Less than 24 hours after 30-year-old publicist Lizzie Grubman put her Mercedes in reverse and allegedly plowed into a bouncer and a group of 15 people who were waiting to get past the velvet ropes at Southampton’s Conscience Point Inn, the damage to the well-worn Cape Cod-style nightclub had been patched up and painted over well enough that it was almost possible to forget the bloody faces and broken limbs of the previous night.
But four days into the media storm that was precipitated by the incident, it has become clear that repairing the human damage–to the injured, to Ms. Grubman’s reputation and to the family, friends and business associates who have been affected by her actions–is going to require much more than shingles and nails. Already a small group of expensive men well acquainted with crisis–including public relations executive Howard Rubenstein, Southampton attorney Edward Burke Jr. and Manhattan attorney Edward Hayes–have begun plugging the ugly hole Ms. Grubman put into her well-manicured world, now that she has been charged with six counts of first-degree assault, one count of reckless endangerment, one count of second-degree assault and one count of leaving the scene of an accident involving physical injury. (Ms. Grubman posted $25,000 bail; a court date was set for Sept. 5.) And they are attempting to secure loose lips and quell angry voices in both the Hamptons and Manhattan, in the hope that eventually everything will seem as smooth and seamless as Conscience Point’s shabby-chic façade.
But that is no easy task in this part of the world. For every acquiescent member of the New York establishment who’s friendly with Ms. Grubman or her extremely successful father, entertainment attorney Allen Grubman, there is an ambitious, frustrated striver on the wrong side of the velvet rope looking to shake things up. For every couple that spends tens of thousands of dollars to summer in the Hamptons, there is a year-round resident who resents the conspicuousness of these weekenders. And for every publicist who shares Ms. Grubman’s client list–Ms. Grubman’s clients include Diane von Furstenberg, the rapper Jay-Z, Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola and the Los Angeles nightclub Moomba (and its defunct New York predecessor) as well as Conscience Point–there is one who covets her success.
So when Ms. Grubman crashed her 2001 black Mercedes Benz M320 S.U.V. into Conscience Point–intentionally or not–she breached the barriers that keep these disparate groups from each other’s throats.
And recent headlines indicate it won’t be so easy to reconstruct them.
By Saturday night, Independence Day celebrations were still raging across the Hamptons and fireworks were exploding over Route 27. At 10:45 p.m., Hamptons magazine society editor R. Couri Hay walked into the restaurant NV Tsunami in East Hampton. Over Veuve Clicquot and sushi, Mr. Hay declared Ms. Grubman’s career over. “I think Lizzie’s business is going to be in trouble,” said Mr. Hay, wearing a Ralph Lauren seersucker blazer and Prada slacks. “I think her reputation is wrecked, and I think she needs to go away, go out of business, sit back and get her life organized, because I’m not sure she’s in a position now to give other people public-relations advice.
“People like Lizzie. But this was a series of really bad decisions … and it’s going to be really interesting to see how much money and power is going to change this equation, how the cards are going to fall. Sadly, after talking to a lot of P.R. people, there’s a certain amount of glee. Lizzie’s a famous party girl and there’s a certain amount of ‘Hey, she’s gonna get shut down.’ I see people already carving up the business; I’ve heard people talking about who’s gonna get the fallout of the business.”
By Monday night, Ms. Grubman appeared stricken, raw, makeup-less on the local news shows. Mr. Rubenstein had expressed her extreme regret in the matter, and one friend of the family said that Ms. Grubman would probably attempt to minimize her predicament by reaching out to those who were injured with the mantra: “I’m sorry, we’ll pay.”
But Tuesday, July 10, the papers quoted the Southampton police report saying that after one of the nightclub’s bouncers asked Ms. Grubman to move her Mercedes from the “fire lane,” the publicist allegedly replied, “Fuck you, white trash.”
As one of Ms. Grubman’s staunch supporters noted, New Yorkers are capable of saying anything when they are in a rage. But with this, Ms. Grubman broke the bonds of sympathy extended to her and began to exemplify the caricature of the crazed harridan, wild behind the wheel. Some observers–including one friend of Ms. Grubman’s family who requested anonymity–took these stories as a sign that Suffolk D.A. James Catterson, facing a tough battle for reelection this November, will take a special interest in this case.
“It is a war of P.R.,” said Gerald Lefcourt, a New York attorney, Hamptons resident and past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “If the perception of the D.A. is that the community is fed up, the D.A. is more than likely going to make an example [of Ms. Grubman]. In which case, she’s in a lot of goddamn trouble.”
Indeed, as another attorney who’s following the case observed, if the D.A.’s office can make a case that Ms. Grubman acted intentionally, it could affect whether or not any liability insurance she or her father may have pays any claims that result.
Via e-mail, Mr. Catterson’s spokesman, Drew Biondo, wrote that Ms. Grubman’s case “is under full investigation with plans to present the case to a grand jury in the next several weeks.” Asked if the D.A. is investigating anyone in addition to Ms. Grubman–such as the owners of Conscience Point–Mr. Biondo reiterated: “The full case is under full investigation.”
According to Mr. Biondo, Mr. Catterson had no comment about Ms. Grubman’s alleged “white trash” comments. Nor did the publicist’s camp. Mr. Rubenstein said: “The lawyer has decided that Lizzie, the lawyer and I will have no comment on that subject.” The lawyer to whom Mr. Rubenstein referred was Edward Burke Jr., a Suffolk County attorney and the son of a Republican judge, who is well-versed in an area with legal paths as arcane as its back roads.
As for Mr. Rubenstein, he has to make sure that all those behind Ms. Grubman are of one voice. Indeed, if there is one thing that New Yorkers in Ms. Grubman’s orbit are dying to know, it’s what her partner in publicity, Peggy Siegal, makes of the situation. A year ago, Ms. Siegal joined forces with Ms. Grubman in a potentially synergistic uptown-downtown merger. Though the Dec. 7, 1998, issue of New York magazine anointed Ms. Grubman one of the “Power Girls” of publicity, and though she benefited from her father’s numerous show-business connections as well as her former boss Nadine Johnson’s Rolodex, she lacked a certain depth of knowledge of the city’s more established social sets.
But, in the aftermath of the incident, as some of Ms. Grubman’s and Ms. Siegal’s competition seemed positively giddy with Schadenfreude , Ms. Siegal was oddly mute about what was going to happen to her business. Ms. Siegal had been out of town, in Marbella, Spain, attending the wedding of financier Dixon Boardman and the much younger princess Arianna von Hohenlohe.
Ms. Siegal had returned to New York on the evening of July 7, and on July 9, society writer David Patrick Columbia, posted an item on his Web site, Newyorksocialdiary.com, noting that he had encountered Ms. Siegal at 6 a.m. on July 8. Ms. Siegal was sitting on a bench outside the Village Cheese Shop on Main Street, in Southampton, reading a newspaper. “I asked her what happened,” Mr. Columbia wrote. “She looked at me as if to ask me. She had no idea …. She was staying at a friend’s house that night in Southampton when she started getting calls from the press: ‘What happened?’ She knew nothing.” For someone who prides herself on knowing everything, it was a highly unusual response.
Ms. Siegal wasn’t any more forthcoming the evening of July 9, when her firm screened Sony Pictures Classics’ Japanese gangster flick, Brother . And on July 10, when The Observer tried to interview her by phone, she said that she would first have to talk to Mr. Rubenstein. A half-hour later, an e-mail arrived from Ms. Siegal’s office: “Lizzie has been a terrific friend and business associate,” Ms. Siegal said in her statement. “We all feel terrible that this accident has happened and wish the speediest recovery to those injured. Our clients have been most supportive and we are trying to conduct business as usual.”
But that can’t be easy when her partner has become the story. On Saturday, July 7, at approximately 8 p.m., for example, actresses Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair stood beneath a large white tent that had been pitched next to the Cabana lounge in Southhampton. Wearing an M.R.S. dress and Prada heels and chewing a wad of pink bubblegum, Ms. Witherspoon looked particularly eager to chat with journalists about her role as a Malibu Barbie turned Harvard Law graduate in the comedy Legally Blonde .
But on this warm July night, the reporters and even the publicists who had attended the event–which was organized by Ms. Grubman’s competition, Harrison & Shriftman–were not particularly interested in what the actresses had to say. Instead, they were fixated on the incident at Conscience Point, a comedy with tragic undertones. Hamptons documentary maker Barbara Kopple was filming the Legally Blonde event and maybe, a year from now, her edited footage will show a small army of journalists and gossip columnists–including Marc Malkin and Beth Landman Keil of New York magazine, Marcus Baram of US Weekly and Chris Wilson of the New York Post ‘s Page Six column–ignoring the film’s stars as they talked excitedly on their cell phones to editors, city desks, even sources in Los Angeles about Ms. Grubman . Mr. Hay could be seen running through the crowd, handing his cell phone to anyone at the party who might have some news for the Daily News ‘ George Rush, who was at the other end of the call.
Later that night, at 1 a.m. on the morning of July 8, business was booming at Conscience Point, where, for once, everyone had something in common. Max LeRoy, son of the late restaurateur Warner LeRoy, ordered a drink at the bar in the elbow-to-elbow-packed V.I.P. room, where a bottle of Cristal champagne costs $1,000. “Do you think her career is over?” he asked The Observer .
There was no shortage of people in the V.I.P. room who claimed to have witnessed the incident and its aftermath the evening before, but most refused to talk for fear of being blacklisted from Conscience Point or removed from Ms. Grubman’s mailing list.
Most of those who did talk about what had happened that night spoke under the condition of anonymity. “It was like a massacre. It felt like a bombing in Israel,” said a 24-year-old publicist at a firm competitive with Ms. Grubman’s. The publicist said that she’d walked out of the club’s V.I.P. room right after Ms. Grubman’s car hit the wall and found a tangle of people with broken limbs and blood pooling on the ground. “I just saw bodies lying all over,” said the publicist.
Witnesses said Ms. Grubman jumped out of the car and ran into the club after the accident, allegedly leaving two people still trapped by the S.U.V. “There was all this commotion–there was like bloody feet, people on the ground, blood covering their feet. Everybody kinda just starts to kinda moan, nobody knows what’s going on,” said the publicist. “There was all this chaos, and there were police. Paramedics didn’t get there for like half an hour. Because I knew so many people there, I was running back and forth–everyone was like, ‘How’s this person? How’s that person?’ It was like a surreal experience.”
The publicist said her friend, record producer Adam Wacht, was one of the people who had been injured. “His ankles were shattered; they had to be reconstructed,” she said. On July 9, Mr. Wacht declined an Observer reporter’s request to interview him.
The publicist said that seven of the people who were hit by Ms. Grubman’s car were from the same share house. Sarah Thorne, the group associate publisher of Hamptons magazine , was loaded into an ambulance, suffering from broken ribs and wearing an oxygen mask. Witnesses said she begged a friend to remove her expensive lace-up Jimmy Choo sandals so they wouldn’t be cut off by the paramedics. One woman suffered fractured bones in her face; one person’s broken arm was dangling from its joint; one woman was pinned, her pelvis broken, between the car and the club’s wall. Jacqueline Powers, a senior editor a t Maxim and the daughter of Jerry Powers, the publisher of Miami’ s Ocean Drive magazine, was knocked to the ground and left with a bruised left cheek.
According to several witnesses, after the crash Ms. Grubman ran into the club and started asking people if they were O.K. “She got out of her car and went back into Conscience Point V.I.P. room,” said the publicist source. “Lizzie was in the club, hanging out inside. She kinda went back into the crowd or something, and then I don’t know what happened after that.”
Those same witnesses also said that, after the crash, police officers searched for Ms. Grubman inside Conscience Point with handcuffs–and kept mistaking Lara Shriftman for Ms. Grubman. Ms. Shriftman co-owns the public relations firm Harrison & Shriftman and appeared on the New York “Power Girls” cover with Ms. Grubman. Both women are bottle blondes, and Ms. Shriftman happened to be wearing an outfit–a short jean skirt and white shirt–similar to Ms. Grubman’s attire. (Ms. Shriftman declined to comment.)
The impact of the S.U.V. against the wall of the nightclub also apparently left Conscience Point’s V.I.P. room in chaos. One woman who was dancing on the other side of the wall said that the force of the impact “hit our table, and we all fell off the couch we were dancing on. It really felt like … a train hit,” she said. “And all the tables were–all the couches got thrown against the wall, and all the people got thrown.” The woman said that a light fell on her girlfriend and left her with a cut that required 12 stitches. “One of the guys who was dancing on top of the couch was thrown to the bar,” which was approximately 30 feet away.
“People were bruised and cut,” the V.I.P.-room witness said, “but not like the people outside. We looked through the window … and there were people lying everywhere with bloody faces.”
Socialite Casey Johnson, 21, a Conscience Point fixture, said that she was standing by the bar in the V.I.P. room when Ms. Grubman’s car crashed. Just moments before the crash, Ms. Johnson had moved from a banquet near where the car hit the building, saving herself from injury. “I was inside the room when it happened,” she said. “No, I didn’t feel it.”
But others sensed the impact of the incident even if they didn’t witness it, and some sought to contain it. Around 4 a.m. Saturday morning, two hours after the accident, after most of the injured had been transported to area hospitals, a group that included Jason Strauss, one of the club’s owners, as well as one of the club’s promoters and four or five other people, was seen standing in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven on Route 27 with their cell phones glued to their ears. They were “doing damage control … trying to control the rumor mill,” said a 26-year-old banker who witnessed the confab. “They were definitely trying to be in a non-public place to strategize. They pulled together their cars, as opposed to being at the club where they were being marauded.”
Locally, Ms. Grubman was being represented by Mr. Burke, a man well acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the Suffolk County legal system. Mr. Burke has a reputation as the kind of lawyer you hire when you’re in trouble in the Hamptons. His father, Edward Burke Sr., is an active Republican who served as Southampton town justice from 1994 to 2000, until Governor Pataki appointed him a State Court of Claims judge. Court of Claims judges act as State Supreme Court judges, but have the additional authority to hear lawsuits entered against the state. Mr. Burke Sr. reportedly is assigned to State Supreme Court in Riverhead where he hears criminal cases.
As for Mr. Burke Jr., he opened a thriving law practice after a stint in the Suffolk County D.A.’s office. He is also no stranger to the restaurant/nightclub business, given that his family owns The Salty Dog, an eatery and catering facility in Noyac.
Mr. Burke acknowledged that he refused to let Ms. Grubman be tested for alcohol or drugs by the Southampton police. “I appeared and I counseled my client accordingly,” he said. The police could have returned with what is called a blood warrant, which would have compelled Ms. Grubman to submit to such a test, but Mr. Burke said that that did not happen.
“We certainly look forward to the completion of the District Attorney’s investigation as well as the completion of our investigation.” Mr. Burke Jr. said haltingly, suggesting that he was still getting used to talking to the media. He added that the suggestion in the press that “that there was evidence and intent to cause serious physical injury to [the bouncer] and others in front of the club is absolutely untrue. This was an accident, and there are a lot of other facts that will come to light at the appropriate time. ”
Sources familiar with the situation also said that attorney Edward Hayes–who inspired the character of Tommy Killian in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities –is counseling the Grubman family and may have actually had a role in the hiring of Mr. Burke Jr. Although Mr. Hayes declined to comment, the dandyish lawyer is well known for his ties to Governor Pataki, who elevated Mr. Burke’s father to the State Supreme Court.
– Additional reporting by George Gurley