For at least two decades, an eclectic group of high-brow, one-time movers and shakers met to reminisce, smoke cigars, argue, agree, solve the world's problems, invent new problems and share the blessing that was the friendship of former New York Law Journal publisher Jerry Finkelstein.
Finkelstein died Wednesday at the age of 96, leaving behind a legacy of a savvy, cosmopolitan industrialist and irrepressible character. He is survived by two sons, eight grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and devoted friends who prized his wit, insight and companionship at their almost weekly gatherings.
"If I ever got in trouble and was taken into custody and had only one phone call to make, the person I would call is Jerry," said Bernard Nussbaum, former counsel to President Bill Clinton and a partner at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz. "Even if I reached him in the White House having dinner with the president, whether it was Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, I know Jerry would get up, leave the table, come to the stationhouse and bail me out. That was the kind of friend he was to me and so many others."
Nussbaum was an original member of what became informally known as the "Finkelstein Group," an assemblage that also included the likes of retired Appellate Division, Second Department, Presiding Justice Milton Mollen, former Eastern District U.S. Attorney Andrew Maloney, supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, former state Supreme Court Justice Burton Sherman and prominent lawyers such as Floyd Abrams, a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, and Gary Naftalis, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. Approximately once a week, they would gather, initially at the Yale Club but then at Finkelstein's apartment after the Yale Club banned cigars.
"We drank. We smoked cigars. We talked. We talked endlessly. We argued endlessly. Each one of us would tell stories, and as we did we'd make ourselves out to be the hero of those stories," Nussbaum said. "We would tell the same stories over and over again each week and we would laugh as if we were hearing them for the first time. Actually, in our minds we were hearing them for the first time. But it was a great group, led always by Jerry."
Mollen said the discussions were free-wheeling and far-ranging. He said the group most recently met about a month ago, shortly before Finkelstein left his apartment at the Carlyle Hotel and went into the hospital.
"We had many shared interestswhat was going on in government, what was going on in the law, what was going on in life," Mollen said. "When Jerry was your friend, you had a very good friend. He was a very colorful character and he knew a great many people at all levels of government and industry. He had close relations with the Kennedy family. He was friendly with Governor Rockefeller."
Maloney, the former U.S. Attorney, said he was always struck by Finkelstein's uncanny ability to quickly and precisely assess character.
"He could read people, total strangers, accurately," Maloney said.
Finkelstein was born in New York City, educated at New York University and New York Law School and worked as a reporter for the New York Daily Mirror before launching a successful business career in the 1950s. He never took the bar exam and instead bought, sold and profited from a variety of businesses, dabbled in public relations, became chairman of the engineering conglomerate Sturthers Wells, invested in real estate ventures and, in 1963, bought the New York Law Journal.