By Debra Nussbaum Cohen, JTA
This is one of the strangest stories you’ll ever read.
It’s about a Manhattan psychiatrist, Dr. Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf, known for treating — and name-dropping — an array of celebrity patients while becoming well known in Jewish and literary philanthropic circles.
And it’s about Martin Markowitz, a longtime patient of Herschkopf, who says he spent most of his life – more than 30 years – under Herschkopf’s sway. It’s a story about how the psychiatrist isolated Markowitz from his friends and family and encouraged him not to pursue potential marriage partners.
There’s more: It’s about how Herschkopf became president of Markowitz’s theatrical fabrics business, created a charitable foundation almost entirely with Markowitz’s money, and got the foundation and his wife named in Markowitz’s will after his patient removed his sister and her children at the psychiatrist’s suggestion.
In the meantime, Herschkopf collected more than $3 million in fees from Markowitz over three decades.
And it’s about a luxurious suburban New York estate that, while it belongs to Markowitz, Herschkopf managed to commandeer it and present it as his own for 26 years — relegating Markowitz to guest quarters at the back of the compound.
Herschkopf has claimed that Markowitz was a willing partner in everything, and a neighbor says, “It takes two to tango.” Markowitz admits he was vulnerable and willingly followed his psychiatrist’s instructions. Nevertheless, there are questions about the professional ethics of a psychiatrist insinuating himself into the personal, family and financial life of a patient to the degree that Herschkopf did.
Since the story became public recently, Herschkopf has faced professional consequences. He disappeared from the New York University Medical School’s website. He resigned voluntarily, Herschkopf said. Herschkopf also resigned from FASPE, the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, on whose board of directors he sat, according to the board chair, David Goldman.
“I resigned [from NYU and FASPE] to spare them the adverse publicity,” Herschkopf said.
The story has created a stir in Manhattan’s tight-knit philanthropic and Modern Orthodox Jewish circles. Herschkopf famously hosted summer parties in the Hamptons that brought between 70 and 170 people on buses — chartered by Markowitz — to the house whose mailbox bore the name of “Dr. Isaac Stevens,” Herschkopf’s alias. Herschkopf had Markowitz prepare the compound for each party and stand at the barbecue roasting kosher fare and serving guests.
Although patients would often be invited to the parties and mingle with the other guests, guests said they had no idea that Markowitz was Herschkopf’s patient. They believed – from the way Markowitz was dressed to the roles he served at the parties – that he was hired help.
The parties drew celebrities, actors and writers, and the creme de la creme of Manhattan’s Modern Orthodox world. Gwyneth Paltrow, who was Herschkopf’s patient for a time, was among the guests, Markowitz says.
For years Herschkopf wrote columns published in The New York Jewish Week, most recently in September. One was about being beaten by his father, an Auschwitz survivor.
The writer Shalom Auslander wrote a thinly veiled account of his time with his celebrity-obsessed shrink for The New York Times in 2006. Perhaps he was simply repaying the favor: Herschkopf wrote a letter to Esquire magazine in 2001 identifying himself as Isaac Steven Hersch, Auslander’s psychiatrist.
Another famous writer, who asked that her name not be included in this article, said she never went to the Southampton parties, though she attended a Passover seder with Herschkopf and his family once at their Manhattan apartment.
“Does this come as a great shock to me? No,” she said. “There is something about him, his obsession with famous people, and he always seemed to be sidling up to famous literary people. I personally would never recommend him to anyone.”
Psychiatrist Samuel Klagsbrun and his wife, writer Francine Klagsbrun, were invited to the parties.
“We may have gone. I don’t know him particularly well,” said Samuel Klagsbrun, who founded Four Winds Hospitals, which offer mental health services in upstate New York.
After being told about the allegations against Herschkopf, Samuel Klagsbrun said, “This is one of the worst cases I’ve ever heard of. To use psychiatry to manipulate people like that is all kinds of criminality. He should have his medical license taken away. He used whatever talent he has to manipulate people. The damage he did to Marty … and it besmirches all of psychiatry.”
Pouring salt into open wounds
I visited Markowitz in the Hamptons on a breezy June Saturday, and he showed me around the sumptuous, sun-dappled property. There is a large pool complete with slide, full-size basketball court, the tennis court, hot tub and modern sculptures. That’s in addition to multiple koi-stocked ponds and a professionally designed 18-hole miniature golf course – one of only five installed at private homes in the country at the time, Markowitz said. It was all installed at Herschkopf’s direction and paid for by Markowitz.
Markowitz looks a decade younger than his 77 years, and is delighted to show me the apiary where he recently began keeping honeybees, behind which he plans to soon add a chicken coop. He is witty and calm, and dispassionate as he recounts the facts of his relationship with Herschkopf. He seems content.
But it wasn’t always that way. In June 1981 Markowitz, then 39, had recently lost both his parents and was unexpectedly running their large family business, Associated Fabrics. In 1980, Markowitz was sued by an uncle unhappy that his late brother had left 50 percent of the company to his son Marty. Just the year before, Markowitz had broken off an engagement when his fiancee refused to sign a prenuptial agreement. It was a stressful and painful time.
He turned to his rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, at the time Lincoln Square Synagogue’s leader, who had brought Markowitz closer to Judaism. Riskin referred Markowitz to Herschkopf, then a young psychiatrist in his late 20s. Through his assistant, Riskin – who has lived in Israel since 1983 – said he “cannot offer any recollections, reflections or insights on the matter.”
Markowitz began seeing Herschkopf three times a week.
“Very quietly, over about an 18-month period, Ike started pouring salt into all of my open wounds,” Markowitz said. “He got my sister and her children and all of my blood relatives and close friends out of my life.
“A constant mantra from Ike was he’d say ‘you can’t handle the truth. You’re passive aggressive, you can’t handle confrontation, you’re going to screw up the business and lose customers,’” Markowitz recalled.
As he eroded what remained of Markowitz’s fragile confidence, Herschkopf gradually began insinuating himself into management decisions at Associated Fabrics.
Phyllis Shapiro, Markowitz’s younger sister by three years, then worked at the fabric company. In early 1983, Herschkopf “instructed me to serially lower Phyllis’s pay by $5,000, which I did several times.” Markowitz said.
The psychiatrist told Markowitz to have a second bar mitzvah in May 1983, and not to invite his sister or her children.
Afterward, Shapiro flew to Switzerland, according to the podcast, and removed money inherited from their parents from a bank account held jointly with her brother, removed gold coins from a jointly owned safe deposit box and took bonds from Markowitz’s apartment.
“At Dr. Ike’s insistence I fired Phyllis from Associated Fabrics,” Markowitz wrote on a timeline of events he shared with me in Southampton.
Markowitz wrote a letter he said Herschkopf drafted stating that “no one in the family would ever inherit any of my money.” At the psychiatrist’s insistence he hired a messenger to deliver the letter, who left it with Shapiro’s then 11-year-old daughter.
After guiding Markowitz to cut off all those relationships, “Ike said, ‘you don’t have a family? Don’t worry. My family will be your family, my kids like your nieces and nephews and we’re going to make a social life for you,’” Markowitz recounted.
In February 1984, Herschkopf “instructed me to create the Yaron Foundation,” Markowitz wrote on his timeline. “Dr. Ike, Rebecca (his wife) and I are the officers and directors. Simultaneously he convinces me to execute a will leaving my entire estate to the Yaron Foundation. Dr. Ike is the sole executor of the will.”
That year Markowitz and his sister were at terrible odds. They agreed to let Rabbi Riskin settle their conflict and, after a beit din, or rabbinical court, to which both siblings brought lawyers, Riskin issued a ruling dividing the assets between them, which they both accepted.
After that, “I didn’t see my sister for 27 years,” Markowitz said.
“I had a ring in my nose and he was leading me around,” he said of Herschkopf.
Asked if he felt any internal resistance to the demands his psychiatrist was making, Markowitz said, “I had to put my feelings down. If my sister contacted me, if she left a message or sent me a birthday or New Year’s card, he instructed [me] to ‘bring all those things into me.’ We would listen to it together and he would interpret it.”
‘I was choking to death’
At the time, Markowitz owned only the Southampton property that is now the guest house. In September 1986, Markowitz said, Herschkopf instructed him to buy the adjoining property. The properties were connected, and the first of what would become the legendary summer parties was held in June 1987 at the property Herschkopf began presenting as his own.
Framed photos of Herschkopf with celebrities covered every interior wall of the house. Herschkopf would instruct Markowitz to have them framed at his patient’s expense. He also had Markowitz type up every manuscript of the 12 books he wrote, most of which have not been published.
To the parties, “each invitation came from Dr. Ike and his family, with no mention of me,” Markowitz wrote on his timeline.
To be sure, this isn’t the only case in which a psychiatrist has been accused of manipulating a patient and creating family rifts and estrangements. The heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, who died recently, experienced something similar with her psychiatrist, Dr. Christ Zois. Vanderbilt eventually sued Zois and won a $1.5 million judgment against him and an attorney who she accused of “preying on her wealth and emotional fragility.” It took many more years for her to reconcile with her estranged son Stan Stokowski.
Markowitz began feeling stirrings of discontent with his psychiatrist when the doctor insisted that he keep the business in Manhattan, in space he could no longer afford.
“I was choking to death,” he said. “We were four or five months away from bankruptcy,” both because of the rent and the fees he was paying his psychiatrist straight out of the business.
Markowitz said that in 1995, he also lost over $1.5 million he had invested, at Herschkopf’s recommendation, in the Bennett Funding Group, which filed for bankruptcy after the SEC filed fraud charges. At the time it was the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.
Markowitz said he broke away from Herschkopf in 2010 after Markowitz had a hernia operation and Herschkopf didn’t check in with his patient and supposed friend of almost 40 years.
“I was devastated,” Markowitz said. “I began to question the whole basis of our relationship.”
Using lessons learned from Herschkopf, Markowitz wrote a letter saying he wanted to take a break. The doctor wrote back warning that Markowitz was making a terrible mistake and would lose his business to manipulative employees.
In December, Markowitz reached out to his sister, Phyllis. When she answered the phone, she told him, “I’ve been waiting for this call for 27 years.”
Though it took some of her children a while to trust him again, they are now closer than ever.
In the years since 2010, brother and sister have biked together through Italy and traveled to China. Shapiro spends lots of time now at the Southampton estate, where she takes daily tennis lessons and plays competitively.
Things have turned around for Markowitz.
“Once I started running the company totally by myself I got my mojo back,” Markowitz said. “I’m a graduate of the Wharton School and NYU Law – I’ve got some serious CV going on!”
The business is smaller, but it’s turning a profit for the first time in many years.
“I’m the happiest I’ve been for many, many years,” Markowitz said.
According to Markowitz, two more of Herschkopf’s patients, with similar stories of being manipulated, also have stepped forward.
Markowitz’s one remaining goal is to make sure Herschkopf is professionally disciplined for his ethical breaches. Complaints he filed with the New York State Department of Health in 2012 have gone nowhere. And Herschkopf resigned from the American Psychiatric Association, Markowitz said, after being notified that it was going to commence an investigation into his conduct.
A Department of Health spokeswoman, Erin Silk, said, “Consistent with Public Health Law, the Department cannot confirm or deny the receipt of any complaint or the existence of an Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC) investigation of a licensee unless charges have been posted on the DOH website or the Board for Professional Medical Conduct has taken a public action.”
A search of Herschkopf’s name on the OPMC section of the DOH website turned up nothing.
“I want justice to be served and to me, him losing his [medical] license is justice,” Markowitz said. “I just don’t want him to do this to anyone else.”