The Charlatans

Long before Group was published, Solotaroff learned of Romero's borrowing habits. His book, though, makes no mention of this clear violation of professional conduct standards established by New York State education law.

These transactions alone are reason for Riverhead— despite its $250,000-plus investment— to "doubt the integrity" of Group. Remarkably, the notion that a deadbeat who grubbed money from his own patients might have other than saintly motives for cooperating with Solotaroff is lost on the publishing house. Improper loans like these were only some of the indications that Romero was a tainted character.

Until Romero's life completely collapsed in mid 1997— when the psychiatrist landed in a Pennsylvania rehab clinic for substance abuse treatment— Solotaroff and Riverhead planned on identifying the doctor by name. Indeed, a prototype of the book jacket includes a blurb about the "unconventional Dr. Romero." The doctor, eloquent proponent of the "talking cure," was to play a key role in helping to promote Group. But faced with Romero's stunning demise— and tawdry professional conduct— Solotaroff subsequently implied it was the plan all along to shield the doctor's identity.

The pseudonym Solotaroff chose for Romero seems to reflect the disgust with which he eventually came to view his collaborator. In Group, Romero is dubbed "Charles Lathon," which a source said was Solotaroff's play on the word charlatan.

Along with Romero, Solotaroff also gave the six patients a piece of future movie proceeds, though it does not appear that any film deal has been struck for Group. This stake was offered in conjunction with the patients' 1997 signing of final releases for their stories. In fact, one of the patients profiled in the book asked a reporter if he had any information on a possible film adaptation. The patient, who noted that they had only read portions of Solotaroff's work prior to publication, dismissed Group as "too saccharine." The patient complained of barely recognizing quotes attributed to them by Solotaroff, but did not demand changes prior to the book's publication. Commenting on Solotaroff's florid prose, the Times noted that "the reader may begin to wonder about the exact nature of Solotaroff's relationship to his thesaurus."

A comparison of a late draft of Group, circulated earlier this year and obtained by the Voice, and the published book, shows that a variety of patient quotes were changed, though the tweaks did not appear to alter meaning. Some edits are amusing. In one scene in the draft version, a patient with whom Solotaroff dined is said to have "crunched the last of his haricot verts, and sat back, exuding adrenalin." The book claims the man was crunching pommes frites. But at least the italics survived the rewrite.

The book's biggest overhaul came in Group's epilogue. Earlier this year, when Riverhead publicists sent out galleys of the book to reviewers, they went to the extraordinary length of manually razoring out the last chapter since it was undergoing "further editorial changes," said publicist Marilyn Ducksworth. The epilogue focuses on Solotaroff's mid-1997 return visits with the six patients. But the real surprise— unveiled on page 336 of the 339-page book— is Solotaroff's "discovery" that Romero was a debt-ridden substance abuser whose practice and marriage were in the toilet.

Two of Romero's former patients strongly dispute Solotaroff's claim that he was shocked to learn of Romero's collapse. The author's revelation, they said, is nothing more than a crass literary device.

Robert Hodes and Joel Donnenberg— who each met Solotaroff through their business dealings with Romero— contend that the author had known about Romero's substance abuse problems. Solotaroff, the pair said, told them he was fearful that the psychiatrist's fall could derail Group. Both men recalled Solotaroff blaming Romero for putting his book in jeopardy, with the writer describing himself as an innocent victim of his collaborator.

In a Voice interview, Hodes, 45, said that at the time Romero entered rehab, Solotaroff told him that the psychiatrist had previously confided in him the details of his drug experimentation. Hodes ran a karate dojo that shared a Fifth Avenue loft space with Romero's psychiatry practice. He was owed $7750 by Romero for several bounced rent checks.

Donnenberg, who Romero treated for depression and prescribed psychotropic drugs like Prozac, Clonapin, and Effexor, agreed to loan Romero $5000 after the psychiatrist phoned him begging for money in early 1997. Donnenberg, 45, also agreed to pay $5000 for a worthless painting by Romero, who fancied himself an artist, and loan the doctor his camera. But Donnenberg declined his broke doctor's request to co-sign an apartment lease. Though aware of Romero borrowing money from Donnenberg, Solotaroff chose not to mention it in Group, instead offering a sympathetic portait of a doctor "steeped in suffering and incapable of thinking his way out of it."

Donnenberg and Hodes also recalled that Romero would openly discuss with them confidences shared by other patients. "Anything you can imagine that was indiscreet, that a physician should not reveal," Donnenberg said, "Phil seemed to have lost the capacity to hold it in." One patient was a well-known supermodel, about whom Romero spoke often, said Donnenberg. At one point, Romero even showed him a book containing a nude photo of the woman, Donnenberg added. State law prohibits a doctor from revealing "personally identifiable facts, data, or information obtained in a professional capacity" without that patient's consent.

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