The Other Side of Raoul Felder

The most controversial lawyer in New York (this year) comes clean

Published in 2007 New York Metro Super Lawyers — September 2007

The most surprising thing about visiting divorce attorney Raoul Felder in his office in midtown isn’t the mock doors for fictional detectives Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade that stand on either side of his firm’s front door, nor the Automat full of plastic food on display in the reception area, nor, in his own office, the crazy collections he has accrued over the years: colorful slippers, toy Nazi soldiers, and once (rumor has it) even a piranha to inspire him during tough negotiations.

No, the surprising thing is this: He’s quiet. The man known for bragging about being the “No. 1 divorce lawyer in America,” and who once described Donna Hanover, the former first lady of New York City, as “howling like a stuck pig” comes off, in person, as soft-spoken, gentle and even philosophical.

“I don’t think anyone gets me angry anymore,” he says.

It might be the timing of the visit. It was April, and Felder’s penchant for controversial comments thrust him into a power struggle with Gov. Spitzer and members of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, where he’s been chairman since 2006. For more than 40 years, Felder’s verbal gifts have served him well—getting him both into and out of trouble. Could they get him out of this?

 

He was born May 13, 1937, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, then a lower-middle-class European-Jewish ghetto. His father, Morris, barely eked out a living as a general-practitioner lawyer. His mother, Millie, was so strict she earned the nickname “The General” around the neighborhood. As a couple, the Felders were acrimonious, but forever bound by societal convention.

“In those days, divorce was unknown,” Felder says.

There were two Felder boys. Raoul’s older brother, Jerome, was crippled by polio and, though as Doc Pomus he would later gain fame as a blues singer and songwriter, penning such hits as “Lonely Avenue,” “This Magic Moment,” “Youngblood” and “Viva Las Vegas,” it was Raoul’s unofficial job as a child to tend to Jerome’s needs and handle his crutches. Raoul suffered a handicap as well—what now might be called ADD—but, demonstrating the iron discipline he still has, he earned top scores in school. 

With a father who practiced law and parents whose relationship seemed to demonstrate the need for divorce lawyers, Felder’s destiny as America’s top divorce lawyer might seem foretold. It wasn’t.

“If you were a Jewish boy of a certain generation, your choices are being a doctor, a lawyer and, if you were not so smart, an accountant,” Felder says. “My mother wanted me to be a doctor.” 

So Felder went to medical school in Bern, Switzerland, where he found he liked neither medicine nor learning another language—and where he acquired a lifelong aversion to subtitled movies. He did, however, develop a good bedside manner, which served him well later in life. 

After two years, he returned to the states and enrolled in law school at New York University. In 1959, believing his future lay in criminal law, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn. Salary: $11,000 a year.

Three years later his friend introduced him to Myrna Danenberg, a singer/dancer in a revival of Anything Goes. Danenberg, then 21, needed legal advice to break her contract with her manager. Felder settled it for $650. A year later, the two were married.

“My mother used to say, ‘It was the best $650 you ever spent,’” Myrna Felder says. She has since gotten a law degree and works at her husband’s firm. “The strange thing is, when we started together, I was on the stage, applause, applause, and he was working in the background as a lawyer. Now he’s upon the stage, applause, applause, and I’m quietly working in the background.”

In 1963, just as Felder began to tire of his work as a prosecutor on organized-crime and white-collar-crime cases, a window opened. Doc Pomus’ songwriting partner, Mort Shuman, was seeking a divorce from his wife, Esther. With a well-known divorce lawyer as the opposing counsel, Felder’s first divorce case wasn’t going well—at least until Felder’s instincts told him there was more to the story.

“Mortie explains to me that every time he and Esther had a fight, a waiter in the restaurant would pick up her bags for her,” Felder remembers. “The waiter was the best man at their wedding. So I said, ‘Call him up and say exactly what I say to you. Say you know he’s been having an affair with Esther, but his friendship means more than the relationship with Esther.’ Mortie goes to the restaurant on City Island and says what I told him. The waiter says, ‘I’m glad you feel that way. Your friendship means more to me than that thing with Esther.’”

When Felder broke news of the affair in open court, a Daily News reporter happened to be sitting in the audience. The headline the next day read “Best Man Kisses and Tells,” and Felder became famous in New York overnight.

“For the first two years, I was filled up with cases,” Felder says. “I had an ego ideal at one point to make $50,000 a year. … That first year I made that.”

Most of Felder’s early cases were non-celebrities, but the press, always looking for juicy tales of adultery, gave Felder’s battles plenty of publicity. In time, he started taking on stars’ divorce cases. Felder can’t even recall who his first “celebrity” divorce was.

But everyone remembers the case that made him a household name across the country. In October 1988 actress Robin Givens filed for divorce from heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson after only eight months of marriage. Neal Hersh, a Beverly Hills-based attorney who partnered with Felder on the Givens case, and who sees Felder as a mentor, says, “Since then, I’ve done or am doing Kim Basinger and Denise Richards, Halle Berry, Kurt Cobain, some real famous stuff. But that was probably the most publicized divorce until that point ever. It was great.”

Felder, already an old hand at dealing with the media, gave Hersh, of Hersh, Mannis & Bogen, a crash course in P.R.

“He gave me tips on making your answers short and direct and just relaxing,” Hersh says. “He also taught me to be always accessible because these high-profile cases are fast-moving and things pop up at unusual times.”

Felder also passed on a lesson or two in wiliness, like when, apparently out of spite, Tyson insisted on obtaining a Lamborghini parked at Givens’ house in the settlement. 

“There was a lot of saber rattling,” Hersh says. “So we said, ‘You can have the car on one condition: Mike Tyson gets the car himself.’ Which he couldn’t do because he didn’t know how to drive stick. Our offer was declined. That was Raoul’s creation.”

Some of Felder’s other celebrity clients read like they belong on the Hollywood Exes Walk of Fame: Elizabeth Taylor’s ex, Larry Fortensky; Liza Minnelli’s ex, David Gest; Luciana Morad, the mother of Mick Jagger’s seventh child; the exes of Anthony Quinn, Johnny Carson and Christie Brinkley. Not to mention power brokers like Rudy Giuliani. As his client list grew, Felder developed a reputation for courtroom showmanship, snappy dialogue in front of the cameras and a flamboyant, even arrogant, public persona.

“I’m the hot game in town,” Felder bragged to Time magazine in 1989 after surpassing longtime rival Marvin Mitchelson as the country’s most famous divorce lawyer. It was only months after he nabbed Givens from Mitchelson as a client.

“He’s created a distinct personality which I think has been helpful ultimately to his clients,” says Denny Young, former counsel to the mayor of New York City and a lawyer at Giuliani Partners. “The public sees him as a certain character that’s gotten a lot of notoriety for a lot of different reasons. There’s a judgment to be made there, about how successful he’s been as a lawyer and as a person [because of that persona].”

Others have less complimentary things to say about Felder. They claim that he’s a publicity hound, that he takes on too many clients and passes off most of the work to the eight associates in his firm, and that, for him, it’s more about media attention than nitty-gritty legal work or the clients’ best interests.

“The media call upon him, they look for good sound bites that’s he’s very good at, want the provocative comment or proverbial quips, but it can be a double-edged sword,” says Gary Newman, of Newman, McDonough, Schofel & Giger of Roseland, N.J., who also helped try the Tyson-Givens case and is currently co-representing Joumana Kidd with Felder in her divorce against the New Jersey Nets’ Jason Kidd.

Most recently, Felder drew invective for penning a book titled Schmucks! with longtime friend Jackie Mason, which detractors say is racist and full of questionable comments, such as equating “allegedly” with “guilty,” and saying affirmative action is the most insidious thing in the nation. Gov. Spitzer and the other commissioners of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, on which Felder has served since 2003, quickly demanded that he step down as chairman, and they stripped him of some of his power, including the ability to speak or sign letters for the commission.

“When you have taken responsibility for investigating alleged ethical lapses by judges, you don’t go around saying, ‘Anytime you hear the word ‘allegedly,’ you can bet it’s true,’” a Daily News editorial opined. “There should never be a reason to question the fairness of the chairman of the Judicial Conduct Commission. Having made a joke of himself, Felder should make his punch line: I quit.”

Felder shrugs off the criticism as professional jealousy and says that the committee won’t even challenge him in court. He refuses to step down from his post, saying it’s a First Amendment issue.

“If I was a failure, I would have all friends and not have any enemies,” he says.

Mason is more loquacious.

“Does that mean a guy can’t be a detective or a cop and catch crooks because you don’t like his opinions about Social Security?” he says. “What’s the one thing have to do with the other?” 

As for the controversy? “I don’t really give him advice,” Mason says. “He knows exactly what the situation is. He sees it the same way I do. We talk about it here and there, saying how ridiculous the whole thing is. He’s shocked by it.”

Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, the book sold surprisingly well, making its way onto the The New York Times Best Seller list, and HarperCollins has asked for a second volume, which Mason and Felder are working on.

Friends say critics don’t understand the difference between Felder the public figure and Felder the man. Some are lawyers who shouldn’t be throwing stones, according to Eleanor Alter, who has faced off against Felder in countless cases over the last 30 years.

“A lot of people call [gossip columnist] Cindy Adams and give her inside stuff,” Alter says. “Raoul certainly isn’t the only one, though he’s more upfront about it. The others do it and don’t admit to it. They’ll say, ‘It’s a terrible thing Raoul’s doing,’ but they’re doing it themselves.”

And too many people focus on the celebrity aspect of Felder’s career when it’s only a small part of his practice, others say.

“Actually, it’s the nonfamous thing I think about when I think Raoul,” says former New York City police commissioner Howard Safir. “I’ll call Raoul and say, ‘I know this young woman who can’t afford a good divorce attorney,’ and with no publicity, no fanfare, he’ll take care of the case without charge. I’ve seen him do that a couple of times. You never hear about that side of Raoul Felder.” 

Indeed, Felder seems far from boastful nowadays, sitting in a Madison Avenue office surrounded by the dusty knickknacks of four decades of life in the limelight. He seems more interested in talking about the new biography of his brother, Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, than his own book. 

“We were very close—we lived in the same room for 21 years,” Felder says of his brother, who died in 1991. “I called him twice every day.”

As for the secret to his success? Felder’s answer is almost wistful.

“Longevity’s one thing,” he says. “I’ve lasted longer than all of them. Mitchelson, the rest, they’re all dead. And I like to think that after all these years I have a sixth sense about where cases should be settled.”

His style, he says, has become more low-key, less confrontational and more about negotiating the appropriate compensation for each side.

“Twenty years ago, it was always about testosterone,” he says. “But what you learn with age is that there’s no right or wrong, they’re mostly good people. It’s so sad that much of a life is acquiring and fighting to keep what you acquired. Money’s the propelling force in society, but I don’t see how you can have a moral society based on [such] a principle.” 

Once again, the conversation leads away from law and to his brother and the many artists in his family. A cousin, Bernard Wiseman, was a cartoonist for The New Yorker. His son is an NYU professor and children’s TV writer, while his daughter is a music consultant for AOL.

Felder is writing his own autobiography, though it’s slow going. “I’m into chapter seven. I’m not even born yet,” he says. With that, the Schmucks! sequel and other projects, Felder plans to devote more time to writing.

“I’ve always had a creative bent, but I always felt I was on this treadmill to oblivion everyone’s on,” he says. “Now I have time.” 

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