Bernie Clair Targets Wildenstein Fortune for Estranged Wife

The most garish divorce case of the 90′s–playboy art dealer Alec Wildenstein versus his surgically enhanced wife Jocelyne Wildenstein–begins in earnest on July 23, when lawyer Bernard Clair will try to give Mr. Wildenstein a good going-over during a sworn deposition.

Mr. Wildenstein, represented by the publicity-friendly Raoul Felder, is expected to defend himself by conceding that he’s financially dependent on his father. Why should he have to hand over big alimony checks if both he and his estranged wife have merely benefited from the largesse of his dear old dad? Or so goes Mr. Wildenstein’s reasoning.

Mr. Clair’s first order of business is to poke holes in that logic on his way toward getting as much as he can for his client. To pull it off, he’ll have to squeeze Mr. Wildenstein for the kind of accounting details that have not yet caught the interest of the tabloids–illuminating the hidden tunnels running between the Wildenstein family’s money nests.

“I know people are watching, and since I’m very result-oriented and take very seriously my professional reputation, I’m putting in the time to make sure that everything goes right,” said Mr. Clair.

Mr. Clair, 47, is also in the midst of a case that could affect the state gubernatorial race: Judith Ross has accused her ex-husband, Wilbur Ross, of failing to live up to their divorce settlement. Mr. Ross, now the husband (and bankroller) of candidate Betsy McCaughey Ross, has so far eluded Mr. Clair’s attempts to get him to the deposition table.

“When it comes to his first wife and a contract, that’s not what he’s interested in,” Mr. Clair said. “When it comes to his second wife and an election year, that’s what he’s interested in.” Seated in the cafeteria of the midtown firm where he is a partner, Rosenman & Colin, Mr. Clair twisted a napkin end. “We often sense in this case that we’re being viewed as the voice in the proverbial desert wind.… He’s no different than any other individual who makes promises and needs to be held to them.”

Mr. Clair seems to put Alec Wildenstein in the same category as Mr. Ross; to him, they’re both deadbeats who must pay. Without a glint in his eye or smile on his face, he said that Jocelyne Wildenstein “knows where the bodies are buried.” He said he took on her case because “she had been the primary housekeeper and ran the household.” He added that she “seemed willing to accept professional suggestions, and that was important.”

Mr. Clair has never worked on a case so high-profile as this one. A workaday lawyer originally from Manhasset, L.I., he now finds himself thrust into a big scrap. Mr. Moneybags versus Mrs. Moneybags–and who will get the 66,000-acre ranch in Kenya? Along with the big-asset Ross case, the Wildenstein soap opera should test Mr. Clair’s fitness for the land of the megadivorce.

Mrs. Wildenstein’s side has received 20 calls a day from reporters who have been feasting on the sensational revelations–nude awakenings! hubby caught with mistress! gunplay! thoughtless opulence! rampant cosmetic surgery!–for the last year. Just as Mr. Felder did before he became a regular on the cable TV and talk radio circuit, Mr. Clair has enlisted public relations help, in the form of fallen campaign guru Ed Rollins.

Mr. Clair may have helped Mrs. Wildenstein file for divorce in June 1997, but it was not until three months later, when she made her way back from Kenya to surprise her estranged husband and a young female friend at the family’s East 64th Street town house, that the tabloids started rolling in the gaudy tale of the world’s most ostentatious art dealers. Once the attorneys started cranking out motions, the tabloids were able to keep retelling that story–along with photos of Mrs. Wildenstein’s remodeled visage.

Chihuahuas in Tutus

If the divorce battle is a chapter that the Wildenstein family never wanted written, it seems to have been custom-ordered for Bernard Clair. Once the New York counsel to the high-flying Marvin Mitchelson, Mr. Clair has some experience with big-money bust-ups. But only enough to get started: The Clair docket from his 20 years of practice features only a few of the unseemly divorce rows that pop flashbulbs outside the courthouse. Since the Wildenstein case started, he has begun representing star real estate broker Roger Erickson in his split from publicist Susan Blond. He would like to keep such well-dressed traffic moving his way.

And Mr. Clair is not the only one banking on it. In February, well after Wildenstein began, Mr. Clair and his partner Anthony Daniele folded the four-lawyer firm that they started right after law school into one of the city’s large firms, Rosenman & Colin.

Yet even the most experienced litigators at Rosenman might not have been prepared for the one-of-a-kind Mrs. Wildenstein. Mr. Clair, needless to say, has never had to represent a woman whose primary homemaking efforts revolved around outfitting a Kenyan safari palace with lions and ensuring that the estate’s Chihuahuas were dressed in ruffs and tutus.

This case may have no winners with the public. But Mr. Clair’s line that Mrs. Wildenstein is basically a loyal helpmate ditched by a frisky husband for a woman a year older than his daughter has worked in court. Judge Marylin Diamond has had some fun at Mrs. Wildenstein’s expense–”Buy a microwave,” she told the lady after she testified that she needed attendants to boil water or make toast–but the judge’s pretrial decisions have gone Mrs. Wildenstein’s way.

So far, the $350-an-hour Mr. Clair has successfully argued that Mrs. Wildenstein should not be evicted from the Wildenstein family town house; that she should receive $140,000 per month in temporary support; and that Mr. Wildenstein should pay the $274,000 in legal fees that Mr. Clair has rung up in the past year. But it’s the money for the long run that is this case’s real challenge. After the scheduled deposition of the husband, Mr. Clair will probably have a better idea of his chances.

Courthouse Punch-Up

Mr. Clair’s ascendance comes in a funny business. Other lawyers view their divorce colleagues as the proctologists of the profession. But sometimes it is a golden egg that’s to be extracted, and Mr. Clair is trying to become one of the blessed extractors. For those in that circle, it’s not a bad practice: The payouts have plenty of zeroes, the cases are emotionally and intellectually challenging, and one enjoys a certain circulation around town. On May 31, Mr. Clair managed to wend his way into the Daily News ‘ Rush and Molloy column twice. The last attorney to pull off that dubious feat was Johnnie Cochran.

Mr. Clair does not have an upper-crust background, which may surprise the editors of London’s Daily Telegraph , who referred to him in one article as “Bernard St. Clair.” Bernie Clair grew up in Manhasset, and his father was a writer for Gabby Hayes and The Howdy Doody Show . With that inside connection, he was able to get prized tickets to the latter every year, and one of his favorite childhood memories is of getting ribbed by Buffalo Bob. Later, he went to Adelphi University and then St. John’s Law School. In his very first family law litigation in 1978, in Family Court in Queens, outfitted as a baby lawyer in a blue suit, he had to wash his hands in a sink that contained a human turd.

Mr. Clair and his partner Mr. Daniele were strivers. Mr. Clair landed some celebrity litigation in the first three years, helping the former lover of Levon Helm, the drummer of the Band, win custody of their child in 1980. (He particularly savors that case, he said, because the couple’s daughter recently stopped him at a party to say he had saved her life.) Mr. Clair and Mr. Daniele then bet on a standard build-the-practice trick: They wrote a book for Grove Press called Love Pact: A Layman’s Complete Guide to Legal Living-Together Agreements . In the era of POSSLQ and palimony, the book drew interest from talk-show hosts like Bernard Meltzer, and soon after, from palimony pasha Marvin Mitchelson himself.

Mr. Mitchelson hired the young and eager Clair & Daniele to serve as counsel for his New York cases, succeeding Roy Cohn. That association put “afterburners on our back,” said Mr. Clair. The two Long Island guys began laboring on intricate, high-net-worth cases “well before [our] usual experience level would dictate.” They split with Mr. Mitchelson in the late 80′s, but now had, if not a burnished reputation, some fancy experience to cite for potential clients.

Twenty years into his career, Bernard Clair is “justifiably getting more attention,” said Norman Sheresky, the former president of the New York chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who is opposite Mr. Clair in the Blond-Erickson split. “He’s smart and has integrity.”

“Most of the really good matrimonial lawyers are 10 years away from retirement,” said Joshua Rubenstein, the Rosenman partner who recruited Mr. Clair. “There was almost no one else in their 30′s and 40′s besides Clair & Daniele.”

The 242-lawyer Rosenman & Colin was stung last year when its formidable matrimonial practice, led by Eleanor Alter (Mia Farrow’s lawyer), walked out. Mr. Clair is Rosenman’s new flame. He’ll have to adjust to a more complicated life. Now, for instance, he has 74 partners, not one. “In a big firm, you have to be super-careful about conflicts … and about ethics,” said Mr. Rubenstein.

There will be financial pressures, too: After many years as one of the 100 top-grossing firms in the country, as ranked by The American Lawyer , Rosenman has disappeared from the list the last two years. But even before making the jump, Mr. Clair was noticing the strain of rainmaking: “My personal life is less my own than it was,” he said.

When Jocelyne Wildenstein first hired Mr. Clair, he was still on his own, a self-described “adrenaline junkie.” That determination and intensity may have pushed him, but it has also gotten him in trouble. On Saint Patrick’s Day, Mr. Clair was outside the courtroom when his client, Emily Miller, ended up standing near her estranged husband, Larry Miller. Mrs. Miller had given Mr. Miller a note for the children. Mr. Miller crumpled the note, glared and tossed it back at her. Next, apparently, Mr. Clair pushed Mr. Miller and punched him in the chest one time with a closed fist. Mr. Miller’s two sworn accounts differ, but as he told the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, Mr. Clair punched him in the face two times with a closed fist “while jumping up and down in a ‘boxing stance.’” The fight left Mr. Miller complaining of “redness, headaches, substantial pain as well as ringing in his right ear.”

Mr. Clair was arrested by court officers and shortly thereafter indicted for assault and harassment. He had been at Rosenman for little over a month when he threw those punches, but his pugilism didn’t hurt his standing at the firm, according to his boss: “This just was not a problem,” said Mr. Rubenstein. “He was trying to defend his client when he believed she was in physical danger.” Mr. Clair called the incident “unfortunate” before noting that the judge declined to disqualify him: “In some ways it’s a clear signal that I’m doing something right as an advocate.” The criminal charges are all but dismissed: If he can keep out of trouble until November, the charges will be dropped, according to Manhattan D.A. spokesman Wayne Brison.

Now Mr. Clair is in training for a more meaningful fight–the long-awaited chance to get Mr. Wildenstein to say things that will hurt his own cause in the sworn deposition. “His bald assertion that his income is only $175,000 per year is ludicrous considering the enormous wealth generated by the various Wildenstein interests,” Mr. Clair said, quoting from Judge Diamond’s preliminary ruling.

Mr. Rollins, the spinmeister who got himself in trouble running the gubernatorial campaign of Christine Todd Whitman, likes what he sees in Mr. Clair. “If you ever need to throw a hand grenade during your divorce, call him,” he said. Together, they have labored to turn the media spotlight away from Mrs. Wildenstein’s rhinoplastic endeavors to coverage that could see the estranged husband’s behavior as “every woman’s worst nightmare.” Recent stories in New York and Vanity Fair suggest that their P.R. campaign has paid off a little.

It has boiled down to Mr. Clair fighting Felder with Felder. When the Wildenstein family canceled Mrs. Wildenstein’s spending account at Grace’s Market on the Upper East Side, Mr. Clair was ready with a quote: “For big spenders, they are showing a real ability to be small-minded.”

It should be noted that Mr. Felder has so far been pretty restrained toward the woman whose greatest achievement as a housewife was perhaps decorating the Kenyan ranch. A neighbor in Kenya described the place for the Daily Telegraph : “There are parrots which talk to you. All Jocelyne’s dogs wear little clothes … And the daughter has Spanish horses in ornamental headdresses. There are elephants to ride, cheetahs, lions … Above the pools are tigers in cages. About five years ago the tigers were free on the ranch, but they ate a little African boy.” Mr. Felder, through his law partner and wife Myrna, declined to comment about Mr. Clair or the case. “My husband has strong feelings when there’s an article about the lawyers in a case,” she said.

Mr. Clair, having worked for a master press manipulator in Mr. Mitchelson, also has strong feelings about how lawyers present themselves to the public: “At some point, Marvin lost perspective on where he stood with the media,” he said. “Because at some point he became Marvin the celebrity himself, as opposed to the client … To me, if the press can help my case, I am open to that. But I don’t [confuse] the fact that my name is there because of me rather than because of who I am representing.”

He wants to be a Mitchelson with staying power.