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The Most Gullible Man In Cambridge
The Most Gullible Man In Cambridge

A Harvard Law professor who teaches a class on judgment wouldn’t seem like an obvious mark, would he?

Kera Bolonik
IT WAS JUST SUPPOSED TO have been a quick Saturday-morning errand to buy picture hooks. On March 7, 2015, Harvard Law professor Bruce Hay, then 52, was in Tags Hardware in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near his home, when a young woman with long reddish-brown hair approached him to ask where she could find batteries. It was still very much winter, and, once the woman got his attention, he saw that underneath her dark woolen coat and perfectly tied scarf she was wearing a dress and a chic pair of boots—hardly typical weekend-errand attire in the New England college town. When he directed her to another part of the store, she changed the subject. “By the way, you’re very attractive,” he remembers her saying.

“Sorry, I’m married,” he responded impulsively. It wasn’t exactly true—Hay has been legally divorced since 1999, but he lives with his ex-wife, Jennifer Zacks, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston, and their two young children. The woman quickly apologized, Hay recalls. “I didn’t mean to bother you,” she said. “I’m just here on business for a few days. I don’t really know anybody.”

Hay, a Francophile, noticed the woman had a French-sounding accent, and he asked if she spoke the language. She told him her name was Maria-Pia Shuman, that she was born in France but her father was the American songwriter Mort Shuman, and that she was in town from Paris, en route to New York.

Shuman gave Hay her email address. The professor wasn’t accustomed to picking up women in random places, let alone getting picked up by them; he was intrigued. Since moving back in with his ex-wife in 2004, he says, their relationship had been mostly platonic, and the two had an understanding that if either of them wanted to see other people, they’d have to move out. But casual flings, he believed, fell under a tacit don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.

By email, Hay and Shuman arranged to have coffee that afternoon, where they bonded over losing parents too young: His mother had died from breast cancer when she was 54; her father, whose prolific catalogue includes “Save the Last Dance” and “Viva Las Vegas,” had died from liver cancer in 1991, at 52, when Shuman was 8 years old.

She was now 32, an accountant with young children. Hay says she told him she had two toddlers she was co-parenting with an ex-wife, who lived in London. File under friendship, Hay thought. Shuman also told him about the friend she was staying with, Mischa Haider, a brilliant trans woman pursuing a doctorate in physics at Harvard who was struggling with crippling depression. Hay, who also battled depression, listened with particular interest.

After a couple of hours, Shuman said, “I’ve really enjoyed this, but I have to leave town in a couple of days. I hope we can see each other before then.” They went to dinner that night and again the next. At the end of the second evening, Shuman asked him to join her for breakfast the following morning. “I was smitten,” Hay says. “I wasn’t sure what the Maria-Pia thing was going to be. That’s the truthful answer, because one of the first things out of her mouth was that she had just divorced a woman in England.”

He didn’t mind that a physical relationship was probably off the table—he was taking antidepressants, which often hampered his ability to enjoy sex anyway. Then, on the day Shuman told him she was leaving for New York on her way back to Europe, Hay says, she invited him to her room at the Taj Hotel in Boston, started kissing him, and led him to her bed.

Hay drove Shuman to the airport early that evening. For the next few weeks, as she traveled to London and Paris, she called and texted him daily—102 calls that month, according to phone records. A few times, he asked if she would FaceTime or Skype with him, but she refused.

He found her resistance strange, but he didn’t press the issue. By this point, she had begun declaring her love for him. “She told me that she never got involved with men and I was this big exception,” he says. It seemed odd that she would express such feelings for him after only a few days together, but while he dismissed her intensity as the folly of youth, there was a part of him that entertained the possibility that she was serious. Why not be open to it? he wondered. It had been years since he’d felt such a profound connection.

A few weeks later, she texted to say she was returning to Cambridge and wanted to see him. They met the next day at the Sheraton Commander and had sex. Almost as soon as it was over, Shuman’s mood shifted. She became dour, then angry, telling him she couldn’t abide his keeping their relationship a secret, nor what he says she referred to as his “continued attachment” to Zacks. She demanded he leave her. Hay was confounded. He wasn’t about to leave his partner of 28 years for a woman he’d slept with twice. He got dressed and left.

Later that day, Shuman contacted him to say she was open to discussing pursuing a relationship. When Hay demurred, she told him, in that case, she didn’t see any point in staying in touch.

But they would stay in touch. Over the next four years, the law professor would be drawn into a “campaign of fraud, extortion, and false accusations,” as one of his lawyers would later say in legal proceedings. At one point, Hay’s family would be left suddenly homeless. At another, owing to what his lawyer has described as the “weaponiz[ation] of the university’s Title IX machinery against Hay,” he would find himself indefinitely suspended from his job. He would accrue over $300,000 in legal bills with no end to the litigation in sight. “Maria-Pia and Mischa want money,” Hay told me last summer, “but only for the sake of squeezing it out of people—it’s the exertion of power.”

WHETHER SHUMAN KNEW it when she met him, she’d found the perfect mark in Bruce Hay, an authority on civil procedure who’d spent much of his life in the ivory tower. A child of two esteemed professors who divorced when he was 5, Hay had earned his degree from Harvard Law School and, though he leans left politically, briefly clerked for Antonin Scalia. Hay joined the Harvard Law faculty in 1992; his former students describe him as a dynamic Socratic professor who commands a classroom but can nevertheless be painfully awkward in social situations. A close friend calls him the “quintessential absent-minded professor” who tends to lose things (phones, laptops) and to miss social cues.

Hay, who is compact and wiry and bears a passing resemblance to George Stephanopoulos, has a tight-knit circle of friends, many of whom are women, and though their relationships are nonsexual, the intensity, he tells me, has been a continual source of conflict with Zacks. “Jennifer says my women friends always have ulterior motives, and my response has been that my best friends have been women for my entire adult life,” he says.

He and Zacks first met at Harvard Law in 1987. They married two years later and had a son before separating in the mid-’90s. After Hay moved back in, they had two more children together. “Jennifer and I are the opposite—she’s very skeptical. And I’m very gullible,” he says. When we met for pizza at his Sunday-night hangout one evening, he wondered aloud whether he might be “on the spectrum.”

That could help explain why warning signs that might have been obvious to many managed to elude a man who teaches a Harvard Law class on “Judgment and Decision-Making,” which analyzes those elements of human nature that allow us to delude ourselves and make terrible decisions. “Of course, now I feel slightly ridiculous teaching it,” Hay told me, “given how easily I let myself be taken advantage of.”

SIX WEEKS after they broke off contact, Shuman called Hay to tell him she was pregnant with his baby. She hadn’t had sex with another man in the past year, she said. Hay was stunned; he hadn’t ejaculated during either of their encounters, a side effect of his medication. But he understood that pregnancy was possible, if rare, without orgasm. Shuman said she was weighing whether to terminate the pregnancy, then quickly followed up by saying she’d made the decision to carry to term—she was due in January.

Hay says she didn’t bring up money, which didn’t surprise him because she’d told him she owned two properties in Paris that were worth millions, and later she would tell him that her share of the Mort Shuman Songs partnership was worth some $25 million. He was more surprised when he learned that Shuman would be relocating to Cambridge that summer. She told him in June that she had purchased a three-bedroom mansard Victorian, now valued at $1.9 million, on a small side street in the Radcliffe neighborhood less than a half-mile from his house, and had brought her children over from London. She wouldn’t be able to move in until October, so she and her kids would be staying in an apartment she owned on Massachusetts Avenue, where her graduate-student friend Haider had been living with her longtime boyfriend, Andrew Klein, who was moving out.

“Maria-Pia made it sound as though she had scarcely ever been to Cambridge,” he says. “She said she didn’t know the area very well and didn’t really know anyone.” Shuman explained that she’d purchased the apartment as an investment and as a place for Haider to live while she finished her graduate work. She and Haider, she told Hay, had been best friends since they met as physics students their first year at Imperial College in London. In a later conversation that summer, Shuman revealed that she and Haider were raising the children together.

The unfolding revelations did little to put off Hay, who says he was determined to “take full responsibility for my actions.” Throughout the summer of 2015, Hay says, he and Shuman got together once or twice a week for coffee or a meal and discussed rekindling their romance. But she told him it was contingent on his telling Zacks about their affair and the baby, which he wasn’t yet willing to do.

They hadn’t been sexually involved since their encounter at the Sheraton Commander in April, but Shuman could be effusive, telling him repeatedly how much she loved him. Other times, their exchanges were tense. In one email, Shuman chastised him for not making himself available to see her. “I made arrangements with my nanny at the last minute to help with the children so I could come see you, and then called you several times in your office with no response,” she wrote. “You should be the one providing support to me, not mistreating me and piling further stress onto me. Today was the last time that I am going to pander to your tantrums.”

Haider often loomed large in their conversations. Even as Shuman demanded more of Hay’s time, she was cagey about letting Hay meet the woman she called her “soul sister.” When Hay asked about her, he says, Shuman responded that Haider was depressed and wasn’t up for meeting new people. Two months before the baby was due, Shuman finally arranged for Hay and Haider to meet at a diner in Watertown.

Shuman had told him that Haider was weary of her physics program and wanted to get more involved in trans activism and write about trans issues. “I thought, Maybe I could help?,” recalls Hay. “She had been described to me as this very exceptional person but downtrodden, treated unfairly by her family and by the world. By her body. By the time I met Mischa, I had a protective feeling for her.”

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July 22 - August 4, 2019