"All in all, a few years maybe, I don't remember how long we were married," Lauersen says. (They divorced in 1976.) "But I helped convince her to give the Harkness Pavilion to New York Hospital." Actually, it was begun in 1966, before he met Harkness.
He has never remarried. "Niels -- he's just not a one-woman kind of man," says the artist Lale Djuric, a friend. "Do you know how many women Niels has shown up with at parties over the years? Guess. No, don't guess -- I tell you. Hundreds. One thousand. Something like that." Lauersen says he might like to have children some day. But Eileen Stukane, his co-author on several books, says, "He finds birthing babies very gratifying, but I'm not sure he would like the process of raising one. He likes handing a woman a healthy baby and moving on."
Lauersen and Denise Rich stayed together for eight years. A friend of theirs says Rich cooled on the relationship when the legal problems surfaced. "She had been humiliated already by her husband's financial scandal, and she couldn't take any more of this."
Lauersen says it was his compassion for "beautiful women" that drew him to elements of gynecology that figure prominently in his books: "If a beautiful woman came into the emergency room with endometriosis, everyone assumed she had VD. My colleagues put women down."
To Niels Lauersen, just as to warren Beatty's hairdresser character in Shampoo, women are both vocation and avocation. Just as when Beatty makes a house call to Julie Christie she greets him in a robe and has him blow-dry her hair in the bathroom, Lauersen's work involves an intimacy few men ever see. His conversation skills aren't immediately apparent, what with the heavy accent, a big case of the mumbles, and a nonlinear quality to most of his utterances. ("Sometimes, I don't think he wants to be understood at all," one former girlfriend says. "It's like a shield, his way of maintaining a little private space.") Instead, Lauersen gets himself into his patients' personal space. He phones in the middle of the night to see if they're all right, lets them come see him as often as they like (often, they say, without billing). In his world, the OB-GYN is a chivalrous hero. And in his world, it takes three to make a baby. "With a couple, you have to find out what the problem is between them," he says. "I let the woman complain, just listen. I calm the husband down, make sure he helps her. I form two different bonds with each of them. Then all of us, we make magic."
Of his troubles, Lauersen says, "I guess that's the price for being where I am. but you know? I'm busier than ever."
Actually, in one of the most spectacular cases against Lauersen, a patient accused him of trying to impregnate her literally. In 1994, a former girlfriend named Ann Klendshoj sued Lauersen for malpractice, claiming he had coerced her into two pregnancies, "to act as his sperm depository in order to see whether Lauersen could father a child." He had lent her money and rented her an apartment in Trump Tower. "This woman, she wanted to marry me," Lauersen says. "She knew I was with Denise, and she got angry." The case was eventually dropped.
Then there was Kimberly Alvarez, another patient. She, too, sued Lauersen, for a rape she said took place in the Park Avenue apartment next to his that he kept for patients from out of town. Lauersen settled last September, for a reported $110,000. "I thought it was a copycat thing," he says. "I was so stupid, stupid, stupid, for letting her stay in that apartment. I've got to be more careful; there are so many crazies, you know? It's just one of those things, because I'm nice to women, nice to people. Like I would need to go out and rape someone? There are women out there. I could go and get a date. I mean, I had a date. I was with Denise that night. This woman wasn't like the Klendshoj case -- that was a beautiful woman. Usually, that happens to sports people. Not so often with a gynecologist."
The circumstances in the cases are murky, and he denies the charges in both. The second patient had a history of multiple-personality disorder, and though the Manhattan district attorney's office investigated the case, no criminal charges were brought.
Emily Altman has a fairly benign explanation for all of this. "Women fall in love with him, and it can be a curse," she says. "I think sometimes he promises stuff he shouldn't have in the heat of the moment. It's a boyish thing to do. Now he's 63, and he's still doing it."
The malpractice suits are more troubling. Of all medical specialties, OB-GYNs and neurosurgeons run the highest risk of malpractice claims. That said, Lauersen's tally is difficult to ignore: An examination of court records shows at least 26 such claims. By comparison, the average OB-GYN is sued for malpractice four times over the course of a career, according to a 1999 Medical Economics Research Services survey. (It should be noted that this was a self-selective study.)
Still to come is a suit accusing Lauersen of performing so many unnecessary surgeries on a patient's uterus that it had to be removed, as well as a new "traumatic forceps delivery" charge, and others. (Juries have ruled in Lauersen's favor in a number of malpractice cases.)
"He had half a dozen cases going on against him when I tried my case," says Alvin Broome, a lawyer who in 1998 won a malpractice judgment against Lauersen (over a delivery). "He would have to have been a magician not to, given the number of babies he delivers in a year, in my opinion. I think this guy was stressed." A surgery-department chair at a hospital where Lauersen worked thinks this was the root of his problems: "He just tried to do too much. He's a brilliant, decent guy, and he couldn't say no. As my grandmother used to say, 'If he were a woman, he'd be pregnant all the time.' "
Lauersen has insurance in an assigned-risk pool with the Medical Malpractice Insurance Association, meaning no single insurance company is alone responsible for him. The typical OB-GYN in New York might spend around $80,000 to $100,000 a year on health insurance. With MMIA's rates and his record, Lauersen could be paying twice that.
Dr. Warner Nash, an OB-GYN semi-retired from Lenox Hill, has scrubbed with Lauersen over the past fifteen years and is generally supportive of his friend, though he thinks his ego hasn't helped. "He's very dedicated to his patients, but I don't always agree with his medical decisions and his treatments. He's off on his own, doing procedures others do in hospitals -- laparoscopies, cystectomies. Not many OB-GYNs have an in-house anesthesiologist. He likes that it's less supervised, that he doesn't have to have someone looking over his neck."
Indeed, Lauersen is dismissive of the malpractice suits. "I guess that's the price of being where I am," he says. "But you know what? I'm busier than ever. I'm still delivering babies."
Of the forceps case that led to his ouster from Lenox Hill -- and also got him taken off Oxford Health Plan's list of approved providers -- Lauersen says, "It was a nonevent that shouldn't have happened. They had a new head of the department at the hospital" -- Dr. Michael Divon -- "and he was resentful of all the business I brought in. The interns didn't come down to help me. The hospital had been refusing to let the residents help me for a long time. I deliver one baby a day. I know how to do this." (The other version of this, says a colleague, is that Lauersen refused to work with residents. Dr. Divon didn't return calls to his office.)
Lauersen says the two previous resignations -- from New York Hospital in 1979 and Mount Sinai in 1984 -- were his choice. Few doctors will speak openly about Lauersen's record. "I'll just say that all the things occurred after I left," Dr. Hugh Barber, the retired head of OB-GYN at Lenox Hill, says. "I had a very strict way of supervising all the attendings. With me, he knew he had to stay in line."