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A City of Ids

New York: the ripest microclimate for infamy known to man.

Harry Kendall Thaw, murderer of architect Stanford White, confronts the tabloid glare.   

New York City attracts the very people most likely to be ruined by scandal: men and women who rise in society by virtue of their smarts, ambition, and labor. By their physical charms, vigorous egos, and appetite for conquest. Mostly strivers, but sometimes born into high position, they make money, become powerful or famous or both, and induce yet more opportunity for themselves. In time the rules appear to become different for them: Judgments are reserved, corners sliced, doors opened. The slingshot effect of wealth and power lifts their life arcs higher than they might otherwise go. An individual enjoying these altered societal physics may even feel an intriguing vertigo. It’s human nature to push one’s luck, to see what might happen …

Let us thus recall the afternoon of Monday, March 10, 2008. A morsel of intrigue buzzed through the city. Something big was going down. The New York Times was about to reveal the name of a major politician caught using a high-priced call-girl service. Who? Speculation was feverish: Bill Clinton? A Bush-administration official? The miscreant was, of course, Governor Eliot Spitzer, the hard-driven former prosecutor once mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate, and suddenly, two days later, after his brief, grim-faced resignation, merely a broken political doll tossed on the scrap heap of city history. (Or at least for the time being, until his rehabilitation is complete.)

Shocking as the moment was then, how long ago it now seems. But that should be no surprise. After all, the very essence of such a major New York scandal is that it suddenly achieves a supernova of excitement that is soon supplanted by the next one. Each subsequent outrage, each new version of our indigenous circus-opera, demands we pay attention, and we do, because we love scandals, assuming their flames of destruction don’t touch us or those whom we care about. They make us feel momentarily safer (his fate was not mine) and a bit more alive (could his fate have been mine?). Scandals are agreeably toothsome, with potentially fascinating complexities, and unfold dramatically. Like sporting events—unscripted, the ending in doubt—they nonetheless conform to certain rules; they have beginnings, middles, and definite ends. They remind us that New York City is, among other things, a machine of fate. The high do sometimes fall, and the guilty are, in fact, sometimes punished. Even the shameless can be shamed, if only temporarily, and the ­power-besotted can be reminded of the costly, eternal laws of human gravity.

But what is a scandal? The etymology is suggestive: The French scandale, from Old French, means “cause of sin”; the Latin scandalum means “trap, stumbling block, temptation.” Perhaps a basic definition is in order: A scandal involves unseemly conduct that results in the destruction of a ­reputation. Someone’s position in society changes for the worse. The fall must appear ­irreversible. Suffering is necessary. As is humiliation.

Not all shocking events are scandals. Sordid tragedies, gruesome murders, baroque malfeasance—there are thousands of juicy New York tales that do not feature a character of good standing succumbing to his id and therefore do not qualify. And to rise to a classic New York scandal, the episode generally requires at least two of four crucial elements: power (of an institution, celebrity, or social position), money (the more of it the better, especially if it is cleverly stolen or deployed to hide crimes and misdemeanors), sex (preferably involving the pairing of a physically loathsome, goatish old man with a young woman of unquestionable allure and highly questionable judgment), and violence (especially anything weird, ritualistic, or psychoish). These factors can be combined any which way, so long as there are at least two. The biggest scandals deliver three elements, and ones that deliver all four are exceedingly rare. One such was the 1980 murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of the best-selling book The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, by his lover Jean Harris, headmistress of the Madeira School for girls in Virginia. Finding another lover’s lingerie in Tarnower’s bedroom, Harris shot the well-known cardiologist four times with a pistol she claimed she’d meant to use on herself instead. Her seemingly endless trial lasted fourteen weeks. While out on bail, she was seen to visit his grave.

But has the definition of scandal—and most particularly, of the New York scandal—morphed over time? Determined scrutiny suggests not: The parade of murdered lovers, wealthy debauched husbands, smiling con artists, and piggish city officials has marched more or less without interruption. What has evolved is how most New Yorkers have learned about their scandals. The early-nineteenth-century city was just waiting for a paper to traffic in such behavior, and eventually it got plenty. Unlike most American towns of the era, the New York of the 1800s had not only the expected mix of European descendants of various Protestant stripes but a multihued hodgepodge of seekers, drifters, dreamers, and the dispossessed from all over the world. The city already represented a psychic zone where one could disappear, shake off the strictures of one’s upbringing elsewhere, or, indeed, destroy oneself privately or in public.

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