Thursday, April 1, 2010

Interview with Linda Fairstein


'Hell Gate' author Linda Fairstein finds mystery in Gracie Mansion, home of New York's mayor --

By: Gina Salamone --
March 7th 2010 --

From skulls surfacing in City Hall Park to a body turning up behind Gracie Mansion, some scandalous scenes take place at local landmarks in "Hell Gate."

Author Linda Fairstein didn't have to delve too deep for inspiration for the legal thriller, which hits shelves Tuesday. Many sites and characters were plucked from New York City's news and her own experiences.

Fairstein, 62, headed the sex- crimes unit of the Manhattan DA's office from 1976 to 2002. "Hell Gate" marks the 12th book in her successful crime series about fictional prosecutor Alexandra Cooper.

In the latest novel, Gracie Mansion serves as the center of a murder investigation when a body is found in a well there.
While there's no real well on the upper East Side home's grounds, the body of a man with a knife wound was found in Carl Schurz Park outside Gracie Mansion in 2004, and other crimes occur in the park from time to time.

Fairstein herself has attended many functions at the mansion, the mayor's official residence (though Mayor Bloomberg chooses not to live there).

"It had a history and physical beauty that fascinated me, when you consider that it was built 200 years ago as a summer home when this part of the island was not populated," she says. "People took a boat ride 5 miles away to get away from the congestion and the disease in lower Manhattan. So it was one spot on my list of places to get to" in the books.

The house overlooks Hell Gate, the narrow East River strait that separates Astoria from Randalls Island. Its rough waters are difficult to navigate because of strong tidal flows.

As cops and Cooper canvass the house for clues in the book's murder case, they marvel at the mansion's history. It was built in 1799. Mayor Robert Wagner's wife, Susan, added a new west wing that was completed in 1966.

Inside, stairs lead up to the Blue Ballroom. "This is the huge entertaining space that is the new wing," Fairstein says. "It's just an incredibly gracious and beautiful, entertaining space. That's the way most New Yorkers would come into the house."

In the book, police search the state bedroom upstairs. "Nelson Mandela has stayed in there," Fairstein says. "If you look out over the river, I think you see every borough, except Staten Island, from the second floor of the house."

The home's library is where Cooper and the detectives have their first discussion about the murder.

In the book, a detective mentions all the financial help Bloomberg has anonymously donated to restore the home and track down some of its original furniture. In reality, the mayor has been just as generous.

"The dining room has furniture that has been found and restored," Fairstein says. "The mirror in there has an eagle with a ball and chain in its claws. It's the symbol of the revolution, as the eagle is lifting the ball and chain of oppression from British rule."

The cannonball on display in the mansion's parlor is more than ornamental. "The house was destroyed during the Revolutionary War by cannon fire from Willets Point in Queens and one of the cannonballs was found. So that literally sits in the yellow room, which is a big entertaining parlor," says the author.

Gracie isn't the only mansion that plays a part in "Hell Gate." Hamilton Grange in Harlem and the Morris-Jumel Mansion, which has had reports of being haunted, also appear.

"While I was doing my research, the head of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy told me that there were three, and only three, Federal Period wooden mansions that still exist in Manhattan," Fairstein explains. "So that led me to the other two. Then my research led me to this link among the three of them that involved a murder case from 1800. And that was almost uncanny - that there really was a crime that connected the owners of the three homes."

If that's not shocking enough, few New Yorkers know of the bodies that were buried in City Hall Park and just north of it.

In "Hell Gate," Cooper trips while leaving the building and finds herself face to face with a jawbone in the ditch by a path.

It's not too far-fetched. In 1991, a building project revealed remains of 427 bodies beneath a parking lot about two blocks north of City Hall. They are believed to be part of a long-lost African burial ground. And in 1999, a renovation of City Hall Park turned up Colonial burials — though their history is unclear.

"I don't think, at this moment, you'll see skulls and femurs there," Fairstein admits. "But they're around."

It's not only well-known buildings that show up in "Hell Gate," but the city's far-reaching neighborhoods like Douglaston, Queens. Cooper's favorite restaurants — like Primola on the upper East Side — are Fairstein's, too.

"A lot of out-of-towners will walk in and say, 'Does Linda Fairstein really eat here?' " the author says. "What's her favorite drink? So it's fun for the restaurant owners. And it's fun for me. The mix of real with fictional has always been one of the things that makes me smile when I write."

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