Raoul Felder Scores KO in Givens-Tyson Bout : New York Divorce Lawyer Specializes in Knockdown, Drag-Out Cases
Raoul Lionel Felder, who charges $450 an hour to guide wealthy celebrities through nasty divorces, considers himself something of an expert on the female psyche.
“A woman is like a Stradivarius violin,” he says. “The humidity has to be right to play it. Otherwise, they’ll throw in the towel.”
The bearded, soft-spoken lawyer is a virtuoso when it comes to plucking this instrument, the grief-stricken wife (he does a few riffs on famous husbands as well).
As his roster of rich clients has grown--Robin Givens, Lisa Gastineau, Nancy Capasso, Brian De Palma, Mrs. Frank Gifford, Mrs. Joseph Heller, Mrs. Carl Sagan, Mrs. Martin Scorsese, Mrs. Alan Jay Lerner, to name-drop just a few--Raoul Felder has all but eclipsed Marvin Mitchelson as the world’s most prominent and well-publicized matrimonial lawyer.
Felder, 54, scored a rare triple knockout last month when he took on Givens’ 15-round divorce from heavyweight champ Mike Tyson. One, Givens recruited him after unceremoniously dumping Mitchelson. Two, it was the first case for his newly formed “tri-coastal” practice, a controversial alliance with lawyers in California, Florida and New Jersey. Finally, it brought Felder a new flood of headlines, and he announced a settlement in a matter of days.
That, of course, was only the beginning. Felder, who has never seen the actress in person, kept trading verbal blows with Tyson’s California lawyer, and last week he filed a $125-million libel suit against Tyson on Givens’ behalf. With each passing day, Felder seemed to move closer to the center of the story. And that, Felder’s detractors say, is typical of this sharp-tongued lawyer whose profile is so high he employs his own public relations man.
“He is the absolute best at a lot of things,” says Robert Dobrish, a Manhattan lawyer who handles big-time divorces. “I don’t think one of those is lawyering. . . . Most of the lawyers who are good in this field relish the idea of going up against Felder.”
“Raoul’s a showman,” says Peter Bronstein, another top-drawer divorce lawyer. “I don’t want the kind of publicity that Raoul gets. Raoul is willing to say just about anything (in public) about his clients, and I’m not.”
But Felder’s adversaries treat him gingerly, perhaps with good reason. Norman Sheresky, a prominent New York lawyer, was recently quoted in a Miami newspaper as saying that Felder “pretends to be a trial lawyer when he is not. He has no familiarity with how to try a case.” Felder promptly hit Sheresky with a $7-million libel suit.
Felder may be a tad defensive about his reputation in the closed, catty world of matrimonial lawyers, but for the most part he is comfortable with his persona, his nine-lawyer practice and his courtroom skills.
“I am a crackerjack trial lawyer,” he declares. “If there’s no beef in the hamburger, they ain’t gonna buy the hamburger.”
He particularly relishes opposing the blue-chip Manhattan firms, many of which have started matrimonial departments as the field has become increasingly lucrative.
“They’re not equipped for it,” Felder says. “It’s like a rhinoceros making love. . . . They’re overpaid and they over-bill.”
A Lover of Money
Felder makes no pretense about his own love of money. He owns 350 suits. He keeps a gray Rolls-Royce uptown and a red Porsche downtown. He has one apartment on Fifth Avenue and another atop the Museum of Modern Art, along with a home in the Hamptons that he rarely visits.
Still, he likes to say that he turns down four out of five people who want his services.
“I always tell them, ‘What do you need us for?’ There’s no magic here. . . . Trial skills for the most part are not necessary. You don’t have to be Justice Cardozo in this field. You’re better off with a family lawyer from a neighborhood somewhere who’s going to sit with you and kvetch with you and schlep around and listen to you cry for 15 minutes.”
At Felder’s rates, that cry would cost $112.50.
He arrives at his 30th-floor Madison Avenue office each day about 6 a.m. This day, he’s lounging around in a white cardigan with a big blue “R” on it. The spacious room is populated by a large china lion, a battalion of World War I model planes, display cases full of odd knickknacks and, neatly lined up near Felder’s desk, a dozen pairs of different-colored slippers. He once kept a piranha here, but it is gone.
Felder, who owns three guns and once posed for photographers in a safari jacket and hat, seems to cultivate an image of eccentricity.
While other lawyers in a recent New York Times article said it would be unethical to sleep with their clients, Felder said it wouldn’t be such a bad idea because the lawyer could then promote the client’s cause more fervently.
Teller of Tales
Receiving a visitor, Felder combines a professor’s erudite manner with the storyteller’s charm. He loves to tell celebrity stories. How he cross-examined Peter O’Toole. How he debated Tyson’s trainer on Geraldo Rivera. How he escorted Lisa Gastineau (the former wife of the former New York Jet) to Jackie Mason’s book party. How, representing Robin Leach’s wife, he ended up on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
One of his favorite yarns, which appears in many Felder profiles, is the X-rated tale of how he once bested the late Roy Cohn. It seems the wife of a prominent citizen was being forced to do “terrible things” by her new husband. Using a timing device, she captured one sexual act in a Polaroid photo, which Felder blew up into a poster-size picture. When Cohn saw the poster, he immediately settled the divorce.
Pressed about the story, however, Felder is fuzzy on the details. The “terrible” thing doesn’t sound so terrible, nor is it clear why it would be grounds for divorce for a married couple. But Felder has already moved on to the next anecdote.
One reason Felder cherishes the odd cases, he says, is that so many of his clients are downright dull. When the rich split up, he explains, they tend to engage in pointless disputes about who gets the country home, the Mercedes or the Picassos, even though there is plenty of money to make both sides happy.
Seeks Other Diversions
“There’s nobody more boring than someone who’s telling you a story you’ve heard 30 times before, and they think it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. . . . You jump out of your skin,” he says.
So Felder must find other diversions. He has written two books on divorce and does a monthly column for Fame magazine. (“Today,” he writes in his current column, on the legal dangers of adultery, “it seems there’s only one thing left for the true adventurer: cheating on a spouse. For someone with a predilection for peril, cheating has it all--clandestine meetings, cryptic telephone calls, coded messages, risk of discovery, and even the possibility of physical danger. It is the very definition of life on the edge.”)
He is working on a private-eye novel and serves as a director of the Duke Ellington Fund. With little public fanfare, he also funds a Harlem clinic that treats babies born with AIDS.
Felder says the divorce business has been less fun since 1980, when New York joined many other states in making divorces easier to obtain and requiring that marital property be distributed equitably.
Moral Issues Gone
Before that, he says, “divorce had a fault element to it. In a sense you were contesting moral issues. Now we’re a legion of accountants, dealing with depositions and real estate. . . . You’re no longer the champion for the client. You’re a mechanic. If they’re steam-rollered by the system, you’re an instrument of the system.”
But the new law, by putting more of a wealthy husband’s assets at risk, has also been a boon to divorce specialists like Felder.
Myrna Felder, his law partner and wife of 25 years, says her husband “has a great bedside manner. He has that wonderful ability to be very sensitive and supportive of people who are going through this very difficult time.”
Myrna says her husband, who brags about sleeping four hours a night, derives most of his satisfaction from work. Even when she drags him to East Hampton.
“Say we arrive Friday night,” she says. “Saturday at 5 in the morning, I turn over and he’s already working on the work in his briefcase. He is not someone who enjoys vacation time. His mother and father were very much that type, too.”
Born in Depression
Morris and Millie Felder lived in a tenement in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn when Raoul was born at the height of the Depression. Morris Felder was a veterinarian who later became a ghetto lawyer, but he fared poorly in both professions. The marriage, their son says, was a loveless one.
“Particularly in the last years, they didn’t speak,” Felder says. “But in those days, nobody got divorced.”
At first, Felder followed in the paternal footsteps, spending two years at medical school before switching to New York University Law School. In 1963, Myrna Danenberg, a Broadway dancer, hired Felder during a dispute with her agent. They were married a few months later.
Felder handled his first divorce in 1964; it involved a client whose friend--the best man at his wedding--was romancing his wife. Although divorce proceedings were, then as now, closed under state law, this case wound up on Page 3 of the Daily News under the headline “BEST MAN KISSES AND TELLS.” A career was born.
He’s ‘a Victorian’
Myrna Felder, whom many call the best legal scholar in the office, joined the firm in 1971. “He sent me to law school,” she says proudly, adding that her husband is “more of a Victorian than a male chauvinist.” The scenario was replayed when Felder rescued another distraught client, pushed her to attend law school and then hired her at the firm. “He saved my life,” says Jeanne Wilmot Carter.
Raoul Felder, who admits feeling guilty about not spending more time with his two teen-age children, says he is lucky his wife works down the hall. “My wife is my severest critic. . . . If it weren’t for my marriage, I’d be a crazy person,” he says.
When Felder announced his new “tri-coastal” divorce service, he didn’t want the occasion to go unnoticed. So he invited 350 of his closest friends to Elaine’s for a noisy celebration.
The legal establishment, however, was less enthusiastic about the venture. Some spoilsports noted that Felder is not a member of the bar in California, Florida or New Jersey and could not appear in state proceedings without permission from the judge involved.
“I’m somewhat cynical about the use of (Felder’s) name in representing clients in other states, because I really don’t think the clients are going to get him,” says competitor Dobrish, who chairs the matrimonial committee of the New York County Lawyers Assn.
“Felder’s got so many cases, is making so much money, that he couldn’t possibly be servicing all those cases. He takes the case in and assigns it to one of his younger attorneys.”
Many Are Jealous
Peter Bronstein calls Felder “a man you can do business with” and says “a lot of people are jealous of him.” But he cautions that “someone retaining Raoul should be careful to discuss in advance who’s going to be handling the case.”
Felder, complaining that lawyers are “a self-devouring breed,” insists he is careful not to mislead clients.
“There isn’t a legal paper that goes out of here that I don’t review,” he says. “The clients know exactly where I’m coming from. I tell them if they want one person to handle the case, it can’t be done.”
Some of Felder’s famous clients give him rave reviews.
Eleanor Revson, former wife of cosmetics heir Martin Revson, credits Felder with winning her a share of the couple’s $6-million Fifth Avenue apartment.
“He was very sympathetic and very sensitive,” says Revson, who says she hired Felder after dropping Mitchelson. “He personally attended to just about everything that was going on. I could call him at home. Sometimes we worked all weekend.”
Publicity Rules Life
Nancy Capasso, whose bitter split from a millionaire sewer contractor is now the subject of the Bess Myerson divorce-fixing trial, says of Felder: “He was kind of charming. . . . I was hysterical, and he was very good at calming me down.” But, she adds, “publicity is the most important thing in his life.”
Capasso fired Felder when he refused to seek the removal of her divorce judge, Hortense Gabel, who is now on trial with Myerson. Felder says he did not have enough evidence against Gabel at the time. Later, he was stung by the disclosure that he had called a client to help find an apartment for Judge Gabel’s daughter Sukhreet, although the judge was no longer hearing divorces at the time. In any event, when Nancy Capasso appealed her divorce, she rehired Felder.
Between Felder and some former clients, no love is lost. He calls producer David Merrick, for one, “a difficult, impossible man. A terrible human being. A mean guy.”
Says Merrick: “I do not understand why Mr. Felder has said such unpleasant things about me, except that he may be disappointed that I fired him.” (Felder says he voluntarily withdrew as the lawyer for Merrick’s estate--Merrick was recovering from a stroke at the time--because he was feuding with the presiding judge.)
William Goodstein, who subsequently became Merrick’s lawyer, also felt Felder’s ire. He says Felder ordered him out of adjoining offices he had been subletting and, when Goodstein didn’t vacate quickly enough, sued him.
“I think Raoul was disappointed that he had been discharged by the Merricks and I had been hired in his place,” Goodstein says. Felder describes the disagreement as minor.
In another case, Goodstein says, he took on a custody dispute for free after the client “told me that Felder had refused to continue representing her because she had run out of money.”
Felder says he drops only a “very small” percentage of clients for non-payment.
Dobrish, who has picked up a few of Felder’s ex-clients, calls them “victims of Felderism--you sell yourself in the beginning as a giant, then you sell the client short at the end because you’re less than a giant. You can’t produce any of the things you’ve promised.”
But even his critics agree that Felder shifts into overdrive for high-octane clients such as Robin Givens. And the Givens-Tyson melodrama has quickly become the quintessential Felder case: bitter, bombastic and big bucks.
The messy public breakup had already gone several rounds when Felder took over last month as the actress’ strategist and spokesman. He quickly called a news conference to announce an end to the hostilities.
Mindful of the public perception of Givens as a money-hungry opportunist, Felder solemnly read a statement in which Givens renounced any part of Tyson’s $20 million fortune--even though, he said, Tyson’s lawyers were about to offer her a “substantial” settlement.
When skeptical reporters insisted Givens must have a hidden agenda, Felder declared: “She wants nothing from nothing, to use a New York phrase.”
Immediately, Felder found himself in conflict with opposing counsel.
Accused of Misrepresentation
“Felder called me and demanded $8 million the day before she said she didn’t want anything,” says Howard Weitzman, Tyson’s lawyer. “This guy’s running a campaign based on falsehoods. He’s inclined to misrepresentation over and over again.”
Felder professes astonishment at Weitzman’s account.
“I swear by my children, it’s an absolute lie,” he says. “I would have expected more from the guy, but I’m not going to rise to the bait.”
Although the divorce battle quickly bogged down in new disputes over who was entitled to what, many people congratulated Felder--wrongly, he says--for refurbishing the tattered Givens image.
“Everyone said I did it, I planned it, I rehabilitated her, but it wasn’t so,” he says. “She really didn’t want to make money on the marriage.”
New Round of Litigation
One day after making those comments, Felder filed the $125-million libel suit on Givens’ behalf. Felder was back in the news with fresh jabs at the heavyweight champion. Stories about Robin the Gold Digger were back. And a new round of costly litigation was ensured.
Felder sees no inconsistency with Givens’ earlier I-don’t-want-a-dime stance, saying it is a question of protecting her “personal dignity.” The day after the lawsuit, however, he came up with a new line.
“This $125 million, she’s not going to keep,” Felder says. “She’s going to donate it to charity.” To mention this earlier, he says, would have been “in poor taste.”
As for the less than tasteful suggestion that he might be making a quick buck on the 23-year-old starlet, Felder is reassuring. “We are going to be extremely modest in whatever the legal bills are here,” he says.
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