The Victory that Counts: How the Writer Norman Cousins Lost in Court

It was 1972 and I was proudly earning $100 a week—my first real job anywhere– as a secretarial assistant in the Photography Department at my father/s magazine. One day, my mother told me that Daddy was being sued.

Sued? You’re kidding! Who’s suing him?”

“Well, it’s not really Daddy, it’s someone suing Saturday Review. As a company. But as the editor, Daddy’s the one who represents the magazine. Remember Anya?” (Not her real name.)

“Anya?! You’re kidding! But she died!”

“It’s her son.”  My mother explained that this longtime staff writer, a recently deceased friend of my parents—I remembered her well–had stipulated in her will that what remained of her pension should be returned to her employer. In a letter to my father before her death, Anya had written that with this $25,000, she wanted to help my father hold his own during the business takeover that was then taking place whereby a large corporation was seeking financial and editorial control over the magazine. Now Anya’s son, said my mother, was claiming that his octogenarian mother had (G-d forbid) been convinced by the company to surrender what was due her, thereby depriving him, the son, of his rightful inheritance.

Daddy — much to Mommy’s annoyance – was undecided about challenging the man’s claim in court, even though it was fraudulent. This was the case, she confided, in spite of the fact that in the opinion of Saturday Review’s legal counsel, the unfounded charges could be swiftly and easily disproved by Anya’s letter. In any case, the lawyer was sure the magazine would prevail.

On the day of the hearing, on our way downtown in a taxi, Mommy and I were still trying to influence Daddy’s decision as we made our way through the crosstown traffic. He listened thoughtfully, without comment, which just frustrated me more. Upon arrival in the courtroom, he was guided off to one side by the lawyer for pre-trial consultations. So Mommy and I, amazed by this unjust world, went ahead and found seats up front, grumbling to each other under our breath.

The courtroom proceedings had yet to get underway when a tall, lanky man around 40 (as far as I was concerned at that time, anyone old enough to be middle-aged was around 40) slid into the row ahead of us, and draping one arm over the empty seat to his right, swiveled around with a friendly smile. “Hi, Eleanor,” he greeted my mother pleasantly. “How are you?”

My mother’s posture stiffened. “Fine!”

“And the family? Everyone OK?”

From the side, I could see my mother’s electric green-eyed glare shooting out sparks, and sensed her bristling in speechless outrage. I realized that this must be the guy who was suing Daddy! He proceeded to shoot the breeze about this and that, as Mommy – her face as incapable of concealing her feelings as an open book – sat there in strangled silence.

“You know, my mother,” he said, as if to acknowledge the elephant in the room, “you know, she wasn’t the easiest woman to get along with. Even before she was ill.”

Mommy managed some sort of grunt.

“So it’s…you know, a difficult situation, for everyone. No hard feelings, I hope. She kept Robert, my brother, on the up and up, what was going on, but…me, you know, I’m out on the West Coast, and…you know how it is, sometimes, with family. How it gets. She and I were estranged.” There was a long pause. “She hated me.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mother’s mouth almost drop.

“She was so attached to the magazine,” he continued. “Always saying, those people, they’re like family. They visit, they do this, they do that. And she liked that Dr. Shriff, Shiffman, that Norman got, the oncologist. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the help and everything.  Everything Norman did, you all did, for her. But you’ve got to understand… it’s my money. Was my money, until we…until our…Well, it was kind of a temporary break. But she passed away before I–” With one arm still draped casually over the back of the court bench, he wore an oddly wavering half-smile, and was beseeching with his eyes. “I’m just getting back what’s mine, Eleanor. You understand.  My only option. My lawyers told me. I’m sorry it had…to do it this way…like this, but… I’m…” His voice trailed off.

For some reason I remember the sight of his long, pale, nervous fingers curved tentatively on the back of the wooden bench, emerging from the cuff of a blue jacket. But I can’t recall where the conversation went from there, only that he must have switched seats (small wonder) whereupon my mother sprang to her feet, with me close on her heels. We darted over to where Daddy and his lawyer were still in a huddle.

The lawyer’s open briefcase, full of papers, was perched upon his lap.

“Norman!” my mother exclaimed in a whisper, hands clasped over her heart. “Paul! You won’t believe what Jerry just told me.” She proceeded to excitedly repeat all of it, then turned to the lawyer. “That’s the proof we need!”

My father sat there without responding as I deemed appropriate. “Daddy!” I chimed in. “It proves he’s lying!”

He continued sitting there.

“Please, Norman,” my mother entreated, to which he stated calmly: “You can’t do that.”

“What do you mean!” I demanded, sensing what was coming. “Can’t do what?”

“To use something private, that a man says about his mother—and make it public. You can’t repeat something like that.” My father gave one slight, decisive shake of the head, no, and I knew: case closed.

It wasn’t a jury trial. First one lawyer spoke, then the other. The judge rose; retired to his chambers; emerged a quarter of an hour later; instructed plaintiff and defendant to stand before him. And then…

In my mind’s eye, I see the image of my father, awaiting the verdict in those moments: standing upright, respectfully, chin slightly lifted, hands clasped behind his back, with a matter-of-fact, quietly cheerful, expectant expression on his face: a consciously chosen serenity. And I see Daddy’s expression as the judge delivered his ruling.

My father’s expression bore the solid equanimity befitting a man who has won; who has emerged victorious over a deceitful claim.

Except that my father’s company had just been ordered to pay the plaintiff $25,000.

I remember my father’s uncomplaining, amicable nod to the judge before turning to depart, and his courteous smile as he said, “Thank you, your honor.”

True love involves a complete identification with one’s fellowman, I had read at my desk one day in the Photo department, over my tuna fish sandwich, with the big black book entitled Judaism, by Meir Meiseles, propped open before me. … A full understanding of his needs and difficulties. He who benefits from his friend’s dishonor forfeits his share in the hereafter. As Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, the Rambam, commented, love of one’s fellow man means being as careful about his honor and money as if they were our own. We are taught that no price is too high for protecting a man from shame.

Afterwards, on our way back to the office, the three of us were riding along without talking in the back seat of a cab, when my mother leaned over and kissed my father on the cheek.  He reached for her hand.

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro is an author and editor whose most recently published books are "Wish I Were Here: Finding My Way in the Promised Land" and "All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing."
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