Country Justice

Ballsy lady: Manuela Hoelterhoff.Photo: George Lange

Squabbles among country neighbors don’t normally attract much attention back in the city. But then again, the neighbors aren’t often as colorful or combative as those squaring off against each other in the little Town of Gardiner courthouse in the county of Ulster. In the near corner, in the red trunks, stands Manuela Hoelterhoff, the fearsome cultural critic who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work atthe Wall Street Journal. In the far corner, in the tiger-striped trunks (he went to Princeton and isn’t afraid to let you know it), paces John Bradley, librarian of the Knickerbocker Club and one of Ulster County’s largest landowners.

Bradley is having Hoelterhoff prosecuted for harassment. He claims that she approached him in the town courthouse last January – she was there to offer moral support to a local man whose windshield Bradley pleaded guilty to smashing, a crime for which he paid a fine and wrote a court-ordered letter of apology – and said, “If you ever send your Nazi storm troopers up to my house again, I’ll cut your balls off and grill them and deliver them to this court.”

Hoelterhoff was referring to state troopers who had descended on her home in search of an armoire Bradley claimed had been stolen from him by a friend of the writer’s – whom he has also taken to court.

If Hoelterhoff disagrees with her adversary’s description of what happened in the courthouse that fateful day, it’s only to claim that her threat was stated more artfully than reported. “I said, ‘I’m going to barbecue your balls and serve them with relish by Ms. Reller,’ ” she explains, “which I thought was clever enough on the spot. I said it in a kind of pleasant way.”

Patricia Reller is a Northwest Airlines flight attendant, the friend of Hoelterhoff’s who allegedly absconded with the armoire, and an excellent cook. Last year, she lost her lakeside cottage at auction under curious circumstances to a partnership headed by Bradley.

Like so many other counties within weekend driving distance of New York, Ulster has undergone a rather striking metamorphosis over the past few years thanks to an influx of well-heeled second-home owners. Located 80 miles north of the city, it’s an unpretentious Hudson Valley answer to the Hamptons, where the spacious retreats of such low-key Manhattan media types as New York Timespublisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.; his executive editor, Joe Lelyveld; investigative journalist James B. Stewart; and actor Robert De Niro are stowed away among the locals’ bungalows. While Bradley counts some of these media heavyweights as friends, he earned the enmity of Hoelterhoff, who sees herself as Robin Hood (to his evil baron), when he crossed her friend.

According to his critics, the 69-year-old Bradley – who grew up in Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan and says he discovered the area in the fifties – pretty much had the run of the place until recently, acting like a feudal lord and treating the locals, many of whom are cheering Hoelterhoff on, as disruptive serfs. He allegedly ran over one man’s dog (Bradley says the dog chased his car and he encouraged the pet’s owner to get it to a vet) and chopped down an old lady’s trees (he says survey maps prove the trees belong to a partnership he manages), and he has had numerous run-ins with people who claim lake rights to Tillson Lake, which Bradley oversees on behalf of the partnership.

But Bradley’s friends, who include Hugh Auchincloss, Jackie Onassis’s stepbrother, and Jim Fowler, the alligator-wrangling host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, describe their man as a preservationist who has done as much as anyone to save the last true wilderness within commuting distance of New York City. “He’s a man of his word and he’s a gentleman, and I imagine that’s all you need to know,” says Auchincloss.

It’s hard to handicap The People of the State of New York v. Manuela Hoelterhoff, which is proceeding to trial at a summer-in-the-country pace and has already cost the writer more than $1,000 in legal fees. She and Bradley appear evenly matched.

Her criticism in the Journaland in her book Cinderella & Company, about the opera diva Cecilia Bartoli, astonishes not just for its wit and effortless erudition but also for Hoelterhoff’sperfect willingness – relish, if you will – to take a box cutter to some of the more formidable members of opera’s close-knit world, with whom she presumably must do business on a daily basis.

“Manuela is a force to contend with,” observes her Ulster County neighbor James B. Stewart, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. “She doesn’t mince words. Some of her opera reviews were scathing.”

Bradley is no shrinking violet, either. He recently took on a black bear – an uninvited guest to his mountaintop retreat – with a gravel rake and won. “He’s an honest-to-God explorer,” maintains Jim Fowler. “He’s one of the few people I’d go into remote areas with.”

Auchincloss says he doesn’t envy anyone facing Bradley in court. “He’s meticulous,” he says. “He’s sort of his own lawyer.”

“This is nothing compared to some of the battles I’ve been in,” explains Bradley. “My father was an alcoholic. My mother had a tragic accident, fell down two flights of stairs. The other story I’ve heard is she was pushed down by my father.”

Hoelterhoff, however, believes that Bradley’s case is absurd and that in threatening to emasculate him she was merely exercising her constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. To that end, her legal team, which includes Robert Wolf of the high-powered Manhattan law firm Gersten Savage & Kaplowitz, working pro bono, has submitted a brief of Supreme Court quality to the little Gardiner Justice Court.

“Of course I won’t give in,” Hoelterhoff declares, even though it’s Bradley who brought charges against her. “I’m the only person who can maybe stop this guy. I want to be declared innocent so I can sue the shit out of him.”

No matter who emerges victorious from this battle, unflattering accounts of Bradley’s behavior have already made their way back to the Knickerbocker Club in the city. The board of directors recently received an undated and unsigned letter expressing sly concern over Bradley’s various court appearances and helpfully including a copy of the complaint filed against him by Morey Gottesman, the man whose windshield he demolished.

Ready, aim, fire: John Bradley.Photo: George Lange

“Several members and friends have received a report from Ulster County that our esteemed librarian, John Bradley, has been polishing his country-squire manner with the help of a truncheon and several lawsuits,” it reads, adding that Bradley should improve his behavior before “his various vendettas hit the press.”

Bradley strongly suspects Hoelterhoff is behind the letter. She just as strongly denies it. “How could I get a mailing list for the Knickerbocker, which doesn’t even include women?” she sniffs.

On a Saturday morning in July, Bradley is playings coutmaster at his spectacular property, Awosting Reserve, in the Shawangunk Mountains. It includes, by his own count, approximately 3,000 acres, eight waterfalls, and 22 miles of carriage trails. In the center of this wilderness sits his splendid, if slightly lugubrious, 1884 American chestnut log cabin. The “provisional junior members” of the Minnewaska Trail Club, a nature club he founded, are splashing around in his Olympic-size swimming pool as his pet parrot Thisbe climbs the walls of his outdoor cage and a box turtle he saved from becoming roadkill suns itself contentedly on the gravel path.

Architect David Rockwell, who rents a bungalow from Bradley, is in attendance. So is Jules Kaufman, the associate general counsel for Colgate-Palmolive, whom the landowner introduces proudly as a “Harvardian.”

A conversation with Bradley may start with something like his legal battles, but it swiftly takes wing and turns into a story about how he lassoed a runaway horse, or reinvented the eco-park, or commissioned an indigent artist to do a bust of Pope Paul VI back in the sixties and then persuaded Time magazine to run it on its cover by offering a scoop about His Holiness.

“You cannot conduct a reasonable conversation with this man; he is a monologuist,” Hoelterhoff observes of Bradley. “Hitler was also a very narcissistic personality.”

One might betempted to view his claims with skepticism, except that Bradley – a management consultant who describes his firm, Atwater Bradley, as a “mini McKinsey” – seems to have accomplished at least some of what he says and to know the luminaries whose names pepper his patter.

James B. Stewart recently found himself lost in Bradley’s wilderness when the landowner pulled up in an SUV. “He said, ‘Let me introduce you to my friend Bob,’ ” the writer remembers, “and Robert De Niro popped out of the passenger seat.”

Bradley’s critics contend that while he can be charming and gracious to those he considers peers, he’s much less patient with those whose credentials don’t impress him.

“It’s not like he picks on people who can defend themselves,” says Scott Hadam, a college student who grew up in the shadow of Bradley’s compound. “He picks on people who can’t afford an attorney.” Hadam remembers riding his horse as a 10-year-old across Bradley’s property with his father when the landowner appeared in a jeep with two shotgun-toting employees and threatened to shoot their horses out from under them if they didn’t get off his land immediately.

Bradley dismisses the claim – “I have never carried a shotgun or threatened anyone,” he says, going on to point out his efforts on behalf of biodiversity, horses included. And he characterizes his local opponents, some of whom showed up in court to watch him squirm when he pleaded guilty to smashing Gottesman’s windshield, as “outlaws.”

“If I was on the other side, maybe I’d believe he was a monster, too,” says Bradley’s daughter, Camilla, 25, a clothing and accessories designer who goes by the name CK Bradley. “It’s inevitable when you have such a large amount of property. He sometimes doesn’t let me drive a car on the property. He’s stiff about liability.”

Bradley’s late wife, Marilyn, an English beauty and by all accounts a woman of exceptional taste and talent, and his two other children, twin sons, were killed in an auto accident in 1978. “Losing your wife and children, you never get over it,” Bradley says. “Maybe it even makes me a little short-tempered – like Ms. Hoelterhoff.”

The ruler of awosting reserve seems less frightened by Hoelterhoff than flummoxed. A woman of such obvious professional triumphs should be his friend, a houseguest, even, not an enemy. “The woman is a talent, “he acknowledges. “She got a Pulitzer Prize at one point.”

Indeed, Hoelterhoff – who is 51 and has had a house in the area for twelve years – and Bradley might well have co-existed peacefully, if not become bosom buddies, were it not for Patricia Reller. The story of how Reller lost her house – a modest cottage on Tillson Lake, just down the road from Awosting Reserve and a couple of miles from Hoelterhoff’s house – is long and convoluted and doesn’t say much for her business acumen. Hoelterhoff even considered writing an article for SmartMoney magazine about her friend’s financial missteps. “They have a section about people who do stupid things,” she explains.

The flight attendant had bought the property with an acquaintance about ten years ago. When their relationship soured, he wanted out of the partnership, and she declined to pay his part of the mortgage, she says. At that point, foreclosure proceedings started, and a judge ultimately ordered that the property be put up for auction.

Photo: George Lange

Marilyn Perry, the president of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and a friend of Hoelterhoff’s who’s having a house built nearby, formed a partnership with Reller, poetically named Hiawatha, to buy back the property at auction. But when they failed to do so – a first auction was thrown out on a technicality and Hiawatha successfully challenged the procedure of a second one, which they’d lost – Bradley, who had befriended Reller a few years earlier, volunteered his services.

The deal he offered Perry and Reller was that if the bidding in a third auction went above what Hiawatha could afford, Bradley would buy the place and allow the flight attendant to remain on as a tenant at a reasonable rent.

But Reller and her supporters began to wonder if Bradley had other intentions. “I became suspicious when he tried to talk her out of bidding at all,” the soft-spoken Perry says.

Bradley admits that his team did bid against Reller. On his instructions, a third party – a business associate of his – placed the winning bid of $350,000, beating out Hiawatha. After the auction, Bradley arranged to take over the title to the property from his associate.

Despite Bradley’s promises that Reller would be able to stay on as a tenant, their relationship rapidly deteriorated after he became her landlord. He served her with an eviction notice days after the closing and is now renting the house to a “senior guy at First Boston; he’s another Harvardian.”

He’s also currently suing Reller for $125,000 in damages, claiming she stripped the place on her way out. She counters that she merely removed her personal possessions, which included not only things like her twenties Magic Chef oven but also a medicine cabinet, doorknobs, and a pedestal sink. She says she knows nothing about the armoire that has Bradley so upset.

Reller says she returned to her house last September for the final time to clean up and collect her remaining possessions, only to discover that Bradley was already there with a cleanup crew. She called up Manuela Hoelterhoff, who reacted with characteristic combativeness.

“She says, ‘I’m coming right over,’ ” Reller remembers. “She calls the police and she calls my lawyer and it was a fiasco – my lawyer, his lawyer, the state troopers. There were like ten people screaming and hollering and I’m crying.”

Hoelterhoff didn’t spare Bradley’s feelings. “Her eyes were popping, she was so furious,” the flight attendant continues. “She’s screaming at him, ‘You disgusting old man. Don’t you have another shirt? We’ve seen you in that for five days in a row.’ Because he fancies he’s like a country squire, he’s always threadbare.”

Hoelterhoff’s mood didn’t brighten any when, attempting to depart, she discovered the path of her beloved royal-blue seventies Mercedes sedan blocked by vehicles belonging to Bradley and his workers.

“She got out of the car and yelled at him, telling him to get his goons out of the way,” Marilyn Perry says. “We could hear it from some distance.”

On the same day Bradley is entertaining the young members of the Minnewaska Trail Club, Reller has come over to Hoelterhoff’s house – a charming bungalow with meandering additions – to prepare a superb lunch for her and Perry that includes an enormous chicken salad and an excellent lemon tart. She now lives about a half-hour away, and the three women reminisce about the golden days when they were next-door neighbors. “She was our friend and chef and a fierce Scrabble player,” Hoelterhoff says. “He’s ruined our group. And for what? Greed and power.”

Hoelterhoff is working on a book about Hitler the opera lover, and the way the works of Wagner fueled his desire to conquer the world. It requires little provocation to get her to list similarities between the Führer and the fellow on the hill charging her with harassment.

“You cannot conduct a reasonable conversation with this man; he is a monologuist,” Hoelterhoff observes. “Hitler was also a very narcissistic personality, known for rambling monologues – from vivisection to vegetarianism to operatic divas to how he invented the Volkswagen.”

After Reller clears the table and does the dishes, the group reconvenes in the living room to screen a videotape Bradley shot at the cottage and submitted to the court. It purports to document how Reller raped his property. Gloom settles over the women as they watch Bradley point out such things as holes in the walls, exposed wiring, and a pile of refuse he describes, ominously, as “old mattresses and also some decaying flesh.”

“This is a man who’s obsessed with winning,” Perry says.

To Hoelterhoff, the ultimate blame for the legal limbo in which she finds herself may not even lie with Bradley but with the state of rural justice. “I’m being failed at this point by the system,” she says. “They have no understanding out here what the First Amendment is. You’re not dealing with sophisticated people. They’re flustered by it.

“Clearly, what we need around here is more serious crime,” she adds, her sense of humor returning. “Or we need Judge Judy to start a local show. It would be immensely helpful and possibly entertaining.”

Country Justice