Samuel Pisar, 51, is an internationally renowned lawyer, author and East-West trade expert whose clients have ranged from Coca-Cola to the Republic of China, not to mention Elizabeth Taylor. “I’ve known some extraordinary people in my life,” says Sam, “but when I met Judith, I knew that nothing would ever be the same.”
Judith Pisar, 42, is an acclaimed art expert who always travels with her globe-trotting husband. “She has injected herself into my professional life,” Sam says. “It’s quite unique. When she says, ‘May I come?’, she means, ‘I’m coming with you.’ ” Among her socio-political triumphs, she has charmed Austria’s chancellor by admiring his collection by modern painter Hundertwasser, the King of Sweden by chatting about waterskiing and the governor-general of Australia by taking him to avant-garde concerts. Heads of state, lawyer Pisar jokes, think of them as a single entity named “Samand Judith.”
Judith herself is chairwoman of the American Center for Students and Artists in Paris, which has become a respected center for cultural exchange.
Nobody could have predicted two such strong personalities would blend so well—or would ever have the chance. In 1945 Sam was a 16-year-old refugee in Europe, one of the youngest survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, where most of his family died. He became a thief, a black-marketeer—and was jailed briefly by American MPs. At the same time Judith Frehm was a cosseted 7-year-old living in a plush Yonkers, N.Y. home and enjoying, she recalls, “all the things a little girl is supposed to have.”
Even when they met in 1968 at a New York party, Sam and Judith were an unlikely couple. Both were married, albeit unhappily. But, says Sam, “A very unusual human being had entered my life. Judith was not only beauty and brain, but art, culture and background.” She was cooler: “He was difficult, trying to be provocative. I left thinking, ‘What an unusual man.’ ”
He invited her to dinner. That led to a global love affair, which they tried to hide, scheduling business trips to be in the same place. Both opposed divorce, but Judith says, “I knew we couldn’t live without each other.” Married in 1971, they are cordial with their ex-spouses. “It was done in dignity,” Sam says. “Friendships remain.”
They both insist, as Sam says, that “we are 10 times as much to each other and to other people since we’ve met.” Clearly, neither’s career has suffered. He represents many of the biggest international banks and corporations like Rank-Xerox and Seagrams. The Pisars hobnob with Kennedys, Kissingers, Rockefellers. They’ve been to Moscow more than 50 times. Judith was influential in introducing Russian avant-garde painting to the West. They shuttle between Paris, where they live, and New York. Their lives, Judith says, should be subtitled A Tale of Two Cities.
Sam, in fact, called his autobiography Of Blood and Hope. In addition to his life story, it contains his ruminations on the prospects of a global Auschwitz—”a thermonuclear gas chamber.” Pisar contends that without “the expansion of economic ties and human contacts between East and West,” the world faces self-destruction. The book a No. 1 best-seller in France last year, was praised by most critics here this spring, although The Wall Street Journal criticized Pisar’s appeals for co-existence. “They are surely not the natural lessons of the Holocaust,” which the paper said proved “accommodation is suicide.”
Judith encouraged Sam to write of his ordeal. “It really united us,” she says. “It was like having another baby.” They have a daughter, Leah, 7, and three children from their former marriages. Judith’s son lives with them, Sam’s two daughters with their mother in Los Angeles. The child-raising has fallen largely to Judith. “I can’t forget how my father kissed me goodbye and I never saw him again,” Sam says. “So I want to give my children things I didn’t have on an emotional level. But it’s important to make children independent—survival begins at home.”
Sam learned that lesson in Bialystok, Poland, where he watched the lives of his wealthy parents crumble during World War II. The Nazis executed his father, and Sam, 13, was sent to a labor camp, while his mother and younger sister went elsewhere to die. The day they were separated, Sam remembers, his mother dressed him in long pants so he might pass as an able-bodied man and be spared. That was the first of many reprieves he won through luck and cunning in a four-year gamble with death. At Auschwitz, in 1944, Sam was among hundreds consigned to the gas chamber, when he spied a wash pail and brush in the barracks where they were waiting. He scrubbed his way to the door and walked to his bunkhouse unnoticed.
Finally rescued by relatives after the war, Pisar lived in Paris and then Australia, where, at 18, he completed high school in a year; at 23, he had a law degree from the University of Melbourne. In 1954 a scholarship brought him to Harvard to study international law. He interned with United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and in 1956 became legal officer of UNESCO in Paris. He settled there with first wife Norma Weingarten.
In 1960, after Sam returned to the United States to work for a Senate special foreign commerce subcommittee, President Kennedy recruited him to be an economic policy adviser. By a special act of Congress Pisar was made an American citizen so he could obtain security clearance. Sam now says, “I think in English, make love in French, laugh in Yiddish, pray in Hebrew, shout in German, sing in Russian, cry in Polish and swear like a trooper in Hungarian. But my American citizenship is the only one I practice.”
In 1962 he opened his own law office in Paris, landing such show business clients as Taylor and Richard Burton (he helped negotiate their first divorce), Catherine Deneuve, Kirk Douglas and Jane Fonda. He was linked in gossip columns with Ava Gardner.
Judith’s parents were American-born Hungarian Jews. Her father ran a profitable scrap steel business; her mother supervised her only daughter’s education in piano, dance and art. At 16, Judith went to Vassar (“which I loathed”), then transferred to the New School for Social Research. She fell in love with a young Italian conductor, Guido Cantelli, who introduced her to Toscanini and Bernstein. Cantelli died in a plane crash in 1956.
In 1958 she married banker Donald Blinken, 12 years her senior, who guided her into the world of abstract art. Her friends included not only Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg, but composers like John Cage and Pierre Boulez, who became part of her nationwide lecture series, The Composer Speaks. Later, in 1964, choreographer Merce Cunningham asked her to manage his dance company. She took over the American Center in 1978.
The Pisars have a modern home on Avenue Foch Square, a private enclave, where neighbors include the Arthur Rubinsteins and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.
Sam and Judith’s marriage is, in her word, “fascinating. He’s added another dimension to my life,” she adds. “We share everything. We call each other 20 times a day.” (A telephone in her car helps.) Still, they do not live without friction. Much of it centers on Sam’s work, which leaves him little time for the children. “If he gets angry with me, he stays angry,” Judith says. “I blow up and it’s over in two seconds.”
Sam doesn’t like all her ideas about art and music, either. “I’m more classical in my tastes,” he says, creating a musical metaphor for their marriage: “We’re like two instruments that play and sing to each other. The full range is there.”