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Defending Joel Steinberg


Our second talk was another story: “Did you ever read the Maury Terry interview in Vanity Fair? Or that bullshit book by Joyce Johnson?” Steinberg demanded. “That’s the kind of crap I always get from the press! They want me under the radar, but none of them will move their asses to get things right! I’m tired of this . . .

“Johnson . . . She told me she was just doing a quickie, a fast book for money. She didn’t have to break her ass doing deep research. She characterized me as a ‘supply sergeant’ in the Air Force who was ‘delusional’ about my duties! I’ll tell ya who’s delusional! She came up [in the writing business] in a strange way. Didja ever read Kerouac’s On the Road? Do you remember him banging a piece of shit in the back seat of a car on one of his trips? That was her. Yeah. Fucked and abandoned by Jack Kerouac! I’m above all this. A schlock, hack book! She knew her statements were untrue and inaccurate! Didn’t give a shit! Used me up and spit me out . . .

“Do you know what seventeen years means? I went from middle-aged millionaire to penniless old bum! I can’t even afford a subscription to Cruising World, which is not about what you might think . . . It’s about sailing. I like to look at the pictures. I used to take my daughter and even Hedda out [on Long Island Sound], for the peace and fresh air. That rhythm of the water. We had some good times, everybody forgets . . .

“Steinberg the monster! Nobody bothered to find anything out!”

“Well, what happened that night, Joel?” I asked. He quickly got angry.

“How do I know what happened? I wasn’t even there! Are you taking notes? . . . Have you read up on this? About as prepared as Sara Wallace at ABC, aren’t ya?” I thought that since we were in so deep, I’d go for broke: “You know that U. of P. medical report ordered by the D.A. but used by the defense, Joel? Where it cites all the ‘no fracture’ data and no evidence of long-term abuse? There seems to be plenty of evidence in the first part of the report that indicates massive head injury. What exactly do you think about the nature of the blows that finally killed Lisa?”

I couldn’t see him, but I could feel his outrage through the phone. He roared into it: “If a man my size, with a fist as big as mine, hit you in the forehead, you’d hit the floor and have a mark you’d remember. If I hit a little girl that way, the bruise would have been bigger than her head! I repeat, there were no present or historical bruises or fractures on Lisa Steinberg! She showed no signs of sustained abuse. What about the people at school, her friends on West 10th Street? How come nobody saw nothin’?”

I ask another question: “Why didn’t you or Nussbaum call the ambulance before the next morning? At this point, you’re still saying you just thought she had an upset tummy?”

He suddenly calmed down. He sighed: “If you read the defense summation, you’ll see that we thought she’d be all right. We hoped she would. As soon as we saw that she wasn’t breathing right, we called the ambulance. What would anyone else have done? I was a good father . . . ”

Brinkmanship had seemed to pass as a reaction, or tactic by the time of our last session. He began by noting our recent contretemps, but briskly brushed it off. He told me he thought we “have a lot in common,” two bright guys from the nabe who’d gone to school and “accomplished something,” and that we had the “same humor”—fatalistic, “pumpernickel on rye”—he joked, and added that I seemed “kind” beneath a raffish exterior, and wanted to “help people” in my work. Just like him. He reminded me that as a lawyer, friend, and lover, he’d been “evolving” toward a kind of gestalt position, trying to solve people’s problems in their totality, and that got misconstrued by the monolithic media liars and simplified, as Hoffman pointed out, into a monstrous totalitarianism, practiced against Hedda, Lisa, and anyone else who bugged him. He says that Hedda, for example, had told the cops she’d been responsible for whatever went on in 3W when they were first arreted:

“Then she gets with Barry Scheck [her chief defense counsel], and spends 2,000 hours being debriefed by the D.A.’s office, and she changes her story and says I did it, I struck Lisa because she was staring at me or something. And everybody buys it, because of Hedda’s condition. And—this was the worst—no notes! They kept no notes, so our side had no discovery options. Did the press pick up on this? You bet your ass they didn’t . . . Fair shot, right?”

Finally, Steinberg admitted that he’d “pushed” his daughter a little, “with the soft pad, you know, on your palm?,” but again denied hitting her. Did that deserve a Manslaughter 1 conviction? Seventeen years in two of the toughest slams the prison system boasts?

Steinberg was being pressured by other parolees at the Fortune Society to get off the phone:

“Yeah, yeah, my friend,” he told a man with a Puerto Rican accent. “Look, I’ve gotta go now. But remember this: I’m past my days of regressive-ism. I can’t do things I used to do. I’m shut down, shut up, and shut-in, buddy.” He finally sounded regretful.

The lawyer of last resort had several long telephone talks with me after the reporting of this story officially ended. He was naturally worried that I was going to smear him, and I was concerned that he was the Prince of Expedience, and that some of the things we’d discussed might be high-level spinning, masquerading as populist high-mindedness. But to what end?

“Nobody would help Bernie, after he lost with [Barry] Slotnick in the criminal courts. Nobody wanted to go with Joel last June, but he couldn't have left prison without an escort like me. And who would have married Sydney?” he asked.

“You’re joking,” I said.

“I’m joking,” he agreed.

“What do you like to do most in the world, Darnay?” I asked him.

“Talk,” he said. “Analyze things. I like to sit around talking at a high level . . . ”

“And how do you feel about what Joel and Hedda did to Lisa?”

He didn’t answer.

And I remembered a line he’d used when I first met him: “Do you know the one about fooling some of the people most of the time, and most of the people . . . ”

“Yeah?” I said.

“My motto is, ‘All of the people, all of the time.’ ”


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