Did he dwell on the events that brought him there?
“I relived moments I wish hadn’t occurred,” Waksal says. “The what-ifs. But that can make you nuts, right?”
On one of his visits to prison, another friend remembers confronting Waksal on the subject. “You’re extraordinary in so many ways,” he said. “Why do you find the need to go over that line?”
How did Waksal respond? The friend shakes his head. “It’s like I didn’t say it.”
Waksal saw many inmates holding out hope for an early release, working closely with lawyers on appeals. He joined them, staging a new campaign every few months for the court’s mercy. Early on, he was convinced he’d be out any month now—for his daughter’s wedding, or to care for his parents, or because of his great contribution to society. “He really believed it would work,” says Myer Berlow, another old friend. “Every fiber of my being wanted to say ‘Stop with this! You’re much too intelligent to think you’re gonna get out!’ But I played along. It’s something people need to do.”
“Walter Benjamin said it—‘Hope is for the hopeless,’ ” Waksal says. “And everyone in prison has hope. That helps you get through it, crazily enough. It’s a great psychological tool. To fool yourself. It’s great. It’s delusional. It’s like a drug.”
Waksal wrote prolifically, almost as therapy. First came a memoir-style account of the ImClone story (started out of anger, Waksal says), then a prison memoir, then a first-person novella called Silence, “about someone who doesn’t speak and lives with himself for a long period of time. It’s kind of cool. Because there was a chunk of time I just didn’t talk to anybody.” Then he wrote a novel called To Predict the Future, which alternates between the present day and Germany between the wars. “Weimar Germany was interesting because it was everything,” he says excitedly. “You had Brecht, and Weill, and Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem started there. You had all the Hungarian physicists, from Edward Teller to Leo Szilard to Eugene Wigner, all the ones from Budapest had gone there and were studying in Berlin. Everybody. You had writers and most of them were Jews, and most of them did not see what was going to happen.”
He also read. “I reread all the Greeks,” he says, smiling. “All. I read everything. Euripides, and Sophocles, and every other Greek that had ever written. You just have to read Aristotle’s Poetics, and you read what tragedy is—and you look at yourself and think, ‘Shit, man, this is tragic.’ ”
On a Friday night just before five, Waksal is at a table in the lobby bar of the Carlyle with Richard Mulligan, the former ImClone advisory-board member and friend who had brought him to jail. “Richard is one of the people who discovered the entire field of gene therapy,” Waksal says. “Neither one of us likes to hang out with dumb people.”
Mulligan is drinking a martini. Waksal is sipping tea. Waksal shaved nine months off of his sentence by participating in a prison-related rehab program, even though he apparently never showed any signs of dependency before going to jail. (Rehab is said to be a popular way for white-collar offenders to reduce their jail time.) Since getting out, Waksal has been meeting with Mulligan at least once a week, talking about all the same things they used to talk about before the bad times—“scientific things, business things, and women,” says Mulligan, “not necessarily in that order.”
Waksal is more circumspect about his personal life than he used to be, and he’s certainly leading a quieter life than he did before prison. Some of his more famous old friends seem to be keeping their distance now: Martha Stewart, among others, would not be interviewed for this story, instead issuing a quote wishing him “new successes.” (“I think that Martha and I never had a moment that wasn’t a positive one,” Waksal says. “I’ll leave it at that, because there’s no need to say more. She’s an old and dear friend.”) He insists that he never thought of himself as a boldface name to begin with—that his work and cultural pursuits were always more important to him. “I mean, yes, there were absolutely famous friends. I was part of New York! This is a world that juxtaposes rich and poor, intellectual and barbarians at the gate—everything, right?” He blames the media for focusing on the more salacious aspects of his life: “They’d rather write that there were a bunch of tall blondes in my apartment during a Christmas party!”
Why were those women there?
Waksal smiles. “You know, you’re not going to have a party with just scientists. And most of the CEOs in the world are boring morons.”