He's run for senator, lieutenant governor, Manhattan borough president; Hirschfeld's only victory was in a 1989 race for city commissioner in Miami Beach. He distinguished himself in that office by spitting on a newspaper reporter, a salivary tactic he'd debuted years earlier against New York
Democratic leader Stanley Steingut.
Episodes like Hirschfeld's recent charade with Paula Jones, where he played cash-it-if-you-can with a $1 million check, have been grotesquely amusing. According to Hirschfeld, his offer to buy Jones's silence saved the republic by inducing Bill Clinton to settle with his accuser. The White House won't comment.
But Hirschfeld always seems to balance harmless antics with bumbling, shameless statements, like his claim last week that John Kennedy Jr. sought him out for advice "on how to save Gregory." Excuse me? "Ahhh -- George. He wanted me to save his magazine the way I saved the New York Post."
Hirschfeld "saved" the Post in 1993 by so infuriating its staff that they went running into the loving arms of Rupert Murdoch. Pete Hamill, the Post's editor at the time, had watched Hirschfeld at a distance for years before Hirschfeld's wild sixteen-day reign as his Post boss. "Early on," Hamill says, "going back to his first association with Bobby Kennedy, the Kennedy guys massaged Abe's ego and got dough out of him. But at the beginning, it was like shtick: Here comes Abe with this old Yiddish theater accent, and he was a semi-comic figure for a while. But he did not turn into the beloved character who might sit in the Carnegie Deli and make remarks. As people got to know him better, they began to see what was going on, that the shtick had some anger behind it."
Hirschfeld has pleaded not guilty to tax evasion and to "criminal solicitation," legalese for trying to pay someone to rub out your enemy. The Manhattan D.A.'s office claims that the partnership agreement between Hirschfeld and Stanley Stahl contains a "survivor takes all" clause, giving Hirschfeld a motive to want to get rid of a man responsible for putting millions of dollars in Abe's pocket. For decades, people have wished that Hirschfeld, the city's longest-running public nuisance, would just go away. And after annoying dozens of politicians and the public at large, it may happen partly because Hirschfeld couldn't get along with his most valuable friend.
Behind all his legal troubles, Hirschfeld sees the nefarious hand of Stahl, his business partner of more than four decades. "That's ludicrous," says Stahl's lawyer, David Rosenberg. "Stanley Stahl is clearly the victim of all of Abe's shenanigans. These charges are based on testimony given by Abe's own employees. Stahl has nothing to do with instigating them." Still, Stahl's aides are happy to provide a fat dossier of newspaper and video clips about Hirschfeld, and Rosenberg has dropped in to monitor Hirschfeld's tax trial.
Stahl, 75, is nearly as tough as Hirschfeld is eccentric. Ask one man who's done extensive business with Stahl to suggest some sources sympathetic to the developer, and he says, "I guess even Hitler had a couple of friends."
Stahl, the publicity-phobic owner of Apple Bank and part owner of the Ansonia, is revered in real-estate circles for building a pioneering office tower at 277 Park Avenue and for assembling the Madison Avenue site that became the landmark notch-topped headquarters of AT&T. Yet he pursues adversaries through long legal fights, backed up until recently by the legendary litigator Milton Gould.