He was the top justice of New York’s highest court. She was a stunning socialite and his wife’s step-cousin. In 1993 Sol Wachtler was convicted of blackmail and extortion against Joy Silverman, his former mistress. How did a respected jurist and one of the most prominent men in America end up serving time in prison? Linda Wolfe starts at the beginning—from Wachtler’s modest Brooklyn upbringing through his courtship and marriage to Joan Wolosoff, the only child of a wealthy real estate developer.
Joy Fererh was three and a half when her father walked out. When she and Sol met, he was fifty-five and nearing the pinnacle of his legal career. She was a thirtysomething stay-at-home mother who, with Sol’s help, made a career for herself as a Republican Party fundraiser. They kept their affair a secret—until an explosive mix of sex, power, betrayal, and prescription-drug abuse set the stage for the tabloid headlines of the decade.
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About the Author
Linda Wolfe is the author of five true-crime books: The Professor and the Prostitute and Other True Tales of Murder and Madness, Love Me to Death, Double Life, The Murder of Dr. Chapman, and Wasted: Inside the Robert Chambers–Jennifer Levin Murder, an Edgar Award nominee and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of My Daughter, Myself, a memoir; The Literary Gourmet, a classic cookbook; and Private Practices, a novel. Wolfe’s articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, among them Vanity Fair, the New York Times Magazine, and New York magazine, of which she was a contributing editor. She currently writes a column about books for the website www.FabOverFifty.com.
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The Shattering Affair between Chief Judge Sol Wachtler and Socialite Joy Silverman
By Linda Wolfe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Linda Wolfe
All rights reserved.
Sol Wachtler was born in Brooklyn in 1930 and lived for the first years of his life in a tiny apartment above a cleaning store on a bustling shopping street. He adored his mother, Faye, a warm and indulgent immigrant from Russia. About his father, an American-born traveling salesman who made his living auctioning off the estates of the dead or the failed, his feelings were more complicated. Philip Wachtler was a quiet, strict man with a highly developed sense of right and wrong, and although Sol knew he was a concerned father, he found him cold and unaffectionate.
Times were hard for the Wachtlers in those Depression days, as they were for many Americans. Philip, Faye, and the children had to share their little apartment with an aunt in order to make the rent. But in 1938 Philip began to earn some decent money and was able to move his wife and two sons—Sol and his older brother, Morty—to the South, where he was increasingly doing his business.
They lived in a number of small towns in Georgia and the Carolinas and finally settled down in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Philip opened a small jewelry store and the children went to public schools.
When the war came, the whole family—except for Sol—started working in the store. There was an Army camp nearby, and soldiers from the camp crowded into the shop all day long to buy trinkets for their sweethearts back home. But although he could have used an extra hand, Philip had other plans for his youngest son. He wanted Sol to stay home and study so he could go to college. So he could be the first person in the family to go to college.
The boy had proved himself to be a go-getter. When he was twelve, he'd talked the local radio station into letting him emcee an afternoon show, a comedy and variety hour. When he was thirteen, he'd started a little mimeographed newspaper, "The Eternal Light," distributing it among the hundred or so Jewish families that lived in town. Philip was certain that one day Sol would make the family uncommonly proud, and told him repeatedly, "You're going to be the professional man in the family. So stay away from the store, and do your homework."
Sol was pained by his father's edict. It was lonely, coming home to an empty house. Taking meals by himself. "Let me work in the store like Morty," he begged Philip one day. "I could help out. Wrap packages." But Philip was adamant. "Stay away from the store," he insisted. "I don't want you tainted by it. By business."
Sol did as he was told, and when he was in his junior year of high school, Philip, who like many businessmen had grown prosperous during the war, decided to bankroll him to a prep-school education, or at least the last part of one, so that he could go, not just to college, but to a good college.
He sent him to Milford, a Connecticut school that was reputed to have an excellent record of getting its students into Yale.
Sol arrived at Milford in the winter of 1946. He was a handsome adolescent. His nose was a tad too big, but his smile was ready and ample, and his eyes a remarkable crystalline blue. He was popular—students and teachers alike enjoyed his company. And he was immensely energetic. He flung himself into the life of the school, joining the public speaking club, the music appreciation society, the school newspaper, the varsity basketball team.
In the summer he went home to St. Petersburg and over the vacation got his nose bobbed. In the fall, he returned to school handsomer than ever and reaped the rewards of his initial popularity, getting elected president of the senior class. By the spring semester, his final one, he'd become such a big man on campus that even though he'd been at Milford only a year and a half, the school decided that, come graduation, they'd give him their principal award, the Wilson Cup, an annual prize awarded to the student who contributed most "to the life and spirit of the school."
He was proud when he heard he would be receiving the award. But there'd been a big disappointment too. Yale had turned him down. The prestigious university had been harder than ever to get into that year, what with all the veterans getting preference, and his grades hadn't been all that exceptional.
Where to go instead? He decided on Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia. "It was in the South, and I liked the idea of living in warm weather again," he would one day explain. "It was one of the better southern universities. And my pal Ronnie Levick was going there and having a great time."
In the spring of 1947, he sent his acceptance to Washington and Lee.
That same spring, a woman named Jeanette Fererh, who hailed from Saranac Lake, New York, gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Joy, perhaps for the feelings that holding and cuddling the dark-haired infant inspired in her.
Jeanette was a charmer. Tall and voluptuous, with sparkling jade-green eyes and fine dark hair that she wore in a chignon, she had an irresistible way of relating to people. She'd focus entirely on whomever she was addressing, her stunning cat's eyes glued to theirs, her wide mouth fixed in a radiant smile. And she'd issue lavish praise, compliments that made women feel they were trusted confidantes, men as if they were ten feet tall.
But her marriage to Ben Fererh wasn't a happy one, and soon the two would drift apart.
On a balmy June weekend in 1947, shortly after he'd graduated from Milford, Sol Wachtler traveled to Queens to spend a few days visiting his friend Ronnie. Ronnie had glorious hijinks planned for Saturday night. A bunch of friends, all paired off into couples, would go to Manhattan and spend the evening dancing and drinking at some Broadway hotel, maybe the Astor, maybe the famous Biltmore, where all through the war their older brothers had kissed farewell to their girlfriends beneath the big clock.
But I don't have a date, Sol pointed out.
Don't worry, Ronnie told him. I'll arrange one for you. With a cousin of mine.
She was Joan Carol Wolosoff, a high school junior, and she was rich. Her father, Leon, the son of a cantor, was president of Wolosoff Brothers, one of the big building companies in Queens. Her mother, Elsie, was a daughter of Max Blumberg, a lumber and millwork dealer who had come to America as a penniless fourteen-year-old from Lithuania and quickly amassed so great a fortune that he not only left millions to each of his children but became one of the most generous Jewish philanthropists of his era.
Sol didn't know all this when he first laid eyes on Joan. He just knew that he liked the way she looked. She was blond and buxom—her nickname at the summer camp she had gone to had been "Tits Wolosoff"— and she was very graceful.
On their first date, bobbing and twirling to the hotel band's feverish lindy hops and gliding in each other's arms to romantic fox trots, they knew they wanted to see each other again. On their second date, they went to see Brigadoon, the number one hit on Broadway, and when they drove back to Queens, neither of them wanted to get out of the car, so they parked in her driveway and talked for hours about their friends, their families, their dreams for the future. On their third date, they went with a crowd of boys and girls to Jones Beach, where they watched the play of the moon's silver light illuminating the crashing waves, and later the rays of the rising sun. After that, they started going together. Going steady. Except that they both knew that Sol would be leaving for college in the fall.
He was going to be a lawyer, he had decided by then. Washington and Lee had a program that enabled students to receive both their B.A. and LL.B. degrees in just six years.
Sol entered Washington and Lee in the fall of 1947. The school, one of the oldest universities in the South, had a bucolic campus that rolled across a hundred acres shaded by ancient trees and dotted with handsome Greek Revival-style columned buildings. Sol pledged a Jewish fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi, and, remarkably, in his sophomore year was elected frat president, a position generally won only by an upper-classman. He had won the election, one of his frat brothers would recall years later, because he had an almost instinctive gift for politics. "It was like he was a favorite of some mythological god," the frat brother observed. "Like he'd been given a magic potion to drink or an invisible cloak to wear. Something that always made him win."
His political abilities had paid off in other ways as well by then. He had become the secretary-treasurer of the Washington Literary Society, a group that sponsored roundtable discussions, the secretary and speaker of the Forensic Union, a debating group, a prominent member of the Washington and Lee Debate Team, and a member of the Christian Council and War Memorial Scholarship Committee. His energy in pursuing his interests was extraordinary, and in a reprise of his experience at Milford, in his second year on campus he won an award, sponsored by the university's Inter-Fraternity Council, that was reserved for the student "who has contributed most to campus activities."
He was still keen on Joan Wolosoff, who had graduated from high school by then and was attending Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. Sometimes he made the five-hour drive to visit her; sometimes she came down to Lexington to see him. But they had agreed that they could each date other people, and occasionally, they did. Yet Sol wasn't very interested in girls, not nearly as interested as some of his house brothers were. They broke the frat-house rules—girls weren't allowed above the second floor—sneaking their dates past the watchful eyes of the housemother and into upstairs bedrooms. And they hung out with them at a town juke joint, dancing and drinking beer. But Sol didn't sneak girls into his room, and he rarely turned up at the juke joint.
"He wasn't a big ladies' man," another of his frat brothers would one day recall. "He wasn't a make-out guy. He was very—well, clean-cut. And besides, there was Joan. There was always Joan."
Sol had met her family the previous year—not just her mother, Elsie, and her father, Leon, but her uncles, Morton and Alvin, the one known as Bibbs. Leon was the eldest of the three brothers, a sweet-natured, energetic man who was always running. He'd bound up the stairs to his second-story office on Queens Boulevard, then skip down them, always taking them in twos. Morton, too, had a sympathetic personality and was known as the family peacemaker. But Bibbs, the youngest, was tough, opinionated, convinced that he was always right. Despite his scratchy exterior, Sol hit it off with him.
The three Wolosoff brothers had been in the building business for over twenty-five years. They'd constructed homes right through the Depression and even during the war, when, despite the fact that almost no new housing was going up, shrewd Bibbs had managed to obtain a government contract to erect homes near a naval base. Suddenly, after the war, they started to be immensely successful.
It was that sort of a time. People were clamoring for all the things they'd had to do without during the war years—to get a car, they'd pay a thousand dollars under the table. For an apartment, several thousand. And the demand for houses, houses roomy enough for war veterans who were producing the children of the baby boom, was mammoth. William Levitt began building inexpensive housing for veterans and in a few short years constructed and sold close to eighteen thousand homes. The Wolosoffs, too, began building similar low-cost homes, and they were snapped up as soon as they were erected. Then Leon began building more expensive homes.
The Wolosoffs did not live grandly during those early postwar years. Morton had an apartment in the city. Bibbs lived in a four-and-a-half-room apartment in Queens. Leon, the only one with a house, had a small, attached three-bedroom place, also in Queens.
But in 1949, the year Sol Wachtler was a junior at Washington and Lee, Bibbs decided to build a home in Nassau County for himself, his wife, Sylvia, and their two young sons. Nassau was home to some of the most luxurious houses in the country, an area in which until recently there had been vast open fields dotted with vegetable farms and edged by miles of scrub oak and gnarled pine along an untouched shoreline. It was an area where women whose photographs appeared in the society columns of newspapers attended debutante balls, where men still played polo and rode to hounds. And it was an area where once there had been few Jews but into which, increasingly, newly wealthy Jewish families had begun penetrating.
The North Shore of Nassau County was its "Gold Coast," one of the richest areas in the United States, a region of rolling fields and high bluffs overlooking the majestic Long Island Sound. Land here was expensive, and better deals could be had on the flatter expanses of the South Shore. But he would buy and build, Bibbs decided, in the burgeoning town of Great Neck on the desirable North Shore. He could afford whatever he'd have to pay for the property—and he purchased six acres. He also decided that he would make his home a dream house, a place that would announce to all who saw it that here was a builder with vision and taste.
Perhaps Leon, too, would have decided to build himself a grand home. But in the spring of 1949, while he was running up the stairs to his office, he collapsed. He was rushed to a hospital, where it was discovered he had had a severe heart attack. Hospitalized, the forty-eight-year-old builder showed some improvement at first, but several days later he worsened and died. His daughter, Joan—his only child—became an heiress, inheriting real estate that was not yet income-producing, but that would one day be worth many millions of dollars.
After Leon died, Sol and Joan talked about getting married, but Joan's mother, Elsie, wouldn't hear of it. Sol had no money, he wasn't society, and he was still just a college student. Sylvia Wolosoff, Joan's aunt, made fun of him. "Elsie," she called out to her sister-in-law one day when she was visiting her house and Sol arrived to pick up Joan for a date, "Elsie, the delivery boy is here!"
Sol and Joan bided their time. But they saw each other whenever they could. Once, in Sol's junior year, Joan came down to Washington and Lee and, looking very much the prototype of the young postwar debutante, her blond hair bobbed and sleekly banged, her neck bangled with three strands of pearls, her smile a wide flash of perfect white teeth, had her picture printed in the school newspaper. Another time, she was named "the sweetheart of Phi Epsilon Pi," Sol's frat. Sol was proud of her and paraded around the campus with her on his arm, a frat brother who recalled Joan's visits would eventually say, "Like a peacock displaying tail feathers." "And why not? She was one of those perfect girls. Poised, self-assured, and with every hair in place."
By 1951, the marriage between Jeanette and Ben Fererh had broken up and Jeanette was raising three-and-a-half-year-old Joy on her own. Jeanette would say that breaking up had been her idea, but years later when she was grown, Joy would tell intimates that her father had walked out, abandoned the family.
Joan Wolosoff had, by that same year, transferred to Sarah Lawrence College to be near her grieving mother, and Sol Wachtler was attending law school, where he was elected president of Washington and Lee's Bar Association. He was also trying his hand at being a creative writer, coauthoring a column in the school paper, which ran under the byline "Sacco and Vanzetti." Sometimes the columns were filled with puerile jokes or letters signed with such would-be amusing names as "Twisted Mind," "Dementia Praecox," or "Chow Hound." At other times, there were short stories.
In one, a girl whose initials, like Joan's, are J.C.W. and who, like Joan, is a psychology major, asks a young man to tell her a dream so that she can interpret the symbolism. Other friends have done her this favor, she points out. But the hero of the story, not wanting his inner self made public, refuses to present a real dream and instead makes up one so zany and so tauntingly overladen with Freudian sexual symbols, including snakes, boxes, umbrellas, and a mace "cunningly hinged to the navel of the bearer," that the poor girl is utterly frustrated. "You're not psychotic," she tells him. "You're ... just plain juvenile."
Excerpted from Double Life by Linda Wolfe. Copyright © 1994 Linda Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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