By Mark Lasswell
June 05, 1995 12:00 PM

AWARE OF HIS PROPENSITY FOR fainting at the sight of blood, Stanley Pottinger steeled himself, then plunged through the doors of the operating room at a Boston-area hospital to watch a quadruple bypass operation. He was conducting research in 1991 for a novel, a medical thriller. But seeing the patient’s open chest—the heart pulsing under a layer of yellow fat—almost sent him running. “It was hideous,” Pottinger, 55, recalls. But after a queasy 20 minutes, he settled down. “I could see why medicine has such a romantic aura,” he says. “It’s powerful stuff.”

Pottinger’s novel has turned out to be powerful stuff too. The Fourth Procedure, pitting terrorists, medical professionals and politicians against each other on the battleground of the abortion issue, immediately lodged on national best-seller lists this spring. Maybe Ballantine Books wasn’t crazy to lay a $500,000 advance on an unknown author.

Well, not entirely unknown. The versatile, still boyish-looking lawyer has a long history of impressing people, going back to his days as a civil-rights official in the Nixon Administration and later as a Manhattan investment banker and man-about-town. Pottinger has had some of New York City’s best-connected single women on his arm, including effervescent TV host and Gifford-to-be Kathie Lee (“She wanted to get married and have children. I had already done that”) and feminist icon Gloria Steinem (“Chemically attractive as well as cerebrally attractive”). But Pottinger was a stranger to the book world when he decided to write a novel after he had made a small fortune in real estate, then lost it, during the late-’80s recession. A few years earlier, his creative urge led him to try screenwriting, but Pottinger decided that fiction offered him more independence to explore his interests in medical technology and the abortion issue. “My writing is an extension of my politics,” says the pro-choice Pottinger. He was dining with then Turtle Bay Books head Joni Evans in 1992 when he mentioned his work in progress. Says Evans, who knew him as a pal, not a novelist: “I thought, ‘Oh no, this is the end of a perfect friendship.’ ” She was sure she would have to tell him his work was awful. Instead she loved it and steered him to agent Ed Victor.

Steinem, who has remained Pottinger’s good friend since their nine-year relationship ended in 1984, isn’t surprised by her old beau’s publishing triumph. “He wrote very good poetry for me,” she says. The two met in the mid-’70s when Pottinger, then the Justice Department’s civil rights director, asked her to consult with him on discrimination issues. He had come to Justice from a similar position at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, where from 1970 to 1973 he implemented school desegregation policy. After five years at Justice he went into private practice, turning to banking in 1980. “He was not a grand-stander,” says former HEW Secretary Elliot Richardson. “He was a very likeable guy, an effective leader.”

Pottinger’s dedication to his work—he traveled 212 days out of his first year in Washington—meant leaving child-rearing duties largely up to his wife, Gloria, now 53 and also a lawyer. “I put an ignorant amount of pressure on her,” confesses Pottinger. Their marriage of 10 years ended in 1975 with a remarkably unacrimonious divorce and Pottinger taking primary responsibility of son Paul, 6, and daughter Katie, 4, while his wife kept their year-old son, Matt. Then the civil-rights specialist got a quick introduction to child care. After making breakfast and hugging his kids goodbye, Pottinger would race to work. “I’d be standing before 150 people in a press conference, and someone would whisper, ‘You’ve got cereal all over your back.’ ”

His role as Mr. Mom may have polished the qualities Steinem admires in him: “empathy, flexibility and patience.” But Pottinger credits his father with shaping his social conscience. John Pottinger sold insurance on the poor west side of Dayton, Ohio, during the Depression and opened the eyes of his and his wife Elnora’s three sons to the plight of impoverished blacks. “He was the biggest influence on my life,” says Pottinger. John died at 47, when Stanley, his second son, was a freshman at Harvard. Pottinger went on to Harvard Law School in 1962, and three years later married Gloria Anderson, his high school girlfriend.

Two decades after their divorce, the two are still close. Pottinger often spends holidays at his ex’s house in White Plains, N.Y., with her husband, Vic Bunze, and the children. But he is happiest back at his three-bedroom lakeside house in South Salem, N.Y., with a sailboat nearby—and his novel flourishing. “I’m old enough to know there’s no free lunch and there’s no Easter bunny,” he says. “At 55, this is as close to the Easter bunny as you can get.”

MARK LASSWELL

TOBY KAHN in South Salem

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