10 times bigger than life

At first, it hurt too much to look at his girls. Isabelle had just turned 3, and Emma was 1. He thought of them growing into teenagers and then women, their memories of their father evaporating in the fog of early childhood. He'd survive as a disembodied name on their mother's lips, a wheelchair-bound stranger in family photos, a fable.

Jeff Rawitz, top-flight criminal defense attorney, partner in one of the world's largest law firms, weighed his options. He could make a video memorial. He'd look into the camera and tell stories and offer advice. But his voice was mostly gone, and he was sure he'd be crying the whole time. He didn't want his daughters to remember him that way.

No, he decided, he'd do what he always did. He'd go big. He'd confront his extinction as he would any impossible case, with bared teeth and bluster and meticulous preparation.

He asked his nurse to go to the computer. Then he asked her to type out the names and e-mail addresses of 10 men.

"Bigger-than-life characters," he called them, by which he meant he thought they resembled him. They were friends from childhood in Roslyn, N.Y. They were buddies from college in Albany and law school at Boston University. They were colleagues from his 10 years at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and from his subsequent years in private practice. They were confidants from all points in between.

Now, he intended to bind them all inextricably for life. Some of the West Coast guys didn't know some of the East Coast guys, and he wanted to see them all in the same room at least once. He began making plans for a black-tie gathering at the Soho Grand, a boutique Manhattan hotel.

In his mind, he had it carefully scripted: a dying man in a wheelchair surrounded by friends who would swear the equivalent of a blood oath. He set a date. He extracted promises of attendance. He booked tickets.

::

Most days, he was the first attorney to arrive, pulling his rolling litigation bag unsteadily across the marble floor of the federal courthouse in Santa Ana. He'd been rising at 5:30 a.m. because it took him two hours to get into his suits. The walk from his BMW to court, which should have taken two minutes, took 20.

When people asked about the terrible limp he'd developed and why he couldn't hold a pen with his left hand, he explained what he knew: that he had jumped off a friend's yacht and landed awkwardly in the water, injuring his back. But he didn't dwell on it, because he knew most lawyers never got a case as big as U.S.A. vs. Carona, and the trial had already been delayed once by his spinal surgery.

Friends called him JR. He loved fine cigars, expensive port and the decorum of federal courtrooms, where his brashness stood out.

He'd wanted to be a lawyer since he was 5, and the decades had unfolded according to plan. At 45, he was a partner at Jones Day. He'd married relatively late, at nearly 40, after a bachelorhood of Mardi Gras and rooftop bars and Vegas vacations. His bride was a friend's au pair — blond, French, a decade and a half younger than him.

Now he was representing former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona at his corruption trial. "We're gonna shock the world on this," he'd been telling friends, and they smiled, sure the case was a loser.

As always, he was prepared. It fell to him to destroy the prosecution's star witness. The weapons he needed, his mind and his voice, were still serviceable, and though he had to strain to project his voice, 20-hour days were making everyone else hoarse too. The judge allowed him to sit at the defense table as he fired questions hour after hour, his tone ranging from battering sarcasm to full-throated incredulity.

His manner was so relentless, his bluster so unflappable, that people forgot he was not 100%. Deep into the trial, huddled with other lawyers at a strategy session, his legs buckled and he fell to the floor.

"He's not supposed to be someone you have to help off the ground," said colleague Kiki Coates. "He was ordering us around like he had no disability at all. And then all of a sudden, we all thought, 'Wow, he's really dealing with something.'"

Only after it was over in January 2009 — after four months of trial, 58 witnesses and acquittal on most counts — did he ask for some time off, to figure out what was wrong with him.

When he turned 46 that September, the numbness in his limbs was accompanied by another ominous symptom. His speech was slurred so badly it couldn't be attributed to courtroom overuse. The instrument he used to persuade and cajole and win was dying in his throat. It was harder and harder to make himself understood. Maybe it's the muscle relaxants, he thought.

He was too weak to return to his 47th-floor office with its master-of-the-universe view. He felt so little like his image of himself — raucous, life-of-the-room Rawitz — that he stopped returning friends' calls.

What's happening to me? he kept demanding of his doctors, and around Christmastime a specialist told him: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Lou Gehrig's disease. The nerve cells of his brain and spinal cord were withering, choking off the messages to his muscles. It would become progressively harder to swallow or breathe, and then impossible. His mind would be unaffected, leaving him to behold clear-headedly the world and the people he'd already begun to leave.

His mother, Sue, was with him when he got the diagnosis, and she watched his face crumble.

He was caught flat-footed, the man trained to anticipate every curveball, the lawyer who had risen to the top through the painstaking, off-stage detail work that reduced surprises to an absolute minimum. Everyone knows the lawyer's saying: Never ask a witness a question if you don't already know the answer.

Now he had an answer to which there was no rejoinder, no appeal.

He began to prepare.

::

The message he dictated to his 10 friends was just three paragraphs long. He began by telling them he loved them. Then he asked them to be godfathers to his daughters.

Jim Beecher was a tomato kingpin with 10,000 acres of Fresno farmland. Chris DeWolfe co-founded MySpace. John Cunningham ran a large communications consulting firm. Others were lawyers and real estate players and businessmen. They were guys he'd partied with, grown up with, browbeaten, done favors for, kept secrets for.

He wasn't asking for their money, he explained, nor just that they send his daughters presents on their birthdays. He wanted them to give the girls their time and guidance, to steer them through life.

"If that's all the friends they have, they'll be fine," he said, sitting in the living room of his Manhattan Beach home in March, his big frame shriveled, his voice a gasp in his throat. "If they need a connection, they can get it."

His 3-year-old, Isabelle, liked to wear a tiara and call herself Princess Bella. She would act out the story of Cinderella, assigning her father the role of the prince. Sometimes he was helped into the pool, where she and Emma, 1, clung to his back.

Now and then, his nurse lifted them onto his lap and turned the pages of Dr. Seuss while he struggled to shape the words. They didn't seem to care how he sounded. "My children are beautiful," he said. "They don't know I'm sick. They crawl all over me."

He expected his wife to take the girls to her native France after he was gone. He thought of them growing up there and forgetting him. The godfathers would help them remember.

He expected that the men would fulfill their roles in different ways. "I trust them," he said. "It's a powerful, lifelong commitment."

In ordinary circumstances, he understood, even a dead man's closest friends often lost touch with the surviving wife and children. He knew good intentions faded as the years wore on and people were sucked back into their own busy lives.

His handpicked cast of guardians was a counterforce, however frail and imperfect, against time and human nature. And the ceremony he imagined at the Soho Grand, all 10 men dressed to the nines, would consecrate it.

The date was set for the third week in April. Meanwhile, the godfathers took turns flying to California to see him. They couldn't shake his hand, and he couldn't return a hug. But his eyes were still bright and full of expression, his smile alive. He gave away things to remember him by. Silk ties, cowboy boots, a gold pocketwatch, an inlaid humidor his own father had passed on.

Even as he grew more helpless, his bluster was undiminished. "I'm an important person — Google me," he told his physical therapist. He contacted his old friend Andre Birotte, recently appointed U.S. attorney for California's Central District, about the possibility of serving as his advisor. "I'll be more powerful than ever," he bragged.

In quieter moments, he explained that he was distracting himself from the inevitable. "If I think about it, it's petrifying," he said. "Sometimes I sit in my room and cry. The idea that I won't be there for my kids …."

In late March, at an ALS fundraiser at the Jones Day building, his nurse wheeled him into a room crowded with a Who's Who of the city's legal powerhouses, nearly 200 men and women who had come to honor him. He'd planned the event from his wheelchair, even lining up the caterer.

He played a recording of Lou Gehrig's Yankee Stadium farewell, in which the ballplayer called himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Afterward, Rawitz said: "I was the most talented lawyer in that room."

The date approached for the gathering of the godfathers he had planned so meticulously. Some of them said, hopefully: This is JR. He'll swim there if he has to. But he was too weak for a cross-country trip, and there was little surprise when he sent word calling it off.

::

McSorley's Old Ale House is a storied, sawdust-floor bar where Rawitz liked to gather with friends when he was in Manhattan. People are pouring in all afternoon and into the evening, fresh from the memorial service. It's June 17, four days after his death.

A man is more than the sum of the stories his best friends tell about him, but maybe, years from now, Rawitz's daughters will hear an echo of him in the lore exchanged amid the sounds of laughter and beer mugs slamming on nicked wooden tables.

They'll hear about the time Rawitz stuck some of them with a $2,000 restaurant bill because he'd secretly ordered top-drawer tequila shots for the whole room. About the way he watched pro football as a young man and insisted he'd be a pro himself someday, with such conviction it was impossible to know whether he believed it. How he insisted on playing 100-point games of one-on-one basketball, because he could win by outlasting you.

And maybe they'll hear how John Cunningham went around the bar distributing T-shirts that read "Genovese Sucks — JR," Rawitz's friendly beyond-the-grave dig at his best friend, a New York real estate man named Joe Genovese. They'll hear how he would have approved of all this, and how, if he were here, he would have tried to raise the stakes, to go bigger.

Rawitz had envisioned all 10 godfathers at the bar, toasting. He gave explicit instructions to do that, in fact. Seven of them have managed to make it.

It's not the kind of thing to say aloud just now, but some of the men privately wonder how long it will last, this godfather business. How many of the others will keep their promises five or 10 years from now.

Amid the clamor, reserved, scholarly Warrington Parker, a San Francisco lawyer and a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, sits against the wall spitting tobacco into an aluminum can. When they met at the U.S. attorney's office as young prosecutors, Rawitz liked to call him King of the Nerds for his bowties and science-fiction paperbacks, and Parker wondered how a guy he barely knew felt he could enter his office and insult him.

Then Rawitz shocked Parker with his generosity in helping him prepare, question by question, for the cross-examination of a murder defendant. "That was the moment I knew this is someone who is as close to me, if not closer, than the people in my family," Parker would recall. "He taught me what a friendship could be."

Tonight in the bar, watching all these pieces of his friend whirl around the room, Parker is surprised at the instant familiarity he feels with the other godfathers, men he's linked to for life.

He's meeting some of them for the first time and it's happening without sliced palms or solemn ceremonies. Instead, among the beer-soaked reminiscences, there is talk of mundane logistics: how to coordinate visits to the girls, in the same way they took turns visiting Rawitz in his last months. "We should get an e-mail chain going," Parker says.

Later that night, Parker thinks about it and says, "You'll never see all 10 godfathers together. It'll never happen." He thinks Rawitz would have been OK with that, because they'd taken their oaths in their own ways, and because the man knew life is always messier than you could prepare for. "That's what was beautiful about him."

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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