Impeccably dressed in a navy blue suit and white shirt, defense attorney Herald Price Fahringer was gearing up to address the jury. It was the last day of the trial of pornographer Larry Flynt, 19 years ago. Recess was almost over, and Fahringer was about to tell the jury that they had only one choice: The eminently unlikable Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, must go free.
Seconds later, Flynt was paralyzed for life. A gunman had fired a single bullet that hit both Flynt and his local attorney‹who was gray haired and, like Fahringer, dressed in blue‹as they walked back from lunch in tiny Lawrenceville, Georgia.
"We looked a lot alike," Fahringer explains, "and they'd thought he was me. The prosecutor came to me and said, 'We think you ought to get out of town.'" He didn't.
In fact, the 1956 UB graduate has spent 40 years defending people whom many think of as the dregs of society. He has taken 14 cases to the Supreme Court and is known both for his high-profile criminal defense work‹with such clients as Claus von Bulow; jazz drummer Buddy Rich; and Jean Harris, killer of Herman Tarnower, the Scarsdale Diet doctor‹and for his lifelong advocacy of First Amendment rights. (And for those whose definition of true success is based on someone playing you in a movie, well, Fahringer has that to his credit, too, albeit in a composite character‹in The People vs. Larry Flynt.) Fahringer is now considered an éminence grise of the profession‹thanks to the pornographers, murdering millionaires, and strippers he's defended over the years.
Recognition has never been a problem for him. Growing up poor in a small Pennsylvania town, Fahringer decided he wanted to be an actor, a dream that took him as far as Arthur Treacher's traveling theater troupe. Although he soon discovered that he didn't have the necessary drive for acting, he realized that he could use his talents to put himself on television‹and through law school.
"When I started at UB, people would come up to me and say, 'Aren't you the guy who does the Remington shaver commercial?'" he says with a grin. And he was. "I had friends who were working in plants at night earning $75 a week. Meanwhile, I was getting $50 for one-minute spots for Rich's ice cream or Wonder Bread."
His acting skills also came in handy when he joined the law school's moot court team (they won the New York State championship in 1956). To Fahringer, however, the best part about that experience was his friendship with the team's faculty advisor, Professor Clyde W. Summers.
"I took every course he taught," Fahringer says. "It influenced my going into criminal defense work and into the First Amendment area, which is where I've developed my greatest expertise. I came from a rather conservative family, and Professor Summers turned me around completely."
Following his graduation from UB, Fahringer took a job with a criminal-defense firm in Buffalo. By the early 1960s he was a partner in the firm now known as Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll, Salisbury & Cambria. (He is still with the firm today, although he moved to Manhattan in the mid-1970s.) One of his biggest cases in those years was his defense in 1967 of UB English professor Leslie Fiedler, who had been arrested for "maintaining premises where marijuana was used."
"I took it all the way up to the highest court of the state of New York, and we had the charges dismissed," Fahringer remembers, pointing to a framed photo of Fiedler, the same photo that was published in Life magazine. "That was a case I felt very good about, because in my view it was a terrible injustice."
The young lawyer was also fighting for free speech, and was quickly becoming one of the country's leading experts on First Amendment rights. He started defending pornographers all over the country, from the producers of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones to Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw magazine.
It's hard to imagine this meticulously manicured attorney‹who once pronounced, "A neat way about you conveys a neat mind"‹running around the country defending obscenity cases. Harder still to keep from asking him the question he's been asked a thousand times: How can he do it?
"I've often said I find much of the material I defend extremely distasteful," he answers. "What bothers me more is that the government interferes in any fashion with our right to read what we want."
Fahringer's choice of clients has frequently thrust him into the spotlight‹sometimes literally, as with the von Bulow trial, one of the first to allow cameras in the courtroom (a subject on which Fahringer has since written extensively). Perhaps because his career has been so high-profile, Fahringer has kept his personal life intensely private. By his own estimate, he works 11 hours a day at the office, takes a break for dinner, then puts in another three hours of work at home before bedtime. He doesn't take vacations‹a trip to Italy several years ago, Fahringer says, was "the 10 worst days of my life." And while he claims that he "sees almost everything on Broadway," he admits he has little patience for socializing.
In recent years Fahringer has focused on white-collar crime‹the defense contractor indicted for government fraud, the prominent businessman charged with money-laundering for a drug dealer. Last fall, however, he was back in the public eye with another hugely unpopular case, defending a coalition of notoriously maligned New Yorkers: the 100-plus theaters, bookstores, video shops, cabarets, and topless bars of Times Square. This time Fahringer is battling New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who supported the passage of a rezoning law that would force the adult-entertainment shops to either close up or move to the city's fringes. Fahringer succeeded in postponing enforcement of
It's hard to imagine this meticulously manicured attorney‹who once pronounced, "A neat way about you conveys a neat mind"‹running around the country defending obscenity cases.
the law; by February, a judge was to rule on whether the law, as Fahringer argues, is unconstitutional.
Concern over how these establishments would mix with Disney's planned entertainment complex on 42nd Street "is not a legitimate basis for driving them out of Times Square," he says.
It's clear that Fahringer's passion for individual liberty, even as he nears 70, shows no sign of mellowing. "I'm always trying to persuade people that we should be sensitive to the erosion of individual rights. When the 'little' people lose their rights, ours are jeopardized as well."
In a recent New York Times profile, Fahringer said, "Working is easy. It's living that's hard." He refers to that quote now with a touch of pride. "My work is my life, it gives me purpose. And the beauty of it is that there's no mandatory retirement. I can keep right on going."