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Alan Dershowitz: The Pugilist Lawyer

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Alan Dershowitz: The Pugilist Lawyer
The Attorney Is Retiring From Teaching at Harvard and Moving Back to New York.

Ralph Gardner Jr. visits the attorney at his apartment in New York, where he is moving after retiring from teaching at Harvard.

By Ralph Gardner Jr.

Alan Dershowitz at his apartment on Sutton Place in Manhattan. His new book is ‘Taking the Stand.’ Philip Montgomery for The Wall Street Journal

It would be disingenuous—indeed, a big fat lie—to say I interviewed Alan Dershowitz about his new autobiography “Taking the Stand” (Crown) on Tuesday afternoon. He talked while I listened and took notes like a callow freshman in a senior constitutional law seminar.

Mr. Dershowitz is retiring from teaching at Harvard—where he’s been for the last half-century (since becoming the youngest full professor in its history, in 1967, when he was 28)—and moving back to New York. He and his wife Carolyn Cohen, a psychologist, bought an apartment on Sutton Place and are in the process of unpacking.

Whether you believe this an encouraging development for the city depends on your opinion of the attorney, whose clients over the years have included Claus von Bulow, O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and, more recently Julian Assange.

I first met him at a dinner party on Martha’s Vineyard last summer, when he promptly, and without encouragement, began to read the posthumous letter to the editor that ends his book. It concludes (except for the P.S.), “I admit that I have always tried to get the last word. Hence this posthumous letter to the editor, which I promise is my last word.”

He forgot his tombstone, which I’m sure he’ll put to good use, but no matter. I came away from that dinner, and the book, surprised that I liked the lawyer, who manages to leaven ego with empathy.

Ed Koch, another gentleman who didn’t shy from the spotlight, came up early in our conversation, or should I say during Dershowitz 101, as we stood admiring his apartment’s stunning view overlooking the East River. He pointed south toward the Williamsburg Bridge.

“That’s where I was born, where the Williamsburg Bridge ends. 190 Hewes Street.”

Then he looked north toward the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. “I went to the same synagogue,” Mr. Dershowitz explained. “Park East. 67th between Third and Lex. He would always go and make a speech on Rosh Hashanah.”

A chore that the lawyer might be persuaded to assume now that the great man is gone.

I’d hoped to discuss the difference between law and morality. In his book, Mr. Dershowitz quotes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, when one of his clerks complained that an opinion he rendered was unjust, replied: “We’re in the law business, young man, not the justice business.”

My interest arose in the context of a confession Mr. Dershowitz makes in his book. It’s to the only “crime” he ever committed. After a couple of thugs twice mugged his son Elon while the young man was selling newspapers in the subway station at Harvard Square, the lawyer threatened to call a hit man, on whose case he was consulting, unless they desisted. The case involved marijuana trafficking, not murder. The punks never returned.

I wondered whether his legal philosophy was more one of ferocity and overcoming opponents with frontier-style justice than with a calm application of the law. “I tell my students the opposite,” he said. “You can win the case in court, not on the street.”

Nonetheless, he launched into an anecdote that ended with fisticuffs. This one happened recently, when the lawyer took a swing at someone on the streets of Manhattan. Apparently, Elon, now 52, opened the door of a cab he mistakenly believed to be unoccupied. As he did, a bottle of wine the female passenger was carrying fell to the ground and broke. Her male companion got out of the cab and started to attack Elon, who’d recently been hospitalized for vision problems related to radiation he’d undergone as a teenager to treat a brain tumor.

“I took a punch at this guy like I was a 16-year-old,” Mr. Dershowitz, 75, recalled with pleasure. “I knocked his glasses off. It’s the last thing I managed to put in the book. I’m still feeling it right in here.” He rubbed his knuckles. “I got him good.”

Mr. Dershowitz, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, blames, or rather credits, his Brooklyn upbringing for his pugilistic outlook. “I learned my morality on the streets,” he said. “We modeled ourselves on the Italian kids,” with whom he and his friends would occasionally rumble while leaving the Loews 46th Street Theater on New Utrecht Avenue. “There was always pushing and shoving. We wore the tight pants. We rolled our sleeves up. We were determined not to be wimps. We carried razor blades in our wallets. I grew up wearing a Garrison belt.”

He still does. He removed it so I could admire the weight of the metal buckle and its potential as a weapon. “No terrorist is going to take me down on an airplane,” he boasted.

As impressive as the lawyer’s protective instincts, even more is the way he managed to turn his academic life around. He was given up for lost as a teenager by the rabbis at his yeshiva, who dismissed his high grade on the Regents exam as a fluke. “Taking the Stand” should serve as inspiration for any kid whose teachers said he or she would never amount to anything. The book even includes a photo of Mr. Dershowitz’s report card, his failing 60 in math and physics circled.

“Part of the purpose of this book is to figure out how I turned from a bum into the leading student at Brooklyn College,” Mr. Dershowitz stated. “The same independence that got me into trouble in high school got me praise in college.”

He still seems ready to rumble, only these days from an art-filled apartment overlooking Manhattan. “I feel like my 50 years at Harvard were an interlude,” he said as he gazed out the window and back down the river through the fading light to his old neighborhood. “I’m really a New Yorker. My first 20 years were in Brooklyn. I’m hoping my next 20 years will be in New York.”

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  • Published: 11 years ago on October 31, 2013
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  • Last Modified: October 31, 2013 @ 3:15 pm
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