On This Day… The estate of George Harrison started a $10 million legal action against Dr. Gilbert Lederman of Staten Island University Hospital, claiming the doctor coerced George to sign souvenirs. The main allegations of the legal action was that Dr. Lederman got an extremely sick Harrison to sign his son’s guitar and autographs for his two daughters.
When the notorious cancer doctor Gil Lederman cadged an autograph from a dying George Harrison, the world was appalled.But as Lederman scrambles to salvage his reputation, the very nature of his experimental practice has come under attack.
On an evening in mid-November 2001, Gil Lederman made a judgment call that would bring him the kind of fame that even he had never dreamed possible. A bespectacled cancer doctor, he was already something of a local celebrity; his distinctive nasal monotone had been heard for years on New York talk-radio stations, promoting his revolutionary cancer treatment, fractionated stereotactic radiosurgery, at Staten Island University Hospital. But Lederman’s fame—as a kind of Dr. Zizmor of radiation oncology—paled in comparison with that of his patient, George Harrison, who was lying in a rented house near the hospital, dying of lung cancer that had invaded his brain.
Though he’d been treating Harrison for only about a month, Lederman thought they had bonded enough to warrant an unconventional house call. “I feel like a brother to him,” the doctor confided to another physician at his hospital. So, as any man with an ailing sibling would do, Lederman showed up that night on Harrison’s doorstep with his three children in tow, so that they might say hello and good-bye to Uncle George, who was leaving the next morning for California, where he would die two weeks later.
That night has become something of an outer-borough Rashomon. Depending on whose version you believe, Lederman either had a touching visit with Harrison or bullied a dying man in a declining mental state into creating a valuable piece of rock-and-roll memorabilia. The Harrison camp claimed as follows: Lederman showed up uninvited and instructed his 13-year-old son, Ariel, to strum a song on his Yamaha electric guitar. When the performance was over, Lederman put the guitar in Harrison’s lap and asked him to sign it. “I do not even know if I know how to spell my name anymore,” responded an exhausted Harrison. “C’mon, you can do this,” said Lederman, guiding his hand and spelling his name aloud: G-E-O-R-G-E H-A-R-R-I-S-O-N.
Lederman insisted to friends that Harrison invited the children over and happily signed the guitar. The shaky scrawl of the signature itself is inconclusive—it could have been written under duress or simply signed by a willing star on a great deal of medication. Nevertheless, once the Harrison estate sued the doctor for $10 million and the press got their mitts on the legal complaint, Lederman became a popular tabloid target. At the peak of the frenzy, he was labeled a “ghoul” and a “scumbag.” “Page Six” even ran a cartoon depicting him chasing Keith Richards with a pen and guitar. “I’m not on my deathbed!” Richards yells. It seemed like the ultimate disgrace for a Harvard-trained, triple board-certified physician who should have been amassing yacht money or doing Lasker Award–quality research at that point in his life. Then again, Lederman’s behavior at Harrison’s deathbed wasn’t a complete surprise to those who’d been watching his curious approach to his career. “My sense of the guy is that he’s just somebody who doesn’t get it,” says a prominent radiation oncologist who’s met him on several occasions. “His social skills aren’t there.” But it turns out that questionable manners may be the least pernicious of Lederman’s sins. The doctor is now facing half a dozen multi-million-dollar civil suits, some of which accuse him of bilking terminal cancer patients by luring them with promises of a miracle cure.
Lederman’s defenders claim that the Harrison matter has turned a caring, innovative physician into the kind of wounded game that trial lawyers love to hunt. “Lederman prides himself on taking the most challenging cases that nobody else wants, cases where patients have not been given any hope whatsoever. He’s not offering them a cure but an option,” says Andrew Garson, an attorney who defended Lederman in two previous malpractice cases and believes the recent spate of lawsuits stems from his client’s bad press. Even a judge weighing a recent change-of-venue request acknowledged that Lederman had been through the ringer. His decision played off Harrison’s “Something”: “Something in the folks he treats / Attracts bad press like no other doctor.”
Lederman’s defenders claim that the Harrison matter has turned a caring, innovative physician into the kind of wounded game that trial lawyers love to hunt. “Lederman prides himself on taking the most challenging cases that nobody else wants, cases where patients have not been given any hope whatsoever. He’s not offering them a cure but an option,” says Andrew Garson, an attorney who defended Lederman in two previous malpractice cases and believes the recent spate of lawsuits stems from his client’s bad press. Even a judge weighing a recent change-of-venue request acknowledged that Lederman had been through the ringer. His decision played off Harrison’s “Something”: “Something in the folks he treats / Attracts bad press like no other doctor.” But others contend that the Harrison case was just a symptom of Lederman’s larger pathology of being singularly unable to grasp right and wrong when dealing with the fragile emotions of desperately ill people. “The real issue with Gil is the following,” says Jay Loeffler, chief of radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Is he a genius, far ahead of his time? Or is he a scoundrel?”
Like any businessman, Lederman knew that testimonials work even better when they come from celebrities. He turned the walls of his waiting room into the kind of celebrity shrine you see in Italian red-sauce joints. Sick and dying patients could behold signed photos from the hodgepodge of luminaries he’d treated or met: Curtis Sliwa praised his “brainiac doc” near photos of Lederman chatting with Rudy Giuliani, not far from the shot of Marilyn Quayle visiting the department. Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, and Charo received equal places of honor.
Lederman’s canny sense of self-promotion seemed to be paying off. By the late nineties, as many as 140 patients would cycle through the department on a given day. The linear accelerators whirred and pivoted around their bodies from 6 A.M. to midnight, five nights a week, and even on Saturdays. The hospital started an International Patient Program and opened an office in Naples, Italy. Soon, sick people from all over the world were flying in. Even an ailing Beatle was willing to give the magic ray gun a shot. Lederman was summoned to the Harrisons’ Swiss villa to make his case for treatment.
Once Harrison arrived in Staten Island, Lederman basked in his reflected limelight. He told a friend that he was spending so much time with the rock star that his kids wondered if he’d ever be home to cook dinner again. “Gil said George Harrison didn’t want anybody else taking care of him,” the friend says. “He wanted Gil to be on 24/7.” Lederman told another doctor that Harrison offered to autograph things for him, saying, “I can make you a very rich man,” and that Lederman had politely declined: “I’m already a rich man. I don’t need you to autograph for that purpose.” Some doctors who saw the two together say they looked like close friends. “That’s ridiculous,” says another source who was at the hospital every day. “You might have seen Lederman behaving tenderly. But George was barely coherent at times.” Lederman, the source says, spent only about three hours total in Harrison’s presence, and his behavior was “cloying.” As for that close bond? The morning before Harrison left the hospital, Lederman came into his room in a bright mood. As the doctor waxed on about his mother, Harrison, according to the source, spoke three measured words: “Please . . . stop . . . talking.”
But it wasn’t these interactions that set off alarm bells in the Harrison camp; it was the feeling that Lederman intended to use Harrison to promote his treatment. Before long, Lederman popped up on The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel, who introduced him as the doctor treating Harrison. And when the rock star died, Lederman gave touching anecdotes to Good Morning America, CNN, NBC, Fox News, Us Weekly, Newsweek, the New York Post, the Daily News, a variety of British tabloids, and the National Enquirer, which somehow got the erroneous impression that Harrison had been convalescing in Lederman’s own Staten Island home. He told reporters about the spiritual quest that led Harrison to India, how the Harrison he knew was a simple man who would have been happy planting trees, and how Harrison was in no pain and wasn’t afraid of death. He even allowed the Enquirer into his home to take a photo of his son, Ariel, playing the guitar that generous George had signed for him. Of course, many of the stories also mentioned Lederman as a “top cancer specialist” who “pioneered” a “revolutionary cancer surgery” that had a “90 percent success rate.”
The exceedingly private Harrison family, however, wasn’t interested in allowing the former Beatle to become Lederman’s pitchman from the great beyond. To stop the doctor from talking about her dead husband, Olivia Harrison filed a complaint with the State Board of Professional Medical Conduct, which fined and censured Lederman for revealing too much about his patient. To prevent the autographed guitar from potentially ending up on eBay, she slapped him with a $10 million lawsuit. (As part of the settlement, Lederman relinquished the guitar and agreed not to speak further about Harrison or the case.) The same week the case was filed, SIUH announced that Lederman would be replaced as director of radiation oncology.
According to a doctor at the hospital, Lederman blamed this unfortunate series of events on the fact that Olivia Harrison was “a little jealous that [George’s] attention was being devoted more to Gil than to her.”
To put it kindly, Lederman seems to have a creative relationship with the facts, whether about his friendship with a former Beatle or the possibilities of a cancer treatment. From the beginning, the way that Lederman and the hospital advertised radiosurgery raised eyebrows in the medical community. “I’d pick up the Sunday Times and see these bold advertisements that said, ‘If you’ve been told you have an incurable brain tumor, come to Staten Island University Hospital,’ ” says Loeffler. “I thought that was a little deceptive, because if you’ve been told this, the reality is that it’s probably true.”