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August 7, 1994

DOUBLE LIFE: The Shattering Affair Between Chief Judge Sol Wachtler and Socialite Joy Silverman, by Linda Wolfe. Pocket, 286 pp., $22.

In November 1992, Sol Wachtler, Chief Judge of New York State, past candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court and future candidate for New York governor, was arrested by the FBI. He was charged with blackmailing and extorting money from his former girlfriend in a half-baked yet diabolical threat to kidnap her teenage daughter. The girlfriend happened to be his wife's first cousin.

Wachtler was then 62 years old, tall, youthful and (at least on the surface) charming, married to a wealthy, accomplished woman, the father of four grown children. How could someone of such prominence have risked so much for someone whom he had come to believe was worth so little? This is the question journalist and author Linda Wolfe wrestles with, not fully successfully, in "Double Life." In it, Wolfe has interviewed more than 100 people and earnestly recorded the source of every tidbit of fact and gossip she has gathered. Among those interviewed extensively were Wachtler and his wife. Among those not interviewed was the girlfriend, Joy Silverman, who has been in self-imposed seclusion since Wachtler's arrest nearly two years ago. Only now, with his release imminent, is she beginning to emerge, conspicuously telling friends she is still afraid and seeking police protection from Wachtler.

In a nutshell, here's the plot: Wachtler, if hardly a poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks, comes from struggling working-class folk. Bright and ambitious, he graduates from college and law school at Virginia's Washington and Lee, then marries Joan Wolosoff, heir to a Long Island real-estate fortune. Her family stakes Wachtler to a career in Nassau County Republican politics. From obscure town councilman he rises to chief judge of New York's highest court.

Meanwhile Joan's Uncle Bibbs, her father's brother and the force behind the family's real-estate empire, marries the beautiful and vain and money-obsessed Jeanette Fererh. Joy, Jeanette's daughter from a previous marriage, grows up equally beautiful and vain and money-obsessed. During her third marriage, she hooks up with Wachtler, whose own marriage has bogged down in middle-aged ennui and who has become a trustee of Joy's multi-million dollar trust fund (in what arguably was a violation of the state's judicial ethics).

The two strike a kind of Faustian bargain. Wachtler introduces Joy to his Republican circles. She fund-raises for, and is befriended by, none other than President George Bush. She then lobbies unsuccessfully for Sol's appointment to the Supreme Court, while he plots, equally unsuccessfully, to have Joy appointed ambassador to Barbados.

But when Joy presses Wachtler to leave Joan for her, Wachtler demurs. And when Joy takes up with another man, Sol loses it - literally. For reasons Wolfe never explains, Sol has begun taking anti-depressants. With the pills and his jealousy, he concocts a bizarre yet vicious scheme to win Joy back by disguising himself and threatening to kidnap her 14-year-old daughter.

Using the name David Purdy, a purported Texas private eye, he sends Joy threatening letters and makes hateful telephone calls. He sends her Printable versiondaughter sick, vicious letters and at one point a condom.

Joy contacts the FBI, amid rumors that through her presidential connections she has personally come to know then FBI director William Sessions. The FBI dispatches no fewer than 80 agents. After shamelessly harassing the estranged wife of Joy's new lover and accusing her of having plotted the kidnaping - an incident Wolfe ignores - the agents arrest Wachtler, who by then is so spaced out he drives away empty-handed from the FBI-designated drop-off point in New York City, where Joy was supposed to have left $ 20,000 in cash.

Alas, despite all this deliciously combustible material, Wolfe's "Double Life" is brittle and dry, long on details, short on insight - more an extended newspaper article than a book. It is as though Wolfe, whose past efforts revealed a writer of considerable ability, had either too tight a deadline to ponder all she learned, or found both Wachtler and Joy so wanting in redeeming features that she lost interest in them. Ironically, she has drawn a sharper picture of Joy, whom she never interviewed, than she has of Wachtler, with whom, according to Wolfe's footnotes, she spent considerable time. To Wolfe, Joy is a pretentious, selfish social climber. Wachtler remains an enigma. We know no more of him and the fatal flaw in his character that would allow him to destroy himself and his family by the end of "Double Life" than we did at the beginning. All we are left with, in lieu of insight, is a series of conflicting diagnoses by various psychiatrists who examined Wachtler after his arrest.

Incidents that could have proved insightful - such as Wachtler's need for facial surgery or his simmering resentment toward his wife - are ignored or dismissed. Describing Joy as an unwanted stepchild in Bibbs' home, Wolfe takes a second-hand account of Joy telling a friend that Bibbs hated her and refused to adopt her. Then Wolfe, again citing the friend, drops this on us: "It was the way her stepfather looked at her. There was something sexual about it. He wanted her, she began to think. And one day, sure enough, he grabbed her and tried to kiss her. He forced his tongue between her lips and began to fondle her breast. She pulled away and screamed at him and told him if he ever came near her again in that way, she'd tell her mother." Yet this incident - with its potentially revealing insights into what appears in the book as Joy's ill-formed and cynical relationships with men - is never mentioned again.

Finally, there is Wolfe's writing style. Sample this description of Joy's entree into the Palm Beach social scene: "Getting to know the notorious, like Gregg Dodge - who had been accused of brutally beating her alcoholic husband, automobile heir Horace Dodge Jr. - and the exquisite, like Susie Hutton - who had given up a career in modeling to marry brokerage heir Willie Hutton - swimming and watching their husbands play golf at the Breakers Country Club, dancing at the Kimberly estate and at Pulitzer's mansion, and even dining with King Hussein - not just once but several times - Joy and Jeanette began at last to live the life they had always read about in gossip columns." Need one say more?

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© 1994 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.