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The OB-GYN Who Loves Women


Abbe Aronson, a Greenwich Village mother, told her husband that morning that if Lauersen should lose his license, she was not having any more children: "It would be unthinkable to have a kid with another doctor." She spoke of him the way a fan would a rock star. "He's very busy, but once you're pregnant, you're let into his inner circle." She liked that he made the doctor-patient relationship "so personal. For example, I went when I was just out of college, and he said, 'It's time for you to go off the Pill.' I wasn't even married. He said your body has to get ready. A few years later, he told me, 'Now it's time. Get pregnant while it's easy, and everything else will fall into place.' "

Paulina, a Russian Jewish mother from Brighton Beach, had had quadruplets the preceding June, four boys, and after three, she'd run out of names. "So I named the fourth Niels."

At the trial, the women made friends, forming car pools and taking turns baby-sitting. They all said they had just decided to come, but the truth is that Lauersen's friend and aide de camp Stuart Matelsky had launched a full-scale phone-athon to drum up courtroom attendance. (Stuart's wife is another patient who credits Lauersen with saving her life and with enabling her to get pregnant where other doctors had failed.)

There was something almost reverent in the way the women rose from the benches en masse when Lauersen came near, walking that pigeon-toed walk in his low-vamped loafers. How they kept form patiently when he walked by with a box of chocolates and distributed candy right in their mouths. The proprietary tone one of them took in pointing out what a jalopy of an Audi he drives now that he's no longer carted around in Denise Rich's limo.

The government's star witness was Dr. Neil Ratner, Lauersen's former anesthesiologist, who testified to a deliberate office policy of falsifying insurance forms. The prosecution knew Ratner would be a shaky witness, so the attorneys started the questioning by having him admit to dodging the draft, to being unable to get into an American med school, to dealing drugs, and to being "pretty stoned a lot of the time I was giving anesthesia," once accidentally injecting himself with a paralyzing agent on the job. But to Lauersen, Ratner was like a patient, a person he could make well. "I took Ratner when nobody else would," he says. "I made him a good person."

"He just tried to do too much. He's a brilliant, decent guy, and he couldn't say no," says a colleague.

Lauersen estimates that 10 percent of his practice comes from infertility cases. The prosecution brought forth five such patients in attempting to prove a pattern of insurance fraud. In addition, prosecutors charged Lauersen with mail fraud and witness tampering. The alleged tampering involved telling a patient who'd phoned to say she'd been subpoenaed to "just tell the truth," according to her testimony, after which Lauersen informed her of a prior diagnosis that was news to her. She said he added that she might remember her records were destroyed in an office flood (she didn't remember).

Lauersen's defense claimed he could treat infertility at no cost to the insurer, by way of a dual procedure: Gynecological work -- removing a cyst from a woman's uterus, say -- made it possible to administer fertility treatments at the same time. This would make for no extra session, as she was already on the table, and no extra fee. The government alleged the cysts were merely a front, that they needn't have been removed. Certainly there were some curious, if apparently inconclusive, patterns in Lauersen's practice: the abnormally high volume of cyst removals and dilation-and-curettage cases (an increasingly outdated procedure done to test for cancer in the cervix or uterus) he billed for that might have been a front for fertility treatments. For example, Lauersen billed Blue Cross-Blue Shield for 356 cyst removals over a seven-year period. His closest competitor had only 41.

The patients who testified against Lauersen all seemed to be there against their will. When Benay DiGia, whose infertility treatments the government tried to show had been illegally reimbursed, was asked what Lauersen specializes in, she answered, "Kindness, compassion."

Later, during a recess, Lauersen put his arm around one of his lawyers, a 28-year-old Paul, Weiss associate named Danya Perry. "When am I going to get you pregnant?" Lauersen said. Then he nodded toward another man at the defense table. "Your eggs, his sperm."

"Jesus, Niels," she said.

Late most nights, Lauersen drops in on his friend Peter Lusk, a hedge-fund manager who lives just off Fifth Avenue. One such night, Lusk, a strapping man with a white beard, opened the door in pajamas, an undershirt, and bare feet. Lusk and his fiancée, Jeanne-Marie Fribourg, have endowed their place with a classic second- or third-marriage feel, with large public-entertaining rooms and beautiful things (Fortuny upholsteries, Scalamandré draperies, Picassos, Chagalls, Matisses, Dufys) but little to signify its inhabitants, save Fribourg's old modeling photographs, Steiff animals in their bedroom, and a nude photo of her teenage stepdaughter.

"When I met Niels, I was living in Boston and married to a prominent Brahmin, a really prominent Brahmin," Fribourg said. "How many women do you know whose gynecologist offers, when she gets divorced and moves to New York, to loan her money, to vouch for her to a co-op board, to help her find work? Then, when I came down with breast cancer, he got me in with the right doctor."

Lusk helped pay for Lauersen's legal-defense team, headed at the time by Ted Wells, a hot-rod litigator who recently moved from a firm in New Jersey to take a partnership at Paul, Weiss. "He really has the ability to talk to the jurors in their language," Lusk said.

Fribourg set out crackers and a Stilton, and Lusk went on. "This is a case that started with the insurance companies, and they and the government are basically on a witch hunt."

Lauersen said, "I just, you know. We'll see. But I can't . . . know why she is doing this to me. I don't know if Mary Jo White" -- the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York -- "has children. Maybe she had a problem with it, you know? Maybe she's just too ugly."

"This assistant U.S. Attorney who's prosecuting the case, this Christine Chung, she really seems to have something personal against Niels," Lusk said. "Do you see the way she looks at him?" He narrowed his eyes.

"She looks like a snake," Lauersen said. "She just, you know, like this." He narrowed his eyes, too, then thrust his neck forward.

"Well, I'll tell you, I have watched her through this trial and I have not been impressed," Lusk said. "She's no Gerry Spence. She's not even the Korean Gerry Spence."

Fribourg lifted her glass. "To Niels, the kindest person I think I know. Together we will get through this."

"Hey," Lauersen said. "I had Foxy Brown in my office today."

lauersen came to new york hospital to begin a surgery residency at Cornell Medical Center in 1967. Dr. Fritz Fuchs, the new chairman of OB-GYN, was from the University of Copenhagen and had brought Lauersen over. "My life wasn't your typical resident's life," Lauersen says. "I made a lot of European friends, non-doctors. Nightclubs, parties, you know."

In 1973, at 36 and with his grad-student days not far behind him, Lauersen married 58-year-old Rebekah Harkness, widow to William Hale Harkness, of the Harkness philanthropic dynasty. "I was set up with her daughter, Terry," Lauersen says. "But that didn't work out. There wasn't any chemistry."

Harkness had been a sponsor of the Joffrey Ballet and later started her own ballet company. Over the course of her life, she married four times, battled drug and alcohol dependencies, kept a penthouse in the Westbury Hotel, had Salvador Dalí paint a portrait of one of her daughters, dyed the chocolate mousse she served at parties blue because she didn't care for the color brown, and by the end expended the bulk of her estimated $75 million (in those days, a lot of money). "She was under so much pressure -- friends, staff, lawyers, choreographers, her daughters, everyone pulling her different ways. She thought I could help her. I thought I could help her."

They made a home at the Harkness estate at Sneden's Landing, on the Hudson River. "It had ghosts," Lauersen says. It also had 30-foot ceilings and a fireplace that had belonged to William Randolph Hearst. Harkness always said, "Well, it's not home, but it's much." Lauersen's friend Emily Altman, who visited with her husband, remembers five servants' watching the two couples eat dinner. "You rang a bell when you wanted the salt. The whole thing was bizarre -- young, naïve Niels and this grande dame society matron. She had him wear a black-and-shocking-pink cut-velvet tuxedo jacket."

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