“Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
This hardly sounds like a pickup line to which Alan Dershowitz, renowned defense attorney, Harvard Law professor, and author of 20 books, would resort. Yet 20 years ago, while addressing single adults at a Combined Jewish Philanthropy brunch, he spotted a woman he swore he knew. Lucky for him, when he approached Carolyn Cohen with that tired opener, she, too, felt she had known him her entire life.
“We each broke dates with other people to have dinner together,” says Dershowitz, “and we’ve had dinner together ever since.”
Married 17 years, they grin like new lovers as they sit close together on the roomy black leather couch where Dershowitz writes most of his books and prepares for cases. He reserves his Harvard office for student concerns, he says, and his home office is too cluttered to work in.
“I love to work surrounded by music, art, my daughter, and my wife,” he says, sweeping his hand around the living room. Opera music plays in the background.
Dershowitz, 64, is small-framed with a warm smile and softer demeanor at home than in public. Cohen, 52, is taller, striking, and effusive. She also is no slouch in the brains department. She earned a doctorate in neuro-psychology and practiced clinical psychology for many years. She now supervises master’s degree students at the Harvard School of Education and volunteers at their 13-year-old daughter Ella’s private school. Dershowitz also has two adult sons and two grandchildren from a prior marriage.
The couple live in a contemporary home they bought 12 years ago from David Baltimore, awarded the 1975 Nobel Prize in medicine and now president of the California Institute of Technology. Built in the 1960s, the house features tall glass windows, high ceilings, and an open layout.
Their beloved collection of crafts and artwork fills the spacious living room. Most conspicuous are a bright red bumper car reminiscent of those Dershowitz loved at Coney Island as a child, a realistic elderly woman made of cloth, and the front of a Cadillac that, he says, reminds him of necking in his Cadi in his youth.
Pulling the room together is a massive rug in primary colors with vivid, eclectic shapes that Cohen says she planned with the artist. She and Dershowitz also designed the large iron pedestal of their glass dining room table in the likeness of Matisse’s “Two Dancers.”
Among their collections, which Dershowitz calls by the Yiddish word, “tchotchkes,” are the first inexpensive lithographs he bought when a professor told the Brooklyn boy to go get some “cultcha.” Apparently, he never stopped. When they travel (past trips include South Africa, Israel, Egypt, and China as well as US spots), the family frequents creative and folk arts stores, arts and crafts shows, and antiques dealers.
Nearly one-third of their collection has a Jewish theme. Many pieces symbolize anti-Semitism and civil liberty issues, which Dershowitz is notorious for speaking about publicly. (His upcoming book, “The Case for Israel” is to be published by John Wiley & Sons in August.) One piece is a framed bit of barbed wire that one of his sons tore off with rage from a concentration camp. Another is a page from an old Torah scroll rescued from a pile of rubbish and presented to Ella by her parents at her recent Bat Mitzvah.
Other than art and their daughter, the couple’s favorite topic is Martha’s Vineyard. They spend much of the summer in their home there, where they are part of a close-knit community and active in the synagogue and Jewish Community Center. In Cambridge, they installed a narrow pool in a room built to remind them of the Vineyard. Cohen worked with a local artist to paint the walls and ceiling with a gigantic scene of sand, water, seagulls, a pail and shovel, and beach shoes. Dershowitz says they swim for exercise and sometimes “just jump in as a family.”
According to Cohen, people don’t know the family side of Alan Dershowitz. (“Carolyn refers to me as `soundbite Dersh,’ ” he says, referring to the brief and usually harsh snippets shown of him on TV.)
“He’s such a good father, a wonderful son, a loving and supportive husband, and an incredible friend,” Cohen says. “Anyone who knows him sees what a genuinely caring and good person he is.”
As she pours on the compliments, her husband cuts in: “You see why I love her?”