Commentary Magazine


Coming in With Their Hands Up

I’m standing in line for a Coke and a hot dog during halftime at a Bulls-Knicks game when I can’t help eavesdropping on two guys in line just ahead of me. They’re Canadians, as my father, in a helpful code word, used to call Jews—“Not many Canadians here tonight,” he’d say as we entered a restaurant—in their forties, expensively dressed. One of them has what looks like a hundred-dollar haircut, lots of well-curried black curls running down the back of his thick neck onto the collar of a twelve-hundred-dollar Armani suit. The other guy’s short and mostly bald, but with a little ponytail; he’s also wearing at least three grand in clothes. They take good care of themselves, these boys; they have that East Bank Health Club look. Both are wearing clunky Rolex watches and very soft black leather loafers. Maybe they’re in the commodities market, maybe they inherited golden businesses from their fathers.

“Kimmy’s going ahead with the divorce,” the guy with the haircut says to the guy with the ponytail. “She tells me she’s had it. She’s gone to a lawyer.”

“Who’d she go to?” his pal asks.

“A guy named Allen Bernstein.”

“Jesus!” the guy with the ponytail says. “Allen Bernstein takes no prisoners. Might as well come in with your hands up and hope you can come away with your Bulls tickets and a couple of extra sets of underwear.”

“Really? No shit?”

“No shit. Allen Bernstein’s a fiend, a killer.”

I’m Allen Bernstein. I’ve been a divorce lawyer in Chicago for 30 years, and I listened to this conversation with calm but deep pleasure. I considered it a fine piece of free advertising. To be a lawyer is bad enough, but to be a lawyer specializing in divorce, let’s face it, is to incur double enmity: to be despised by most people for your profession and by your fellow lawyers for your specialty within the profession. When I started out and someone asked me what I did, I used to have to steel myself before saying. No more.

Nobody sets out to become a divorce lawyer. I got into it because of the limited possibilities open to me when I graduated from DePaul Law School in 1962. My father was a union plumber, the first licensed Jewish plumber in the city. After I graduated from Von Steuben, in Albany Park, I thought about acquiring a license myself, but at the last minute decided instead on Wright Junior College (can’t go wrong with Wright, they used to say), mainly because I wasn’t ready to go to work. After finishing I went on to Roosevelt University, on Michigan Avenue in the Loop, but I remember less about what happened in the classroom than about the never-ending gin games in the student lounge: a penny a point, Hollywood-Oklahoma, spades double, big stakes in those days. My major was political science, please don’t ask me why.

When I graduated, I still wasn’t ready for work, so I applied to DePaul and was accepted. I worked odd jobs—selling shoes at Maling’s at night, construction in the summer—to pay my way. The big goal at DePaul was to pass the bar. The time they gave you for answering questions on exams was limited to thirteen minutes—the exact amount allotted on the Illinois bar exam.

Graduate, pass the bar, start making some dough. Sights were set no higher, which was fine by me. The big law firms weren’t interested in guys from DePaul, unless maybe you had a political or family connection, and I didn’t have either one. I finished around the middle of my class. No one was recruiting me; I’d have to make it on my own. I wasn’t particularly interested in any specialty, except that I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk doing estates or trusts or some dry crap like that. I was also pretty sure I didn’t have the skill, or the instinct, to be a full-time litigator. After passing the bar I was officially a “professional man,” but unemployed.

I had an Uncle Bernie, my mother’s brother, a bookie, and among his clients were some of the Jewish high flyers in the Chicago of those days. They included two brothers, Marvin and Jack Brent—“originally Brodsky,” my uncle volunteered—who were divorce lawyers. They were said to have made a ton of money. They were also said to be very tough. My uncle used the same phrase about them that the guy at the Bulls game would use about me—“Your wife hires the Brent brothers in a divorce suit, you might as well come in with your hands up”—which may be why it pleased me so much to hear it again, this time about me, after all those years. Anyhow, Uncle Bernie arranged for me to meet the younger Brent brother, Jack.

When I phoned, he said he couldn’t clear time in the office but we could talk that night at the Raphael Hotel on Delaware, east of Michigan, where he lived. He could give me fifteen minutes, no more. I was to meet him in the lobby at 6:30.I would recognize him, he said, and hung up without bothering to say good-bye.

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I was twenty minutes early; he was ten minutes late. But he was right about recognizing him. His suit was the giveaway: lush gray, a three-piece job, nipped in at the waist, with sharp, exaggerated lapels. It looked simultaneously soft yet armored, and flashed extremely expensive. (Jack and his brother Marvin, I later learned, had these suits made by a guy on Michigan Avenue named George Mashbitz, who used to tailor for the actor Forrest Tucker, the gossip columnist Irving Kupcinet, and others who kept a locker for their cigars in the humidor room at Dunhill’s.) He carried a Chesterfield coat over his arm, and in his hand—you’ll have to believe me on this—held a pearl-gray homburg. He was tall, very erect, bald, with a blotchy, pinkish-purplish complexion. The effect was pure shyster.

“I’m running late, kid,” he said, after I introduced myself. “But I can give you a few minutes. Sit down over here.” He pointed to two facing couches.

“So whaddya want?” he began, carefully setting down his Chesterfield and homburg.

“I want to know about the opportunities in divorce law.”

“Mostly they’re opportunities to see human beings at their most disgraceful. Also to be widely despised—by your adversaries, your colleagues, and usually in the end your clients. And there are opportunities to show the highest contempt for the law, which in this field is pretty goddamn disgusting, by forcing everyone to lie, cheat, and do what he can to screw the other party. Those are the opportunities. Next question.”

“Why are you in it?”

“For the money, which, if you cull your clientele carefully, can be staggeringly high. Next question.” He looked at his watch, a wafer-thin, gold job with small diamonds for numbers.

“Do you and your brother have any other lawyers working for you?”

“Why? You looking for work?”

“I am.”

“How hungry are you?”

“Very,” I heard myself say. Strange, but not until that precise moment did I realize that I wanted to be rich: not making a decent living, not being “comfortable,” but rich, really rich.

“I’ll talk to my brother. Maybe we could use a young guy to run errands. You’d be strictly a gopher at first, you understand. Low pay, maybe a hundred a week. Just because the Brent brothers make a lot doesn’t mean we like to give it away.” He looked at his watch again. “I gotta be out of here,” he said, gathering up his coat and hat. “My brother’s in New York till late next week. Call me at the beginning of the following week, and I’ll see if we have anything for you.”

When I called, I got the job. Only they paid me not a hundred bucks a week but sixty-five: no George Mashbitz suits for me. Marvin Brent, three years older than Jack, had even darker views and less in the way of a sense of humor. The Brent brothers, bachelors, kept adjoining suites in the Raphael, and drove matching black Fleetwoods. They had no interest in politics or even the news, didn’t care about food, saw no family. Each took a one-week vacation—never together—and went to New York to see musical comedies. (For reasons I could never figure out, they had this thing about musicals.) During the five years that I worked for them, neither, so far as I could make out, had anything approaching a serious relationship with a woman. I assume they availed themselves of expensive hookers.

As I soon discovered, they used the services of these ladies fairly often in their business. In those days, before no-fault came into being, divorce in Illinois could be obtained on four grounds only: adultery, desertion (technically, for a year), physical cruelty, and mental cruelty. The Brent brothers’ clients were almost exclusively Jewish, and Jews didn’t do physical cruelty. To get a divorce for mental cruelty, you had to come up with more exquisite tortures than Alfred Hitchcock—it practically couldn’t be done. Desertion was an option, but many people didn’t want to wait out the full year or more—especially the men, who often had a tootsie in the wings to whom extravagant and urgent promises had been made.

That left adultery. We staged lots of adulteries, usually at the Bismark Hotel on Randolph. The guy caught in bed with a naked woman, the schlocky private detective, the photographer—the whole comic bit. I served as director, if not yet producer, for many of these farces.

The hookers got fifty bucks for the assignment. (We billed the clients $500 and put it under the category of clerical services.) The girls tended to be big and brassy, in the pin-up style of the day, with names like Rusty, Pam, or Babs. I paid them in cash, and would occasionally take them out afterward to O’Connell’s on Rush Street for coffee and a sandwich. The conversation often touched on celebrity tricks they had turned. Some had slept with guys who played for the Bears. One was a regular stop for Desi Arnez when he came to Chicago. “What’s he like?” I asked her. “Desi?” she said, putting down her coffee cup and dragging on a cigarette. “A real pig.”

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As a rule, the Brent brothers preferred women to men as clients. It made more sense to sue the men, since they had the money. “We’ll gently squeeze his nuts,” was a favorite expression of Marvin Brent’s, “then add the serious pressure later.” (I could never hear him say this without feeling a stab in my own groin.) Most of these clients were sent over by larger firms that declined divorce cases because they didn’t want what used to be called a reception-room problem—some broad sitting there, crying, red-faced, Kleenex all over the joint, while corporate clients were waiting on heavy-billing business. It was undignified. Marvin and Jack Brent didn’t care about dignity.

I was surprised at first by how comforting they could be to these women. Once they decided to take a case—and the only ones I ever saw them turn down involved husbands without enough money to be worth their while—they made it plain that the husband was the enemy and the Brothers Brent were ready to nail the son of a bitch to the wall. Who knows, right now the guy was probably holding back, spending it on a girlfriend. The main thing was to listen to their advice and not soften in any way. In the end, their client would live as well as when she was married, maybe even a little better. Nothing they hated more than reconciliations, and they did everything they could to prevent them. Women who went into Marvin or Jack Brent’s office with Kleenex in hand came out smiling—the sly smile of vengeance anticipated.

The husbands, on the other hand, had blood in their eyes. In court, they would mutter—sometimes, more than mutter, hurl—the roughest insults they could come up with at Jack or Marvin. Occasionally an anonymous caller threatened to beat up or even murder one of them.

One day I’m sitting in the reception room waiting to meet a friend for lunch when a man named Louis Schoenwald, a little guy, dapper, in his early sixties, comes in and asks to speak to Jack Brent.

“May I inquire on what business?” says Sylvia, our receptionist.

“Mr. Brent is representing my wife, Nancy,” he says, calmly.

“I’m sorry,” Sylvia answers, “but Mr. Brent doesn’t see the husbands or wives of clients except by appointment.”

“Very well,” says Mr. Schoenwald. “I can understand that. I’ll call for an appointment.” He turns toward the door and begins to walk out when suddenly he pivots and races down the hall. Next thing I hear is a door slamming and Jack calls out, “Get this bastard off me, goddamnit.” I run down the hall to find Schoenwald on the desk, on top of Jack, his hands around his neck, Jack’s face turning from his normal purplish-red to pure maroon.

After a serious struggle I manage to pull Schoenwald off, walking him out of the office in a hammerlock. “I’ll kill him,” he’s screaming, “the cock-sucker doesn’t deserve to live.” That’s what I mean by a reception-room problem.

_____________

 

Marvin and Jack Brent died roughly six years later, within seven months of each other, both of cancer of the prostate. I had left them two years earlier, to go in for myself. They threw me a bit of work, fish too small for their expensive nets. I sent them kickbacks. Marvin died first, and an obit appeared in the Trib complete with picture in which he looked, as in life, menacingly well-groomed. No services were held; no request for contributions to the Cancer Research Foundation or anywhere else. I sent Jack a note of condolence, but never received an answer. When Jack died, the obit in the Trib was smaller, again no service announced. What could possibly be said about him, I wondered, and then remembered the old joke about the guy no one was willing to eulogize at his funeral until finally some other geezer gets up and announces, in a strong Yiddish accent, “His brudder was even woise.”

As for me, by the time I opened my own office—Allen Bernstein & Associates—divorce law in Illinois had begun to change, and so had the clientele. No-fault, with its assumption (sensible enough in theory, I suppose) that there isn’t always a clear villain in the breakup of a marriage, opened the floodgates to some very peculiar characters. Where before divorce tended to be a game for the rich, now everyone wanted to play. With the craziness of the 60′s, there was a feeling in the air that everything was possible.

It was all very good for business. Suddenly people began appearing in my office wanting to get out of marriages because . . . well, they weren’t really sure why. In the vast majority of cases I could have told them: they thought they were missing out on better screwing elsewhere.

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Too crude? You wouldn’t think so if you heard their stories. One Friday afternoon a woman in her late thirties, her name’s Susan, comes in for help. Her husband, his name’s Howard, he’s a CPA. They live in Highland Park, which suggests he’s a pretty good provider. They have two kids, a boy and girl, both under ten. She doesn’t work, has never held a job.

“Is Howard cheating on you?”

“Not that I know of,” she says.

“Is he beating you up, or maybe he’s what is called mentally cruel?”

“Neither,” she says.

“Is he incapacitated in any way?”

“No.”

“Well, what precisely is your complaint?”

“When Howard takes off his glasses for sex,” she says, “I want to laugh.”

“I see,” not seeing at all. “Maybe you could tell me a little more.”

“I mean,” she says, “how can I make love to a man when I want to laugh at him?”

“Let me get this straight. You want to leave your husband because he takes off his glasses to make love to you and without his glasses on he makes you laugh? This is your complaint?”

“Yes,” she says.

“What about contact lenses?” I ask.

“It wouldn’t be the same,” she says, finally getting to the point. “Besides, I’m in love with someone else.”

It turns out the guy she’s in love with is fifteen years younger and plays in a rock band and isn’t employed, at least just now. But he’s wonderful at tie-dye. She’d like to keep the house in Highland Park and the Mercedes. She wouldn’t mind working, she’s thought about getting a teaching certificate, but jobs in the northern suburbs aren’t easy to come by and then, she figures, maybe it makes more sense to stay home with the kids, for whom these are important years.

I was able to get her just about everything she wanted, with the exception of the Mercedes. Poor Howard, I assume, recovered and is today happily blinking away in some other woman’s bed.

But the ladies were nothing next to the men. When they came in with their hair grown over their ears, I knew it was unload-the-little-woman time. They had hundreds of different excuses, wild, elaborate, comic excuses. Most had other, much younger women lined up. One guy has the nerve to tell me that, since his wife’s mastectomy, he can no longer perform in bed, and, this being the case, it doesn’t seem fair to her that they stay together. Then he goes on to outline a plan involving shifting his assets so as to leave his wife about enough for a studio apartment in a less than safe neighborhood near Wilson Avenue. I got him, too, what he wanted.

You don’t have to be long in the business to understand that, once it becomes clear one party wants out, it’s pig time. True, every once in a while, some guy, out of extreme guilt over his really outrageous behavior, comes in ready to give the store away. But then it becomes my job to discourage him. I paint his future if he allows himself to become a hostage to the woman who will soon be his ex-wife. Before long, most of them come around; at the first strong demand, teeth flash and they’re ready to take off the gloves.

My success is that I understand my role as an absolute client’s man. I’m no public-relations guy, and I don’t mind being unyielding to the point of rigidity in my demands. When I finally close up this practice, I don’t expect to include good will among its assets; there isn’t going to be any. No sportsmanship trophies in matrimonial law. What I learned from the Brent brothers is that it doesn’t matter what other lawyers and their clients or even the judges think of you. There’s only one point: winning, which means getting your clients what they want and making them pay you well for it. As the guy in the ponytail said, if your wife hires Allen Bernstein, you might as well come in with your hands up.

_____________

 

Why anyone would want to marry a divorce lawyer is itself something of a mystery—comparable in its way, I suppose, to a woman marrying a gynecologist. After dealing professionally with it all day, you can’t expect a man to have too much enthusiasm for it in his private life.

I didn’t marry until my fifties—fifty-two, to be precise. Leslee, eighteen years younger, hadn’t been married before, so she wasn’t a client—I had long ago made it a policy not to fool with a female client, though God knows the opportunities were plentiful. She was the only daughter of Ben Lerman, who had started out in life as a glazier and made a fortune insuring commercial glass, then lost it when he expanded too quickly into lines of work he knew little about, including becoming a major stockholder in Arlington racetrack, which went under in a swamp of politics and corruption.

Like my old man, Ben was a working stiff, a dirt-under-the-nails man. Though in another age he probably would have preferred to keep her home, he had sent his daughter off to college—the University of Illinois—where she was a sorority girl. He and I got along. He was not so secretly pleased that his daughter, at thirty-four, was finally getting married, and to a Jewish guy, a lawyer, a professional man. I made a good living; that’s all he needed to know. In marrying me, his girl had come into safe harbor.

I’m not sure why Leslee was still unmarried. She’s good-looking, zaftig, brunette, big eyes, with a gentle, feminine manner, a papa’s girl. She taught third grade at Boone School in West Rogers Park. The kids in her class—Greeks, East Indians, Russians, lower-middle-class Jews—were crazy about her, and she about them. She would buy things at her own expense—art supplies, music tapes, books—to enliven her classes, and three times a week brought pastries for the entire class. I used to joke with her that she was the only person in history who might have to declare Chapter 11 from a teaching job. When I first began taking her out she lived with two other girls, sorority sisters, on Surf Avenue.

I was forty-nine when we first met, and I had seen my run of Jewish women—from the nutsy all the way to those strictly in business for themselves. It was at a wedding: Leslee knew the bride, the groom was a former client of mine entering into his third marriage. I was now living at the Raphael, on the floor above the Brent brothers’ old suites. I was also billing somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million a year, which, in an office with no partners, wasn’t too shabby. I somehow found myself attracted to this girl, with her appealing sweetness of nature: a case, I suppose, of opposites attracting. I decided to pursue her, but gently, carefully; a full-court press, I sensed, would be a mistake.

The first time I took Leslee out, we went to a movie and dinner. We began to go to Bulls games in the old Chicago Stadium. If there was a play in town, we might take that in. She asked me about my business, and I filled her in on the more outrageous cases, which I thought had a certain entertainment value. But she really didn’t want to believe that people could behave so badly. She talked about her students in a way that made these little Jagdishes and Dimitris and Laliths come alive for me. Once, picking her up at school, I saw her help a little Indian girl who had a fleck of something in her eye; her gentleness, the child’s complete confidence in her, were something to behold. As she got into the car she seemed exhilarated—and more beautiful than ever. I felt a flash of jealousy.

We didn’t sleep together for three months. (Later she told me she’d begun to worry about me.) When we did, things went fine, maybe even a little better than fine. Eventually, marriage became one of our subjects. A bachelor in his fifties becomes a very careful scrutinizer of female flaws. I felt too old to make a serious mistake, and I searched Leslee for things that, down the road, would make life with her a torture. The flaws I found, I decided, were of a kind I could live with, and some—her unworldliness, her hatred of confrontations, her weakness for all children—I found endearing.

What she saw in me, a guy almost twenty years her senior, no beauty, who’d been around the block more than a few times, I didn’t know. One day I asked. “Because,” Leslee said, “I felt you loved me more than any man I had ever met or ever would meet. And I knew that I could always count on you to protect me.” Babe, I thought to myself, you’re dead right.

_____________

 

The Raphael, loaded with well-off elderly Jewish widows, was no place for a married couple. We looked at a few townhouses in Lincoln Park, but it soon became clear that Leslee favored a house in the suburbs. She wanted children of her own, and the sooner the better. No argument. Leslee without children never seemed a serious possibility, though I have to say I hadn’t pictured myself a father. I’d probably seen too many clients ready to use their kids as weapons in divorce battles, or refusing to pay for their upkeep, or subjecting them to the humiliation of living together with new and often very temporary lovers.

Leslee agreed that I was too old for a big wedding, and besides, as I pointed out to her, only half-joking, it would be a bad advertisement for my business. We put the money instead into a $900,000 house on Beach Road just off the lake in Glencoe, a house with six bedrooms, a family room, a huge yard, space for lots of children, dogs—the full catastrophe, as I remember Anthony Quinn calling family life in that movie he did about the Greek.

Leslee’s calm and sweetness played off strangely against the greed and emotional squalor of my clients’ lives. Which was reality: my good-hearted, naturally refined wife, or the people making use of my services to elude their responsibilities or to tighten the screws on people they once claimed to love? Before Leslee, I would have said that reality was what went on in my office. Living with her made me a little less sure.

“Have you ever felt you wanted to practice another kind of law?” she once asked me.

“I don’t know another kind, sweetheart,” I said. “Besides, I’m good at what I do, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that. Not to speak of the income, which may just turn out to be useful to our grandchildren.”

But before you can have grandchildren, you have to have children, and here we ran into a little glitch, an unexpected jiggeroo. We planned to have kids right away, or almost right away. Leslee’s hope was to be in her seventh month in June, when school let out for the year, so that she could have her first child in late summer. She planned not to return to teaching, at least not soon. We never spoke about how many children we would have, but I always assumed at least two. I’m still not sure exactly how many she had in mind.

The problem was that Leslee couldn’t seem to get pregnant. After a year, her gynecologist put her on pills and a careful surveillance of her temperature and body rhythms. During this period, called in at odd times from the sidelines, I felt like a field-goal kicker. When Leslee phoned in the middle of the morning to announce she needed the services of George Blanda, the old Chicago Bears kicker and our private name for my crucial function, I would tell my secretary to cancel my appointments, have the garage bring my Porsche around, and speed home. It was fun for a while, but it began to get grim after nearly a year had gone by and nothing productive happened.

Our next step was a fertility specialist. I’ll spare you the details, but they finally discovered that, even though my appetite and performance were normal, my counts were too low to produce a child. Although I was ready to adopt, Leslee put the quietus on any such idea. Her students were already her adopted children, she said, and she wanted to raise kids of her own—and mine. On this point, she was adamant, absolutely inflexible. There were other possibilities, and I was willing to consider any of them, but Leslee wasn’t.

_____________

 

Never for a moment did she so much as hint that this sadness in her life was my fault. We rolled around in our large house, with its extra bedrooms that we both now knew would never be filled. She continued teaching. My practice filled out my days. In the summer we traveled, though I found I didn’t like being away from the office for very long. One night, at the George V in Paris, I awoke to discover my wife weeping gently in her sleep; I thought of waking her, but there was, finally, nothing I could do to make things better.

In my business, I have seen too many older men who marry younger women and have to face the question of children. Often these men have had kids with their first wives, and have no interest in starting another family. Just as often, the women enter into an implicit bargain with them, a cruel pre-nup that never gets put on paper. In my opinion it’s a bad deal—always a mistake for a young woman, leading sometimes to heartbreak, frequently to rancor, inevitably to disappointment. Leslee and I had made no such deal; quite the contrary. Still, having to go through life without children seemed to me a hell she shouldn’t be made to bear. It seemed, somehow, impermissible.

After three years of marriage, I knew in my heart what I had to do. The question was how to go about it. In the old days, I might have called in the bimbos and staged a full Brent Bros. production at the old Bismark Hotel, with myself in the male lead and copies of the photos sent to Leslee. A campaign of mental cruelty—systematically ignoring her at home, humiliating her in public—would have taken too long, and I couldn’t have done it even if I wanted to. Feigning impotence, given my feelings for her, was not in the cards. That left announcing that I’d found someone I loved more and needed my freedom.

Of course I would make the actual proceedings as painless as possible, and I would see to it that she had enough money to live well and make her even more attractive to the man who would give her children while there was still time—even more attractive, that is, than she already was. Leslee, sweetheart, my own, my true love, forgive me. I’m coming in with my hands up.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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