Two decades ago, the producer of a new show called Law & Order: Special Victims Unit asked bestselling author Linda Fairstein ’69 to talk to some of the cast members about what it was like to prosecute such cases. Fairstein, a renowned pioneer of the Manhattan District Attorney’s first sex crime unit in the 1970 and 80s, was happy to oblige, and she’s been friends with SVU co-star Mariska Hargitay ever since.
Now, with the help of another Vassar grad, Robert Friedman ’78, CEO of Bungalow Media + Entertainment, Fairstein will host her own hour-long special, The Real SVU, to air Monday, May 21 at 10pm on the Lifetime Network.
The show, which Fairstein and Friedman hope will become a regular series, chronicles the events surrounding the brutal murder of swimsuit designer Sylvie Cachay in her Manhattan apartment in 2010. The defendant, Nicholas Brooks, was convicted and sentenced to prison for 25 years to life. Fairstein explores the case through the eyes of the police and prosecutors, from the night Cachay was murdered to the conclusion of the trial.
Fairstein’s journey from fan of the fictional SVU to host of The Real SVU began on the Vassar campus three years ago during a casual conversation with Friedman—they were attending a Vassar trustees’ meeting.
“I grew up in New York City when Linda was doing so much to change what was a broken system, and I kept dropping subtle hints that she should do something around the real stories of the real SVU,” Friedman says. “She seemed intrigued, and she was such a prolific writer that I knew she’d be good at telling these stories, many of which she had lived herself.”
Fairstein says that as she got to know Friedman and learned of his extensive background in television—he was a founder of MTV and later an executive with AOL and New Line Cinema before founding his own company—she decided he might be the right person to create the show. Friedman has developed numerous television shows, including NBC’s Emmy-award winning reality show, Give.
Fairstein, who has also parlayed her intimate knowledge of criminal justice system into a best-selling series of novels, says her original idea was to simply be a consultant for the show behind the scenes. “I didn’t think, at my age, I would be the person on camera,” she says.
Friedman had other ideas. “I had seen Linda speak on these issue, and like all Vassar grads, she was passionate about her opinions,” he says.“She is a necessary part of this conversation.”
Once he got her on camera, Friedman knew he was right. “She’s a natural,” he says. “What usually requires three takes, Linda does in one. A lot of so-called ‘unscripted’ shows really have a script. This one brings you inside Linda’s head, and you get to hear things about a case you don’t always hear in the courtroom.”
Fairstein and Friedman both say they hope the show will further the conversation about the burgeoning “Me Too,” movement. “I thought something like this would emerge with the Anita Hill case, Fairstein says. (Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991.) “But I’m happy to see that recent events have caused a real turning point, and it makes me enormously proud of the men and women in my unit and in the New York Police Department who first developed the methods to deal with these issues.”
Friedman agreed. “Look what Linda and her staff did; they got tangible results,” he says, adding he doesn’t think it’s an accident that two Vassar grads are advancing the conversation around combating abuse against women. “This collaboration isn’t just luck,” he says. “I feel proud to join other Vassar folks in the entertainment industry—Meryl Streep and Gerry Laybourne and Lisa Kudrow—who have done so much to foster this change.”