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Chronicling the Complexities of a 'Double Life' : Literature: Linda Wolfe's latest book explores the affair between New York's top judge and his socialite mistress.

September 28, 1994|RUSSELL MILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — It was the first week back from the beach, the week of Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah and fall preview guides in the magazines, and for most of the New York literati nibbling pinky-sized duck rolls in tamarind sauce this was, as they happily explained, "the first book party of the season."

Many were friends of the honoree, Linda Wolfe. Several had even read her new work, "Double Life: The Shattering Affair Between Chief Judge Sol Wachtler and Socialite Joy Silverman" (Pocket Books).

Those who hadn't surely knew the story.

Two years ago, the New York papers were filled with it. He was the powerful leader of the state's top court, a likely candidate for governor. She had raised so much money for George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign that Bush had nominated her, without diplomatic credentials or experience, to be ambassador to Barbados. (The nomination was dropped.)

In November, 1992, the FBI nabbed the chief judge. For months, the long-married Wachtler had been stalking his ex-lover, Silverman, disguising his voice on the phone, mailing coarse threats from distant cities, posing as a fat, toothless gumshoe from Houston and as an Irish Catholic housewife from New Jersey.

He pleaded guilty to threatening to kidnap Silverman's daughter and, a year ago, entered federal prison.

In late August, he was moved to a halfway house in Brooklyn--just in time for the release of Wolfe's book. That put Wachtler, who looks to be cruising toward a lucrative new career in real estate, and Silverman back in the papers. And with the New York Post reporting Silverman's claim that she is again receiving harassing calls, there was plenty to dish at the party.

"Sol Wachtler? It was as if, in California, this happened with Gov. Brown Sr. He had that kind of respect, that status," commented one guest--a New York City political insider who spoke freely, but "not for attribution." He said he knew both Sol and Joy.

The party, it turned out, had its own double life. Stirred in with the publishing familiars was a healthy spritz of figures from the drama itself. For them, the insider said, "maybe it's like a wake or a funeral. People laugh and reminisce."

And spin: Here was Wachtler's therapist, Dr. Sanford Solomon, praising his patient's recovery and blaming drugs for the chief judge's misdeeds.

Here was Michael Chertoff, who prosecuted the case as a U.S. attorney, insisting that "the guy was responsible for what he did--there is no excuse."

And here was Dick Simons, Joy Silverman's first husband. Deeply tan, silver-bearded, with a diamond stud next to the tiny gold hoop in his left ear, flanked by two buxom "lady friends" dripping in rhinestones, Simons piqued the curiosity of dowdy editorial types. He swirled his white wine and denied (as he does in the book) that Silverman's boudoir technique was as inspired as Sol Wachtler seems to have thought.

*

A few days after the party, Wolfe explained her guest list: "I thought it would be amusing to have these people who are in the book suddenly materialize. How often is it that characters you read about come to life at a party?"

Wolfe, a husky-voiced denizen of Manhattan's bookishly bourgeois Upper West Side, has been plumbing the mysteries of middle- and upper-class crime for nearly two decades. She set her sights on the Wachtler affair, she recalled, "the minute it happened."

"I knew it was my story," she said. "I felt it had my name on it. All my work had led up to it. And I wanted to do a book on it."

She started out as a graduate student in literature, not a crime reporter. In the late 1950s, she worked in the rarefied atmosphere of Partisan Review, New York's seminal intellectual journal, then moved to Time Inc., researching and writing. She wrote short stories as well as an anthology-cookbook called "The Literary Gourmet."

All the while, she clipped crime reports from newspapers. She thought they would help her to plot fiction.

In 1977 Wolfe had "what I will always think of, though this will sound callous, as the 'good fortune' of knowing somebody involved in the kind of story I had been clipping," she said.

A pair of twins, both prominent gynecologists, had killed themselves. One had been her doctor, briefly, years before. She sold her investigation of the double suicide to New York magazine. Then she based a novel, "Private Practices," on the brothers' creepy lives, taking a pregnant patient's point of view. (It became the movie "Dead Ringers" starring Jeremy Irons in 1988.)

"But by that time," she recalled, "I had been bitten by the bug of actuality. From '77 on, I began concentrating on crime, real things that had happened, always with a deep psychological probing. I'm more interested in what went before and what comes after than in the actual crime itself."

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