At least today he's wearing pants. A few months ago, as his current bizarre episode began, the freshly arrested Abe Hirschfeld, 79, was refusing to wear more than a pair of underwear for his ride to jail. "Briefs," clarifies a cop who was part of the strange post-midnight scene in Hirschfeld's Fifth Avenue apartment. "It was not a pretty picture."
The charge that put Hirschfeld in handcuffs was equally outlandish: He is alleged to have attempted to hire a hit man to kill his business partner of 40 years, Stanley Stahl. At Hirschfeld's bail hearing, the tableau grew more peculiar: His retinue included Susan Carpenter-McMillan, the extravagantly blonde conservative activist behind Paula Jones. Hirschfeld wanted to enlist Carpenter-McMillan as his spokeswoman. Her presence didn't help get his bond reduced from $1 million.
But even Carpenter-McMillan has long since dropped Hirschfeld, so on this July morning there's no entourage as the parking-garage magnate, serial spitter, and perennial political candidate shuffles into a tenth-floor courtroom at 111 Centre Street. Hirschfeld is clad in a subdued dark-blue suit -- tastefully highlighting a Hirschfeld-designed bright-red crossword-puzzle necktie -- befitting his role as the defendant in a 123-count indictment for tax evasion and financial fraud. He's also the co-defense lawyer, after having gone through six lawyers in the past year. Judge Bruce Allen, who either is heavily medicated or possesses the patience of Job, ordered that Hirschfeld be examined by a psychiatrist and a psychologist before allowing the trial to start in early July (the doctors declared him "somewhat grandiose" but legally sane). This morning, Hirschfeld berates his co-counsel, Myrna Ocasio, in open court, and she threatens to quit, too, until Judge Allen talks her down. "Bring in the jury before the next atomic bomb drops," Allen tells a bailiff.
Now a crucial prosecution witness takes the stand. Rosemary Singer was Hirschfeld's secretary for 32 years, but in the summer of 1997, she wore a wire to inform on her boss for the Manhattan D.A.'s office. When Hirschfeld stands to begin questioning her, Singer flinches like a beaten spouse.
Hirschfeld scores some surprising points, getting the matronly Singer to admit that the D.A.'s office is waiting until after her testimony to decide if they'll prosecute Singer for her own tax irregularities. Then Hirschfeld, a Polish immigrant by way of Israel, begins asking about the timing of Singer's spying.
"When you wore this thing," Hirschfeld croaks in his Yiddish-accented English, "this bug, on your lapel, did you come and tell me?"
Singer has long experience in trying to interpret Hirschfeld's ramblings, but she appears completely baffled and doesn't answer. You can see her mind working: Uh, I was an informant. Of course I didn't tell you.
"All this time, when you were making this deal with the district attorney," Hirschfeld says, "were you being paid by the Hirschfeld organization?"
"Yes," Singer says simply.
Hirschfeld isn't worried about his payroll. His questioning isn't about any logical defense strategy. Never mind whatever nastiness Singer may have put up with from Hirschfeld over the years. The point is that he now has her betrayal on the record.
As Hirschfeld stands behind the defense table, the look on his face changes from one of satisfaction at obtaining the answer he wanted to one of deep hurt. It's then I notice that Abe's side of the spectator gallery is empty except for his wife. He's made millions, put up buildings, funded charitable causes, produced Broadway shows, donated to politicians from Robert Kennedy to Rudy Giuliani, and still he gets no respect. The man is utterly lonely, and for that he can blame only himself. He doesn't care about taxes. What Abe Hirschfeld has always wanted is love.
Gadflies and publicity hounds are a New York specialty; even the most obnoxious, like Donald Trump, usually end up becoming civic mascots, achieving a measure of wink-wink, only-in-New York affection. Yet even cherished-jester status has eluded Hirschfeld.