It's the strangest thing -- Mitchell Rothken is smiling. Not one of those languid, halfhearted smiles people sometimes force themselves to make to be polite, or when they're trying to let you know they're holding up under difficult conditions. This is a big old ear-to-ear, feeling-it-down-in-the-belly grin. Not the kind of expression you see a lot in prison.
Rothken is sitting on a plastic chair in a dirty little cubicle on Rikers Island, wearing a gray Department of Corrections jumpsuit and generic-looking white sneakers without laces. Three guards hang within earshot. Electronic jail doors relentlessly beep, squeal, and clang. Small groups of prisoners shuffle back and forth in the hallway. There is a constant, low hum of machinery. At one point, a deafening alarm sounds that seals the building and sends a team of officers in full riot gear running to the cafeteria to respond to a food fight.
But Rothken barely seems to notice. In the midst of this noisy, uncomfortable, and impossibly inhospitable setting, he is pouring out his heart. This husband and father and shomer shabbos president of his son's yeshiva is sitting in prison telling me in vivid, copious detail the story of a great, doomed romance. A romance that eventually destroyed his once-thriving real-estate practice, forced him to surrender his law license, drove a stake through the heart of his twenty-one-year marriage, humiliated his three teenage sons, and earned him three to nine years in state prison for possession of stolen property.
The love of Mitchell Rothken's life was a topless dancer he'd met at Scores, a 35-year-old blonde with all the requisite equipment named Kymberly Barbieri.
"She was like no other woman on earth," he says, getting visibly excited talking about her, even now, in prison. "I really loved her. She had my heart, my soul, and my mind."
Over the course of their four-and-a-half-year relationship, Rothken built a life with Barbieri. They became so close, he says, it was like they were married. Except, of course, that he already was married.
When news of Rothken's indictment for stealing millions of dollars of his clients' money first broke, the Post ran the irresistible headline FAMILY-MAN LAWYER ADMITS SECRET LIFE WITH SEXY STRIPPER. But they didn't know the half of it. Yes, he had showered Barbieri with extravagant gifts, including several cars, a house in Westchester, and a $6,000-a-month three-bedroom, three-bath Greenwich Village apartment. But they never actually consummated their relationship. And along with clothes and jewelry and stays at the Delano in Miami Beach, he paid for a nanny for her two small children. "I lived a certain way and had a certain standard of living, and that's what I gave her," Rothken says. "It was only a reflection of how I felt about her."
And when she shared her dream to run a club of her own, he opened one for her on St. Marks Place called Siren. It was named, of course, for the seductive temptresses of Greek mythology who lured sailors to their death. Rothken put more than $2 million into Siren and attempted to run the club as her partner -- all while trying to keep his real-estate practice afloat and fulfill the obligations of his family life in Fresh Meadows.
It was the financial burden that made his precariously balanced worlds finally come crashing down. Rothken was a successful real-estate attorney, but not that successful: Much of his real-life fantasy was financed with his clients' money -- nearly $3 million he was supposed to be holding in escrow accounts.
"I was dancing as fast as I could," he says, "but I knew I was sinking."
Incredibly, he was the only one who knew. Even after one of his clients' checks bounced, and he blew the whistle on Rothken by going to the district attorney, Rothken's family was utterly in the dark about his secret life. It wasn't until they were in court for his bail hearing, and the prosecutor recited the charges against him, that his wife, Shonnie, first heard the name Kymberly Barbieri.
So why would a man do this? How does a guy with an accounting degree and a law degree, an observant Jew with a rabbi for a father-in-law, go so completely off the rails? You may think the answer is obvious, but you'd be wrong. Especially since Rothken and Barbieri never even had sex. Not Bill-and-Monica-style sex, not heavy petting, nothing. Even though they did, on many occasions, Rothken claims, sleep together naked in the same bed. It was what Rothken calls "infidelity without adultery."
In truth, despite the enormous price Rothken has paid for his extraordinary lapses in judgment, his feelings about what's happened to him are wildly ambivalent. When he talks about how sorry he is that he's hurt his wife and how bad he feels about his kids, he certainly sounds sincere. But then there's that smile -- the irrepressible grin he wore not only each time I saw him in prison but at his sentencing as well. There he was, being led into court in handcuffs and leg irons, smiling as if they were about to set him free rather than send him upstate.
What was he so happy about? I knew he was taking anti-depressants, but this was not about being medicated. And then it struck me. Sure, he was terribly sorry for all the pain he'd caused, but at the same time, he still didn't really regret the choices he'd made. "I needed to do this," Rothken says.
"I had it, and I went with it," he says one morning, snapping his fingers and imitating Jackie Gleason delivering the well-known line from The Honeymooners.
"I'll tell you how sick I was," he says unabashedly. "When everything was starting to slip away, I was thinking it would've all been absolutely worth it if things between Kym and me had worked out."