The Sixtysomething Upstart

Photo: Michele Abeles

The year was 1967. The leaves were browning on the trees when an ambitious young law-firm associate marched herself downtown on her lunch hour to the prestigious U.S. Attorney’s office, Southern District, and demanded a job application for the Criminal Division.

There was some snickering behind the desk. Women weren’t being considered for that sort of thing, sorry.

“I am sad to say that the U.S. Attorney was Robert Morgenthau,” says Leslie Crocker Snyder whenever she tells the story.

Years passed, and Bob Morgenthau was elected Manhattan district attorney. Snyder became a justice of the State Supreme Court. One day, she would again come looking for Bob Morgenthau to discuss a job she really, really wanted. His job.

Every campaign trail has its indignities, but this year’s race for Manhattan D.A. has more on the schedule than most. “I apologize to all candidates for our doorbell when it rings,” said the moderator at a campaign event. “Secondly, as influential as this club is politically, we can do nothing about the dog barking in the hall.”

Bob Morgenthau is 85 years old. That Jack La Lanne jazz about him cycling, skiing, playing tennis, cannot obscure the fact that however compos mentis—and many say that he’s as sharp as he’s ever been—Bob Morgenthau is an old man. A very old man who doesn’t walk, he shuffles. These past few months, he has good-naturedly suffered the lousy acoustics of the rented rooms where these campaigns play out, with their gymnasium floors and drop-cloth-covered pianos in the corner.

His left ear, his good ear, is cocked in the direction of Judge Snyder. Sometimes he sits with his finger jammed right down the auditory canal, listening to her rail about his “stale” operation as her pearly pink manicure hatchets the air. Tonight, when his own turn comes, he’ll reach for the back of a chair to steady himself—and miss. His hearing aid will decide it is time to hum an aria. On the way out, he’ll misplace his coat. He is a Mr. Chips who is not yet ready to say good-bye, and there’s pathos to his protest, even if he’s got a talent for snatching away her issues.

People around him say he’s fuuuurious that Snyder is out there—with her “new energy, new leadership, new ideas”—trying to deny him a ninth term in this office with a tradition of papal tenure, distorting his record. The last person to seriously challenge him was C. Vernon Mason in 1985.

Leslie Crocker Snyder has been hard to ignore, spray-misted with diamonds and done up in satin-collar suits and tweedy trumpet skirts, a buckle of cleavage occasionally visible under a lacy camisole as she drags the old man off the porch by his Brooks Brothers lapels.

“I’ve been talking about domestic-violence issues for months. I’m happy that Robert Morgenthau now seems to be adopting them on his own,” she’ll say, fire-breathing sarcasm. She enjoys correcting him on how it all works, like the night he claimed credit for heading the first office in New York to indict DNA profiles of as-yet-unknown perpetrators. “Actually, the Bronx was the first to do that,” she purred.

“You’re wrong,” he bellowed, winking at his wife in the first row (and Snyder was).

In Manhattan, almost 59 percent of registered Democrats are women, and Judge Snyder has a great story, says one of her campaign strategists, Doug Schoen: first woman to do this, first woman to do that. She founded the first sex-crimes-prosecution unit in the nation and co-authored the state’s rape-shield law, which protects victims from “being raped on the witness stand over and over for hours” disclosing prior sexual history, she says Andrea Dworkin–ishly.

Snyder is positioning herself as a more “hands-on D.A.,” who would whiz through courtrooms and crime scenes, host community breakfasts, make assistant D.A.’s a bigger presence in the housing projects, in satellite offices, and in community courts.

She’s attempting to reinforce this impression with an active schedule. “Let’s see him at the subway stops,” says the preppy blonde, an objection-overruled edge in her voice. Candice Bergen seemed the natural choice to play a Snyder-style judge a few months ago on one of the Law & Orders (where Snyder now vets scripts on the side).

The sexist spin on Snyder’s campaign bothers Bob Morgenthau almost as much as the ageist one. Several women have occupied the most senior positions in the D.A.’s office, where there are now 258 female assistants. It remains his ill fortune that one of the categories in which crime is up is domestic violence, which gives his opponent more to make noise about. Morgenthau supporters have taken to wearing buttons proclaiming him the WOMEN’S CHOICE.

Snyder is assuming some risk in smashing this icon: Break a few bones and you might disable a future run. “She should have waited,” says Ed Koch, conceding Snyder could make a fine D.A.; after all, it was he who appointed her to the bench in 1983. “I hope she recovers from the thrashing.” Snyder says Eliot Spitzer (who has endorsed Morgenthau) told her she’d make a great D.A.—after Morgenthau.

But she insists she’s in this to win now. She is 63 years old: How long can she wait? Says defense attorney and Snyder supporter Lawrence Goldman, “She’s got more balls than any guy I know.”

Photo Caption: Robert Morgenthau and Snyder at a NOW-NYC event last month. (Photo Credit: Richard Levine/WireImage)

Judge Snyder’s parents were both West End Avenue–bred—and Jewish, however nonobservant. Her father, Lester, the son of a real-estate lawyer, was a French Enlightenment scholar who dropped Krakower for Crocker on his way to a burnished career in academia mainly spent just below the Mason-Dixon Line.

“We were brought up that religion—and I still feel this way—is highly personal and nobody’s business,” says Snyder, seated behind her messy-busy desk in a corner office at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, where she’s been preparing for her run since she stepped down from the bench at the end of 2003.

Lester G. Crocker was an expert on social-contract stuff, the nature of evil: “He was fixated on the Marquis de Sade,” Snyder recalls. His wife, Billie, labored as his unpaid assistant. She, too, had some advanced study in French and felt thwarted. One of seven children whose father was a musician born in Warsaw, Billie Danziger had two brothers who would own Luna Park, and Cartier Paris, and produce a handful of feature films (Babes in Bagdad) and scads of cheap detective series for early British TV. Born 30 years later, Billie might have had her own career—and perhaps would have sought a divorce, Snyder speculates. Be independent, do something constructive! she urged her only daughter. She was “the inspiration in my life,” says Snyder, still mourning her death last year at the age of 97.

Lester Crocker was a bit old-world, a bit sexist, saving the Diderot discussions for Snyder’s older brother (now a mathematician). He disdained the little television set hidden inside a cabinet in the living room, but Friday nights, Leslie was allowed to watch Ralph Bellamy cracking heads in Man Against Crime. “The concept of good triumphing over evil has always fascinated me,” says Snyder.

A scholarship student at Baltimore’s snotty-rich-kid Bryn Mawr School, she was expected to drop curtsies at her mother’s campus salons, where she developed a distaste for intellectual bicep-flexing: “It’s great to have an idea, but I like to get to the point, do something about it. I’m impatient that way.”

Snyder is assuming some risk in smashing this icon: break a few bones and you might disable a future run. But she’s 63—how long can she wait?

Money was tight, but there were vacations in Europe, where her impresario uncles now owned hotels, the Mayfair in London, Monte Carlo’s Metropole. A full scholarship took her to Radcliffe at 16, where she studied American history and literature and wore her hair in a Laura Petrie flip. She tried pot. She got engaged to a blond rower. But the relationship fractured—much to her father’s irritation (“He really didn’t have a lot of tolerance for human frailty,” she says), and she bugged out on business school. Dad refused to pay for a school like Yale Law; at Case Western Reserve, where he was now dean of the graduate school, she could attend for free. She was one of only two women in her class.

“There are people who are leaders, and people who are followers. Morgenthau obviously wasn’t a leader in this field,” she says of the U.S. Attorney’s–office snub.

Instead, she interviewed with Frank Hogan, the Manhattan district attorney whose name is usually prefixed by the word legendary. Hogan had just four female attorneys in his employ. He repeatedly asked if Snyder was married. Did he think she was gay, she wondered? “I think if I’d been married, I’m sure I would remember it,” she told him. He hired her anyway.

Snyder gently calls Hogan “patriarchal”—at worst, “anachronistic”—even though she was devastated when all the guys who entered the office with her were promoted to trying felonies and she wasn’t. Finally, Hogan tossed her some youth cases. Said one judge, “Why don’t you go home and have babies? That’s where you belong.” When she begged to work homicides, Hogan asked for a note from her pediatrician husband, Fred, whom she married in 1968, a little more than a month after they met. “Fred was an extremely smart guy who was mature and didn’t have the ego hang-ups like many of the men I knew,” she says.

“Leslie, Leslie, Leslie, you should be the next Betty Furness,” Frank Hogan would say, nudging her toward consumer affairs. He didn’t want her being picked up at 3:30 in the morning by a squad car to go question suspects. After years of this, he relented. These were the most exciting nine years of Leslie Crocker Snyder’s life, she says, and why she wants to be district attorney.

Snyder’s husband used to call her Siggy (after Freud) because she was always puzzling over people’s motivation. Lately, she’s been psychoanalyzing Bob Morgenthau: Here is a man horsewhipped by ego. One of those insecures who can’t survive without a ginormous office and a cigar in his fist. “I would assume the reason he so desperately wants to stay in office is, it’s so much a part of his persona, he can’t live without it. Which I think is kind of sad,” she says.

As an A.D.A in 1973, Snyder was photographed by Glamour for a story about young powerful women.Photo: Courtesy of Leslie Crocker Snyder

“When the Times asked him why he was running, his only answer—which I thought was incredibly feeble—was something about keeping his staff together, and frankly, his staff is totally out- of-date. The top people have been there 25 to 30 years, and they haven’t seen a new idea in 20 years that they liked!”

For years, those who work with Morgenthau’s office have complained that it is riven with fault lines: “It’s like having the emperor in some distant place in Austria while everybody else is running their little tiny fiefdoms,” says attorney (and Snyder backer) Murray Richman.

Snyder has snagged the endorsements of ten police unions. A major reason was the reversal of the Central Park–jogger convictions, says Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association. Palladino claims the decision was the by-product of fiefdom infighting: the abrupt dismissal of the case was seen as an attempt by Morgenthau’s trial chief Nancy Ryan to dump on her old rival Linda Fairstein, who supervised the prosecutions.

Snyder and other judges complain about a culture of assistant D.A.’s being afraid to try cases, forging inappropriate pleas because they lack training. She adds that the office needs ballsy, streetwise local-law-school grads like in the old days—and could cut back on the Harvard Law Review types, the celebrity offspring.

Snyder also thinks Morgenthau is spending an ungodly amount of money on white-collar crime. The rap on Morgenthau has always been that he wishes he were still U.S. Attorney. “He was fired from the job. He refused to leave!” says Snyder. (Citing unfinished business, Bob Morgenthau delayed his resignation an entire year after Republican Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 and left only after Nixon named his replacement and demanded his resignation.)

“He has this whole family baggage that he carries around where he has to prove himself over and over,” Snyder continues, “and that meant getting all the white-collar cases he could that would be a headline, a Kozlowski or a BCCI or a Belnick. A lot of those prosecutions really ended up badly. They cost millions, especially the international-banking cases. He’s sending D.A.’s to Venezuela!” she hoots.

“I don’t care about headlines,” says Snyder. But attorney Gerald Lefcourt can’t imagine she would do things any differently. “White collar is the juicy stuff. She’ll want the sexy, interesting cases, with the great lawyers coming to beg.”

Playing Thelma to Snyder’s Louise is U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who was always arm-wrestling Morgenthau for cases (Snyder argues there needs to be more cooperation between the two offices) and is now Snyder’s campaign chair. Snyder the judge had “put her life on the line,” says White.

With those Moulin Rouge! chokers and flowing black robes, Snyder looked like a character hatched by Genet, generally sympathetic to the women before her but maxing out society’s most “violent predators” with triple-digit prison stretches. In 1998, a bust turned up bags of “25 to Life”–brand heroin stamped with her likeness.

After several credible death threats in the early nineties, Snyder and her family required 24/7 security. Her Park Avenue co-op board expressed irritation when a SWAT team came rappelling down from the roof. Bomb-sniffing dogs went along to charity dinners. Her kids were told not to walk through the living room of their summer house because a sniper might take them out. When it was determined that the Wild Cowboys gang had hired a hit man known as Freddy Krueger to get her, “there were two men posted on either side of the pool during my water-polo match,” remembers her investment-manager son Doug. Judge Snyder says her sleep was permanently affected: “At night, my fears would come out.”

Snyder is the state judge with the longest continuing police protection. Some colleagues scoff at the expense, insisting that her demeanor in court created these situations: Did she really need to call the defendants “monsters” and “psychopaths” as she handed out those throw-away-the-key sentences?

Five years ago, a boiler-room stockbroker tried to pay someone $35,000 to kill Snyder on her way out of Forlini’s, the judiciary’s power lunchroom, where she is the only woman with her own booth. A Law & Order episode not long after improvised on the incident: A blonde judge is so hostile and power-besotted as she runs around trailing police protection that the D.A.’s sympathize with the accountant who ordered the hit.

Defense lawyers hated the way Judge Snyder would refer to their clients as “choirboys,” asking them to quit “whining” and “carrying on” before the jury. Often, Snyder would play prosecutor, asking her own questions. Though many lawyers had the utmost respect for Snyder, some objected to the blithering-idiot treatment. “I don’t mean to slight her as a judge, but for years I thought, Wow, wouldn’t she be a great D.A.?” says attorney Judd Burstein.

Snyder was considered a favorite judge of Morgenthau’s. In 1995, his office was accused of steering the high-profile multi-defendant drug cases to her courtroom, and the assignment system was changed. The fact that a number of prominent defense lawyers are backing Snyder seems like heresy. Murray Richman explains, “I supported Morgenthau when he ran for governor, and I literally worship his family”—Morgenthau’s grandfather was Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey, and his father was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary. “But it’s like Ecclesiastes 3. There’s a time to retire.”

Snyder had a way of ingratiating herself with defense lawyers while skewering their clients, says defense attorney Scott Greenfield. “As you came into the courtroom, Leslie would wave you up to the bench and give you a peck on the cheek. It wasn’t a sexual thing, but judges don’t do that.”

She is incredibly smart, and some lawyers had crushes on her. “She’d charm the pants off you,” says Richman. Now they’re being charmed by her defense-friendly platform: expanding discovery; alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders; Rockefeller drug-law reform. “She’s trying to convince us that we won’t need to fear her when she’s omnipotent,” Greenfield jokes.

Her pro-death-penalty stance may be a liability, however. Snyder says she would consider it for particularly heinous crimes where there was significant corroborating evidence, “like DNA.”

Grandstanding is another frequently voiced concern. Snyder sees herself too much as an advocate and not as someone simply bound to do justice, another skeptical defense lawyer worries. “As D.A., I could see her offering coercive pleas and focusing on those cases that promote herself.”

In 1995, there was an audible harrumph downtown when Snyder went on TV and talked about the O. J. Simpson trial. A rule was then clarified that no sitting judge in New York could discuss the merits of any pending case in the country. Snyder engaged manager Lou Pitt, who grew the careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jessica Lange, then smartly published her memoirs and hit the talk shows. Lately, she’d been surfing the airwaves, deep-thinking Scott Peterson, Martha Stewart, and Kobe Bryant as a legal analyst for NBC.

Political is a word that comes up a lot with Snyder. “I’ve been at a hundred parties with her,” says a lawyer. “She likes the action.”

Snyder’s only prior political experience was stuffing envelopes for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign and reading a lot of Michael Beschloss. She’s made some rookie mistakes: a disastrous waltz around the room with power-brokering private investigator Bo Dietl. A first press conference was ended abruptly when a question about her TV sideline raised her ire.

Manhattan’s “boss politics” were a shocker, she says. “Don’t get me wrong; I’ve met a lot of good people. But it’s just a closed system—I mean, this isn’t that much better than Tammany Hall. Several times, I’ve thought I was in Brooklyn.” Then there was that time Morgenthau volunteers hired people from a shelter for the mentally ill to picket a Snyder fund-raiser at Elaine’s.

To many, Bob Morgenthau is the Great Oz, beloved but feared. He’s got incredible reach: The number of people in government and in the courts who have worked for him is astonishing. He’s the insider’s insider, advising the mayor and governor on judicial job-filling, and people like to imagine he’s behind all sorts of appointments.

But cross Morgenthau, and he might just pick up the phone and … who knows? There’s a perception that judges who displease him have ended up trying cases in the Bronx—which the Manhattan judiciary sees as akin to the Russian front. Even as a myth, it works for him. “The people in his office are afraid to buck anything,” says Robert Tannenbaum, who ran homicide in the Hogan era. “They’re fearful that if they ever try to get another job, he’ll say all these crappy things about them.”

“Morgenthau has that quality,” says another lawyer. “He gets even.”

In 1976, homicide chief John Keenan was named special anti-corruption prosecutor and hired Snyder out of the office. More staff followed—to Bob Morgenthau’s vast displeasure, Snyder has said. Snyder always wanted to be a judge, and after Koch was elected mayor, he made a slew of appointments to the bench. Snyder’s application languished. “Someone was opposing my appointment,” she wrote in her book. Snyder has discussed the notion that it was Morgenthau with a few people. “Maybe someone suggested that to me, but I never thought that,” she says now. In his confidential letter (a copy was shown to New York), Morgenthau praised her performance: “Mrs. Snyder has a pleasing presence and is well-spoken,” he said.

Though Koch eventually appointed her, the perceived snub rankled.

Snyder now has $1.4 million of the $2 million she’s looking for. But it’s been tough. “Sorry, but Bob’s been too good to us” is the usual response. “A number of people have told me that he called them and said, ‘You can’t support her,’ ” says Snyder. “People tell me all the time they have been intimidated by him.” More than $100,000 has been raised by young friends of Snyder’s sons (her son Nick is in the foreign service) with names like Bass, Forbes, LeFrak, Santo Domingo, Rockefeller, and Trump. Some had visited Snyder’s courtroom as third-graders.

Parents were called: Bob Morgenthau cooked hot dogs with Eleanor Roosevelt! So what was Teddy Roosevelt V doing, mailing $150 to Judge Snyder?

People do seem to wish Morgenthau would designate an heir. “If Morgenthau’s made a deal with Pataki to appoint a successor,” says civil-liberties lawyer Richard Emery, “the person would have a huge leg up on fund-raising. If something happens to Morgenthau, I’m worried about Pataki appointing a hack, which is the likelihood.”

In 1973, Frank Hogan overcame a primary challenge on his way to serving his own ninth term. That August, he checked into St. Luke’s for what was first described as a routine physical, then “fainting spells and exhaustion,” and finally a stroke and a malignant lung tumor only after the New York Post got hold of stolen medical records. He was overwhelmingly reelected, resigned a month later, and passed away in April of the following year, age 72. In the special election, the D.A. appointed by the Republican governor lost to the New York Times–endorsed candidate: Robert Morgenthau.

Now Robert Morgenthau is saying he’s got unfinished business at the D.A.’s office. Judge Snyder clearly does, too. It remains to be seen who will have the last headline.

The Sixtysomething Upstart