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Crazy As He Wants To Be

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Nearly every defense lawyer with a pulse tells clients not to appear before a grand jury. But Hirschfeld didn't listen when Charles Haydon gave him that advice. Not that Haydon holds any grudge; Hirschfeld fired him only to rehire him to work on a real-estate matter. "Is Abe eccentric?" Haydon says. "Depends on who's talking about it. To my great-grandfather, who used to climb trees to smoke a pipe, he wouldn't be eccentric. To me, he's an ordinary guy who's built himself up from nothing and has got a real big view of himself."

What will be harder for any lawyer to explain are Abe's intentions when he gave $75,000 in cash to his construction manager, Joseph Veltri. With Hirschfeld involved, even supposed homicide plots turn into low comedy: After giving Veltri the $75,000 as a down payment on the hit man, the D.A.'s office claims, Hirschfeld changed his mind and asked for a refund. The hit man wasn't pleased, and allegedly beat up Veltri for asking.

In front of the grand jury, Abe alternately claimed the money was a bonus for exemplary work; that it was to help Veltri through a difficult divorce; and that Rosemary Singer made him do it. The fact that Abe hired a private investigator to photograph Stahl, then gave the pictures to Veltri to help him find Stahl, doesn't seem to bolster Hirschfeld's claims of innocence. The tapes Singer made of her conversations with Hirschfeld will likely decide his fate, but Hirschfeld won't have much trouble getting a jury to believe he never concocted any coherent plan.

"Anyway, $75,000 is a lot of money to get somebody killed these days," says a prosecution source. "You can do it for a lot cheaper. Abe's supposed to be such a smart businessman -- he shoulda done better than that."

The narrow hallway leading to small-claims court in lower Manhattan is mobbed. Adding to the sense of low-rent claustrophobia is the reek of wet wool; everyone here tonight arrived through a drenching rain. It's a cranky crowd, but they step back to give Abe Hirschfeld a wide berth. "Uh, Mr. Hirschfeld," stammers a corporate lawyer who knows him from another case. "I never expected to see you here."

Abe smiles whimsically. "This will be the novelty of novelties!" he says. "I have found a way to sue the press and make them respond in person! No one else has ever thought of it: Take them to small-claims court! You cannot be represented by a lawyer; you must appear yourself. So Cindy Adams will be here to answer for her lies!"

Six weeks earlier, Adams, in the Post, mischaracterized the charges against Abe in the hit man case. But what really angered him was Adams's derisive reference to Abe's having owned the tabloid "for twenty minutes."

Accompanying Hirschfeld is his wife of 56 years, Zipora. She says Abe didn't tell her where they were going this evening, and the way she's dressed, that sounds true. Zipora is decked out in a black gown studded with dozens of rhinestones and carries a dazzling rhinestone purse. Also in tow is grandson Mark Goldin, 28. He's the son of Abe's estranged daughter, Rachel, yet he acts as Abe's all-purpose whipping boy and publicist. Clad in a Def Jam leather jacket, Marc is dialing up newsrooms on his cell phone: Why didn't reporters show up for Abe's press conference condemning tonight's Barbara Walters-Monica Lewinsky interview? Do they want Abe now for a quick phone interview?

Once inside the courtroom, Abe and company sit through two hours of petty cases: passengers whose luggage was damaged by airlines, neighbors fighting over a barking dog, uncomprehending immigrants bilked out of their meager earnings by restaurant owners. Abe grins amiably through it all. Zipora looks mystified. As Abe wanders off with his grandson, she sits, weary and forlorn, trying to chat with two bewildered Mexican women seated behind her. Marc returns and cracks to his grandmother that he'll be getting overtime for his efforts tonight. "Always with the money! This is the first thing out of his mouth!" she rasps.

"Grandmother, I'm joking," he says. "You know I'm joking, right?" She doesn't answer. She doesn't even look at him.

At 8:30, after nearly three hours in the courtroom, Abe is called to the bench. Cindy Adams is nowhere in sight. A smartly suited young lawyer from Squadron & Ellenoff, the firm that represents the Post (and New York), appears on Adams's behived behalf. Turns out Abe was wrong: Lawyers are allowed in small-claims court.

Everywhere he goes these days, Abe brandishes a sheaf of reprints from Time. Because the cover carries the words BUSINESS GENIUSES OF THE CENTURY, Abe is delighted: This means he's a certified genius! Never mind that his only appearance in the issue comes in a small story headlined CRAZY AND IN CHARGE, about millionaire wackos like Howard Hughes. Time never explicitly names him a genius.

The judge and the lawyer roll their eyes as Abe hands them copies of the story. He tells a few moldy one-liners, lays out his theory of Cindy Adams's offense against him, and is told the case is recessed.

Is he defeated? Hardly. On the way out of court, Abe Hirschfeld is ecstatic: Before he left the bench, the judge and the lawyer asked him for his autograph. His worth is renewed, in some small way, which is the only verdict he has ever really cared about. "You see?" he says. "I rarely can be crazy."


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