments to the city in half for the first 10-year period, to a fixed $28,000 a year. Trump brought in Sandy Lindenbaum and Louise Sunshine to help Friedman push the franchise through.

Friedman told me that he “didn’t recall” discussing the Commodore with Cohn at the time and that “he didn’t know Trump was a Cohn client until the spring of 1978” (Cohn’s representation of Trump was front-page Times and Daily News copy). Friedman did acknowledge that he “may have met Trump at Cohn parties” before he’d arranged the es­crow closing and left the city.

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Friedman’s other line of defense was that the escrow closing and franchise agreement had also been approved by “those fancy law­yers up at UDC,” led by Richard Kahan, then the agency’s director of economic devel­opment. In addition to executing the escrow closing for UDC, Kahan — without the ap­proval of his board — also allowed the devel­oper to switch the Garden Room franchise from a city agreement with Trump to one be­tween the city and UDC, resulting in highly favorable terms for Trump. Kahan also wrote into the lease the provisions that per­mitted Trump to use the waived sales taxes on the project’s construction materials in ways that benefined Trump. Kahan told me that this significant grant of tax funds to Trump was already in place when he joined UDC in the summer of 1976; but there is no reference to it in the draft lease submined to the agency’s board that fall.

Kahan’s actions in this period occurred at a time, after both Ravitch’s and Cohen’s departure from UDC, when the agency, in effect, had no head. Kahan was also willing to remedy that problem: He became a candi­date for president of the agency. “I kept my candidacy to myself the first five months after Cohen’s resignation in October,” Kahan told me. “Then I had many discussions.” Among his principal supporters for the Carey appointment were Sunshine and Trump, the governor’s chief fund raiser and his second largest contributor.

Carey left the position vacant for eight months and then, a month after Kahan con­cluded the final closing on the Commodore, he appointed Kahan president. The 32-year­old Kahan had joined the agency only two years earlier as an assistant director of a sin­gle unit in the agency. Kahan’s selection can­not be simplistically attributed to his service of and support by Sunshine and Trump. He is a brilliant and resourceful bureaucrat and was also backed by people like Robert Wag­ner, Jr. What this record told me was that Kahan was willing to court political insiders, like Trump and Sunshine, even at the possi­ble expense of sound public policy.

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Under Kahan’s authority, a few days be­fore his appointment as president, condem­nation papers were served several of the ho­tel’s commercial tenants. In one case, Trump had actually signed an agreement with the tenant to give him a new lease, almost dou­bling his rent to $180,000 after threatening to use UDC condemnation powers. Six months later Trump was demanding $100,000 more per year and $100,000 cash up front. These demands were in effect enforced by a UDC condemnation order only a week after the owners refused to pay the increases.

Friedman and Kahan wound up indirectly back together on just this case, though nei­ther appeared in court. Friedman’s partner, Roy Cohn, had represented Trump in several aspects of the case against this particular ten­ant. In the condemnation proceeding itself, Trump was not a party (UDC v. Strawberry). Nonetheless, Cohn accompanied Trump to court as an observer. Indeed, after it was revealed that the judge in the case had met Trump at a recent party in Cohn’s home, she removed herself from the case and Cohn stopped visiting the proceedings. Cohn has, however, brought a separate damages suit for Trump against the tenant and, like the con­demnation, that case is also still being litigated. ❖


Election ’79: The Cohnheads Are Restless

Led by Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman and his law partner, Roy Cohn, and backed by patronage from the court of Surrogate Marie Lambert, a horde of mi­nor politicos is seeking to topple the re­formers who have dominated the Manhattan Democratic Party in the past dec­ade. These people are the leftovers of the old Tammany machine, reinvigorated by amoral young hacks like Gary Nicholson and William Todd.

Most people pay no attention to intra­party contests for district leader and judi­cial delegate any more. With Ed Koch as mayor — and for some time before — the ro­mance has left the reform movement. Re­form Democrats have become a local sym­bol of lesser evilism, elitism, and hypocri­sy. This year the Cohnheads are poised to take advantage of Democratic apathy and thus gain power and patronage for them­selves. Roy Cohn denies any personal in­volvement in Manhattan politics.

Cohnhead methods, as developed by Lambert, Nicholson and their troops, em­phasize the last-minute smear, the appeal to ethnic prejudice, and the judicious use of patronage. One longtime regular leader in Manhattan, who has little use for re­formers, told me that he’s frightened by the Cohnheads’ influence on local politics. “These people are haters. They’ll stop at nothing and they’re crazy.”

A longtime reform kingmaker, no friend of the regular quoted above, said much the same thing last fall. He called a judicial campaign engineered by Nicholson and Todd “the dirtiest thing I’ve seen in 20 year of Manhattan politics.”

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The idea of a countywide effort by the Cohnheads is no paranoid delusion. One day last week, several candidates — Nicholson, Todd, Charles Bayor from the East Village, Cora Shelton from East Harlem, and Scott Stringer from Washington Heights — all represented by Cohnhead at­torneys went to the Board of Elections to keep opposing candidates off the Septem­ber ballot and insure their own positions. The group sat together, consulted togeth­er, and used the same lawyers — Harry Pollak and Vincent Catalfo. Like most good Cohnheads, Catalfo and Pollak both worked overtime for Marie Lambert’s sur­rogate campaign in 1977. Both have re­ceived court patronage from her since. Readers may remember Catalfo as the attorney who admitted forging his client’s signature to legal document and a check. He was suspended from practicing law for two years — a lenient sanction. Last year Catalfo got more than $20,000 in Lam­bert’s court, most of it awarded after he went to court to avoid testifying about her campaign methods before the state Com­mission on Judicial Conduct. (The largest chunk of Lambert patronage received by Catalfo, incidentally, came from a mil­lion-dollar-plus estate, of which one ex­ecutor was Roy Cohn.) Catalfo is Nich­olson’s campaign treasurer.

After a long day with their political problems at the Board of Elections, Catalfo and Nicholson adjourned to Lam­bert’s Surrogate’s Court across from City Hall. Around 7 p.m. they accompanied Lambert herself down the courthouse steps to a car parked nearby. Engaged in serious talk with the distinguished judge­ — who has herself done quite a bit of election law — all three got into the car and Nich­olson drove it away. Of course, judges are not supposed to be involved in politics. No doubt Nicholson, Catalfo, and Lambert were discussing the weather.

Manhattan Democrats who will be vot­ing in the September election ought to know something about the backgrounds of their district leader candidates, something more than their literature is likely to dis­close. This is particularly critical with regard to the Cohnheads, since their liter­ature tends to be filled with distortions, omissions, and outright lies. So here is a brief examination of some of the Cohnhead candidates, by district.

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Know Your Cohnhead

The man who dreams of becoming Manhattan county leader is Gary L. Nicholson, who hails from the upstate town of Oxford. Nicholson is in a three-­way race for district leader in Chelsea. His devotion to the politics of ethnicity and religion is best demostrated by his latest ploy: Nicholson is billing himself as a Catholic; he has even begun attending mass. Those who know him well, like the pastor of the United Church of Oxford, remember Gary as a Protestant who came to church for organ practice.

But religious “conversion” may be the least of Nicholson’s offenses. He has to his credit, in a young career, two of the most offensive judicial campaigns in recent memory. In 1977, Nicholson managed Marie Lambert’s successful campaign for surrogate, a race marked by strong-arm funding solicitations from lawyers who practice in Surrogate’s Court; misleading and irrelevant ethnic campaign mailings; and a schizophrenic hypocrisy on issues of court reform. Last year, though ultimately unsuccessful, Nicholson outdid the ex­cesses of the Lambert campaign when he helped manage Helen E. Goldstein’s cam­paign for a Manhattan Civil Court nomi­nation in the Democratic primary.

Goldstein, who lives in Brooklyn, al­lowed Nicholson to put out vicious mail­ings calculated to appeal to bigotry and Jewish fear, under the phony rubric of the “Manhattan Chapter of the Zionist Com­mittee for Israel.” The mailing’s attack on reform candidate Shirley Fingerhood, for belonging to the National Lawyers Guild, was reminiscent of McCarthyism at its worst. And Nicholson’s use of a phony name and address, not only on the liter­ature itself but on Post Office documents, appears to have violated the law.

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Nicholson signed his own name to a bulk-rate postal form for the phony Zion­ist committee. The delegate slate which used this mailing was endorsed by another phony, “non-political” outfit, the “Com­mittee for Integrity in Judicial Selection.”

Lately Nicholson has spent a lot of time at the Board of Elections, accusing his opponents of submitting election petitions “permeated with fraud” and “forgeries.” Not so long ago, Nicholson himself was facing similar charges of fraud after he had collected petition signatures for a can­didate and it was discovered that he had voted in two places the same year. Because Nicholson had voted in his home­town of Oxford that year, a court referee found that “Gary L. Nicholson was not a duly registered voter in the 70th Assembly District at the time he witnessed signa­tures and gave his own signature on the … designating petition.” By stating that he was a duly registered voter on the petition, Nicholson left himself open to charges of fraud.

Nicholson’s source of income for his current campaign is mysterious. His most recent “employment” was a no-show job in the office of former Assembly Minority Leader Perry Duryea — a Republican pa­tronage job provided to Democrat Nicholson by Vincent Albano. Albano is a good friend of the Cohnheads, and his lawyer cronies have been suitably rewarded with patronage by Marie Lambert. Nicholson’s no-show with Duryea, for which the tax­payers lost $250 a week, ended when Duryea was replaced by James Emery as minority leader.

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By press time, Nicholson’s campaign committee had failed to file a financial disclosure statement with the Board of Elections; one was due more than a week ago. Last spring he held an unheard of $50-a-head fundraiser at the posh Galleria on 57th Street, but not that many people showed up.

Yet somehow Nicholson can afford the constant legal attention of Vincent Catalfo to help throw his opponents off the ballot, though Catalfo has stated in Surrogate’s Court papers that his time is worth $125 an hour. At one point, Nicholson and Catalfo even brought in a handwriting expert at a cost of $80 per hour. This expert told Nicholson’s opponents that he has worked for Roy Cohn.

Nicholson is facing two primary oppo­nents thanks to his contempt for the vot­ers: After living in Chelsea less than a year, he came to one of the local Demo­cratic clubs and demanded nomination as their candidate for leader against the incumbent reform leaders. The club refused and eventually expelled Nicholson. He of­fered them a deal: He would run for male leader, and they could nominate the female leader. They told him no.

Gary Nicholson has been challenging a subpoena from the Commission on Judi­cial Conduct for more than a year. Enormous sums of money have been spent so that he won’t have to testify under oath about apparent violations of judicial eth­ics committed in the Lambert campaign. During the litigation surrounding his re­fusal to testify, Nicholson complained that the commission inquiry might “chill” a person’s interest in politics. Unfortunate­ly, it didn’t chill his.

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Working most closely with Nicholson in many of these endeavors has been Wil­liam F. Todd, although Todd has always taken the back seat. Ironically, Todd is almost certain to be a Harlem district leader now because incumbent leader Matt Turner dropped out of the race under mysterious circumstances. (Nicholson’s race is anything but settled, and he is considered likely to lose.)

Todd began as a volunteer in the Lam­bert campaign, handing out literature. The Cohnheads promoted him to a paid position in the Goldstein campaign a year later, giving him the title of campaign manager although Nicholson was really running the show. At $150 a week, wasn’t paid much, either. He had another source of income, though: He was on home relief.

Todd’s welfare status was discovered last October, when he was about to go on the payroll of Manhattan borough president Andrew Stein — another Cohnhead friend — as a “business development spe­cialist” at $14,000 a year. When Stein learned that the able-bodied Todd had been getting welfare checks since 1976, he withdrew the job offer. At the time of Todd’s firing, his file at the St. Nicholas Welfare Center was still active. It no long­er is.

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Running for district leader on the Lower East Side is Mitchell Mund, brother of Gary and son of Walter. The Munds were among the most active workers in the Lambert campaign; they contributed money, and Walter and Gary received legal patronage from Lambert. Walter Mund prepared a lengthy opinion on the question of soliciting campaign funds. Eventually, Gary Mund also received a $17,000-a-year job in the Surrogate’s Court from Lambert. According to the petitions filed by Mitchell, his brother Gary collected more than 100 signatures on June 19 — a Tuesday when he was supposedly working in the court. Under ques­tioning by an opposing attorney, he couldn’t remember whether he had gone to work that day.

The Cohnheads’ man in Washington Heights is Scott Stringer, the offspring of former councilmember Arlene and former Beame counsel Ronald. His mother’s los­ing primary campaign in 1977 was closely allied with the Lambert effort, and his own campaign for a state committee post in 1978 was enmeshed with the Goldstein campaign. In fact, Scott’s campaign re­ceived a $2000 fee from Goldstein for its work on her behalf, and the Stringer peo­ple helped mail out the “Zionist Commit­tee” smear piece against Shirley Finger­hood.

Cohnhead allies running in the next district below Stringer, south of 181st Street on the West Side, Hansi Pollak and Harry Fotopoulos. Pollak and her son were diligent campaign workers for and contributors to Lambert, and the son received Lambert’s patronage. Fotopoulos is a wealthy insurance broker who has pre­viously run for office as a Republican-Con­servative. He only recently became a Democrat.

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Apparently affiliated with the Cohnheads in the East Village are Charles Bayor and Theresa Bussichio. Bayor and Bussichio are trying to oust the incum­bents Phil Wachtel and Katherine Wolpe. Bayor is a longtime friend of and contributor to Lambert. He and his wife, Rita, who once lived in the same building as Lambert, worked hard for her victory. On the night before the primary last fall, Nicholson took care of the printing for a last-minute smear of Carter Burden which was handed out by members of Bayor’s club, the East Village Community Demo­crats.

Bayor is also a member of Community School Board One, where he has run true to Cohnhead form, using ethnic tensions to bolster himself. As usual, this has only hurt the community: a large federal grant for bilingual education was rejected by the board, although a huge number of Board 1’s kids speak Spanish. 

This isn’t a complete picture of the district leadership races in Manhattan — to give that would take much more space than is available, and would probably bore anyone but the most fanatical politico.

The reason for writing about these races is not that they have net importance, nor that the reformers are a wonderful group deserving of eager support. It’s that the Cohnheads are dangerous, lacking any political ideology or morality other than desire for influence and patronage. They out-reform the reformers, making un­founded accusations of corruption; they out-regular the regulars, telling old-line district leaders they have the backing of Carmine DeSapio, the mob-linked leader of Tammany Hall. Rarely, if ever, do they raise an issue, and when they do it’s likely to be spurious. Unless they’re defeated, this borough’s politics are about to become sleazier. We can’t afford that. Politics in New York are sleazy enough. 

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Heeling the Wards 

District Leaders are small fry, but they matter. From among themselves they elect the county leader. They also select mem­bers of the party’s judicial screening panels, which in turn examine and select candidates for the bench. They represent the Democratic party in each neighbor­hood, which can be very significant in trying to solve a community problem, in sanitation, housing police or fire protec­tion. In a Democratic city where neighbor­hoods have terrible problems, a good dis­trict leader may make the difference. A bad one doesn’t, because he or she is too busy making deals to climb higher. A bad district leader spends more time getting judges appointed than worrying about dir­ty streets or decaying parks. Sometimes, as Wayne Barrett revealed about Stanley Friedman’s Bronx leaders (Voice, August 13), the worst ones don’t even live in New York City, let alone the neighborhood. That’s an indication of what can be ex­pected from the Cohnheads.

One good district leader is Kathy Freed, now seeking re-election in the Low­er Manhattan area. She has been aggressive in pursuing her constituents’ complaints about poor services, rapacious loftlords, and lack of parks and other amenities, even while she tried unsuc­cessfully to win last year’s primary race for the Assembly. Freed has been more de­voted to her constituents than to the party line, an attitude which hasn’t been politi­cally rewarding for her. She’s more in­terested in issues than in patronage. 

Of course, that’s not the only kind of decent district leader in Manhattan. The more traditional type is represented by Jim McManus, who has led the Eugene E. McManus Democratic Club in Hell’s Kitchen (named for his father) since 1963. McManus sees the main task of the leader as “delivering the vote for the party’s candidates.” In his neighborhood, that means “getting down to the nitty gritty: a personal favor here, a personal favor there.” But nobody doubts McManus’s concern for the people who live in his neighborhood. And the difference between a “personal favor” and a “neighborhood problem” is sometimes slight.

Judicial delegates run on slates, usually in tandem with a candidate for district leader. After they’re elected, the delegates from Manhattan join with those from the Bronx to nominate candidates for Su­preme Court in New York’s First Judicial Department, which includes both coun­ties. Last year, Stanley Friedman’s Cohnhead allies in Manhattan ran on ju­dicial slates all over the borough, hoping to give Friedman and Cohn control of the judicial convention. They were badly defeated, and the reformers retained control of the Supreme Court nominations. Right now, it seems unlikely that the Cohnheads will do much better this year. But they’re making gains. ■ 


Why The Warriors Rumble

Wild in the Aisles

On Church and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn, directly across the street from a graveyard where scenes in Arsenic and Old Lace took place, stands the RKO Kenmore. It was once a plush old movie palace, but it’s been sliced into four tiny portions. Each plays a different film. Su­perman, The Brink’s Job, and The Wiz are getting the family trade this frigid Sunday. The Warriors is getting the kids.

Bundled up next to the ticket tearer is Inspector Isaacs, the head security guard for the International Bureau of Investi­gation. “There have been fights this week,” he admits, “but we move them outside. Probably every youth gang in Brooklyn has been here for this one. They go in noisy, they try to take over the theatre. The movie makes them do bad things. Some of them come in with weapons. But it wouldn’t be wise for them to threaten us with guns because we have guns and we know how to use them. When they get real rough, we kick them out and they threaten to come back. But talk is cheap.”

During the late afternoon show, there’s plenty of noise but only one inci­dent. A guard, who weighs in at about 350, escorts a kid to the lobby and curses under his breath. “They don’t like to be called kids, so we treat them as adults. They don’t come here looking for trou­ble, but they see this movie and it ends up trouble.”

“RKO went to a lot of trouble,” claims the Kenmore’s manager: “They gave us extra se­curity guards for The Warriors. It cost the company $1800 for the week. This is a bad one.”

In the lobby, a 16 year old, who claims to be a member of the Tomahawks, remarks that “the movie makes me wanna do the same things the Warriors do.” What things? “You know. Bopping.”

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Paramount pulled the Warriors ad for six days last week. The illustration showed a vast mob of black and white teenagers in various postures of menace. They had skinned skulls, Arab turbans, hippie vests, leather jackets, black glasses. Some held baseball bats and scowled, ready to attack. “These are the armies of the night,” read the copy.

Three killings have been linked to show­ings of The Warriors during the first week of its release. An 18 year old was stabbed to death during a rumble in the Esplanade Theatre in Oxnard, California. In Palm Springs, a 19-year-old Hells Angel was shot in the head at the snack bar of the drive-in where the film was playing. And in Boston, a 16 year old was killed with a hunting knife by assailants who had just seen the movie.

Isolated incidents have occurred in New York, too — mainly minor skirmishes inside and outside theatres. And subway token at­tendants in the Times Square area report an increase in the amount of turnstile jumping this past week. Much of The Warriors takes place in the subways, and a key scene fea­tures a choreographed escape to an oncoming IRT, in which the Warriors leap over turnstiles. It’s a scene that has adults as well as children rooting for the gang.

The actor who plays Rembrandt, the graffiti artist in The Warriors, is Marcelino Sanchez. A Sal Mineo look-alike, he accom­panied me to three different theatres where his movie is playing. Although Sanchez has had his Afro cut to standard disco length, he is still recognizable. At the RKO Kenmore, he wears a Sly Stallone F.I.S.T. cap and a coat large enough to hide Robert Morley. Yet the manager is apprehensive, sneaks him in and sneaks him out.

Sanchez lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn with his parents. He’s the oldest of four children. The family came to this country from Puerto Rico when Marcelino was six. “I grew up in a rough ghetto,” he says. “When I attended junior high school, I was ripped off almost daily for nickels and dimes. If I took money to school, I had to hide it in my socks.”

A gang called the Devil Rebels operated a clubhouse two doors away from the Sanchez home. “The Rebels didn’t terrorize the neighborhood. If anything, they protected us. They’d bum cigarettes from my mother: she’d throw them one or two. You couldn’t treat them badly, because they weren’t really bad at heart. They kept other gangs from coming to our neighborhood. I remember watching the Rebels take off in a large group, one day, to rumble. It was frightening and stimulating.”

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While the Rebels were cleaning their cuti­cles with switchblades and smoking a sub­stance stronger than his mother’s cigarettes, Marcelino enrolled at the High School of Art and Design. He studied graphics then switched to acting. A couple of years ago, he toured Spain in Hair. When his agent heard about The Warriors, he arranged for Mar­celino to audition for writer-director Walter Hill. Hill signed the 21-year-old actor im­mediately to play the passive but quick-wit­ted Warrior.

All through production, the cast worked as a unit. No one was a star. Sanchez declares, “We had no idea of the waves the film would make. The original screenplay had more real­ism and moralistic views. It was crude, vio­lent, and hit the gut. They switched it to a fantasy script, with super heroes and Star War-type confrontations. The end result is like a cartoon.”

Most of the players in The Warriors are card-carrying Screen Actors Guild profes­sionals, though some of the extras are chartered members of neighborhood gangs. Word of real trouble reached the Voice during the shooting of the conclave scene in Riverside Park last summer: muggings and threats of physical violence among the extras. But no gang warfare.

Sanchez admits he was oblivious to trou­ble. “I found myself loving those guys in the movie who were my Warrior brothers. It was a family unit, like being part of a gang: a gang that cared for each other. The surrogate family has to be a reason for gangs in the first place.”

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Far from Brooklyn, Tom Esty, age 14, white, precocious, from a well-heeled family, says he’s seen The Warriors twice at the Kips Bay Cinema and once at Loew’s Cine on East 86th Street. He keeps going back because “my generation seems to be inspired not by violence, although there are psychopaths, but by stories of people who overcome trou­ble. Like odysseys. The movie is like a mod­em-day odyssey.”

The movie is also R-rated. Ostensibly, anyone under 17 is not admitted unless accompanied by an adult. According to Tom Esty, that’s no problem. He’ll ask a young man or a couple in line if they’ll take him in as their kid brother. Naturally, he pays his own way. Many of his school chums at Trini­ty do likewise.

At the Loew’s Cine, there were “too many guards and a feeling of apprehension in the audience, like something might happen,” recalls Esty. “During certain parts, people threw beer cans and bottles toward the screen.”

If taken realistically, The Warriors is a silly film with extraordinary visuals. But repeated viewings reveal a revolutionary and romantic movie that subliminally canonizes gangs. The world inhabited by the Warriors is adolescent, with not a single adult to wag a moralistic finger. Yet the kids emulate their oppressors. There’s an assassination of a Malcolm X type which the Warriors are accused of committing. The black gang leaders represent an outraged formal government. They send out other gangs — or armies — to get the wrongdoers. The pursuit is a fight to the death for both sides. We know the Warri­ors are innocent, and we root for them. They’re basically sweet, sexy kids. We want them to win. But we also like the pursuers. The real villains are in another film, much as they’re at another theatre, like Cinema I, say, watching Agatha.

Appealing, too, are the artifacts of the movie — the children’s toys used in warfare. Roller skates become terrifying. Baseball bats menace, especially in light of the beat­ings that erupted at the Ramble in Central Park last summer. A scene with a girl gang­ — the Lizzies — starts off with the Lizzies sympathetic to the Warriors. But it’s just an act; they turn against them with guns. The wom­en’s movement could do plenty with that one. And sociologists could have a field day with the fact that the Warriors gang is inte­grated — the movie never mentions race. It doesn’t have to. The authority figure is black and compassionate. The assassination victim is black. The assassin is a demented white.

On the surface, The Warriors is cowboys and Indians, and, to this viewer, the most lovingly moral and beautiful film of the past year. It’s also the most disturbing.

The New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, just off Broadway, is a throwback to the days of Ziegfeld. Its architecture is early birdbath, with cherubs, curliques, gold mir­rors, bas reliefs, stars, moons, all the little necessities that signaled posh during the ’20s.

Those in line waiting to catch the 5:15 show on Washington’s birthday are black, male, and young. Had they arrived a couple of hours earlier, they would have smelled a peculiar odor: two stink bombs had been tossed in the theatre. The smell is hardly no­ticeable now. Grass is a better deodorant than Airwick.

Inside, a nonstop game of ants in the pants takes place, featuring moving, shuffling, drinking, and bumming of cigarettes. Men wander through the house calling out the names of other men whom they’ve lost.

Suddenly, from the back of the theater, a shout.


Two cops, followed by an usher, run up the balcony stairs, and roughly drag two kids — each about 13 — to a basement office. The office door locks in back of them. An older man, about 22, follows. He’s scream­ing:

“That’s my cousin and his friend, you mo­therfuckers. Hit him and you’ll have to ac­count to me.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“It was snowing outside,” he says, “and I told my cousin and his friends I’d take them to The Warriors, see. We didn’t have enough money and some of them sneaked in. If these fuckers throw my cousin in jail, there’s gon­na be blood. Hear me. Their blood. They’re gonna account to me. What are you writ­ing?”

“Just what you said. Why did you come here?”

“I’ve come every day since The Warriors started.”

“Do you belong to a gang?”

“Fuck that. I used to be with a gang that protected the 79th Precinct in Bed-Stuy. All those cops knew us. Don’t write down the name of the gang. Then I served 2½ years. They’re gonna throw my cousin in jail, those fuckers.”

The door to the basement office opens. A security guard comes out. The older man pulls at the door. He’s muttering obscenities. He yells at the cop, “What are you gonna do to my cousin?”

The guard tells him to get out of the lobby. He starts to push the manager, too. The old­er man shouts, “You don’t care about my cousin, you motherfuckers. You’re gonna get it.”

He’s thrown out of the theatre.

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High up in the Gulf+Western Building, Gordon Weaver, senior vice-president of worldwide marketing for Paramount, ex­plains the violence. “There are events, such as a rock concert, or a political rally, or a sports happening that by their very nature bring together groups of people from diverse backgrounds, individuals who wouldn’t or­dinarily be at the same place at the same time. Bringing them together creates kin­dling wood. Anything can trigger trouble. Whether it’s throwing popcorn in the air, or, as in Oxnard, where someone in line asked for money, and the next thing you know, someone else is dead.”

Did Paramount brass have any idea of the violence that the film would cause? “None whatsoever,” answers Weaver. “And we are not naïve. We previewed the film for a mixed audience in Long Beach and showed it a number of times at the studio. There was simply no indication.”

Yet the movie was not shown to critics in New York until the day before it opened. Ac­cording to a report in Variety, Paramount claimed the screenings were late due to last-minute editing and unavailability of prints. “That explanation doesn’t hold up,” notes the trade paper, “since Paramount opened the film in 670 theatres on February 9. It takes at least two weeks for that many prints to be struck.”

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Does the studio have a moral obligation to pull The Warriors? The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, in a front-page story, insists that it does. Gordon Weaver is evasive. “Every­thing we do,” he says, “has the potential to influence great numbers around the world. Our obligation is to make sure that our films can withstand a reasonable moral-ethical test.” Can The Warriors withstand that test? Weaver responds that the company doesn’t have a position, but his personal feeling is that the film’s intent is not to be inflammato­ry, “no more than the movie of Superman is responsible for making children fly.”

Nevertheless, Superman has made one lit­tle boy attempt to fly, just as The Eddie Du­chin Story made people fall in love, as The Exorcist made the queasy vomit, as Top Hat in­spired the nation to buy black and white fur­niture. The trend for Madame Curie and The Life of Louis Pasteur inspirational biography died with Louis B. Mayer.

In fact, we may be in for a rocky summer since a gang-war film cycle is in full swing. Rumbles are big business — The Warriors grossed $12 million in its first 16 days — but movie moguls have already pressed the panic button. Universal has scheduled Walk Proud for June release. Until last week, the film was titled Gang. It was shot in Marina Del Ray and Venice, California; is “a romantic drama set against a background of Chicano rivalry”; has a screenplay by Evan Hunter, whose sen­sitivity quotient you can fit into the bellybut­ton of a cockroach; and stars Robby Benson, whose acting ability you can squeeze into the same navel.

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Orion has The Wanderers, directed by Phil (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) Kaufman, set for a July 10 multiple-theatre release through Warner Brothers. Gabe Sumner, Orion’s senior vice-president of distribution and mar­keting, calls The Wanderers “a stylized and funny bigger-than-life look at a group of gangs in the New York area.” Like The War­riors, its cast is made up of unknowns. And like The Warriors, the action is heavy on street fights. “The public tends to lump things together too easily,” insists Sumner. “Our film is a satire.” Does he foresee trou­ble? “There could be, but I want to emphasize that the violence is in the context of something far greater than just violence, like in West Side Story, Rocky, and Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Sumner didn’t explain just what that con­text is.

Meanwhile, a “good” gang, the Magnifi­cent 13, is picketing theatres showing The Warriors, contending that it glorifies street violence. Last week they took to the Lexing­ton Avenue No. 4 IRT train, making like a vigilante patrol unit. They happened upon a knifepoint robbery and broke it up, though not without casualties. One of the Magnificent 13 was hit in the jaw, knocked senseless, and taken to North Central Bronx Hospital. The gang insists they’ll continue the struggle, but the Transit Authority cops aren’t pleased with their “good” intentions.

Thursday, February 22. An evening subway ride on the No. 4 IRT to the RKO Ford­ham in the Bronx. Torn pages from the Daily News cover some of the crud on the floor. Graffiti on the doors, on the windows. Blank faces on the young men who sit with their legs spread apart. “WABC wants to make you a star,” reads an overhead poster. Under the poster sits Marcelino Sanchez.

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At the theatre, he is spotted. A mob forms. It’s as if a local warrior has returned to the scene of his conquests.

Boys in imitation leather treat him with subdued respect. They want to know how much money he earns. They talk about their gangs: the Reefers, the Skulls, the Savage Nomads, the Playboys. A girl says, “I want to ask you a question, but I don’t know what to ask you.” Another asks if he’ll come to her sister’s wedding.

In the outer lobby a fracas occurs. A kid in a red jacket is refused admission. He keeps trying to break through the guard brigade. Another child, no more than 12, curses and paces, ready to pounce. He is handsome — a dwarf version of Robert De Niro — tough, mean. Saliva forms at the side of his mouth; he’s furious. But there’s no way he can get in.

A clique follows Marcelino into the theatre, and sits behind him in the balcony. Several groupies say they’ve lived at the Fordham since The Warriors opened, nearly two weeks ago. Because they know exactly what to expect, they’re not as hostile as the New Amsterdam audience. The Warriors is a cultural event to them, in the tradition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, except this is not a trendy piece for downtown wimps. The Warriors, man, is family.

They hoot and holler, recite lines with the actors, talk back to the screen, but they keep the peace. Sure, last week someone pulled a knife, but no one got nicked. Sure, they come in with their joints, and tell the security guard to fuck off when he warns “you better chill that racket,” or “take your feet down from the furniture, you with the shirt.”

Ten minutes before the final scene, the guard approaches Marcelino. “See that wheelchair over there,” he says. “Sit in it, and we’ll push you out so you won’t attract attention.”

Marcelino looks at the guard as if he’s crazy. These are the guys who make the rules?

Onward with the armies of the night. ■


Documents Link Studio 54 to Mob

The Ties That Bind: Documents confiscated from Studio 54 reveal some interesting connections

A detailed inventory of all documents seized Decem­ber 14 by federal agents in the Studio 54 raid reveals ties between the disco’s owners and alleged organized-­crime figures.

Contrary to disco attorney Roy Cohn’s claim that all the IRS Organized Crime Strike Force found was  “… an appointment book and a list of parties coming up at Studio 54,” agents confiscated materials linking owners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell to Sam Jacob­son, the alleged Queens-Williamsburg loan-shark king and racketeer.

Rumors of Studio 54’s link with organized-crime figures began when it became known that Ian Schrag­er’s father was the late Louis Schrager, also known as ”Max the Jew,” the legendary chief of Williamsburg loan-shark and racketeer operations. Louis Schrager was described in the State Liquor Authority file on Stu­dio 54 as “… a convicted felon who was a known as­sociate of Meyer Lansky and was second only to Her­man Siegel in Lansky’s loansharking and numbers rackets.”

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Meyer Lansky, the mob’s financial wiz and a key figure in the development of Las Vegas, turned gangsters into “businessmen,” fun­neling much of the mob’s activities into the high-profit, cash-laundering businesses of entertainment, night clubs, and resorts.

The late Louis Schrager left a large estate and trust for his wife Blanche and son Ian consisting of various businesses and real estate. According to State Liquor Authority files, the late Schrager’s alleged Queens-Wil­liamsburg criminal activities were taken over by the Jacobson brothers, Sam, Dan, and Ralph.

Ralph Jacobson was convicted on income­-tax charges and extortion in 1975. Ralph and Dan were both indicted in 1972 for the mur­der of Queens nightclub owner Conrad Greaves, in an alleged loan sharking and ex­tortion con. They were never convicted. Also indicted for the murder were Tommy DiLeo and Pasquale Macchairole (Patti Mac), whose bodies were found recently in plastic bags in the trunks of their cars. Sam was indicted but not convicted of tax fraud in 1972.

When Studio 54 applied for a liquor li­cense in the spring of 1977, the SLA inves­tigator asked Ian Schrager about his relation­ship with Sam Jacobson. The investigator’s sources indicated that Jacobson not only took over the late Louis Schrager’s business but moved in with Schrager’s widow, thus be­coming Ian Schrager’s surrogate father. Ian Schrager, in a sworn statement to the SLA, denied any connection with Sam Jacobson, stating that while he knew Jacobson, he hadn’t seen him in many years, that he had “… no contact with him and have no per­sonal knowledge whatsoever about him or his activities.”

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However, the IRS inventory, a matter of public record now filed at the U.S. Court Clerk’s office, appears to show that Sam Jacobson managed aspects of the Louis Schrag­er estate. The evidence includes two letters concerning Schrager estate matters labeled “441,” addressed to Sam Jacobson and dated May 8, 1970, and March 13, 1970. Also found in the raid was a brown accordion fold­er marked SAM JACOBSON-PERSONAL. That file contained, among other things, one letter dated May 5, 1974, a promissory note dated March 12, 1975, a number of legal pads marked SAM, and a financial statement dated March 17, 1975.

The most damaging document that may indicate that Sam Jacobson had an undis­closed financial interest in Studio 54 is a five­ column payment sheet with the main head-ing, STEVE RUBELL—SAM JACOBSON. The first of 11 entries reads, “W/E [week ending] 6/25, $2500.” The final entry reads “$22,500.” More information will certainly come out as the IRS develops its case.

Unlike the State Liquor Authority, the IRS has muscle. And while the State Liquor Authority was on the right track in question­ing Schrager about the source of his funding, the agency failed to produce a strong case be­cause the co-owners balked at supplying requested financial records. The agency report states that some of the checks Studio 54 did present as evidence “… never cleared a bank, bearing no imprint on the front or back.”

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Roy Cohn also claimed that the search war­rant, obtained by the strike force on Decem­ber 12 from U.S. District Judge Robert Carter, was based on “a phony tip.” Who sup­plied the information that justified the search warrant? That fact is currently “sealed” by the courts, even from Cohn. Studio 54’s law­yers are challenging the order and demand­ing that the material be unnealed. (If it is un­sealed, the basis for the search might be chal­lenged, if and only if the information was in­deed “phony.”)

Meanwhile, Studio 54 is taking the matter very seriously, having hired two additional law firms to represent them. Caplin and Drysdale, a high-powered, Washington­-based firm, will represent Studio 54 in the matter of possible tax fraud. “We will be representing the corporation only,” says Caplin. “As individuals, the co-owners are represented by Paul, Weiss.” Mortimer Cap­lin was the IRS commissioner from 1961 to 1964 and is one of the nation’s best tax law­yers. The second firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, is highly respected in New York. Both these firms will have to ex­plain how it was that, according to the books, Studio 54 lost money at certain times, as its owners have sworn to the State Liquor Au­thority. They will also have to explain countless weekly cash payout envelopes. According to one key former Studio 54 employee and other sources, Studio 54 was not just skimming a few bucks here and there; they were walking off with from 50 to 70 per cent of the cash take. That’s millions.

Roy Cohn will be representing Ian Schrager in Schrager’s more immediate criminal complaint: “intent to distribute a Schedule II narcotic … cocaine.” While Peter Sudler, the assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the case against Studio 54, refused to comment any aspect of the case, his complaint states that Schrager walked into Studio 54 on De­cember 14 at 9:30 a.m. just after the federal agents had arrived. Schrager was carrying books, records, and other documents. After the agents identified themselves, Schrager placed these materials on the floor. On top of the pile an agent found a white envelope with five packets of what turned out to be unusu­ally high-quality cocaine — about 50 per cent pure, unlike common street cocaine that is usually only 10 to 20 per cent pure.

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Schrager’s indictment on the narcotics charge will be handed down in a few weeks and his trial must follow within 90 days. The charges could mean up to 15 years if Schrager is convicted.

While 300 Quaaludes were found in the Studio 54 safe, it is unlikely that criminal charges will result because of the difficulty in proving individual possession,

How will all this affect Studio 54? For the time being, it won’t. There are two agencies that license liquor-serving discos, the State Liquor Authority and the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Consumer Affairs is short staffed and al­most powerless in this area. Studio 54 has been operating without a cabaret license since August 28. All Consumer Affairs can do is send one of its three investigators charged with enforcing the cabaret laws for all of New York City to Studio 54 and slap them with a summons. The fine is usually $25 — a parking ticket can cost more — and the summons can be challenged in court and dragged out for years. Reno Sweeney, the 13th Street caba­ret, has never been licensed due to its resi­dentially zoned area. Despite this fact, Re­no’s has remained open for years. There is no reason that Studio 54 can’t do the same.

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Consumer Affairs Commissioner Bruce Ratner doesn’t think he should be in the dis­co-licensing business. “Ask me about TVs or unit pricing,” he said. “That’s where we can and should put our energies. Don’t expect us to keep organized crime out of New York night life!”

The State Liquor Authority has a wait­-and-see attitude. “We have nothing to do with the IRS case or the narcotics charge,” says Commissioner Lawrence Gedda. “And until there’s some resolution of the allega­tions, Studio 54’s status will remain the same.”

In fact, the State Liquor Authority tried to fight Studio 54 once before and lost. Accord­ing to a key SLA source, that attempt to deny the club a liquor license was a joke. Michael Roth, the head of the agency at the time, had political aspirations (he recently lost his bid for election as the state attorney general). Roth was at a party near Studio 54 when he heard that the disco was serving liquor with­out a license. Instead of sending in SLA in­vestigators night after night for a few weeks to establish continuous illegal sale of liquor, Roth stormed out of the party and raided 54 in grandstand style. The SLA’s case was therefore based on only one night of illegal sales — a minor charge. For this kind of ac­tion, Roth earned the nickname within the agency of “Mickey Mouse.”

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Even if Schrager is convicted, Studio 54 will no doubt be able to get around the State Liquor Authority. While it is illegal to have a convicted felon as the owner or co-owner of a licensed premise, Studio 54 can reincorpo­rate, dropping Schrager as a co-owner. That’s just a little paperwork. Then Schrager might be legally hired as a manager or consultant and paid whatever salary the “new” corporation feels he’s worth.


Studio 54 will remain the playground of the chic for now, pulling in $12 a head at the door, $3 a drink, and making lots of money  on private parties. The crowds will continue circling the door clamoring for admission. But the documented inventory of the IRS raid indicates that long after the chic set has moved on to a new watering hole, Rubell and Schrager will be busy with their battery of lawyers. ♦