'Love judge' put in the dock, Big Apple style

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Judge Kimba Wood returns to federal court in New York today. But it is not her legal skills which will be under the city tabloids' microscopes. The redoubtable jurist who sent the junk bond king, Michael Milken, to the slammer and nearly became Bill Clinton's attorney general is now the Beauty on the Bench, slinky green-eyed femme fatale in a society divorce case that has the Big Apple by the ears.

This has been a tawdry summer in the United States, featuring the likes of Senator Bob Packwood, Susan Smith and, of course, Hugh Grant. But at last sexual harassment, child killing and "lewd conduct" are no longer the order of the day. All have been swept aside by a gloriously old-fashioned scandal, involving no crime - just vast sums of money, luxury apartments, romantic trysts and lots of famous people.

It started in the spring, when a blonde Manhattan socialite, Nancy Richardson, sued her Wall Street financier husband, Frank, for divorce and her due share of a $157m (pounds 100m) fortune. As the lawyers got to work, the case warmed up.

Nancy, her husband claimed, had a clothing allowance of $350,000 a year (pounds 200,000), and was spending at least as much on the services of six "mental health professionals". Her lawyers hit back by contending that Frank suffered from "rage disorder'' and was seeing a psychiatrist four times a week.

But the best came last week. Nancy discovered her husband's secret diaries and leaked them to the Daily News. In sub-purple prose, they chronicle his passion for another woman - unarguably, unmistakably the unfortunate judge. "She leaned towards me," he writes of one encounter, "the black hair around her pearl white skin, the misty green eyes ... when I first took her head and kissed her lips ... how she stiffened and gave slowly but inexorably."

Of course the snooty New York Times (motto "All the News That's Fit to Print") has not breathed a word of it. But for the News and its bitter rival, the New York Post, the story has been tabloid heaven. For a week, the saga of the Richardsons and the "Love Judge" has not been off the front pages.

Not to be outdone by the diary scoop, the Post hit back with allegations from Mrs Richardson's camp that her husband may once have had a fling with Jackie Onassis. "Any man would like to have that notch on his belt," Nancy is quoted as saying.

And the battle continues. The "Kimba Duo" as the Post called the Richardsons yesterday, are fighting over who gets their three children, the servants, a 56-acre Long Island estate and their $10m (pounds 6m) Central Park apartment, for which lawyers have devised a "shared exclusive occupancy plan" for the feuding couple.

Meanwhile, after a holiday in Tuscany (with or without Mr Richardson, no one is sure) Kimba Wood is back in town. But her rentree on Sunday night was short of judicial aplomb. Rushing in disguise past a bevy of hacks on her doorstep, she slipped and fell on the pavement before making it to safety.

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