Former divorce lawyer says it with music
ALEX DONNER has seen them coming and going. Or should that be going and coming?
“In the entertainment business, I see people at their very best,” he says. “And I saw them at their worst as a divorce lawyer.”
That’s because Donner – a part-time Garrison resident who practiced matrimonial law in a firm in which Roy Cohn was a lead partner – has been a successful singer and bandleader for 25 years, performing for everyone from Frank Sinatra to Tom Cruise, everywhere from San Francisco to Jaipur.
At times, it was a bit confusing.
“I had one (business) card in one pocket and the other in another pocket. Once, I handed my divorce lawyer’s card to a woman who was getting married. That didn’t go over too big.”
Today, there’s less confusion if no less activity. Heading Alex Donner Entertainment, Donner reps magicians, musicians and other artists. And he continues to be the vocal equivalent of Peter Duchin with Alex Donner & His Orchestra, having performed with Tony Bennett, Jimmy Buffett, Natalie Cole and Liza Minnelli before the likes of President George H.W. Bush, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Kevin Kline, Susan Lucci, Queen Noor of Jordan, Itzhak Perlman and Carl XVI Gustaf, king of Sweden.
These appearances have taken place from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan to the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, to benefit causes ranging from the American Cancer Society to The Preservation Society of Newport County to the San Francisco Symphony.
Among his charity appearances were two benefits – organized by the former TomKat (alias Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes) – to raise money for firefighters who suffered from illnesses incurred at Ground Zero.
“She came up and sang with the band,” Donner remembers. “They couldn’t have been nicer.”
Despite their recent split, the couple set off no alarm bells in the former divorce lawyer’s head.
“I thought they were very charming and very good together, just a cute couple.”
FOLLOW THE FEET
Such gigs have taught Donner the importance of reading an audience and adjusting accordingly.
“If more people are coming onto the dance floor, you want to keep that momentum going. And you want to watch their feet.”
If the tootsies are shuffling along, then it’s time to slow things down. But if they’re moving ahead of the music, then it’s time to jazz it up. It’s all about, “controlling tempo and dynamics, like a painter using light.”
Donner has known performers – and no doubt he is one himself – “who can walk into a room and know how the evening is going to go.”
Since every crowd is different, the bandleader must also be able to motivate his musicians – “You may have to praise them; you may have to challenge them” – and command a vast repertoire. When Donner began, the most requested numbers were “In the Mood” and “Mack the Knife.” Then it was on to “Y.M.C.A.,” “I Will Survive” and “Last Dance,” “My Girl,” “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” and “Beat It,” and now rap, hip hop and anything by Lady Gaga.
These can be performed by any number of musicians. About a third of Donner’s clients want a big orchestra; a third, a contemporary band with more singers than instrumentalists (“very young, very hot”); and the remaining third a DJ with saxophone and bongo drums.
Sometimes, Donner has to range from swing to hip hop in one performance.
“You have to vary it in all sorts of ways to hold (the audience’s) interest.”
In a sense, adulthood is a reaction to childhood.
“My parents had intended I be a lawyer,” says Donner, a New York City kid.
Yet music was the steady beat in his life. His father, a Wall Street broker who had started an a cappella group during his Princeton days, took him to jazz clubs. An aunt had a box at the opera, though Donner recalls that as “too much, too young in itching gray-flannel pants.”
Still, it was an artistic family, with a mother who painted and four children – Donner is the oldest – who include the composer/poet Belinda Donner.
And there were signposts. During a gap year before Donner followed his father to Princeton University, he studied at the Sorbonne and played guitar in the metro in Paris. First, the passersby threw nothing, then centimes and then francs.
“You know, you’re really good,” said the friend who had suggested the venture.
Donner – who sang in choruses and musicals all through school and studied voice, piano and guitar – still wasn’t convinced. But he sang at parties and with a band and after Princeton, got a job singing at El Morocco, once a midtown nightspot, where his lyric baritone got the thumbs up from a patron who was a fair baritone himself – none other than Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Though patrons were not allowed onstage, Donner ceded the mike once – to Tony Bennett, who sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
“It was just wonderful,” Donner recalls.
When Elmo, as the club was nicknamed, went the way of disco, Donner headed to Fordham University School of Law – appearing on weekends with the Lester Lanin Orchestra – and then to the firm of Roy Cohn, the onetime Red-baiter whose clientele ranged from the Archdiocese of New York to the New York Yankees to members of the mob.
“He was very street smart,” Donner says. “He was very, very good to his friends and very, very bad to his enemies. And the world was either friends or enemies. He ran the law firm with a lot of freebies for powerful people and that gave him tremendous influence. I think he already knew he was dying of AIDS.”
Donner recalls riding with him to court and going over a case on the way. After a short while, Cohn simply said, “Enough.” At trial, he held the court spellbound.
Asked if he sees a correlation between performing onstage and in a court of law, Donner replies, “Yes, I would say so. You have to sell a song and you have to sell a case.”
‘SWAY’ TO THE MUSIC
Soon Donner’s legal and singing careers were intersecting. Standard Oil heiress Camilla Blaffer asked Donner, who handled her divorce, to sing for her second marriage in Jaipur, India – an event covered by Town & Country and TV’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” It was time for Donner to go out on his own.
“The stock market was doing well. People were throwing parties. And I was a fresh face – not too young, not too old.”
Among those who hired him was event planner Kate Edmonds, who evidently liked what she saw and heard. The two married and had no trouble finding a wedding planner or singer. (First song – the mambo number “Sway.”) Teenage stepson Miles attends school in the Hudson Valley and Donner tries to spend a couple of days a week in Garrison. Otherwise, he’s in New York City or playing in Europe, Florida and California.
“I’m very blessed,” he says. “I meet interesting people, famous people. And sometimes they’ve gone from being clients to becoming friends.”