Strauss-Kahn - Bloomberg - May 19, 2011
Dominique Strauss-Kahn during a bail hearing at State Supreme Court in New York, May 19, 2011. Photo by Bloomberg
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NEW YORK - He began to suspect something was wrong when she refused to accept the money. It had always worked before. So many times. No need even to talk: They'd understood. And he always paid generously. At least $100, though half would easily have done the trick. But it's a matter of principle for him. In private life as on the job. To support developing nations. Think globally, act locally. This time, he thought it would be particularly easy. He has a weakness for West African women: the slimmer the waist, the rounder the ass. It didn't occur to him that she'd refuse. With that sum she could support the family she left behind for several weeks. He tried in French. In English. The hands. He even offered more money, as he does on special occasions. There isn't a woman alive who doesn't want to put out. There is only the man who doesn't know how to take. Money and power. Or just money. Or power. One has to work. But this time, he already knew, something had gone wrong.

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***

At 7 A.M. the photographers are jockeying for position behind the barriers by the Manhattan criminal court. In an hour and a half, Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be arriving for his arraignment. While they do their job, I'm doing mine: trying to formulate a story that leads from the suite at the Sofitel to the court. For three weeks I haven't been able to stop thinking about this, trying to understand what goes on between an immigrant chambermaid, a widow, single mother, and the seigneur on his way to become the president of France. The Internet surfers know it all: "He's a sex fiend." "She's a gold digger." Both appear to me an easy way out, but no story can set the mind at ease.

***

A white bus stops at the courthouse. Dozens of women wearing dresses and aprons in black, blue and beige disembark. The photographers leap. "Are they chambermaids?" I ask a man in a suit standing next to me. "They're not called chambermaids," he rebukes me. He won't tell me his name but does say he represents a union of hotel workers and helped organize this demonstration. I apologize and ask what the politically correct term is. "Room attendants," it turns out.

***

At 8:15 the line fills the hallway on the 13th floor. A lot of English in a French accent can be heard. Everybody is grave, speaking quietly. Nobody smiles. No jokes about bank governors and maids. A sheet of paper on the wall lists the defendants whose cases are to be heard that day. Strausskahn, no hyphen, Dominiqu, no "e," is first. There are four more names. Mendez. Flores. Hernandez. Smith.

A French radio journalist takes advantage of the wait to find an American journalist to interview. A woman of about 70, thin, in jeans and ratty braids, jumps. Her French is excellent but it quickly becomes clear that she's rather odd, "a director of documentaries," she says, who's become obsessed by the case. Faithful to the imagery of cinema, she compares the story with "Rashomon." Her face glows with gratification as the French journalist records her words. As far as she's concerned, the whole thing was worth her while.

A court clerk eyes the line and announces there isn't enough space for everybody. The line -- up to that moment remarkably polite -- breaks down. People push, ignoring the clerk's warning: "If you push, nobody gets in!" The door closes. Haim Handwerker, who's with me, gets in. I don't, nor do the odd director, a Spanish reporter, a German one and many more. The disappointment on their faces is clear. One is on the verge of tears. "There's no more room but I'll see what can be done," the clerk promises. Of all those who've been left outside, only I have been in the U.S. long enough to know that nobody else is getting in. The clerk is amusing himself by tantalizing the people left outside. There's only one space left and he invites everybody to convince him of their merit to get that seat. I tell him my colleague is inside and would give me his seat. I know how rigid Americans can be and know my chances are poor, but for the clerk it's another opportunity to torment everybody else, and he pulls me out of the line. Haim comes out, I go in.

The courtroom is old and impressive. The benches are solid wood. Above the judge's chair are the flags of the United States and of the state of New York. The prosecutors are already there, as is Donald Taylor, one of the defense attorneys. A few minutes later the second defense attorney, Benjamin Brafman, and DSK's wife, Ann Sinclair, enter. Brafman looks grave. Sinclair stands straight and smiles a defiant smile. Of all those present, she seems the most assured of her husband's innocence. Two minutes later the crowd tenses: "He" arrives. Not tall but very solid. His shoulders are very broad, but stooped. He walks slowly, wearing an ironed white shirt, blue suit, shiny black shoes, combed hair. Expressionless, The New York Times put it. I seem to see a sad smile on his face. When he sits with his back to me, I notice a small bald spot at the top of his head that one never sees in pictures. The judge, Michael Obus, begins the hearing. A young woman, dressed rather sloppily, reads the charges. The acoustics are bad. The French reporters have great difficulty understanding what's said. The judge asks the defendant: How do you plead? The words reach us, barely: "Not guilty." I had assumed he would shout it out with pride. Instead, he blurts out the words perfunctorily. The judge goes over a few more procedural matters and schedules the next hearing. The session disperses. I take advantage of the chaos to get closer to him. He stands for a moment, not sure where to go. Up close the bags under his eyes show even more.

I see some brown age spots on his cheeks. For a second, our eyes meet. I quail and hasten to turn my eyes away.

The photographers are still waiting outside the courthouse. The chambermaids greet him with clenched fists as he exits, arm in arm with his wife. She is still smiling that defiant smile. He has rallied somewhat, he now holds his head high. They walk together, slowly, a giant bodyguard by their side. They take the lenses and cries of contempt. I push between the photographers, again approach very close to him. Suddenly he totters: The toe of his shoe catches against an air vent cover, and he nearly trips. But he quickly regains his balance and gets into the waiting black car. The reporters stay where they are, interviewing the chambermaids. An elderly woman in African dress tries to attract the reporters' attention. Who is she? "The African queen mother." What is she doing there? "Representing all women." Is she from western Africa? "My ancestors came from Africa as slaves." The photographers begin packing up their cameras and chairs. The ground is littered with coffee cups, Red Bull cans and napkins. The court fills again. Two Hispanic teens. A teenage girl with a baby. A black teenager in handcuffs, led by two policemen.

*** Half a mile away from the court, on Franklin Street in Tribeca, is DSK's temporary home. It's splendid. Two stories. Red brick. Two big potted trees at the entrance. Four big windows with pale cornices grace each story. The windows are shaded by heavy, brightly colored curtains. Across the street press and amateur photographers and curious passersby cluster behind a barrier. "They're taking pictures. They're reporters," a mother explains to her children with didactic intonation. The children don't ask what they're taking pictures of. "Don't you have anything better to do on your vacation to New York?" a news photographer chides two French tourists. "Disgusting," he hisses to himself. One of the French tourists, an elderly, heavily made-up woman, is convinced the whole thing was a politically motivated setup. Her friend believes the contact was consensual. "It's obvious. Does he have a problem getting women?" They too, like me, are trying to put together a story, to explain it to themselves.

Bettina Schein, a criminal lawyer who knows DSK's defense attorney, tells me the defense's job is not very different. "A good defense creates an alternative scenario that fits the evidence and sows doubt about the defendant's guilt among the jury," she says. "In this case the line of defense will probably be that it was consensual, and the motive financial. It will argue that the evidence does not necessarily indicate an act by force. It will check whether the plaintiff was in financial straits, whether she was late in paying bills. The fact that she hired a lawyer could also play against her, as though she's already planning a civil suit for the money."

Meanwhile, across from the house, the photographers jump: A deliveryman in a blue uniform approaches the door, holding a bouquet of orchids wrapped in cellophane. From afar I can see an attached white envelope. Who sent the flowers? What does the note say? I can only imagine. The deliveryman disappears inside and comes right back out. The excitement dies down. The people continue to languish in the hot sun. Stores hang signs that say reporters are not welcome. Somebody wets the sidewalk by his store with wastewater, to keep the crowds away.

At my hotel, as far as you can get from the luxury of Sofitel, an envelope waits on the nightstand. The chambermaid wrote her name on it, Cristina. She also drew a smiley and wrote "Thank you". Her handwriting is childish. The letters are not confident. Lessons had been learned from the story after all, albeit modest ones. At the Sofitel, chambermaids will now be allowed to wear pants. At the Franklin Street residence, the cleaners are all male. I leave a bill in the envelope before I check out.