Tag Archives: Michael Koskoff

Koskoff Family Endows A Scholarship With A Difference

When a prominent Westporter dies, it’s not unusual for the family to set up a scholarship in his or her name.

What is unusual — at least in Westport — is for that scholarship to be at a place like Howard University of School of Law.

But that’s exactly where the Michael Koskoff Scholarship has been established.

And it’s exactly in keeping with the way the nationally known, socially conscious Westport lawyer lived his life. Koskoff died in April, age 77.

Why Howard?

As his children Josh, Sarah, Julie and Jake write:

As you know, our father had a lifelong commitment to civil rights. He represented members of the Black Panthers, he helped integrate the police and fire departments in Connecticut. He idolized Thurgood Marshall so much he wrote a movie about him.

Michael Koskoff

One of our father’s final cases took on Harvard University. He spoke of their $40 billion endowment with disdain. Harvard, he believed, denied its racist past and used its great wealth to cherry-pick the best students, remove them from their communities, and indoctrinate them in a culture that served Harvard’s own interests.

A scholarship for Howard Law students, in contrast, will represent who our father has always been: unpretentious, egalitarian, unintimidated by powerful institutions, and a passionate believer that character determines success, not pedigree.

The people at Howard asked us: Do we want a minimum GPA required to receive the scholarship? We said, “Absolutely not!” Our father didn’t believe in limiting opportunity to those who are already on the path to success. He believed that what makes a great advocate isn’t good grades or high test scores — it’s a boldness to take on the powerful on behalf of the vulnerable, armed with the tools that the constitution provides.

Please consider giving to this scholarship — it will carry his name for generations, providing opportunities to future lawyers who will fight for civil rights, criminal justice, equal opportunity, environmental protection, public health and safety, and all else that we, as a society on the brink, depend on great legal advocates to achieve.

The endowment goal is $1 million. Click here to donate online. Checks can be made out to “Howard University School of Law,” with “Michael Koskoff Scholarship” written in the memo line, and sent to: Howard University, Box 417853, Boston, MA 02241-7853.

Remembering Michael Koskoff

The New York Times summed up the full life of a remarkable man in its lead paragraph:

Michael Koskoff, a renowned and dogged Connecticut litigator who defended Black Panthers, won record malpractice awards, mounted racial job-discrimination battles and sued gunmakers whose weapons were used in the Sandy Hook school massacre, died on Wednesday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 77.

The story details many more achievements of the longtime Westporter, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

He collaborated with his son Jacob on the screenplay for “Marshall,” the 2017 film about a major civil rights case — in Bridgeport – litigated by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. (Click here for the complete “06880” story.)

Michael Koskoff’s son Josh was a partner in their law firm. This photo was taken as they worked on an important gun rights case just a month before Michael died.

With his other son, Westport resident Josh — a senior partner in the law firm Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder — he won an important gun rights case last month. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that manufacturers of guns used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre can be held liable, in a suit brought by victims’ families.

Another celebrated case — involving hiring quotas in Bridgeport for black and Hispanic police officers — led to similar suits elsewhere. The result was more minorities being hired by police and fire departments across the country.

Michael Koskoff also “pioneered the use of vivid courtroom videos delivered in a documentary format,” the Times said.

He is survived by Rosalind Jacobs, his wife of 56 years; sons Josh and Jacob; daughters Sarah (an actress and screenwriter) and Juliet (a lawyer in New York); 2 sisters, and 8 grandsons.

Roz and Michael Koskoff

Michael Koskoff was a very devoted father and grandfather. In a torrent of tributes, some of the most eloquent were posted on social media by those closest to him.

The day after his father died, Jacob wrote:

Over the past 24 hours many have said they are sorry for our loss, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint why that hasn’t sounded right. But the answer is obvious: from the very beginning, it was just so incredibly unfair how fortunate we were to have had him as a father.

A month earlier, on his father’s birthday, Jacob had said:

Soon after he got his diagnosis, my dad and I were walking in downtown Westport waiting for our takeout. It was dark and cold, and he was slow, and I was holding a box of cupcakes — students were raising money for something that I’m pretty sure was never explained to us. For the first time I asked him how he was feeling, in the greater sense. He took one breath and said, “I’m just glad this happened after the movie came out. If it had been before, I’d be seriously pissed.”

He has 8 grandsons, and each one is his favorite.

Eyes on the Prize. Wild Strawberries. Shakespeare at The Public Theater. He took me to see Annie when I was 8. Henry IV parts 1 and 2 a few years later. He is the most unpretentious, socially conscious, opera-loving wine connoisseur you’ll ever meet.

Michael and Jake Koskoff, collaborating on “Marshall.”

We went to dozens of Mets games together. He coached my Little League teams with his friend Terry Smith. They would sometimes pick the batting lineup out of a hat. He knew little about how the game was played and had no business coaching a team of 13-15-year-olds. He’d hit fielding practice and say “third base,” then weakly ground the ball to first. He had devoted himself to the sport, had humbled himself, only to be closer to me. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Joan Baez taught him how to play the guitar in Harvard Square.

He once lent a car he wasn’t using to an acquaintance. Not even a friend, just someone he knew who needed a car. He never saw the car again. Not only did my dad not report it to the police, but for years he paid the guy’s parking tickets.

What’s the opposite of self-pity? Right, gratitude. That’s his religion: live with grace and kindness, persistence, generosity, and always, whenever possible, with gratitude.

Michael Koskoff and Barack Obama share smiles.

Michael’s daughter Juliet Koskoff Diamond added:

He died as he lived, with grace and gratitude for all the gifts he has been giving. In the end he was surrounded by his family, listening, to Mozart and quoting Shakespeare. He was able to say goodbye and was at peace.

And Josh’s wife, Darcy Hicks, wrote:

My father-in-law, Mike Koskoff, spent 77 years blasting this earth with love and justice. Knowing him made your life easier. He made it easy to become a part of his amazing family. He made it easier to laugh when you thought you weren’t in the mood. He made it easier to see the path to justice when no one thought there was one.

And mostly, he made it easy to love everyone- because through his eyes, empathy spilled and cleaned the view, so everyone who knew him could see how to live better. There’s only one thing he made impossible: doing that deifying thing we do about someone when they die. He just didn’t leave us any room to embellish him.

(Click here for the full New York Times obituary.)

Jake And Mike Koskoff’s “Marshall”

Thurgood Marshall’s life is well known: respected attorney, NAACP stalwart, 1st African American Supreme Court justice.

Less noted was his role in a 1940 case. Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing told a harrowing tale of being raped by her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell.

Thurgood Marshall, as a young man.

Only 32 years old, Marshall had already argued before the Supreme Court. The  NAACP sent him to help. The case was a defining moment for the young attorney — who, prevented from arguing before the bench, had to find other ways to influence his white co-counsel and jury.

It took place in Bridgeport. And — thanks to a pair of Westporters — it’s now the subject of a movie earning notice across the country.

“Marshall” was written by longtime local attorney Mike Koskoff and his son Jake, a 1992 Staples High School graduate now living, and screenwriting, in Los Angeles.

It’s not easy to write (and sell) a courtroom film these days — especially a period piece, with an African-American protagonist. Even if he’s played by Chadwick Boseman.

But Thurgood Marshall was “a legal genius,” Jake Koskoff says. The story is compelling, and father and son gave the script everything they had.

The response has been “wonderful,” says Jake. Since its world premiere at Howard University last month, and its American release a couple of weeks ago, reviews have been strong. Critics say it’s “gripping.”

Rolling Stone called it an “electrifying glimpse of a great man in the making.” Rotten Tomatoes’s positive rating was 83%. The Los Angeles Times and RogerEbert.com were particularly praiseworthy.

“Bloggers have been inspired to write about the film,” Jake notes. “And they don’t have to.”

Michael and Jake Koskoff.

He and his father are gratified to hear that some moviegoers have been inspired to donate to the NAACP and ACLU. “Marshall” inspired others to consider applying to law school

Thurgood Marshall’s son John said the film brought his father “back to life.” The justice’s former clerks praised it for getting Marshall’s story “right.” Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor met Mike Koskoff at a screening, and told him she loved it.

On a personal level, working with his father — “as an adult” — is an added bonus for Jake.

“It’s difficult to write with anyone. And the father-son relationship can be fraught,” he says. “But it worked out well.”

Mike Koskoff Brings Thurgood Marshall To Hollywood

This is a story about a movie script.

But it reads like a movie script itself.

When he was 19, Mike Koskoff’s family moved to Westport. He’s 74 now, still here, working at his “day job”: trial lawyer. Clients have included the Black Panthers, black police officers and firefighters in Bridgeport, and Michael Jackson’s family.

His son Josh is a partner in the firm. Right now, he’s handling the Sandy Hook suit against gun manufacturers.

Seven years ago, before he died, Jack Zeldes — a Bridgeport attorney and legal historian — asked Mike if he knew there had a been a trial in that city involving Thurgood Marshall.

Mike did not. Apparently, no one else remembered it either.

More than 2 decades before he became a Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall handled an explosive case in Bridgeport.

More than 2 decades before he became a Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall handled an explosive case in Bridgeport.

Mike presented the idea to 2 of his other children, Jake and Sarah. Both are screenwriters. Neither had the time — or the interest.

But 7 years earlier, on Mike’s 60th birthday, Sarah had given him a book on screenwriting. Zeldes suggested Mike try writing something about Marshall himself.

Mike’s 1st draft focused on the courtroom drama. The case began in 1940. Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing was found near the Kensico Reservoir. She told a harrowing story of being raped by her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell.

Police quickly arrested the man. It was front-page news.

Sam Friedman

Sam Friedman

Frightened white people across the country began firing their domestic workers. The NAACP — despite its own dire financial straits — hired Bridgeport attorney Sam Friedman.

And they sent Thurgood Marshall to help.

“The image we have of Marshall today is chubby, jowly, good-natured,” Mike Koskoff says.

“But in 1941 he was 6-2, and extremely handsome. He drank bourbon at nightclubs, and hung out in Harlem with Langston Hughes and Joe Louis.”

Only 32, Marshall was a formidable attorney. He’d traveled around the South — alone — defending blacks in redneck towns. And he had already argued before the Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall, as a young man.

Thurgood Marshall, as a young man.

Koskoff’s script centered around the 2 men — Jewish Friedman, and black Marshall — joining forces to defend Spell. With the backdrop of the growing war in Europe, he had plenty of material.

The screenplay took a while to finish. Eventually Koskoff took it to his friend (and fellow attorney) Alan Neigher.

To Koskoff’s amazement, Neigher said that his father — a noted journalist named Harry — had covered that trial for the Bridgeport Herald.

And — after law school — Alan even shared office space with Friedman.

Neigher showed the script to Friedman’s family. Sam’s daughter Lauren — a therapist in New York, who had studied acting at Carnegie Mellon — passed it along to a producer friend in Los Angeles.

The friend liked it, and wanted to make it into a movie. Koskoff told his son Jake the news.

When Mike mentioned the producer’s name — Paula Wagner — Jake was stunned. “She’s the biggest female producer in Hollywood!” he said. She worked with Tom Cruise, producing the “Mission: Impossible” series, and Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.”

Wagner loved the script. But, she said, it needed better character development.

Koskoff realized he was in over his head. He called Jake. This time, his son was ready to help.

Michael and Jake Koskoff.

Mike and Jake Koskoff.

For the past 4 years, father and son have collaborated on new drafts. They’ve been helped by one of Wagner’s friends: Reginald Hudlin. A Harvard grad, producer of this year’s Oscars show and an African American, he’s been a lifelong admirer of Thurgood Marshall.

He loved the script too. But, he said — there’s always a “but” — there was just one thing. The 1st biopic about the 1st black Supreme Court justice could not be a “buddy film” about 1 Jewish and 1 black lawyer collaborating. Marshall had to be front and center.

It turned out to be an easy rewrite. “Thurgood was always there,” Koskoff says. “He was just waiting to jump out.”

Cahdwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in “42,” James Brown in “Get On Up”) signed on as the star. Filming began before Christmas, but was interrupted by Hudlin’s Oscars gig. It resumes next month.

Koskoff hoped it would be shot in Bridgeport. But the Connecticut Film Office has a moratorium on tax credits, so shooting takes place in Buffalo.

“Marshall” is the right movie at the right time, Koskoff says.

“Five years ago, we were told no one would finance a ‘black’ movie because there were no overseas sales. But then came ‘The Butler,’ ’12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Selma.'”

Koskoff adds, “Now we’ve got Black Lives Matter, police abuses, and a focus on blacks and the criminal justice system — along with the Oscars controversy about black actors.”

Throw in, for good measure, the current national focus on a Supreme Court vacancy. The stars have aligned for “Marshall.”

Release is scheduled for the end of this year. That seems like a long way off. Odds are though — without a 9th justice — the Supreme Court will still be in the news.

(For a Jewish Ledger interview with Mike Koskoff, click here. Hat tips: David Roth and Darcy Hicks)

Mike Koskoff (right) with Sam Friedman's daughter Lauren, and Thurgood Marshall's son John.

Mike Koskoff (right) with Sam Friedman’s daughter Lauren, and Thurgood Marshall’s son John.

Thurgood Marshall - quote