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Renowned surgeon's life has been like the operas she loves

CLEARWATER

It looks like a photo shoot for an upscale magazine. Zena Lansky poses next to the mint condition green 1979 Rolls-Royce Corniche, parked beneath a canopy of Spanish oaks on the brick driveway of her large, gorgeous home, perched on a bluff overlooking Clearwater Bay.

In many ways, the picture of Lansky with the Rolls tells the story of her success. Now retired, she was a trailblazer in her field, the first female surgeon at Morton Plant Hospital, located just a few blocks from her house, and the first female chief of the hospital's surgery department.

In August, Lansky made news by giving $1 million to Opera Tampa, the largest single gift in the company's 15-year history. In November, the main building of Morton Plant's Bardmoor Outpatient Complex will be named the Zena Lansky Pavilion, thanks to her $1.5 million to the hospital's foundation.

But there's a dark side to the picture of the philanthropist with her classic car. About 20 years ago, when Lansky was in the throes of a divorce from her first husband, David S. Leider, he tried to hire someone to kill her.

Leider's proposed payment for the murder: the Rolls-Royce.

"Can you believe it?" Lansky says, looking at the Rolls, which she infrequently takes out of the garage. "$169,000 of my hard-earned money for this. It was my husband's pride and joy. And what was I driving? A Volkswagen Rabbit."

Friends have asked Lansky why she keeps the Rolls, a reminder of a horrific episode in her life. She says she doesn't know. But after hearing her story, you don't have to be an opera lover to see that the car is a symbol of her own strength and survival.

• • •

Lansky's story has the ring of something from a film noir thriller like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. She was a busy surgeon, and Leider, an accountant with an MBA, had a financial management business. High school sweethearts in Philadelphia, they had been married 15 years when she made a momentous discovery.

"My husband got sick, and when he was in the hospital, I had to deal with our finances," Lansky says. "He took care of everything, because I was working all the time. But I found that his business was a fraud. The only thing in my name was our home. Everything else — every bank account, every property, everything — was in this company called Leider Enterprises Inc. Once I started investigating, the whole thing unraveled."

Lansky was her husband's only client. "It became clear to me that he had spent all his time not earning money, but stealing my money," she says. "I went ballistic."

She filed for divorce in 1987. At stake was at least $2 million in assets, including a $250,000 home in Largo, a waterfront cottage on Indian Rocks Beach, two office complexes and other property, all of it paid for by her work as a surgeon and medical entrepreneur.

Leider vs. Leider was a messy case, which went through four judges over three years. The paperwork filled eight files, and the attorneys were two of Tampa Bay's best-known courtroom combatants. The late Robert Merkle, a former U.S. attorney, represented Lansky after she became disenchanted with her first lawyer.

"I walked into Robert Merkle's office with $50,000, and he got me out of it in a year," she says. "He was brilliant, and he wasn't even a divorce attorney. I knew I needed a tough lawyer because I was going up against Arnie Levine, who represented my husband."

Arnold Levine, a high-profile attorney in Tampa, doesn't remember the case. "I have a vague recollection. Back then I was doing a lot of sensational cases," he says. Told of Lansky's $1 million gift to Opera Tampa, the lawyer, chortling, says, "Too bad she didn't give me any."

Things turned bizarre during the divorce proceedings, when Leider hatched a plot to murder Lansky. An acquaintance learned what Leider wanted to do and referred him to a "counselor" who could help get it done, prosecutors said. But this "counselor" — a man named Royce Young —was arrested in a jewelry flimflam and became a confidential informant.

Young told police that Leider wanted to have his wife killed. Soon afterward, a St. Petersburg undercover detective named Rick Shaw, pretending to be a hit man, met with Leider. According to a secret tape recording made by the detective, the accountant offered to let Shaw buy his Rolls-Royce for $25,000 in return for the murder of his wife.

Prosecutors said Leider had a quaint euphemism for murder: Shaw was to provide "investment advice." He added that "My wife is the obstacle to my well-being."

In a second tape-recorded meeting between Leider and Shaw outside the Indian Rocks Beach post office, the undercover officer said he was going to use a knife to slit the surgeon's throat.

Leider was arrested in 1988. Over two trials — the first ended in a mistrial — he claimed to have been set up by the undercover officer, but he was convicted of initiating the murder-for-hire scheme and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

"He was in the courtroom in chains. That was our last encounter," says Lansky, whose divorce was finalized when Leider was in prison. He served four years, mostly at the state prison in Sumter County, and was released in 1993.

Lansky says that her ex-husband's well-to-do family in Philadelphia took him in after he got out of prison. She never wants to see him again. "There's a restraining order as part of our divorce agreement," she says. "He must never come near me again … forever."

The Times called a phone number listed for Leider in Philadelphia but didn't get an answer.

• • •

How could a physician with an Ivy League pedigree — Lansky got her undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Pennsylvania — land in such a predicament?

"It was my fault," she says on a weekday afternoon in a cozy room off the kitchen of her house. She sits on the sofa, one of her dogs curled on the floor at her feet, the other beside her. Her second husband, Warren Rodgers, is in a chair by the window, fielding phone calls, reading the newspaper, joining in the conversation from time to time.

"Yes, it was," she insists, deflecting an objection to her harsh self-assessment. "It was my fault because when it comes to your money, you need to pay attention, and I trusted him. I signed anything he gave me to sign. All I wanted to do was be a doctor."

Physicians often delegate their finances to someone else, often with less than sterling results. "Most doctors are not very good with money, but mine was an extreme case," Lansky says. "Fortunately, most doctors aren't married to the kind of person I was married to. He was a crook."

Dr. George Morris, an orthopedic surgeon in Clearwater, was a mentor to Lansky. He was chief of surgery at Morton Plant when she started working at the hospital in the early 1970s, and later nominated her for the prestigious post. He knew her first husband.

"I just thought he was someone floating along through life," Morris says. "We see guys who marry doctors and manage their money and manage the house, that's not an uncommon scenario. But that's the only one I've ever heard of where he tried to do her in."

Not surprisingly, the lurid case drew lots of media attention. "A Current Affair (the TV tabloid show) got hold of it," Lansky says. "He (her ex-husband) contacted them for some kind of sympathy, so I was stuck on that one. They interviewed me at Morton Plant Hospital. It was embarrassing."

The case "practically ruined my career," she says. "My secretary quit. She said she didn't want to be in the office, because if he got out (of jail), he could come there. Whenever I would walk into the doctors' lounge, and there was dead silence, I knew that there was a newspaper with a story (about the case) on the table."

Lansky got through the ordeal by falling back on the willpower that had driven her to become a surgeon. "The training was absolutely gruesome," she says. "My training consisted of working every day for five years; every other night for five years; and every other weekend day and night for five years."

At each stop along the way — medical school at Pennsylvania, her residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York, her surgical practice at Morton Plant — Lansky was the lone woman.

"In those days, you didn't get through medical school if you weren't a tough broad, and you sure didn't get through a surgery program at a place like Bellevue if you weren't really tough," Morris says. "After that, I think she had the toughness to get through anything."

Lansky agrees. "I could have been finished," she says. "A lesser person would've been finished. But not me. It showed me what I was made of."

Lansky did operations such as colon resections, gallbladder removals and appendectomies at Morton Plant, but she becomes especially animated in talking about her work as an emergency trauma surgeon, even recalling a brush with political celebrity in the 1960s. As a resident at Bellevue, she treated H. Rap Brown, the Black Panther, for a gunshot wound.

"When you get into emergencies, you don't know what you're dealing with and you have to make the right decisions," she says. "There can be massive bleeding, massive trauma. It's not an easy profession. I enjoyed it. I like challenges."

• • •

Lansky is quite open about the strange saga with her first husband. "She told me about it early on," says Rodgers. Introduced by a fellow opera buff in Tampa, the two have been together for 11 years, and they married three years ago.

"I didn't think I would ever get married again, but we've been together a long time," she says. "The only reason we got married, though we have a committed relationship, is that our lawyer said we were going to get killed on estate taxes."

Rodgers, an entrepreneur who has started high-tech companies, is in poor health, having suffered cancer of the tongue in 2003. ("It's the same as Michael Douglas has," Lansky says.) Since then he has been fed through a tube in his stomach. "He hasn't had solid food in seven years," says Lansky, who has thrown herself into his care. She has her own health issues, having had several back surgeries.

Lansky declines to disclose her age or net worth. She says the bulk of her wealth comes not from money she made as a surgeon but from work she did for patients whose systems were unable to absorb nutrients. In the 1970s and '80s, she was at the forefront in developing solutions of carbohydrates, proteins and fats for such patients, and devices to deliver the solution into their bodies through tubes and lines.

"There were very few companies then that took care of these patients, and I became fascinated by the problem," says Lansky, who had an ownership interest in several successful startup companies that were purchased by health care corporations such as Caremark. "I was very valuable to these companies. It was a big thing for me."

Lansky can see the benefits of her work in her own home: Rodgers is hooked up to his feeding tube every night when he goes to bed. "Everything that Zena invented and developed, I'm using right now," he says.

Lansky's experience with Leider caused her to take control of her own money. She is a hands-on investor in the stock market, working from an airy office on the top floor of her house. Two of her best investments through the years were shares in Raymond James and Office Depot.

"The moral of the story is that if you make money in whatever field you're in, you need to pay attention to it," she says. "I invest all my own money. I'm very aggressive. I'm not a (mutual) fund type person. I purchase individual equities. My theory is you only sell stocks when there is a change in the company. I hold a stock forever, unless I feel that there is a problem with it, and then I get rid of it."

• • •

Because the murder-for-hire scheme was some 20 years ago, Lansky is rarely asked about it.

"I have a feeling everybody knows about it," she says. "Nobody brings it up. I don't think anybody wants to upset me, so nobody says anything."

But many people have no idea. Holly Duncan, president of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation, is close to Lansky, who is on the foundation board, but she just recently learned from her about the episode. "I was here (in the bay area) in 1989, but I didn't know Zena then and never made the connection," Duncan says.

Duncan calls Lansky "a legend at Morton Plant Hospital. She is one of those glorious philanthropists who has put it all together. I think she is very committed to doing much of her charitable giving during her lifetime so that she can have the joy of seeing the impact those gifts will have on our community."

Lansky told her story to Judy Lisi over lunch. "I practically fell off my chair," says Lisi, president of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and founder of Opera Tampa. "I didn't know how to react. What must that be like, if another human being wanted you killed — and it was your husband, no less? What does that do to your psyche? I felt bad for her. But she obviously survived and got through it with grace."

Lansky's gift to the opera came with a twist. When she received her tickets in the mail for the upcoming season, she found that her seats had been switched from her preferred spot in the mezzanine to the orchestra floor. Nominally, this was an upgrade, but she called the box office to complain, and was referred to the opera's associate general director, Maria Zouves, to resolve the mixup.

"I called Zena back, and she said, 'I was thinking of giving you a million dollars, and now I'm not,' " Zouves recalls. "I thought, yeah, right, but I called our development director and said, 'This is probably nothing, but I think we should pursue it.' Miracles do happen."

Growing up in Philadelphia, Lansky would sometimes go with her mother to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. "The first production I remember was Madama Butterfly," she says. "I was young, and I was entranced."

Today, she says her favorite opera is Macbeth, a surprising choice in that it isn't one of the conventionally romantic works, like La Boheme or La Traviata. Could her fondness for Verdi's blood-soaked musical drama on the murderous Scottish king be a reflection of her own experience?

"No, no," Lansky says, laughing. "I just love the music."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics. Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to the story. Information from Times files was used in the story.

Renowned surgeon's life has been like the operas she loves 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 10:50pm]
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