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M CELEBRITY LIVES: The divorce doctor; When the stars don't want to be taken to the cleaners, they call top divorce lawyer Dennis Wasser. He has a reputation for resolving high-profile cases amicably, but the gloves are off when his latest client, Lionel Richie, fights his wife's exorbitant demands. By TANITH CAREY in New York.

Byline: TANITH CAREY

THERE is one name that should be underlined in the little black book of every Hollywood wife. It doesn't belong to a stylist or hairdresser, but to America's most feared divorce lawyer, Dennis Wasser.

Wasser's track record speaks for itself. Dubbed the "arch enemy of palimony", he has pulled off the three biggest divorce settlements in history on behalf of the women married to some of the most powerful men in showbiz.

Earlier this year, Melissa Mathison got a sum rumoured to be close to pounds 50million after Wasser negotiated her split from Star Wars and Indiana Jones hero Harrison Ford.

In 1996, he helped Marcia Diamond walk away from her marriage to singer-songwriter Neil Diamond with an estimated pounds 100million. And the year before that, Diandra Douglas ended up pounds 44million better off after Wasser fought her corner against her actor husband Michael.

More recently he acted for J-Lo when she divorced Cris Judd. But woe betide the Hollywood wife who doesn't get her manicured finger on the speed dial fast enough.

For Wasser, who never comments on the settlements he negotiates, represents husbands too. Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood all hired him to handle their break-ups.

Singer Lionel Richie is the latest celebrity husband to hope that Wasser can work wonders in the divorce courts.

Richie's wife, Diane, makes Madonna look positively low maintenance. Even by LA standards, the details of her living expenses are legendary. They include pounds 11,000 a year on plastic surgery and up to pounds 750 a month for laser hair removal.

Sitting in the plush, tastefully upholstered LA offices of his law firm, Wasser, Cooperman And Carter, Dennis is unruffled by the huge numbers involved.

"Worry, why worry? It's a wonderful case," says Wasser, 61, in a voice which conveys both calm and vague menace at the same time. "The best comment I've heard is that if she has asked for a fortune in hair removal, does that mean Lionel's married to a gorilla?

"But, no, I was not shocked. I have seen this sort of thing before."

A master of careful understatement, Wasser has a reputation for settling divorce deals with as little acrimony as possible. But Diane's exorbitant requests mean the battle lines have been drawn.

When asked if the Richie case can also be solved amicably, he replies, "It doesn't look like it to me."

That is ominous news for the other side. Because when war starts, Wasser is a fearsome opponent.

When the long-time girlfriend of billionaire Kerk Kerkorian sued him for child support of up to a pounds 750,000 a month for their three-year-old daughter, Wasser fought them all the way.

A used piece of dental floss taken from the rubbish bin of Steve Bing - the playboy dad of Liz Hurley's son, Damian - was produced as DNA evidence to show that Kerkorian was not even the father. Bing was.

Even though his style is polite negotiation, divorce Hollywood-style is a dirty business.

Wasser has defended clients from the unspoken threat that home-made sex videos might surface if certain requests are not met.

Others have said they will report his clients' financial affairs to the taxman. "Blackmail plays a part in many cases," he says.

"I have never used it, but it has been used against us on many occasions."

And it is not just big bucks that are fought over. Other issues have been who gets the frequent-flyer miles and frozen sperm samples. A favourite tablecloth and pet parrot have also been bones of contention.

"I suggested getting a pair of scissors and cutting it [the tablecloth] down the middle," says Wasser. "I made the same suggestion in the parrot case. My client said if I suggested it again, I'd be off the case."

Earlier this month, he represented Alec Baldwin in his custody battle with ex-wife Kim Basinger over their eight-year-old daughter, Ireland.

The issues at stake included Baldwin's visiting times - down to the exact minute - and his request that Kim teach Ireland how to pick up his messages on her personal answering machine.

"My patience gets tested all the time by some of the behaviour I come across," says Wasser. "How do I deal with it? By taking deep breaths. Some clients find it very difficult to listen to a rational approach and fight over every single aspect of every single issue.

"I have had to let clients go. They may not like my advice. They may not like my manner, or I may not like theirs. So sometimes there is a parting of the ways."

Wasser's services don't come cheap. He will only take on "high asset" cases and charges more than pounds 15,000 before you've even sat down. After that, it's pounds 400 an hour. Add to that the bonuses if he hits the jackpot and he can earn close to pounds 750,000 for a complex divorce case. But when their public image is on the line and when every snippet is snapped up by a hungry media, the stars think he's well worth every penny.

Wasser never talks about settlement figures, except to say that estimates have often been wide of the mark - up or down is anyone's guess.

He'll play it tough when he has to, but believes it is his courteous approach which appeals to celebs who want things dealt with quietly.

"It does not work in every case, but I try not to create animosity," he explains. "It secures better results than a shark attack.

"I think celebrities come to me because I believe there is usually a way for the family to go on intact without people hating each other. I try to be polite. I never raise my voice. I don't get personally involved. I have seen grown men weep in my office, but I don't weep myself.

"If someone says, 'I want you to go out there and rip my husband to shreds', I say this is not one for me.

"Most of my clients do not want a lot of publicity. I don't put a lot of things in the press - until the other side starts talking."

Perks from grateful clients include party invites from Tom Cruise and trips on private jets. One multi-millionaire flew Wasser's family to Vegas for his 60th birthday party.

The son of a machinist and a teacher, Dennis was born into a working-class Jewish background in Brooklyn, New York, in 1942.

He started out as a civil trial lawyer, representing other attorneys. One of his first brushes with celebrity was acting for Mia Farrow when she adopted Soon-Yi - the daughter who later married Farrow's long-term partner, Woody Allen.

But it was his successful defence of lesbian tennis star Billy Jean King in her "galimony" case in the 70s, that really shot him to prominence.

Rubbing shoulders with the glitterati means Wasser now looks the part. Dapper in appearance, he runs, has a personal trainer and plays golf His income funds holidays around the world - but he is always available to clients on his mobile phone.

In his private life, Wasser also follows his own advice about keeping things amicable. When he and his first wife got divorced in 1984, he advised her to get a lawyer. Instead, she let him draft their settlement - and then signed it. She and his new wife, Ruth, and their children meet every Sunday for a meal at his house - and they all spend Thanksgiving together.

Dennis's stunning daughter, Laura, is now following in his footsteps. Groomed to perfection, she looks like many of her celebrity clients - she represented Angelina Jolie in her divorce from Billie Bob Thornton.

Laura, 35, says of her dad: "He doesn't have a Hollywood lifestyle. Unlike some lawyers who are always popping up on TV, he doesn't fancy himself as a movie star. He wants to be taken more seriously than that.

"He can put a lot of petty issues to the side and settle a case. He tells clients, 'You don't need to be spending money on that. We need to focus on this'. And he is not impressed by celebrity.

"He handles every client like they're Joe Schmo off the street. However many zeros there are after their estate doesn't make a difference if you do a good job for everyone.

"That is a quality that's hard to find - especially in this town."

Now Wasser is taking on the Richie case, which will be the most talked-about divorce of the decade. But for stars with 10-figure bank balances, does it really matter if the odd million goes on the ex-wife's facelifts?

If there is one thing Dennis Wasser has learned, it's that, just like the rest of us, multi-millionaires don't like parting with cash - even if there is plenty more where it came from.

"Money always makes a difference to people," he observes. "No matter how much they have."

HIT FOR pounds 46MILLION

Client: Tom Cruise

Opponent: Nicole Kidman

HIT FOR pounds 6.6MILLION

Client: Jennifer Lopez

Opponent: Cris Judd

HIT FOR pounds 50MILLION

Client: Melissa Mathison

Opponent: Harrison Ford

HIT FOR pounds 100MILLION

Client: Marcia Diamond

Opponent: Neil Diamond

HIT FOR pounds 44MILLION

Client: Diandra Douglas

Opponent: Michael Douglas All figures are press estimates

Dennis's top five tips for an amicable divorce

1 DON'T treat finding a good family law lawyer like a shopping trip, expecting that whoever you stumble across will do the job fine. First do some research, read books and talk to other lawyers to make sure you get the best possible person for your case.

2 DO your best to keep the family together. Keep a good relationship with your soon-to-be ex-spouse and your children so that the family can carry on intact into the future.

3 DON'T take advantage. Make sure you keep the concept of fairness in mind. Try to aim for the fairest deal, not the most money.

4 DON'T leave all the money matters to your husband. During your marriage, make sure you know enough about your household's assets, liabilities, income and expenses to be able to fill in an income tax form, so that if the worse comes to the worse, you are not totally in the dark.

5 Keep a sense of humour.

CAPTION(S):

LEGAL EAGLE: Dennis is famous for sorting out celebrity divorce cases with a minimum of fuss
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Title Annotation:M on Tuesday
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 27, 2004
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