Hold the Line, Mia, Pacino is on Line Two
Bill Beslow’s celebrity divorce clients appreciate his closed-mouth policy
Published in 2006 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on July 18, 2006
Updated on April 3, 2017
When was the last time you got a call from Mia, Glenn, Robert, Fergie, Phil, Al, Demi, Nicole or Harvey in the middle of the night? That’s Mia Farrow, Glenn Close, Robert DeNiro, Sarah Ferguson (the Duchess of York), Philip Roth, Al Pacino, Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman and Harvey Keitel, of course.
Manhattan matrimonial attorney Bill Beslow has represented all of them — and many more, including Marla Maples against Donald Trump, Tatum O’Neal against John McEnroe and Patricia Duff against billionaire Ronald Perelman.
One of Beslow’s most impressive victories was persuading billionaire corporate raider Carl Icahn to back off and negotiate a divorce settlement with first wife Liba. The highly publicized battle had dragged on for almost six years. Just when it was about to wind down with a victory for the man who’d never lost a business negotiation, Beslow took one last shot. Over lunch, he asked Icahn to see his ex-wife in a new light — not as an opponent, but as his spouse of 20 years and the mother of his two children.
Icahn thought about it, and agreed to settle. He said it was the first time he had ever changed his mind about anything.
Looking back over his victories, the self-effacing Beslow quietly confesses that representing celebrities “can be fun,” and that it’s “clear evidence of success.” But then he stops short. Patting himself on the back is just something he doesn’t do. It’s inelegant posturing, clearly not part of his repertoire.
But Beslow doesn’t have to promote himself, because his clients do it for him. Even though his name appears frequently in the press, he doesn’t enjoy being in the spotlight, and he’ll circle Manhattan to avoid reporters hungry for the inside skinny on one of his clients.
Most reporters, however, stay clear of Beslow because they’ve learned that all they’re going to get is a “No comment.” Unlike many of his colleagues who delight in being quoted, Beslow learned early in the game the dangers of commenting on a case. No matter what he says, he knows it’s likely to be taken out of context and twisted into sensational babble far removed from the truth.
A small part of his job in representing famous celebrities is keeping the press away — just one of many reasons why the rich and famous trust him.
Harvey Keitel’s chatty writer-director spouse, Daphna, screens all reporters, firmly laying down the ground rules before allowing them to speak to her famous husband. Keitel has battled reporters, paparazzi, attorneys and judges since the late 1990s. In 1997 he tried to wrest custody of his then-12-year-old daughter, Stella, from the girl’s mother, actress Lorraine Bracco, who was married to actor Edward James Olmos at the time. And in 2002, a San Diego potter, the mother of his then-2-year-old son, Hudson, sued Keitel for child support.
“Harvey won’t talk to you if you ask him questions about any of his court cases,” Daphna says matter-of-factly. “This is the first interview he’s given in 20 years. He’s only doing it as a favor to Bill.”
As Harvey Keitel sees it, divorce lawyers seem to be “more concerned with their own fees and celebrity status than resolving difficult marital and family situations in a way that’s nourishing, particularly to the children.”
After expressing his generalized disgust with divorce lawyers and the entire family court system, he says, “Principles and matrimonial law don’t go together. Bill is the exception.”
Actress Mia Farrow, whose former spouses include legendary crooner Frank Sinatra and pianist André Previn, feels the same way.
She summarily dismisses all her former divorce lawyers as arrogant prima donnas. “In my business, I thought I knew about arrogant people,” says Farrow. “But they’re nothing compared to divorce lawyers. Their fees were coming like a runaway train,” and most of the time she had no idea what she was paying for. “I’d get bills for lunch for 20 people and for countless hours of overtime,” she says. “I’d ask myself, ‘Why was I paying for all these people, why the overtime?’”
In contrast, Farrow found Beslow a pleasure to work with because he billed fairly, “had no ego problems,” and as a litigator, “he was impressive.”
To this day, Farrow keeps in touch with Beslow and calls him frequently for advice. She calls him “a mensch of a guy … someone you want to hang out with, impeccably honest, his moral compass and intuition [are] incredibly accurate.” And he’s never billed her for those telephone conversations.
Judith Regan, aka “DEFCON Judith,” reputedly the most powerful woman in publishing, was one of the few clients not thrilled with Beslow’s services. Vanity Fair reporter Judith Newman describes Regan as not only the most successful woman in publishing but also “the Angriest Woman in Media.”
Regan became thoroughly disgusted with Beslow after a stormy nine-year relationship during which he represented the publisher against her investment-banker husband.
Even though Beslow secured a victory for Regan, they ended up in a heated and ugly litigation over his fees. When the decision came down, Beslow opted for the high road and called Regan to congratulate her and, like mature adults, end the war between them.
Her response: “He must be out of his f—ing mind,” she said, and went on to call Beslow “a classic sociopath.”
Beslow has been performing astonishing feats all his life — not only in the courtroom but on the sports field as well. His colleagues would be making a big mistake if they challenged him to a friendly game of one-on-one hoops in a neighborhood park. As far as Beslow is concerned, there is no such thing as a friendly game of anything. Whether he’s trying a case or playing basketball, he plays to win.
When Beslow is litigating a case, he eats like an athlete. While his cronies are enjoying rich, high-caloric meals and maybe a martini or two, Beslow remains in court and eats a banana and a protein bar and washes it all down with spring water. He eats frequently — often every three hours — in order to build his energy reserves so he can function at peak efficiency with as little as three hours of sleep a night.
Beslow litigates the way he used to play basketball. “A basketball game, like a trial, can turn at any moment,” he says. The message? Make no assumptions about your opponents.
He moves with the grace and speed of a trained athlete. You’d be hard-pressed to find an ounce of fat on his 6-foot-2-inch frame. Weighing in at a muscular 185 pounds, he’s in remarkably good shape. He works hard at it.
Even though he’s saddled with an exhausting schedule, he finds time to bike and scull. To Beslow, a bike ride is not a casual Sunday afternoon tour of Central Park. It’s mounting his 1985 steel frame DeRosa — a prestige racer in mint condition — and biking 35 to 40 miles out to the beaches beyond Coney Island. He also spends a couple of hours sculling on the country lakes close to his Massachusetts summer home. This is how Beslow works off tension. But it’s also how he relaxes and finds inner peace. He enjoys the thrill and gratification that repetitive motion provides.
As a kid growing up in a tough, anti-Semitic Bayonne neighborhood, Beslow had two powerful influences that set the tone and theme of his life. The first was his father, Harry Beslow, an extraordinary baseball player and all-around athlete who enlisted in the infantry during World War II and fought on Omaha Beach before returning home. Beslow remembers his father as honest, ethical, consistent, loving, strong and hard-working. He admired those qualities as a kid; he lives by them today.
The second influence was his uncle, Samuel E. Doan, his mother’s brother, a general practice attorney whom Beslow calls “a formidable presence in every way.”
At age 3, Beslow decided to be an attorney just like his uncle. He certainly couldn’t explain it then, but he can now. The boy sensed greatness and power in this confident 6-foot-3-inch, 190-pound self-made man.
Beslow remained close to his uncle until Doan died in 1989 at age 83. But his uncle’s spirit and memory are still very much alive. When Beslow is immersed in a complicated case, putting in ungodly hours, and he needs a quick shot of inspiration, he stares at the four Daumier prints hanging on his office walls. The priceless art once hung in his uncle’s law office.
As far back as he can remember, his goal was to be a composite of his father and uncle. As a teenager, Beslow was a good athlete, but he admits that he wasn’t as good as his dad, who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs but turned down a potential big league baseball career to work as a plumber’s assistant.
Unlike colleagues who are aligned with large law practices filled with battalions of partners, attorneys and associates, Beslow opts to run a boutique operation consisting of himself, an associate and a secretary.
While fellow matrimonial attorneys admire him as a skilled litigator who has a knack for getting to the essence of a case, the consensus is that Beslow could do a lot better for himself if he hired more attorneys or joined a large firm. Beslow disagrees.
Ironically, when he started out, he had every intention of working for a big firm and making partner one day. But it wasn’t in matrimonial law. After attending Yale and Columbia Law School, he got a master’s in taxation from NYU, and then joined the prestigious Wall Street law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in 1972, working in the trusts and estates department. Over his seven-year stay with Davis Polk, he came to the conclusion that he liked trusts and estates, but he didn’t love it and didn’t see a future for himself at the firm.
“I transitioned out of trusts and estates largely because estate planning was cold and impersonal,” he says. “There was no intimate contact with people.”
Beslow wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. He left Davis Polk in 1979. A year later he opened his own matrimonial law practice.
“For me the most satisfying aspect of my practice is leaving my client in a better way, whatever that may be — professionally, socially, financially, maybe all three,” Beslow explains. “What many people do not fully appreciate is that the result of a case — particularly a case that will be tried — is often determined at the outset. It’s critical that I make every decision which can impact directly or indirectly upon a case’s favorable outcome. Many experienced attorneys who are dependent upon the work of others during the early stages of a case find themselves hamstrung by events which they had loosely observed or in which they had indirectly participated.”
As for efficiency, Beslow says he’s far more efficient than the most experienced attorney employed by a large firm. “I never have to spend time ‘learning’ a file because I participate directly in the development of each case as the case moves along,” he says. “In a complicated case, there may be an enormously complicated set of facts — including facts which did not exist prior to the onset of the case. In many instances, I have observed an experienced adversary overwhelmed by the burden of ‘learning’ an entire file shortly prior to trial. By directly involving myself at all stages, I not only avoid the problem of cramming information under pressure, but also have the time to give considered thought to the presentation of my client’s case at a time when my adversary may be spending his or her time understanding the facts.”
Top matrimonial attorney Norman Sheresky is among those that say Beslow would be better off if he hired other attorneys. Yet he adds, “If I were going through a divorce, I’d want him as my attorney.”