HOW WE MET; ALAN DERSHOWITZ AND BENJAMIN ZANDER
Sunday 09 November 1997
ALAN DERSHOWITZ: I knew of Ben long before we became friends because I love music and have always been a supporter of the Boston Philharmonic. I often sit at home listening to one of his recordings while I write. His Mahler 6 is wonderful. The critic of the American Record Guide called it the best recording of the work in existence. I wish he'd record the entire Mahler cycle.
One morning in 1983, just after The Best Defence was published, Ben called me completely out of the blue - my number's in the phonebook and I often have calls from real punters - to say he'd stayed up all night to finish the book. He wanted to let me know that it had made a big impression on him. This was a real pleasure, and the first of many interesting conversations. Ben was surprised that I already knew so much about him, and that I walk past his house every day on the way to my office in Harvard.
In our family, it's become a tradition at Passover to invite friends over for Seder, the traditional meal. We usually have about 50 people, and all of us sit around the table telling stories. I knew Ben was Jewish, and thought he would enjoy celebrating with us, so I invited him. Since then, if he's in Boston for Passover, we take it for granted that he'll be with us.
Four years ago, we had our Seder on the night Ben's father was dying in London. He talked to all of us about his father, an extraordinary man, to whom he was very close. He spoke about very private feelings and experiences, and the Holocaust. It was incredibly moving. There were things he'd withheld and suddenly felt he wanted to share with us. Until that moment, I'd always thought of Ben as a funny, provocative man. I'd never seen him open up in such an introspective way and I realised that there was another side to the outgoing, public Ben Zander who is such a huge force in the music community here.
Although he's been in America for more than 30 years, I always think of Ben as quintessentially British. When he shared those profound feelings about his father with everybody in such an open way, I was suddenly aware that this hugely disparate group sitting around the table shared the same roots. Whatever our lives now, three generations ago, all of us came from the shtetl.
As a complete contrast to celebrating Passover with us, we go to Ben's house to celebrate Boxing Day. He always gives a big party. Apart from Ben, none of us has any idea what Boxing Day is, but his parties are great and I'm constantly amazed by the number of different people he knows.
Basically, Ben is to music what I am to the legal profession. The two of us are always defying conventional understanding; after all, what makes Ben so special and original as a conductor is that he doesn't conform - he's constantly going outside the accepted ways of making music. Sometimes I joke with him that we are the older versions of the original enfants terrible, always fighting windmills and bucking the establishment. It's cute to be radical and want to shape the world in your twenties and thirties, but in your fifties you're supposed to become more conservative. We laugh about that. Neither Ben nor I have changed our views over the years.
My friends have supported me in my career, but there have been times when some of them have said, "Alan, this goes over the line" - particularly when I defended OJ Simpson, or Mike Tyson. Ben was always someone who understood. He knows exactly why I do what I do.
Perhaps the single most important thing in both of our lives is that we are, first and foremost, teachers. That is our shared passion. As far as young musicians go, Ben is someone who literally changes lives. It surprises me that he hasn't emerged as the new Leonard Bernstein. He's the only person probab-ly anywhere in the world with that incredible intensity and joy for music, plus the ability to communicate on every level. Maybe the problem is that to be another Leonard Bernstein you need to be an impossible person too, and Ben is the complete opposite. The public Ben and the private Ben are both gentle and easy to love. If he phones me for a favour it's always for someone else. I only have to hear him say, "Alan ...", to ask: "Who is it this time?"
Ben packs more into his day than almost anyone I know, but I'd never for a moment call him a workaholic. Workaholics are people who can't enjoy life. Ben Zander is an active-aholic. He's someone who absolutely loves life and opening up possibilities for other people. Because of Harvard and the universities, there are a lot of extraordinary people living in Cambridge, but of them all, Ben Zander is the one man I know who takes the "oy" out of "joy" and literally lights up all of our lives.
BENJAMIN ZANDER: I read The Best Defence right through the night. I couldn't put it down. I'd only ever done that once before in my life, when I was 16 and discovered Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. As soon as I finished Alan's book, I called him. I told him I'd been incredibly moved and impressed by what he'd written. There was so much warmth in his conversation, which I hadn't expected. Alan seemed genuinely delighted that I'd taken the trouble to phone. I was surprised that he knew so much about me as a musician and was a great supporter of the orchestra.
Celebrating Passover with the Dershowitz family for the first time was an extraordinary experience. Alan invited a mix of family and friends - and heady company they were, too. There were professors of psychology and brilliant Harvard lawyers, as well as writers and musicians, including David Mamet and the cellist Yo Yo Ma, who is also a neighbour and good friend of mine. People told jokes and many wonderful stories - often quite irreverent ones - whilst Alan explained the legal aspects of the Pass- over story. He's a masterful teacher.
Both of us are professors and take enormous delight in teaching and communicating with others. What we also have in common - what is at the core of our friendship - is that we're both outsiders. Alan is a fierce defender of the outsider, and I'm an outsider in music. In our separate ways, we're mavericks and revolutionaries who are passionate about what we do. He's certainly never given a dull interview and I think he would say of me that I've never given a dull concert.
As we both have incredibly busy lives, we often make do with admiring each other from afar. He sees me on the podium and I see him all the time on television. In America, Alan is the lawyer most frequently asked to comment on TV. On the day the punitive damages were announced in the OJ Simpson trial, I called in to see Alan - but we didn't have much time together because when the verdict came in, he had to do a live broadcast, from home, for one of the major networks.
It upsets me that Alan has been accused of being a media addict: of taking every opportunity to speak on TV or radio, and be interviewed in the press. To me that's completely missing the point. There's no vanity in what Alan does. What drives him is nothing to do with wanting fame. He does it because he sees ordinary people as an essential part of the law. He's an extremely principled man, a civil libertarian who cares deeply about human rights. Alan is so fiercely opposed to capital pun- ishment, it overrides everything. He admitted to me that he has sleepless nights defending clients on Death Row - not because they might be guilty but because if he doesn't win, it would be his fault if they were executed. America would be a much poorer place if it didn't have Alan Dershowitz.
Alan tells people a lot of things they don't want to hear and he defends some very unattractive human beings. He's brave and won't be intimidated. He can't be manipulated or shoved around. I understand completely his profound preoccupation with fairness and his sense of obligation in taking on some of the most despised people in the country. He has an empathy with people on the margin, but that's not the whole story. There are many other cases he takes on which we never hear about. On a personal level, our son went to the same school as Alan's older children. He had some difficulties there and was eventually dismissed. Alan instinctively took total sides with our son, who had been marginalised and outcast. He gave us advice and put us in touch with a lawyer. To his friends, he's tremendously loyal and generous.
One of the failings that Alan and I both have is a tendency to become self-righteous, complaining that the world is full of heretics and backsliders. We both get into trouble for sometimes seeing ourselves as The Last of the Just. I'm less inclined to be like that now, but I think that Alan still sees himself as the last just man on the planet.
I'm sad that Alan always looks so severe on TV and in the media. Being rigorous, disciplined and demanding in one's standards doesn't mean that you have to be severe too. Especially as I know Alan to be wonderfully unsevere when in friendship mode. I wish that he could be perceived - that he would present himself - as the really wonderful friend, parent and family man that he is. I want him to be known as a sweet, gentle caring man who has a passion for life, art and, especially, for music. Anyone who loves Mahler as much as he does, has to be full of soul.
! Benjamin Zander conducts Mahler's Second Symphony at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast (01232 334400) on Saturday. He is also the subject of a BBC2 documentary, 'Living On One Buttock', 7.30pm, 30 Nov.
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