Squabbles among country neighbors don't normally attract much attention back in the city. But then again, the neighbors aren't often as colorful or combative as those squaring off against each other in the little Town of Gardiner courthouse in the county of Ulster. In the near corner, in the red trunks, stands Manuela Hoelterhoff, the fearsome cultural critic who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work atthe Wall Street Journal. In the far corner, in the tiger-striped trunks (he went to Princeton and isn't afraid to let you know it), paces John Bradley, librarian of the Knickerbocker Club and one of Ulster County's largest landowners.
Bradley is having Hoelterhoff prosecuted for harassment. He claims that she approached him in the town courthouse last January -- she was there to offer moral support to a local man whose windshield Bradley pleaded guilty to smashing, a crime for which he paid a fine and wrote a court-ordered letter of apology -- and said, "If you ever send your Nazi storm troopers up to my house again, I'll cut your balls off and grill them and deliver them to this court."
Hoelterhoff was referring to state troopers who had descended on her home in search of an armoire Bradley claimed had been stolen from him by a friend of the writer's -- whom he has also taken to court.
If Hoelterhoff disagrees with her adversary's description of what happened in the courthouse that fateful day, it's only to claim that her threat was stated more artfully than reported. "I said, 'I'm going to barbecue your balls and serve them with relish by Ms. Reller,' " she explains, "which I thought was clever enough on the spot. I said it in a kind of pleasant way."
Patricia Reller is a Northwest Airlines flight attendant, the friend of Hoelterhoff's who allegedly absconded with the armoire, and an excellent cook. Last year, she lost her lakeside cottage at auction under curious circumstances to a partnership headed by Bradley.
Like so many other counties within weekend driving distance of New York, Ulster has undergone a rather striking metamorphosis over the past few years thanks to an influx of well-heeled second-home owners. Located 80 miles north of the city, it's an unpretentious Hudson Valley answer to the Hamptons, where the spacious retreats of such low-key Manhattan media types as New York Timespublisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.; his executive editor, Joe Lelyveld; investigative journalist James B. Stewart; and actor Robert De Niro are stowed away among the locals' bungalows. While Bradley counts some of these media heavyweights as friends, he earned the enmity of Hoelterhoff, who sees herself as Robin Hood (to his evil baron), when he crossed her friend.
According to his critics, the 69-year-old Bradley -- who grew up in Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan and says he discovered the area in the fifties -- pretty much had the run of the place until recently, acting like a feudal lord and treating the locals, many of whom are cheering Hoelterhoff on, as disruptive serfs. He allegedly ran over one man's dog (Bradley says the dog chased his car and he encouraged the pet's owner to get it to a vet) and chopped down an old lady's trees (he says survey maps prove the trees belong to a partnership he manages), and he has had numerous run-ins with people who claim lake rights to Tillson Lake, which Bradley oversees on behalf of the partnership.
But Bradley's friends, who include Hugh Auchincloss, Jackie Onassis's stepbrother, and Jim Fowler, the alligator-wrangling host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, describe their man as a preservationist who has done as much as anyone to save the last true wilderness within commuting distance of New York City. "He's a man of his word and he's a gentleman, and I imagine that's all you need to know," says Auchincloss.
It's hard to handicap The People of the State of New York v. Manuela Hoelterhoff, which is proceeding to trial at a summer-in-the-country pace and has already cost the writer more than $1,000 in legal fees. She and Bradley appear evenly matched.
Her criticism in the Journaland in her book Cinderella & Company, about the opera diva Cecilia Bartoli, astonishes not just for its wit and effortless erudition but also for Hoelterhoff'sperfect willingness -- relish, if you will -- to take a box cutter to some of the more formidable members of opera's close-knit world, with whom she presumably must do business on a daily basis.
"Manuela is a force to contend with," observes her Ulster County neighbor James B. Stewart, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. "She doesn't mince words. Some of her opera reviews were scathing."
Bradley is no shrinking violet, either. He recently took on a black bear -- an uninvited guest to his mountaintop retreat -- with a gravel rake and won. "He's an honest-to-God explorer," maintains Jim Fowler. "He's one of the few people I'd go into remote areas with."
Auchincloss says he doesn't envy anyone facing Bradley in court. "He's meticulous," he says. "He's sort of his own lawyer."
"This is nothing compared to some of the battles I've been in," explains Bradley. "My father was an alcoholic. My mother had a tragic accident, fell down two flights of stairs. The other story I've heard is she was pushed down by my father."
Hoelterhoff, however, believes that Bradley's case is absurd and that in threatening to emasculate him she was merely exercising her constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. To that end, her legal team, which includes Robert Wolf of the high-powered Manhattan law firm Gersten Savage & Kaplowitz, working pro bono, has submitted a brief of Supreme Court quality to the little Gardiner Justice Court.
"Of course I won't give in," Hoelterhoff declares, even though it's Bradley who brought charges against her. "I'm the only person who can maybe stop this guy. I want to be declared innocent so I can sue the shit out of him."
No matter who emerges victorious from this battle, unflattering accounts of Bradley's behavior have already made their way back to the Knickerbocker Club in the city. The board of directors recently received an undated and unsigned letter expressing sly concern over Bradley's various court appearances and helpfully including a copy of the complaint filed against him by Morey Gottesman, the man whose windshield he demolished.