Author, seduced by a great story, earns 'Civil' time Books: Jonathan Harr, once nearly as bankrupt as his lawyer subject, gets royalty treatment on tour with best-seller.

September 30, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Jonathan Harr is sitting in the bar at the Jefferson Hotel, talking about seduction.

Not the Dick Morris, toe-sucking, president-calling brand of seduction that has put this genteel Washington hotel in the news in recent weeks. Harr is referring to the dirty little secret of his trade -- which happens to be journalism.

He points out that New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, in a famous essay about Joe McGinness and his relationship with murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, proclaimed journalists first seduce, then betray their subjects. "And Joe McGinness essentially agreed with that," says Harr, who at 47 looks so boyish and trustworthy he could probably hitchhike the length of I-95 and borrow $10 from every driver who picked him up.

But no one said anything about literally bunking down with your source, as Harr ended up doing at one point over the eight-plus years he wrote and researched "A Civil Action," his meticulous account of a complicated lawsuit against Beatrice and W.R. Grace.

And no one said to reckon on your own near-bankruptcy, even as you were documenting the financial hemorrhaging at a small law firm that proved to be disastrously under-financed for a long and costly case.

"We were companions in poverty for a period of time," Harr says now of Jan Schlichtmann, the flamboyant lawyer who thought the suit would make him rich and famous. "Toward the end Schlichtmann was sleeping on a fold-out couch in his office. And I was sleeping on a fold-out couch in the other office, right next door. The doors were open, and this was a suite, and this is how I got as close to him as I did."

Figuratively speaking, of course. The result, "A Civil Action," released in paperback this month, has gone straight to the New York Times best-seller list, one of the few honors that had eluded this critically acclaimed book.

And Schlichtmann -- the Porsche-driving, luxury-loving lawyer who seemed an unlikely protagonist in these lawyer-hating times -- feels he has been vindicated by Harr's book. Seduced? Perhaps, but definitely not betrayed. "I thank God that someone like him was there to chronicle my odyssey," he told the Los Angeles Times last year.

Harr met Schlichtmann in 1986. Then a journalist with New England Monthly, Harr was looking for a book-length subject, something similar to the non-fiction works by his friend Tracy Kidder.

Schlichtmann was -- well, let Harr tell it, as he does to great effect in "A Civil Action," through the eyes of a woman who will become, for a time, Schlichtmann's girlfriend:

"He was so unabashedly egotistical she had to laugh. He was tall, 6 feet 3 inches, with a lean, narrow face and a prominent Semitic nose. His suit was expensive -- handmade, she could tell a glance. But the tailoring could not hide the fact that he was as gangly as a boy. Even the collar of his hand-tailored shirt did not quite fit around a neck as spindly as his."

An up-and-coming plaintiff's attorney, Schlichtmann had won several big cases when he decided to represent eight families from Woburn, Mass., where an unusually high number of children had leukemia. It soon became apparent two of the town's wells had been contaminated, but who was responsible? And could the contamination be linked to the illnesses that plagued the families along Pine Street?

Schlichtmann thought he could convince a jury that plants owned by Beatrice and W.R. Grace were responsible for dumping the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) in the town's drinking water. And he was counting on a Harvard study to help him make the causal connection between TCE and leukemia.

But the case dragged on before a difficult judge and although Schlichtmann would finally win settlements for the families, his fees did not begin to cover what he had spent on the trial. In fact, "A Civil Action" starts with a scene in which Schlichtmann watches as a sheriff repossesses his Porsche.

Harr, granted complete access to Schlichtmann's legal team from the early stages of the case, thought he could write his book in two years. Two years became four, then six, and he ultimately needed five extensions from Random House before he finished "A Civil Action." In 1991, his income was so low -- $4,500 from a class he taught at Smith College, near his home in Northampton, Mass. -- that he was audited by the IRS.

All along, he was struggling with material that proved to be almost an embarrassment of riches. The lawsuit was, Harr could tell from the beginning, great stuff, full of the riveting scenes essential for a true story written in novelistic style. But he had envisioned it as a sprawling saga woven from the lives of several people -- the lawyers, the families, workers at the Woburn plants.

Kidder helped him see Schlichtmann was the key to controlling the narrative.

"He became the filter for everything," Harr says. "It should have been obvious, for if it were not for Schlichtmann, it never would have happened."

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