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John J. Jerome

SALISBURY — John J. Jerome, a fifth-generation New Yorker, was a long-serving partner of the international law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, where he founded its financial restructuring practice. Jerome was a key architect of modern restructuring legal practice, helping to transform the specialty from a boutique practice to a cornerstone of Big Law.  He is acknowledged as a “true dean” of the bankruptcy bar. 

He died peacefully on March 2, 2021, at his Connecticut home with his family.  He was 88. He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Maureen M. Jerome; his daughters, Dr. Mairin Jerome and Emily Jerome and her husband, Lorenz Schmidl; and from a prior marriage, Christopher Jerome and Jennifer Jerome Jeffers, her husband Ian Jeffers, and their three children, Kate, Nick and Jack Jeffers.  He is also survived by his sister, Miriam Bottinick and her grandchildren, Kristen Chozick and Abby Pell; as well as his niece, Jeannie O’Neill.

Mr. Jerome was an active participant in numerous bar organizations, including the International Insolvency Institute, and an emeritus member of the National Bankruptcy Conference, an elite group of judges, scholars and practicing attorneys who advise Congress on bankruptcy legislation. He was an experienced and resourceful negotiator. In 2003 then-Senator Joe Biden recommended John to the State Department to re-negotiate Iraq’s external debt.  In a letter to the Senate, President Biden wrote, “Given his background as a lawyer with extensive experience in financial restructuring, bankruptcy and liquidations, I am convinced Mr. Jerome could be of tremendous assistance to the coalition’s efforts to revitalize Iraq’s financial sector.” 

Jerome was a critical part of the internal reorganizing of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy: “The practice was changing in the 1990s [and] client loyalty was changing, we were into the era of competition,” said Alexander Forger, former Chair of Milbank, in the American Lawyer in October 1996.  Forger promoted several new ideas to the conservative law firm and placed bankruptcy rainmaker John Jerome in charge of encouraging one department’s clients to use other Milbank departments for their legal needs.  

Jerome helped steer the Chase Manhattan Bank through some of the most difficult corporate reorganizations of the day. He also represented United States Lines, then the largest shipping company in the United States, in its complex chapter 11 case. He had major roles in the Johns Manville case and the contentious bankruptcy of embattled investment bank Drexel, Burnham and Lambert.  According to John’s former colleague, Alan Kornberg, Mr. Jerome “revolutionized the way large corporations and their creditors rescue companies facing financial collapse.  John’s boundless creativity and his ability to analyze complex problems in unconventional ways enabled him to propose solutions that were often stunningly original. His unique talents and courtly manner in and out of the courtroom made him a notable presence and inspired countless restructuring lawyers who followed in his footsteps.” 

In the tapestry of a rich life, Jerome’s golden thread was the law. After retiring from Milbank, Jerome remained active in restructurings, domestic and international. As recalled by Bucksbaum family members, “John played a pivotal role in the 2009 General Growth Properties (GGP) bankruptcy.   As lead counsel to the GGP Equity Committee, John guided the equity holders to emerge from the proceedings with the greatest retained equity value in the history of bankruptcy.  Initially, through his friendship with Melva Bucksbaum, John took up the cause on behalf of the Bucksbaum family and all other pre-bankruptcy equity holders. He achieved unparalleled results in a case he perceived to be a terrible credit injustice during a time of unprecedented financial disruption.”

In a rare move, Jerome then joined Sullivan & Cromwell, where he served as senior counsel. Rodgin Cohen, Senior Chair of Sullivan & Cromwell, recently said, “Around 2012 we had a fledgling Bankruptcy department. I became aware that John Jerome might be interested in joining Sullivan & Cromwell, which solved our problem of creating a successful and viable bankruptcy practice. I spoke to Joe Shenker, Chair of the firm, who also knew John’s reputation and skill set, which were extraordinary. John Jerome had a voice that people listened to because his solutions to complex problems were so creative.” At Sullivan, together with practice leader Andrew Dietderich, Jerome played a leading role in the reorganization of Eastman Kodak and other companies.  Retiring from Sullivan in 2015, John remained active until 2017 as a mediator and as a member of the Appellate Division, First Department, Disciplinary Committee. 

Outside of the bankruptcy arena, Jerome fought tirelessly for the rights of artists whom he believed were vulnerable to exploitation. Among the most notable was his life-long best friend, the seminal American artist Donald Judd. Jerome was the legal architect and mastermind behind the creation of the Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation.

This was deeply personal to Jerome, who came from a long line of artists himself. His maternal great-grandfather, Luciano Conterno, was a musical prodigy who began his career at the age of 5, in 1844, when he played a flageolet solo at a concert given before King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont. Luciano went on to serve at the age of 9 in his father’s band aboard the Japanese Expedition with the US Navy, commanded by Commodore M.C. Perry. He eventually become the bandmaster of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Luciano’s son, John’s maternal grandfather, Dr. G.E. Conterno, was a professor of music at West Point, a master of several instruments and a prolific opera composer.  In the winter of 1879, he performed at the English Opera in New York.  He became a composer at the age of 17. President Arthur commissioned his work to be performed at the opening celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge on May 24, 1883. 

Jerome channeled his creative heritage by protecting artists. Donald Judd’s daughter, Rainer Judd, wrote with the news of Jerome’s passing, “John was Don’s best friend, lawyer and protector to the last minute and beyond. John’s hard nose negotiations defended and made possible Don’s ideas. He championed the right of an artist to defend his work by making permanent installations independent from status-quo institutions.” 

Jerome represented Judd when he entered into discussions with Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil, for what was then known as the “Marfa Project.” He insisted that Judd have a written agreement in place. As Don would later claim, “I had the contract, and the contract said ‘in perpetuity,’ which is forever.  The contract was absolutely clear — it was drawn up by my friend John Jerome of Milbank, Tweed in New York, and it saved the day.” Due to John’s efforts, Don was the only artist in the DIA group, which included Dan Flavin, Bob Whitman, Lamont Young, Walter de Maria and John Chamberlin, among others, who had an enforceable agreement with the foundation — one that protected the art that had been made with DIA’s support from being sold. John counseled Don and protected his work and vision throughout his life, formulating legal plans and asset transfers for what is now known as “The Chinati Foundation” and the “The Judd Foundation.” 

John and Don had a deep personal friendship. Both were ferocious intellectuals, yet they were private men with compassionate hearts who devoted time to helping others. Quite fittingly, they met in their 20s when teaching at the Police Athletic League, an organization run by the New York City Police Department designed to help disadvantaged youth by providing a cultural and athletic outlet.  Don taught arts and crafts, while John taught boxing and ran the pool table. 

In the Korean War, Jerome served with the Eighth Army’s Psy-war division — a small unit devoted to psychological warfare through propaganda. Before departing to Korea, Jerome was stationed in the American South, where he ran a radio station at an Army hospital. Deeply opposed to the segregation and racism he encountered there, he blasted black gospel music over the loudspeakers. This was not a welcome act, and shortly after, Jerome was sent overseas to Korea. There, he took over a radio station, which until that time broadcasted crass gossip about the enemy into their territory. Jerome instead took the opportunity to create radio programs that juxtaposed fairly run American legal cases with corrupt versions in North Korea. He broke down the cases and ran them as parallel narratives, aiming to elucidate the benefits of justice under a democracy. After PSY-OPS, Jerome served in the United Nations Civil Assistance Corps Korea (UNCACK), a United Nations military agency devoted to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Republic of Korea. UNCACK provided major humanitarian assistance to the ROK during the war. 

A true patriot, John was forever engaged in and plagued by the complexities of America, and uniquely attuned to the stark realities of war.  During the Vietnam War, he served as a lawyer observer to protect the rights of anti-war protesters. In May 1970, Jerome spearheaded a meeting with eight other Wall Street lawyers in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Congressman John J. Rooney, Democrat from Brooklyn— a Korean veteran who was an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee, and a strong supporter of Vietnam policies. The meeting was designed to convince Rooney to introduce a resolution to cut off funds for U.S. military forces in Cambodia unless both houses of Congress approved. The New York Post quoted Jerome in the meeting as deeply concerned over “the enormous waste of billions of tax dollars, the lives of thousands of American men, as well as those of innocent women and children — but most importantly, the division, the discord, the polarization in our own country which is really unparalleled since the civil war.”  According to the Post, Rooney, fed up with “peaceniks” whom he saw as hysterical, saw this group of clean-cut Wall Street men with “ability” in a different light. Jerome continued, “I hope 10-15 years from now, my 7-year-old son won’t be sitting in some logistical enclave in danger of mortars and artillery.”  Rooney reportedly paused and then responded, “You know … I have four little grandsons.” And with that, a super hawk turned dove. Rooney introduced the resolution, in which he proposed the cut-off of funds 30 days after the enactment of his proposal, along the lines of the Cooper-Church Amendment, “in order to avoid the involvement of the United States in wider war in Indochina and expedite the withdrawal of United States Forces from South Vietnam.” Later that year, all the lawyers at the meeting were audited by the IRS. 

John dearly loved his family and  the practice of law. He was a great athlete, who boxed, swam, played tennis and had a deep passion for skiing because it made him feel like a bird.  In his 80s, John paraglided and skied double-black diamond runs in Aspen. Perhaps his greatest passion was reading.  He adored history of any kind but especially American history, constitutional history, the World Wars, Greek philosophy and science. He loved to swim at his pool in Connecticut, with a snorkel, contemplating man’s minute existence in the universe. Before he died, he said to his family, “I have no regrets. I love my family, I love the law, and I helped a lot of people. Time to say so long.”  He raised the bar with his ferocity of commitment to everything he loved and cared about. A fighter to his core, his greatest strength was his heart. 

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