Guru Fred Newman Enchants Loyal Followers and Pat Buchanan

Right now, Fred Newman is best known as the man behind Lenora Fulani, an African-American psychologist and two-time Presidential candidate who is a major force in the Reform Party. Recently, Mr. Newman and Ms. Fulani had lunch at the Essex House with Pat Buchanan, who is hoping to be the Reform Party’s candidate for President. Ms. Fulani ended up endorsing him and is now his campaign co-chair. All this resulted in jeers, derision, comparisons to the Hitler-Stalin pact, a lot of publicity for Ms. Fulani … and a few mentions in the press of that character in the shadows, Mr. Newman.

Mr. Newman, 64, is a psychotherapist, playwright and self-styled Marxist revolutionary whose organization has its headquarters at 500 Greenwich Street. Every few years, journalists take him apart and repeat accusations (he’s an anti-Semite, he runs a cult, he brainwashes people, etc.), but somehow he survives and prospers.

He presides over what he calls “a development community.” It’s made up of a small clique of members who’ve been following Mr. Newman for decades and a couple hundred worker bees who have joined more recently. Together, Mr. Newman and his followers run therapy centers around the country, as well as a theater and a talent show network for inner-city kids.

As you get off the elevator at the Greenwich Street headquarters, to the left is the East Side Center for Short-Term Social Therapy, to the right is the Castillo Theater (most recent production: Mr. Newman’s musical comedy, The Last Temptation of William Jefferson ) and beyond that is a telemarketing room, where volunteers raise money every evening.

It doesn’t feel like New York City in there, but more like a community arts center in the Midwest. You see beaming faces, normal faces and a few blank ones, too.

On a Friday afternoon, Gabrielle Kurlander, 36, was sitting on a couch in her office. She acts in and directs Mr. Newman’s plays. Since 1990, she has run the All-Stars Talent Show Network.

Ms. Kurlander was wearing a Giorgio Armani pinstripe jacket, black sweater, black skirt. Behind her were some of Mr. Newman’s books–among them, Let’s Develop! , in which he lays out his philosophy and offers handy exercises like: “Do something wrong just for the sake of saying ‘I was completely wrong!'”

Ms. Kurlander said she moved to Manhattan from Ithaca, N.Y., to be an actress. She soon found a place in the community and began pounding nails, sweeping floors, recruiting and attending group therapy sessions led by Mr. Newman, who became her boyfriend 11 years ago.

“He’s somebody that I’m very, very close to and have tremendous respect for,” Ms. Kurlander said. “I think he’s very, very smart.” She laughed. “He’s not a guru, he’s not a cult leader, he’s just someone who people follow,” Ms. Kurlander said. “There is a grouping of us who’ve given our lives to this. I get paid now. I didn’t used to get paid, and probably if I wasn’t paid tomorrow, I’d still be doing this.”

Roger Grunwald, the publicist for the Newman group, was present for the interview with Ms. Kurlander, taking notes on a yellow pad.

Enter Mr. Newman, wearing a leather jacket over a button-down shirt, green slacks and New Balance running shoes. Early on, he talked about Pat Buchanan: “I hardly know him,” Mr. Newman said. “He seems like a decent man. Pat, when he was a kid, he was a tough Irish working-class kid who beat everyone up.”

Ms. Kurlander howled at the remark.

Mr. Newman said he likes Mr. Buchanan’s “smarts” and doesn’t think he’s an anti-Semite: “I’m a Jew, a Jew all my life, and I can smell anti-Semites. He doesn’t smell like an anti-Semite.”

Mr. Newman, who has long supported the Palestine Liberation Organization and criticized the American Jewish establishment, has also been called an anti-Semite. In 1985, he told a convention that Jews “are the stormtroopers of decadent capitalism against people of color the world over.”

“I’m hardly an anti-Semite, which is what I’ve been charged with,” he said. “But it’s been played up and it plays well for political purposes in some people’s hands and people make use of it and I’m not complaining.”

Mr. Newman then held forth on a number of subjects, including Donald Trump’s “soak the rich” plan. (Doesn’t go far enough, he said.) Ms. Kurlander laughed when appropriate; Mr. Grunwald was silent for the 45-minute session.

I suggested that Mr. Newman and I might be left alone, which Ms. Kurlander found very amusing: “Would you prefer that? Ha-ha-ha-ha! Have a private interview?”

Mr. Newman put Karl Marx at the top of his list of thinkers. “Marx’s thought has so permeated all of sociology,” he said. “And Bill Clinton is a Marxist. It’s taught in all the schools, whether it’s called that or not.”

Will his own work survive?

“History will let us know whether it’s worth anything or nothing, and we say that to each other constantly … Yes! I think it will survive.”

Fred Newman, whatever he is, has had an amazing New York life. He was born in 1935. His father, a salesman, died when he was 9. His mother raised five kids on welfare and ran serious poker games and rented out rooms in their house a half-block from Yankee Stadium. Mr. Newman sold baseball stuff there and his mother would talk to players like Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra as they walked by; the players called her Grandma Sadie.

He hated school, but tested well enough to get into Stuyvesant High School. At 19, he volunteered to serve in Korea, partly to escape a painful love affair. Back home, he attended City College of New York, majored in philosophy, married at 22, lost his virginity and got into Stanford University, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy.

Then he started teaching at City College. In 1966, one of his students asked for an A to avoid the draft. Professor Newman said O.K., started giving A’s to everyone, and was eventually fired from six more schools around the country.

By this time, he and his wife had two kids. (His son was severely brain damaged at birth and has spent his life in an institution.) In 1967, Mr. Newman moved to Reno, Nev., for divorce purposes. He took long naps, watched the sun set, listened to the Beatles, drank a little bit, didn’t smoke pot and tried to be a writer.

He would wake up at 5:30 A.M. to work on a novel based on his mother, In the Purple Roses of Her Dying Years . Somehow it got into the hands of family members and they hated it.

Back in New York, Mr. Newman went to protests, started a political collective called “If … Then.” He read Karl Marx, Mao Zedong and Leon Trotsky, saw a therapist, became a drug rehabilitation counselor at a Queens clinic, which fired him after he organized a work stoppage. In 1970, he started up a therapy practice of his own. And that’s when it all started really happening for him.

“Suddenly, I was making money again, more than I’d ever made in my life,” he said. He and some comrades created a therapeutic community on the Upper West Side, Centers for Change. They put out two newspapers, Unite and Right on Time , and started a free school for kids and a dental clinic.

“It’s probably fair to say I was the dominant leader,” Mr. Newman said. “… It’s probably fair to say it was my following–people were following me. I hope I wasn’t an authoritarian oppressor, but I think that’s probably accurate to say that.”

He and his “following” joined up with Lyndon LaRouche, but pulled out in 1974 to form the International Workers Party, which aimed to organize welfare recipients. Party members raised money on the sidewalks of the Upper West Side.

In 1979, his group evolved into the New Alliance Party; in 1984, it ran a candidate for President. That was Dennis Serrette, a black activist and trade union leader from Harlem.

“Fred was introduced to me at a party,” said Mr. Serrette, 59, from his Maryland home. “His persona is a warm, sensitive, sort of jolly, twinkly Santa Claus kind of guy, one that seems always to be a good listener. Then you start figuring out that this thing is not so loose as it looks, it’s a lot tighter. Then, when you try to look under the skirt of what’s happening, you begin to look a little sharper and you hear the name Fred Newman, Fred this and Fred that, and then you start to say, Well, is this guy the messiah or what?”

Mr. Serrette said he was badgered into Mr. Newman’s brand of “social therapy.”

“It was like a piranha attack and they all take a bite out of you,” he said. “It’s like a police interrogation but not with two–you got 10 bad guys biting at you, until they sort of break your spirit or break you down. The women around Newman who carry out his bidding are the ones that really are the lieutenants, they’ll smile at you but they kick ass. But he never gets his hands dirty–he always manages to stay just beyond the fray of the fight. He will never engage you in hard discussions. The reality is he’s a shrewd tactician who runs the cult through his mistresses.”

According to Mr. Newman’s spokesman, Roger Grunwald, “Dennis Serrette ended his association with Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani 15 years ago, after his personal relationship with Dr. Fulani broke up. Since then he periodically pops up to be interviewed and to grind a very old ax.”

In 1988, Ms. Fulani ran for President and got on the ballot in all 50 states in the race. “I am your sexual preference,” went one slogan. That got the Party some attention, as did its embrace of Louis Farrakhan.

On a Thursday evening, 30 or so people were gathered in the center’s “telemarketing room” to call “old friends” for money. They were buzzing about over takeout dinners and bottled water. “Volunteer of the Month” plaques were up on a wall.

At 6:30, as the spokesman Mr. Grunwald looked on, three middle-aged women answered questions. They’d all been through Mr. Newman’s brand of therapy and said they worked the phones four times a week. One of them, Phyllis Goldberg, said someone handed her a flier on the street and she’d been there for 21 years.

“He’s hilariously funny,” Ms. Goldberg said of Mr. Newman. “He’s probably the kindest person I ever met. He’s shy. He’s very, very, very smart.”

The telemarketers got into their “performance spaces” and got their three-page scripts ready.

Doug Balder, an architect, said he does four or five shifts a week and raises up to $100,000 a year for the Newman group. He has been there 16 years.

Mr. Grunwald said to me after a while: “George, ever done something like this?” he said, smiling, headset on. “You can come back another time, we’ll train you.” Soon, he led me to the elevator. “There are a lot of people around here who don’t make phone calls,” he said. “But for the people who do it, they’ve been organized in such a way that they relate to it in the way that a person would relate to theatrical activity as a member of an ensemble. They’re all working collectively.”

“They would embrace Adolf Hitler if it would give them credibility,” said ex-Newman follower Judi Miller, a writer. Feeling “very lonely” and “isolated,” she said she joined the community in 1984 at the suggestion of her dentist. She stuffed envelopes, attended therapy sessions, sold ad space for the New Alliance newspaper. She also agreed to pay a “tithe” and reduce her lithium dosage. Over all, she lasted four years.

“I was one of the only ones not to give up my apartment, and I didn’t, because it’s rent-controlled, so that would be stupid,” she said.

(According to Mr. Grunwald, “These allegations are ridiculous, untrue and politically motivated.”)

What did Ms. Miller think of Dr. Newman?

“Don’t say doctor,” Ms. Miller said. “It’s just Fred Newman or Fred. He’s not anything to be respected, he’s a bullshit artist … You know how you realize things and you have little signals that something’s wrong here? Like, well, he’s not our lord and master. There’s something wrong with this man. It was ridiculous. It was just so dumb. I’m ashamed that I belonged to that group and I was duped.”

One of the people who helped in her two-year “detox” was Chip Berlet, of the Boston-based Political Research Associates. Mr. Berlet has studied and condemned Mr. Newman and his group: “He thinks of himself as being one of the great left thinkers of our age,” he said. “He’s actually kind of a pompous egomaniac. He’s surrounded himself with people who constantly are telling him how smart he is, which is the classic aspect of a totalitarian organization.”

Mr. Grunwald was ready for that charge: “Chip Berlet works for a left wing think tank that has received substantial funding from major Democratic Party donors,” he said. “His charges have long been discredited as partisan `dirty tricks’ directed against the independent political movement.”

Fred Newman has been ill for the last five years, with diabetes, hypertension and kidney failure. Before undergoing three hours of dialysis, he met me for lunch at the Manatus Restaurant on Bleecker Street. His large blue eyes have a dizzying effect behind the wire-rimmed glasses. “Our work is, I don’t want to misrepresent it, it’s not Freud,” he said. “But it’s been accepted by a lot of very, very mainstream, good people.”

He said he rejects the idea of the self, along with addiction, victimization and Freud’s notion of the human being as fundamentally abnormal. He thinks people are “super-alienated” these days.

“Most of the people I see in therapy,” he said, “they have good jobs, they’re doing well, they’re respectable people. They’re the people who, you’re walking down the street you’re walking by. They’re not weirdos, they’re not in Bellevue, they’re desperately unhappy.”

When he’s not working, Mr. Newman watches sports and political shows, PBS, and Charlie Rose and watches videos at home. His favorite movie ever is Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis .

“The character who plays the mime, I don’t relate to it,” he said. “Like I don’t think it’s me, but I feel an empathy for the tragedy of his life. By the fact that he’s this brilliant, extraordinarily gifted performer but his life is so openly unfulfilling. He can’t live in the real world. In some ways he can only fully live in his world of fantasy and I wouldn’t say I see that as how I am, but I feel close to that.”

Mr. Newman rents a place in the Hamptons every summer and writes out there. He has an assistant who drives him around in a rented Lincoln Town car. He said he once took Al Sharpton to the hospital after he was stabbed and met with Louis Farrakhan twice.

“I found him a very personable, decent man,” he said. “I didn’t have any sense at all of him being anti-Semitic.”

Mr. Newman ordered a piece of rye toast and a mint tea with lemon. “I can’t really eat anymore,” he said. “I used to be bigger and much heavier. I barely eat now.”

He never wears coats in the winter. He’s social, likes people coming over, but doesn’t like getting dressed up.

“Gabrielle wanted to put some gel in my hair, so I look better, and I still find that unpleasant,” he said.

Mr. Newman likes bluegrass music, plays a little piano and guitar. Carousel may be his favorite musical. He doesn’t like Mayor Giuliani.

“I think he’s taken too much credit and he’s been racially divisive,” he said. “I don’t think he’s a particularly good man.”

He wishes the Giants and Dodgers were still in New York. And he’s always loved sex: “I’ve always enjoyed it and always had an appetite. I wouldn’t describe it as in any way abnormal. I think I’ve had sex as often as the situation called for and the other person wanted it and I wanted it, ha-ha! I think of myself as a sexual person. I like to think I’m not as abusive as men [can be]. Maybe that’s not true, not for me to say. I work hard not to be abusive toward women, I have a high regard for women. Women have played a really important role in my life. A lot of the good work in the creating of the community has been done by brilliant and powerful women.”

In American history, he admires Eugene B. Debs and is “a little partial” to Thomas Paine. He hopes the American people pick up the issue of political reform.

“I live well,” he said. But he claimed he wasn’t even sure if he has a bank account, and said he doesn’t know what an A.T.M. is. His assistant gives him money. He said he has made a fair amount from therapy, but put his personal net worth at less than a million. In fact, it’s “nothing,” he said.

He lives in an ivy-covered brownstone in Greenwich Village, which he co-purchased with a female friend for $920,000 in 1993. Mr. Newman lives in a unit with Ms. Kurlander. The rest of the place is occupied by two men and nine women, some of whom Mr. Newman has been involved with over the years.

“I feel very good and proud about it,” he said. “I think it’s disgraceful the way people who have intimate relationships break up and then hate each other for life. I find that very offensive.”

I said his living arrangements sounded like every man’s dream.

“These are my dearest, dearest friends and colleges, co-workers,” he said, “who’ve invested millions of hours to build the All-Stars Talent Show Network. That’s who we’re talking about here, and many of these people are women, and in the case of some of them, but not all of them, we’ve been close in all kinds of ways, including physically, and I feel thrilled about that.”

He continued: “It’s not a harem of people, it’s a collection of human beings, some of whom are brilliant psychologists, heads of medical services of Long Island community hospital, vice presidents of major companies. That’s who they are, and they have an integrity as that. They’re not just women to have sex with.”

After we’d been talking about an hour, Mr. Newman told me he cries fairly often.

“I cry every time I see movies,” he said. “I’m a movie crier, I cry all the time. I certainly cried during Gods and Monsters . I thought that was very touching, their relationship. I’m kind of a sucker for romantic kind of things. When movies get touching and romantic, I cry. There’s a movie with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, their comeback movie.”

It was time for a nap before dialysis.

“It’s been a good life,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate and I don’t mind talking about it.”