Finch reeled in Beyer’s love just when Beyer needed it. She invited Beyer to come stay at her house in California—a beautiful spread she’d seen pictures of in their room at the treatment center. It was just the escape Beyer needed. The house was in Ojai, the most heavenly place she’d ever seen. There was a big gate at the entrance, a gorgeous sprawling yard with orange trees, and a swimming pool. Beyer wondered how she could afford it all. Finch told her that it was Anna Paquin’s house (that much was true), but that she owned part of it. (Finch does not own part of Paquin’s house, a source confirms, nor does Paquin have anything to do with Finch’s kidneys.) There were a couple of black cars out on the street. Finch claimed it was security, a luxury she had at all times. The pair spent the weekend cooking, swimming, lounging, laughing, and falling in love. They took dozens of selfies of their love. Wouldn’t it be great to make a slideshow and send it to Carly to show her how happy we are? suggested Finch, who talked a lot about Carly that week. And later, she did send it. “The joy I felt that weekend was incredible,” Beyer recalls.
In January 2019, Jennifer Beyer, a registered nurse from Kansas, arrived at an Arizona mental health treatment center believing she’d never get to see her five kids alone again. She was suffering severe PTSD from all she’d been through in her 18-year marriage. No one understood what she knew, but couldn’t articulate for so long: that Brendan was an abuser and master gaslighter—in the original sense of the word. In their small, liberal community in Topeka, most people saw him as a doting father with the right values. While she worked at the hospital—“the best nurse I ever worked with,” says a former colleague—he was a member of the grassroots advocacy group Indivisible, and was often picketing with the kids in tow. But behind closed doors, he controlled Jennifer’s every movement, she says, and was physically and sexually violent. At his insistence, she explained away her bruises and broken bones as the results of falls in the shower or down the stairs. When she let onto others the truth about his behavior, they couldn’t believe it. His line was that she was mentally ill, suffering from postpartum depression, and she was making it all up. He told her that if she revealed the truth “she wouldn’t make it.” Fearing for her life, she took out a protection order against him, and filed for divorce. This forced him out of the house, but he moved nearby and made sure she knew he was watching her.
All of that led to the haunting incident that brought her to the Arizona treatment center. She began having dissociative episodes—breaks from one’s reality and surroundings. On December 27, 2018, a date that’s etched into her brain, she was driving her car with two of her young sons strapped in in the back. Then suddenly, without realizing it, she pulled the car over, opened the door, and walked some distance. A few minutes later she came to, and panic jolted through her. “Where are my kids?!” Hysterical, she immediately called the police, who were sympathetic. Within minutes, the kids were located and she was reunited with them. The next day, she was called into the Office of Child Protective Service (CPS). Believing she was safe, she shared what had happened. But afterward, she was informed that CPS was charging her with child abandonment. She was psychotic, Brendan told people, and now there was evidence. With a divorce proceeding looming, and everything on the line, she entered a mental health facility to prove she was sane and a fit mother.
The woman sitting across from me in a Topeka coffee shop on a rainy March day is extremely fragile, soft-spoken. There’s a service dog at her feet to help her with continued PTSD. As she gets going, though, she seems the antithesis of what Brendan tried to paint her as to the outside world. She’s warm, articulate, and emotionally intelligent. Which is part of the reason she’s scared to tell her story—she’s scared of repercussions, scared of appearing so gullible to the world. But it’s also why she knows she has to. She wants to make sure that the person who targeted her can never do that to somebody else—and that person wasn’t Brendan.
The Jennifer Beyer who entered treatment is a far cry from the Jennifer Beyer of today. Then, she was unable to function—a walking live wire. She couldn’t sit with anyone or make eye contact. The mere sound of a door scared her, a sudden noise would send a flash of panic through her body. In her small therapeutic “process group,” she was unable to talk about everything that had happened. Beyer was afraid of what this meant—maybe she really was hopelessly crazy.
The therapists, particularly one named Carly, started to grasp what had happened to her. According to Beyer, Carly could see this was PTSD with dissociative episodes, and she was determined to do whatever it took to bring Beyer back to health, even if it took months. Disturbing news from home didn’t help. Brendan had been arrested and had torn up an emergency room. The kids were sent to a foster home, but after a few days, they would have to split up. They ended up with Brendan’s mother.
About six months into Beyer’s stay, a new resident arrived named Jo, and became part of Beyer’s process group. Jo—the first name of a Grey’s Anatomy character that Elisabeth Finch was researching—was also suffering PTSD after a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, she said. Her friend was one of the victims, she explained, and in accordance with Jewish tradition, Jo had helped clean up the body from the synagogue floor. To Beyer, the signs of Jo’s PTSD started to seem exactly like her own. Jo had to sit alone when in a big group. Jo, too, was unable to make eye contact or sit by doors, couldn’t deal with sudden noises, and struggled to talk about the details of her trauma. The similarity gave Beyer comfort. After all, if someone like Jo—who had told people she was a professional writer and who didn’t seem insane—was having the same challenges, maybe Beyer wasn’t crazy after all. The two women started talking. And talking. For the first time ever, therapists saw Beyer laugh, she recalls. Jo suggested they become roommates. It was not the norm for two people in the same process group to become roommates, but the staff could see how beneficial Jo’s friendship was to Beyer’s healing. As they grew closer, Beyer noticed that as the trauma from Pittsburgh receded, another one was coming into view for Jo—that her brother, Eric, had been cruel and violent to her as a child, something she had never grappled with until now. It was another similarity—Beyer had Brendan, Jo had Eric—and it brought them closer. (In response to detailed questions for Finch regarding information from multiple sources, her attorney Andrew Brettler contended that not all of Beyer’s claims were true, and asserted that Beyer was neither “reliable” nor “unbiased” because the two women are in the midst of a “highly contentious divorce.”)
Family weekend was approaching, and Jo’s parents planned to come visit. Two of Finch’s compartments were about to meet for the first time—it would take some tap-dancing. First, Jo needed to explain the whole name thing. She revealed to Beyer she was an important writer on Grey’s Anatomy and that she was using a pseudonym so that word didn’t get out. Jo said she had given the same explanation to her parents before their arrival, and asked that they address her as Jo, not Elisabeth. In the first meeting, when Jo went on about Eric’s cruelty during childhood, Joan and Robert listened, bewildered, Beyer recalls. Sure, there were sibling fights, but they had not witnessed any of the suffering she was describing. Still, Joan was placating to Finch’s perception of her childhood. The next day, Joan opened up about how much she had worried about her daughter over the years—about the cancer, how she would have wanted to be there for her.
It was the first time anyone in treatment, including Beyer, had heard about it. Finch replied that yes, she was living with cancer, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Beyer respected that. Just like Beyer, Jo was living with enormous pain.
Carly, as a matter of course, had been in possession of Beyer’s phone and had been receiving all kinds of angry, obsessive texts from Brendan. If a message seemed pertinent, Carly would sit with Beyer and read it to her, something Jo seemed to find interesting, Beyer says. Now a video came in, of Brendan saying, “I’m coming to get you.” Beyer met with the head of security. The staff arranged to have increased security around the facility. And then, in another remarkable coincidence, Finch claimed that Eric was closing in on her. Her parents had left a family photo album upon their departure. As Finch told it, she was just flipping through it, and inside she found a handwritten letter composed by him, threatening her. Beyer saw Finch holding this letter, but she didn’t ask to hear the details. There was only so much fear of men Beyer could handle. (Eric Finch and his parents did not respond to Vanity Fair.)
By early July 2019, both women were ready to leave the center and head back to their respective towns. The staff had been in the process of helping Beyer obtain a service dog, to help her keep present when she was having episodes. The dog was expensive. Finch interceded and asked Carly if she could pay for it. Beyer was deeply moved by this parting gesture. It solidified a profound connection. The women had an emotional farewell. They made plans to keep in touch—to not let their friendship die.
Finch returned to Hollywood and began filling in the contours of her newly recovered trauma. To a friend, she elaborated on the menacing letter found in the photo album, which had said, “Keep Your Mouth Shut.” She added a specific, ugly detail about Eric’s abuse—a detail that was identical to something Beyer had confided that Brendan had done to her when they were married.
Meanwhile, Beyer returned to Topeka and oh, how she missed Jo, the name she continued using for her friend. She moved into a shelter, unable to see her kids except for one hour a week under supervision, and faced numerous in-person court dates with Brendan, the thought of which terrified her. Brendan continued taunting her. He now posted pictures on social media of random spots near the shelter, signaling that he knew where she was.
When Beyer returned to Kansas and the shelter, Finch love-bombed her with texts and sentimental gifts, including a purple stuffed kidney. As they talked about the future, Finch underlined the importance of honesty, writing in a text that channeled Shakespeare: “My expectations are and always will be this: don’t lie to me. That’s all I ask…It can annoy us or bum us out even hurt us. But the Truth Will Out. Always.” After Brendan, Beyer was scared of getting close to someone again. These were the exact words she needed to hear.
Finch’s love fortified Beyer as she faced her demons. In preparation for the first court date, Finch came out to Kansas for emotional support. She stayed in the Cyrus Hotel, Topeka’s nicest, where the lovers’ relationship flourished. On the day, Beyer entered the courthouse, accompanied by Finch and a couple of close friends. She was terrified to see Brendan, and there he was. He got in Beyer’s face, repeating in an urgent monotone, “I need to talk to my wife. I need to talk to my wife.” Finch physically got between them and told him to back off. “You need to go.” Finch seemed so fearless, so in charge. Beyer’s friends were completely bowled over. Beyer was so lucky to have this woman in her life, they thought—this tough, famous Hollywood writer, who was willing to come all the way here to support the woman she loved. As a friend recalls, after all she had been through with Brendan, “We felt like Jenn deserved something good.”
September 5, 2019. Another court date with Brendan was approaching, and Beyer needed the hit of support that only Finch could provide. Beyer flew to Los Angeles and was being driven to the Grey’s Anatomy production office, when she got a phone call from the Kansas Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Topeka. She was told to return to Kansas immediately. Your husband has killed himself. Your kids are safe. Hysterical, she texted Finch with the news. When the car pulled up to the Grey’s Anatomy building, Finch came running out, hugged her, and then quickly ushered her into her private office before she could interact with anyone. Once inside her office, Finch got Carly on the phone. Meanwhile, Finch bustled around the office, telling people an emergency had come up and she needed two tickets back to Kansas, immediately. Finch returned to Kansas with Beyer, and stayed while Beyer processed the news with her children. Finch was meeting them for the first time. Brendan had trashed every inch of the house, which Beyer would soon be moving back into.
Two weeks after the suicide, still in Topeka, Finch—unbeknownst to Beyer—wrote the following email to the writing staff at Grey’s Anatomy:
I’ve been absent and coming back tomorrow…I just don’t know who’s looped into what and I’d rather put it out there so no one is in the dark or feeling egg-shelly. I’ve gone bc my brother died by suicide. He was on life support for a short while but ultimately did not survive. I say this not bc I need or want anything from anyone, I’m not a delicate flower or whatever, I just want people to know I’m still here, still part of the team. (I intended to just power through my episode shoot, but I recognized I needed to just take a bit of time away to process.) …Missed y’all.
She later elaborated to her Grey’s Anatomy friends that because Eric was a doctor, he knew exactly how to shoot himself without killing himself, forcing her to be the one to pull the plug. It was his final act of vindictiveness—like trashing a house. “We cried with her,” one recalls.
Finch was now fully committed to two divergent realities—one with her girlfriend and another with her Grey’s Anatomy family. Keeping both realities intact required a bold sleight of hand. Shortly after Brendan’s suicide, Finch took Beyer on a trip to Hawaii, where they stayed at the fanciest hotel she’d ever seen. Finch told Beyer it was a work trip. Meanwhile, she told work she was going to Hawaii because she had to reunite her dead brother’s illegitimate Filipino baby with the baby’s mother in Hawaii.
Back in the Beyer reality, Finch’s brother was very much alive—but dangerous. On one visit to Finch’s apartment in Santa Monica, the women entered to find a pigsty, strewn with empty alcohol bottles. Beyer was upset—she had made clear to Finch that she hated alcohol, that the smell of it was triggering for her. Finch came up with a quick explanation: Eric must have broken in and trashed the place. At this point, Beyer panicked about their romantic involvement. Getting her kids back was her number one goal. After Brendan, she couldn’t afford to be with a person who had someone so dangerous in her life. Sometime later, Finch assured her that everything was going to be okay. Eric had gone to the Philippines, and per a legal order, he could not return without her being notified. Beyer accepted this explanation and went on. After all, she needed Finchie, and Finchie loved her.
Then, Finch, in a curious move, brought her worlds together. In November 2019, Finch was to receive a Sentinel Award—an award for television that educates viewers to make safer choices for their lives—for her first Jo episode, “Silent All These Years,” and she invited Beyer to come out. Beyer was reluctant—a red-carpet Hollywood awards thing was beyond intimidating. But Finch said she wanted her to have a dazzling evening and to get all pretty. She bought Beyer heels and took her to the hairdresser, a friend let her borrow a dress. On the way into the event, Finch led the way. Beyer noted how she breezed them in quickly, so quickly they didn’t talk to anyone, and went straight to their seats. On their way home, they shared a car with Debbie Allen, who sat between them. Finch breathlessly controlled the conversation, asking Beyer to show Allen pictures of her children and their talents. The television star oohed and aahed over them—a surreal moment for Beyer.
Later that month in Kansas, in preparation for the kids coming out of foster care, Beyer led the cleanup of her house Brendan had trashed. The act had become a ceremonial, communal affair. A dumpster was delivered. Many people, including nurses from the hospital, helped fix doors and faucets, and scrubbed every inch. Finch, in her yellow rubber gloves, took a starring role. A friend had brought a chain saw, which Beyer used to cut up her bed, the site of marital rape. Finch took the video of it all, which they discussed sending to Carly. Like that day in court, Beyer’s friends couldn’t believe how generous Finch had been to fly in from Hollywood like that…especially after she told them that she was missing the Emmys that night, and she had been nominated for one. An Emmy? They all knew this was a huge deal, although no one bothered to check the internet—the Emmys had already taken place two months earlier. Beyer’s daughter, her oldest child, was so touched that she made up an Emmy victory dance for Finchie in front of the dumpster. As one Kansas friend who was there posted on Facebook, “The more I get to know [Finchie], the more I realize she is actually a superhero masquerading as a regular person.”
In February 2014, television writer Elisabeth Finch wrote about her diagnosis of chondrosarcoma, a rare and usually fatal form of bone cancer, in an Elle magazine article that seemed tailor-made for TV.
Not only did the writer have a harrowing personal story—currency in Hollywood—her dialogue had a dramatic punch: “[The doctor] said, ‘There’s something we need to discuss.’ Chondrosarcoma… ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, especially in someone your age…Nothing about this is going to be easy.’” Finch was a feisty Woman in a Man’s World, and she channeled the doctor-nicknaming conventions of a certain hit medical TV show: “When I defied Dr. Cryptic’s orders to take an indefinite leave of absence from work—he thought chemo deserved my sole attention—he doubted my commitment to getting well.” And when it came to work—she was a writer on The Vampire Diaries—she was unstoppable: “I watched the producers’ cuts under a fog of Demerol, punched up dialogue about vampire-werewolf hybrids with a shunt in my spine. Yes, I was down 17 pounds, bald, vomiting relentlessly, but I was still living alone. Still stubborn as hell.”
Shortly after the article’s publication, a development executive at Shondaland, the production company of writer-producer powerhouse Shonda Rhimes, presented the writer to the showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy, then in its 10th season, as a potential hire. Finch soon met with Rhimes herself. Everyone involved had been impressed with the Elle article. At the end of the meeting, Rhimes offered the young woman her dream job.
Less than five years later, a version of Finch’s cancer story was beamed around the world to millions of Grey’s Anatomy viewers. “Anybody Have a Map?” is one of 13 episodes that Finch wrote, and one of 172 that she produced. The setting is an upscale bar. Dr. Tom Koracick, the cocksure star surgeon played by Greg Germann, has just learned the likely diagnosis of his friend and fellow surgeon Catherine Avery, played by the fabulous Debbie Allen, Finch’s avatar. “Chondro is a beast,” he tells her, referring to chondrosarcoma. We know it’s deadly serious, because he’s dropped his jocular shtick. “Doesn’t respond to chemo. So if you’re lucky, and it’s a big ‘if,’ we may be able to cut it out without—”
The pressure is on Tom. Yes, he’s the best there is. But, as he later confides to Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) out on a street corner, “I have no idea how to remove it without killing or paralyzing her.”
Elisabeth as Debbie as Catherine isn’t having it. She tells them to get their asses in gear to save her, and delivers a speech about her tenacity. “I survived losing my mother before I could even get to know her. And my father who dropped dead on his way to church when I was 18 years old. I raised my sisters alone, no help, no money. I have survived racism, sexism, every -ism designed to make me feel small and make me less. If I can do all of that. If I can survive all of that? Then I just might survive this too. But I can’t do this on my own. So I need you to figure it out. Fast. Excuse me, I have to go call my husband.”
Moments later, there’s a wrap-up kernel of wisdom, spoken in voiceover by her husband Dr. Webber, played by James Pickens Jr.: “The problem with all the how-to, step-by-step books—they don’t take into account the exceptions to the rules. They never leave room for the outliers. The geniuses, the miracles.”
Everyone in Finchie’s world, as they called her, believed she was that miracle. Not only was chondrosarcoma unheard of in someone her age, but she was, incredibly, living with it, since 2012. In fact, she was the only one in her clinical trial who survived. She showed up so bravely to the Grey’s Anatomy writers room, a scarf over her bald head. And she so inspired everyone around her that they did whatever they could to support. Her bosses gave her all the time off she needed to participate in her maintenance chemo and clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Friends there drove her to and from appointments. When cancer story lines came up on the show, Finch led the way—she was the expert. And she even chronicled her experience with chondrosarcoma on the side—in Elle and The Hollywood Reporter, and on Shondaland.com, to promote her episodes. She wasn’t one to draw attention to herself, no. Cancer, alas, had become her brand.
Other terrible things seemed to befall Finch, some of which she chronicled for the world, some of which she talked about in select company. Against all medical odds due to her cancer treatments, she became pregnant. She faced the awful dilemma of aborting the fetus or dying if she wanted to carry it, because she’d have to cease treatment; she chose to have an abortion. There was the kidney transplant she needed, due to something cancer-related. A dear friend was killed in the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, where Finch went to college, and she helped to clean the friend’s remains off the floor—the FBI allowed it. Her brother, Finch was realizing in midlife, had abused her many years ago. Then, he took his own life. Well, not quite. He was so vindictive that he was intentionally unsuccessful, and Finchie was the one who had to pull the plug. She was the Job of the Disney lot.
Then, in February of this year, just as Rhimes was dropping the splashy first release she created under her Netflix deal, Inventing Anna, about con artist Anna Delvey, she received an email on her private account. It was from an unlikely sender—Jennifer Beyer, a struggling mother of five from Kansas and a registered nurse who had married Finch in 2020 though they were by now estranged. And its message was not just unlikely, but unthinkable: Finch, Beyer wrote, had been telling stories and it was time to stop believing her.
Rhimes knew of Beyer; she had even advised Finch about matters concerning the couple’s future together and Beyer’s kids. But this time, Rhimes did not respond…and did not respond. If what Beyer was saying was true, Rhimes—and all of Shondaland—had been Delvey’ed. As had Finch’s friends and family members. Only she wasn’t stealing people’s money. She was taking their empathy and tears, as well as other people’s personal traumas, which she would call her own. (In response to detailed questions for Finch regarding information from multiple sources, her attorney Andrew Brettler contended that not all of Beyer’s claims were true, and asserted that Beyer was neither “reliable” nor “unbiased” because the two women are in the midst of a “highly contentious divorce.”)
People close to Finch from the distinct compartments of her life have been grappling with the idea that the woman they loved may not exist. Those who’ve known Finch the longest have looked back at her young life for clues. At least from the outside, Finch’s early life seems fairly normal.
She grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She was Bat Mitzvah’ed, went to Jewish summer camp, attended Cherry Hill East high school. It had a strong theater department, and she wrote plays that people appreciated. She was sharp and funny and spunky. She made lasting friendships with smart, warm people. She had an older brother, Eric. Her mother, Joan, was a special education teacher. Her father, Robert, had a less solid career, according to a source close to the family. But she was loved.
In her early adulthood, Finch was surrounded by cancer—for real. While in college at Carnegie Mellon, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She learned all about what went into that. Five years into her mother’s diagnosis, as Finch later wrote, “[Our family] were all experts in pharmacology, wig design, hip hospital lingo, and fashioning surreptitious means of throwing up in public places.” Her mother survived. After a stint at USC film school, Finch worked as an assistant to television writer Rick Cleveland. When Cleveland’s mother got sick with stage IV lung cancer, she went out of her way to do research for him. Then, when Cleveland’s close friend’s wife got breast cancer, she was helpful to him and his family. “‘Mensch’ is the word I would use to describe her,” wrote Cleveland in an email, bristling at the suggestion that she could have been untruthful. He introduced her to Alan Ball, creator of True Blood, and she got her first job as a junior TV writer.
During that period, Finch wrote about cancer publicly for the first time, for a personal-essay site called Fresh Yarn. After it was clear her mother would survive, she herself took the test for the BRCA gene mutation, she wrote, and it came back positive. “The fat doctor, I could tell, wanted me to cry. But I didn’t.” The line was typical of what would become a hallmark of her style—Doctor Man dumb, Me brave. The piece is bookended by a dramatic cliff-hanger, when Finch, rattled by the thought of getting cancer, gets into a car crash. “Officer Frank tells me I’m lucky I’m not dead.” As part of IAMA, a theater group in L.A., she wrote another personal trauma into a play, Return to Sender, about an ex-military guy who suffers from PTSD and stalks his girlfriend. She told a friend it was based on herself and an ex-boyfriend.
In 2012, she landed a writing job on The Vampire Diaries, earning the joke-nickname “Vampire Girl.” According to a writer on the show, she was meek in the room, barely said a word; this was a rough atmosphere, with writers routinely fearing they’d end up on the chopping block. Shortly thereafter is when Finch herself got cancer—or so she claimed. Not breast or ovarian cancer, but this rare and more fatal bone cancer, which was discovered after alleged knee-replacement surgery. The tumor in her spine had grown so big that surgery risked paralysis, she wrote, so it required chemotherapy right away. Her closest relative at the time was an older cousin in New Jersey, who considered Finch a younger sister. “It was devastating,” the cousin recalls, learning the diagnosis. As chemotherapy got underway, Finch would occasionally visit from Los Angeles. Her head was bald, there was a bandage over the place where a chemo port would go, and she looked sick. The cousin’s daughter, then 14, idolized Finch—her cool relative with the Hollywood job who made her awesome mixtapes. She recalls the night they went up to her bedroom, and Finch told her that there was a good possibility of her dying, and how special she was to her. “We lay on the bed and cried together,” she says.
Finch’s mother, Joan, was desperate to come to Los Angeles to help care for her. But Finch kept her parents away, which crushed them, according to a source close to the family. When people wondered why she rejected their care, she explained that they were overbearing and impossible to be around. Over the years, her brother, Eric, a doctor in Florida, talked about wanting to speak with her doctors about her treatment, says the source, but she wouldn’t let him. In spite of her illness, Finch valiantly flew in for big events back East—her mother’s 60th birthday, graduations. But she’d only stayed for a few hours before having to fly off to somewhere important. “We’d take any time we could get with her,” says her cousin, “It was like, Oh, my God, she’s so fabulous.” People close to her chalked it up to Finch’s “independence.” Finch, as recounted in that first article for Elle—a connection she made through her close friend, Mickey Rapkin, then a writer there—was instilled to treat adversity with “quiet dignity.”
Finch had told friends that there were two shows she was dying to work for—Grey’s Anatomy and Parenthood. Lo and behold, when she landed the job at Grey’s Anatomy, a dream came true. There was an obstacle along the way. According to sources at the show, a few seasons into Finch’s stint, writer Krista Vernoff took over as showrunner, and did a blind read of writers’ work to see whose work matched her own vision. Finch’s didn’t make the cut and she was let go when the show got restaffed. But Finch was rescued when someone at Shondaland resurfaced the old Elle article for Vernoff and asked her to reconsider. The woman literally lives for her work. She was promptly rehired.
Like most writers rooms, the Grey’s Anatomy room, which consisted of roughly 17 people, was an intimate, sacred space for people to share all kinds of stories and confessions. For 10 hours a day, the group would churn over past humiliations, scandals that had consumed friends, dark family secrets. They’d mix and match, map them onto the arcs of the show’s many characters. Grey’s was diverse before its time, and suffused with a kind of empathy that made Finch—“the only person [in the writers room] who identified as a person with a disability,” as she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter—a perfect fit. Unlike at The Vampire Diaries, here she had a presence. She excelled in the area of personal confession, laying her pain bare, often with an appealing, familiar humor. Other times, she’d laugh at something tragic—laughed so hard until she cried. People figured it was a coping mechanism. She carried her heart—and her cancer—on her sleeve. She was visibly sick and getting sicker. In addition to the bald head and scarves, she wore a bandage over a presumed port on her upper chest area; you could see it behind her baggy tank top and cardigan. Her skin had a yellow-greenish hue, which she covered with badly blended cover-up. She could sometimes be heard retching in the bathroom, at which point the producers would insist, “Please. Go home.” “No, no,” came the valiant reply. “I really want to be here. Just let me do an hour more.”
Cancer afforded her certain privileges. She had an extra comfortable chair. From there, she tacitly claimed extra talking rights. The writers room was like one “Jewish nosh-table on a Sunday morning,” as one writer describes it, with everyone talking over each other. But when Finch had the floor, she was not to be interrupted, and took whatever time she needed drawing out her stories. Anyone else could lose their job for being such a room hog. “We all tolerated it because we thought she might be dying. These might be her final words,” says this writer. Coworkers recall that her frequent bouts of illness and mental stress coincided with deadlines for her episodes. In these instances, she’d often have to pull in a senior writer to pick up the slack. She showed little interest in returning the favor for other people’s episodes.
Lest anyone forget that cancer was an ongoing battle, she took frequent weeks-long leaves to do what she claimed were clinical trials. She corralled a group of loving friends to help her. She had rented a condo near the Mayo Clinic from her good friend Nick, whose family, sources say, treated her like a surrogate daughter. Nick would drive her to appointments. She’d get out of the car, enter the building, and then he’d drive off. She might snap a picture of the Mayo Clinic exterior for Instagram, with a tag like, “There are Giants in the Sky.” Another friend helped organize care packages. She and a third friend, Molly, became the point people who updated friends and family with information. One day, when Nick was traveling for work and unable to take her to the clinic, Finch asked her cousin in New Jersey to step in. “I couldn’t go,” recalls the cousin. “I was devastated that I couldn’t be there for her.” But Finch didn’t want anyone to get too close. When friends asked if she wanted company during her treatments, she declined. She didn’t want anyone she loved to be connected to her cancer memory, she explained. The friends she collected were empaths; many had been touched by cancer themselves.
The disease created other health complications. In 2017, she needed a kidney transplant. She posted on Facebook, “Two hospital hangouts. Nearly two weeks of hell. But FINNNALLLLY…One happy, healthy kidney. Thanks for all the [heart emoji].” According to a staffer, Finch said that Anna Paquin was to thank. (Paquin and Finch had become friends, for real, on True Blood.) Paquin did not comment to Vanity Fair.
Normal life couldn’t roll on for too long before Finch’s illness reared its head. There were sudden bouts of dangerous overheating or weakness at inopportune moments—like at her relative’s college graduation ceremony, or on a trip to Jerusalem, also with this family member, when they were swarmed with cyclists in the middle of a bike race. People would flock to her side to attend to her. On the trip back from Israel, she threw a fit when she was made to check her bags because she said her cancer meds were inside. She tweeted later: “@Delta You cannot INSIST a cancer patient check meds…LOSE THE BAG and INSIST NOTHING CAN BE DONE.” At her 40th birthday in March 2018, a pajama party with roughly 100 guests held at an events space in downtown Los Angeles, cancer was the top of conversation. Over cake, Finch addressed the crowd, including Debbie Allen: “Everyone here in the room is someone I know and love, and over the last very bizarre seven years has been instrumental in helping me get to 40, including—they wish not to be identified personally—but there are two doctors from Mayo Clinic who flew all the way from Minnesota. I promised that I would not show them but I wanted them to be surrounded by people I love so fiercely, who love me so fiercely.” It was one of the few occasions that people from her various pods in life interacted with one another.
Finch first wrote chondrosarcoma into Grey’s Anatomy in 2016, when a sassy, know-it-all teenage girl amputee announces to two male doctors, “Turns out I’m one in like a bajillion kids to get chondrosarcoma…We have our work cut out for us, gentlemen.” Gradually Finch’s cancer metastasized, taking over the communal creative process in the room. When cancer stories were brought up as potential story lines, Finch seized the territory, say coworkers. There were two other survivors in the room, but she was the one living with cancer now. Once, when a writer pushed back on an emotional direction Finch wanted to take a story, she lashed out—This is how it feels and none of you can understand—and stormed out of the room. Eventually, one of the survivors didn’t even bother chiming in on cancer-related stories. In 2018 came the Debbie Allen chondrosarcoma storyline. Finch claimed in one of her articles that she resisted sharing her personal story. “I wanted to say no…A big, fat, super-emphatic, though ever-polite, ‘No.’” But the loving insistence from her coworkers broke down her walls. “I said yes because Shonda once wrote me an email where she told me, ‘love yourself more,’ and when Shonda says something like that, you listen.”
According to someone in the room, the conversation actually went more like this:
Finch: “It would be so amazing to give Catherine my cancer…But maybe I shouldn’t write it. It might be too triggering.”
Okay, we’ll protect you. Someone else can do it.
Finch: No, I can do it.
Indeed, Finch needed little arm-twisting to write about her cancer in eight cancer-themed articles, including “I Confronted the Doctor Who Missed My Cancer,” featuring the clueless “Dr. Perfect” who “cocks his head to the side [and says], ‘You seem angry.’” There was also “Deciding to Have an Abortion…While Getting Chemo,” “Redefining Brave,” and “All My Eggs in One Basket,” about her cancer and fertility choices. The latter she wrote from a perch at Hedgebrook, the prestigious and highly competitive writers retreat for female writers trying to bring about positive change in the world; she used her illness as the basis of her application.
Likewise, cancer meant opportunities to pick fights online, with tweets (now deleted) like: “Talk to me when you’ve screamed yourself to sleep at night from the pain—and I’ll argue about the merits of legalizing marijuana everydamnwhere.”
And: “I’ve officially run out of ways to politely say this: Stop. Tweeting. Me. ‘Miracle’ Cancer Cures…. It’s exhausting. And insulting. And presumptuous AF.”
For Finch, as for many people, the Trump years were a time of greater outspokenness. Days after his victory in 2016, an unknown person allegedly left an ugly, antisemitic tract outside her door. She posted the offensive picture along with, “Yes, I am the only Jewish person in my building [located in Santa Monica]. Yes, I am the only one who received this on my doorstep.” In March 2018, in the heat of #MeToo, she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter about the alleged harassment she endured years prior by a director on the set of another show, which included misogynistic verbal abuse and unwanted touching. When Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, she repurposed her cancer-abortion story for a PSA-style video, reminding people that her ability to have an abortion saved her life. (By then her hair had grown out, but, she told viewers, “I may never be cancer-free.”) On the day Christine Blasey Ford testified, Finch couldn’t not offer words on Facebook: “Men, Find a way today to tell the women in your life that You Believe Them. Don’t Assume They Know. Not Today. #BelieveSurvivors.”
Then, in late October 2018, a national tragedy hit when 11 people were shot and killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the city where Finch went to college. The next day, she began telling people that a friend of hers she’d met while in college had been one of the victims. She mustered up her fury. “Please do not send me photos of the man who murdered my friend,” she tweeted at a hapless account. Grey’s writers had to be careful with their language. If someone mentioned guns in the room or complained that their pitch had been “shot” down, she dramatically winced, according to one colleague.
Within a few months, the narrative had new details: She had helped clean up the remains of her friend’s body from the synagogue floor. It was all in step with the Jewish tradition, she explained, which said Jews must be buried within 24 hours with all their body parts. Subsequent shootings brought the trauma right back up. In March 2019, shortly after the mosque shootings in New Zealand, she tweeted, “I spent sunup to sundown cleaning up what was left of my friend after the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting” and “As someone who stood amidst the Pittsburgh Synagogue carnage I’ll just say: My heart is broken. My brain is broken. I have no words for my outrage.”
Eventually, Catherine Avery’s cancer plot would play itself out. Just like the amazing Finchie, the amazing Catherine would live with cancer while maintaining her rock star career. But another character became interesting to her—a troubled young surgeon named Jo Wilson, and she proposed a story line: After meeting a patient who’s a rape victim, Jo starts confronting her own past as an abused wife and learns that she’s a product of rape, a pitch, Finch said, that was based on a friend. According to a staffer, writing that first episode was stress-inducing for Finch. She turned to the others in the room to help write it (although hers was the only name credited). Still, she claimed the rest of Jo’s story line for the season. Discussions were had in the room about Jo needing to check herself into a mental health facility to deal with her trauma. Now Finch just needed the rest.
Finch told her employer that she was suffering from PTSD related to Pittsburgh, and needed six weeks off. She checked herself into a mental health clinic in Arizona. She was no longer wearing a bandage. The name she used was Jo.
Once upon a time, the relationship had the makings of a GOP Beltway fairy tale. It was 1999. George Conway—then a partner at the powerhouse firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz—was riding on the now defunct Metroliner between New York and Washington. He picked up a free copy of Capital Style magazine on board, and there she was: Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, the bubbly Republican pollster he’d seen on CNN & Company and a Washington 10. He did something that was so out of step with his shy nature; he asked his friend Ann Coulter, who was featured in the same article, to introduce them. They talked and talked that summer night. Kellyanne, it turned out, had grit too. Raised by a casino-worker single mother, she had established her own polling company in an industry dominated by men. And she had a cutting edge—the kind of woman who took her onetime boss, pollster Frank Luntz, shopping and made him try on a Speedo for laughs. From where Kellyanne sat, George was brilliant and had a certain cachet of his own, owing to the work he’d done assisting attorneys representing Paula Jones in her case against Bill Clinton. Kellyanne and George fell in love. He was the one person whose “near-constant presence doesn’t annoy me,” she told a friend. They got married two years later in an enormous wedding, had four children, settled in Alpine, New Jersey, and amassed a reported $39 million fortune.
Two decades later the fairy tale has taken a harsh turn. Everything the Conways cared about—family, reputation, country—appears to be in some state of triage. The world witnessed the spectacular clash within the marriage play out publicly. Kellyanne, who brought Donald Trump to victory in 2016 as his campaign manager, became, in her capacity as “counselor,” his fiercest defender—dodging and deflecting on his behalf with dazzling ease. And though they started off friendly enough, George became one of the president’s most biting critics, with opinion pieces that shouted down Trump’s disregard for the rule of law and tweets that pronounced him mentally unfit. George and Kellyanne became the most visible marriage of the Trump era that didn’t include the name “Trump,” and the embodiment of our divided country. Depending on where one stands politically, one half of the couple has represented all that was sound and impressive; the other half has lost the plot. The Trump presidency, which Kellyanne nurtured and George castigated, resulted in nothing less horrific than the Capitol riot, in which five people died and Mike Pence and other leaders could have been murdered. Their oldest daughter, Claudia, has channeled her own turmoil into public view—rage mostly aimed at Kellyanne for a range of issues. Her popularity on TikTok (1.7 million followers) landed her an invitation from American Idol, where she appeared in mid-February. Her complaints about her mother became so widespread that judge Katy Perry asked on national TV, “Are you okay? … Does she still hug you?”
Friends have watched the Conway drama like a slow-moving train wreck, sometimes too timid to really ask what’s going on. As of late February, the Conways are still together, joined by 20 years of marriage and four children. But conversations with numerous sources from both camps—yes, there are camps with the Conways—reveal the couple to be in an extremely fragile state, miles away from “closure.” The wounds are raw from their public clashes. As important, they don’t have a mutual grasp on what has just happened to the country, creating a high level of exasperation. George believes that Trumpism should be eradicated from the planet. Kellyanne, on the other hand, continues on in explain-away-daddy mode, not giving an inch. In a statement condemning the Capitol riot, she not only failed to acknowledge the role of Trump’s rhetoric, but also praised his leadership. Given every opportunity to amend or clarify that statement for this piece, she declines.
How did two extremely smart people allow the presidency of one of the world’s most corrupt men to wreak such havoc on their family, never mind the country? In the last four years, both George and Kellyanne leaned into different sides of a certain upright conservatism. George is a man who adheres to a certain rule-following propriety—which would suggest he might have held his tongue while his wife was in the White House. But there’s another facet to George that overrides everything else. “George has a deep commitment to what he feels is right,” says his former Wachtell colleague David Lat, a legal writer. “His commitment to doing and saying what’s right, combined with an enjoyment of fame, have overcome the propriety-focused aspect of him.” As for Kellyanne, she’s a paragon of loyalty, says Luntz, the kind “that you don’t find in Washington anymore.” But in the opinion of many, that loyalty crossed the line to drinking the Kool-Aid.
“She fell into the cult,” says Michael Cohen, Trump’s ex-lawyer, who understands better than most the thrall of Trump. “The biggest mistake that people make, Kellyanne included, is they start to believe that they are relevant,” says Cohen. “And they begin to try to assume Trump’s arrogance.” Indeed, she came to embody many Trumpian passions: winning, or talking about winning, a lot; shaming the naysayers; and never being wrong. Kellyanne did not push the “Stop the Steal” narrative that incited the riot; a month after the election, she finally acknowledged that Joe Biden won. Yet her ease at subverting the truth during her tenure at the White House, her unshakable righteousness, helped ease the way for the Big Lie.
The primary season of the 2016 election had been simpler times for Kellyanne and George. As is well known, they were working hand in hand. George was supporting Ted Cruz, and Kellyanne was running a super PAC for the Texas senator, whose wife Trump had insulted and whose father, Trump insinuated, was in on the assassination of President Kennedy. Kellyanne went after Trump, calling him the “thrice-married, non-churchgoing billionaire” who “says he’s for the little guy but actually built a lot of his businesses on the backs of the little guy.” He was, according to Kellyanne, “unpresidential,” “vulgar,” and offensive to women.
By the summer of 2016, Trump was the Republican nominee, but hurting for female voters and in need of a campaign manager. On the advice of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart billionaires who’d shifted their support from Cruz to Trump, he asked Kellyanne to become his campaign manager. But he wanted her on the cheap, because he’s Trump.
Kellyanne was in. The clout that would come with being the first female to win a presidential campaign outweighed any remunerative concern. Trump got a great deal. Those pesky disavowals of Trump she’d made? She’d blow them away like feathers. She had a whole bag of tricks at the ready. First there was the double-dealing. As a regular guest on Morning Joe, she praised Trump as “masterful,” and then, on one occasion, according to cohost Mika Brzezinski, took off her microphone and said, “Blech, I need to take a shower.” Morning Joe banned Kellyanne shortly thereafter. And then there was her bold gaslighting—like her claim that “it was Donald Trump who put the issue [of Barack Obama’s birth certificate] to rest” and her insistence that he “doesn’t hurl personal insults.” If the smiling blonde lady on television was saying it, it had to be true, right?
How did two extremely smart people allow the presidency of one of the world’s most corrupt men to wreak such havoc on their family, never mind the country?
Veteran Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who’d been Cruz’s communications director, watched with amazement. “As a spokesperson, you can omit things, you can highlight certain things, you can reframe the conversation,” he says. “But when you say things that are flat-out wrong, that’s where I draw the line. I’m not going to debase myself, because there’s life after this client.” But Kellyanne had her champions—like Chris Christie, who over the course of their 18-year friendship bonded with her over their tough Italian mothers. He did debate prep with her in both 2016 and 2020 and sees her as a messaging wizard.
“There’s very few people in political life who know how to use language as effectively as Kellyanne and are more effective in communicating to President Trump,” says Christie. He says that when Trump was promising to refuse defeat in 2016, she told him to go softer. Christie adds, “She’s not present in 2020. And I think her absence is very, very loud in this postelection period.” He credits her for putting the opioid issue in front of President Trump, which resulted in the bipartisan passage of the SUPPORT Act.
Back in 2016, George was still very much in his wife’s corner. In the binary choice between Hillary Clinton and Trump, he cautiously supported Trump. As a member of the Federalist Society, he prioritized getting conservatives on the Supreme Court. For all of Trump’s obvious flaws, George then believed that “[Trump] will realize that the office is something much bigger than him,” as he later told fellow Lincoln Project cofounder Ron Steslow on a podcast, “and there are going to be these people around him who will constrain him.” People, perhaps, like his wife, whom he clearly doted on. On election night George wept with pride for what she had achieved, and screamed, “She did it! She did it!” On inauguration night he stood aside and held her fur coat, while Kellyanne posed in a red gown, beaming for cameras. George got a bit swept up too. He threw his hat in the ring for the job of solicitor general. After that job went to someone else, Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked if he’d be interested in the job of assistant attorney general in the civil division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Again, George agreed to be considered. He had spent decades working in the private sector and was ready to serve his country.
Kellyanne, the winning campaign manager, was slipping into the position of the president’s “counselor.” As she liked to point out, this meant she had walk-in privileges in the Oval Office. But television was his favorite forum. As Trump watched the shows, Kellyanne pioneered new ways to dodge the truth—or run a truck over it—for his pleasure. When NBC’s Chuck Todd took her to task on the assertion that the president’s inauguration crowd size was the biggest in history, she famously retorted that she had “alternative facts,” and a defining catchphrase was born. To defend Trump’s policies, she could go to bizarre places. When Trump tried to push the Muslim ban, she talked about “the Bowling Green massacre,” an ostensible massacre in Kentucky carried out by Muslims. She later claimed it was a slip of the tongue, even though she cited it in three different outlets.
George—still in New Jersey with the kids and under review for the Justice Department job—was becoming concerned about what was going on inside the Trump White House. The dumb crowd-size lie that his wife was defending? What was that? he wondered. The self-inflicted wounds piled up—Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey; the fact that Trump came right out and admitted that the firing was because of “this Russia thing.” George saw that this was becoming, as he later put it in an interview with the podcast Skullduggery, “a shitshow in a dumpster fire.”
In a gracious letter in May 2017, he took himself out of the running for the Justice Department job. Out of respect for Kellyanne’s job, he kept his disdain from public view. In a follow-up tweet to one questioning the likelihood of the Muslim ban making it past the Supreme Court, he wrote, “Just to be clear, in response to inquiries, I still VERY, VERY STRONGLY support POTUS, his Admin, policies, the executive order.”
Meanwhile, the Trump White House was becoming the MAGA Hunger Games—a battle for Trump’s approval. Kellyanne was at the white-hot center. There was one camp that appreciated her willingness to defend Trump. “She went and did interviews that nobody else would do, and he always knew that he could count on her when everybody else ran for cover,” says Luntz. And then there were Jared Kushner and Ivanka. During the campaign, Kushner already couldn’t stand that Kellyanne was taking credit for being the campaign manager, according to multiple sources. He believed she did nothing of substance, that “campaign manager” was a made-up title designed to get a woman on television. On one occasion, when Kellyanne was directing orders, Kushner stepped into the conversation and chastised her. “You’re not really the campaign manager,” he told her. “Stop telling people what to do.” By February 2017, he and Ivanka were whispering to Trump at Mar-a-Lago about how insufferable she was, according to a witness; they wanted her out. In Trump’s other ear was Melania. According to an insider, the first lady was Kellyanne’s chief ally and protector, and no fan of Javanka. If it weren’t for Melania, suspects this source, Kellyanne might have been out of there in the first year.
According to an insider, the first lady was Kellyanne’s chief ally and protector, and no fan of Javanka. If it weren’t for Melania, suspects this source, Kellyanne might have been out of there in the first year.
Kellyanne was determined to come out on top. Her superpower, according to associates, was leaking to the press. While she made a show inside the White House of needing to stop the leaks and publicly bemoaned the “palace intrigue” stories, she herself was a font, they say. White House communications aide Cliff Sims, author of Team of Vipers, recalled the discovery he made one day while working on Kellyanne’s computer, at her behest, to draft—yes, really—a refutation of Brzezinski’s claim that she’d privately dissed Trump. Kellyanne’s text message function had been synced to the laptop, and up popped several real-time exchanges she was having with journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Politico, and Bloomberg. “As I sat there trying to type,” Sims wrote, “she bashed Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, and Sean Spicer, all by name.” Ronald Kessler, author of The Trump White House, was one such journalist who found himself listening to a leak session targeting Priebus. He was so appalled by the mean-spirited nature of her words that he didn’t report them. Today Kessler says, “She settles scores. It makes her more powerful to be the dispenser of information behind the scenes.” A source familiar with Kellyanne’s thinking disputes this characterization, rationalizing that “if she were a leaker, it would be obvious because she knows so much.” Whatever the truth, Kellyanne’s reputation as a blabbermouth stuck, to the point where Kushner banned her from meetings.
Kellyanne’s balancing act was getting more challenging. According to associates, she needed to remain Trump’s biggest champion, while privately insisting to those in the real world—the world from whence she came—that she was a fellow sane person who understood that Trump was a mess. In the company of certain White House people, she referred to Trump multiple times as “a total fucking misogynist,” according to a senior official. In policy matters with moderate members of the administration, she presented herself as an ally, only to fold at clutch moments.
“There was almost always the calculus,” says this official. “There were moments when this was a really serious issue. ‘Do we have Kellyanne on our side or not?’ You’d say, ‘Okay, we got her. And the president is going to be on board and we can flip him.’ But if it seemed like it was going to be at all contentious, she was nowhere to be seen.… She wouldn’t stick her neck out until it was clear the president was going to have her back.” That maneuver had real-world consequences. This official cites, for example, Trump’s response to the Parkland shooting. The White House might have tackled some form of gun safety, particularly concerning children, had Kellyanne pushed. Instead, the administration issued a tepid school-safety report that hardly mentioned guns. Similarly, she could have pushed Trump to permanently ax the family-separation policy. Instead, it was reinstated. If George had hoped his wife would be a tempering influence inside the White House, she wasn’t.
Starting in 2017, a group of disaffected conservative politicians and pundits—including Evan McMullin, William Kristol, Mona Charen, and Max Boot—plus some Democrats, had begun meeting every two weeks to discuss how to protect the country from Trump. Some members, particularly younger ones, believed their jobs would be in jeopardy if they were tagged as Never Trumpers, so it was a quiet alliance. Early in the summer of 2018, George turned up. At first some wondered if he was a mole. One such skeptical member thought the motivation soon became clear. After the announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, darling of the Federalist Society, as his successor. Three members of the group—Kristol, Charen, and Linda Chavez—voiced their support for Kavanaugh. As the suspicious member speculates, “I think it was all a, ‘wink, wink. George is going to go out there and help you stack the courts, but he’s going to separate from us….’ If he could get prominent Never Trumpers to support Kavanaugh’s nomination, then he would have been serving his party long-term.” The theory that the Conways were playing a long game—together—got traction on Twitter, and survives in some quarters to this day.
But those who know George believe that theory to be nonsense. “There’s no nefarious plot,” says his friend Molly Jong-Fast, the liberal writer and pundit. “They worked this out together? It’s not true. This is not some long con by George.” Indeed, it became increasingly hard to doubt the sincerity of George’s words and purpose. That same summer George wrote an op-ed in Lawfare defending the Mueller investigation, a seeming response to Trump bashing it. As Trump’s affronts to the law piled up—like the revelation that he had paid off Stormy Daniels—George made his disgust known on Twitter. Meanwhile, Kellyanne was doing backflips on television, pretending that Trump knew nothing about payments to women, even when an audiotape showed he clearly did. Cornered on the lie by Chris Cuomo, Kellyanne played a royal flush: the shame card (“How dare you?”), the woman card (“What is it about powerful, articulate women on TV that bothers you as guests?”), and the nanny-nanny-boo-boo card, reminding him that she was on the winning team. “All of you were against him. You said he could never win.”
Kellyanne Conway and George Conway Nearly Destroyed Their Marriage Over Trump
By Douglas Christian/ZUMA Wire.
It was getting impossible to square at home. George would have remained silent had Trump been merely bad, but this was of a new order of awful. He wanted his wife out of the White House. Kellyanne was devastated by his speaking out and experienced it as a betrayal on par with adultery. A source close to Kellyanne says she was given no warning of George’s missives and was unaware that he was meeting with Never Trumpers. Adding to the pain, says this source, she felt she had lost “her person”—the anchor you go home to and with whom you talk about your day.
Her friends and allies say they were aghast. “You have an intimate relationship with someone, you have criticism of something that they’re doing professionally, then you should express that privately,” says Christie. “And if you can’t resolve it privately, then you’ve got to decide what to do with the marriage. I thought it was just inexplicable. And quite frankly, not the George Conway that I knew. I can remember times my wife and I, when we would see some of the stuff George was saying, my wife would look at me and say, ‘If you ever did something like that, I’d kill you.’… It was very, very painful for Kellyanne’s friends to watch this go on.” Luntz adds, “Kellyanne had a difficult upbringing, which I will not get into. The idea that her husband would make family life difficult was just so unexpected and so unnecessary.” But to George’s friends the notion that he should be guided by some sort of propriety was absurd. “Your president is throwing norms out the window,” says Lat. “Why should you stay silent out of some traditional deference to the president when the president shows no deference to American values?”
In George’s mind, none of his criticisms were personal. This was a five-alarm fire for America—and the outrages kept mounting. Like in Helsinki, where Trump, standing next to Vladimir Putin, challenged his own country’s intelligence reports that Russia had interfered in the election; or Trump’s protecting of Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman after he had journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident, dismembered. George sharpened his burns on Twitter: “We have a president who unwittingly is a self-parody.” “The Lord made Sunday a day of rest. You could at least take one day off from debasing your office.” “His condition is getting worse.”
Trump started fixating on George. In this bizarre love triangle, Trump would show George who was the cuck. In March 2019, the president summoned campaign manager Brad Parscale, according to a senior official, and ordered him to call Kellyanne and give her an ultimatum—Trump or George, pick one. She told Parscale to stay out of her marriage, which Parscale relayed to his boss. Fired up, Trump told Parscale, “Get a pencil,” and dictated a tweet for Parscale to send from Parscale’s own account: “We all know that @realDonaldTrump turned down Mr. Kellyanne Conway for a job he desperately wanted…Now he hurts his wife because he is jealous of her success. POTUS doesn’t even know him!” Trump followed that up with a tweet from his own account, adding, “I barely know him but just take a look, a stone cold LOSER & husband from hell!” To which George tweeted back: “You. Are. Nuts.”
With the most powerful man in the world hurling insults at the father of her children, this might have been a logical moment for Kellyanne to reassess; she had put in two and a half years. Instead, she threw in her lot. According to a source close to Kellyanne, she viewed the president’s words about George not as attacks on her husband, but as gallant defenses of her—a hardworking mother of four who was being treated unfairly by the man who was supposed to love and support her. Around this time she stopped wearing her wedding ring, according to a senior official. When asked by colleagues about the state of her marriage, she responded, “It is what it is.” George had gone from nuisance to adversary. When Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo brought up the situation, Kellyanne reminded everyone who the winner was in the couple: “I don’t know when feminists are going to write about the unusual situation of a man getting power through his wife. But that’s what we have here.”
“The easiest thing in the world for her to have done would have been to quit,” says Christie. “[But] I think that would have been a really negative message to send to women of power and influence: that if you accomplish something on your own, on your own merits, and somehow your husband or others disagree with you and say so publicly, that you have to leave.”
George began bringing his significant intellect to bear in op-eds for The Washington Post. In October 2019, he wrote an 11,000-word article for The Atlantic called “Unfit for Office,” synthesizing principles of jurisprudence and scientific texts on mental illness. Two months later, with a group of other former GOP strategists—including Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, Reed Galen, and the now disgraced John Weaver—he announced the Lincoln Project. George picked up a key strategy thanks to the White House. Over a steak lunch in New York with Wilson and Jong-Fast, an unofficial adviser to the group, George explained what he’d learned from an unwitting Parscale: run cheap ads in Washington, D.C., so that Trump would see them. Parscale had viewed the strategy as a way to please the president. Now Conway would use the same strategy to drive Trump “batshit crazy,” as he told Wilson and Jong-Fast. (Since allegations that Weaver sexually harassed young men emerged, other founding members are being investigated over what they knew and when, and the PAC is barely hanging on.)
The Conways were now officially politically opposed. With the pandemic, the stakes became life or death. When it came to addressing COVID, Kellyanne, as ever, played it both ways. Former Mike Pence adviser Olivia Troye, who resigned in protest of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, recalls Kellyanne, on the one hand, as a formidable presence in task force meetings. “She would speak up…[saying], ‘We need to make sure we’re not confusing the public with our messaging,’ ” says Troye. She tangled with Scott Atlas, who cherry-picked science and questioned mask wearing. Troye was disheartened, then, to see her do a complete 180 in public, like when she took to the podium in March 2020 and folded to the denier in chief. When CBS’s Paula Reid questioned claims that the virus was being contained when evidence pointed to the contrary, Kellyanne sneered, “It is being contained. Do you not think it’s being contained?… So are you a doctor or a lawyer?” Troye recalls, “I just remember thinking, Why, Kellyanne?” According to two former CDC officials, Kellyanne meddled with CDC guidelines on communion and choirs in church—laxity to please the president.
“If you can’t resolve it privately, then you’ve got to decide what to do with the marriage,” says Chris Christie. “I thought it was just inexplicable. And quite frankly, not the George Conway that I knew.”
Meanwhile, George brought the Lincoln Project an idea, suggested to him by conservative writer Windsor Mann, for the ad “Mourning in America,” which powerfully shredded Trump’s response to the pandemic. (Trump responded on Twitter, anointing George with a new nickname—a sign that the irking was working: “I don’t know what Kellyanne did to her deranged loser of a husband, Moonface, but it must have been really bad.”) Beside himself with anger, George, in podcast interviews and tweets, went after all of the enablers: Maria Bartiromo (“She was a serious person at one point”); Mike Pence (“He used to be an honest politician”); “pathetic Susan Collins”; Trump’s staff (“He’s 100% insane. And nobody in the administration has the balls to tell him that.”). He never named his wife, but he viewed her as among them.
And then the crisis on the home front exploded into public view. Claudia, then 15, was becoming virulently anti-Trump, pro-choice, pro–Black Lives Matter, and a fan of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—and, like all teens, she was sharing her views on TikTok. She was also suffering, and wanted the world to know it. She tweeted in August, “My mother’s job ruined my life to begin with. Heartbreaking that she continues to go down this path after years of watching her children suffer. Selfish. It’s all about the fame, ladies and gentlemen.”
Then: “You know life isn’t fair when you wake up to your own mother speaking aside a homophobe and a rapist,” Claudia tweeted, referring to Pence and Trump. Days later she tweeted that she was seeking legal emancipation. The next day Kellyanne announced that she would be stepping down from her position in the White House. “Less drama, more mama,” quipped the quipper. George said he was stepping back from the Lincoln Project.
But Kellyanne just couldn’t quit Trump. A month later she returned for two events that were supposed to be victory laps of sorts. First, she, Christie, and a few other mask-less advisers had to prepare Trump for the first debate. She wanted him to take the opportunity to tout his accomplishments. Alas, the only memorable line was his directive to his white supremacist supporters the Proud Boys: “Stand back and stand by.” (The line wasn’t the plan, but she thought little of it, according to a source familiar with the situation; it was just Trump being Trump.) And she couldn’t not go to the Rose Garden to celebrate the new Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, whom she saw as a kindred spirit—a non–Ivy League–educated superstar and Catholic mother of a big family. At least a dozen attendees ended up with COVID. Everyone from the debate prep ended up with COVID too, according to Christie. While it’s unclear where Kellyanne picked up the virus, within days, it was in the Conway household; Claudia, too, tested positive.
Those twin disasters—calling white supremacists to attention and a super-spreader event—bruised Trump in his quest for victory. In the days following the president’s defeat, Kellyanne was back on Team Trump as it searched for allegations of voter fraud. After each and every court case ended in defeat, according to a source familiar with the matter, she broke it to him: He’d come up short. But she no longer had his ear, apparently. By that point he was hearing what he wanted and was off to the races with “Stop the Steal,” a slogan that quickly metastasized within the GOP and throughout the country.
According to a source close to Kellyanne, in the days leading up to the riot, she never imagined that “Stop the Steal” would become a call to arms, never imagined that any violence would come to pass. She might have listened to her husband. George was scouring Parler and finding violent nutjobs who were responding to Trump’s tweets and planning to show up on January 6 to do Lord knows what. On January 4, he raised alarm bells on Morning Joe and on Twitter.
Kellyanne spent the start of January 6 working in her office before hearing of the breach. Horrified, she phoned an adviser who was physically with Trump, telling him to call off his supporters, to no avail. Four years of lies and brutality had come home to roost. That night Claudia took the moment to stick it to her mother. “Hey, Mom, if you’re watching this,” she said on TikTok, “how do you feel about your army becoming rioters?… Anyway, Mom, if you see this, come to my room. Let’s talk.”
In the wake of catastrophe, Kellyanne continued the spin, but the spin wobbled pitifully. While the pandemic raged, she journeyed 3,000 miles to appear on Real Time With Bill Maher and insist that it was all worth it. She reminded us about those great walk-in privileges. Furthermore, “You can’t deny that many people are better off,” she said, teeing Maher right up: “Well, they’re not better off now. A lot of them are dead.” As for Trump and the riot, she merely allowed: “I wish the president had spoken with the people earlier to get them the hell out of there.”
Today a few leading Republicans continue to take a stand against Trump. Kellyanne isn’t one of them. A source close to Kellyanne says that “Kellyanne was disappointed by the treatment of the vice president. She is close to both men and hopes that their relationship will be solid going forward.”
But then how could Kellyanne Conway profess anything but admiration? To admit that Trump is a profoundly flawed human being would be to admit that George was right and that she made a mistake. And winners like Kellyanne don’t make mistakes. They go from one triumph to the next and turn controversies into career opportunities, like the big, juicy memoir she is writing. “An insider” told the Daily Mail that it will be “the most unvarnished, eye-popping account of her time working for the president” and that the deal was bigger than John Bolton’s.
It was a Sunday in mid-February at the Trump International Hotel. The whole gang was there: Mick Mulvaney, Reince Priebus, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mike Pence, and yes, the Big Man himself. POTUS had flown in from Daytona Beach just in time for the party, hilariously complaining in his toast about having been inconvenienced by the groom, Stephen Miller: “He is the only one who could have a damn wedding in the middle of Presidents’ Day weekend. I’m sure it didn’t affect anybody here.” The rabbi was an adviser to the ambassador to Israel, and there was an Elvis impersonator. This may not have been every girl’s dream wedding, but for the bride, Katie Waldman, it was perfect. Stephen, 34, and Katie, 28, had fallen in love—as young people do—while figuring out how to separate children from their parents at the border. Now, thanks to Katie, Stephen was officially off the market. It didn’t throw her that half the country was blasting him as a white nationalist due to a recent cache of leaked emails, or that one chunk of his family had disowned him. No, this was the “perfect day,” Katie tweeted, and Stephen Miller, “the perfect man.”
To those in the public who didn’t know much about the bride, the whole thing was amazing. Not only had Stephen found a human woman to marry, but Katie, as the pictures showed, was pretty, with a warm, vivacious smile. Stephen, by contrast, cut a villainous figure. Cartoonishly so, like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons—with an orb-like forehead, funneling into a long, pale face; mistrusting, soulless eyes; and a petulant lower lip. Rarely has a face been such an apt illustration of the person inside.
As the president’s most determined, unwavering adviser on any single topic, he has crafted, with considerable success, the most punishing immigration policies in modern U.S. history—from the Muslim ban to the family-separation policy and every measure in between. He has been the draftsman behind Trump’s darkest rhetoric. Unlike so many other White House officials who resigned or were pushed out, he has not only survived, he’s thrived. Protecting America from immigrants has been his single passion. “This is all I care about,” he told colleagues last year. “I don’t have a family. I don’t have anything else. This is my life.” And now Stephen, who had gone without romance most of his life, had found love.
The Millers’ respective issues dovetail in a single phenomenon: harm to immigrant communities and people of color.
But to those who knew Waldman, the union wasn’t surprising. As a college classmate from the University of Florida puts it, “The only thing she loves or values in this world is power. Anyone she attaches to in her life is simply a pawn to feed her addiction to it.” After all, even Goebbels was a ladies’ man. Accounts from her high school and college years bring into focus a woman with charm and energy—she had YOLO tattooed inside her lower lip—but it was always trained toward power. These people recall how Waldman cut corners, employed dirty, even illegal tricks, and laughed as she got away with it. Accounts from more recent colleagues add detail to the portrait—one not of a counterbalance to Miller, but rather of a powerful reinforcement. A Washington media flack who’s rapidly ascended—from Capitol Hill to the Department of Homeland Security to the vice president’s office—she can display a bright, even friendly manner, but behind the scenes, acquaintances say she can be ruthless and underhanded, and at times has seemed callous about the suffering of others.
In some way, Mr. and Mrs. Miller are emblematic of young Washington, circa Trump: arrogant and gleefully pugnacious. They have few close friends outside the administration. They don’t hang out much in public because they tend to get harassed. They recently traded D.C. for the more secluded Arlington, Virginia. Outside of Jared and Ivanka, and Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, they are perhaps the city’s most powerful couple under 50. Their influence reaches beyond immigration policy into the two most pressing issues of the day: civil unrest around systemic racism, and the pandemic. He plays a key role in Trump’s messaging, decrying the removal of Confederate monuments and the threats to American “heritage.” She, as the spokesperson for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, is a poster child for its disastrously bungled response. The Millers’ respective issues dovetail in a single phenomenon: harm to immigrant communities and people of color. And given the new couple’s knack for pulling the levers of power, and the Trump administration’s control over the judicial and legislative branches, they may be with us for a long time to come.
The tale of how they found each other begins in the late 1990s, on opposite coasts, but in similar environments—Stephen in Santa Monica and Katie in Weston, Florida, just outside of Fort Lauderdale. Both cities were liberal enclaves. Both areas were seeing an upsurge in immigration from Latin America, contributing to the “browning of America.” Mexicans were coming into California, while Venezuelans were finding a haven in Weston, earning the town the nickname “Westonzuela.” Both Stephen and Katie were from affluent Jewish families, both were middle children. Both had fiscally conservative lawyer fathers (Stephen’s father, Michael, later moved into real estate), yet they each have plenty of left-leaning relatives.
While Katie was still in grade school, 13-year-old Stephen’s worldview began to take shape. The first spark was his discovery in middle school of Guns & Ammo magazine, which led him to Wayne LaPierre’s Guns, Crime, and Freedom, which led him to conclude that American culture was under assault from outsiders. He had a close friend at the time, Jason Islas, a Mexican-American, who says Stephen called him one day to end their friendship because of Jason’s heritage. When Miller entered Santa Monica High, an ethnically diverse public school, he found culprits everywhere—new immigrants, Latin Americans, and all the white liberals who coddled and celebrated them.
To call it out loudly and offensively was his thing. In the superb, deeply revelatory new book Hatemonger, journalist Jean Guerrero chronicles how, beginning in high school, Miller systematically tried to humiliate any foreign group that appeared to be intruding into his world or asking for special treatment. She reports, for example, how he targeted the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán (MEChA), telling the group’s local president, Maria Vivanco, to “speak only English,” and taunting new immigrants who struggled with English. When a school counselor, Oscar de la Torre, chaired a community meeting on providing opportunities for minorities, Miller attended so he could deliver his own message: that the school was excusing Black and Hispanic misbehavior by holding those students to a lower standard. The teenager held forth like a know-it-all, lecturing him that racism didn’t exist. No matter, notes Guerrero, that a decade earlier de la Torre had been the recipient of a hate letter, sent to hundreds of Latino families in Santa Monica, that called Mexicans “brown animals” and threatened to gas them like “Hitler gassed the Jews.”
Miller relished being a shocking pest and provocateur. In 2002 he ran for student speaker of the house. In a story that’s seared into the memories of his schoolmates, he stood onstage and told the audience, smirking, “Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have plenty of janitors to do it for us?!” The students went nuts in their disgust, and he loved it. It seemed to fellow students his goal was to get people to hate him. He reveled in imagery of gruesome violence. In a video of Miller on a school bus, he jokes about Saddam Hussein, suggesting he and his cronies get their fingers cut off because “torture is a celebration of life.”
Miller fed his views by obsessively listening to local right-wing radio host Larry Elder, a charismatic African American who believes that Black people are more racist than white and are responsible for their own failures. When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, Miller saw what he believed to be a scandalous siding with the enemy among his peers and teachers. He called into Elder’s show and complained about his school’s lack of patriotism. Elder, who became his first mentor, invited Miller onto the show over and over, 69 times total, to decry the destruction of America by foreigners everywhere.
Miller’s uncle, David Glosser, who was then close to his sister Miriam, Stephen’s mother, and saw the family regularly, became alarmed by his nephew’s words. “I thought it was a case of early adolescent insanity,” recalls Glosser, a retired neuropsychologist. But his parents seemed receptive to their son, says Glosser, adding that Stephen’s father, Michael, was becoming more right-wing, more politically aggrieved, as the government placed restrictions on his real estate business. Likewise, Miriam, who’d been a social worker, became more conservative as she joined her husband’s business. When their teenage son found a presence on right-wing radio, says Glosser, the parents “were thrilled and tickled.”
In a video of Miller on a school bus, he jokes about Saddam Hussein, suggesting he and his cronies get their fingers cut off because “torture is a celebration of life.”
Miller’s appearances on The Larry Elder Show caught the attention of his next mentor, firebrand David Horowitz, an ex-leftist who was at that point running a think tank devoted to combatting the left’s alleged war on American culture and white people. Horowitz took Miller under his wing, inculcating him with the language of counterrevolution.
Miller entered Duke in 2003 and seems to have tried out a new persona—Libertarian Lounge Lizard. Dorm mates recall him slinking around in a bathrobe and slippers, smoking Nat Sherman cigarettes. Because he was prematurely balding and looked older, the girls on his floor found him useful for buying alcohol. Miller obliged. “He’d put on a suit, then go to the liquor store and they wouldn’t card him,” says one of his dorm mates. Deep down, he seemed to desire female affection. He found some—as Guerrero uncovers—with a Mexican-American girl from a Texas border town, whom we’ll call Sara.
Their courtship would be rich material for a social scientist. A source close to Sara says she found him intelligent, but mainly she felt sorry for him, as he didn’t have many friends. He was not opposed to immigrants, he told her, just illegal immigrants, which is why she even gave him a chance. But he wanted more from her than she from him. Sometimes she let him in; sometimes she’d try to shake him. “She’d just say, ‘Go away, Stephen,’ in that mean-girl way,” says a friend of Sara’s who suspects she was embarrassed to be seen with him in public. But he could lash back. The friend recalls that when Sara spoke Spanish, he’d cut her off, telling her, “You should just speak English.” It went on this way for much of their freshman year, until she returned home. He called her a few times over the following summer but she never called him back, and she never returned for their sophomore year. Sara’s friends, seeing his anti-immigrant stance explode over the years, later wondered to one another, “Man, how bad did she hurt him?”
With Sara gone, Miller returned to his old passions, like hating janitors. As Guerrero reports in Hatemonger, he leaned into this particular bit, telling aghast classmates after meals to leave their messes because “we have people for that.” He found a fresh target in the Palestine Solidarity Movement, an activist group on campus. Just as he had complained about Santa Monica High on The Larry Elder Show a couple years earlier, so now he called into the show to attack Duke. Terrorists were recruiting members from campus, he claimed, and Duke was doing nothing about it. He landed a column, called Miller Time, in the school newspaper, The Chronicle, in which he set his sights on the same bogeymen: multiculturalism, affirmative action, the war on Christmas, et cetera. He invited Horowitz to speak at Duke and relished all the shouting it elicited from the audience.
The texts and arguments that Brimelow offered about the supremacy of the white race sharpened Miller’s focus. This, he realized, was his calling.
“I cannot remember a single person who was his friend,” says Seyward Darby, an editor at The Chronicle, who now edits The Atavist. “Nor can anyone I know.” She recalls his weird Facebook profile. “It was populated with staged black-and-white photos of him in cowboy gear, on a lonely ranch-like landscape. He cultivated this air of being apart—or above?—the campus fray. It always felt to me that, to a strangely large degree, he enjoyed being despised. Or at least being perplexing to people. One could only hope his persona amounted to juvenile performance art, that he didn’t really believe everything he wrote and said and that he would grow out of thinking that being provocative and alienating made him interesting.”
Instead, he became more ideologically entrenched, and his ideas took a darker turn. In his senior year, he organized an immigration debate with Richard Spencer, a Duke graduate student at the time, who’d go on to found the alt-right movement and become America’s most prominent white supremacist. One of the speakers was white nationalist Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation and founder of the website VDare, named after Virginia Dare, the first child born to British settlers. The texts and arguments that Brimelow offered about the supremacy of the white race sharpened Miller’s focus. This, he realized, was his calling.
Down in Weston, Florida, at Cypress Bay High School, his soulmate was coming of age. Like Santa Monica High School, Cypress Bay was a public school, with a lot of liberal Jews and Latinos. It was not her scene. “She gave off American Heritage vibes,” says her classmate Emmi Weiner, referring to the private school in the nearby town of Plantation. One source told me that if I managed to find a single high school friend of hers I should “get a Pulitzer Prize.” In Waldman’s first foray into communications, she joined the school newspaper, The Circuit. The students on the paper were feisty and competitive, brimming with ideas—so much so that MTV did a reality show on the paper during that time. Yet Waldman hung back. “I never saw her take any initiative to do anything that would benefit the newspaper program,” says fellow newspaper alum Cassia Laham. “It always seemed like she was doing whatever it took to get by.”
In 12th grade AP English, she found a way to stand out. Her teacher was Simone Waite, a revered educator and one of the few African American faculty members at the school, which had a Black student population of just 4%. Waite was teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which she had done many times before, and gave them some historical background, including about slavery. “One of the many things it did was that it took away our history,” she told the class. Waldman didn’t like that, and asked, “Couldn’t they just tell each other about their history?” Waite explained that it wasn’t that easy. They went back and forth, but Waldman wouldn’t let it go. Seeing that they were in a rut, Waite told her that they should agree to disagree and move on with the lesson.
“I hesitate to say this, but it was about race. ‘Here is a Black woman teaching me this novel by another Black woman, and saying things that I definitely do not agree with politically.’”
Waldman stopped coming to class and promptly drafted a petition, calling out Waite for being “psychologically damaging” and “sickening,” as the teacher recalls. Waite heard about it from a student, and was confused and devastated. The student assured her that no one agreed with Waldman. Waite eventually met with Waldman and her father, Glenn. After hearing both sides, Waldman’s father concluded, according to Waite, that “this teacher is extremely well-liked,” and that the best course of action would be to take Waldman out of her class.
Waite struggled not to take it personally, and eventually came to a realization. “I hesitate to say this, but it was about race. ‘Here is a Black woman teaching me this novel by another Black woman, and saying things that I definitely do not agree with politically,’” Waite posits. “She did whatever was in her power to show something. It just didn’t work.” There were aftershocks. Waldman was in two classes with Waite’s daughter, Alexandra, who was often the only Black kid in the class. Even after publicly trying to take down her mother, Waldman would text Alexandra to ask for homework help, as if nothing had happened. Alexandra and her mother didn’t know what to think. Alexandra and Katie weren’t friends. There were plenty of other kids to ask. It struck Waite as another kind of power play. Alexandra did her best to ignore Katie.
Waldman hit her stride at the University of Florida, her father’s alma mater. She immediately joined a sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII), which put her among other privileged white girls. Minority students were largely siloed into their own groups—the Black Student Union, the Hispanic Student Association, the Asian American Student Union. Waldman partied with the rich frat boys from Tau Epsilon Phi, and drove around campus in her Lexus SUV. “She thought she was the shit,” says a classmate.
As everyone at UF knew, the key to influence lay in student government, which laid out a direct path to the elite Florida Blue Key society and from there, straight into Florida politics. Fraternities and sororities control this system, which many alums believe is structurally corrupt, as it’s built on trading positions and the buying of votes. Effectively, only students from the Greek houses, who were predominantly white, could become student body presidents, while Black students, with a few exceptions, could only hope to be vice presidents or treasurers. Waldman joined the dominant party, called Unite.
“From day one, she wanted to associate herself with whatever existing power structure there was,” says Dave Schneider, a member of the opposing Progress party, who served in the student senate with her. He recalls stirrings of racial tension within student government, and her memorable role. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing, a Black senator from Waldman’s Unite party put forth a resolution to send condolences from UF students to Martin’s parents. Waldman successfully voted to table it.
But mainly, student government wasn’t about political ideas. It was about power. And in pursuit of that, she was a loyal worker bee. Ben Meyers, student body president of the Unite party, recalls, “She worked very hard for me when I was getting elected. She was very articulate, on the rise…. The fact that she’s affiliated with [Trump] makes me proud to know her.” But she was also ruthless. Ford Dwyer, then the president of the independent Students Party, recalls campaigning at the Greek houses, which was routine. But when he got to AOII, Katie stood in the doorway and wouldn’t let him enter. “It was her life,” Dwyer says. “Some of her friends told me it was the only thing in her life.” Indeed, according to a former classmate, this thirst spilled over into friendships. If she believed you could confer power or status, “She would make you think that she’d take a bullet for you, that no price is too high. She would attack and victimize your enemies,” says this classmate.
But her political will began to tilt toward the unethical. In February of 2012, something unexpected was happening at UF. Two days before the election, a popular football coach had endorsed a student-football player, a member of the independent party, on the front page of the college newspaper, The Alligator. This was a five-alarm fire to the Unite students. The day before the election, Waldman and senate president Jason Tiemeier stole 268 copies of the newspaper from a stand on campus and threw them into the garbage. When another student spotted them and reported it to the paper, the campus police got involved.
Waldman denied it. “She dug in her heels,” recalls Dwyer. “She thought the newspaper had wronged her for even reporting it.” But a few weeks later, Tiemeier came clean in a column in The Alligator and apologized. He outed Waldman as his partner. Cornered, Waldman lashed out, claiming that at the time she had told Tiemeier not to steal the papers. In the wake of the incident, an Alligator column called for Waldman’s resignation, to no avail. Her close friend, Christina Bonnarigo, the Unite party’s spokesperson, stated that it was not Waldman’s duty to stop the criminal action, and that Waldman “did all that she was required to do.” Waldman was promoted to the position of budget and allocations chairwoman. According to a classmate, Waldman laughed about the whole episode—“she wore it as a badge of honor.” Cassia Laham, her high school classmate who was now at UF, could only shake her head. “The thing with Katie, bad behavior always got rewarded.” The Unite party was so tarnished by the episode that it disbanded and reformed under another name. But Katie went on her merry way. After graduating in 2014, she landed a job in Washington as a press assistant for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
By this time, Miller had moved along from his role as press secretary for Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann—a job Horowitz had helped secure—and was now communications director for Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, a staunch immigration opponent, the perfect ideological match. Miller worked the phones with reporters, in constant attack dog mode. In the spring of 2013, a bipartisan group of senators, known as the Gang of Eight, had come up with a bill that offered increased border security in exchange for a path toward citizenship, a repellent idea to Miller and his boss. Miller called Hill reporters and others around the clock to bludgeon it. Thanks in part to his lobbying, the bill died.
He was living comfortably, in a $1 million apartment that his parents bought him in the CityCenter, a condo and shopping complex featuring stores like Gucci and Hermès. But he was still single, and apparently not loving it. As his uncle David Glosser recalls, during a Thanksgiving over that period, Stephen’s parents asked him whether he had met any nice girls. “He exploded at the table, saying the subject was completely off-limits. They backed off.”
He did catch the eye of someone, though—a disheveled older gentleman named Steve Bannon. The CEO of Breitbart knew of Miller’s work with Bachmann and Sessions and remembered the kid from The Larry Elder Show. He eagerly brought him into the fold, where Miller practically became part of the staff, crafting the website’s alt-right platform. He filled young reporters’ inboxes with white nationalist fare from VDare and American Renaissance, and encouraged them to read the 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, a neo-Nazi favorite about a group of feces-eating Indian refugees who overrun Europe. Presumably aware that this wasn’t a good look, he kept his passion for such literature hidden from public view.
At the same time, Bannon was building Candidate Donald Trump. When Trump announced his run at Trump Tower—famously claiming that Mexico was sending rapists to America as its “dumping ground”—Miller felt a thrill. He later told the Washington Post, “Everything that I felt at the deepest levels of my heart were now being expressed by a candidate for our nation’s highest office before a watching world.” At Bannon’s suggestion, the Trump campaign offered the young man the opportunity of a lifetime—to come onto Trump’s campaign as a speechwriter and adviser. As an added bonus for Miller’s parents, this meant a new pool of women who might like him. Miriam had joked to her cousin Patti Glosser, with whom she was especially close, “I’m putting you in charge of finding him a nice Jewish girl.” Now, according to Patti, “Miriam said, ‘Well, maybe Ivanka can do it.’ She was excited by the whole hoopla.”
He did catch the eye of someone, though—a disheveled older gentleman named Steve Bannon.
On a team filled with unpleasant people, Miller fit right in. “He was just a dick,” says a former campaign official. “Very territorial, not warm, just bleh.” The national spotlight emboldened his rhetoric. In television appearances, he delivered “fact”-filled diatribes in an air-hogging monotone. He made outrageous claims, like that immigration would lead to mass female genital mutilation. He worked similarly vivid bombast into Trump’s speeches—about immigrants who “stomp on their victims,” “slash them with machetes”—and into his own warm-up act, which he performed before the crowds at rallies.
At one such event in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where the Glosser branch of his family is from, Miller talked about the town’s former glory, and invoked the names of his relatives, Izzy and Sam. David Glosser, hearing the names of his beloved father and grandfather used in connection to Stephen’s vitriol, could stay silent no longer. He posted on the Johnstown newspaper’s Facebook page: “If in the early 20th Century, the USA had built a wall against poor, desperate immigrants of a different religion, like the Glossers, all of us would have gone up the crematoria chimneys with the six million other kinsmen.” Glosser says he received an “avalanche of support” from Glossers everywhere, even ones he’d never heard of. Alas, Stephen’s mother, Miriam, “wasn’t enthusiastic about [the post], to say the least,” says Glosser.
And then Trump got elected. Miller was no longer an acolyte. He had ascended. Days after the inauguration, Miller and Bannon crafted the executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, with no guidance for how to implement it. Chaos and confusion erupted at the airports and around the country—and that was the point. Miller wanted the public to know that America was not what people thought it was. The words on the Statue of Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—weren’t meant to be there, he told America. Furthermore, none of this was up for debate. As he announced, “The whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
Waldman, meanwhile, had become press secretary for Montana senator Steve Daines. Though Daines praised her “very strong personality” and “incredible work ethic,” Montana Post editor Don Pogreba recalls an approach that was immature and pedantic. When he tweeted that a congressional bill to get rid of Obamacare could kill 25,000 people, she scolded him for his “dangerous rhetoric” and tweeted back, “Where in the bill does it say that? Point me to that bill text.” She moved on to bigger things. In late 2017 she landed a job in communications at the Department of Homeland Security, just before Kirstjen Nielsen took over as secretary. Among its roles, the department oversaw the security of the Southern border—Stephen Miller’s life obsession.
By 2018 migrants from Central America were approaching the border by the tens of thousands. From his perspective, the only way to deter people from coming to the border would be for them to see families suffer as vividly as possible. Miller just needed to wrest control away from DHS. For several months, working with the heads of ICE and border security, he tried to get Nielsen to sign off on a zero-tolerance memo—which would effectively lead to family separation. “Stephen was particularly trying to insert himself into the communications shop,” says a former DHS official. “He had this thing about calling everyone and trying to get the answer he wanted.” He found that person in Katie Waldman.
Did Katie see Stephen as the Sebastian Valmont of the Trump set? It’s unclear. What was clear was that Waldman became a virtual extension of Miller’s team. The story lines she shared with the press might have come directly from his mouth. Migrants, she said, were “violent mobs.” The caravans, she told Fox’s Brian Kilmeade, were publicity stunts. After a few months of holding off, Nielsen effectively signed family separation into policy. According to the new book Separated, by MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff, Waldman told him that the intention of putting children in cages was to shock—just as Miller had said. She took a number of trips to the border, which she chronicled on Instagram: Katie, wearing a black T-shirt and sunglasses, grinning, with the caption, “living my best life at the border wall.” As she later told Soboroff, “DHS sent me to the border to see the separations for myself—to try to make me more compassionate, but it didn’t work.” The admission didn’t surprise college classmates I spoke with; one says that “I genuinely believe there’s something wrong with her. She lacks a moral compass and [demonstrates] elements of a sociopath.” When pressed by Soboroff as to whether she was a white nationalist, she said no, but that immigrants should assimilate. “Why do we need to have Little Havana?” she mused.
The images of children in cages, the audio of toddlers wailing for their mothers and fathers, made their way around the world. Members of Miller’s extended family wrung their hands in collective despair at how such a man could have emerged from the family line. Patti had written several letters to Miriam over the years, but never sent them. Now, she did. “I said, ‘Your father would be ashamed…. Please tell me that you don’t agree with this. Please tell me that you don’t, Miriam.’ And she never responded to me.” Stephen’s childhood rabbi, Neil Comess-Daniels, powerfully rebuked him in a sermon.
Family separation was a PR disaster. In June 2018, at the urging of the first lady and Ivanka, Trump signed an executive order officially cancelling the policy, though he still wanted to enforce it, according to reports. Miller and Waldman looked for ways to reinstate it under a different name, which alarmed her colleagues. The next month, the Senate would hold a hearing about family separation. Among the officials being questioned was Commander Jonathan White, who was in charge of those efforts at HHS. As Soboroff recounts, in a practice session for the hearing, White was asked if separation would be harmful to children’s mental health. Waldman wanted him to respond that there was no way to know. White said he would stick to the facts, thank you. Waldman went at him, calling him a “bleeding-heart liberal.” He exploded at her, “You literally traumatized these kids. Why don’t you peddle your story to people who don’t work in immigration.”
The truth soon came out. Miller and Waldman weren’t just ideological partners over the course of this period. They had been falling in love—a fact she was keeping from colleagues, especially Nielsen. According to a friend, she had wanted to find a Jewish partner, but the pool of Republican Jews in Washington was small. The courtship would have been uncomfortable to most people, says this friend. Everywhere they went, people hated on him. They would go out for dinner, and strangers from the next table would ask how she stomached him.
But Katie—who by February 2019 was working as Senator Martha McSally’s spokeswoman— seemed giddy about her new life alongside Miller. Together, they were the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of MAGA, working to purge her former department of those who’d stood in the way of Miller’s policies. In March 2019, Katie showed up at Nielsen’s practice session before she was to testify before Congress; the interpretation was that she was there to be his eyes and ears. Nielsen was forced out a month later. Katie’s former DHS colleagues believed that she was the source behind a Washington Examiner article about the imminent firing of two more DHS officials whom Miller was targeting—which was news to those officials. Those officials found the source’s statements to be rife with gross distortions and falsehoods. It seems his power was exhilarating to her. At a wedding of a college friend, a guest recalls how she was breezed in and out with perfunctory niceties, excused Stephen’s absence, and “bragged about how he hadn’t flown commercial in years.” A college classmate jokes, “I would guess she reads news coverage of him as foreplay.” She moved up the career ladder beside him. In October 2019, she landed the plum job of Pence’s press secretary.
A month later, Katie and Stephen announced their engagement. According to a relative, members of Katie’s own clan were distressed by the union. Extended Waldman family members shared their concern with Katie’s parents. As much as her parents might have preferred a different son-in-law, they felt it was not their decision to make. Katie assured people that there was a different side to him, that he was kind and caring. When this relative met Miller, that other side was not apparent.
As Waldman and Miller exchanged vows that perfect February day, COVID-19 was spreading unchecked throughout the country. Pence was about to be tapped to lead the Coronavirus Task Force. To be sure, Trump set the ignorant, anti-science tone. Katie, by virtue of being the task force’s press secretary, might have tried to steer the messaging in a more responsible, informed direction. Instead, she seemed to be a blithe minion. At an early press conference, Deborah Birx, FDA head Stephen Hahn, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams had arranged themselves on the stage, about 10 feet apart from one another. Katie emerged from backstage and, with an insistent smile, motioned for them to get closer…closer…closer. The officials did as they were told.
The public is desperate for real information, but Katie has seemed content to treat members of the press like Trump did—as annoying, rude nuisances. At a press conference in early March, reporter Brian Karem asked Pence if the White House had any guidance for the uninsured getting tested for COVID-19. Pence ignored the question and rambled on about how the risk to Americans was low. As the task force moved to exit the room, Karem tried to ask his question again, and then a third time, his voice rising to a yell, in exasperation. Katie snapped, “Screaming for the camera isn’t going to get you anywhere.” Karem wasn’t especially surprised. A veteran of many administrations, he’d long felt that the Trump press people were the worst: “Juvenile…arrogant…so incomplete in their knowledge they have no idea they even lack knowledge,” and that “she embodies all of that.” What offended him was the obvious callousness toward American people suffering. “This administration doesn’t care, and it’s obvious from her response to me that there’s little consideration for anyone outside their own bubble.”
Together, they were the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of MAGA, working to purge her former department of those who’d stood in the way of Miller’s policies.
Weeks later when Pence was delivering PPE to a rehab facility in Alexandria, Virginia, she stood talking to a group of reporters. They wore masks, but Katie did not. She was well aware of the controversy. The previous week, Pence hadn’t worn a mask to the Mayo Clinic and was promptly shamed into admitting that he should have. As Debra J. Saunders of Las Vegas Review-Journal later reported, Katie had coughed then joked to them that she didn’t have the coronavirus. The next day, Katie tested positive for the virus. Trump let it slip that a wonderful woman in his administration, “Katie,” had tested positive, leaving it to reporters to figure out who exactly it was. Mrs. Miller emerged a few weeks later to thank well-wishers and to announce that she was pregnant.
Seven months into the virus, the messaging from the task force has been catastrophic. More than 160,000 Americans have died, a toll exacerbated by the administration’s misinformation and lack of concern; the plague has disproportionately hit people of color and, of course, the elderly. Among the recent victims is Stephen’s own grandmother, Ruth Glosser, who died in early July. Her son, David Glosser, castigates the administration for its disastrous response to the coronavirus. The White House has denied that COVID-19 was the cause of her death, even though it is on the death certificate. Even while downplaying COVID-19, Stephen has used the disease as a tool for his xenophobia. After calling it the “foreign virus” in Trump’s March Oval Office address, he has used it to curb immigration in every new way he can. On Monday the New York Times reported that Trump is considering blocking U.S. citizens from reentering the country if border officials suspect COVID-19 exposure; the report attributed the push to Miller’s “assault on immigration.”
Miller has seized the messaging of the other national crisis—the civil unrest stemming from the murder of George Floyd. The target has shifted from immigrants to the supporters of Black Lives Matter, but the rhetorical flourishes are the same. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” Miller wrote in Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech, words that by now sound like white noise. Once intent on taking control of DHS, Miller is watching his fantasies of punishment unfold on television, with militiamen in camouflage—whom he calls “heroes”—pulling protesters off the street and throwing them into unmarked vans.
These may be the Millers’ final days this close to the sun. But for some of his family members, even a Trump defeat won’t end the nightmare. “I personally believe that he should be tried for crimes against humanity,” says Patti Glosser of her young relative. Katie could easily find herself at a place like Fox, a new Irena Briganti. Stephen will likely find a role at a far-right think tank or a Breitbart-like corner of the web. The worry among his relatives is that Stephen has laid the groundwork for longevity. “When he’s in his 60s or 70s or even sooner, we could go through this all over again,” fears Patti. “Will we become a kinder, gentler nation, or will we continue on the path that we are?”
This story has been updated.
It was so not like Jane Buckingham to behave this way. After all, she was the model for a responsible, successful, hip 21st-century parent. She built her career on being an expert in millennial and Generation Z trends, she wrote articles on parenting, gave talks on the subject, was featured on shows like Good Morning America and Today. We parents need to be more chill, she told people in her girlish, approachable way. Let our kids make mistakes. Don’t bulldoze a path for them. And yet here she was, committing a crime in order to give her son a leg up.
Summer of 2018, and the time had come for Jack, a rising senior at Los Angeles’s tony Brentwood School, to take the ACT. Buckingham had hired Rick Singer to shepherd them through the college application process. And Singer knew how to make the test easy for Jack—so easy that he wouldn’t even have to take it himself. Thanks to a provision for students with learning disabilities, and two alleged Singer coconspirators in Houston—master test taker Mark Riddell and test administrator Niki Williams—Jack would be able to “take” the ACT from the comfort of his own home while awaiting a tonsillectomy. Riddell, as Jane knew, would take the actual test—and score brilliantly. Later, Williams would submit that fabulous test to the ACT. Singer just needed one more thing: a handwriting sample from Jack so that Riddell could fake the essay portion convincingly. Jane asked Jack to provide one. “To whom it may concern,” Jack wrote in distinct, uneven lettering, “this provides an example of my current writing style. Thank you for your attention.” Jane snapped a picture of it and emailed it along. She knew she was acting bananas and tried to laugh it off. “I know this is craziness,” she said to Singer. “I know it is. And then I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and make peace in the Middle East.” Then she forked over $35,000 of a promised $50,000 to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation and waited for her son to get into the University of Southern California.
Eight months later, the news hit the L.A. private schools as most things did: over the smartphones. Fifty people, including 33 parents—most from L.A. and the Bay Area—had been swept up in Singer’s jaw-dropping college admissions bribery scheme. Out on the Brentwood quad, there was Jane Buckingham’s name. A few miles north, at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, there was the name of the respected entrepreneur father, Devin Sloane, who paid a bribe for his son Matteo to be designated as a water polo recruit for USC. Over in Hancock Park, at the Marlborough school, Jack Buckingham’s friend saw her father, Morrie Tobin, exposed as both a participant in the scheme and the guy who ratted it out to the FBI. All that time she spent blabbing about the Ivy League school she’d committed to—now the truth was out. As other families learned more about the identities of the parents, they began seething—not just because these wealthy parents had cheated the system, but because some of them had done so while presenting themselves to the world as exemplary human beings.
For Singer, they were the perfect targets. Any parent obsessed with curating an image of affluence, good taste, and beneficence was exactly the sort to fixate unreasonably on a degree from Georgetown or USC. In a world dictated by status symbols, having “a kid at Yale” was the Holy Grail, the ultimate proof of a life worth envying—even if their kid was only interested in plugging products on Instagram. L.A. was teeming with such showboats. Five families, presented here, each interconnected to the others, lived behind that glossy façade. They were pillars of the community at their children’s private schools. They talked about “doing good” and “giving back.” Their kids were friends with one another on social media, a tribute to their own social significance. (Those children’s first names that have not appeared elsewhere have been changed.) But their fates diverge: Two got caught; two have come away unscathed—so far—despite dubious entanglements; and one exposed it all, for a reason no more noble than to save his own skin.
Singer had been in the college counseling business in some fashion for two decades. His illicit turn appears to have started 11 years ago in Newport Beach, just south of L.A., where he lived after years spent in Sacramento. He offered legitimate college counseling and eventually, if a parent seemed desperate enough, two options off the cheating menu: the fraudulent testing, or the engagement of one of his dirty college coaches to falsely designate the applicant as an athletic recruit. A year after hitting Newport Beach, Singer, with his energetic, athletic frame, was storming L.A. He sold his know-how at financial institutions, where he spoke to rooms full of rich parents. Once they bit, he talked about his “connections” from his years as a college basketball coach and how he could make “guarantees.” And if you didn’t do it his way, you’d be screwed. Word got around about Singer. As one Brentwood parent put it, he became like “the guy who everybody wants as a nutritionist, or everybody want to do Pilates with.” Only the stakes were practically life or death—and you had to act fast. “Call today! Otherwise he won’t pick up,” one parent was told.
Brian Werdesheim knew a good thing when he saw one. Cofounder and CEO of the Summa Group—a specialized division of Oppenheimer that manages $1.5 billion of clients’ personal wealth and offers financial planning advice—Werdesheim was just the sort of aspirational hotshot drawn to Singer. He served as a key point of entrée for Singer in L.A. A graduate of USC, Werdesheim had been steadily hitting the marks of success. In 2004, he started the Summa Group’s Children’s Foundation as a way for his employees to “think about giving back,” according to its website. A few years later, his two kids began attending the prestigious Buckley School. In 2016, he joined the board of Buckley, a surefire sign of arrival. In 2017, he and his wife, Janelle, had their Studio City home featured in Ventura Blvd magazine.
Priding himself on his ability to network, Werdesheim made Singer his go-to college guy for various associates as early as 2009. Former St. Louis Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom, for example, heard Singer speak at an Oppenheimer company event in 2009 and hired him to work with his son, who ended up attending USC’s Thornton School of Music. Though Werdesheim, in a Forbes profile, claimed credit for introducing the two men, Rosenbloom clarified in a statement: “[W]e have never been clients of Mr. Werdesheim, and we have had no business relationship with Oppenheimer for over 15 years. Most importantly, like many others, we only used Mr. Singer for his legitimate college counseling services.” Werdesheim later reportedly brought both Singer and Rosenbloom in as minority shareholders in the Welsh football team Swansea.
The networking stakes stretched ever higher. In fall 2017, one of Werdesheim’s employees, Valerie Yang, facilitated one of the whopping payments made to elite institutions by two Chinese families. Described on the Summa website as “a great resource and connection for the Chinese speaking clients of the Summa group,” Yang served as a translator for the father of L.A. high school student Sherry Guo, who was applying to college and whose parents wanted a sure thing (her parents’ first names have been withheld from the public). In November 2017, Yang emailed Singer, according to prosecutors, saying that Mr. Guo “wished to make a ‘donation’ to ‘one of those top schools’ for his daughter’s ‘application.’ ” According to Guo’s lawyer, Singer chose Yale, where he had a connection in women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith. Singer created a fake athletic profile for Guo, claiming that she was cocaptain of a Southern California club soccer team. Members of Guo’s family paid $1.2 million to Singer’s fake charity, Key Worldwide; Singer, in turn, paid $400,000 to Meredith. In a statement to VANITY FAIR, an Oppenheimer spokesperson wrote: “Neither Oppenheimer, its Summa Group or Valerie Yang, a junior employee at Oppenheimer, ever provided financial advice to the Guo family. The Guo family is not, and has never been, a client of Oppenheimer.” Guo’s lawyer has said the family believed the money was a legitimate charitable donation.
Werdesheim became more intimate with Singer, folding him into his charity. The Summa Group’s Children’s Foundation had had a sporadic giving history. According to available tax returns, from 2008 to 2017, there were just a handful of five-figure donations made to children’s educational programs—plus a $1 million donation to the television show Reading Rainbow. The majority of donations were in the $1,000 to $5,000 range for local youth sports clubs. Now, in the summer of 2017, just as Werdesheim’s daughter was entering high school, Werdesheim launched a new name for his foundation—the Banyan Foundation—and gave it a new mission: to give privileged L.A. teenagers an opportunity to do volunteer work. It was a worthy goal, to be sure—and one that had the added benefit of making its participants look impressive to colleges. He made Singer one of just three board members, alongside an events planner, Mitch Kirsch. Werdesheim’s daughter signed up, as well as students from other elite private schools—Brentwood, Campbell Hall, Archer, and Oakwood. Singer’s title wasn’t just a formality. According to a Buckley source, Werdesheim extolled the wonders of Rick Singer around the school community, telling people what a fabulous job he was doing with the kids from his charity. In a statement, Werdesheim said: “Mr. Singer misrepresented himself to the Banyan Foundation and the Summa Group, as he did to the public, as a conventional advisor on college planning, focused in areas of college preparation, application, admission and selection. Mr. Singer was terminated from the board of the foundation immediately after the foundation’s board learned of the allegations against him.”
Werdesheim’s friend and fellow board member at Buckley, Adam Bass, got hooked on Singer too. Bass’s name has not surfaced in any news report, yet his Rick Singer tale stands alone in its particular set of bizarre circumstances. President and CEO of the Buchalter law firm, Bass was a bro done good. An outgoing, blustery dude—always with the phone, always with the texting—Bass had racked up several awards and accolades in his career, according to paragraph one of his online bio, including a spot on the Los Angeles Business Journal’s “L.A. 500, L.A.’s Most Influential” people list. He’d gone to the University of San Diego for college and law school. Which was fine, but God help him if his daughter, whom we’ll call Eliza, Buckley class of 2018, the oldest of his four children, wasn’t going to do better than that.
Buckley had discouraged parents from using outside consultants and asked them to acknowledge if they were intending to do so anyway. But Bass wasn’t taking any chances. He signed Eliza up with Singer, neglecting to mention it to administrators, and got to work making her an irresistible applicant. In 2017, while Eliza joined the Banyan Foundation alongside Werdesheim’s daughter, Bass used his role as school board member to meddle where he arguably should not have. One of Singer’s obsessions was a clean transcript. He urged his students to do everything in their power to improve a grade, even by one increment. “Whenever possible, turn your C-pluses into B-minuses and your B-pluses into A-minuses. That means working your teachers [emphasis author’s],” he wrote in Getting In (2014). Bass may well have had that in his head when, in June 2017, he approached the school headmaster, James Busby, and lobbied him to change his daughter’s grade in math class—from a C-plus to a B-minus. Such grade changes can be warranted under certain circumstances, if a headmaster feels that a teacher has been unfair, for example. A source close to Busby says that he agreed with Bass’s reasoning at the time—that the teacher had been unfair. The change was made. Crisis averted. The following fall, Eliza applied to three colleges’ early action: Georgetown, Tulane, and Loyola Marymount. The triple early-action play might have been overkill, but no matter. As Singer wrote: “Your chance of acceptance goes up 50% if you apply early, and you can apply to multiple schools with early action.” The Bass family wasn’t going to screw this up now.
But Singer wasn’t done with the dudes on the Buckley board. Next was Devin Sloane, whose son, Matteo, was friends and classmates with Eliza Bass, and whose whole package looked very impressive to outsiders. The son of an oil executive father and Olympic athlete mother, Sloane met his future wife, Cristina, an Italian, through a spiritual guru in L.A, according to a source. They moved to Italy, where they spent several years and had three sons and a daughter, before returning to L.A. He became a successful entrepreneur in wastewater solutions, something residents of the drought-prone city took a major interest in. He and Cristina funded orphanages in India. In 2015, Sloane sponsored the Italian Special Olympics team when it came to L.A. At the closing event, his oldest son, Matteo, whose first language was Italian, translated for the Italian athletes. “It’s a family you want to love,” a family acquaintance puts it.
And yet, Sloane was willing to go to grotesque lengths to get Matteo into a good college. Together, Singer and Sloane selected USC and agreed to pass him off as a water polo athlete who played for the “Italian Junior National Team” and the “L.A. Water Polo” team, even though he did not play competitively. In June 2017, while fellow board member Bass was asking for his daughter’s grade change, Sloane bought the necessary gear on Amazon—a ball and a bathing cap—then tasked a graphic designer to photoshop an image of his son wearing the cap, hitting the ball, in an outdoor pool. It took a while for the graphic designer to get it right. When Sloane sent Singer the photoshopped image of his son rising out of the water to hit the ball, Singer replied that the boy was “a little high out of the water—no one gets that high.” Adjustments were made, and presto: Matteo got his conditional acceptance letter to USC. Sloane paid Singer $200,000 through the foundation and paid $50,000 to USC’s Women’s Athletics, an account controlled by Donna Heinel, the senior women’s athletic director and one of Singer’s alleged coconspirators. (She has been fired and has pleaded not guilty.) It was practically time to buy the USC car decal.
But Buckley wasn’t enough for Singer. He trolled the other private schools, snagging two high-profile names at Marymount and L.A. County High School for the Arts—actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, respectively. And then there was Huffman’s pal Jane Buckingham. She was a woman who seemed to have it all: bouncy blonde hair and a super-fit body; two careers; two popular kids, Jack and Lilia, a teenage social media influencer with 1.5 million Instagram followers; and for 21 years before they recently split, a handsome, successful husband, motivational speaker Marcus Buckingham. In her work as founder and CEO of Trendera, a youth-marketing consulting firm, and author of the Modern Girl’s Guide series, Buckingham was a bubbly purveyor of savvy know-how in the quest for success. “She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s self-deprecating,” says a fellow Brentwood mother, who watched her in awe. “She’s stylish without being too stylish. She’s wealthy without being showy.”
The parenting-expert thing was a more recent addition to her résumé. Millennial entitlement? “It’s not their fault, it’s their parents’,” Buckingham told an audience in 2016. “That’s what happens when you give them a gold star for going to the potty and a trophy for not participating and telling them they are fantastic every day of their life.” Brentwood gobbled up her cool mom gospel. The school hired her as a consultant to clean up its own image as a haven for entitled rich kids. In spring 2018, at It’s Our Turn: Young Women’s Conference at Brentwood School, which drew 1,000 students from across L.A., Buckingham spoke on a panel called “Wow Them: Your Best Self, Résumé to Interview.” Sometime before the scandal broke, she posted on Instagram a context-free graphic that said “DONT CHEAT” with a comment from her below: “Apply it to all aspects of life and you’ll probably be ok.”
Five months after the Brentwood conference, in the summer of 2018, the façade began to crack. Now, a year after splitting from Marcus, here she was, apparently working behind his back to cheat for their son. The details were proving a bit tricky to sort out. With Jack awaiting surgery for tonsillitis, he wasn’t supposed to travel. How was she going to explain this to Marcus? “My ex-husband is being incredibly difficult about the whole surgery,” she told Singer by phone. “If I take him to Houston and then he can’t get the surgery, he’s gonna be very annoyed with me.”
Singer made calls to his cronies, fixing the details so that Jack could take the test from home, while Mark Riddell would complete the test in its entirety in Houston. Word got around at Brentwood that Jack was taking the test at home. It struck people as odd. But, according to a Brentwood parent, “Nobody had the sophistication to understand that he was really actually cheating.” Though Buckingham tried to laugh it off to Singer as some kind of nutty act of impulsiveness, she was back on the phone with Singer four months later, in October 2018, soberly making plans for her daughter, Lilia. “[I’d] probably like to do the same thing with [my daughter] with her ACTs,” she told Singer, “[because she’s] not a great test taker.”
Meanwhile, in Hancock Park, one of Jack’s friends, whom we’ll call Kate, was becoming ensnared in the scheme too, thanks to her would-be superstar parent, Morrie Tobin, who’d prove to be the final linchpin in the whole story. Born and raised in Montreal, Tobin was a good student himself, star athlete, and teen heartthrob. As a high school classmate told the Montreal Gazette, “Every guy wanted to be Morrie Tobin. I wanted to be Morrie Tobin.” In 1981, he started at Yale, playing on the hockey team. “He was loud, gregarious, boisterous, and seemed to me obnoxious but basically good-natured,” recalls one of his schoolmates, artist Alexi Worth. Some who knew him marveled that he got into Yale in the first place, but two years after starting there, he transferred to the University of Vermont. He wound up back in Canada, became a financial executive, and started a large family with his wife, Gale. He eventually moved the family from Toronto to L.A., where he began to burnish his image. On his since-disabled Twitter account, he referred to himself as #socialentrepreneur and talked about his experience volunteering at a homeless shelter. He chose for his five daughters the Marlborough school, a tony girls academy.
Marlborough had been a target community for Singer going back to 2014, perhaps even earlier. Michael Heeter, a former Marlborough college counselor, recalls one of his students at the time telling him that “she was promised UCLA” by her college consultant—a guy he’d never heard of, a guy named Rick Singer. UCLA had been recruiting the student as manager of the swim team, she told him—which was curious to Heeter given that she wasn’t involved in swimming at all. Singer, the girl told Heeter, had instructed her to keep this exciting information to herself—and not to tell her school guidance counselor. Heeter promptly relayed this odd information to the then head of the school, Barbara Wagner. She instructed Heeter to email Singer not to “approach our families again.” But Singer wasn’t one to fear administrators.
The Tobin girls were a powerful force at Marlborough; in the perception of others, they gave off an aura of specialness and privilege. “For whatever reason, they were untouchable,” says a Marlborough parent. Morrie, despite his own incomplete stint at Yale—or perhaps because of it—seemed set on Yale for his girls. And one by one, three got in (a fourth went to the University of Pennsylvania). For a small school like Marlborough, spots at a college like Yale were especially precious—Yale might only admit one or two from any given year. Given the school’s competitive environment, parents and children alike studied the particulars of each Ivy League acceptance. The admittance of one Tobin daughter from Marlborough, for example, raised eyebrows with at least one parent, who felt that her own daughter, who was at the top of the class, might have been unfairly denied a spot. Still, there’s no suggestion that any bribes were paid for the older girls’ admissions.
His youngest daughter, Kate, was a different story. “Even at a school as rich and privileged and occasionally Mean Girls-ish as Marlborough, there was a group of kids who took that to the next level,” says a parent. “She was in that group. Very savvy and competitive and alert socially, and not all that nice to girls on the outside of her group.” (In addition to Jack Buckingham, her wider social network includes three others who have been implicated: Olivia Jade and Bella Giannulli, and Matteo Sloane.) As a result, some classmates viewed her warily. A source close to Kate believes “there was an element of jealousy” in their negative view of her. After all, according to this source, Kate was both a top student and a great athlete, playing club soccer at an elite level. According to this person, Kate was also concerned about unfair college admission practices she saw happening around her. On multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018, she went to school administrators and voiced her concern about students from Marlborough and elsewhere who she had heard were paying a West L.A. psychiatrist to state, erroneously, that they had a learning disability so that they could get extra time on their standardized tests.
However impressive Kate was as an applicant, Morrie Tobin wasn’t taking any chances. He got a jump on Kate’s college process early, starting in eighth grade. Retired Marlborough science teacher Nessim Lagnado recalls Tobin urging him to let Kate into accelerated chemistry even though she was not ready for it. (Lagnado declined.) And then there was the Yale side of things. In 2017, Tobin had two daughters attending Yale. While they hadn’t been designated as soccer recruits, both played club soccer, which is how Tobin came to know the soccer coach, Rudy Meredith. Meredith had already been accepting bribes, via Singer, since 2015, according to prosecutors. Now, in the summer of 2017, just as Kate was a rising junior, the two men made contact directly and hatched a plan for bribe payments to be made in exchange for getting Kate in as a soccer recruit. A source close to the family says that Meredith was the instigator of this plan, and that he pressured Tobin, telling him that other parents were doing it. Whatever the case, the men agreed. The bribes would come in monthly installments and would total mid-six figures.
Kate was promptly told that she was being accepted as a soccer recruit to Yale. According to a source close to her, she was in the dark about what her father had done to make this happen and believed she had earned the spot on her own merits.
In September 2017, at the start of her junior year, Kate was sharing the exciting news with classmates. She even posted a photo of herself on Instagram wearing a Yale sweatshirt, grinning, with the following caption: “so excited to say that I have been committed to play soccer at yale.” It didn’t go over well. “The soccer thing was weird,” says a parent. According to this parent, although she was a fine soccer player, those who understood the world of soccer recruitment didn’t believe she was Division I material—her stats were not at that level. More important, the timing of the post felt show-offy and thoughtless, coming out just as her classmates were facing the daunting application process. But they threw their hands up—that was Kate Tobin for you.
The first cracks in the Singer case began to form over the course of the 2017–18 school year at Buckley, thanks to a savvy school guidance counselor, Julie Taylor-Vaz. She was sometimes treated like a concierge by the parents, according to a fellow administrator; they huffed when she didn’t return calls immediately. But she was methodical and sharp. Sometime after Matteo Sloane got his conditional acceptance letter to USC, Taylor-Vaz spoke with a USC admissions officer, who told her about Matteo being admitted as a water polo recruit. She expressed her bewilderment—Buckley didn’t have a water polo team. News of her skepticism traveled from the USC admissions office to USC senior women’s athletic director Donna Heinel, who told Singer, who told Devin Sloane. Sloane grew indignant about the interference of Taylor-Vaz and wrote to Singer in an email: “The more I think about this, it is outrageous! [Buckley has] no business or legal right considering all the students [sic] privacy issues to be calling and challenging/question [my son]’s application.”
The Sloane family managed to squeak by, with Matteo getting accepted into USC class of 2022. But during the same school year, the Bass family would be stopped in its tracks, bringing the truth one step closer to coming out. In December 2017, Taylor-Vaz found herself in a different curious conversation, this time with Tulane. A Tulane admissions officer said the college would be delighted to offer a spot to one of Buckley’s students, Eliza Bass—an African American tennis whiz, ranked in the Top 10 in California, whose parents had never attended college. But Taylor-Vaz knew this wasn’t true. Eliza was white. She didn’t play tennis competitively. And her father was Adam Bass, a wealthy board member, with a B.A. and law degree from USD. Taylor-Vaz shared the information with her superiors. Puzzled, Buckley made calls to Georgetown and Loyola Marymount. They too wanted to accept Eliza, the African American tennis wonder. Buckley set the colleges straight and promptly got to work trying to determine what on earth was going on.
School brass spoke with Adam Bass, hoping to find answers. After initially failing to acknowledge that he’d hired an outside consultant for Eliza, Bass now admitted that Eliza was, in fact, using one: Rick Singer. Singer, Bass explained, according to a Buckley source, had asked for her name and password to her applications file. One of Singer’s employees must have gotten in there, changed the application without Eliza’s knowledge, and submitted it for her, Bass claimed. Eliza wrote an email to Georgetown and Tulane explaining the same. When pressed further by Georgetown, Eliza explained that her father had worked with Singer on charitable endeavors that helped disadvantaged inner-city youths. The colleges were unmoved, for a fairly obvious reason: No applicant should be in the position of having someone else in control of his or her application in the first place. The same falsehoods were on her applications to the University of California schools where Eliza had applied. She was allowed to retract those applications and reapply. (Adam Bass did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
As Eliza waited to hear back from Berkeley—her new first choice—life was about to get even more uncomfortable. Although the fact of her fraudulent application remained successfully hidden from the high school community, in February 2018 word began spreading about Eliza’s grade change from the previous June. Students were angry and launched a protest against the board and headmaster, demanding an investigation. It became a local news story—with news trucks showing up on campus. The school’s investigation cleared Busby of violating any guidelines, but he was later pushed to resign. Elliot Choi, then a co-editor in chief of the school newspaper, recalls Eliza coming to him in a distraught state, worrying what this would mean for her chances at Berkeley. Choi, one of the few kids who didn’t come from a privileged background, gave her the only advice he could think of: Keep working hard and wait and see.
As soon as Georgetown learned the truth about Eliza’s phony application as an African American tennis ace, it put tennis coach Gordon Ernst on leave and began an investigation into his recruiting practices. The investigation concluded that there were “irregularities in the athletic and other credentials” of two of Ernst’s past recruits, but found no evidence of bribes and no trail that led to Singer. Ernst (who has pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy) ended up getting a job at the University of Rhode Island. The matter stopped there. But in L.A., Morrie Tobin was about to blow the whole thing.
From around 2013 to the present—the same period during which three of his daughters came streaming into Yale—Tobin was engaged in a classic pump-and-dump stock scheme. Starting in 2017, investigators in Massachusetts began looking into the transactions, as some of the investors lived in the state. In March 2018, the FBI raided Tobin’s house looking for materials and arrested him. According to prosecutors, Tobin was given a “multi-day proffer,” in which he could offer whatever he knew about the stock scam in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. Tobin had something that turned out to be more explosive—a coach who was selling recruitment spots at Yale.
Cooperating now with the FBI, in an investigation the bureau dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, Tobin asked Meredith to meet him in a Boston hotel room, which the FBI had wired. Tobin paid Meredith $2,000 in the room, and they discussed where the final payment for the bribe would be wired. Over the course of their conversation, Meredith brought up a name, Rick Singer, as someone he was working with. It was the first time the FBI had heard his name, and they began following the trail. Over the summer of 2018, the FBI started wiretapping Singer’s phone, gathering evidence on him and collecting dirt on parents along the way. By late September, the FBI had what it needed to arrest him. Singer flipped on his clients and coaches. He cooperated with the FBI, which led to dozens more wiretapped phone calls with parents and emails with coaches—and the eventual mass arrest of 50 people on March 12, 2019.
The Wall Street Journal broke the news about the identity of the tipster in the case—Morrie Tobin—and revealed that he was also a participant in the bribery. Kate, according to a source, learned the news along with the rest of the world, and was in for the most traumatic day of her life as long-standing grudges against her exploded into a frenzy of schadenfreude. “When the article came out, [Kate] was literally sprinting down Rossmore, away from Marlborough. [Other girls] were laughing and being gleeful,” says the source close to her. Later, when the college acceptances came out, and it was revealed that Kate had not been accepted to Yale, “they were all in the senior lounge, cheering and celebrating.” This group had made up its mind about Kate’s character—they believed that she must have been aware of her father’s actions. Kate had her defenders, who insisted she knew nothing about what he had been doing. This only got the doubters wondering if some of the defenders hadn’t also been paying bribes to get into college themselves. After all, they were from the wealthiest families in the class, and studying didn’t seem to be their top priority. The atmosphere devolved into what one parent compared to Lord of the Flies. Everything was thrown into chaos and question. Even Lagnado, the retired science teacher, began to wonder. He remembers thinking, Now I understand why X was admitted and Y wasn’t.
Over in Brentwood, Jack Buckingham was surely having one of the most horrific days of his life too. That morning, FBI agents had shown up at his house and taken his mother away. According to a Brentwood source, he lasted only a few periods before returning home. For his classmates, the reaction was complicated. On the one hand, they felt bad for him. Jack denied knowing anything about it, and his friends believed him. But it wasn’t that simple. They remembered how weird it was that he’d taken the ACT at home. Now that mystery was solved, and many people were angry. For the kids who’d applied to USC and hadn’t yet gotten in, they and their parents wondered if they had been cheated out of a spot. The families fretted that the scandal would tar Brentwood at large, and crush everyone’s hard-fought efforts to get into any decent college. “We all thought our kids were going to be collateral damage,” says one parent, pointing particularly to those who were white and privileged but not wealthy enough to donate a building. “We are the category that’s going to get completely fucked.” It didn’t help Brentwood’s image that in an unrelated incident, a kid who’d recently been rejected by Georgetown—and then accepted to Harvard—chose to email the following message to Georgetown: “Fuck you. I’m going to Harvard.” Harvard learned of this; the kid is now taking a gap year.
A meeting for the parents of juniors and seniors led by the head of the school and top administrators devolved into “an absolute shit show,” says one attendee. Brentwood officials tried their best to mollify the parents, assuring them that they’d been in touch with the colleges, and that the colleges were not putting the blame on the high schools, or any honest applicants from Brentwood. Still, the parents of Jack’s friends weren’t taking any chances. Some forbade their kid from hanging out at his house. God forbid a photographer on stake-out would snap a picture of them, drawing them into the mess. As for Jane Buckingham, puzzled, disillusioned friends on either coast reached out with tentative “just checking in” emails.
The parents caught up in the scheme have run the gamut in terms of their reactions to the scandal. Fourteen have pleaded guilty. Felicity Huffman was one of the first, stating, “With deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions.” This was followed several weeks later by a guilty plea from Buckingham, who has made no public statement, but according to a friend has since “owned it” and even made self-deprecating jokes about it. These two women stand in stark contrast to Lori Loughlin. “No one can figure out what she’s doing,” says a person in her social group. She is among 19 other parents who are fighting the charges and going to trial. Adam Bass has paid no price for his involvement with Singer—perhaps because, as he told Buckley, he had no idea what Singer was doing; perhaps because the school successfully stopped an illicit scheme in its tracks, thus saving him from himself. Brian Werdesheim remains at Oppenheimer and on the Buckley board, despite being Singer’s main champion.
The fates of many of the children remain up in the air. USC, the school sought by the majority of Singer’s families, declined to admit this year’s applicants involved with Singer. As for those currently enrolled, the school is examining each student’s personal culpability. Georgetown has expelled two students: Isabelle Henriquez, who, according to the indictment, “gloated,” along with her mother and the proctor who successfully cheated for her; and Adam Semprevivo, who’d been cc’d on at least one of the incriminating emails with Singer. He has maintained that he didn’t know what his father was up to and he is suing Georgetown in part based on the assertion that Georgetown should have realized that his application was false, even as he, allegedly, did not. Jack Buckingham pleaded his innocence before the admissions office at Southern Methodist University and was accepted. Eliza Bass ended up at Berkeley, no thanks to her dad. Kate Tobin got an acceptance from USC and other colleges, according to a source close to her, but is still weighing her options. So the rich kids of L.A. will probably land on their feet. The real challenge might be recognizing—and rejecting—their parents’ questionable values. That would be an achievement.
Meet Bari Weiss, “alt-righter,” “fascist,” “the Jewish, female version of Kanye West.” She doesn’t like immigrants. She’s a traitor to her gender, and she should be “sterilized.” In short, “Bari Weiss can fuck off.”
That’s the word, anyway, about the 35-year-old star opinion writer for The New York Times, from a very loud and increasingly influential corner of social media. Her newfound fame has transcended her platform. She’s become a somewhat unwitting avatar for the knee-jerk flash-bang of social media, a poster child for the polarization of the chattering classes.
Therefore it’s disorienting to meet Weiss and discover that she’s neither an aspiring sex symbol/bomb thrower, à la Ann Coulter, nor a defensive Ivy League know-it-all. When she walks into Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, blocks from her fifth-floor walk-up, you might peg her as a kindergarten teacher—she’s petite, with hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a low ponytail, big glasses framing a cherubic face. She’s effusive and warm, immediately popping out with one eager question after another before I can successfully steer the conversation around to her. Her minor insecurities are blurted fodder for making a connection. “I have pen marks on my boob. I was like, ‘I’m going to meet a Vanity Fair writer and I have pen on my boob.’ I was really embarrassed. Also, I’ve been sweating a lot.” She says that her father has been urging her to freeze her eggs. “Should I do it now?” she asks, sincerely searching for an answer. This isn’t some dopey act intended to charm. Weiss seems genuinely fueled by curiosity, the desire to connect, to cross boundaries and try out new things. As she sums up her outlook, “I just want to gobble the world.”
Though most of her friends are liberals, she sometimes socializes with conservatives too. According to friends, she loves to spar not just to hear the sound of her own voice but because she might learn something. After listening to someone else’s point of view, she’s been known to do something amazing—change her mind. Given the current climate, in which everyone seems to be retreating to angry and angrier corners, those who meet her find this expansiveness refreshing. Jennifer Senior, an op-ed columnist for the Times, disagreed with some of Weiss’s political opinions (she’s to the left of Weiss on Israel, for example) but was curious about this new co-worker, who was, as Senior puts it, “steering the aircraft into a cloud of flak.” So Senior introduced herself. “She was so adorable! I wanted to wrap her up in tissue paper and take her home with me.” Young writers, such as Tariro Mzezewa, who’ve worked under Weiss in her capacity as editor, attest that she’s consistently enthusiastic about ideas she may disagree with, even nurturing. “She was the first person to put in my head that I could write an op-ed,” says the Zimbabwe-born writer. Today, Senior says, “I always marvel at the huge gulf between the Bari who’s this Twitter bogeyman and Bari the actual person. She is the subject of more unexamined hatred in our profession than almost anyone I can think of. She’s the target of so much snark. The irony, and what almost breaks my heart, is that she has almost no snark in her. She’s super-generous and loving.”
For people of a certain age, it might seem odd that Weiss should be a favorite punching bag for lefties with itchy Twitter fingers. If you read her work, she’s a liberal humanist whose guiding principle is free expression in art, love, and discourse, something the left spent decades fighting to achieve. Some of Weiss’s articles have been harshly but fairly criticized, with basic civility, by prominent journalists, such as Rebecca Traister and Glenn Greenwald. But Twitter is something else. There lives a non-negotiable doctrine, in which there’s only “good” opinion and “bad” opinion. Anyone who strays must be called out, but “called out” is too gentle a term. The targets must be taken down, not just hated but hated on. And the trolls aren’t random. Some have platforms beyond Twitter, including HuffPost, Esquire, and lefty news sites. For writers hoping to gain a following, slamming Bari Weiss has become an easy way to be seen. It wouldn’t matter if she were writing for The Wall Street Journal. The problem—or opportunity, really—is that she’s writing for The New York Times, which is supposed to be their paper, and that she’s getting famous for it.
Broadly speaking, Weiss’s work is heterodox, defying easy us/them, left/right categorization. Since getting hired at the paper in the spring of 2017, she has focused on hot-button cultural topics, such as #MeToo, the Women’s March, and campus activism, approaching each topic with a confrontational skepticism that until recently had a strong place within the liberal discourse. Her basic gist: while such movements are well-intentioned, their excesses of zeal, often imposed by the hard left, can backfire.
Take one of her early pieces, an August 2017 column on the Women’s March. The march “moved me,” Weiss wrote, and was an important response to Trump’s “attacking the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.” Yet she was disturbed that two of the four leaders of the march had recent histories of praising known anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. Weiss’s view turned out to be prescient, and the march has since splintered into factions.
Weiss has approached #MeToo with attention to the gray areas. A piece called “The Limits of ‘Believe All Women’” praised those who started #MeToo but cautioned that if we believe women in every instance, it could result in a doozy of a mistake and harm the overarching movement. On the subject of Stephen Elliott—a writer who is suing the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list, where he was anonymously accused of rape—Weiss was sympathetic to his predicament, but warned that his lawsuit “could be used to stifle women’s speech.”
In a more reported piece, Weiss addressed Australian actress Yael Stone’s accusations against Geoffrey Rush; she came down on the side of the accuser, and highlighted the difficulty of publicly calling out bad behavior in Australia, where Rush and Stone are both from, due to libel laws. (Rush has denied the allegations and recently won a defamation suit against an Australian publisher.) Though Weiss did not devote a column to Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, she wondered aloud on MSNBC if his alleged crime as a teenager should be “disqualifying.” Weiss was promptly smacked down in headlines, and admits that her sound bite came across as “glib” and simplistic. For the record, she says Ford’s testimony moved her to tears, and believes Kavanaugh’s rage-filled behavior before the Senate Judiciary Committee should have disqualified him.
Weiss has little patience for the new campus activism, in which she says students have been blithely tarring professors as “fascist.” In a May 2018 feature, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” Weiss profiled several popular academics and pundits, such as Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, and Christina Hoff Sommers, who’ve retreated from academia and the mainstream media but have emerged on other platforms. Some thought the piece was a frank portrait of a phenomenon worthy of examination. Others believed that by giving these provocateurs the floor, Weiss was endorsing their opinions.
Weiss views outcries over cultural appropriation—Katy Perry shouldn’t wear a kimono, Marc Jacobs shouldn’t put white models in dreadlocks, and so on—as “un-American.” “If that point of view wins, it’s just a pleasureless, gray world,” she says. “Who wants to live in a world where you can only stay in the lane of your birth? Literally everything good about this culture comes from mixing.”
The day after Weiss wrote “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation,” Greenwald published a full-throated takedown of a range of her opinions, calling her writing “trite, shallow, cheap.” He also accused Weiss of “crusading against Arabs, Muslims, and other assorted critics of Israel.”
It’s here where Weiss’s views draw the most passionate objections. She is an ardent Zionist, and has come to believe that much of the anti-Zionist talk on the left is tantamount to anti-Semitism, a view that many American Jews find objectionable and even infuriating. But her passion for Israel has not defined her overarching belief system—the need to protect what makes America great—and in this, she believes it’s right-wing American Jews who have lost their way. After the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, where Weiss grew up, she appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and issued a warning to American Jews who aligned themselves with Trump because they like his policies: “I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain. They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people and frankly this country for forever: welcoming the stranger, dignity for all human beings, equality under the law, respect for dissent, love of truth. These are the things that we’re losing under this president. And no policy is worth that price.”
So that’s her take on Trump. If she wanted to, Weiss could criticize him in every one of her articles. But, she asks, “is our job to be a warm bath and an ideological safe space for people who we think are our readers? Or is it our job to show them the scope of opinions, legitimate opinions, that people all over this country have? I think that’s our job. But there are other people out there who apparently think the job of a newspaper is almost to be socialist realist art.”
In Squirrel Hill, the menschy, salt-of-the-earth Jewish community in which Weiss, the oldest of four sisters, grew up, opposing viewpoints were able to exist in harmony. Her father, Lou, a successful carpet salesman, is conservative (he has contributed op-eds to the Journal himself). Her mother, Amy, who worked as a makeup buyer for Kaufmann’s Department Store before joining Lou at the family company, is a liberal. They ate bacon and went to synagogue only on Yom Kippur, but, as Weiss says, “Shabbat dinner was not to be missed!” It was a busy household with neighbors coming in and out. Passionate disagreements on the Clinton impeachment, or whatever issue du jour, were a constant, and Weiss relished these debates. Intellectual strivers and do-gooders, Lou and Amy made Weiss keep journals and would pay her five dollars to read a book and write a report. If she did something wrong, her punishment was to write a lengthy letter of apology and hand-deliver it to whomever was was offended.
At her traditional high school, “where freshman girls were giving guys blow jobs in their ski houses,” Weiss says she felt excruciatingly nerdy and alienated, though she was student-council president. After high school, she took a gap year in Israel, becoming—or so she felt—a progressive, feminist Zionist. She worked in the Negev desert, helping to build a medical clinic for Bedouin, and studied at a feminist yeshiva and Hebrew University, where she took to musical theater. She came back to the States to attend Columbia, where she met and fell in love with a woman. Not just any woman but a wry fellow student named Kate McKinnon, who’s now Saturday Night Live’s premier star thanks to her spot-on impersonations of half the Beltway class (Hillary Clinton, Jeff Sessions, Kellyanne Conway, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mika Brzezinski, Nancy Pelosi, and more). They were on and off for several years, and remain good friends. Beyond that, Weiss won’t give details. “I’ve been in love with both men and women. I’ve been ghosted by both men and women.” But, she says, “I don’t trade on my sexual identity in that way for political points. I think that’s lame and it’s not my style.”
Weiss had entered college as a theater nerd but found herself, quite by accident, in the role of activist, writer, and lightning rod. She was taking classes in the Middle East department, which was largely populated, she says, by “anti-Zionist professors who were using their classrooms as a bully pulpit to promote their views—which they were entitled to do.” But there were instances that she felt crossed the line, such as the time a student who had served in the Israeli military allegedly asked a question of Professor Joseph Massad and Massad replied, “Before I answer your question, tell the group how many Palestinians you’ve killed.” (Massad has denied saying this.)
Weiss, along with a handful of other students, believed this kind of alleged behavior amounted to intimidation. They formed a group called Columbians for Academic Freedom, and Weiss began writing in the student paper The Columbia Spectator, arguing that students had a right to express their views without fear of punishment or intimidation by their teachers. Fellow students struck back, charging that Weiss and her classmates were McCarthyites out to silence professors. Indeed, some of Weiss’s current critics point to her history as evidence of hypocrisy, given her sharp stance against current student activism. Weiss insists her views are consistent, and come down to one fundamental principle. “I hate bullies. In college I protested bullying professors who used their classrooms to promote propaganda and to silence opposing views. Now I criticize bullying students who are succeeding in driving out or, at the very least, putting a bold question mark over the names of good people like Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis.” Still, as her future friend Jennifer Senior wrote at the time of the Columbia controversy, in New York magazine, “Intimidation is a subjective notion, a devil without contours. What one student finds intimidating, another may find provocative, even intoxicating.”
Post-college, Weiss went to work for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Jewish newspaper The Forward. In 2007, at age 23, she got a job at The Wall Street Journal as a baby op-ed editor, did a two-year stint as an editor at the online Jewish magazine Tablet, and then returned to the Journal in 2013 as an editor of the book review. Around the same time she got married, to an environmental engineer, about whom she says, “He’s a wonderful person, and I think the world of him.”
Weiss might have stayed in the books section at the Journal, but Trump’s candidacy woke her up to her real passion: the intersection of politics and culture. She realized that she was one of the most left-wing people at the paper, a situation that became constraining. During the campaign, she tried to sound the alarm about Steve Bannon but was told that she “didn’t have the standing.” She wanted to write about Melania Trump’s hypocrisy with her cyber-bullying issue but wasn’t allowed to. (“Bari wrote many fine pieces for the Journal, and I don’t want to comment on work that wasn’t up to her usual standard,” then-acting op-ed editor Melanie Kirkpatrick says, referring to those proposed topics.) On the morning after Trump won, “I was sobbing, openly, at my desk. I wanted people to see how I felt about this, and what I thought it meant for the country. I realized I had to leave.” Her personal life had become frayed and disorienting, too. As much as she adored her husband, she realized that “we just operated on different speeds,” and they split up.
In April 2017, Weiss got an offer to work as both a staff editor and writer for the Times’s opinion section, under James Bennet, who was looking to expand the spectrum of ideas. As an editor, she assigned (Vanity Fair contributor) Monica Lewinsky a piece about Roger Ailes and Fox News’s toxic environment, and she commissioned a piece by Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Olympics gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. While those articles fit comfortably into the Times’s progressive zone, her own did not. In “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader,” she took on the babe.net story in which an anonymous woman accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct because he didn’t respond to her “nonverbal cues” during their date. Weiss charged that “Grace” had every opportunity to walk out, and that her story denied women agency. Some feminists weren’t pleased with Weiss’s take. Gabriella Kamran, an editor at U.C.L.A.’s feminist news magazine, FEM, tweeted, “Hey Bari, please do feminism and the entire profession of journalism a favor and stop writing.” But Weiss had hit a nerve, including among Times readers. To them—and to some prominent feminist writers—Weiss was expressing a valid and growing fear about the movement’s overreach, a fear some were reluctant to state in public.
It was around this time Bill Maher took notice of Weiss, finding in her a kindred spirit in an increasingly lonely camp. “We’re trying to get ‘liberal’ back into liberalism,” he says. The two had never met before she appeared on his show in February 2018 to discuss #MeToo, but their interchange had an affectionate familiarity. With all the talk about pain and sexual violation, Weiss asked, “whatever happened to intimacy and love and romance?” Fellow guest April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, chimed in, “I want to be courted!… Courted but with boundaries,” she added. Weiss was a hit, says Maher: “I always say, ‘She’s my new star.’ The public has taken notice.”
Indeed, as Weiss and I discuss her appearance on Maher, we are approached by a middle-aged couple who’ve been eavesdropping.
“Alright, I have to interrupt,” says the woman. “We did see you on Maher. I loved you.” Her husband adds, “For our generation, it’s important that there’s a voice like yours.” Weiss tells them that they’ve made her day and gets their stories. They’re from the Upper West Side, but now live in Vermont, near Burlington.
“It’s Bernie country,” the woman explains.
“You Bernie people?” Weiss asks.
But Weiss’s growing visibility was galling to the hard-left Twittersphere. In February of last year, Weiss gave them an opportunity to show it. After Japanese-American ice skater Mirai Nagasu landed a triple axel, Weiss tweeted out a video of Nagasu, along with the caption, “Immigrants. They get the job done,” referencing a line from Hamilton. Nagasu, though a child of immigrants, was born in California. When this was pointed out on Twitter, Weiss tweeted back, “Yes, yes, I realize. Felt the poetic license was kosher.” Well, it wasn’t kosher. She was called a racist for the tweet. She also got the pronoun in the lyric wrong—it’s “Immigrants, we get the job done,” not “they.” “You ‘othered’ a U.S. citizen because she is not Caucasian,” tweeted someone. Weiss says she meant to celebrate both the skater and the idea of immigrants, but this was a good moment for a pile-on: “Bari Weiss is a professional Bad Opinion–haver.” “Fitting that her last name is Weiss.” Etc.
The magnitude of her crime ballooned into her own workplace. A handful of staffers at The New York Times took to their group-chat Slack channel to complain about Weiss. “That tweet denied Mirai her full citizenship just as the internment did,” wrote one staffer, who believed the tweet constituted one more “microaggression” within The New York Times. A transcript of the conversation was given to HuffPost, which posted it on the site under the headline leaked chat transcripts: new york times employees are pissed about bari weiss.
Weiss tries to be sanguine about the nature of Twitter. “There’s nothing to do other than push forward and prove to people by the way you are in the world, and your behavior and what you write, your character and who you are,” she says. But the messaging among her colleagues was different. “I could sit here and tell you that that didn’t hurt me. But of course it did hurt me. The amazing thing is, not one of those [colleagues] wrote me an e-mail or said, ‘I disagreed with your tweet or your article. Want to have coffee and talk about it?’” Bennet, her boss, attests that “anybody who knows Bari realizes what a generous colleague she is. And what an openness she herself brings to these conversations.”
Last May, fresh horror was unleashed on Twitter when a random tweeter revealed Weiss used to date McKinnon, a certified cool person. “It’s very unsettling!!!” tweeted Brandy Jensen, an editor at The Outline.
Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, offered some soothing words: “Following up to emphasize that as unsettling as this might be who among us has not made extremely questionable dating choices at one time or another?”
More wrong people started falling for her, like Times reporter Nellie Bowles, a former Vice news correspondent, who began posting photos of them together on Instagram. They’ve been dating for a year. (Bowles herself wrote the definitive takedown of Jordan Peterson just 10 days after he featured in Weiss’s “Intellectual Dark Web” story.)
Along with Maher came other famous liberal fans, including writer and L.B.G.T.Q. activist Dan Savage, who has become a friend. “With someone like Bari—someone people on my side drag to virtue-signal—there’s a temptation to cover your butt with ‘Now I don’t agree with everything she writes …,’” he says, “But, really, who couldn’t you say that about? I sometimes read stuff I wrote 10 years ago—or 10 months ago—that I don’t agree with anymore. Bari does good and interesting work and she’s a kind and lovely person. If liking Bari makes me a bad lefty, well, so be it.”
“It’s maddening for her critics,” says her friend Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet. “They would love for somebody who doesn’t share their politics to seem musty and unsexy.”
With every new career development, the attacks come. In August, when The New York Times announced it would send Weiss to Australia as part of an effort to expand readership, Jeet Heer of The New Republic tweeted, “The prospect of Bari Weiss in Australia is, frankly, terrifying.” A few weeks later, when The New Yorker decided to rescind its invitation to Steve Bannon to participate in the magazine’s festival—after readers and staffers protested—New Yorker food correspondent and frequent Weiss critic Helen Rosner tweeted, “Somewhere in Australia, Bari Weiss’s delicately filigreed Hebrew nameplate necklace just started pulsing a pure white light against her clavicle,” a reference to Batman.
When Weiss announced she would write a book about the need to recover a civic culture, “As If We Haven’t Suffered Enough, Bari Weiss Got a Book Deal,” went the headline on the Web site splinternews.com. (Weiss’s first book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, comes out in September.)
“The animating energy right now in the culture is destruction,” says Weiss. “The casual dehumanization, from the left and the right, is so appalling to me.” Bennet shares the concern. “It’s just a crazy, terrible environment right now,” he says, noting that one of his writers was recently verbally accosted and another, a left-leaning one, received a death threat.
In December, Weiss and Eve Peyser, a young social-media dynamo and progressive writer at Vice, wrote a Times column together, examining all the hate. The two women met at the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer. They had been aware of each other from social media and regarded each other with mutual distaste. “I used to watch her Twitter feed in terror that she was going to come after me,” says Weiss. “Hating [Bari] was the natural position for me to adopt,” Peyser wrote. Neither of them knew many people at the conference and so decided to hang out. They talked and talked—about religion, their childhoods, the pernicious nature of social media—and, lo and behold, became friends.
Peyser was genuinely terrified to tell this rather innocuous story of female friendship, a measure of the hard left’s power to intimidate. She recalls, “I couldn’t sleep, because I knew people would flip out at me and call me a bad person.” Indeed, Peyser got a beating. Among the many angry tweets the piece received were these from Rosner: “It’s vanishingly rare that anyone is a full-on oozing shithead one-on-one.” And, “I like Eve. I think I understand what she thought she was doing. It makes me so sad.”
“I’m usually pretty appalled by the perspective and issues that Bari has decided to use her considerable platform to amplify,” Rosner wrote to me in an e-mail. “Even more, I find her apparent bafflement at being joked about and criticized—even as she has made her profession out of diminishing and criticizing people with whom she disagrees—to be cut from the same flimsy moral fabric as her public opinions.”
Weiss is still trying to have a discourse without sacrificing her views. In a January column about Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress (and lately the target of Islamophobic attacks from the president), Weiss raised alarm about a tweet of Omar’s from 2012—“Israel has hypnotized the world”—pointing out that her word choice was classic anti-Semitic rhetoric. Without retracting her criticism of Israel, Omar sincerely apologized for her language, and replied to Weiss that she had learned that “my use of the word ‘hypnotize’ and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive.” Weiss thanked her and invited her into the Times office to share her views with editors.
And what of the snark-happy would-be journalists of Generation Y? As it happens, Gabriella Kamran, the U.C.L.A. student who had tweeted that Bari Weiss should “do feminism and the entire profession of journalism a favor and STOP WRITING,” revised her view about Weiss after a synagogue meeting last spring. “That tweet epitomizes everything that is wrong with Twitter,” Kamran told me. “I was partially motivated by the desire for likes and re-tweets, wanting to cultivate a brand on Twitter. It was at Bari’s expense, knowing that she, like me, is a complex person.”
It’s late October, homecoming weekend for Georgetown Prep, class of ’83, the one that Brett Kavanaugh made famous, featuring P.J., Squi, Timmy, Tom, Tobin, Mark Judge, et al. Earlier today, the Hoyas football team gave Kavanaugh, sporting a bright-red baseball hat, a hero’s welcome. Victory was in the air. Prep, as it’s known, was in the middle of trouncing Episcopal, 24–6. Kavanaugh had finally clinched his seat on the Supreme Court, after all those ridiculous attacks on his character. Now, the alumni have gathered in a generic, brightly lit room at Pinstripes, a sprawling restaurant and bowling alley in Bethesda, Maryland. If the group looks remarkable in any way, it’s for their uniformity. All white, all fitter than your average 53-year-olds. Most are dressed in suburban-dad wear: there are a lot of pleated khakis, some fleece, and brown Eddie Bauer-style shoes for the active, middle-aged bro. When they step outside the private room to use the restroom or meander, they do American Guy stuff. They take out their phones and type importantly. They check the score of Game Four of the World Series. They mutter skeptically about putting any hope in the Redskins this year. They order better drinks than what’s apparently available inside. A handful of them have brought their wives, who look like they wouldn’t mind calling it a night. Up at the bar, one of the wives asks her husband what he wants to drink. “An Artois,” he snaps at her. Duh.
There’s Tom Kane, who, according to Kavanaugh’s calendar, was among the boys at “Timmy’s” house on July 1, 1982. There’s super-ripped J. C. del Real, working a bottle of beer. The former Hoyas tight end and “president” of the Renate Alumni, he now runs a consulting company for gyms. And here is Don Urgo, who, back in the day, threw memorable ragers at his parents’ big house in Potomac. One of the class leaders for the reunion, Urgo greets the Reverend James Van Dyke, the new president of Georgetown Prep, and ushers him into the private room. Inside, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times, Van Dyke tells them, “You guys, the class of 1983, are in some ways my first class. We’ve been all thrown into the mix together.” He adds, “I have heard so many of your names,” to whoops of “Squi!” and “P.J.!” He praises “the loyalty that you have had to each other, the way that you have looked after each other, and not just in the big stories but also a lot of small stories.”
Indeed, tonight is a victory celebration, and it can largely be attributed to Georgetown Prep’s particular code of omertà. Kavanaugh gestured at this code in a 2015 speech, fondly recalling the saying, “What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep,” which suggests guys bonded together by a shared history of mischief. But the code is more than that. It’s also about preserving a certain world order. Over the years, the code has helped to smooth out bad news, and to sweep ugly allegations under the rug. Those who live by the code aren’t just Prep’s alumni and students, but the school’s network of Catholic priests, teachers, wives, and family members. The Kavanaugh allegations tested the bounds of the code, but it was not the first scandal to do so.
The fraternal bonds connecting Kavanaugh’s group began at the Catholic, all-boys elementary school Mater Dei, which he attended with two of his best friends, Chris Garrett, a.k.a. Squi, and Tobin Finizio, who became one of his drinking buddies. Fostering competition early on, teachers reported the class academic rankings on a chalkboard. Kavanaugh’s name was always at the top. Due to the small class size of 40 students, “the middle school was even more treacherous than high school,” says Timothy Don, who was a year behind Kavanaugh at Mater Dei and later at Prep. “The cliques are just much more deeply established . . . and boys, as a result, can be more vicious.”
Mater Dei fed into two all-boys high schools, Gonzaga and Georgetown Prep. Gonzaga was located in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of inner-city Washington, while Prep, in leafy Bethesda, had a nine-hole golf course. “There was a mutual distaste,” says Michael Farquhar, an ’82 Gonzaga alum. Kavanaugh and his friends each had the line “GONZAGA YOU’RE LUCKY” on their respective yearbook pages. According to an ’83 Gonzaga graduate, this was a brag—that the Prep gang would have come to mess with the Gonzaga riffraff had the school not been surrounded by a ghetto.
Specialness was conferred early. Unlike the vast majority of Catholics in Montgomery County, who were working class, the Prep boys, who numbered around 100 per class, were the sons of well-off families from Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Potomac, the wealthy horse country a few miles out. (A notch below St. Albans and Sidwell Friends in terms of college matriculation, Georgetown Prep has produced a handful of notables, including Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, comedian-writer Mo Rocca, and restaurateur David Chang.) They were mostly the offspring of conservatives, with the prominent exception of two Kennedys (Christopher and Doug) and two Shrivers (Anthony and Mark). In those days, only a handful were students of color; most were the sons of wealthy diplomats, from places like Iran or Thailand. Nor did a Prep man see many women: The school was presided over by four or five priests and a bunch of lay male Catholics. Any female presence consisted of little more than the librarian, the secretary in the president’s office, and four teachers. An alum from Kavanaugh’s era who looked Semitic recalls the casual use of “Jewboy” and “Don’t be such a Jew” when he would try to raise funds for some school-related purpose. Richard Madaleno, ’83, one of the few students whose roots were Italian, not Irish, recalls frequent gibes about the Mob. Now a Maryland state senator, Madaleno had the added burden of being gay, and remembers believing he was bound for Hell.
Prep preached the Jesuit motto, “Men for Others.” For some, it was a profound message. “A ‘man for others,’ that’s real,” says Don, now an editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. “We didn’t spend Sunday mornings watching television and playing video games, like my kids do. We went to church and then went to work in soup kitchens. You build service into your practice. There was a real sense of, You’ve been given a lot so that you can do a lot with it.” Other students, like Neil Gorsuch, ’85, also took that to heart, applying Prep’s intellectual rigor to debate, and into a life of service.
But Kavanaugh and many of his friends were known to take their privilege as license to act with obnoxious abandon. This type of group wasn’t unique in the history of Georgetown Prep. Every senior class had a version—a band of bros, usually football players, who staked their claim as kings of the school. Indeed, anyone who’s gone to any high school in America, or watched a John Hughes film, inherently gets this world order. On an individual level, some from Kavanaugh’s group weren’t so bad. Their schoolmates say Bernie and P.J. were pretty decent. Squi was a sloppy drunk, according to a friend, but basically O.K.
But an unholy trinity was at the top. J. C. del Real, whose father was a lawyer in the Reagan administration, was the classic bully. Consider the afternoon, in the fall of 1982, when he walked through the student lounge with his crew, picked up a small freshman named Tim, and stuffed him in a garbage can, while J.C.’s friends erupted in laughter. Bill Barbot, Tim’s self-described pipsqueak buddy, pulled him out. He can still recall Tim’s light-colored khakis, which now had pizza sauce all over them. “I was like, Man, this sucks,” Barbot recalls thinking, as it dawned on him what he was in for that year.
Kavanaugh, according to some former classmates, was not the central showman, but rather an eager sidekick. An alum who knew Kavanaugh well recalls, “He had the attitude of ‘I’m the man, I’m a badass, and everybody else is kind of a loser. I do what I want. I get what I want.’ He was more of a dick, for lack of a better word. I wish I had a more descriptive word. He was just a dick.” Another alum, from ’84, dismisses Kavanaugh as a hopeless wannabe: “He was kind of lame.” According to Paul Rendon, class of ’83, who provided a declaration to Congress, “Kavanaugh never did anything to stop this physical and verbal abuse, but stood by and laughed at the victims. . . . Brett Kavanaugh would always laugh the loudest when it was in response to Mark Judge’s jokes and antics.”
Judge took the cake. He was the loudest, edgiest, baddest ass. He was also the heartthrob. In Breakfast Club terms, you might say he had the dangerous allure of Judd Nelson’s Bender combined with the popularity of Emilio Estevez’s Andrew Clark. His body couldn’t contain his energy. He would leap onto people’s backs to start games of chicken. He could place his hands on a banister and jettison his body over an entire stairwell. Anyone wanting deep insight into his character can find it in his memoir Wasted, a chronicle of his early alcoholism and sputtering moral compass. He writes about his irritation at having to journal his service experiences. He recounts taking part in ritual toilet-papering of girls’ houses wearing religious robes. (One classmate says this likely gave rise to the term “Ridge Klux Klan,” which appears on the yearbook pages of Urgo, Finizio, and Kane.) He tells of the underground newspaper The Unknown Hoya, which he and others started with the intention “to insult people and to report on . . . who had what party, who had embarrassed themselves, who had the worst haircuts on campus, who was getting laid, and most important, how much we were drinking.” The Hoya, he says, “was the official journal of the 100-keg quest and everything that happened on the way.” (Judge, Kavanaugh, and del Real all declined to comment for this story.)
In high school, there are always kids who make a lifestyle out of under-age drinking. But one chronic partier from the era tells me, “Prep ran the party scene. We were good at what we did.” The drill started with the question of whose parents were going to be out of town that weekend—who would be “poppin’.” Typically, the guys would drive to Potomac to buy the kegs, as many as would fit in a car. (Until the summer of 1982, the drinking age in Maryland was 18, and many kids had fake IDs or helpful older siblings.) A Corvette would be the height of cool. The revelers could number into the hundreds, with cars parked every which way in the neighborhood. Guys drank until they passed out or puked, and then maybe drank some more. At one more memorable Prep party, a guy passed out on the driveway, and another drunk guy ran over him with his car. (He survived relatively unscathed.)
Even at hard-partying Prep, Kavanaugh was notorious for his beer consumption. “I never saw him assault anyone, but the guy was always trashed,” says an ’84 alumnus. Another friend who partied with him nearly every weekend recalls the gang piling into Kavanaugh’s Chevy Malibu, which he called “the Bu,” for drunken weekend escapades.
Some graduates recall priests and teachers drinking with the boys. It happened, they say, at football camp, when the players slept at the school each year at the end of August, and at bachelor parties for teachers and coaches, one of which Judge fondly reminisces about in his other book about the school, God and Man at Georgetown Prep. (Prep insists that it maintains “specific and strict terms of personal conduct which forbid drinking, violence, or bullying of any kind,” and says it has taken disciplinary action “in every instance when the school has become aware of any transgression of those rules.”)
Then there were the girls, who poured into the party scene looking for self-affirmation. “The Prep boys were the pinnacle of teenage society,” says Evie Shapiro, who attended high school in Potomac and worked briefly with Judge after college. “While we aspired to go out with them, we were also kind of scared of them.” They came from Prep’s all-girls Catholic counterparts: Stone Ridge, nickname Stone Fridge, because they would stop just short of having sex; Immaculata, nickname Ejaculata, because they might go all the way; and Visitation, where Kavanaugh and company had their most solid counterpart during their junior and senior years. They were the “Visi girls,” a clique that included Maura Molloy, who dated Kavanaugh and eventually married Tom Kane. Once in a while, girls from Holton-Arms, where Christine Blasey Ford went to school, showed up. Unlike the Visi girls, Holton girls weren’t their girls. They weren’t Catholic, for one thing. And as Judge’s underground newspaper declared, Holton-Arms “is the home of the most worthless excuses for human females. If you will care to look below, you will see all it takes to have a good time with any H.H. (Holton Hosebag).”
At a typical party, the Prep boy would put the Who or the Stones on the turntable, and the action started. As Judge put it, “If you could breathe and walk at the same time, you could hook up with someone.” But hooking up wasn’t always about mutual pleasure. Since Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, countless women from his private-school scene have been sharing experiences they had that mirror the one Blasey Ford described. “Like Chrissy, I don’t remember the house where I was assaulted,” Kelly Fordon, who graduated Visitation in ’85, says. “I don’t remember the date, and I’m absolutely certain that no one who was at the party besides me and the perpetrator would have any memory of the events. One thing I remember with absolute clarity is the person who assaulted me.”
Kavanaugh and his friends, as we learned during his hearing, laughed about the violence in their 1983 yearbook. There was the caption “Do these guys beat their wives?” accompanying a shot of one group of boys. There was the quote from Judge’s page: “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” There was the repeated mention of “Renate Alumni,” referring to a girl from Stone Ridge whom the guys bragged about having sex with.
Prep, of course, wasn’t the only school that denigrated girls. At St. Albans, there was a game called “butt rodeo,” where one guy would distract a girl, another guy would bite her butt, and somebody else would time how long it took her to shake him off. Boys would also compete for the Dog House Award, which went to the guy who hooked up with the girl they deemed the ugliest.
So why did girls even show up? “I wanted to go to those parties, and I wanted that group of guys to like me,” says an alum from National Cathedral School. She cringes at the memory of sitting on the stairs at a party, giggling and flattered, while a boy tried to take off her bra in public. “I am complicit in that,” she says.
Some alumni say that school officials failed to rein in the abusive culture in the Prep community. “The administration was so focused on raising money and protecting their reputation,” says an ’84 graduate, “that they were asleep at the wheel.” But Georgetown Prep rejects what it calls the “warped assumption” that it neglected its duties. “Schools like Georgetown Prep exist for the explicit purpose of giving young people the tools and moral education to confront sin in the world by building personal character in a life of service to others,” says Patrick Coyle, a spokesman for the school. “This is our abiding mission, Georgetown Prep’s very reason for being, and the essential fabric of our whole school community.”
In the years after Kavanaugh graduated, Prep began to change with the times. With the emergence of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and a group called Community of Concern, parents were asked not to sanction after-prom parties off campus. In 1990, Prep expelled four boys for an act of hazing known as “butting,” in which a student would pull down his pants and squat his bare bottom into the face of another boy. But such gestures failed to shift the broader culture of harassment at Prep. The father of one of the expelled boys sued unsuccessfully, claiming that his son was taking the fall for a practice the school knew was widespread. “In the context of the day, the hazing was not extraordinary, even though by today’s standards it’s horrible,” recalls an alum from the post-Kavanaugh era. “But what was crazy to me was a lot of it was condoned by the school.” The Prep code of loyalty—between students, priests, faculty members, and alumni—remained unbreakable.
As a Catholic institution, Georgetown was not immune to the larger crisis of sexual abuse that was roiling the Church. Eric Ruyak, who graduated in 2004, two decades after Kavanaugh, was the son of a board member, the younger brother of a star alum, and a devout Catholic. He was also gay and closeted, which might have made life difficult. But by sophomore year, he had found his group at Prep, in the theater department. This was largely thanks to Father Garrett Orr, the head of the program, who had become his mentor.
In the fall of 2002, Ruyak, then a 16-year-old junior, had been cast as the lead in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. According to Ruyak, Orr asked him into his office for a one-on-one rehearsal. Orr, who had taught at Prep for 14 years, closed the door, came up behind Ruyak, placed his left hand on his shoulder, and put his right hand down Ruyak’s pants.
Shocked, Ruyak immediately left Orr’s office and went home. He didn’t tell his parents. The next day, Orr approached him, wanting to discuss what “we” had done. Ruyak made it clear that “we” hadn’t done anything: Orr had acted entirely on his own, and completely inappropriately. But Ruyak, now a jewelry designer in Los Angeles, decided to keep the episode to himself. (Orr did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
By the following summer, however, others at Prep were aware that Orr represented a threat. According to prosecutors, two faculty members who were friends of Orr, Stephen Ochs and Julie Collins, went to school officials and said they had concerns about Orr’s “lack of boundaries with students.” (The school says it has “no record” of any such concern.) Orr was quietly sent to what prosecutors later called “a sex-offender sort of clinic” in St. Louis. In a letter to the Prep community, Orr said that he was taking a sabbatical after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Then, in the fall of 2003, Ruyak learned that Orr planned to return to the school after Christmas. In keeping with Prep’s mission of confronting sin and serving others, he decided to speak up—in part because his younger brother would be attending Prep the following year. That October, Ruyak went to Father Gregory Eck, another priest at Prep and a trusted family friend, with the story of what happened to him.
Upon hearing what Orr had done, Ruyak recalls, Eck seemed sympathetic. He told Eric that he would need to inform school authorities. Eck promptly told Eric’s parents, and then informed Prep’s headmaster, who “dismissed the allegations as untrue,” according to prosecutors. (Prep calls that assertion “baseless.”) Fortunately, Eric found an advocate in Father William George, the school’s president, who made him feel heard and supported.
Then the backlash began—not against Orr, but against Ruyak. It started, according to the Ruyaks, with Stephen Ochs and Julie Collins, the very faculty members who had alerted the school about their friend’s “boundary” issues. Eric’s father, Robert, says he was asked to meet with the two teachers. He says they told him that his son was lying, and insisted that he recant. A board member at the time recalls Ochs telling him that it was a “terrible injustice” that any credence had been given to the allegation against Orr. (Neither Ochs nor Collins, both of whom remain on the Prep faculty, responded to requests for comment.) Even the head of the local province of the Jesuit Society—the order’s highest-ranking official in Maryland—sent a letter to members of the Prep community defending Orr’s reputation. Saying he felt “compelled” to “lay these rumors to rest,” the provincial assured Prep parents and alumni that Orr “has been and remains a priest in unquestioned good standing in the Church and the Society of Jesus.”
By January 2004, the situation escalated, with alumni waging a vicious and baseless smear campaign against Ruyak. In one e-mail that circulated within the Prep community, an alumnus claimed that “Eric flat-out admitted that he made the whole thing up.” The e-mail referenced Ruyak’s “rocky coming-out experience” as a possible motive—even though Ruyak had not yet come out—and expressed shock that he had not been expelled “for the lies he spread about Fr. Orr.” (Contacted today, the writer of the e-mail admits he had no basis for such claims, and is mortified that he wrote it.) As the rumor mill went into overdrive, the Ruyaks recall hearing all sorts of things: Eric was a sexual deviant; his parents had molested him; Eric was dying from AIDS.
By this point, Ruyak was emaciated, unable to sleep, and contemplating suicide. “I was the most reviled person in that community,” he recalls. “Most of the community was like, ‘He attacked this priest. He’s obviously sick.’ I was called every name in the book: faggot, liar.” His mother recalls the night he fell on the kitchen floor crying, “Why won’t they believe me?” Then he ran upstairs. Terrified of what he might do, she grabbed the anti-anxiety medication he had just been prescribed in therapy and made him take it.
Father George, a relative newcomer to the school, continued to support Eric, drawing heat from alumni for his refusal to “defend” Father Orr. “The only reason I wasn’t expelled,” Ruyak says, “was because of Father George.” But however supportive George was, he did not succeed at shutting down the nasty smear campaign against Ruyak. Eric had broken the code of silence, and he was being made to pay.
When asked today how the school handled the allegation of sexual abuse, Prep seemed unable to get its story straight. Initially, a spokesman for the school insisted that “from the moment it was brought to our attention,” Prep officials “immediately reported the incident to law enforcement and the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesuits.” In fact, the school’s own documentation demonstrates that Prep did not report the matter to police until May 2004—seven months after school officials learned of Ruyak’s accusation. (Schools in Maryland are required by law to report suspected abuse within 48 hours.) When Vanity Fair pointed out the discrepancy, Prep changed its story, claiming that it held off involving law enforcement at the insistence of Ruyak’s parents. Eric’s father, Robert, calls that claim “categorically false.” The Ruyaks say they wound up going to the police themselves—an assertion supported by Father Eck—and discovered that the school had not contacted the authorities.
In May 2004, the Jesuit provincial revoked Orr’s “priestly faculties,” meaning he could not act publicly as a priest, and barred him from having “one-on-one contact with students” at Loyola College, where he had transferred. This time, though, it did not bother to inform the Prep community of its actions, as it had when it defended Orr. By that point, though, the damage was done. Ruyak withdrew from classes, and with the help of a few concerned teachers, was allowed to finish high school from home. He matriculated to Northwestern the following fall.
Two years later, in April 2006, Ruyak received some belated vindication. In a letter to the Prep community, Father George, Eric’s primary ally, reported that an investigation by the Jesuit province had determined that Ruyak’s allegation against Orr was “substantially true.” Orr was barred from visiting Prep’s campus “for any reason,” and George said the school had strengthened its procedures “to ensure that no harm comes to our students.” He added that Prep “offers its support and prayers . . . to the victim and his family.”
The letter didn’t prompt much forgiveness or support for Ruyak among the Prep community. Kavanaugh’s classmate Mark Judge used the occasion to blast what he saw as the scourge of homosexuality and liberalism infecting Catholic schools. “Everyone there knew [Orr] was gay,” Judge told The Washington Times. “Which, combined with the leftist politics of the school and the rejection of official church teaching on sex, and you’re near 400 teenage boys, is a recipe for disaster.”
Then, in 2010, another of Orr’s victims came forward. A former Prep student told police that the priest had sexually abused him over the course of a semester in 1989, when he was 14 years old. On at least five occasions, according to a court transcript, Orr fondled the boy’s penis, and had the boy fondle his. Orr ended up pleading guilty to two counts of sexual offense in the fourth degree—including one for his molestation of Eric Ruyak. He was sentenced to five years of probation, and listed in the registry of convicted sex offenders.
One might assume that after Orr’s guilty plea, Ruyak would have received an apology from those who attacked his credibility, but that never happened. After the sentencing, Ruyak and his father went to Prep, hoping to meet with the new president. When they arrived, however, they say they were informed that the school’s attorney had advised Prep not to let anyone talk to Eric. (Prep says “so far as we can tell,” there was no “formal statement” to that effect.) “Holy shit,” Ruyak recalls thinking at the time. “I came forward about a predator at this school, and this is what happens?” Today he scoffs at the school’s lofty motto. “Men for others, my ass.”
Last July, after Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, The Washington Post ran an article headlined, WITH BRETT KAVANAUGH, GEORGETOWN PREP CAN COUNT TWO SUPREME COURT NOMINEES AMONG ITS ALUMNI. The story quoted a teacher from Prep expounding on the school’s creed. “There’s an ethos that there’s a larger purpose in life,” the teacher said. “We’re called as part of our faith to try to make the world a better place.” The speaker was Stephen Ochs, who the Ruyaks say had accused Eric of lying.
Last fall, when rumors began circulating that an unnamed woman had contacted Senator Dianne Feinstein alleging that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school, the Prep community immediately rallied to his defense. In a shrewd P.R. maneuver, the charge was led by two women: Maura Molloy Kane, part of the old “Visi girl” clique, and her younger sister, Meghan Molloy McCaleb, also a Visitation alum. The sisters were now married to two of Kavanaugh’s old friends, Tom Kane and Scott McCaleb. The Molloy family rules the roost in the Montgomery County Catholic community. Their younger sister, until recently, worked in admissions at Visitation. Their mother, Colleen, is assistant principal at School of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where Kavanaugh’s kids go to school and his family attends the church. As one source told me, “The Molloys are untouchable.”
Meghan McCaleb initiated a letter, circulated among a group of Visitation, Stone Ridge, and Holy Child alums, asking for them to add their names to a letter attesting to Kavanaugh’s character. Within a span of minutes, says one alum from the group, many women had signed—most without knowing the substance of the allegations against Kavanaugh. What’s more, two sources familiar with the letter estimate that three-quarters of the signees didn’t really know Kavanaugh, and weren’t in a position to attest to his actions as a young man.
On September 16, after Christine Blasey Ford reluctantly went public with her story, the Visi women mused on what they could remember about her. She went by Chrissy. She spent time at the Columbia Country Club. And she went to Holton-Arms. Another name quickly became part of the story: Mark Judge. According to Ford, he allegedly watched Kavanaugh pin her down, and then jumped on the bed so hard it caused all three to tumble off. The detail gave Ford’s story an eerie credibility. At least two Prep alums, Timothy Don and William Fishburne, who was student manager of the school’s football team, couldn’t help but remember how Judge was always leaping around and pouncing on people.
Among the Visi girls, a chill set in. Mark Judge had always been bad news—there was no denying it. One alum from the group says a kind of consensus emerged: something bad hadhappened to Ford that night. Most likely, they thought, Kavanaugh had blacked out and forgotten. But whatever doubts they had about their old friend Brett didn’t deter them. “He was one of their own,” says the Visitation alum, “and his close friends were going to do everything that they could to cover for him.” More than three decades later, Prep’s code of silence remained as strong as ever. Tom Kane, who went on CNN to defend Kavanaugh, summed up the time-honored ethos when he blurted out, “Boys will be boys.” He then scrambled to backpedal, saying “I hate that term.”
Prep alum who operate by a different ethos felt betrayed by Kavanaugh’s how-dare-you performance. “What I heard was, ‘I’m unwilling to own my truth, to own my history, and to accept that it’s possible that something in my past could have happened, and that people need to hear about it,’ ” says Bill Barbot, ’86. Similarly, Don says, “I was just appalled at the extent to which no one from the class was speaking up. Did anyone sit down with him—like, buy him a beer and say, ‘Hey, Brett, you need to think about this. I love you, I care about you, you’re a good person. Whatever went on there you need to face this head-on, this is important.’ ” To many Americans, Kavanaugh didn’t seem like a sexual predator—but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he couldn’t give an inch of possible culpability. He couldn’t say, “I’m sorry for what I might have done.”
In the days following the hearing, while senators frantically jockeyed, some in the elite ranks of the Montgomery County community considered breaking the code of silence. Barbot and another classmate initiated a letter among Prep alumni to support a thorough investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh. They got roughly 80 men to sign, but discovered that many others were too scared to attach their names, for fear of social and professional retribution.
Georgetown Prep once again did its part. According to an alum, members of the administration whom he hadn’t heard from in years reached out to him. The overtures were friendly, but he interpreted the messages as reminders of the code. Reverend Van Dyke sent an initial letter to the Prep community that sounded, to many, defensive and tone-deaf. “There is no denying that this is a challenging time for a lot of reasons,” he wrote. But “Prep is a wonderful place, a wonderful school, a wonderful community.” Stung by criticism of the letter, Van Dyke followed up by writing a piece for a Jesuit journal, taking responsibility for the abhorrent yearbook.
In an e-mail to me, Georgetown Prep spokesman Patrick Coyle initially sounded a note of humility. “Yes, we have labored for years to protect students from a broader culture chockablock with degrading influences,” he wrote. “And yes, we are painfully aware that all our students, and indeed everyone in our community, sometimes fall short. Human failing, and the effort to reconcile our lives with the teachings of Christ, are at the very heart of our School.” Then, shifting to a different tone, he added, “It is no small irony . . . that the critique of our commitment to our mission is being questioned by a publication that routinely parades and promotes the promiscuity of American society.”
It was last October that the news hit, and it came in a one-two punch: first in an exposé in The New York Times, and then a few days later in The New Yorker. Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood’s prestigious studio head, was allegedly a serial sexual predator. Actress Ashley Judd led the way in speaking out, the first of 87 women who subsequently came forward with allegations of abuse, assault, and rape against Weinstein, their tales spawning a movement that united victims of sexual assault across multiple fields started by the activist Tarana Burke, under the hashtag: MeToo. Among the movement’s most powerful voices was actress Rose McGowan, who detailed her own alleged sexual assault at the hands of Weinstein in her memoir, Brave, released in January, and highlighted the producer’s machinations in trying to silence her in a New Yorker article about his “army of spies.” It was a chilling story, and hard not to listen.
Over the course of her narrative, McGowan introduced the public to a woman no one outside the movie business had heard of, producer Jill Messick, her manager for a period in the 1990s. The portrayal was not a flattering one. Messick appeared to be a Weinstein enabler, in silent cahoots with the man the actress called “the monster.” In McGowan’s memoir, about which I interviewed her for Vanity Fair’s February issue, she describes the 1997 Sundance Film Festival premiere of her film Going All the Way. Weinstein, who was in the audience as a prospective buyer, was seated some rows behind her and Messick, and a scene in which McGowan appears topless came on the screen. “I wanted the ground to swallow me up,” wrote McGowan, who hadn’t yet met Weinstein. “It had been really hard shooting that scene in the first place and I sat there remembering how I had cried after filming it. I slid farther down in my seat. I noticed my manager,” whom she names earlier, “turning and nodding in the direction of the studio head. When I replay the chain of events in my head, I’ll always be chilled by that nod. I wondered what the nod meant. Now I know.” The next morning, at a breakfast meeting in his suite at the Stein Eriksen lodge in Deer Valley, Utah, Weinstein, according to McGowan, led her into the Jacuzzi room, took off her clothes, carried her into the tub, and forcibly performed oral sex on her. (Weinstein has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex.)
In the rush to identify Weinstein’s cast of enablers, the press seized on Messick’s alleged role in the drama. An October article about McGowan on the front page of The New York Times left some readers with the impression that Messick was at best insensitive to Weinstein’s alleged behavior, and at worst complicit in that involving her former client. When she was on tour promoting her memoir, McGowan, spurred by her interviewers, continued to bring up Messick’s role in her suffering. In a typical exchange, on Good Morning America, McGowan relayed how Messick, soon after the incident, got a job at Miramax, where she worked for the next seven years as a producer. “You do the math,” she said. Weinstein, for his part, seized the opportunity to turn Messick into a weapon of exculpation. In late January he released an e-mail that Messick had sent him the prior spring, months before the world heard the litany of accounts against the former Miramax executive. In the e-mail, Messick recalls that at the time, McGowan told her that the sexual encounter was consensual but that she later regretted it. To some, it tinged McGowan’s account with doubt; to others, it proved Messick was covering for a rapist. “Sucks to be Jill Messick,” tweeted a member of #RoseArmy, her Twitter brigade. “Please give back your woman card.” One week later, Messick died by suicide.
It is impossible to know what, if any one thing, drives a person to take her own life. Messick, as friends and family attested, had long struggled with bipolar disorder. But her family believes that her involuntary appearances in the Weinstein narrative brought her to the brink. Jill, they wrote in a statement, “became collateral damage in an already horrific story.” As her inner circle grieved and tried to comfort her two teenage children, they also scrambled to salvage the reputation of a woman they believe was caught between two diametrically opposed forces—McGowan and Weinstein. Far from being an enemy of women, they insist, Messick was supportive, full of life, passionate about her work, and driven to carve out a place for women’s voices in a man’s world.
The #MeToo movement has ended the careers of dozens of powerful men. It has resulted in scores of just investigations, resignations, firings, bankruptcies, and lawsuits. In this case, however, its momentum arguably played a role in the taking of a woman’s life. While the movement has had the important effect of giving women the strength in solidarity to come forward with their stories of abuse, it has also created a public court—one that was bound to become fraught with contradictions. Messick’s death, while the result of several factors, is a tragic case study in the complexities of the movement.
Born and raised in Southern California, Messick (then Jill Sobel) attended U.S.C. before heading straight to the independent-movie business, then ruled by the court of Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax. After a stint at the Gersh talent agency, she went to work at Cary Woods Productions, one of the hottest small production companies in the 90s, responsible for indie hits such as Kids and Scream, which were distributed, respectively, by Miramax and its horror division, Dimension. Producer Cathy Konrad, then president of the company, recalls that Messick had street smarts, great taste, and a knack for spotting new talent.
Within the company, Messick helped develop an internal management agency that nurtured the careers of actors who starred in their films, in particular two breakout female hipsters with dark edges: McGowan and Chloë Sevigny. Messick was more than a professional advocate for them. “Jill was the first guiding force I had in Hollywood,” Sevigny said in a statement. “She was my mentor—I slept on her couch.” Messick and McGowan were close, too, and bonded in a way that smart, intense young women in thrilling, yet toxic, environments can.
In 1996, Messick left the production company to pursue talent management at Addis-Wechsler, and Sevigny and McGowan followed her. Founded by Keith Addis and Nick Wechsler, the firm epitomized the wild and woolly moviemaking culture of the decade. There was ample partying and drugs; executives slept with assistants, and the young women rolled with it, according to a former female staffer. She says, “We all felt, You put up with certain things to get to play with the big boys. We kind of wore it as a badge of honor.” Looking back now, she adds, “I’m kind of ashamed. Did we not have any self-esteem?” (Addis acknowledges that there was no non-fraternizing policy at the time.) Jill was then engaged to Kevin Messick, already a producer with some success (he went on to make the Jack Reacher movies, starring Tom Cruise), and stayed out of the drama. At Addis-Weschler in those days, Miramax was considered the only game in town, and Weinstein was God.
In 1997, both Messick and McGowan, then 29 and 23, respectively, had an early career coup when McGowan’s movie Going All The Way, was headed to Sundance. As the hipster ingénue du jour, McGowan was followed around the festival by an MTV crew.
Her account of Messick’s actions at the festival began with the screening in which Messick, who barely knew Weinstein, allegedly nodded that signal of collusion. Those close to Messick say this notion is absurd. Messick did arrange a breakfast meeting between Weinstein and McGowan on the following morning at his hotel, at his request. When McGowan arrived at the restaurant, the maître d’ told her that Weinstein asked that she go to his hotel suite, where he was stuck on the phone—a story that now resonates as being frighteningly familiar.
Afterward, distraught, McGowan says, she told Messick what had happened. Messick hugged her, but then, McGowan wrote, “[Messick’s] instinct was to squash everything, which just freaked me out more.” But according to Keith Addis, Messick walked McGowan into the offices of Addis and Nick Wechsler so she could tell the bosses what had happened, thinking that they could deal with it. It was a reasonable attempt at protocol in a company that had no protocol to speak of. Addis recalls that “it was the white-bathrobe story. He was inappropriate. He made her feel extremely uncomfortable.” He adds, “She never said ‘rape.’” (McGowan declined to comment for this story.) According to Addis, he and Wechsler told McGowan and Messick that they’d handle it. They spoke with Weinstein shortly thereafter, and he promised them that he would seek psychiatric help. The company hired a law firm to discuss legal action with McGowan; eventually the actress accepted a settlement of $100,000 from Weinstein.
Then came the real betrayal, according to McGowan: Messick went to work for Miramax shortly after the incident. It was a plum job: V.P. of development reporting to Meryl Poster, Miramax’s co-president of production, who was one of the most powerful and exacting women producers at the time, and Messick’s track record made her a catch. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m a tough boss,” Poster says. “Jill was professional, dependable, reliable. She brought a lot of interesting projects in. She followed through on things. She was really good with talent. She had a good eye for that.”
Among those at Miramax, the picture painted by McGowan simply did not square with the woman they knew. In the view of her colleagues, Messick likely perceived Weinstein’s behavior in the same way many other mid-level executives did: that it was creepy and inappropriate but didn’t rise to the level of criminal behavior. “We’ve all been searching our souls, asking who knew what, asking what could have been done,” says Jack Lechner, an executive V.P. at the time. “For the vast majority—and it may sound unbelievable to many people—we didn’t know. We knew he was cheating on his wife, you couldn’t miss that. We all knew he was abusive and bullying, because he was abusive and bullying to all of us.” Should Messick, as some have suggested, have refused the job? To make that judgment would presume Messick should have been held to a higher standard than the many others who continued to work with Weinstein.
It would be fair to say that throughout her career Messick championed women’s stories and female filmmakers. Her advocacy for women in film was put to the test with Frida, the passion project of a young Salma Hayek about her hero, the mid-20th-century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Messick, the studio executive on the movie, had just given birth to her first child, Jackson, when filming started, but she made the difficult decision to go to Mexico to support Hayek, while her husband stayed home with the baby. As Hayek wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times last December, her dream production soon became an excruciating experience due to Weinstein, who allegedly abused her in a series of unimaginable ways. After she turned down his multiple sexual requests, she wrote, he turned on her viciously. At the time Hayek did not tell her colleagues that it was her rejection that triggered his rage. As a producer and star of the film, she desperately wanted to get it made (she eventually bowed to his demand for a scene involving full-frontal nudity and sex with another woman), and feared Weinstein would kill the project if she spoke up. (Weinstein has publicly disputed Hayek’s account, and declined to answer numerous questions for this article.)
It was up to Messick to negotiate with Weinstein on behalf of the team, which included several women. After a test screening at which the movie scored 85, which was usually considered excellent, Weinstein had a fit, claiming the score wasn’t high enough, and threw the scorecards in director Julie Taymor’s face. The movie was all but dead. Messick went to work on what seemed an impossible ask—bringing Weinstein back to the table. “She always navigated the frustrating and hostile environment at Miramax with elegance and grace,” Hayek wrote on Instagram after Messick’s death. “She was an excellent executive,” says one of the filmmakers. “In no way did she bend to the male power structure. She stood up for the team.” The film was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two.
Messick left Miramax in 2003 to head up Lorne Michaels’s film company, where one of her first coups was teaming with screenwriter Tina Fey on Mean Girls. In 2008, Messick followed up that movie’s incredible success with Baby Mama, starring Fey and Amy Poehler. Her kids visited the set, where they got to meet all the cast and crew and to watch their mom, hands-on, at her really cool job. On the outside, Messick was the picture of the woman who had it all.
But throughout, unbeknownst to many around her, Messick was quietly battling bipolar disorder. For decades, she was under the care of psychiatrists and therapists, trying out different combinations of medications, while her husband provided emotional support. For most of her career, she managed her struggle, though there were pockets of deep depression along the way. “When I look back at how much pain she was in,” says Rosalind Wiseman, the author of the book on which Mean Girls is based, “I feel like women do this. We just keep going. We just fake it till we make it.”
In 2011, Messick left Lorne Michaels’s company and found that career opportunities were drying up. Suddenly she was out of the producing loop and began to slowly lose her footing, professionally and personally. In 2013, her mental state took a turn for the worse. Usually calm and composed, Messick started behaving in a more animated, over-the-top manner. Friends and family members were concerned; it was if somebody had stolen her and replaced her with someone else. They soon learned this was the manic side of her disease, something they hadn’t witnessed before, and it eventually contributed to her divorce and a temporary distance from her children.
Messick still had the strength of mind to know she had to do something to get better. Gradually, she began taking steps to put her life back together; she held on as doctors recalibrated her medications. Once stabilized, she slowly renewed contact with her children. Though she and Kevin divorced, he stayed in her life. Around 2014, she began trying to rebuild her career and was making progress. An idea she had had years earlier, to make a movie based on the video game Minecraft, was finally, maybe, coming to fruition, and she was in negotiations with Warner Bros. Messick had begun reconnecting with the dozens of people she’d come to know well in the business.
In the spring of 2017, according to a friend, Messick, like so many others who’d gone through Miramax, called Weinstein to ask him to put in a good word with certain people. He said sure, and then asked if she’d do something for him. Rose McGowan, he explained, had been giving him trouble and he wanted her off his back. Would she mind providing him with an account of what McGowan had told her regarding his encounter with the actress? Ben Affleck was doing it, Weinstein said, and lots of other people too. He promised it was for his lawyers’ understanding, just to be on the safe side. Messick, unaware of the shocking allegations that were soon to break about Weinstein, agreed. A couple of months later, according to sources close to Messick, Weinstein reached out and made her an offer: a monetary award of $50,000 if she disparaged McGowan. She refused in no uncertain terms and moved on with her job search. By early fall, she was pursuing a great opportunity, as the head of Queen Latifah’s production company. Life was looking up.
Then came the season that destroyed her. In early October, after The New York Times and The New Yorker broke the allegations about Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse, Messick, like most former colleagues who had worked at Miramax, found the news sickening. Two weeks later, she herself became the main subject of a follow-up story in the Times titled REFUSING WEINSTEIN’S HUSH MONEY, McGOWAN CALLS OUT HOLLYWOOD. The article featured numerous pictures of McGowan and one of Messick. It quoted Messick’s former assistant as saying that McGowan hadn’t felt supported at the time and that both she and McGowan were shocked that Messick had gone to work for Miramax. According to a friend, Messick said she was blindsided by the article and was never given a chance to talk to the reporter. A Times spokesperson told me that the paper attempted to contact Messick several times, without success, and that “we did not characterize Ms. Messick’s actions; we reported the facts.” The article was picked up by other outlets, several of which magnified Messick’s role.
Intervening on Messick’s behalf, a friend contacted reporters at the Times, told them about Messick’s mental health, and gave them her version of events. As it happened, a second, longer article in the Times, on Weinstein’s complicity machine, barely mentioned Messick, except to report that she had declined Weinstein’s offer of money. Messick felt she could breathe again; maybe she’d weathered the storm.
But McGowan’s version of Jill Messick would not go away. In late January she was left a message by Good Morning America, informing her that they were doing a segment on McGowan, who was promoting her memoir, Brave. The staffer wanted to know: “Is it true that during a screening of Going All the Way at Sundance in 1997 you nodded at Harvey Weinstein during a topless scene of Rose McGowan? We need an answer by tomorrow morning.” In a few days’ span, McGowan appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline, and The View. During each segment Messick was mentioned in the context of Hollywood’s complicity, or a picture of her was featured.
Some of Messick’s friends urged her to come forward to defend herself. Despite her devastation, Messick felt like she was in a no-win trap. According to Robin Jonas, Messick’s closest friend in the last period of her life and a Miramax veteran, “Jill supported the bravery of these women coming forward to share their truths and expose those who had committed unimaginable acts of treachery. She feared that if she openly pushed back on McGowan’s version of events, it could lead to others’ being unfairly questioned and that her words would be used to halt a burgeoning and necessary movement.” And so she stayed silent.
Messick was sure that this was the end of her career. After all, look what was happening to every man whose name was surfacing in the media, even when there was only a whiff of an allegation—and those were men with power. She was a middle-aged woman, in a recently fragile state, still trying to climb her way back up. She hadn’t received a call from Queen Latifah’s company, and was convinced the job was off the table. She worried that Warner Bros. might pull the Minecraft movie because of all the bad publicity she was getting.
The final blow came on January 30, when Weinstein’s lawyers released the e-mail she had provided to him. It read: “When [Rose and I] met up the following day, she hesitantly told me of her own accord that during the meeting that night before she had gotten into a hot tub with Mr. Weinstein. She was very clear about the fact that getting into that hot tub was something that she did consensually and that in hindsight it was also something that she regretted having done.”
Weinstein gave Messick no warning about the release of this e-mail. Knowing now the accusations against him, she was beside herself to see her words used to defend him, and horrified that she had agreed to provide him with this statement in the first place. Twitter pounced: “She got caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar,” wrote one. “Collusion,” tweeted another.
Friends urged her to hold on and promised it would blow over. But a week later, she was dead. Weinstein never reached out with any condolence. McGowan posted on Instagram: “May your family find some measure of solace during this pain. That one man could cause so much damage is astounding, but tragically true. The bad man did this to us both. May you find peace on the astral plane. May you find serenity with the stars.” The message did not go over well with Messick’s loved ones.
Three hundred people attended Messick’s memorial service. None spoke publicly about the drama she had just endured, but its connection to the larger cultural movement that had seized our collective consciousness wasn’t far from anyone’s mind. Cathy Konrad suspects that the Hollywood in which Messick worked and thrived, the Hollywood we now realize was fraught with abuses, took a psychological toll on her. “We’ve known that these situations that we’ve been in have been uncomfortable, inappropriate, crossing the line,” she says. “But because the greater dome over Hollywood dictates acceptance of said conditions unconditionally, you sort of take it and move on. People are realizing that they took in more toxins than they could handle.”
Jonas is more direct. “It is debatable if this situation was entirely responsible for Jill’s death. However, I feel confident, and it breaks my heart just thinking about it—having talked to her almost every day between October and February—if Jill had not been forced into these seemingly never-ending news cycles of horror, she would still be alive today,” she says. The caution may sound simple, even naïve, but heeding it could be as difficult—and as revolutionary—as #MeToo.