Breaking Up Isn’t So Hard to Do: How to Divorce, Perelman-Style

Patricia Duff’s latest lawyer was on the phone. “She wanted to hire me at the very beginning of her case, and he did not want her to hire me,” attorney Harriet Cohen said in an earthy, reassuring voice. “He” was a reference to Ms. Duff’s former husband, billionaire Ronald Perelman, and, according to Ms. Cohen, “He made it clear that if she hired me, it was not going to be good.” (Through his spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, Mr. Perelman denied ever making such a comment.)

It’s difficult to recall the last time that things were even marginally good in the brief, volatile relationship of Mr. Perelman and Ms. Duff. It’s even more difficult to believe that four or five years ago, in the blush of their new relationship, the couple were seen as contenders to the throne of New York’s new social order. She, the beautiful political activist. He, the billionaire with big elbows.

Any glimmer of that promise has been long since obliterated by the resulting nuclear winter of Ms. Duff’s and Mr. Perelman’s divorce, support and custody battle: a legal contretemps that has exceeded the length of their 18-month marriage, saw Ms. Duff burn through a good portion of Manhattan’s matrimonial-law talent pool, and even featured a motion by Mr. Perelman’s ex-wife, TV gossip reporter Claudia Cohen, that has Manhattan’s social demimonde talking.

As Ms. Duff’s newest lawyer prepared for the case to resume on Feb. 8, Mr. Perelman’s alleged prediction that things were “not going to be good” seemed to be coming to fruition. There on page 10 of the Jan. 26 edition of the New York Post , a newspaper that shares a publicist-Howard Rubenstein-with Mr. Perelman, one of the paper’s oracles of urban power struggles, gossip columnist Cindy Adams, noted that the “Perelman custody war may get bloodier.” Ms. Adams wrote that “Revlon Ron ain’t exactly the sort who takes prisoners, and types around town are saying revealing items about Patricia Duff will surface.” In response, Mr. Rubenstein said he had “no knowledge” of what Ms. Adams wrote. “Nor do I or we intend to sling mud. Absolutely not.”

Those in Ms. Duff’s camp have maintained for some time that Mr. Perelman has, according to a statement issued by her spokesman Jim Haggerty, used his “immense resources to smother Ms. Duff beneath an avalanche of costly litigation and other tactics designed to break her, emotionally and financially.”

Ms. Duff may not have Mr. Perelman’s financial resources (although she is getting close to $1.5 million in alimony from him), but, at least in the last few months, she seems to have evened up the odds. There is Mr. Haggerty, whose presence in the courtroom has rankled Mr. Perelman’s counsel. Ms. Duff’s last legal team also succeeded in getting the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court to open the courtroom to the public and press. The case is filed under Anonymous v. Anonymous and was originally conducted under a gag order, which is just the way the notoriously secretive and press-shy Mr. Perelman likes things. According to Mr. Haggerty, the Warners also managed to “stay certain draconian security measures” that Mr. Perelman wanted to impose upon his ex-wife.

The opening of the case has resulted in embarrassing coverage for both parties. The 44-year-old Ms. Duff has been accused of trying to get around her prenuptial agreement by padding her child support with luxuries. Meanwhile, Mr. Perelman, 56, was depicted on the cover of the Post as “New York’s cheapest billionaire” after he claimed that his 4-year-old daughter eats “$3 worth of food a day” when she is with him. Both parties have been accused of putting their legal battle before the welfare of their child.

The opening of the case to the press has also led to perhaps the most controversial decision of the case so far. On Jan. 20, Justice Franklin Weissberg of State Supreme Court in Manhattan disqualified Ken and Rita Warner, the husband-and-wife legal team that had successfully argued the case in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court and, along with attorney William Beslow, had been representing Ms. Duff in the State Supreme Court support battle. The motion to disqualify the Warners was made by Mr. Perelman’s ex-wife, Claudia Cohen, whom Ms. Duff had essentially replaced as the object of Mr. Perelman’s affections in 1994, and left some observers with the impression that Mr. Perelman enlisted the help of Ms. Cohen, with whom he remains friendly.

The Warners’ firm, Coblence & Warner, had represented Ms. Cohen back when she had some support issues regarding Samantha, her daughter (now 8) with Mr. Perelman, and now that the Warners were representing Ms. Duff, Ms. Cohen’s attorney argued that a conflict of interest existed.

Justice Weissberg agreed. In his written decision, which is dated Jan. 21, he noted that while Coblence & Warner represented Ms. Cohen, she “disclosed confidential information to the firm about her daughter’s financial needs and about her daughter’s relationship with Mr. Perelman and Ms. Duff. One of the goals of the ensuing settlement between her and Mr. Perelman was that its terms be confidential and that Samantha be shielded from publicity.”

Justice Weissberg added that in the current proceeding, “Ms. Duff’s interests are clearly related to the Perelman-Cohen litigation and inconsistent with the goals which Ms. Cohen sought when entering into a settlement therein. In her argument before the court, Rita Warner … conceded that her client intended to argue that her daughter was entitled to the same or comparable standard of living which Samantha enjoys and, towards that end, would seek discovery of all information revealing the child support which Mr. Perelman provides to Ms. Cohen on Samantha’s behalf.”

Although Ms. Cohen is a former gossip columnist (she was considered one of the more cutting voices to reign at the Post ‘s Page Six column), or perhaps because she was one, Ms. Cohen has always guarded the privacy of her daughter, who is of reading age, and the details of her divorce from Mr. Perelman. Justice Weissberg wrote that “Ms. Cohen, who may be called as a witness in this proceeding, is intent on maintaining the confidentiality of all matters concerning Samantha which were the subject of her litigation with Mr. Perelman.” He concluded, “The trial strategy devised by Ms. Duff is inimical to these interests. It would be unseemly and inappropriate for her former counsel, armed with knowledge earlier obtained from Ms. Cohen, to now seek to pierce the confidentiality of information arising from the very litigation in which they provided Ms. Cohen with advice.”

Justice Weissberg’s decision left the Warners incredulous. On the day of their disqualification, Justice Weissberg reprimanded Ms. Warner for continuing to pass notes to Ms. Duff’s remaining attorney, Mr. Beslow. When Ms. Warner tried to explain that this was a section of the case that she and her husband had prepared, the judge warned that if she approached Mr. Beslow again, he would “bar” her from the courtroom. Ms. Duff has already raised eyebrows in the legal community for the revolving door of lawyers who have represented her in this case (she’s been through at least 12 firms, although other legal sources put the count closer to 20). But when the Warners were disqualified, she ended her relationship with Mr. Beslow (he did not return calls for comment) and hired Harriet Cohen.

As the Warners prepare to appeal Justice Weissberg’s decision, the issue remains a sore spot. In a written statement to The Transom, Ms. Warner contended, “The timing of the motion to disqualify was very suspect. We have been on this case since November, the courtroom was opened on Dec. 4, yet they waited until January to make this motion.”

The Warners acknowledge that when they were in the Appellate Division arguing to open the Perelman-Duff case to the press, an attorney for Ms. Cohen did make a motion to intervene or to be heard on this matter. But they claimed that in the motion papers submitted by her lawyer, there was no mention of disqualifying them. Ms. Cohen did not return calls to comment on this, nor did Mr. Perelman’s lead attorney, Adria Hillman.

“There was nothing new in the case, except that for the first time in this arduous, long litigation, Patricia Duff started getting good results,” Ms. Warner’s statement said.

Additionally, Ms. Warner’s statement asserted that there was no conflict of interest and that Justice Weissberg’s decision “is fundamentally flawed. It is based on the erroneous assumption that the information at issue was confidential and that we had previously negotiated a confidentiality agreement for Ms. Cohen, but neither is true. In addition, the information is incidental to Ms. Duff’s child support case, so this is not the tail wagging the dog, but a hair of the tail wagging the dog.”

Ms. Warner further noted in her statement, “The day after the decision, Mr. Perelman stipulated in open court to the standard of living information about Claudia Cohen’s daughter, and Mr. Perelman had already listed in one of his trial exhibits all of his child support payments to Ms. Cohen, neither of which Claudia Cohen objected to because none of the information was confidential. It’s highly suspicious that the stipulation was delayed until after we were out of the case.”

If the Warners are successful with their appeal, things could really heat up. The Warners and Harriet Cohen, who said she’s been conferring with Ms. Duff since 1996, are said to be friendly, and Ms. Cohen told The Transom: “If they come back in, we’ll work together.”

Even under the no-nonsense direction of Justice Weissberg, the continuing saga of the Perelman-Duff divorce is bound to be entertaining for those who have followed the combative couple. A guilty pleasure not unlike the spectacle of a recent bit of musical theater that the Association of the Bar of New York’s entertainment committee put on at the Bar Association headquarters on Jan. 8. The show was called Holy Matrimony! Ms. Warner was in the cast, which consisted of lawyers and judges, and at the end they gathered to sing a parody of the Frank Sinatra song “Love and Marriage” “Try the case to separate them/ The facts are phony/ What the trial about is/ Pure acrimony,” sang the cast. “If you feel some hesitation/ You can start out with a separation/ All throughout the nation/ They’re all engaged/ They’re all engaged/ They’re all engaged in litigation.”

The Transom Also Hears

… Talk about Bizarro Jerry. No sooner had The Transom heard that Jerry Seinfeld is telling friends that he’s broken up with Jessica Sklar (née Nederlander), than the two are spotted locking lips and whiling away the late hours at Balthazar on Jan. 25. But the word is that Mr. Seinfeld has apparently reached the conclusion that Ms. Sklar’s ultimate goal was marriage, a plunge he was not ready to take, and one that was keeping his paramour from being real with him. Mr. Seinfeld’s spokesman, Elizabeth Clark, who, along with the rest of the world, is working for Miramax Films now, said she had no comment.

… Speaking of Balthazar, back in 1997 when the bistro’s owner Keith McNally gave an interview to The Observer , Mr. McNally swore that the SoHo bistro would be his last new place. Then- zut alors! -comes news that he is opening another place on Little West 12th Street and Ninth Avenue. When The Transom called Mr. McNally on it, he said that in 1997, he had truly meant that Balthazar would be his last. Alas, recently a “ramshackle” corner of the meatpacking district really spoke to his tortured soul. “It’s just the neighborhood,” said Mr. McNally, who added, “This I guarantee will be the final one. I know at one point one’s going to fail badly.