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The Trouble with Harry Winston


Last year, the trustees hired Credit Suisse First Boston to oversee the sale of Winston. The bank privately released its independent assessment of Winston's value last fall, making it more likely the company can be sold before the end of 1999. But there is still no end in sight to the litigation.

Bruce Winston steadfastly refuses to speak to reporters, although he has been known to pose silently for photographs to go with articles about his lawsuit. He speaks to the press only through his friend Edward H. Wohl, a white-haired, avuncular attorney whom some paint as a manipulative Svengali who holds Bruce in his thrall.

Wohl was working as a divorce lawyer when he befriended Bruce at a Manhattan party in 1975; two years later, his firm handled Bruce's divorce from his first wife. Since then, he has regularly played squash, dined, and vacationed with his client, nurturing a close friendship. Wohl says Bruce shuns the media because he doesn't want to be quoted saying nasty things about his brother (he is still said to be appalled over his Aunt Lillian's remark). Instead, Bruce supplies Ed Wohl with handwritten notes to read to reporters. In response to some questions I had for Bruce, Wohl read me the following:

"Bruce Winston was married for the first time at the age of 26. His mother and father made the wedding at Claridge's Hotel in London. Many influential people were there: Harry Oppenheimer of De Beers, the Maharani of Jaipur, et cetera. Bruce's intended wife was a professional ballerina and the daughter of a famous general who served under Mountbatten in India. Bruce believes it is necessary to make this statement because his first wife has been described otherwise. Contrary to many stories, Bruce does not gamble and never has. His desire is to bring the Winston companies back to their former famous glory."

Ron and his supporters see Wohl as a shrewd puppet-master who manipulates Bruce for his own benefit. "Bruce doesn't take a piss in the morning without first calling Ed Wohl," says one of Ron's lawyers. "He's Ed Wohl's golden egg." In fact, it was Wohl who first informed Ron Winston in October 1989 that his brother was no longer happy with the status quo. "I remember Ed Wohl called me and said he was coming over," says Ron. "He walked into the room and said to me, 'You are going to sell that company now or we will make you pay.' "

It is still unclear what provoked Bruce to initiate legal proceedings against his brother. Wohl simply says that about a decade ago, Bruce was "tipped off" that Ron was seriously mismanaging the company. "We believe that we can prove that tens of millions of dollars have disappeared from the company since Harry Winston died," he claims. In 1995, a court-appointed appraiser found that the company's value had dipped by about $100 million since 1978. Though Bruce blames Ron's mismanagement for the precipitous decline, Ron insists there is a more innocent explanation. He points out that when his father died, prices for a top-of-the-line diamond were at an all-time high. "They were $62,500 a carat, compared to $22,500 now," he says. "Am I to be blamed for that?"

Ron Winston has his own complaints about Ed Wohl. He claims the attorney has tried to bribe his former employees to testify against him. Last February, Ron filed formal charges against Wohl with New York's attorney-disciplinary committee, claiming Wohl lured his former personal executive assistant to Bruce's side with a $500-an-hour consulting fee and the promise of a million-dollar bonus if Ron loses in court, then listed her as a potential witness, which is an ethical infraction. (Wohl insists Bruce Winston himself cut the deal with the secretary.)

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