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09.28.11

My Friend Justin Feldman

The New York City lawyer was a giant in the legal community, a trusted Kennedy family adviser, and a seasoned political mind who predicted the financial crisis. But I knew him as so much more.

This past Sunday's lead obituary in The New York Times was about 92-year-old Justin Feldman, a New York City lawyer who had a dramatic impact on the reform of New York City Democratic politics and who was an adviser to the Kennedys. But I knew another Justin, a superb lawyer, a leader of the New York bar, one of the most admired figures in and out of the courthouse, and a dear friend.  How does one write about Justin Feldman without using clichés? With difficulty I will abjure from using phrases like "giant in the legal community," "trusted adviser to presidents and cabinet ministers," "devoted father, beloved husband," "good friend," and the like. They do, of course, all accurately describe him.

Born in 1919, a graduate of Columbia Law School in 1942, Justin was a leader of the New York City bar for 60 years. In the 1950s and '60s, he was a partner of people with names like Dean James Landis, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., and the like. I omit his peregrinations from law firm to law firm, except to report a little-known anecdote: In one of his earliest associations, Justin was the member of a four-man firm, a tight band of brothers each of whom was empowered to write checks on the firm account. But after one of the partners stole the firm's entire capital account —$40,000, big money those days—and absconded to Paris, the crook wrote to his former partners that he was “waiting for things to cool down" before coming back to New York City to square things. Justin replied by telegram, "Don't bother to come back, just send a check."

At times Justin was a solo practitioner, but his talent and personality was such that he was eagerly pursued by lawyers and clients who wanted to be associated with him. There was a time in the 1960s and '70s when every major case in our courts featured Justin as a leading player. What lawyer of a certain age doesn't remember names such as Bernie Cornfeld, Robert Vesco, Crazy Eddie, Franklin National Bank? Justin had a significant role in all of them.

I remember my first exposure to him. I was a mid-level associate in a major case, in a room full of prominent members of the local bar. There must have been 8 to 10 lawyers at the table, but the group looked to Justin for the plan, the way out, the winning strategy, whatever. And he delivered. He commanded those meetings with a combination of intelligence, common sense, and innate decency that made him attractive to allies and adversaries alike. Everybody listened to Justin not only because he was smart, but also because he was so reasonable, his judgment was impeccable; he was the unspoken consensual captain of any ship on which he served.

When the country lost Jack Kennedy, then Robert Kennedy, we also lost Justin Feldman as a national leader.

Want to know how smart Justin was? This will blow your mind: in 2004—2004!—the SEC asked some senior lawyers who had practiced before the agency to come in and share their views on the workings of the commission over the past five decades, what they were doing right, what they were doing wrong. Two elements stand out in Justin’s interview. In 2004, on the record, he warned the SEC about derivatives. He said, "Nobody, nobody understands them. The accounting firms don't report on the risks. There is no disclosure about what these things are and how risky they are." He compared the derivative trading to "betting on the third race at Belmont." In that same interview, Justin warned against the movement toward excessive compensation of corporate executives.

Wow. All of this in 2004, four years before our country's economic and political geniuses came to the same conclusion as they watched the collapse of the house of cards built with derivatives designed by overpaid riverboat gamblers. It can fairly be said we struggle now because we did not listen to Justin Feldman then.

Then there is Justin the "pol." He had a keen understanding of politics, both national and local. He was close to the Kennedy family, advised both the president and his brother Robert, and, as everybody knew, was slated to have a major role in Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign, and then, if the election was won, his administration. When the country lost Jack Kennedy, then Robert Kennedy, we also lost Justin Feldman as a national leader. To the day he passed away, Justin knew and intuited more about politics than anyone I knew. I was not alone. In 2009, a political reporter called him "the wisest political analyst I know."

For many years, I knew Justin as a distinguished leader of the bar but nothing about his personal life, other than that he was divorced. Some time in the early '80s, while my wife Pinks and I were attending a Federal Bar Council retreat in the Caribbean, I spied legal giant Justin Feldman strutting across the beach wearing a skimpy Speedo. I guess it was a bathing suit because it was a bright color. Had it been white, I would have called it a jockstrap. Justin was, simply put, preening. I thought I was watching a peacock doing a mating dance. I was correct.  He walked directly over to a stunning blond woman nearby and sat down. In but a few minutes, we were introduced to the object of Justin's amorous display, the gorgeous and talented Linda Fairstein. The four of us have been tight friends from that moment to this one.

Justin had used his status to good advantage. As chair of the city bar's powerful judiciary committee, he paid careful attention when the attractive head of Robert Morgenthau's sex-crimes bureau attended her first meeting as a member of the committee. You would not be surprised to learn he took her for drink that evening. I told you he was smart. They were married in 1987.

After that, we frequently saw what I keep thinking of as "the young couple" here in the city, in St. Barth's, and at Justin and Linda's lovely farmhouse on Martha's Vineyard, where Justin was known as the unofficial mayor of Chilmark. He knew everything about Vineyard affairs, and anyone with any sense consulted Justin before they bought, sold, rented, or renovated anything on the island. He knew every inch of that place. One scene sticks in my memory as if it happened yesterday. Pinks and I, each summer, would visit Linda and Justin on the Vineyard by motoring there from East Hampton in our 25-foot fishing boat. One year we were enveloped in a thick fog bank as we approached Menemsha Harbor. I was able to find and enter the harbor and pick up Justin at the gas dock just inside the breakwater, but we needed to go from there up a narrow creek into a pond where the boat was to be anchored. "Up a creek" was a fair description of our situation, because in the tight confines of that twisting waterway, my very basic radar unit was useless. I was all for tying the boat up to the gas dock and calling a cab.

Justin would not hear of it. He did not own a boat but instantly became the captain of mine. He stood at the prow, and using hand signals, piloted us through corkscrew turns to the pond anchorage, where the fair Linda was waiting on the dock with a thermos full of gin and tonic. I have no idea how Justin accomplished that navigational marvel. When I asked him, he just smiled, said, "I dunno Marty, I just knew." 

Nobody is perfect, and there is some scandal in Justin’s life. It appears that Justin was, in the 1980s, a member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and as was recently revealed in hard-hitting investigation by a fearless New York attorney general, and exposed by the ever-vigilant New York Post, members of the MTA, past and present, had been given free subway passes! Free subway passes! No wonder the state was drowning in debt! The forces of righteousness eventually won out, and Justin was required to surrender his subway pass. I never discussed it with him because I knew it was a painful subject—I knew how much, especially recently, he wanted that subway pass.

The last few years were physically difficult for Justin—a range of debilitating physical conditions, surgeries, long hospital stays. But his spirit was indomitable. His brain was as sharp on day last as it ever was. He knew his time was coming, and he dealt with it with toughness, grace, and humor.

Several years ago, at the funeral of Linda's beloved mother, Bobbie, Justin, who had just recovered from one of his several heart surgeries, whispered to me, "Marty, I could have sworn that the next funeral I would attend would be mine." He delivered the line with a smile, and when I chuckled appreciatively, he was so encouraged by my reaction I thereafter heard him repeat the line to two or three other groups of mourners. I realized I had been the test audience—he was trying out the line, and when it was well received, he incorporated it into his shtick.

This past June, Pinks and I had a pizza dinner with Justin and Linda at their apartment before they left for what was to be his last trip to his beloved Vineyard. Though physically frail, his opinions about national and state politics and political figures were right on, up to date, acute, enlightened, and enlightening. He was still my go-to guy when I needed to understand how things worked and why political leaders did what they did. My visits with Justin always left me not only better informed, but feeling better about life. Always.

I have barely mentioned, until now, the light that shone upon Justin in the last 25 years of his life. I refer, of course, to Linda. What a relationship. They adored each other. She doted on him, and cared for him. She spoiled him rotten, and he loved it. They basked in the warmth of their relationship. To spend an evening with Linda and Justin was to be included in that magic circle of love and fellowship and trust and intelligence and humor and all kinds of good stuff. They played off each other in some indefinable way, a union that was simply far more than the sum of their individual personalities. Justin loved the doting. When he complained that she was denying him the second, or third Scotch before dinner, he would, when no else was looking, give me a smile or wink, telling me what I already knew: he was all shtick.

But when it came to Linda's writing, Justin was Linda's timekeeper and taskmaster; he pushed her mercilessly when his illnesses caused her to fall behind in her writing schedule. He was her legal adviser, editor, and, of course, walk-on extra in her novels, where she always found a way to describe him as one of New York's leading litigators. And whatever else was in the book, that line was not fiction.

Justin has left an indelible mark on the minds of all who knew him. A heroic figure. We were all lucky to be included in his circle.