Press Center

Catwoman's Sublet

New York Observer, June 29, 1992

How many sides does a story have? Take two litigants, add a couple of lawyers and press spokesman, multiply by a few competing columnists, and a simple real estate deal gone bad can start to resemble a prism.

For example, there's the $153,000 lawsuit Michelle Pfeiffer filed against Harley Baldwin, the businessman who once tried to build Bridgemarket under the Queensboro Bridge and who now owns the Caribou Club and a hotel in Aspen. At first glance, the facts of the case appear simple: Ms. Pfeiffer paid Mr. Baldwin $33,000 to sublet his two-bedroom apartment with Central Park views while she was filming Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence this spring. But when her movers arrived at the building, they were turned away, and Ms. Pfeiffer moved into a hotel. Mr. Baldwin tried to persuade her to send the movers again and refused to return her money, evidently arguing that a deal is a deal. Ms. Pfeiffer filed suit in State Supreme Court on April 16, and the dispute was in the papers the next day.

According to the Daily News' Applesauce column, Ms. Pfeiffer "was duped into subletting an apartment in the swank Dakota that was about to be foreclosed on by Citibank." Mr. Baldwin was in default on his $800,000 mortgage, and Citibank was planning to auction off the apartment the day after Ms. Pfeiffer was to move in, the paper reported, citing Ms. Pfeiffer's lawsuit. The paper didn't say whether Mr. Baldwin had since received permission to sublet his apartment from the Dakota's co-op board, which was apparently another hindrance to Ms. Pfeiffer's tenancy.

The New York Post's Page Six had the same story on the same day, adding a quote from Mr. Baldwin's attorney, Seth Paprin, who said he had tried to work out an arrangement after Ms. Pfeiffer's movers were turned away. But the actress wasn't interested in the apartment any longer, Mr. Paprin told the paper, leading him to wonder whether she had "changed her mind and decided not to reside there for her own reasons."

Almost a week later, Daily News columnist Richard Johnson weighed in with his version. Saying that Ms. Pfeiffer was suing to get her $33,000 back, Mr. Johnson reported that "the actress backed out of subletting an apartment in the Dakota when she found out she had to talk to two board members on the phone before moving in." Her movers had come to the Dakota's front entrance at 5:30 p.m. "and started unloading exercise equipment on the spot where John Lennon was killed" until they were stopped by the doormen, who shooed them away because the building rules restrict movers to the service entrance between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., Mr. Johnson claimed, citing a spokesman for Mr. Baldwin.

On June 11, the court ordered Mr. Baldwin to pay the actress $34,417.50, returning her $33,000 with interest and costs. Ms. Pfeiffer won a default judgment on the first claim of her lawsuit, leaving active the other claims, for which she is seeking an additional $120,000 in damages. The actress swore out an affidavit on June 5 that tells her side of the story: on Feb. 5, she signed an agreement to lease Mr. Baldwin's co-op and sent a $33,000 check (the first and last month's rent and a security deposit). When her movers arrived on March 8, they were refused access to the apartment; the movers contacted Ms. Pfeiffer's assistant, who in turn contacted the broker who had arranged the rental.

"I learned this when I flew into New York later that day," Ms. Pfeiffer tells the court. "I was due to start work on a new film the very next day and had no choice but to find another apartment in a hotel that same night." Subsequently, she discovered that Mr. Baldwin had never obtained the permission of the co-op's board, as is required at the Dakota; despite her repeated demands, he refused to return her $33,000. "Although Baldwin's lawyer and public relations representative responded to our claims in the press, Baldwin himself failed to appear in response to the Summons," the affidavit continues, arguing that Mr. Baldwin had defaulted on the action.

Attached as an exhibit to the affidavit is a copy of the lease between Mr. Baldwin and Ms. Pfeiffer, which is called a "guest agreement" and says that the actress will "remain as a guest" in Mr. Baldwin's furnished apartment. "Mr. Baldwin represents to Ms. Pfeiffer that he has the authority to enter into this agreement," according to the two-page document, which also specifies that Con Edison and cable television charges are included in the $11,000-a-month rent. The agreement gives Mr. Baldwin the right to show the apartment to prospective purchasers "at the convenience of Michelle Pfeiffer" and contains a confidentiality clause, "understanding Ms. Pfeiffer's need for security and privacy." The eighth and last clause of the guest agreement says that the loser has to pay the winner's attorney's fees and costs "in the unlikely event of any dispute."

Mr. Baldwin recently hired a new attorney, Jay Itkowitz, to handle the case. "This is not the end of this matter," says Mr. Itkowitz, who adds that he will ask the court to invalidate the judgment. "Mr. Baldwin has a thoroughly defensible position, and we will be taking appropriate steps to represent his interests." Ms. Pfeiffer has kept the same attorney, Mr. Hoffman, who refuses to discuss the case any longer. "I don't want this to be tried in the press," he says.

Meanwhile, sources say that Mr. Baldwin has gone to contract with a buyer for the apartment, who met with the co-op board in the middle of June. The first party to escape the prism of unsatisfied claims in this case may well be Citibank.