Reversal of Fortune

The view out over the Atlantic from a Water Mill place like the one where Alex and Alexandra Von Furstenberg were holding their July 6 beach party isn’t priceless, exactly, though for most people, it might as well be – prices start at maybe $5 million. And that night, the effect was particularly stunning – a near-full moon, framed by twin bonfires. “The moon was reflecting off the ocean in this long, brilliant stripe of light,” says Paolo Zampolli, the Italian-born owner of ID Model Management, who had helicoptered out to the Hamptons for the party after a flight from Brazil, where he’d been attending São Paulo’s fashion week.

The friends of “Alex and Alex” Von Furstenberg are the Hamptons’ junior league – mostly well beyond affluent but just this side of famous. For boys, the uniform was khaki-casual. For girls, it was Hamptons cute – lots of white tops, sarongs, and strappy sandals. A moment of comedy came when two girls noticed they were wearing the same pair of $600 Cavalli jeans. For all the wealth, it was a low-key, homey event – even a little goofy. “There was a D.J. straight out of an eighth-grade bar mitzvah, playing eighties tunes,” says a guest.

Lizzie Grubman arrived at the party before 10:30 in her brand-new Mercedes SUV, along with her usual posse: Dori Cooperman, who used to work with her, and Brenda Loughery, a business partner, along with Tara Reid, the midriff-baring star of American Pie. Grubman had already had an exceedingly difficult week. Earlier, she’d learned that her mother, who’s been confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis, had been diagnosed with cancer, which would require surgery the following Monday. A friend who’d had dinner with her earlier in the week says she could talk of little else and looked as if she’d been crying. “Her mother is dying,” says another. “She’s been sick for a long time under very unpleasant circumstances, so Lizzie’s already been under a great deal of stress.”

For Grubman, the Von Furstenberg party was a chance to unwind. Though a major publicist is never completely off-duty, these were friends. Lobsters were served at buffet tables near the beach. Then, as the sun began to set, many of the 200 or so guests huddled around the large bonfires, where they roasted marshmallows for s’mores.

“It’s frustrating to sit back while people make falseaccusations and spread rumors and draw awful cartoons.”

Midway through the party, Grubman came into the kitchen for a plate of pasta. Zampolli said hello to her inside. “She was normal,” he says, “nothing out of the ordinary.” Some reports say she was drinking. Says a guest: “She was having a good time like everyone else.”

A little after midnight, cops started ticketing cars outside, so the party broke up. Grubman was heading over to Conscience Point, one of her signature Hamptons accounts, to end the evening. Instead – in a crash that broke ankles and pelvises and spilled cocktails and launched upwards of $100 million in lawsuits – she may have ended a whole Hamptons era.

“I’m used to being in control in my business,” says Lizzie Grubman, hunkered down in her Lafayette Street office, in her first interview since the incident. “It’s so frustrating to sit back every day while people make these false accusations and spread rumors and draw awful cartoons and not be able to say anything because my lawyers have instructed me not to.”

The Grubmans, as much as anyone, are responsible for the modern Hamptons, in all their obsession with wealth and celebrity and their thrilling, stupefying social excess. Lizzie’s father, Allen Grubman, is a singularity in the music business, the industry’s sole superpower attorney. And that clout has made him one of the East End’s prime celebrity nexuses.

Grubman is a man of almost cartoonish crudeness – an effect he amplifies with a comic edge. He revels in his working-class Crown Heights roots, in the fact that he came from so little and has acquired so much. The Grubman family crest, he likes to say, should be an S with two lines drawn through it. He’ll happily calculate for casual luncheon guests the burn rate of his Lily Pond Lane mansion: about $40,000 per weekend.

“The first time I met him at a tailor’s,” says an acquaintance, “he started shouting, ‘You don’t make enough money to be here.’ A few minutes later, he takes out an American Express black card, which is moguls-only. You have to spend like $150,000 a year to get one. ‘See this?’ he says. ‘It’s the closest you’ll ever come to one of these.’ But he’s just playing with you.”

Grubman, 57, attended Brooklyn Law School, bootstrapping his way to the absolute pinnacle of his profession and a three-floor office in Carnegie Hill Towers. As a music-business lawyer, Grubman has often played both sides of the fence, representing a Sony artist like Springsteen while simultaneously representing Sony, and, miraculously, both sides will come out happy (except Billy Joel, who had a nasty legal dispute with Grubman over just such an issue). In the music business, it’s a sign of weakness to have someone other than Grubman as your lawyer. And his music-business power has tended to help pull clients like Puffy Combs out to the Hamptons.

The Fourth of July weekend has always been a big one for the Grubman family. It was on Independence Day that Allen Grubman always threw his primary summer party at the Grubmans’ Peter Cook-designed contemporary house just steps from the beach on Lily Pond Lane. It started out rather small but achingly exclusive. A crowd of maybe twenty Grubman intimates – people like Tommy Mottola, Martha Stewart, Ian Schrager, Calvin Klein, Jon Tisch – would mingle on the screened-in back porch over a catered lunch of lobster salad and grilled swordfish. The house, as usual, was immaculate, as was the rose garden out near the ocean – Allen’s second wife, Debbie Grubman, a blonde, voluptuous Manhattan real-estate broker – supervised them assiduously.

Lizzie Grubman grew up having the likes of Springsteen and Madonna over for lunch, so fame was never a big deal to her. She radiated that sort of casualness to her clients and at her events. She was her father’s daughter, in other words – loose, brash, forceful, unintimidatable. On the social circuit, she’s not known as someone who parties every night, but she’s certainly not a teetotaler – business and pleasure are inextricably mixed. Lizzie’s sister, Jenny, is the analytic side of Allen, a hard-charging young attorney who works in her father’s firm.

The sorts of skills Lizzie possesses, however, are not ones that produce prep-school success – quite the opposite. She was asked to leave three city prep schools: Horace Mann, Lenox, and Dwight. “There’s always that one tough kid who’s the ringleader. They’ll boss everyone around,” recalls one Horace Mann mother. “That was Lizzie.”

In eighth grade, Lizzie was asked not to return to the school. At Dwight, she was known for her liberal use of her father’s credit cards and her expertise about which East Side bars permitted underage drinking. Lizzie attended Northeastern University for two years but didn’t graduate.

Her father’s connections were undoubtedly one of the reasons why Lizzie caught the eye of publicist Nadine Johnson, the tall Belgian who’s married to Richard Johnson of “Page Six.” But a Rolodex wasn’t all Lizzie inherited.

Like her father, Lizzie’s a born fixer, with a gift for putting people at their ease. When Tommy Mottola broke up with Mariah Carey, Lizzie, then only 26, became a primary person he turned to for support; she took him out on the town, got him over his funk. One night, he was hanging out with a few friends, including Sony’s then-latest would-be chanteuse, Samantha Cole. A paparazzo tried to shoot the two together, but Grubman would have none of it. She marched over to the photographer and returned with his film in hand.

In 1998, Lizzie appeared, with her cell phone and little black dress, on the cover of this magazine, along with friendly rivals Lara Shriftman and Ally B., in a story titled “Power Girls.” And even by the time it was published, Lizzie was clearly the most powerful girl of all.

Lizzie took pride in the fact that her career was no longer buried in the shadow of her famous father’s. “It’s getting to the point,” Allen liked to joke, “where people are coming up to me and asking me if I’m Lizzie Grubman’s father.”

In recent years, Allen began work on a house for Lizzie on his sprawling Georgica Pond property, with its lawn that rolls down toward the ocean. Already on the property are a tennis court, a putting green, a basketball court, and a swimming pool – all generally unused. Lizzie’s house, also designed by Cook, stood in the shadow of her famous father’s manor but was at the same time a quite separate entity. Lizzie was still a Grubman. But she was no longer daddy’s little girl.

In the past few years, the Hamptons social scene has ballooned even faster than the real-estate prices, and the Grubman Fourth of July party was a key measure of its superheated intensity. Allen had to install a huge white party tent in the backyard, as if it were a wedding. It took weeks of planning, and it began to seem – even to a family that’s never exactly minded excess – excessive. Allen announced two summers ago that the tradition was at an end – which left Lizzie needing a social focus for the Fourth of July weekend.

Conscience Point was unusually crowded when Lizzie Grubman drove up on the night of July 6, sometime after midnight, having spent upwards of two hours partying at the Von Furstenbergs. The crowd at Conscience Point is young and flashy. The club is too big to be truly A-list like, say, the recently shuttered Moomba, Grubman’s signature Manhattan account. “It’s more Jimmy Choo than Manolo Blahnik,” explains one clubgoer. But it was a place where she felt comfortable – it was her clubhouse. “She always liked to swing by, say hello, pay her respects,” says a regular.

One of the favorite looks of summer 2001 is a white-top-and-jean skirt combination, and most of the girls that night seemed to be wearing it. Lara Shriftman, who bailed out of the Von Furstenberg party before midnight, was wearing it. So was Grubman.

When Lizzie arrived, she ran into trouble. Blocked from parking in the VIP parking section, she reportedly argued briefly with a parking attendant and had a friend move the pylons in her path. (The parking attendants and bouncers work separately; Scott Conlon’s attorney says he has no knowledge of this altercation.) Lizzie was mingling near the door, presumably in close proximity to bouncer William Maston and his supervisor, Scott Conlon, by around 1 a.m. She even personally let Lara Shriftman in with a party of perhaps ten friends.

Inside the club, says a source, Grubman got into a heated argument with an old boyfriend. A published report identified this boyfriend as Andrew Sasson, the feisty British club impresario with whom Grubman had lived two years ago both in her New York apartment and, for extended stretches, at the Grubmans’ Lily Pond Lane house. Sasson, however, disputes this entire account. “I wasn’t in any fight with Lizzie that night, and I never set foot inside the club,” he says from his parents’ home in London.

Neal Travis of the New York Post darkly intimated that Grubman, while milling around the club entrance, was warned by one of the bouncers to “be more discreet” with some unnamed behavior. The allegation dovetailed with Conlon’s allegations – hotly disputed by Grubman’s camp – that she was both on drugs and drinking that night.

Whether she was already leaving the club on her own accord or responding to a request to please move her car from the fire lane remains unclear. But Lizzie was soon behind the wheel once again.

Christopher Modelewski, a young Huntington lawyer handling Conlon’s $21 million case, tells a simple story about the events that evening. The incident began, he says, around 2 a.m. “My understanding of what happened is, Billy Maston is the first person who approached the car and asked her to move the car. She says, ‘Fuck you. Get someone with higher authority,’ or words to the effect. He comes back to his supervisor, Scott Conlon. Tells him about what she said. Thereafter, he notices at some point in time that the car hasn’t moved.

“Lizzie is in the car at this point. Conlon walks over with Billy and asks her to move the car. ‘Fuck you, white trash,’ she says. ‘Get someone with more authority.’ That’s when they both retreat. After that, at least one if not two club employees get involved in having her move the car. And then, some moments after that – we’re talking a couple of minutes – that’s when she moves into the grassy area. Shortly thereafter, whether intentional or not, she drops it down into reverse.”

This much is clear: When the car, with Grubman at the wheel and Cooperman and Loughery as passengers, began to move, it didn’t stop. The 342-horsepower motor roared like a jet engine, gravel flying. The SUV squealed backward. Witnesses saw no brake lights. The car rocketed as far as 35 feet into a tight scrum of 30 behind a velvet rope near the door. A couple of people managed to dive out of the way. Others didn’t even see the car. The Mercedes plowed through the velvet rope, striking sixteen people, including Conlon, and barreled into the club’s shingle wall, where two women were pinned.

Immediately afterward, the door of the Mercedes was opened and Grubman, in apparent shock, stumbled out onto the turf, Conlon says. Another club employee jumped behind the wheel and lurched forward to free anyone who was pinned. Grubman stayed at the club for about ten minutes more. A friend – it’s not clear who – drove her to Andrew Sasson’s house. One report identified Sasson as the driver, a statement denied categorically by Sasson.

Deep inside the club, many didn’t even notice the thump. But for those near the door, the impact was seismic.

“There was just a huge crash,” says a woman on the other side of the wall. “People sitting in the banquette next to the wall got tossed to the floor.”

This witness poked her head out the club window and saw the SUV sitting amid “carnage.” There was blood. There were moans. Otherwise, the scene was weirdly silent. People were trying to tend to the wounded and just make sure they were going to make it. Leslie Arnold, an associate litigator in the Atlanta law firm King & Spalding’s Manhattan office, suffered a fractured pelvis and arm when she was pinned against the wall (she has since filed a $30 million lawsuit). The victims included A-listers like Sarah Thorne, group associate publisher for Hamptons and Gotham magazines. Another victim, Jacqueline Powers, out on the town last week, told friends she had undergone full-body cat scans and that none of the damage appeared to be permanent; she had no intention of suing.

When the police arrived around 2:15 a.m., they at first didn’t even know who the driver was, beyond someone named Liz. They filtered through the club, questioning any and all girls they saw with white shirts and jeans skirts.

Allen Grubman quickly mobilized a boldfaced array of lawyers and advisers. The first call was to Manhattan’s quintessential mop-up man of criminal law, Ed Hayes, who immediately put the Grubmans in touch with Edward Burke, whose father, Edward Sr., had an Allen Grubman-like power in East End matters for decades. Burke, who’s not a litigator, called in the highly regarded, taciturn Stephen Scaring, a battle-hardened trial vet.

At the Sasson house that night, Burke advised Lizzie not to risk self-incrimination by filing an accident report: The most glaring initial suspicion was that alcohol played a role. But the police, who arrived almost simultaneously with Burke, sometime before 4 a.m., administered no Breathalyzer, saying later that by that point, it would have proved nothing.

Lizzie went back to her house in the early morning, to a ringing phone. She didn’t sleep, and mostly didn’t answer it. Hours later, she left for Manhattan, only to be called back to Southampton town court, where, on Sunday morning, she was arraigned on charges of first-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and leaving the scene of an accident. Lizzie faces the absurd total of 151 years of prison if convicted of all counts. The case is due in court September 5, though it may appear sooner, since Suffolk County district attorney Jim Catterson has been fast-tracking the investigation, pushing it toward a grand jury.

Meanwhile, the curtain was rising on one of the greatest Schadenfreude festivals in modern memory, and the strong overtones of class war made it even more irresistible. On WABC radio, fringe-left lawyer Ron Kuby suggested that Grubman should be prosecuted for a hate crime. Perhaps the most outlandish rumor was that Lizzie had hastened back to the city after a sleepless night in order to have her blood changed, à la Keith Richards.

“Allen’swhole attitude toward Lizzie is ‘look, you’ve been a very lucky lady your wholelife. This is the test.’ “

Even pre-Lizzie, class conflict had become perhaps the central Hamptons issue – aside from real-estate prices and traffic. It’s not uncommon, if you’re a moneyed weekender throwing a big party on the South Fork, to get a visit from the cops before anyone even shows up. You might be doing a sound check. They might let you know that it’s a little too loud, and that for a crowd like the one you’re expecting, you might need some security. You might want to call some of their off-duty cop buddies, in fact. “The police out there have had problems for being rough,” says one lawyer with criminal experience on the East End. “But they reflect the personality of the area. It’s a very law-and-order, family-oriented county, with a heavy emphasis on hard work, very heavy emphasis on physicality. This is an area where they expect you to cooperate with the police.”

One needn’t talk to the plaintiff’s side for long to sniff out the incipient class war. Scott Conlon, a health teacher who also coaches volleyball and soccer, has known his lawyer, Christopher Modelewski of Huntington, for years. “My client, he’s just a guy,” says Modelewski, with a detectable Long Island accent. “The tabloids keep talking about ‘the bouncer.’ He’s five seven. He goes to work at these clubs in a suit. I’d probably be scarier standing in the doorway. He’s a private guy. All this is not easy on him.”

Modelewski worries that the media powerhouses on Grubman’s side are already working to smear his client. “People are trying to say he’s a money-grubber. He’s a divorced father with a little girl. He’s a teacher. This is a W-2 job. He makes, like, $150 a night, which is probably about how much this young lady spends to get her nails done.”

The drug allegations in Conlon’s suit could prove incendiary. But Conlon’s team won’t say what kind of drugs (though there’s been no shortage of Manhattan rumors) Grubman was alleged to have been using – and there’s even some question about when she used them. “We have strong reasons to believe based on the opinions of those we interviewed that she took drugs and alcohol within eight hours of the incident,” says Michael Paul of MGP & Associates, Conlon’s newly hired P.R. rep, before qualifying the remark: Of course, he adds, “eight hours could mean before or after.”

District Attorney James Catterson is up for re-election in November, in a tight, hard-fought race. While Catterson’s spokesman, Drew Biondo, downplays the notion that politics will have any role in the case, the case is clearly being pushed hard. A grand jury could indict on any of a number of first-degree felony-assault charges. If a court believes Scott Conlon’s assertion that Grubman stomped on the gas with the intent to injure, she could be convicted of multiple counts of a Class A or B violent assault, which carries a mandatory jail sentence of five years. Even some close to the Grubman camp think it’s possible she’d get a year – though she probably wouldn’t have to serve the full sentence.

“These are the richest farmers in the world,” says a prominent East End criminal lawyer. “These people are not ‘trash,’ and they deeply resent what Lizzie represents. And cars are a very powerful issue between the weekend people and the locals. With drunk driving and so forth, the authorities take it really seriously. And forget about how the D.A. feels about the issue – Lizzie’s going to have a very tough time finding a judge out here who’s not going to put her in jail.”

A final determination of criminal negligence may hinge on the issue of apparent intent, which even Modelewski admits could be difficult: “We can’t go inside this young woman’s head. I’m not a mind-reader. Neither is my client. All we can do is what the law allows us: to put out evidence and to ask a jury to make a choice.”

Grubman’s lawyers are hustling to construct a defense, but time was one thing Catterson wasn’t giving them much of. Allen Grubman’s war room was humming, with intimates like Tommy Mottola and Clive Davis and his lawyer-son Fred Davis reaching out to the family. Many in New York’s power elite felt compelled to put in a call to Allen and show they were behind him, but it’s proved hard for anyone to come up with any useful advice for one of the country’s shrewdest legal advisers. “Everyone’s logging in with a call,” says an intimate. “But what do you say? Allen’s the smartest guy around, and he’s surrounded by all these incredibly smart people. What does he need my advice for?”

And, symbolically, at least, she’d ceded control back to her father. “What’s ironic and sad is that she has spent her life trying not to be daddy’s little girl, and now all she can do is cry and turn to her father,” says an acquaintance, who sees a further irony. “Lizzie isn’t some sort of pampered little monster,” the source says. “She’s not a Gucci girl. She runs around with roots always showing. She’s like, ‘Yeah, whaddya want?,’ like she’s white trash. She’s not afraid to have a few flaws.”

Allen Grubman, by all accounts, is not in a coddling mood. “Allen’s whole attitude right now toward Lizzie is ‘Look, this is what separates the men from the boys,’ ” says a family friend. ” ‘You’ve been a very lucky lady all your life. Now this is the test. This is where you prove you’re a survivor. And I know you’re a survivor.’ “

This may explain why she’s been so quick to go back to work. But some in the inner circle are advising Lizzie to pull back: Business is entirely secondary, and she should focus full-time on the case and on putting her life back together.

“We’re really not focused on the P.R. stuff at the moment,” Stephen Scaring says. “Although I realize there’s great public desire for information, my view is that the district attorney is going to decide this case based on the evidence, not based on whether or not the New York Post writes up a story that portrays her as a person with some personality qualities that are negative.”

The Grubman camp finds the idea that Lizzie somehow geared herself into a sociopathic fit and decided to rumble over a crowd of friends at her favorite club rather ludicrous. The defense: It’s obviously a tragedy and obviously an accident.

If it’s ruled an accident and Lizzie can escape criminal charges, Allen’s substantial insurance could cover everyone’s pain and suffering, sources close to Grubman insist. The lawyers seem confident that Allen has insurance to cover reasonable claims, and that lawsuits like $21 million (Conlon) and $30 million (Manhattan record executive Adam Wacht, who has a shattered ankle) are not reasonable.

“Allen’s a wealthy guy,” says a source, “and he carries a lot of insurance. I cannot – cannot – imagine that these claims would exceed his insurance. I just think that would be virtually impossible. In some cases, people will ask for $100 million and get $200,000, $500,000. Unless you die or are crippled, the injuries are not worth more than $300,000, $500,000, a million. Twenty-one million? There’s just no way they’re getting up to those numbers. The insurance company may look to have Allen pay some of the claim himself, depending on the degree of recklessness.”

So Allen won’t suffer much financially – not that he isn’t suffering. “He’s got a daughter facing jail time,” says one source. “That’s not exactly being bulletproof.”

Peggy Siegal, Lizzie Grubman’s partner of the past year, is suffering, too, having sustained substantial collateral P.R. damage since the tragedy. Some are gleefully predicting that if Grubman goes down, Siegal’s at last going down, too. But while Siegal’s hung up on her share of reporters this week seeking comment on Grubman, she doesn’t seem excessively worried about the future of Lizzie Grubman/Peggy Siegal Public Relations. “I feel really badly for Lizzie,” says Siegal, “and personally, I’m very upset. I’m saddened by the whole incident. It was a horrible accident. But we’re doing our best to conduct business as usual.”

Many observers see an enormous irony in what’s happened to Siegal and Grubman. Peggy, high-strung, tends to blow up. Lizzie, the firm’s good cop, calls up five minutes later and smooths things over. She spun her own publicity as well. Grubman became known in the press as Britney Spears’s publicist. “She threw Britney Spears a birthday party,” sniffs a competitor.

Grubman’s success, especially considering that she had been born on third base, made for no small amount of envy – and fueled a certain cat-fight thread of the narrative. When Lara Shriftman showed up at Bridgehampton Polo the weekend after the incident, a Grubman friend stormed up to her and hissed, “I can’t believe, of all people, you had the nerve to show up.” No wonder. Just the day before, the Post had Shriftman crowing “We’re the king of the world” on the day after the crash and reported that Shriftman had taken a table at a restaurant across the street from Grubman’s Manhattan apartment, to gloat over the camera-crew madness. Shriftman, sources insist, was at the bedside of her grandfather, who has cancer, and had actually sent a note to Grubman the day after the accident offering sympathy about her mother and assuring her she would avoid the press.

In the Hamptons the weekend after the crash, the mood was electric – like a nasty, pulsing shock. The ugliness of the gossip seemed to surprise even those who were engaged in it. Many jumped to the conclusion that it had been latent, that something had been consuming the Hamptons from below while the party raged. Everyone became a social critic, Bonfire of the Vanities swiftly rewriting itself as Bonfire of the Platitudes. “The Hamptons as we know them have burned down at last,” said R. Couri Hay, the society columnist. Meanwhile, the level of press interest seemed to suggest that something world-historical had occurred. But what was it? “I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve never seen this kind of attention,” says Howard Rubenstein. “Except maybe with the president of the United States. Certainly not about a publicist.”

And in every layer of the Hamptons’ remarkably complex social archaeology, people staked out their positions. “I’m no ‘townie,’ ” said an owlish man at the Southampton Parrish Art Museum benefit. Given his houndstooth-check jacket and his thick eyeglasses the yellowy-gray color of Ricard, he was stating the obvious. “But I think it’s despicable. To leave people lying on the road and flee the scene?”

“I’m sure it does seem despicable – if you’re the sort of guy who would wear lobster pants,” murmurs one East Hamptonite, just out of earshot.

At Bridgehampton Polo a photographer claimed to have been jostled by the security guys, knocking his $5,000 digital camera to the turf. Satellite mogul and polo player Neil Hirsch had to amble over to intervene. Meanwhile, word circulated inside the tent that a security guard was clipped by a driver looking to squeeze into a parking spot – only to be thrown on the ground and arrested by a number of cops.

“It’s Lizzie II,” said one partygoer.

“Class war,” answered another. “With cars!”

Reversal of Fortune