[Ed. Note: With ten books under his belt and an eleventh on the way, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Gerald Posner isn’t your average lawyer-turned-author. He’s an investigative journalist with a nose for Nazis, organized crime, drugs, and mass murder. And where others simply find the headline, Posner, a former Cravath associate, is known for locating the meat of the story. Bitter Lawyer recently caught Posner between deadlines on his current book to find out why he left the law, why people love conspiracy theories, and if he’s ever feared for his life. ]
Name and current title?
Gerald Posner, investigative journalist and author.
Where did you go to law school?
UC Hastings College of Law.
Governor Schwarzenegger wants to eliminate all of Hastings’ state funding in an effort to balance the California state budget. Any comment?
They don’t call him the Terminator for nothing. But it was more fun when he was crushing evil robots than choking off the lifeline for a great legal college. Shame.
What made you decide to go to law school?
I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer. So for me, it was a choice from senior year in high school.
Where did you practice?
I moved from San Francisco, where I was a native, to New York to work for Cravath, Swaine & Moore. I decided after a couple of years I didn’t like Big Firm practice. So I went into solo practice and eventually took a partner on. Then I decided I didn’t really like small practice, either.
It doesn’t get much more prestigious than working at Cravath. What’s something outsiders don’t know about what it’s like to work there?
Sweat shop with a capital “S.” I billed over 3,300 hours the first year, and I was not the highest biller in the firm. You had no life but the firm. The partners loved their practice, but that’s the only way you can stay at a place like that. Divorce was almost viewed as though an associate had made the decision to stay with the firm rather than have a personal life.
What was your best moment as a lawyer?
Trying to serve the German ambassador to the UN for a lawsuit I was doing pro bono on behalf of twins who had been experimented on by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele at Auschwitz during World War II. He really, really did not want to be served, and his effort to avoid service was quite funny. But in the end, we served an assistant.
What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
Having to come back on a redeye flight from LA to NY and go straight to the office and work a second all-nighter on the IBM litigation for Cravath, while fighting a flu bug the whole time. Bummer.
What was your “I have to get the f**k out of here” epiphany?
Never had it. It wasn’t a single light-bulb moment. Instead, I did this pro bono lawsuit (that was unsuccessful) for twins of a Nazi concentration camp. And during the four-year course of gathering documents and doing research, I became an expert of sorts on the so-called Angel of Death, Josef Mengele. When the suit was over, I approached a publisher, McGraw-Hill, without an agent, and they figured this obsessive work of mine might make a good biography. I never expected to never practice law again. But I so liked writing the book (a bit like doing a giant brief on a tight deadline) that I never looked back.
And that was the start of your career as an investigative journalist?
[Yeah, it was] by accident. And every book has led to something else. So, for instance, when I did the Mengele research, I was in Paraguay for a while, hanging out with neo-Nazis, who introduced me to some Corsican fugitives. They turned out to be guys who had fled France for heroin smuggling in the old French Connection days. They would never talk to me about Nazis because they knew that was what I was researching. But they regaled me with stories about the good old days in the heroin trade and how it had changed and was ruined since it had been taken over by Chinese Triads.
When the Mengele bio was published, I said to my wife, Trisha, “Hey, let’s do a book about the heroin biz.” We were soon off to Hong Kong and the Golden Triangle, and the second book became Warlords of Crime: Chinese Secret Societies—The New Mafia.
What’s a typical day like for you? Is being an investigative journalist better than being a lawyer?
There is no such thing as a typical day. So that answers the second question—yes.*
When in the research phase—which both Trisha and I love—you forget you’re working. You’re off hunting down new info, doing interviews, wading through documents, and discovering interesting things about some area of history or politics that has got you hooked. The stress times are taking the mass of info and turning it into a readable manuscript that people might want to buy. Also, investigative work involves sturdier research because publishers’ lawyers will put you through a tough libel-legal check before publication. The most stress is when the book is published. If it doesn’t sell, you are two years away from trying to reprove yourself and pay the bills.
Do you think your legal background gives you an edge as a reporter?
Big time. The major thing is that I’m not afraid of documents, after getting used to them in the antitrust litigation against IBM while at Cravath. So when I approached the JFK assassination, reporters would say there are tens and tens of thousands of pages of docs. And I’d think, “So?” Also, non-lawyers tend to be more impressed with a legal degree than they should—it helps open up doors.
You nearly won a Pulitzer for Case Closed. Does winning awards matter? Or are awards just fluff?
Oh, they are great for your mom. She would have loved to have told all her friends—about ten times—that her son won a Pulitzer. Also, if you win, it becomes part of your name. Then you are always referred to as Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Gerald Posner. No one ever says, “Pulitzer-finalist Gerald Posner.” Same thing about The New York Times bestseller list. I got to #2 with Why America Slept. If you get to #1 on the paperback list, it always says, “The #1 NY Times Bestseller.” You never see, “The #2 NY Times Bestseller.” Alas, so close, yet so far away.
You’ve written on topics ranging from the Kennedy assassination (Case Closed), to organized crime (Warlords of Crime: Chinese Secret Societies—The New Mafia), to Nazis (Mengele: The Complete Story), to 9/11 (Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11). How do you choose your stories?
Sometimes, one leads to another, as with Mengele leading to the Triads. Hitler’s Children came from meeting Rolf Mengele during my work on his father’s bio and thinking there was an interesting book to do on the children of other top or notorious Nazis.
As for JFK, I had always been interested in reviewing the case—with a bias toward thinking the mob did it—and I had proposed it before Hitler’s Children, but Random House wasn’t interested. Then Oliver Stone’s JFK was released, and they decided to do it.
As for Why America Slept, Trisha and I lived in New York and volunteered our time that first week downtown passing out stuff to the fire crews. One night around 1 a.m., we got to taking to another volunteer, a college student. She asked us what we did for a living. Journalists, I told her. “Well, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you out trying to find out what happened?” It was like a light bulb went off in my head. That was the start of that book.
A lot of your books take on controversial topics. Do you ever get threats? Have you ever been pushed off of a story or made to fear for your life? Or have we seen too many movies?
I am very, very lucky to be working in the United States. Brave journalists get killed regularly in Mexico, Columbia, Russia, etc. pursuing local crime and corruption stories. I have gotten some pretty weird and, at times, nasty mail. Of all the books I’ve done, the one that turned out to produce the most violent threats was Case Closed, where I concluded Oswald alone killed JFK. I received everything from dead fish to a rat’s tail and was accosted on the street. The FBI opened a threat file at the time because there was some concern that it went pretty far.
But it is all about your risk tolerance. I don’t water-ski, snow ski, surf, etc. because I figure I’m going to break an ankle or something. I don’t smoke because I’m afraid of cancer. But I write about terror links in the Saudi Royal family and have no fear. Go figure.
You got a lot of attention for your work on the Kennedy assassination with Case Closed. Congress asked you to testify, and Newsweek wrote of your work: “After Case Closed, everyone thinks Oswald did it.” Yet, we seem to love a good conspiracy theory. Why do you think that is?
Conspiracies are so much more satisfying when a major accident or death takes place that shakes up our world. We hate to think our lives can be changed by random acts of violence by sociopathic losers in life—like Lee Oswald or James Earl Ray.
The historian, William Manchester, said that in the case of the Holocaust, you had the Nazis on the one side, the greatest criminals, and on the other side you had six million dead Jewish victims. There was some equal weight. Greatest villains having done this greatest of crimes.
In the JFK case, on the one side of the scale you have this charismatic young president with so much potential for the future, and on the other side, you have this 24-year-old loser, Oswald, and somehow the Oswald part of the scale doesn’t seem to have enough gravitas. If you add in a conspiracy, JFK was killed because he was going to disband the CIA, or was crushing the mob, or was about to withdraw from Vietnam—it gives his death more meaning. Then, of course, you take Jack Ruby murdering Oswald and the government’s inefficiency in the investigation, and you have set the groundwork for everlasting theories.
Investigative journalism doesn’t come cheap. Given the state of the newspaper business, are you part of a dying breed? Or do you see a bright future for investigative reporting?
Ah, I wish I saw a bright future. The deep budget cuts at local papers mean the best reporters have less and less time to chase real ingrained corruption. Does uncovering paybacks from local contractors to a couple of state senators boost circulation or not? The old idea of public service is buried now under the need to meet bottom line numbers. I doubt I could get my original Mengele book picked up in this market. I feel very lucky I’m still paying my bills by doing some probing and investigating.
There’s another famous Posner in the law—Judge Richard Posner. Any relation?
Once again, I wish. Smart guy. Good surname.
From healthcare, to the economy, to torture and the war in Afghanistan, there are a ton of huge stories in the news these days. What’s one story that you wish got more attention? Why?
I wish there had been more probing and questioning of the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae bailouts—as well as AIG and the rest of TARP. Most journalists just reported the details. I think there’s a great story behind the scenes of mismanagement, possible fraud at times, and incredible waste of public money, set against a backdrop of major political lobbying and favor currying. But then, it’s just my wild hunch.
What are you working on now?
A book tentatively titled Miami Babylon: A Tale of Crime, Wealth and Power due out this October from Simon & Schuster. It’s an investigative history of Miami Beach, the little sandbar that has become a sunny place for shady characters. Trisha and I moved here almost six years ago after 25 in New York—hopefully we won’t have to move again once it’s published.
Did you ever consider yourself a Bitter Lawyer?
No. I didn’t stay around long enough to become bitter.