The long, eventful, honored life of Manhasset’s Leonard Finz
On July 23, in Manhasset’s Gracewood Mansion, Leonard Finz was officially inducted into the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School (OCS) Hall of Fame. A two-star major general was present, and a colonel presided over the ceremony, closing the circle on a military career that began more than 80 years before.
Finz, then a few weeks shy of 98, joined such HOF inductees as former Senator Robert Dole, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and General Tommy Franks, commander of the United States Central Command and overseer of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
In other words, he’s in fairly elite company. Not bad for a son of Jewish immigrants born on the lower East Side of Manhattan. But in his achievements, the still active attorney has plenty of company as a cohort of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
“Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are in [the Hall of Fame],” Finz told the Manhasset Press. “Those who received the Congressional Medal of Honor and a host of other big names, four-star generals, commanding officers. It was a tremendous, tremendous honor. And it was just an enormous event and a beautiful one. We had Major General [John F. Hussey of the Army Reserves] and Colonel [Pedro L. Rosario III, commanding officer, 6th Brigade, Fort Totten, NY]. We had a United States military band. We had a choir. We had the colors. We had the honor guards. It was just a fabulous, fabulous event.”
It was not the first time Finz earned military plaudits. In 2004, in a ceremony held at the World War II Memorial in Washington, and at the orders of Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee, Finz received his long overdue Army Commendation Medal for Meritorious and Outstanding service. He had served with the 27th Division as a field artillery officer in the Pacific theater.
The HOF induction was attended by New York State Senators John Brooks (D–Seaford) and Anna Kaplan (D–North Hills), and Assemblywoman Gina Sillitti (D–Port Washington) .
In a press release, it was noted that the “Officer Candidate School, located at Fort Benning, GA, trains, assesses, and evaluates potential commissioned officers of the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserve, and Army National Guard. Annual inductions into the OCS Hall of Fame are based on accomplishments that include superior valorous combat leadership, superior meritorious service, as well as public- and life-long service to their community and nation.”
Brooks, chair of the Senate’s Veterans Committee, said, “As a young man, 2nd Lt. Leonard Finz led his artillery battery into combat to serve and protect his nation. Today we have the honor to recognize Judge Leonard Finz for a lifetime of devoted service. He is an icon of his generation and a role model for others to follow.”
In his remarks at the ceremony, Brooks added, “When you look back at where we were, where the world was before the U.S. got into the war, the future was questionable. His generation stepped forward. An army that almost did not exist was made into an army that saved the world. And when they came back, they rebuilt our nation. They created something called Levittown—I’m sure you’re familiar with it.”
Finz, sitting nearby, and others laughed appreciatively.
Kaplan said, “I’m privileged to meet a lot of dedicated and accomplished individuals from across the state, but few rise to the level of dedication and accomplishment of the Honorable Leonard Finz, who answered the call to serve our great nation during WWII and went on to a have a long and proud career of superior service to our community.”
Sillitti said, “I can think of no one who deserves this honor more than the Honorable Leonard Finz as the living embodiment of the Greatest Generation. His induction into the [HOF} is yet another testament to his outstanding character. It was truly my honor to have had the opportunity to get to know Judge Finz and seeing the community come out so strongly to attend his induction ceremony is just a small example of his legacy and the high regard in which his friends, family, and the community holds him in.”
In addition, according to his law firm biography, during the 2004 ceremony in Washington, “He was also presented with the American flag that was flown in his honor for one full day atop the Capitol of the United States, in addition to being pinned with a half-dozen other military medals. As further recognition of his extraordinary military service during WWII, Judge Finz has been honored by having his military biography filed as a permanent record with the United States Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which has now been archived and enshrined there for eternity.”
Music To Military
Showing musical talent early on, a teenage Finz made the two-hour daily journey from Brooklyn (where his family moved) to the High School of Music & Art in upper Manhattan, where he had applied and been accepted. The school has now relocated to Lincoln Center and merged with the School for Performing Arts and is known as the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
“I had a full music program of three hours of music a day plus a full academic program,” he related. “But with it all, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, really.”
The gifted youth studied the saxophone and clarinet and according to his law firm bio became first clarinetist in the highly touted school symphony orchestra and leader of its jazz band,
Not long after he turned 18, in August of 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army as the country was now fully engaged in the global conflict.
“After basic training, they heard that I had some kind of talent and some kind of background in music,” Finz said. “And a captain in the Special Services calls me and he says, ‘We’d like you to write and direct some shows for the GIs here at Camp Pendleton.’ I said, ‘I’d be very happy to do that.’ I was writing shows, producing shows, writing music, etc, etc.”
Soon, he was transferred into an Army military band as a clarinetist and as a saxophone player, entertaining the troops. According to his law firm bio, an article in the military press labeled him as “Born of Talent.”
“And I was with them for more than a year or so. But then, frankly, [I did not want to say] how I spent the war, playing saxophone and clarinet while there were real soldiers dying on the battlefield,” Finz affirmed. “And so I applied to Officer Candidate School, passed the requirements and was accepted. There were 100 who started at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in the field artillery. There were battle-tested sergeants from Europe, sergeants from the Pacific war zones, and I was just a clarinetist in the band. I was really a musician in a soldier’s uniform. That’s all. But out of the 100 who started, only 32 made the final grade. And I was one of them.”
It was a brutal four-month course that weeded out even the toughest of soldiers.
He added, “And when the general put the gold bars on my shoulders, and I was commissioned a second lieutenant. it was the greatest day of my life—aside from my marriage (to the late Pearl for 68 years) and having kids and grandkids.”
From his bio: “Trained in beach landings, he boarded a troop ship heading for Okinawa and assigned to the first wave attack force upon the Japanese mainland where 400,000 Japanese were dug-in with Kamikaze aircraft support. Within days of the planned U.S. attack, atomic bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered.”
Finz would have agreed with the late WWII veteran and author Paul Fussell, who titled one of his books Thank God for The Atom Bomb. There were plans readied for the invasion of the Japanese main islands, a titanic effort that would have dwarfed the invasion of Normandy in 1944. Estimates were that the Americans would suffer more than a million casualties.
“I would have been right up front. I would have been in the first attack force,” Finz reflected. “The artillery was behind the infantry. I would have to pick up the targets and obviously, I [would be a big target].”
Law Without Degree
He was then assigned to Philippines, and one day was called in by his commanding officer, a colonel. More than 50 American troops were languishing in the stockade for various crimes, waiting for their court martials, the officer told Finz. There was only one Judge Advocate General (JAG) lawyer on the island, and he had to serve as a prosecutor. Finz only had a high school education. But as is the military way, the colonel must have seen something in the young 2nd Lt, and assigned him to the JAG (made up of licensed lawyers) with the title of “defense counsel.” By military law, the defense counsel had to be an officer.
From his bio: “Despite informing his commanding officer that he never went beyond high school, the commanding officer pressed that he observed how Finz interacted with others, that he read his personnel file, stressing he could do the job ‘since you’re a damn good officer.’”
Finz began reading manuals to learn military justice procedures.
It was a tedious and dangerous assignment. He had to gather evidence and track down witnesses. Japanese soldiers were still in the area, continuing to fight a war they did not know had ended.
As his bio put it, “Finz would have to snake through jungle areas to locate witnesses in remote villages while driving in an open jeep armed only with a .45 caliber sidearm.”
“Within six months [he] defended every accused GI successfully,” the bio continued. “Further, archive research establishes that he was the only one out of 16 million Americans in uniform during WWII to have ever been assigned to JAG as defense counsel with only a high school diploma.”
It was for such service that Finz earned the Army Commendation Medal he was to receive decades later.
Finz, discharged in 1946 as a 1st Lt., then took advantage of the GI Bill and entered New York University and earned a BA and later, a law degree. He met Pearl at NYU and the couple married in 1948. He was also elected president of the law school student body, and passed the state bar exam in 1951.
His Music Career
Entertainment still beckoned, however, and he joined the local Associated Musicians of Greater New York (now part of the American Federation of Musicians Local 802). Coincidentally, he found a band that was seeking a saxophone player who could sing.
In an interview, Finz noted that he was playing five club nights a week under the stage name “Lennie Forrest” He met the legendary Al Jolson, best known for the first “talkie,” 1927’s The Jazz Singer. The crooner/actor reportedly complimented Finz after seeing him perform in Milwaukee.
Finz was among those who sang tributes at Jolson’s memorial service, held in Madison Square Garden in 1950.
In those post-war years, he told an interviewer, Billboard Magazine once yoked Lennie Forrest and future star Steve Lawrence (forever paired with wife Eydie Gormé) as “Singers of the Future.”
Finz was signed as a singer and songwriter by Music Corporation of America (MCA), then the largest theatrical agency in the world, headed by the legendary Lew Wasserman. It was the forerunner of Universal and Comcast.
According to his bio, “He recorded many songs…some recordings of which were charted by Billboard and Cash Box critics as ‘picks,’ thus propelling him on a national tour to many TV, radio, and nightclub venues throughout the United States, where he also performed with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. In addition, Judge Finz auditioned for the lead Hollywood role in the 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer, which came down to two choices, Danny Thomas and Lennie Forrest. Thomas ultimately got the role. Judge Finz was also cast on the NBC soap opera, Another World.”
Law & Politics
After returning to practicing law later in the 1950s, and then living in Little Neck, Finz followed his interest in politics started when he served as forum director of the NYU Democratic Club.
According to his bio, “[He] ran for the New York State Senate, United States Congress and was appointed Queens County campaign chairman for John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and others.”
Finz told the Manhasset Press that he was invited to the White House by JFK, and remembered sitting in front of The Resolute desk under which “little John John [would play] and we would sit down and speak about world issues, et cetera, et cetera. Somehow he talked to me. I don’t know why or how, but I guess he felt that I was a WWII veteran and he was a WWII veteran. We had something in common. And it was one of the greatest situations I ever really [experienced].”
He was tasked with preparing for a 1960 campaign appearance by the then senator in Queens, and chose the largest venue in the county, the 5,000-seat Sunnyside Gardens, noted for its boxing matches. He added extra speakers outside, knowing the arena could not hold all wishing to see the popular candidate.
Finz served as emcee, and JFK was expected at 7:30 p.m. More than two hours later, the candidate finally showed up.
“So for two and a half hours. I’m singing, telling jokes, performing speeches, I’m doing whatever I can,” Finz related. “And then suddenly, I get the word, ‘He’s here.’ I get to the [offstage area] and John F. Kennedy looks at me, puts out his hand, and the first thing he says is, ‘Where’s the john?’ And I say, ‘Just follow me.’ A couple of [security people] cleared the bathroom out. We go in, just he and I, next to each other at the urinals. I could see that picture right now. It was really something.”
In 1965, Finz was elected as New York City Civil Court Judge—the youngest at the time—and later won an election to sit on the New York State Supreme Court. He shocked the judicial world in 1978, stepping down to become a partner at Julien, Schlesinger & Finz.
Asked if he regretted giving up the judge’s chair at 53, Finz replied, “I gave it up because my kids [Saundra and Stuart] were in college. I could not afford it. I would have had to refinance my house and get a second mortgage in order to pay the bills.”
He also was encouraged by his old NYU law professor Alfred Julien, former president of the American Trial Lawyers Association, and, per Finz, “one of the finest lawyers in the country.”
Soon, Finz was trying what he called “very big cases,” the biggest of which was against pharmaceutical Eli Lilly & Company, and it’s anti-miscarriage pill, Diethylstilbestrol. Finz successfully argued that the drug caused vaginal cancer in some of the daughters born to those who had taken it.
“And I tried that case and got the very first verdict against Eli Lilly that went all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States,” Finz noted. “And I made a national reputation from that point on.”
Per his biography, “Judge Finz won record settlements and verdicts in Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Schenectady, Albany, Syracuse, and other areas of New York State, in addition to New Haven, Hartford and other jurisdictions. In all, he won countless millions of dollars for his clients.”
In 1984, Finz founded the medical malpractice firm Finz & Finz, P.C. It has offices in Mineola and Manhattan and is now managed by Finz’s son Stuart, the CEO. Stuart’s wife, Cheri, and their children, Jacqueline and Brandon, are also part of the firm.
Books and Classes
Late in life, Finz turned author, as he’s had plenty of life experiences to draw on. Among his titles are the political/legal thrillers Arrowhead (2005), The Paragon Conspiracy (2011) and Reservation to Kill (2013). At the age of 92, he published his memoir, The Greatest Day of My Life.
His law firm his biography states, “As a former Queens College professor, he taught courses in ‘Business Law’ and ‘Law in Response to Social Change.’ As a law school professor at New York Law School, he taught courses in ‘Trial Advocacy’ and ‘Law and Medicine.’ He also served as a faculty member of The National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, where he taught courses on ‘Medical Malpractice’ and ‘Tactics in the Courtroom.’ Judge Finz has written many articles that have been published in a host of publications… [including] ‘The High-Low Contract—Where Both Sides Win’ (the creation of the high-low contract by Judge Finz is still utilized in many forms throughout the state and national court system), and more.”
In addition, “Each day at Finz & Finz, P.C., he confers with the firm’s trial lawyers and staff on legal issues and courtroom strategy and offers advice on the prosecution of medical malpractice and personal injury cases.”
A Chat With the Judge
Q Are you still actively involved in your firm?
A I spend time talking about strategy and things of that sort. I do a lot of writing. I write books and I write articles that are published. I do a lot of things. Because, after all, I’m only 24 years old, so I’ve got a long way to go (chuckles).
Q How are you feeling?
A I feel great. And actually, I’m just one of the few surviving World War Two veterans. As you probably are aware, we had more than 16 million Americans in uniform during World War Two. And out of that number, we have fewer than 1 percent living today, most of whom are either in VA facilities or in nursing homes, or disabled. We’re losing veterans at the rate of 350 to 400 veterans a day. Mathematically, it’s just a question of time before we lose everyone. And pretty soon, unfortunately, we’re going to be a vanished breed. And who knows when I will be part of that group?
Q But until then, you are determined to learn and do as much as you can?
A I do. It’s important. First of all, you’ve got to keep your mind occupied busy. Because if I don’t keep my brain occupied, my brain reaches out and complains, ‘How about paying attention to me?’ So with that, I must always do some writing and I write almost every day. I write a monthly article that is published. I’ve had four books published.
Q If you had any regrets in your long life, does any particular one stand out?
A I suspect I had a choice. I came to the crossroads—I could have gone into show business or I could have continued with law. But I came very, very close and I had some very, very big opportunities and big things in show business. In fact, I was being considered for the lead role of the remake of The Jazz Singer. I did so many things and was in radio and TV. I even was on The Joe Franklin Show on ABC TV here in New York, and performed every day on that job.