It’s hard to imagine but when Linda Fairstein joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s (“D.A.’s”) office in 1972, she was the only woman in a class of 12 Assistant D.A.s. Frank Hogan, the Manhattan D.A. at the time, told Linda that he” respected her enormously, but didn’t think the D.A.’s office was the place for women.” Prosecuting criminals was simply too “tawdry” a business. This sentiment aside, the first hurdle Linda faced when joining Hogan’s staff was finding an office mate. It was still very much a boys club. Michael Guadagno, now a New Jersey state court judge, offered to share office space with Linda. He and Linda remain good friends today and Michael’s wife, Kim, was recently elected to serve as New Jersey’s next Lieutenant Governor.
As an English Literature major at Vassar College, Linda hardly fit the mold of criminal prosecutor and defender of domestic violence victims. She loved Dickens and great story telling. When she told her father she wanted to be a writer, he teasingly said, “but you have nothing to write about.” So like many liberal arts majors, she went to law school. As with so much in life, fate intervened in the form of a marvelous teacher/mentor at the University of Virginia School of Law—Monrad Paulsen. Paulsen inspired Linda in a way that “kicked open the door” to that interview with Frank Hogan and an amazing career in the Manhattan D.A.’s office—considered a jewel in the crown in the world of criminal prosecution.
Talking to Linda, you get not only a sense of her passion, but also her self-deprecating humor. She remembers her first trial and its closing summation vividly: “The judge called me up to the bench and said, Miss Fairstein, your summation isn’t supposed to read like a book report.” This was to be a lesson well learned as Linda developed her own style and voice as a prosecutor. Her summations would in the future tell the story in a coherent way, and she would know—often before the trial began—where she wanted to go with the narrative.
Anyone living in New York in the 80’s and 90’s can’t help but recognize Linda’s name. She headed the Sex Crimes Unit in the D.A.’s office, prosecuting perpetrators of rape and domestic violence. One of her most famous trials involved Robert Chambers the so-called “preppie murderer.” But when asked to point to the case she’s most proud of Linda doesn’t hesitate. “The case involved a serial rapist, who handcuffed, raped, and sodomized a woman on the Upper West Side and was later found guilty for not only the West Side rape but the rapes of several women on the Upper East Side.” The prosecution of Kendall Brown remains one of Linda’s most “emotionally satisfying cases.” She adds: “One of the victims is one of my closest friends today.”
While recent media attention to the abuse of pop star Rihanna by Chris Brown has increased the calls to prevent domestic violence, this subject had been relatively taboo in the 70’s. As head of the Sex Crimes Unit, Linda brought a seriousness of purpose and a strong desire to protect women who were abused and sometimes murdered —often by the men in their lives. Linda notes that “studies have shown that when there is a strangulation incident early on in a relationship, there is a greater likelihood that the offender will attempt to kill.” While prosecuting criminals for bad behavior is important to Linda, it was vitally important to be able to prosecute the right criminal for the right crime. The 80’s saw the introduction of DNA testing. It gave prosecutors the tool to convict with both certainty and justice. “DNA evidence revolutionized the criminal justice system,” she says.
Thirty years later in 2002 when Linda retired from the Manhattan D.A.s office, she could look back on her career with pride, a sense of fulfillment, and the realization that her experience provided a platform for a second career—New York Times best-selling murder mystery author. As her father would have said, “It gave her something to write about.”
Alex Cooper, the smart, daring, and totally capable prosecutor in Linda’s novels has given Linda the opportunity to do the things she enjoys most: write, explore the City of New York, and continue to address the issues of crime and violence. Her most recently published novel, Lethal Legacy, uses the backdrop of the New York Public Library. Her 12th novel, Hell Gate, will be in bookstores on March 9th, and uses Gracie Mansion as its backdrop. The Mayor’s Office allowed Linda to explore the mansion in a way that adds credibility to her (or should we say, Alex’s) story.
Aside from writing best-selling novels, and serving as a member of the Board of Trustees at Vassar College, Linda is currently working with the new District Attorney-Elect, Cyrus Vance, Jr. on his transition team. Linda is the Co-Chair of the sub-committee on Special Victims issues. A long-time friend of Vance’s, Linda is excited about the new D.A., “Cy cares so passionately about women’s issues.”
Given the challenging economy, Linda advises law students and young lawyers to consider public service and non-profit legal work. “Do something worthwhile. I stayed in the D.A.’s office under Robert Morgenthau because it was enormously fulfilling. I looked forward to going into the office every day.”
While women lament the ability to have it all, Linda certainly comes close. Aside from her career, she spends quality time with her husband of nearly 25 years, attorney Justin Feldman, makes time for fun lunches with her many friends, and, of course, finds time to shop.
For information on Linda’s novels, check out her website at: www.LindaFairstein.com
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Places to Eat: Primola, 1226 Second Avenue between 64th and 65th; Patroon, 160 East 46th Street, and Rao’s 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue.
Favorite Places to Shop: Escada for clothes, Tod for shoes and bags, Burke’s Antiques ( 1030 Lexington Avenue at 73rd) for antique silver and Marckle Myers for antique prints including botanicals and “bizarre skeletons” (1030 Lexington Avenue).
Favorite New York Moment: Meeting my husband at a City Bar Association committee meeting.
Favorite New York Sight: The New York Skyline from anywhere, especially when flying over it. It always takes my breath away.
What You Love About New York: The energy, intelligence, diversity, and spirit.
What You Hate About New York: It’s unaffordable for too many people.