Top Divorce Lawyers Felder and Felder Clash in the Supreme Court Over Women's Rights, but Their Own Marriage Seems Firm
03/28/1988 at 01:00 AM EST
Raoul Felder has gotten himself into a really nasty domestic dispute. You'd think the man would know better. After all, he is the Duke of Divorce, the matrimonial lawyer who has peeked between the sheets in some pretty ferocious divorce cases—the David Merricks, the Alan Jay Lerners, the Robert Sculls, Nancy and Andy Capasso (and Bess Myerson, too). But Raoul thought a principle was involved and, grasping the nettle, he has become a public spokesman for the sanctity of men's private clubs. On a recent morning, just before he was to defend his position on national TV, he explained himself while sitting in the living room of his Fifth Avenue apartment, overlooking Manhattan's Central Park. Women, he says, should be kept out of New York's Friars Club because...because...because...Raoul Felder becomes tongue-tied. He turns for help to his wife, Myrna. She hands him his hat—Raoul is late for his appearance on the Today show.
An hour later, as he presents his case before America, Myrna is watching from her own office in her husband's law firm. She's the Duchess of Divorce, and as she hears her husband offer such defenses as "Men need a place to get away from their wives," she whispers, "I would have creamed him."
She still intends to cream him—and has tried to do it in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. As last year's president of the Women's Bar Association of the State of New York, Myrna helped draw up the legal brief attacking the practice of banning women from the Friars Club—a case that is expected to be decided by the high court this spring. In other words, although they are law partners and married, Raoul and Myrna hold no brief for each other's views on women's rights.
Nevertheless, the Felders have reconcilable differences. They have been married 24 years and, like many couples, have grown closer in some ways and apart in others. She is a staunch feminist and he is an unashamed male chauvinist. He won't take a vacation. She flies off to Europe alone every chance she can get. He works 18 hours a day. She stops and goes home when she feels she's done enough. He spends Sundays hounding flea markets and visiting the Lower East Side, stuffing himself with heavy food from ancient recipes. She sleeps late.
But the Felders have seen too many ugly divorce possibilities to turn domestic contrast into a domestic contest. "When you know what people do to each other, it's pretty awful," says Raoul, 53. "It reminds me of a Laurel and Hardy movie I saw once. Laurel rips off one piece of clothing. Hardy retaliates. Pretty soon they are tearing each other to pieces. That's what people do in a divorce. They tear each other apart." There is very little chance of the Felders doing likewise. For one thing, they each are devoted to protecting the other's professional standing and private image. For another, there are the children—Rachel, 21, a film student at Columbia University, and James, 16.
The Felders live in that thin air of the very rich where the sound of marriages breaking up is like the clap of thunder. "It's the estates that we eventually have to divide," says Raoul. "The rich don't fight over the children; they fight over the custody of apartments. People have rooms where they wear rubber, they whip each other—they do things to each other you wouldn't believe, and it doesn't always mean they are bad. The human heart is a very strange thing. Our job is not to make matters worse."
They've done their job surpassingly well. The Felders were reportedly the first divorce lawyers to get a $50,000 fee, the first to get a $100,000 fee and the first to earn a million dollars. The reason is simple: They seldom lose. According to their peers, the Felders make a potent team in court. "Myrna is popular with the women, and that's a very important lobby," says attorney Stuart Shaw, who has been on the losing end of the Felders' combination. "She's bright and shrewd, and he knows all the right people. He's very impressive in front of a jury. He can quote Shakespeare."
It was Myrna who represented Ethel Scull during the appeal when she battled the late taxi magnate, Robert Scull, over a $10 million art collection. She eventually obtained a one-third split for her client. Myrna, 47, dug out receipts and proofs of purchase and found an undervalued Jasper Johns.
"We knew it was worth $3.6 million, although it was appraised at only $1.75 million," says Raoul. "The trick was to get the first pick of the paintings. We were going to decide by the flip of a coin. I found out that there's more metal on the head of a quarter. Tails would come up 60 percent of the time. So when it came time to choose, I let them call it. People generally call heads and he did. It came up tails."
That quarter made a $250,000 difference in the Felders' fee. Not that they have trouble paying the rent: The Felders bill between $10 million and $12 million annually. In Raoul's office is a bust of Balzac by Rodin, paintings by Picasso (he represented the artist's younger son, Claude, in a divorce), drawings by George Grosz, World War I campaign hats, model airplanes—and an assortment of slippers, his standard office footwear. A Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce waits downstairs. Raoul owns 350 suits, give or take a few Paul Stuarts. Myrna collects briefcases of woven leather with labels warning against being taken out in the rain—thousand-dollar cases you can't take outdoors. They have all the material and personal success that anyone could desire.
And yet Raoul cannot sleep. He reads and paces and watches TV and waits for the stroke he is certain lurks just around the corner. "In the middle of the night I develop cancer and cure it by morning," he says. "I dream up heart attacks that disappear in the light of day."
There is no bleak side of life for the former Myrna Danenberg. She was born in Brooklyn, the child of a comfortably wealthy sportswear manufacturer. When she was 5 she was hit in the right eye by a baseball and had to wear a patch for three years. Myrna took dance lessons and appeared on TV's The Children's Hour; the approval she got in show business drowned out schoolmates' taunts about her eye. Nothing has ever been as bad as that. "It was hard for women of my mother's generation," she says, "but I don't have a single complaint." Raoul also grew up in Brooklyn, but the son of a poor veterinarian. "The '40s were bad times," he says. "Horses were dying off and poodles weren't in yet. My father couldn't make a living. So he became a lawyer."
On cold mornings, when he walked 16 blocks to Eastern District High School, Raoul would curse the owners of the cars that rode by. "I thought, how can this be, someone is cold and someone else is warm? Even today, I see people sleeping on the sidewalks and I wonder, how can this be? So much wealth and so much poverty. A nation cannot survive this way. It eats away your soul."
Raoul tried becoming a doctor, but in his second year of medical school he saw that he would never escape coming face-to-face with death every day. So he switched to law. At first, he was an assistant United States attorney working out of the Eastern District, prosecuting counterfeiters and money launderers. In 1963 he met Myrna, who was appearing on Broadway as the dance captain in Anthony Newley's musical Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. He was dating a friend of hers, but he fell in love with the five-foot-tall, pixie-faced Myrna. "She looked so bitty," he says fondly.
Myrna was not immediately impressed by Raoul. He was too tall (he has her by a foot) and too cocky. But she detected a sensitivity and warmth that won her over. They were married in 1964. At about the same time, he detected a social trend: divorce. He went into private practice. "Something happened when John Kennedy was elected President," he says. "The President was 42 when he was campaigning. I saw that a lot of 42-year-old men were leaving their wives."
Raoul's theory is that TV killed marriage. People would look at the screen, grow bored with the image and change the channel. Then they'd look across the room, grow bored and change their mate. "A disposable society," he says.
"What we do, we help people," explains Myrna, who, to stay close to Raoul, went back to school after her marriage and earned her law degree. "Half the marriages should end in divorce. Wives are beaten, abused. Children suffer. We don't seek them out."
It's late in the afternoon, and the light is fading from the office. Raoul is saying he'd like to retire and write spy novels when a secretary breaks in: Mark Gastineau's manager phoned, looking for the football player. He called Raoul, who represents Lisa Gastineau in their pending divorce. "Why wouldn't he call Mark's lawyer?" asks the bewildered Felder. Before he can find out, he's interrupted by an assistant who's holding a folder. It's about the sharks. Felder—ever the ambience chaser—had wanted to put two live sharks in his office. Myrna was having no part of it. "The sharks," says Myrna, "will have to stay in Raoul's office." Her own digs remain nicely covered in flowered chintz. "When you let me into the Friars Club, I'll get a shark."