Obituary: Celebrity lawyer Seymour Lazar, who worked for Bob Dylan and dated Maya Angelou, dies at 88

He reveled in his sudden wealth and his reputation as a high-rolling wheeler-dealer

Matt Schudel
Sunday 10 April 2016 19:42 BST
Seymour Lazar in 2008
Seymour Lazar in 2008 (Nick Ut/AP)

Seymour Lazar, a flamboyant Hollywood lawyer who hobnobbed with his celebrity clients and who made and lost millions as a stock trader before pleading guilty to obstruction of justice at age 80, died March 30 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 88.

His death was first reported by the Los Angeles Times. He had kidney disease and a long list of other ailments, which were detailed during his trial in 2007.

After Mr. Lazar opened his legal practice in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, a Hollywood producer came to his office and asked if he specialized in entertainment law. Mr. Lazar replied, in essence, “I do now.”

He acquired a number of well-known clients, including comedian Lenny Bruce, jazz star Miles Davis and Broadway producer David Merrick. He did legal work for the Beatles and Bob Dylan and negotiated record contracts for singer Johnny Rivers, who had a top hit in 1966 with “Secret Agent Man.”

Mr. Lazar also became friendly with a young cabaret singer, Maya Angelou, and dated her for a short time in the 1950s.

She later publicly credited him with helping launch her career as a poet.“I was very shapely and nice to look at, but Seymour saw more than that,” Angelou told the Wall Street Journal in 2006. “He knew I was always writing and encouraged me to be more than a cocktail singer.”

Mr. Lazar had a knack for knowing how to pull strings. Among other things, he helped Hollywood studios make travel arrangements and negotiate with international governments while making films overseas.

During one production, said Sheridan Hill, a writer preparing a personal biography of Mr. Lazar for his family, U.S. actors in Italy were concerned about the currency and didn’t want to be paid in lire. After secret negotiations by Mr. Lazar, Hill said, “A woman in a nun’s habit arrived at his desk with several hundred thousand dollars in cash.”

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Lazar, a self-taught stock analyst, began to scale back his legal work to concentrate on investing. He owned oil wells in Texas and Louisiana, invested in a Spanish-language newspaper and purchased 480,000 acres of timberland in Indonesia.Mostly, though, he bought and sold stocks at a furious rate, becoming “the single largest individual stock trader during the sixties,” according to New York magazine. He reportedly traded $300 million in stocks in 1967 alone.

“If I bought a stock in the morning and still owned at noon,” he told New York in 1976, “it was a long-term investment.”

In 1969, Mr. Lazar lost $10 million after a proposed takeover of the Armour meatpacking company fell through. Afterward, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged him with attempting to manipulate securities, and the case was settled out of court.

Mr. Lazar reveled in his sudden wealth and his reputation as a high-rolling wheeler-dealer. He drove a Rolls-Royce and cultivated an image as an aging but well-to-do hippie. The onetime attorney to the stars grew his hair long and gave up socks and neckties (except for court appearances). Fashion designer Pierre Cardin made him a leather suit, which he wore without a shirt. On other occasions, he was seen in bright-colored Chinese-style robes.

He traveled the world, acquiring valuable collections of pre-Columbian, African and Oceanic art. He hung out with counterculture figures such as poet Allen Ginsberg and LSD proponent Timothy Leary.

Over the years, Mr. Lazar lived in the Bahamas and Cuernavaca, Mexico, before settling in Palm Springs. One of his Palm Springs neighbors, actor George Hamilton, said he “talked in a philosophical way — sort of like a Zen master.”

In 1976, shortly after the death of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, Mr. Lazar joined a legal team — including Hollywood divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson — seeking to prove that a document discovered at the headquarters of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City was Hughes’s will.

One of several wills attributed to Hughes, it left much of his fortune to charity and to a gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar. In 1967, Dummar supposedly rescued a disheveled Hughes in the Nevada desert and gave him a ride to Las Vegas, 160 miles away.

Mr. Lazar chipped in $250,000 to help finance efforts to authenticate the document.

“I’m hoping for a good chunk of the attorney’s fees,” he said at the time, “maybe in the eight-figure category, for my efforts.”

“If I lose,” he added, “I’ll just go on to something else.”

A court ruled that the Hughes will was a forgery.

Mr. Lazar promptly moved on, developing a relationship with Milberg Weiss, a New York law firm known for handling class-action lawsuits against large corporations. Over a period of about 25 years, Mr. Lazar and members of his family were the plaintiffs in about 50 class-action suits brought by Milberg Weiss against such companies as Hertz and United Airlines.

After a federal investigation, Mr. Lazar was charged with being part of an illegal kickback scheme that reportedly netted him $2.4 million. He said the money came from standard referral fees.

“I swear, they treat me like an absolute thug,” he told the Wall Street Journal after his indictment in 2006 on a variety of criminal offenses. “Did I hurt anybody? Who did I cheat? Did anybody get screwed?”

When Mr. Lazar went on trial a year later, his attorneys argued that the aging defendant deserved leniency because of heart disease, cancer, a stroke, diabetes, gout, depression, memory loss and high blood pressure. He wore a sweater around his shoulders in court.

Ultimately, Mr. Lazar pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, filing a false tax return and making a false statement to the court. He was fined $600,000, forfeited a $1.5 million bond and was sentenced to six months of home detention, wearing an ankle monitor.

Several partners of Milberg Weiss were convicted of conspiracy and fraud and spent time in prison.

Seymour Manuel Lazar was born June 14, 1927, in Brooklyn. He was 6 when his family moved to California’s San Fernando Valley. He began working alongside his father, an accountant, at age 12.

After serving in the Army Air Forces, Mr. Lazar graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1949. He received a law degree from the University of Southern California in 1951.

As a young lawyer, Mr. Lazar bought a Los Angeles nightclub, where he met many of his show-business clients.

After his conviction in 2007, Mr. Lazar continued to live in Palm Springs, surrounded by his valuable art collection. He still had considerable wealth, with real estate holdings estimated at $60 million in 2006.

His first marriage, to Christine Cosby, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, the former Alyce Lou, of Palm Springs; a son from his first marriage; two children from his second marriage; a sister; and six grandchildren.

To Mr. Lazar, the world of investments was as much an ad­ven­ture as a road to wealth.

When he spent $250,000 to be part of the team trying to validate the purported Howard Hughes will in 1976, he said, “I may never see a nickel. But I don’t care.”

“I’m where the action is,” he added, “and that’s what it’s all about.”

Copyright, The Washington Post

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in