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Sam Waksal Was Right All Along*

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Waksal, in front of Manhattan Federal Court, after pleading guilty to insider trading in 2002.  

The night before he went to prison, Sam Waksal threw one last party. His rise and fall had been impressive even by New York rise-and-fall standards. In cancer labs and boardrooms, in academia and society, he had been known for years as New York’s biotech king—the striving, brilliant son of Holocaust survivors who spoke six languages, developed possible cures for fatal diseases, hosted high-minded intellectual salons and legendary parties, collected $20 million worth of art, and squired women half his age. In 2001, he had used the early promise of Erbitux to orchestrate a $2 billion deal with Bristol-Myers Squibb—the biggest biotech deal of its time, personally netting him more than $50 million. Then came the insider-trading charges. Waksal was indicted in 2002 and sentenced in 2003. ImClone was in crisis; Erbitux was considered snake oil.

Waksal had told his friend Tina Brown that he was looking forward to the solitude of jail—that it was going to be, for him, a “forced monastic event.” But that night at his loft on Thompson Street, he was anything but a monk, handing out $600 magnums of Château Lafitte Rothschild from the cellar. About 40 people showed up; at one point, he announced that Martha Stewart had called to send her good wishes (she wouldn’t go to jail for another year). Lorraine Bracco reportedly told him she’d heard that inmates could call their girlfriends for phone sex, and Waksal turned it into a flirty line to some of the women there: “If I call you, can we have phone sex?”

The next day, July 23, 2003, Waksal arrived at Schuylkill, the federal prison in Pennsylvania, a three-hour drive from Soho. His brother, Harlan, was with him, as was one of his closest friends, the Harvard geneticist Richard Mulligan, who had once served on ImClone’s advisory board. The three men started walking from the car, but a guard stopped them and said Waksal would have to walk alone from there. Only then, Waksal says, did it become real. “It was like when I jumped out of an airplane the first time, and I said to the guy, ‘I’m afraid of heights, I’m not going,’ and the guy said, ‘I can’t hear you,’ grabbed me, and pushed me out. I walked in, and that was that. I was in prison.”

Waksal’s lawyer had campaigned for his client to serve his time at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the jail best known as Club Fed. It didn’t work. Instead, he went to Schuylkill for 19 months, then a federal prison upstate, in Otisville, for 23 months, and a final 17 months at a prison in Milan, Michigan. He worried for his safety, but not for long. Only Milan had fences with razor wire, and Otisville struck Waksal as less of a prison than “a bad sleepaway camp in the Catskills.” He played basketball and softball at one prison, tennis at another. One of his bunkmates was a synagogue director who had robbed his own congregation. “When he got sentenced, every congregant came and said, ‘Put him away forever!’ ” he says. “He was this sweet old guy.”

Waksal was given menial work, like carrying cleaning products in and out of the living quarters, but that only took a few minutes a day. Evenings were spent in the barracks. The rest of his time, from when he woke up until 4 p.m. roll call, was unscheduled. Finding something to do to fill the hours became daunting. Waksal saw how some people worked in the kitchen so they could horde food, or took a job in the prison warehouse so they could work with numbers, or devoted themselves to the black-market trade of cigarettes. He says he tried to devote himself to a life of the mind. He was immediately reminded of what Machiavelli endured when he was exiled from Florence to a tiny village in Northern Italy. “Machiavelli was upset about the same things that anybody would be upset about. The boredom, the unbelievable boredom of it all. The noise. And the stupidity of what people do all day.” There were unexpected lighter moments: Waksal remembers hearing one guy think the word aplomb was “a plum,” and being surprised to hear himself laugh. But mostly, it was chaos. “Everyone’s playing cards every night. Everybody. They’re playing gin, they’re playing spades, they’re playing bridge. It’s a great way to pass time, and they do it for hours—five o’clock on, you know, as much as they can. They’re playing cards all night. Poker for, you know, cans of tuna. And you watch and they’re screaming. The noise in prison is unbelievable.”

He had a steady schedule of visitors. Both his daughters, Elana and Aliza, came often, as did Alexis Stewart, Martha’s daughter, whom he dated for nearly four years and with whom he has remained close. His parents came, too—each survivors of the Holocaust, now visiting their firstborn behind bars. At best, seeing them was a mixed blessing. “I mean, what am I gonna say to my mom—‘The food’s really terrible’? To someone who was eating peels out of a garbage can to survive?” He’d sit with his visitors outside at plastic tables with umbrellas or in a desolate room that looked like the waiting area of an airport. “He always looked perfect in jail. His hair, everything,” says his friend the novelist André Aciman. Sometimes he’d grouse about his sentence. “He thought it was way over the top for what it was. He felt the judge took aim at him.”


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