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Major Man of Mystery

August 23, 2007 By:
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If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.

But Ben Feldman had the time. A successful New York big-shot, big-time lawyer and a real success at being in real estate, he left it behind to turn to crime.

"It's such a kick," says Feldman.

Kick it up a notch: His mid-19th-century crime story -- not his, but the one he's written about; he himself is a genuinely nice Jewish guy not even guilty of Jewish guilt -- has Hollywood honchos trudging into town in trenchcoats to pore over its pages.

Indeed, Feldman's only real crime may be he didn't turn to writing earlier.

Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics & the Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-Bellum New York is not so much about a crime of the century -- if it doesn't fit, you must acquit, or at least leave more room for the title -- but "the crime of the half-century," says Feldman of the mysterious and menacing 1857 tale of murder involving a famous dentist and his inamorata interrogated and charged with his killing, a slaying that had tabloids slitting their own throats to cover the truths.

Or what they perceived as the truths. "If they couldn't get the real story," says Feldman, "they'd make it up."

It all would make for a thrilling movie, too, with its intrigue, lasciviously larded anti-heroes, corrupt cops and meddling media borne ultimately of a time in New York when Manhattan manhandled the truth to its liking.

Hollywood and TV like what they see -- and read. O.J., can you see? "There's been interest by a documentary film company and Court TV," says Feldman.

But the story doesn't start here. The lawyer/realtor set the stage for his arts effort long before he set paean to paper. For years, Feldman had made a national name for himself for the Jewish accent he put on his activities.

Call it bashert -- just don't call him late for a board meeting of the Folksbiene Theatre, the 100-year-old-plus Yiddish landmark that the now 50ish mensch had injected with young blood. As its former board president, he helped to rattle and revive the ancient mariner of mamaloshen abetted by a cast of other creative types -- actors, activists -- so that it left its bed for other imaginary invalids to go kvetching under the covers.

Bed and bored? Not Feldman. The New Yorker took his Yiddish kite out to fly early on, "listening to the language growing up at home," where he always saw the Yiddish kup half-full, not half-empty, he says, a view that helped propel him forward.

"I had made enough," he says of his lucrative careers in law and real estate. "Our kids were grown; we didn't need all that much. My wife never owned or needed a mink coat."

He thinks. "Neither did I."

But what he owns up to is a fascination with the mother tongue. "I started studying Yiddish [later in life]," but understood even at a later date, there was a first time for everything -- even if it was the first time he felt like he was leading his own kosher clandestine operation.

"It's almost like I was leading a secret life," he laughs.

Nothing secret about his roots: "I feel like I'm singing when I speak Yiddish; Yiddish tastes good in my mouth," says the son of Rose and the late Cyrus Feldman of Philadelphia.

He had a taste of performing himself. But as an entertainer, Feldman was no groyser tzuleyger -- as they might say at the Folksbiene. "At my first piano recital, I couldn't remember a note; I went blank. I've never gotten over it."

But he's not one to live in the past ... just make book on it as he successfully is now with his first timely tome.

Live and Let ... Die?
The Burdell-Cunningham Case brought him back to an ante-bellum era when uncivil war was fought over a case in which a proper gentleman -- Dr. Burdell -- was so improperly disposed of by his live-in lover.

Live and let ... die? Well, it was Bond Street.

The case is still unresolved. But the writer was resolved to take on the topic few even knew about. And now others in the publishing world know about him. Who knows, maybe shouts of "Author! Author" will lead to "Auteur! Auteur!"

"I'm an historian and lawyer by training," he says with a shrug in his voice about what's scripted for the future.

Movie man in the making? "It's not my business," but like any astute attorney who accepts a verdict knowing full well it can be overturned by life's vicissitudes, this man of mystery with a good mystery book at hand, is willing to reopen the case.

He adds, simply, "We'll see." 

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