Judge Burton B. Roberts, model for Tom Wolfe character, dies at 88

By Beth Harpaz
Monday, October 25, 2010; 6:04 PM

Burton B. Roberts, 88, the outspoken judge who was the model for the cranky jurist in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," died Oct. 24 at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in the Bronx. The cause was respiratory failure, the New York Times reported.

Judge Roberts spent a half-century in public service law as a prosecutor, judge and chief administrative judge in the Bronx.

He was the model for Myron Kovitsky, a rare hero in Tom Wolfe's acclaimed novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Both the real and the fictional judges were famous for their tempers and rants from the bench.

But Judge Roberts was also greatly admired for his compassion, his sense of justice and his legal acumen.

"He's one of the great figures in New York," Wolfe has said of Judge Roberts, to whom "Bonfire" is dedicated. "Probably the greatest single figure I've run into."

Judge Roberts's career began as a Manhattan prosecutor in 1949. He became Bronx district attorney in 1968 and a Bronx judge in 1973. He became the county's administrative judge in 1984. The position largely involved staffing, scheduling and assigning cases, but Judge Roberts also occasionally presided over contentious trials and hearings.

One of the most notorious was the 1991 trial of Julio Gonzalez, who killed 87 people by setting fire to an illegal social club called Happy Land. With the courtroom packed full of sobbing, angry relatives - many of them Honduran immigrants - and reporters fighting over scarce seats, Judge Roberts made a daily practice of lecturing lawyers, cutting off rambling witnesses and chewing out journalists for rustling their papers.

It was like a scene right out of "Bonfire."

"That case had to be run in a fashion so that both sides would receive a fair trial," Judge Roberts said. "No histrionics. No emotion run amok. I know how to control the condition of a courtroom. I can be tough when it's important to be tough."

He left the court in 1998 at the mandatory retirement age of 76.

But retirement for the indefatigable Mr. Roberts lasted only about as long as other people's vacations. Three weeks after walking out of the courthouse, he walked into a new job in Manhattan at the heavyweight, politically connected law firm of Fischbein Badillo Wagner Harding.

It was the first time he had ever worked in the private sector. Yet within a year, he had turned his legal smarts into an incredible legal coup: He masterminded a successful effort to move from the Bronx to Albany the trial of four police officers charged in the notorious killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant.

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