“I’m still a kook,” insists Sukhreet Gabel. Years after her brief stint as the city’s most visibly nonconforming civil servant, she’s anxious about blending in among the other 40ish divorcees in her neighborhood. “I’m the bird lady of 69th Street,” she says. “As I walk down the block, my parrot sits on my head or my shoulder shrieking and wolf-whistling.”
In 1988, Gabel was the star witness in the “Bess mess,” a debacle that stood out even in the annals of the scandal-rich Koch administration. Bess was Bess Myerson, the popular cultural-affairs commissioner (and former Miss America), and Gabel was her special assistant. Prosecutors charged that she got the job because of an illegal deal between Myerson, whose sewer-contractor boyfriend Andy Capasso was looking for someone to lower his alimony payments, and Gabel’s mother, Hortense, a respected State Supreme Court justice who was looking for someone to hire her eccentric, depressive daughter. Gleefully taking the stand in the trial of her mother – a near-blind, aged woman who had risked rank and reputation for her – Sukhreet emerged as a loopy ingrate. “I didn’t testify against my mother,” she now says. “I was simply a witness.”
Though Myerson, Hortense Gabel, and Capasso were all acquitted of bribery and conspiracy charges, none returned to public life. But Sukhreet, whose mind Bess’s attorney compared to “Swiss cheese with holes in it,” milked it for all it was worth, working the talk-show circuit, calling a press conference in an East Village bar, singing at El Morocco.
Today Sukhreet lives with a roommate, a block from the building where she grew up. She supports herself with her inheritance and by designing dresses made from ethnic fabrics. As for her beleaguered former boss? “Like the Jews in Fiddler on the Roof who say ‘God bless and keep the czar … far from me.’ That’s how I feel about Bess,” she says. “I have seen her by chance bounding down Third Avenue. She looks ghastly, but after all, she is pushing 80.” (Actually, she’s 73.) Occasionally, Gabel receives a nasty piece of mail, like the letter from a mental-health group identifying her as “an example of why we don’t like electroshock,” or overhears an unpleasant “Bess mess” reference. “But no,” she sighs. “I won’t leave New York.”