Chronicling the Complexities of a 'Double Life' : Literature: Linda Wolfe's latest book explores the affair between New York's top judge and his socialite mistress.

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It was the first week back from the beach, the week of Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah and fall preview guides in the magazines, and for most of the New York literati nibbling pinky-sized duck rolls in tamarind sauce this was, as they happily explained, "the first book party of the season."

Many were friends of the honoree, Linda Wolfe. Several had even read her new work, "Double Life: The Shattering Affair Between Chief Judge Sol Wachtler and Socialite Joy Silverman" (Pocket Books).

Those who hadn't surely knew the story.

Two years ago, the New York papers were filled with it. He was the powerful leader of the state's top court, a likely candidate for governor. She had raised so much money for George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign that Bush had nominated her, without diplomatic credentials or experience, to be ambassador to Barbados. (The nomination was dropped.)

In November, 1992, the FBI nabbed the chief judge. For months, the long-married Wachtler had been stalking his ex-lover, Silverman, disguising his voice on the phone, mailing coarse threats from distant cities, posing as a fat, toothless gumshoe from Houston and as an Irish Catholic housewife from New Jersey.

He pleaded guilty to threatening to kidnap Silverman's daughter and, a year ago, entered federal prison.

In late August, he was moved to a halfway house in Brooklyn--just in time for the release of Wolfe's book. That put Wachtler, who looks to be cruising toward a lucrative new career in real estate, and Silverman back in the papers. And with the New York Post reporting Silverman's claim that she is again receiving harassing calls, there was plenty to dish at the party.

"Sol Wachtler? It was as if, in California, this happened with Gov. Brown Sr. He had that kind of respect, that status," commented one guest--a New York City political insider who spoke freely, but "not for attribution." He said he knew both Sol and Joy.

The party, it turned out, had its own double life. Stirred in with the publishing familiars was a healthy spritz of figures from the drama itself. For them, the insider said, "maybe it's like a wake or a funeral. People laugh and reminisce."

And spin: Here was Wachtler's therapist, Dr. Sanford Solomon, praising his patient's recovery and blaming drugs for the chief judge's misdeeds.

Here was Michael Chertoff, who prosecuted the case as a U.S. attorney, insisting that "the guy was responsible for what he did--there is no excuse."

And here was Dick Simons, Joy Silverman's first husband. Deeply tan, silver-bearded, with a diamond stud next to the tiny gold hoop in his left ear, flanked by two buxom "lady friends" dripping in rhinestones, Simons piqued the curiosity of dowdy editorial types. He swirled his white wine and denied (as he does in the book) that Silverman's boudoir technique was as inspired as Sol Wachtler seems to have thought.

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A few days after the party, Wolfe explained her guest list: "I thought it would be amusing to have these people who are in the book suddenly materialize. How often is it that characters you read about come to life at a party?"

Wolfe, a husky-voiced denizen of Manhattan's bookishly bourgeois Upper West Side, has been plumbing the mysteries of middle- and upper-class crime for nearly two decades. She set her sights on the Wachtler affair, she recalled, "the minute it happened."

"I knew it was my story," she said. "I felt it had my name on it. All my work had led up to it. And I wanted to do a book on it."

She started out as a graduate student in literature, not a crime reporter. In the late 1950s, she worked in the rarefied atmosphere of Partisan Review, New York's seminal intellectual journal, then moved to Time Inc., researching and writing. She wrote short stories as well as an anthology-cookbook called "The Literary Gourmet."

All the while, she clipped crime reports from newspapers. She thought they would help her to plot fiction.

In 1977 Wolfe had "what I will always think of, though this will sound callous, as the 'good fortune' of knowing somebody involved in the kind of story I had been clipping," she said.

A pair of twins, both prominent gynecologists, had killed themselves. One had been her doctor, briefly, years before. She sold her investigation of the double suicide to New York magazine. Then she based a novel, "Private Practices," on the brothers' creepy lives, taking a pregnant patient's point of view. (It became the movie "Dead Ringers" starring Jeremy Irons in 1988.)

"But by that time," she recalled, "I had been bitten by the bug of actuality. From '77 on, I began concentrating on crime, real things that had happened, always with a deep psychological probing. I'm more interested in what went before and what comes after than in the actual crime itself."

She wrote about a mother who killed her two children, then herself. She wrote about an anthropologist who manufactured illegal drugs on the side. She wrote about a physician who disappeared, and a professor who fell in love with, then murdered, a prostitute.

In 1989, she published her first book-length crime story. "Wasted: The Preppie Murder" traces the grim family histories of Jennifer Levin, a bar-hopping New York teen-ager, and Robert Chambers, who killed her during a sexual encounter in Central Park.

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The same attention to context characterizes "Double Life." Wolfe set out to investigate the newly moneyed milieu and complexly intertwined families of Sol Wachtler and Joy Silverman, whose story she calls, quoting a friend, "a Jewish 'Dallas.' "

Dick Simons, the ex, was key to Wolfe's research. Now a Florida investor, Simons grew up in the same Long Island social circles as Wachtler and Silverman. "He was a wealth of stories," Wolfe said, "not just about Joy, but about the family and the story I wanted to tell: Where did these people come from? What made both Wachtler and Joy into the kind of greedy, ambitious people that they turned into?"

Wolfe located Simons a few months after Wachtler's arrest. Other players followed, including one of Wachtler's grown daughters. At last, apparently swayed by an earlier Wolfe piece on a manic-depressive murderer, Sol Wachtler and his wife, Joan, agreed to talk. Wachtler brought along piles of material relating to his case.

The interviews, in July, 1993, came between his guilty plea and sentencing, just before what Wolfe, in "Double Life," calls "an enormous publicity campaign." Wachtler spent that summer telling reporters how mental illness and sexual victimhood had driven him to outrageous revenge. (Now, his psychiatrist told book-party guests, Wachtler is planning a book, a judge's look at prison from within.)

Silverman, on the other hand, declined to be interviewed. Wolfe had expected to write a book sympathetic to her. "I had once been stalked by an ex-lover and it was a very, very scary experience," she said.

She based her depiction of Silverman's experience largely on talks with Michael Chertoff, who as a U.S. attorney argued her case. "He was like a voice for her," Wolfe said. Even so, while her Wachtler is a criminal conundrum, her Silverman is a vindictive, voracious shrew seducing the sexually innocent jurist with "a panoply of pleasures."

New York tabloids have reported that Silverman kept mum because she thought she could sell her own book. At the "Double Life" party, the political insider called her silence a tactical flub.

"Joy," he said, "has not made an affirmative defense. Sol, although shattered or embarrassed, has consistently gotten out his point of view. Like the O.J. Simpson trial, it's a P.R. war--and she hasn't kept up her end."

But with "Double Life" in bookstores, and with secondary characters helping Pocket Books out by doing interviews, Silverman has consented to sit with a reporter from the New Yorker, Lucinda Franks. Conspiracy theorists at the party made much of the fact that Franks is married to Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert Morgenthau. (His office declined to comment.)

In her prologue, Wolfe muses that Sol Wachtler's crimes make one wonder "how one could ever again trust one's judgment of one's fellows."

At the party, book and television critic John Leonard said: "As much as Linda's gotten of Wachtler, as much as he cooperated, I still didn't understand."

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