By Jim Jerome
September 27, 1999 12:00 PM

Judy Sheindlin always figured that after her long, distinguished career in New York City family court she’d live the quiet good life on the west coast—of Florida, that is. She was only off by about 3,000 miles and 9 million television viewers.

Sheindlin, 56, is back from lunch and in her dressing room on a soundstage off Sunset Boulevard, where her syndicated courtroom show, Judge Judy, tapes. How was lunch? “I can’t see my food anymore without my glasses—such a shame,” says the endearingly cranky bench mensch. As for the excessive air conditioning blasting in the room, she warns, “I like it this cold, like you’re going to hang meat in here.”

Some of her small-claims litigants should get off so easy. After a blusher and lipstick touch-up, justice—Judy-style—can be served. “Out!” she barks, banishing a witness in a tenant dispute who had the nerve to mimic her. She tells the landlord, who says he is unable to rent the unit next door to the trombonist defendant, “It doesn’t say you have to find someone who is hard of hearing, but it might help.”

Now the judge perks up for a plaintiff seeking a $171 refund because two new made-in-India jackets reek of a strange, foul odor. She sniffs Exhibit A and recalls how she once wore a new sweater that caused a cousin to say, “I love you, but you smell like fish.” Finding for the plaintiff, she tells the boutique-owner defendant, “It certainly isn’t Chanel No. 5.”

As all America rises for Judge Judy‘s fourth season, such gavel-to-gavel guff is giving off the sweet, heady smell of success. Since last season the show has had the largest audience of any syndicated daytime program, crushing everyone from Oprah to Springer. All these real-life small claims bring huge paydays for Sheindlin, with industry sources putting her fee at $150,000 per week, plus profit participation. (As supervising judge in Manhattan she earned $113,000 in 1993.) “This is some lark,” she says. “Effortless. My stress level is way down. I don’t worry about the return of a baby to a crack-addicted mother. I open my eyes every day a happy person.”

Having once searched for a retirement condo on Florida’s west coast, Sheindlin and her husband, Jerry, 65, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice, are relishing the luxuries of Plan B: a three-bedroom duplex on Manhattan’s affluent Sutton Place, a 3.5-acre lakeside retreat an hour away, financial security for the five now-grown children she and Jerry raised after their 1978 marriage, a Mercedes and the indulgent diamond or two.

“It’s amazing. We had it all figured out,” Jerry says. “A great portion of our lives—though we treasured the good we did—was spent struggling as public servants to make ends meet.” Says Judy: “Forty-four thousand in pension and Social Security, a place in Florida, early-bird specials, come up North, see the kids. That’s how you plan when you don’t have money. I still do: ‘How much to keep the homes, educate the grandkids?’ Except the numbers have changed.”

She got that right. The runaway ratings turned this year’s meditation on empowerment, Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever, into her second bestseller, and now she’s got a tough new rival: husband Jerry. He has just replaced The People’s Court‘s Ed Koch, the ex-New York City mayor who draped both Sheindlins in robes. (Judy was appointed in 1982.) Might competition—in some markets the spouses will go head-to-head—lead to a family feud? “Nah, double the fun,” promises Jerry’s lawyer daughter Nicole.

Sheindlin says she’ll adjourn only when her half of the fun is gone. “I’m realistic. I’m not becoming Farrah Fawcett here. If you stay beyond your welcome, it’s for ego or money or because you can’t exist without the limelight. I’m fine without it.” Still, she can’t deny that fame has changed her. “I try not to use a toothpick in public,” says Judy, a 1999 Miss America judge. “We don’t take Sweet’n Lows from restaurants anymore. I don’t stuff dinner rolls into my pocketbook.”

Her life as a bicoastal bubelah—her fifth grandchild is on the way—reveals a humble “creature of habit” practicality that grounds Sheindlin against prima donna power surges. She does fly first-class (“lovely”) to L.A. for two days of taping every two weeks, but travels so light she carries on, never checks. She patronizes the same elegant, understated hotel and leaves her L.A. outfits with the front desk between visits. She stays in East Coast time by crashing at 8:30, waking at 5:30. That’s when she does her 20-minute workout in 10 minutes. “I go down to the gym unwashed, like something dragged in from behind a truck.” Though now chauffeured, she still stops for her ritual Egg McMuffin and beats everyone but a guard to the set by 8.

She wraps by 4 p.m., takes an hour of sun poolside, then checks in with Jerry, who tapes in New York. Dinner may be fruit and cottage cheese or, “if I want to go to hell with myself, a giant pastrami sandwich.” She wakes predawn to hop an early Friday flight and never takes off “without thanking God we didn’t have the Big One.”

Sheindlin holds court backstage with teasing zingers and familial informality. But no one questions who’s boss. When a segment producer weighed in on cases at meetings early on, Judy fumed. “I am not interested in what you think about the plaintiff or defendant,” she told him. “If the American public wanted to know who you thought was telling the truth or not, they would have hired you, right?” Says executive producer Randy Douthit: “Producers don’t intimidate her. Lawyers, studio heads don’t intimidate her. Judy has no fear.”

Not even a suit seeking $200,000 in damages can faze her. An L.A. attorney named, incredibly enough, Richard Nixon claims she slandered him by questioning his legal savvy when he was a witness on a case that hasn’t aired. “Any idea what [I did] to unprepared lawyers in real court?” she says. “Wiped the floors with them. I was kind to this guy. I read he was suing me for hurt feelings. How L.A.!”

Her buzz-saw bluster was honed not in Hollywood but in the harsh fluorescence of a courtroom at 60 Lafayette St. in lower Manhattan. “That’s no overnight metamorphosis,” says Frank Argano, first deputy chief clerk for New York’s family court, a pal for 27 years. “It’s exactly how she conducted herself here.”

“If I had 40 cases a day,” says Sheindlin, “I couldn’t indulge people. It was like, ‘You want a cathartic experience, get a shrink.'”

Her unlikely evolution into a showbiz solon began with a 1993 Los Angeles Times profile of her determination to make the courts work. (“I was a pot-stirrer who didn’t want people to get too complacent.”) Once 60 Minutes captured her on-camera (her sarcastic signature, tapping her head and asking, “Does it say ‘schmuck’ here?” has been cleaned up with “stupid”), a bestseller from the bench ensued (Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining), and Hollywood was on the case. Two former People’s Court producers “called and wanted to get something going for TV,” says Sheindlin. She then spent a weekend with them in L.A. meeting several studio honchos. One, Larry Lyttle, president of upstart Big Ticket Television, boldly gambled on the judge and closed a deal. “She was not a poseur. There was something overpowering about that,” recalls Lyttle.

“I didn’t know how to play the game,” Sheindlin says of her entrée into showbiz. “I was Brooklyn smart but untrained.” Used to what she calls “a bare bones bureaucracy of two-inch pencils and recycled brown paper towels,” she did her own due diligence and saw “built-in waste,” “backstabbing” and “incestuous” ties among lawyers, studios and talent. “I had to watch my back and take control of things myself.” To this day, Sheindlin has neither a business manager nor a talent agent.

When No. 1 ratings led her to renegotiate her seven-year deal earlier this year, she was ready for hardball. Talks were “damn adversarial,” admits Big Ticket’s Lyttle. “Judy’s not a diva, she’s a cultural icon, but she’s opinionated, confrontational, and she has an enormous ego.”

And clout to match. In mid-negotiation, Lyttle says, he was “totally misquoted” as boasting, “We made her life.” Outraged, Sheindlin nearly quit. “I said, ‘Listen, I’ve got a pension. I won’t be under the FDR Drive in a box. Without sounding egomaniacal, it’s my spirit that runs the show. I was not being paid commensurate with my contribution. Larry didn’t ‘make my life.’ The truth is quite the opposite. I made his.”

Judy Blum grew up deeply attached to her parents and her Brooklyn roots. Murry, her father, was a fun-loving dentist whose office was at home. Her mother, Ethel, “ran his office, their lives, ran everything for the betterment of everyone,” says Sheindlin’s lifelong best friend Elaine Schwartz. Though a serious student at James Madison High School, Judy loved to dance with Murry to Sinatra LPs and bonded with Ethel while bargaining at legendary Loehmann’s department store. With Judy’s younger brother David, the family vacationed at Catskills resorts where, an amused Sheindlin recalls, “my parents schlepped me around so I would meet some nice rich guy.”

By the time she graduated from New York Law School in 1965, she had wed attorney Ronald Levy. Unhappy as a cosmetics firm lawyer, she quit and soon had daughter Jamie, now 32, and Adam, now 30, a home-maker and a lawyer, respectively. But moving from Brooklyn to the suburbs proved stifling, and by 1972, Judy was prosecuting juvenile delinquents in Bronx family court. In 1976, Sheindlin left Levy after 12 years of marriage. “We had different visions. He said, ‘You work for fun, I work for a living.’ It was a house full of friction and fighting over minutiae.”

Three weeks after the divorce she met Sheindlin, a criminal defense lawyer, when she stopped in at Peggy Doyle’s, a watering hole near the courts. “I took one look, stuck my finger in his face and asked my girlfriend, ‘Who’s this?’ Sometimes it just comes over you, an initial physical attraction, and that’s what it was.”

Her two children and his three—Jerry had been separated from wife Suzanne for four years—blended easily. (Adam and Jamie, Jonathan, a retinal surgeon, now 31, and lawyers Greg, 35, and Nicole, 30, “just clicked,” says Nicole.)

They married a year later in the Library suite of the St. Regis Hotel—after she proposed: “He had been dragging his tail. I said, ‘If we’re not going to do this, I’m dating other folks.’ Which I did, and which gave him a certain inspiration.” How did she pop the question? “I said, ‘Get out your date book.'”

The jury of five recall life with their frisky, ever-kibitzing parents as The Jerry & Judy Show. One island getaway turned NC-17 when the judges boated to a private beach, or so they thought. As Judy sunned topless, Jerry heard voices approaching—members of a New York City jurists’ convention. “He threw a towel over Judy’s head,” relates Schwartz, “and said, ‘If anybody recognizes you now, I’ll kill ya.’

Sheindlin battled working-mother guilt and was “constantly juggling” to keep everyone on track, says her friend Argano. That included hauling bags of summer-camp underwear into chambers before court in spring and asking him to help mark names. She once moved the brood into an apartment complex with its own cafeteria, pool and yeshiva. One problem: The school’s kosher lunchroom. “When Judy felt maternal,” says Nicole, “she’d get a six-foot salami.” Adds Adam: “So every day I had salami and milk and got sent to the principal for mixing dairy and meat. Then Mom switched to tilefish, pounds of it. I still don’t know what tilefish is. No one in fourth grade was trading Ring Dings for tilefish.” When he lobbied for a hot lunch, shrugs Judy, “I found a kosher pizzeria and gave Adam a slice with thumb tacks and said, ‘Stick this above the radiator. By noon you’ll have a hot lunch.’ I didn’t like my oven. Look, you won’t get tall from McDonald’s, but you won’t die.”

Sheindlin witnessed a withering “parade of misery”—domestic violence, deadbeat dads, foster-care scams—that often got to her. “Judy has a quiet humanity she doesn’t project,” says Schwartz. “She’d see abused kids in court always wearing the same thing. She wasn’t allowed to directly dispense clothes from her kids or mine, so she’d give bags of our hand-me-downs to court officers to give these kids. Her heart broke for victims of the system.”

And hardened toward its “abuse-excuse” perps. When daughter Nicole, then a Legal Aid intern, became sympathetic to a kid charged with murder, she came home sobbing. After making bail, he’d been gunned down on 125th Street. “It was, I believe, Thanksgiving,” says Judy, “and I was, like, ‘Yeah, so? Pass the stuffing.’ ” Says Nicole: “You have to have tough skin in this family.”

That goes for sons-in-law too. When the judges officiated at Nicole’s 1998 wedding (they’ve married all but bachelor Greg), Judy offered this toast to groom Dan Mentzer, a 6’2″ lawyer: “Nicole, you’re beautiful and smart. Dan, you’re tall. Nicole, you’re gracious and elegant. Dan, you’re tall.” Says Judy: “Dan’s our family’s only hope in the gene pool for height.”

Ethel Blum died in 1980 at age 57 from colon cancer Sheindlin says was “misdiagnosed” as ovarian cancer. (Murry sued and settled with the hospital.) When Murry died at age 70, in 1990, from an infection following heart surgery, Judy’s grief tore into the marriage. “She deteriorated,” says Jerry. “She could be very nasty. And I give as good as I get. It became uncomfortable to stay together clobbering each other.”

Needing space to heal, Judy moved out and divorced Jerry. “I’d never been alone,” she says. “I’d done a lot of deferring. I enjoyed my freedom. But I missed him.” Single-hood worked better for Jerry. “He’s cute, funny, and he had hair. Being a judge is better than being a doctor. People were looking to fix him up left and right, while men were intimidated by my being a judge.”

When the two were drawn back together for holidays, birthdays—and therapy—it became clear that the divorce wouldn’t last. After a year apart, in 1991, Judy called her friend Elaine and said, “Wash your face. We’re getting married in an hour.”

This time they married in the chambers of Jerry’s former partner Herb Adlerberg. “First,” says Elaine, “we had to sit in criminal court while a defendant in leg irons and handcuffs protested his innocence.” And, Judy adds, “when Herbie went, ‘Judy, do you take Jerry—’ I said, ‘For better or forget it.’ Afterward, Jerry went to a Chinatown tailor to get two suits fixed. I went with Elaine to look at bathroom fixtures.”

Showbiz isn’t likely to shake the Sheindlins from the simple pleasures that anchor their lives. Their favorite eat-in/takeout joints are all still a block away—including, says Judy, “a real New York pizza parlor where I grab the phone and take delivery orders for Sal.”

The lake offers “utter calm,” says Jerry. Their chalet-style home overlooks a private dock and a 280-foot beach, ideal for boating, tubing and swimming. Okay, almost ideal: “I wouldn’t put my face in that lake with all those geese and ducks caca-ing all over the place,” says Judy.

Her greatest joy, though, is seeing the kids and grandkids thriving—and “giving with a warm hand, while I’m alive to see them enjoy it.” The key to domestic contentment is not her show—but his. “I had some trepidation with Jerry retiring,” she admits. “I didn’t want him in my hair all the time. He’s such a vital guy. So when his show came up, I went right out to my parents’ cemetery and told them, ‘You were watching. Good.'”

They’d love her handling of fame and fortune. Wary of her “fickle” industry, Judy invests conservatively, keeping her money “as close to my mattress as possible without being under my mattress.” And Ethel’s girl remains a markdown maven, “laughing all the way to the outlet malls. I’m still not real big on retail,” says Judy. “That doesn’t change.”