The Suicide of LeAnn Leutner

She left behind a baby boy, an estranged lover, and a custody case that would challenge progressive New York

After graduation, Leutner was recruited by the Wall Street law firm Fried Frank. She would later become an associate at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlet, where she advised billionaires like Ralph Lauren and J. Christopher Flowers on compliance with securities laws and disclosure requirements. None of her Yale friends were surprised by her success. But they were surprised she chose the cold, hard world of corporate law. Leutner was an idealist—the kind of person to be voted "most likely to dedicate her life to public service."

In Manhattan, a colleague introduced Leutner into the Community Free Democrats club on the Upper West Side. She was instantly enamored, says member Bernadette Evangelist. Leutner quickly rose through the ranks, serving as a board member for New York City's Economic Development Corporation, as treasurer for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and finally as the 67th Assembly District leader.

She had a reputation for being remarkably evenhanded—"especially for someone in politics," Evangelist says. When she'd stand up to give her monthly reports as a district leader, she slathered colleagues with praise. She had a fondness for calling people "my hero." Though colleagues describe Leutner as fiercely loyal, she wasn't one to let others dictate her opinions. "She was independent," Evangelist says. "Whatever she believed in, she would not change her mind."

The law tore father and son apart.
The law tore father and son apart.

It was a whirling, fast-paced life, and Leutner was hypnotized. Even after marrying and having a son in 2000, says longtime friend Alan Flacks, Leutner spent hours on the streets, clipboard in hand, doing grassroots campaigning and staying out late at rallies, hobnobbing with political friends. While club members describe her as a "loving, proud mom," some gossiped behind her back, accusing Leutner of treating her child like a "toy." Her marriage would implode before her son, Brennan, was five years old.

Brennan moved to Garden City with his father and visited Leutner on the Upper West Side on weekends. The former couple clashed so frequently that Brennan started seeing a counselor, according to New York City Family Court documents. When Brennan was in town, Leutner would call Flacks and the two would take the boy to a museum. Once, perhaps in a moment of wishful thinking, Brennan took his mother's hand, kissed it, took Flack's hand, kissed it, and brought them together. "I now pronounce you man and wife," he said.

At 70, Flacks is short and stout with wild, white hair and a knaggy beard. A gadfly and political activist, well known on the Upper West Side for publishing a weekly newsletter highlighting the Community Free Democrats' juiciest gossip, he talks nonstop, weaving in and out of stories like a drunk driver in traffic. He has a tough time defining his 15-year relationship with Leutner. "I wouldn't say we dated." But for years, he has carried a faded photo of her in a fanny pack he keeps slung around his hips. "I suppose I loved her," he says. When Leutner died, he gained 20 pounds.

Leutner dreamed of having more children. It tore her apart that she did not have full custody of Brennan, Flacks says. At one point, she considered asking a friend to donate sperm so she could have a child on her own. A year after her divorce, Leutner and Flacks took Brennan to the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art on Staten Island. While the boy played among the Buddha statues, Leutner told Flacks, "You're on my short list." She sounded so serious that he went home and made some phone calls to find out what his responsibilities as a sperm donor might be.

Jonathan Sporn is a gentleman. He opens taxi doors. When he greets a woman, he takes her fingertips and lifts them to his lips. He wears designer jeans and plaid sport coats; his English is proper and he smells of sandalwood and spice.

Sporn grew up in Miami Beach "before it was nice," he says. He enrolled in medical school at the University of Miami because his father was a doctor. After an unfulfilling year as an internist, Sporn became infatuated with the Russian spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, who said that most humans live their lives in a state of "waking sleep" they must transcend in order to achieve their full potential. During his courtship of the daughter of a Harvard neuroscientist, Sporn got a more scientific introduction to the workings of the human brain. He spent hours with his girlfriend's mother, talking about the latest research. "I liked the daughter's body and the mother's brain," he says. Combined, the two experiences prompted him to specialize in psychiatry.

"A computer can do the job of an internist," he says. "You plug in the symptoms and come up with a diagnosis." The illness of the mind, though, that's a puzzle that requires creative thinking. While some symptoms can be accounted for by biology, many are tied up in layers of human experience. Sporn enjoys sorting them out.

His work history is studded with prestigious posts. He worked at Harvard and the National Institute of Mental Health, where he was among the first to demonstrate the mood-stabilizing effects of Lamictal, an anticonvulsant drug used in the treatment of epilepsy. As a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, he helped author a textbook on the neurobiology of mental illness. And after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Sporn went to Russia to volunteer in hospitals. There, he fell in love with an aspiring psychiatrist. They were married 15 years before separating in 2009.

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