Slifkas’ Legal Circus
In Manhattan and East Hampton, the names of Alan and Virginia Slifka are time-honored social touchstones of wealth and philanthropy. Mr. Slifka made his millions as an arbitrageur and investment adviser, most recently via his Halcyon-Alan B. Slifka Management Company. (He is also a major investor, along with George Soros, in Global Telesystems Group Inc.) And he has channeled some of his wealth into a number of charitable, educational and creative endeavors: the Abraham Fund, a not-for-profit organization he co-founded that funds and supports efforts to further Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel; the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a modern Jewish day school on West 89th Street; the Oceanic Research Communication Alliance, specifically the organization’s dolphin communication experiment; and the Big Apple Circus, of which Mr. Slifka is founding chairman.
A lawsuit filed at State Supreme Court in Suffolk County paints a less charitable picture of the Slifkas, however, in regard to their alleged mistreatment of the longtime caretaker of their East Hampton summer home.
James Nicolino claimed that he worked for the Slifkas for seven years before he was abruptly terminated by Mrs. Slifka in March 1997. His job included everything from “overseeing the housekeepers” and “washing [the Slifkas’] automobiles” to checking up on the couple’s son, Michael Slifka, who lived in Sagaponack and whom Mr. Nicolino alleged “suffered from a drug-abuse problem.”
Mr. Nicolino’s suit claimed that he was on call 24 hours a day, and was trusted with a $5,000 petty cash fund and an American Express card “to make all purchases for the … Slifkas’ home.” He also alleged that he was made to feel “not as a mere employee, but like part of the defendants’ family” and that Mrs. Slifka not only offered to pay for his daughter’s private school education, but also assured him that he would “be with them forever.” The couple even got Mr. Nicolino additional work with friends who owned a home nearby in East Hampton. His annual salary totaled approximately $90,000 from the two gigs, although court documents state that Mr. Nicolino’s employment contract and salary with the Slifkas were never put into writing.
Given the Slifkas’ kind words and deeds, Mr. Nicolino said that he put up with the chintzy “$29 pasta assortment” that Mrs. Slifka twice gave him as a holiday gift and the broken Fisher-Price mobile that she presented to him when his daughter was born. When Mr. Nicolino’s wife called the toy company to see if she could order a couple of parts that were missing from the box, he said that she was told the mobile had been “discontinued two years ago.”
Mr. Nicolino told The Transom that he suspects his real troubles began when an old friend of Mrs. Slifka’s, a landscape architect named Codie Conigliaro, began to work for the family. Mr. Nicolino alleged in court papers that Ms. Conigliaro was overcharging the Slifkas and said that he felt compelled to warn his employers. But, “Following this disclosure, defendant Virginia Slifka became increasingly hostile toward” him.
At the end of December 1996, according to the documents, Mrs. Slifka asked Mr. Nicolino to mail her the East Hampton house key and the alarm code. She also allegedly began to ignore Mr. Nicolino’s requests for petty cash. Still, Mrs. Slifka “assured” Mr. Nicolino that his job “was not in jeopardy.”
In March, however, Mr. Nicolino told The Transom that he was summoned to the Slifkas’ home. He added that the first words out of Mrs. Slifka’s mouth when she arrived on the scene (dropped off by Ms. Conigliaro, he claimed) were: “About your termination.” When Mr. Nicolino protested, he alleged that Mrs. Slifka’s response was “You’re a big strong man, you can make it on your own.”
Shortly thereafter, friends of the Slifkas also let Mr. Nicolino go, leaving him with a mortgage he could no longer afford and, the court documents claim, a bill for $12,000 in lawn-care equipment that Mrs. Slifka had asked him to purchase.
“We’re devastated,” said Mr. Nicolino, who added that his attempts to talk to Mr. Slifka have been ignored. As for Mrs. Slifka, Mr. Nicolino opined: “This woman has a definite Jekyll-and-Hyde personality.”
Calls to the Slifkas’ home and Mr. Slifka’s office were not returned. Mark Harmon, the attorney who is defending the couple and Ms. Conigliaro against Mr. Nicolino’s suit, declined to comment, except to say that “we have denied the allegations and are defending the suit vigorously.”
Screenwriter-director James Toback, stylish in black jacket and black jeans, was up on the dais at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room on Oct. 20 with his very good friend, Esquire film critic David Thomson, touristy in a Hawaiian-like blue shirt with a fat and busy red tie. Mr. Toback began their conversation recalling a meeting he once had with Michael Eisner, now chairman of the Walt Disney Company, when he was Barry Diller’s No. 2 at Paramount Pictures.
“He said, As far as I’m concerned, a good movie is a movie that makes money, and a bad movie is one that loses money. And I thought, What a vulgar thing to be admitting to.”
But after Mr. Toback revealed that anyone who thought otherwise these days would be “hopelessly naïve,” he uttered his own Eisneresque dictum: “A good critic is someone who likes my work, and a bad critic is one who doesn’t like my work.”
It was about this time that Mr. Toback’s knees seemed to move magnetically toward Mr. Thomson’s and, during 45 minutes of more trenchant analysis of Hollywood-Mr. Toback summed up the recent Batman & Robin (“an unwatchable waste and atrocity and despicable perversion”); he suggested that if Stanley Kubrick had made Connecticut his home rather than the English countryside, the director would have no mystique-there was much agreement and eye contact. They were like two lamps turning on at the same time.
The two met after Mr. Thomson wrote a positive review for Mr. Toback’s elsewhere-panned 1978 film Fingers . Mr. Toback recalled that the review hit him “as though it was written from my own unconscious.” Mr. Thomson began his entry on Mr. Toback in his epic A Biographical Dictionary of Film with “Dear Jim” and ended with “but in knowing you-and others-am I cut off from critical objectivity? Or is objectivity a kind of ignorance? I don’t know, except that I know your friendship is too much to lose.” In Esquire last July, Mr. Thomson favorably reviewed a rough cut of Mr. Toback’s upcoming Two Girls and a Guy and referred to his pal as “52 and yet arguably still the best young filmmaker in America.”
“What do you think about the nature of friendship between a critic and a filmmaker?” Mr. Toback asked.
“I think it’s an absolutely fascinating and imponderable problem,” Mr. Thomson replied.
The two men took some questions and then headed to a second-floor reception. After signing copies of his latest book, Beneath Mulholland , Mr. Thomson described the friendship as “deep, rewarding, amusing and life-enhancing” before being interrupted by a tipsy elderly woman who wanted to know about his mortgage payments on his three-bedroom house in San Francisco.
The Transom turned to Mr. Toback. “I think we both kind of live in a world in which we feel we are characters in our ongoing movie,” he said.
Is your relationship beyond friendship, The Transom asked.
“It’s not sexual.”
“But is there a third level?”
“There is, there is. I would say that there are a few people you meet in your life whom you feel a kind of almost irrational bond with. You sense that there is something going on that you don’t quite understand.”
“Could you say, ‘I love you, David’?”
“I-I-I don’t think I could, I-I-it’s not my style to do that. Let me put it this way, I wouldn’t categorize the relationship in any language.”
Danza Did It His Way
Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect invites rancor on the air, the idea being to throw unlike-minded celebrities into a political discussion forum to watch the temperature rise. But with Tony Danza and Kitty Kelley both taping in the studio on Oct. 7, tempers were flaring, and tires peeling, off camera as well.
According to a source, Mr. Danza made it plain that he was not O.K. with Ms. Kelley’s treatment of Frank Sinatra, His Way , her unauthorized 1986 biography of him. “He was being kind of a tough guy in the greenroom, and it was obvious that he didn’t like [Ms. Kelley],” said the source, who was present on the set. “He was definitely like, ‘Don’t even talk to me about Frank.'” Ms. Kelley did not return The Transom’s phone calls, but the source said that in the greenroom, Mr. Danza was copping an attitude with the biographer. The show itself, said the source, was “totally in good humor.” It wasn’t until after the taping that things got ugly.
First, Mr. Danza, who apparently loves Mr. Sinatra more than life itself, grew impatient while waiting to exit the parking lot behind Ms. Kelley. “We’re in the car, and Kitty is in the back seat,” said the source, “and we’re trying to cross the street and make a left. So we’re in the middle of this huge intersection in Los Angeles. All of a sudden, behind us, this sleek black car comes around the corner, and cuts us off totally! It’s Tony Danza, driving himself, and he’s on the cell phone. And he just kind of glared at us … he almost snarled, and just kept going, almost killing us. We were shaken.”
Mr. Danza’s publicist, Tracy Mosh, who accompanied him to the taping, denied any conflict between her client and Ms. Kelley. “I think it’s utterly ridiculous,” she said, regarding the highway incident. “If he cut her off, it was totally unintentional, I’m sure … it was very trafficky.”