"Even though I suppose it's been said that there's no better client than a rich, angry client, I think the attorneys for the plaintiff had an obligation to speak to their client about the possibility, or lack of possibility, of any recovery of substantial damages before the lawsuit was started."
With those words, Judge Ira Gammerman ended the bitter and contentious lawsuit filed by Gruner + Jahr publishers against Rosie O'Donnell over Rosie magazine. You might call it a stalemate, or you might say that if someone sued you for $125 million and a judge stopped the case, calling it "ill-conceived," it was a victory.
Make no mistake: Rosie O'Donnell won the case of the overtaken magazine fair and square. And it wasn't so easy, because not everyone was playing fair at all.
"My impression," said Gammerman, "is that the lawsuit was started as a sort of carrying on of this back and forth public dispute that was tried apparently in the newspapers. For some reason or other, the plaintiff decided it to try it in a courtroom as well."
"They thought I would just fade away," Rosie O’Donnell told me this afternoon. "Dan Brewster thought my show was over, I was just a fat lesbian and I wouldn’t complain when they took over my magazine. They didn’t know me."
Indeed, Brewster, the CEO at Gruner + Jahr, didn’t seem to count on O’Donnell wanting to live up to the terms of her contract with him. She had no intention of letting him publish a magazine with her name on it if she didn’t have a major say in its contents.
Now Brewster knows. Because of him, the world now knows that Gruner + Jahr cooked its books, lied to a 50 percent partner and then had the nerve to file a $100 million lawsuit when it didn’t get its way.
State Supreme Court Justice Ira Gammerman said in court this morning, "It was an ill-conceived lawsuit."
He also said that G+J’s lawyers should have informed them that it was a suit without merit. I have no doubt the attorneys tried to do just that. But Brewster and co., who were busy congratulating themselves after court ended today as if they’d won, seem clueless about what happened.
The exasperation point for Gammerman obviously came during testimony from G+J’s unimpressive comptroller. The judge, interceding during questioning, asked him if it were possible, as others had suggested, to "manage the financials" or alter the books of the magazine. The comptroller’s answer — a denial, non-denial that ended in 'I don’t know' — seemed to do it for the judge, who’d heard enough. That was when he made his pronouncement that neither side would received damages, and that it was all about "bragging rights."
G+J, still not getting it, actually suggested through their lawyers that they would still ask for damages. This was even after the judge called their suit "ill conceived."
After court, Rosie hosted a private lunch at Blondie’s on Manhattan's Upper West Side. A few members of the press, Rosie’s lawyers and friends and family munched on chicken wings and drank congratulatory beers while the former talk show host held forth on a number of subjects. But mostly she was relieved the trial was over, grateful to her attorneys and in a good mood.
I asked Rosie if she had been disappointed by the way Brewster had treated her, especially since he had used his status as son of a former U.S. Senator to impress her in the first place.
"Very disappointed. When I met him, he looked like the captain of a football team," she said. "But this is what it means to be a CEO on the stand, that you can’t remember what’s going on in your own company but you know you had a good game of golf last week."
Despite everything, O’Donnell is not bitter and is not making jokes at the expense of the opposing side. In fact she told me that during a deposition this summer she shook the hand of G+J lawyer Marty Hyman when he took the high road during questioning.
"I knew that he left out some personal stuff he could have used," she said. "I said, Marty, no matter what in this case, you are a good man."
During a lull in court today before Judge Gammerman returned with his decision to stop the case, O’Donnell called out to G+J exec Dan Rubin, "Our kids were in the first grade together."
She said, "I wanted to talk to him in a motherly and fatherly way."
O’Donnell’s story is a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger type tale, which is something G+J also didn’t understand. At one point in his testimony, her brother Ed, an NBC senior vice president, recalled meeting with Rosie at one of their offices in Rockefeller Center. It turns out when they were basically parentless kids in Commack, Long Island, they would often take the train in and visit Rockefeller Center.
"We’d buy a two dollar bag of chocolates," Ed told me, "and just walk around."
"Lemon drops," Rosie recalled. "He took care of me. He was like my parent."
There was no idea in either of their heads that they would one day have offices there, or be in the positions they’re in now.
Ed O'Donnell, who’s married with kids and still lives on Long Island, said he couldn’t believe what Gruner + Jahr had put them through.
"I could not believe they would do this to their business model," he said. "It goes to show what they would do to sabotage themselves."
Tomorrow night, Rosie debuts her Boy George musical, "Taboo" on Broadway. Despite efforts by naysayers to kill it before it opens, "Taboo" looks like it will be a hit. Producer Dan McDonald says the $2 million advance sale is very good, and that there has been a steady increase in sales since the box office opened.
When I went to the Saturday matinee, the older people who didn’t know anything about Boy George seemed to be having a ball -- and the theatre was 90 percent full.
"Tomorrow night," Rosie said, gulping a Sam Adams beer, "we’re really going to party," she said. Tonight, she’ll sleep. And be with her kids.