Crazy As He Wants To Be

At least today he’s wearing pants. A few months ago, as his current bizarre episode began, the freshly arrested Abe Hirschfeld, 79, was refusing to wear more than a pair of underwear for his ride to jail. “Briefs,” clarifies a cop who was part of the strange post-midnight scene in Hirschfeld’s Fifth Avenue apartment. “It was not a pretty picture.”

The charge that put Hirschfeld in handcuffs was equally outlandish: He is alleged to have attempted to hire a hit man to kill his business partner of 40 years, Stanley Stahl. At Hirschfeld’s bail hearing, the tableau grew more peculiar: His retinue included Susan Carpenter-McMillan, the extravagantly blonde conservative activist behind Paula Jones. Hirschfeld wanted to enlist Carpenter-McMillan as his spokeswoman. Her presence didn’t help get his bond reduced from $1 million.

But even Carpenter-McMillan has long since dropped Hirschfeld, so on this July morning there’s no entourage as the parking-garage magnate, serial spitter, and perennial political candidate shuffles into a tenth-floor courtroom at 111 Centre Street. Hirschfeld is clad in a subdued dark-blue suit – tastefully highlighting a Hirschfeld-designed bright-red crossword-puzzle necktie – befitting his role as the defendant in a 123-count indictment for tax evasion and financial fraud. He’s also the co-defense lawyer, after having gone through six lawyers in the past year. Judge Bruce Allen, who either is heavily medicated or possesses the patience of Job, ordered that Hirschfeld be examined by a psychiatrist and a psychologist before allowing the trial to start in early July (the doctors declared him “somewhat grandiose” but legally sane). This morning, Hirschfeld berates his co-counsel, Myrna Ocasio, in open court, and she threatens to quit, too, until Judge Allen talks her down. “Bring in the jury before the next atomic bomb drops,” Allen tells a bailiff.

Now a crucial prosecution witness takes the stand. Rosemary Singer was Hirschfeld’s secretary for 32 years, but in the summer of 1997, she wore a wire to inform on her boss for the Manhattan D.A.’s office. When Hirschfeld stands to begin questioning her, Singer flinches like a beaten spouse.

Hirschfeld scores some surprising points, getting the matronly Singer to admit that the D.A.’s office is waiting until after her testimony to decide if they’ll prosecute Singer for her own tax irregularities. Then Hirschfeld, a Polish immigrant by way of Israel, begins asking about the timing of Singer’s spying.

“When you wore this thing,” Hirschfeld croaks in his Yiddish-accented English, “this bug, on your lapel, did you come and tell me?”

Singer has long experience in trying to interpret Hirschfeld’s ramblings, but she appears completely baffled and doesn’t answer. You can see her mind working: Uh, I was an informant. Of course I didn’t tell you.

“All this time, when you were making this deal with the district attorney,” Hirschfeld says, “were you being paid by the Hirschfeld organization?”

“Yes,” Singer says simply.

Hirschfeld isn’t worried about his payroll. His questioning isn’t about any logical defense strategy. Never mind whatever nastiness Singer may have put up with from Hirschfeld over the years. The point is that he now has her betrayal on the record.

As Hirschfeld stands behind the defense table, the look on his face changes from one of satisfaction at obtaining the answer he wanted to one of deep hurt. It’s then I notice that Abe’s side of the spectator gallery is empty except for his wife. He’s made millions, put up buildings, funded charitable causes, produced Broadway shows, donated to politicians from Robert Kennedy to Rudy Giuliani, and still he gets no respect. The man is utterly lonely, and for that he can blame only himself. He doesn’t care about taxes. What Abe Hirschfeld has always wanted is love.

Gadflies and publicity hounds are a New York specialty; even the most obnoxious, like Donald Trump, usually end up becoming civic mascots, achieving a measure of wink-wink, only-in-New York affection. Yet even cherished-jester status has eluded Hirschfeld.

He’s run for senator, lieutenant governor, Manhattan borough president; Hirschfeld’s only victory was in a 1989 race for city commissioner in Miami Beach. He distinguished himself in that office by spitting on a newspaper reporter, a salivary tactic he’d debuted years earlier against New York
Democratic leader Stanley Steingut.

Episodes like Hirschfeld’s recent charade with Paula Jones, where he played cash-it-if-you-can with a $1 million check, have been grotesquely amusing. According to Hirschfeld, his offer to buy Jones’s silence saved the republic by inducing Bill Clinton to settle with his accuser. The White House won’t comment.

But Hirschfeld always seems to balance harmless antics with bumbling, shameless statements, like his claim last week that John Kennedy Jr. sought him out for advice “on how to save Gregory.” Excuse me? “Ahhh – George. He wanted me to save his magazine the way I saved the New York Post.

Hirschfeld “saved” the Post in 1993 by so infuriating its staff that they went running into the loving arms of Rupert Murdoch. Pete Hamill, the Post’s editor at the time, had watched Hirschfeld at a distance for years before Hirschfeld’s wild sixteen-day reign as his Post boss. “Early on,” Hamill says, “going back to his first association with Bobby Kennedy, the Kennedy guys massaged Abe’s ego and got dough out of him. But at the beginning, it was like shtick: Here comes Abe with this old Yiddish theater accent, and he was a semi-comic figure for a while. But he did not turn into the beloved character who might sit in the Carnegie Deli and make remarks. As people got to know him better, they began to see what was going on, that the shtick had some anger behind it.”

Hirschfeld has pleaded not guilty to tax evasion and to “criminal solicitation,” legalese for trying to pay someone to rub out your enemy. The Manhattan D.A.’s office claims that the partnership agreement between Hirschfeld and Stanley Stahl contains a “survivor takes all” clause, giving Hirschfeld a motive to want to get rid of a man responsible for putting millions of dollars in Abe’s pocket. For decades, people have wished that Hirschfeld, the city’s longest-running public nuisance, would just go away. And after annoying dozens of politicians and the public at large, it may happen partly because Hirschfeld couldn’t get along with his most valuable friend.

Behind all his legal troubles, Hirschfeld sees the nefarious hand of Stahl, his business partner of more than four decades. “That’s ludicrous,” says Stahl’s lawyer, David Rosenberg. “Stanley Stahl is clearly the victim of all of Abe’s shenanigans. These charges are based on testimony given by Abe’s own employees. Stahl has nothing to do with instigating them.” Still, Stahl’s aides are happy to provide a fat dossier of newspaper and video clips about Hirschfeld, and Rosenberg has dropped in to monitor Hirschfeld’s tax trial.

Stahl, 75, is nearly as tough as Hirschfeld is eccentric. Ask one man who’s done extensive business with Stahl to suggest some sources sympathetic to the developer, and he says, “I guess even Hitler had a couple of friends.”

Stahl, the publicity-phobic owner of Apple Bank and part owner of the Ansonia, is revered in real-estate circles for building a pioneering office tower at 277 Park Avenue and for assembling the Madison Avenue site that became the landmark notch-topped headquarters of AT&T. Yet he pursues adversaries through long legal fights, backed up until recently by the legendary litigator Milton Gould.

Colleagues are scared to talk about Stahl; they’re embarrassed to see their names connected with Hirschfeld’s. The few who know them both are mystified that the two men crossed paths, let alone have been partners in residential and commercial buildings since 1957. “They’re like chalk and cheese,” says James Austrian, one of the city’s top real-estate consultants. “They just don’t go together at all. It’s hard to imagine them in the same room. It’s hard to imagine what they’d talk about.”

Stahl does, in fact, have open admirers. Yet they practically sweat through the phone when discussing the man. In 1996, Robert Gladstone, developing a Planet Hollywood Hotel in Times Square, negotiated with Stahl for the air rights to the adjoining Lunt-Fontanne Theater, which Stahl co-owns with the Nederlander Organization. “We made the deal on a handshake,” Gladstone says hurriedly. “In real estate, nobody does business on a handshake, and we did. That speaks volumes about Stanley. I always admired and liked him. He’s a nice guy. I really have nothing else to say.”

A former longtime colleague, once friendly enough to dine socially with Stahl, has an indelible image of the developer. “For all the years I knew him, the number of times I met with him – I never, ever saw the guy smile,” says the executive. “Never. No sense of humor. No sense of live-and-let-live. He’s just a very, very unhappy guy.”

At the Friars Club, people regularly discuss killing. Billy Crystal, Robert Klein, Shecky Greene, they use the word in its comedic slang form, as in slaying an audience with jokes. Today, though, beneath the framed leer of Jerry Lewis, as he heaps sauerkraut onto his kosher franks-and-beans, Friar Abe Hirschfeld is talking about the real thing. And his lunch buddies are laughing it off.

Homicide, schmomicide. “Scared of Abe? Because of some indictment? Come on!” Bob Glenn says with a chuckle. Bob, a taut, natty silk-sweatered gent, is a retired carbon-paper mogul. He’s been pals with Abe for a very long time, since the days when secretaries actually used carbon paper. “People tell you Abe’s crazy – don’t listen to that shit! He’s crazy as a fox.”

On Abe’s right sits Frank Gordon, just back from the Florida Keys and with the tan to prove it. Bob, Frank, and Abe play gin almost every Saturday, have for years. The silver-haired Frank is a brassiere-fabric manufacturer. “His girlfriends – you cannot imagine how beautiful the girls are!” Abe gasps. “Believe me, Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky wouldn’t be used as a maid in his house.” Frank smiles, though he appears somewhat stumped by the compliment. He, too, testifies to Abe’s gentleness, sagacity, and civic importance. “I was at Abe’s 75th-birthday party,” Frank says, “and Pataki was there. Pataki said to me, ‘Without this man, I would not be the governor of the state of New York. He made me.’ Because Abe spent a fortune against Cuomo.”

“You waited until now to tell me this?” Abe says gruffly.

Frank looks puzzled. “What do you mean?” he says.

“This story, what Pataki said – you never told me this before,” Abe says.

“Abe, you were standing right next to the man,” Frank says. “You heard him say it.”

An awkward silence. Abe shrugs and turns back to his forkful of hot dog.

Crude and irrational he may be, but at least Hirschfeld is consistent. Whether running for Miami Beach city commissioner in the eighties or Manhattan borough president in 1997, battling for ownership of the Post in 1993 or publishing, for five months, a newspaper called Open Air PM that was supposed to support itself by selling space for obituaries, he craves not simply publicity but also approval. “Abe thinks he’s getting popular acceptance by running for office. He takes it as a validation,” says Jerry Skurnick, a consultant on Hirschfeld’s 1986 run for lieutenant governor. “And a lot of people, because Abe is willing to pay them money, play along and indulge him. I’m somewhat guilty of it myself. I still do business with him, selling him mailing labels for campaigns.”

Hirschfeld made a fortune building 40 innovative open-air parking garages, but the last one went up around twenty years ago, and the structures never bought him the esteem that accrues to builders of
office complexes or even shopping centers. A call to John Tishman, the veteran New York construction executive, yields a typical reaction: “Mr. Tishman socializes with people like Ace Greenberg,” sniffs a spokesman. “He travels in different circles than Abe Hirschfeld.” An aide on another of Hirschfeld’s political campaigns says the snubs were frequent. “I remember going to one event, a cocktail party with a bunch of real-estate people, and they’d nod their heads at Abe, but not one of them came over to talk to him,” says the consultant. “They just ignored him.”

The only time Hirschfeld’s jovial demeanor crumbles, though, is when his children are mentioned. His 49-year-old son, Elie, has built a thriving real-estate business of his own from a start in his father’s company, yet Elie refuses to talk about Abe. His 52-year-old daughter, Rachel, is suing him, saying Abe cheated her out of millions of dollars. “It’s painful,” he says. “Very painful. And I just looked up the record – I gave her, from 1990 to ‘97, over two and a half million dollars. So Stanley had to give her more to have her go against me.” He looks down at the table. “She writes me letters, ‘I love you …’ But I don’t know.” (Rachel, in a brief, tense conversation, says Stahl isn’t paying her, and claims it was her father who started the fight six years ago: “That’s incorrect, that I decided to sue him. He sued me, and I’m just answering it. No one is aware of that. I’m just going to say good-bye.” Then she hangs up.)

Abe claims that Rachel is just one of an expanding group of people who’ve been bribed to bring him down: His secretary, Rosemary Singer, one of his ex-lawyers, even Robert Morgenthau. The mastermind of the conspiracy? Stanley Stahl. Hirschfeld says the criminal-solicitation charge has it all backward. “In reality,” he says, “Stanley wanted to kill me.”

Hirschfeld says he Met Stahl, the ursine son of a Brooklyn butcher, for the first time in 1957. In what became a recurrent pattern, Abe gained the rights to a valuable piece of property but didn’t have the capital to do anything with the land. The first site was on the east side of Park Avenue, between 47th and 48th Streets. The New York Central Railroad owned the ground under a gracious low-rise apartment complex, home to Joseph P. Kennedy, among others; the railroad was having financial troubles and wanted to sell. Hirschfeld made the winning bid, then couldn’t meet the payments. He was introduced to Stanley Stahl, who was beginning a career in real estate. For $25,000, Stahl bought out Hirschfeld, and in 1962 he gambled his entire business on constructing a new 50-story office tower at 277 Park Avenue (today, the building is headquarters to Stahl’s Apple Bank). “Now that site is probably worth, on a low estimate, $600 million,” Hirschfeld says, sounding as if he feels cheated. “No, I’m happy,” he says. “I’m happy that Stanley made money and I made money. For me, at that time, $25,000 was a lot of money.”

The pair formed Hirstan Associates in 1969 and bought three Sutton Place apartment houses. But Hirschfeld’s primary business became unglamorous parking garages, while Stahl, who lunches at Le Périgord, sought out prestige properties. In 1982, Stahl became a real-estate legend. Through a series of savvy maneuvers, he secretly assembled property rights for the new AT&T headquarters on Madison between 55th and 56th Streets.

“I always thought Stanley was on a slightly different frequency than everyone else,” says James Austrian, a consultant on AT&T’s side of the deal who remains in awe of Stahl’s talents. “I’d see him in a restaurant and say hello, and he always seemed distracted, like he was thinking about something else. He’s complicated and extremely intelligent. At the end of the AT&T assignment, when the deal closed, Stanley gave me a gift, which was appropriate under the circumstances. It was a magnificent box, and inside was what looked like a magnificent watch. I thought to myself, This is going to be a treasure. So I took it and started showing it to people. They all said, ‘That’s crap.’ I thought, Stanley gave this to me, it can’t be a piece of junk – it had a French name, the box was fancy, it was gold. It turned out to be a $48 watch, a really cheap piece of crap.” Austrian laughs fondly. “Stanley? He dresses in Italian silks.”

Along the way, Stahl had two unhappy brushes with publicity: In 1961, the tabloids had a field day with his messy divorce from his first wife. In 1977, Stahl was convicted of bribing an IRS agent to lower the valuation on his father’s estate. Milton Gould won the appeal and Stahl’s conviction was thrown out. By 1990, Stahl was wealthy enough to buy his own bank, leading a hostile takeover of Apple.

Stahl and Hirschfeld tolerated each other until 1992, when Hirschfeld tried to dissolve the partnership – because he disagreed with Stahl’s management tactics, Hirschfeld says; because Hirschfeld needed cash, says Stahl’s lawyer. Then Stahl accused Hirschfeld of failing to distribute profits from their holdings. Hirschfeld responded by accusing Stahl of discriminating against minority tenants in Sutton Place buildings owned by the partnership. Then Stahl sued Hirschfeld over expenditures for asbestos removal at a parking garage and restaurant they co-owned. Lawyers have been hurling briefs back and forth ever since, but it all seemed fairly mundane until last year. “They’re an odd couple,” says Theodore Kupferman, a longtime Hirschfeld lawyer. “But the odd couple doesn’t try to kill each other. They just keep arguing.”

To a man who came to know Stahl during the battle for Apple, the angry breakup was inevitable. Stahl, though younger, came to see Hirschfeld as the embarrassing, unrefined little brother he’d outgrown. “Stanley thought himself smart enough to make use of Abe and then be through with him,” says the banker. “These weren’t guys that met each other on a mountaintop and decided they were gonna save the world. The common bond between them was greed. That was it.”

The pretrial hearing in february is supposed to be perfunctory. But Judge Carol Berkman is quickly annoyed as former deputy mayor Randy Mastro, Hirschfeld’s third lawyer in three months, argues that Hirschfeld’s grand-jury testimony should remain sealed. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish,” she says sharply to Mastro. “I get the feeling that I’m being dragged into a political quagmire that I want absolutely no part of.”

Two hours later, in his midtown office, Hirschfeld walks over to a conference table. He picks up a stack of papers and hands them to me. It’s his grand-jury testimony.

No wonder Hirschfeld doesn’t care about legal strategy (he and Mastro will part company weeks later, Abe complaining in court that the lawyer is ripping him off). The grand-jury testimony is one of his finest performances. Hirschfeld attempts to sweet-talk Gilda Mariani, the assistant D.A., but ends up sounding like a dirty old man. At one point, in an exchange worthy of Abbott and Costello, he so befuddles Mariani that she has to pause and collect her thoughts. Hirschfeld pleads that he never graduated from sixth grade. He denies outright that he ever attempted to hire a hit man. Then Hirschfeld says yes, that’s his voice on the tape agreeing with Singer that he wanted Stahl murdered – but that he thought she was joking, and anyway, it was all Singer’s idea.

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.”

Crazy As He Wants To Be