The Mayor of Splitsville

Billy Gundelfinger

Shrewd, showy Billy Gundelfinger is the man wealthy South African couples call when they want to give each other the finger. Lin Sampson makes an appointment.

Billy Gundelfinger, divorce lawyer extreme, is a perfumed swell, a dandy with a charismatic swagger and lots of charm.

He has a keen eye for quality and wears a bespoke suit, a pink shirt with a matching pink handkerchief crushed into his top pocket.

Gundelfinger, who has often had the spotlight trained on him has represented such people as Philip Tucker — against Anneline Kriel-Kerzner (Miss World, 1974) — Cyril Ramaphosa (chairman of Johnnic Holdings), Peggy-Sue Khumalo (Miss South Africa 1996), Pastor Ray Mc- Cauley (senior pastor of Rhema Ministries), Dr Bill Venter (chairman of the Altron Group) and Khaya Ngqula (chief executive of South African Airways), and Sir Donald Gordon (chairman of Liberty International).

The recidivist rate is sprightly: he recently completed a fifth divorce for the same woman.

More recently, he sprang into new relief for many people who had never heard of him, over the case that became known as Sally vs Barry.

Sally Davison took her husband Barry, the chairman of Anglo Platinum and a Nedcor director, to court after rejecting his initial offer of R7- million plus their home valued at R3-million. She sued him for 50% of their combined assets, valued in excess of R75-million.

After a 30-day court battle, the judge ruled that Barry had to pay the mother of his two children an additional R4.7-million, bringing the award to R15-million — 20% of their combined assets.

The ruling established the principle that a long-standing wife is entitled to more than what she needs to “maintain” herself for the rest of her life.

Gundelfinger had challenged the “capitalised maintenance” benchmark and won: “I said this is nonsense. The longer you are married, the less you get. If you divorce your husband at 86 and they work out you are going to die at 87, you get one year’s settlement. How can it be right? It’s absurd.”

The man has become a legend; to be Gundelfingered has passed into Johannesburg’s vocabulary. A recent trend is to book him at the first signs of conjugal unsteadiness — so that your spouse won’t nab him.

“I went down to Cape Town and I was swimming at Clifton,” he says by way of illustration. “As I got out I see this guy running towards me. I think to myself, What is this? Maybe a shark in the water? He said, ‘I know you’re Billy Gundelfinger. I have the most terrible situation with my wife. She caught me with a woman last night. She said she was going to kill me. She scratched me with her fingernails and said I’d better get myself a good lawyer.

“‘I said, I have. She said, Who? Billy Gundelfinger, I said. Until I mentioned your name, she was stringing me a line. When I mentioned your name, she started crying. When I asked her why she was crying, she said, ‘Because I am scared of him. Please don’t put him onto me.’

I said, ‘Well, that’s understandable, because I’m scared of me.’”

Gundelfinger is familiar with the tiny trails of betrayal, the untamed seas of incompatibility, the rag and bone shop of perfidy.

When it comes to human behaviour, he says, “Nothing surprises me. I was once instructed by an 86-year-old lady to issue divorce summons against her 92-year-old husband, who she had been married to for 64 years. I said, jokingly of course, ‘I can’t do that — he’s protected by the National Monuments Council’.”

Gundelfinger’s flamboyant personality and precise mind have earned him a glittering reputation and, although he is best known for the substantial divorce awards he has won for women, he says he mainly represents men.

He is an impossible person to interview. His office in a gentrified house in Norwood is on the boil. The telephone never stops ringing. A client has hit someone important, there are urgent applications. Deadlines crash around us like toppling buildings. Phone conversations are terse: is he going to sign the undertaking or not? Gundelfinger sits with legs crossed, a foot jiggling. He stares at something just above my right shoulder and looks distracted.

He has a lawyer’s caution, wants to see the article before it is printed and insists that I use a tape recorder.

He is also a man who understands the value of publicity and, some say, craves it. “It goes with the territory,” he says. I do know a couple of things from hearing him interviewed on the Jenny Crwys-Williams Show on Radio 702. I know he has a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), washes his hands before going to the toilet (“Do you know how many people’s hands I shake every day? Do I know where their hands have been?”) and is worried about putting his hands on escalator rails where so many other people have put theirs.

He is endlessly pernickety, a goldcard perfectionist who turns things over and over. During the writing of this article, he must have rung me 50 times from various parts of the world. In the end I felt so sorry for his secretary that I considered sending her flowers.

I received a letter from his office manager pointing out that on his desk he had a delicate Japanese tea set — “and he sips his herbal tea from a tiny Zen bowl — but you didn’t hear this from me . . . ”

But these scanty facts are not enough to recognise the soul of a man. What I really wanted to do was cut off Gundelfinger’s head and scoop out the contents.

He started his own practice in 1975 when he was 23 with an overdraft of R5 000, R2 000 of which he spent on furnishings. It is obvious that this is a man who is conscious of status. Everywhere in his office there is a sense of having arrived: rather too carefully chosen antiques, bound books with gold lettering, a grandfather clock, the sonorous chimes of which are the lawyer’s cash register. One is constantly reminded that Gundelfinger charges R2 000 an hour plus VAT.

There is Donny Gordon’s biography open at the inscription from its author: “You epitomise leadership. Rudi Giuliani writes about it — you practise it.”

He recently flew over to London for Gordon’s 70th birthday party at the Royal Opera House. Sir Donny Gordon, he reminds me.

Billy GundelfingerThe man is a mass of contradictions. He is physically tough but also a vegetarian. He drives a Bentley with his initials on the number plate. He is a risk taker and also a man of honour and stability. “I like to think I am fair.” He has that ability, which I have mainly noted in Jewish men, of being compassionate and tough at the same time.

He is over 1.9m tall. In fact, he is the nearest person I’ve seen to Lord Lucan. He has been married happily for 28 years, which for a divorce lawyer is some going. Although he has a bookish air, he was once a boxer, but gave it up because he nearly killed someone. He loves the outdoors and tries to get down to the coast at least once a month.

He relies on telecommunications, but threw his cellphone away some years ago. “It was April 14 1998. I was driving home from the office. By the time I hit Jan Smuts, I had about eight calls on my cellphone. I just thought, Do I really want to live like this? I pulled into Zoo Lake and I threw my cellphone into the lake.

There were a couple of guys standing around who said, ‘If you are going to throw your watch in as well rather give it to us.’”

Gundelfinger was brought up in a flat in Sunrise Court in Bertrams, Joburg: “We lived very, very frugally. My father used to buy me a shirt or a pair of socks and I used to get absolutely guilt-stricken. I started working when I was 12 in bottle – stores and clothing shops.

“My father was a French Jew who was twice in Dachau, my mother a German Jew. Many members of my family were killed in the concentration camps.”

“My mother was a milliner. She made hats. My father used to sell suit lengths. He travelled around the country. In those days these men, who were known as commercial travellers, would travel the land, opening up their wares like treasure chests in small Karoo dorpies.”

Billy GundelfingerHis character from the start was complex, both rebellious and orthodox, as he dipped a toe in the icy waters of survival. His brilliance, his poverty and ambitions revealed themselves to an unsympathetic world. As an act of rebellion he wore his hair long at a time when short back and sides were de rigueur. For Billy it seemed a way to show the world this poor boy from Bertrams was worth watching.

“I had this thing about my hair. My father used to scream at me. My ambition was to have Elvis Presley sideburns. I had black jeans, a corduroy jacket and long sideburns. I used to get into the lifts in a place like Stuttafords and everyone would get out.

“I went to Athlone Boys. I knew if I wanted to get on I had to go to Damelin College, where I’d get a university pass. I tried to get an appointment, but they wouldn’t give me one unless my parents came. This chap Isaac Kriel owned it. I waited and waited, but he wouldn’t see me.

“Then I followed him into the toilet and while he was standing at the urinal, I introduced myself and said, ‘Mr Kriel, I want to talk to you. I need an Astream matric. I want to come to your college and I’ll see your fees get paid.’ He said, ‘Can’t you see what I am doing here?’ I said, ‘Yes, but you have heard what I’m doing here and it’s unreasonable that you will not see me because my parents have not accompanied me to the appointment.’”

He got into Damelin, selling pottery after school to pay his school fees.

But like the biblical Samson, Billy felt his strength would go if he cut his hair — which became a problem when he was looking for his first job.

“I went to various firms. When they saw my results they all wanted to take me. When they saw me they couldn’t fit the two together. They all told me that I would have to cut my hair. I always refused.”

Finally, an employer, Tuxie Teeger (Ali Bacher’s father-in-law) was willing to negotiate. He said, ‘If you cut eight inches from the length and three to four inches from your sideburns, I’ll give you a job.’ I got the job, but I didn’t cut my hair. The magistrates used to phone and complain about it.”

Part of Gundelfinger’s success is his ability to cross boundaries. “Because of where I come from, I understand the mentality of the criminal mind. I was surrounded by them.

“I was articled to Rheeders Teeger & Rosettenstein. I often used to go up to the Old Fort [prison], and there would be guys I had been at school with. They would shout, ‘Hey Billy what you in for?’

“There was this famous murder trial. Before the trial started a very well-groomed young man who I had been at school with came up to me and said to me ‘What are you here for? I said, ‘murder.’ He said, ‘Me too’. My boss thought that he was also a candidate attorney and he invited him to lunch. We had a lovely lunch, but when we got back into court we found out that this chap was the accused in a murder trial. He got the death sentence.”

As a divorce lawyer, Billy is on nodding terms with revenge.

“I was acting for a particularly wealthy gay chap. His relationship broke up and they had a game farm and they used to get dropped there on Friday afternoon by helicopter with all their supplies. They would then come back on Sunday evening. During their breakup, my client had heard that his ex-boyfriend was taking down his new boyfriend for the weekend. He went down there and cleaned the place out, beds, nothing left, not even curtains. No car. No fridge. No signal.

“The boyfriend’s new boyfriend had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalised — but my client was a new man,” says Gundelfinger.

“During the course of another divorce, one of my clients advised me that her husband wanted a settlement meeting with her and she requested my permission to meet with him.

“She phoned me after the meeting and I asked how it had gone. She replied ‘Not too good — I shot him in the stomach.’”

Gundelfinger believes that most divorces are due to infidelity. “At the end of the day there is usually somebody hovering in the background, often someone they work with.”

He believes that although divorce is a traumatic experience, it can “ultimately be liberating.”

Well it certainly can, especially if you are a corporate wife and do what is loosely called “corporate entertaining”. If the court is sympathetic to our need for French and tennis lessons and believes you have a right to half your spouse’s money, marriage and divorce to a rich man are reasonable career options.

A R15-million settlement after 31 years puts you in the highest bracket with a stunning package that includes meals, dress allowance, medical (often involving plastic surgery), and trips abroad staying at ritzy hotels.

Personally, I have never quite understood the reasoning that because you are used to a certain kind of lifestyle, you are entitled to keep it once the goose that lays the golden eggs has flown the nest.

First published in the SUNDAY TIMES newspaper on 28 August, 2005.

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