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.
THE BROS OF BUCKLEY
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.
THINGS FALL APART
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.
Traditionally, presidents have at least made a show of having healthy, happy marriages. Even the Clintons, despite marital troubles, appeared to have moments of genuine affection, humor, and bonding. But from almost the first moments of Inauguration Day, during the ceremonial arrival at the White House, it seemed something was amiss with the Trumps. Perhaps you’ve seen the clip: Donald and Melania’s black S.U.V. arrives at the White House, where Barack and Michelle Obama are waiting to greet them. Donald bolts from the car and marches up the stairs, leaving behind Melania, in her powder-blue, Jackie-esque suit, carrying a large Tiffany box. (Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton all escorted their wives at this moment.) This snapshot of the Trump marriage was soon followed by other odd moments. During Franklin Graham’s blessing, Donald turned around to look at Melania. She smiled momentarily. But once his back was turned, her face fell into a miserable frown. Later that night, as the president and First Lady had their “first dance,” twice over, to “My Way,” she was often stiff and pulling away from his face.
#SaveMelania and #SadMelania were soon trending on Twitter. The next day, protesters at the Women’s March carried signs that said, FREE MELANIA. A fashion fixture who’s known the Trump clan for decades shared with me his fantasy: “My dream is that Michelle Obama will convince her to leave him, and she’ll become this great feminist icon. She will walk into the middle of everything and say, ‘He’s crazy. This is nuts. I don’t know what I was doing!’ ”
Alas, a Hollywood ending this exciting is unlikely. After two high-maintenance wives, Donald Trump seems deliberately to have chosen as his third a woman who would be both bombshell and cipher, a physical testament to his manhood and amazingness. She would be decorative and polite, not needy and annoying. “I’m not a nagging wife,” Melania has declared a couple of times—her manifesto. According to some of Trump’s friends and associates, she has stuck to it.
“She enjoys her role of stepping back and letting him take center stage,” says decorator friend William Eubanks, who spent Thanksgiving with the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago, along with romance-novel-cover model Fabio and boxing promoter Don King. According to Lisa Bytner, who did P.R. for Trump Model Management when it was launched in 1999, and became a friend of the couple’s, Trump found in Melania the perfect mate. “She doesn’t make waves,” says Bytner. “She speaks only when spoken to. She’s just very sweet.” Except, in public, when called upon to defend her husband’s demeaning attitudes toward women, or to be a mouthpiece for some of his offensive claims, such as birtherism.
And yet, woefully pliant as Melania may be, even she may have a breaking point. Over the course of reporting this story, for which her close friends declined to talk, an uneasy picture has emerged of their marital union. Melania’s unhappiness and the couple’s apparent lack of closeness are becoming more noticeable. Despite assurances from her spokesperson, Stephanie Grisham, that Melania is embracing the role of First Lady, most signs point to a distinct lack of interest. And while Grisham says Mrs. Trump plans to move to the White House once their son, Barron, “finishes out the school year,” there have been indications that she is in no particular rush.
Once upon a time, it was a story that made perfect sense: a Slavic How to Marry a Billionaire. Melanija Knavs, the determined daughter of a former Communist Party member, grew up in Slovenia, where she and her older sister, Ines, learned from their parents’ ambition for upward mobility. Having creative aspirations, she studied design at the University of Ljubljana. But after she won runner-up in a beauty contest, she dropped out, hoping to put Slovenia behind her and become a model.
Her quest took her to Paris and Milan, where, in 1995, she had the good luck of meeting Paolo Zampolli—a co-owner of Metropolitan Models, a pal of Donald’s, and a gregarious playboy—who was on a scouting trip in Europe. “I told Melania, ‘If you would like to come to try the United States, we’d like to represent you,’ ” recalls the fast-talking Zampolli in his Gramercy Park town house. “I say very simple, ‘Please come.’ ” Melania was in.
Zampolli says he secured Melania’s visa. In 1996 she moved to New York City, settling into Zeckendorf Towers, on Union Square, where Zampolli set her up with a roommate, a photographer named Matthew Atanian. Unlike many twentysomethings, who come to New York City with an unquenchable lust for experience, Melania, according to Atanian, had little interest in nightlife or making friends. When she went out, it seemed to be with older men, only for dinner, and she always came home before her roommate had gone out, he says. (Grisham says that Melania did not do much dating, due to her “extensive travel schedule” as a model.) Demonstrating admirable Slavic discipline, “she wore ankle weights around the apartment and the common areas,” recalls Atanian. “She would strictly eat five to seven vegetables and fruits every day. She drank a lot of water . . . . She was looking to make money [as a model].”
But, according to Atanian, Melania was getting only second- and third-tier modeling work, and, at age 26, time was running out. Atanian, then shooting for Marie Claire, recalls her asking him to help her get in the magazine. He sensed it was hopeless. “She was always kind of a stiff person. That’s why she wasn’t a successful model, because she couldn’t move.”
Fortunately, Melania captured the attention of Donald Trump at a party, thrown by Zampolli, at the Times Square nightclub the Kit Kat Club, during Fashion Week in September 1998. Trump had come with a date, Norwegian cosmetics heiress Celina Midelfart, but when she went off to use the bathroom, Trump approached Melania and asked for her number. She took his number instead—a story she tells proudly. Soon they were at the 1990s Greenwich Village hot spot Moomba, starting a romance. Atanian and one of their model friends ribbed Melania, he says, coming out “with remarks such as ‘Oh, it’s the small hands you like, not the money, right? The comb-over, the dashing good looks.’ Melania would say, ‘Stop it, stop it.’ Her rap was ‘He’s a real man.’ ”
“All these European models, they’re tough as hell. They know what they’re doing. They’ve been watching the Americans forever,” says photographer Harry Benson, who has shot numerous First Couples, and Melania at least twice.
The union made perfect sense for Donald too. After demanding Ivana and needy Marla, Melania would be the perfect mate, one who would be an advertisement for his virility while giving him his “space.” Federico Pignatelli, a longtime Trump friend and business associate, who founded the fashion studio Pier 59, says, “Ivana was an intelligent, entrepreneurial woman. Also a very strong-minded person and very feisty. While instead, Melania . . . really no fights.” For her part, Melania would get a luxurious home where she could indulge her hobbies—Pilates and reading fashion magazines, according to People—in peace, and a promise that she would never have to return to drab Eastern-European prospects. Donald accompanied Melania to her homeland once. “I was there for about 13 minutes,” he later said to Larry King with Melania by his side. “We landed. I said, Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. Bye.” Eventually Trump brought her family over to New York (where her parents now live for most of the year), allowing her to cut ties with the Old Country.
For a few years, the relationship worked perfectly. Propping up Donald’s sexual prowess called for some public self-degradation, but Melania, as his girlfriend, was willing to do it. In 1999, shortly after they began dating, she participated in an on-air phone call with Trump and Howard Stern, as they discussed her chest, and whether she stole money from Donald’s wallet. When Stern asked to talk to “that broad in your bed,” Trump put her on the line, and she spoke about how they had sex more than daily, and revealed that she was nearly nude. Stern replied, “I have my pants off already.” Thanks to her relationship with Trump, she finally got her glossy-magazine spread—nearly naked in British GQ, handcuffed to a briefcase on a private jet, which Trump supplied. Managing the career moves of his companions was part of a pattern. While he was still married to Ivana, Trump pushed his girlfriend Marla Maples to pose nude in Playboy and reportedly negotiated the fee himself. (The deal fell through.)
A MODEL MARRIAGE
After almost seven years of dating Melania, Donald finally married her, in 2005, with a lavish reception at Mar-a-Lago, studded with A-list folk from the entertainment and news businesses—many of whom Donald now despises. As a wife, Melania became a dutiful spokeswoman for his self-proclaimed success. Michael D’Antonio, author of The Truth About Trump, recalls the exchanges he witnessed between her and Donald at Trump Tower. “He begged her to praise him [to me] as a husband . . . . Literally, he said, ‘Tell him I’m a really good husband.’ She looked at him, and he repeated himself. And she said, ‘Yeah, he’s a really good husband.’ It was being dragged out of her,” says D’Antonio. Then she repeated a story D’Antonio had already heard from Trump: Tom Cruise once called Donald to see if he could use the Wollman skating rink in Central Park (which Trump had renovated with much fanfare in 1986) during off-hours. Donald was very flattered that the actor had called him personally—but Melania pointed out, “Oh, but, Donald, you’re more famous than he is.” Trump seemed to feel that this story was “an example of their affection,” recalls D’Antonio. “Praising his fame, hyping his fame, was a wifely duty. The people in Trump’s orbit have all memorized the same stories. And they repeat them word for word.”
About six months after they married, she became pregnant with Barron—and things changed, according to one source. She was 35—“checkout time” for women, as Trump once told Howard Stern-and no longer the dewy fox he’d met seven years earlier. A visitor to one of Trump’s homes, late into Melania’s pregnancy, recalls him remarking that he agreed to the baby on the condition that Melania would get her body back. “She promised him that everything would go back to the way it was,” says this guest; it struck this person as a “contract.” And he was simply rude to her. “There was no ‘How do you feel?’ No opening of doors, making sure she didn’t fall. Just ‘You wanted to have a baby.’ ” (Grisham counters that Mr. Trump was “very warm and supportive throughout her pregnancy.”)
As Donald’s celebrity ballooned with The Apprentice, Melania was asked to tolerate even more. His public interchanges with Howard Stern, which provided a kind of Greek chorus to their relationship, went from lewdly objectifying to grotesque. He agreed with Stern that his daughter Ivanka was “a piece of ass.” He joked that if Melania were in a horrible, mangling car crash he’d still love her as long as the breasts remained intact. When asked by Stern whether he’d be up for “banging 24-year-olds,” Trump eagerly assented. Subsequent accusations suggest similar improprieties.
As People-magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff wrote during the campaign, while she was on assignment in 2005 to interview the couple at Mar-a-Lago, Trump pushed her against a wall and jammed his tongue down her throat after Melania had left the room. Other women, including contestants in the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants and Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos, claim to have had similar experiences after Trump had married Melania. Trump has dismissed them as liars, and Melania has repeated the assertion. But a source in Trump’s orbit says she was well aware of the man she married. According to her old friend Lisa Bytner, Melania’s attitude has always been “Live and let live.”
As the gorgeous wife of a Manhattan billionaire, Melania has had every opportunity to become a fixture on the gala-going benefit circuit. But that would presume an interest in social status or a cause. As Bytner recalls, “She was passionate about . . . Well, I can’t think what she was passionate about.” Her official White House biography has scant evidence of philanthropy, referring to single events she participated in as “Honorary Chairwoman” some 10 years ago, and the time in 2008 she rang the closing bell at NASDAQ for National Love Our Children Day. “The Trumps don’t comport themselves by the rules that are important to people, especially people on the Upper East Side,” says Wednesday Martin, author of a memoir called Primates of Park Avenue, which chronicles the ways of Manhattan’s rich and privileged. “They’ve rejected out of hand the established rites and rituals of philanthropy—which are to have a cause, have an event, buy a table and get your friends to, and then do the same for them.” New York society ladies paint a picture of a woman with an extraordinary interest in maintaining her beauty and in this she has succeeded wildly. Even among the devoted SoulCycle set, Melania makes everyone feel dowdy by comparison, says a woman in that circle.
Being a Trump, she experimented with creating a brand, with a Melania jewelry line on QVC. But the arrangement was short-lived. When asked about the partnership, QVC released a statement: “QVC has offered items from Melania Trump’s brand. At this time, QVC does not have an active relationship with the brand.” She moved on to a line of Melania skin care—creams and exfoliants laced with caviar. That business ended in a welter of lawsuits, with Melania suing her business partner for $50 million when the venture collapsed. (The suit was settled out of court.)
One person who would fill the vacuum and give Melania’s life meaning is Barron, 11, who is by most accounts sweet and well behaved, a testament to Melania’s devotion as a mother. The two sometimes speak to each other in Slovenian, and until recently she consistently did drop-off and pick-up from Columbia Grammar and Preparatory. Once considered a laid-back option for mellow upper-middle-class families, Columbia Prep now nearly ranks among the top-tier schools in terms of competitive admission.
“Donations are assumed,” says a parent at the school, referring to sums in the five and six figures, in addition to the $47,000 annual tuition. “You want your kid here, that’s $100,000,” says an uptown parent. Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, joined the school’s board around eight years ago, and Trump has donated at least $150,000 to the school. (The school declined to comment, and Cohen, who resigned from the board last year, responds, “To imply that a student was ever offered a seat based upon a donation is wholly inaccurate.”)
Columbia Prep has become a nexus for other key figures in the Trumps’ world, too. Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, the step-granddaughter of jeweler Harry Winston and a close friend of Melania’s, has a daughter at the school. For more than 10 years, Wolkoff was a chief organizer of the Metropolitan Museum’s annual Met Gala, an event about which she has said, “No money, no come-y.” Cohen’s term on the board overlapped that of Caryn Zucker, the wife of Jeff Zucker, head of CNN, who helped catapult Trump to celebrity stardom with The Apprentice when Zucker was the president of NBC. The Zuckers have three kids at the school, and Caryn is said to be one of Melania’s friends. This trio—Cohen, Wolkoff, and Jeff Zucker—would all go on to play roles in the Trumps’ next chapter: presidential politics. Zucker led the way in giving Trump hours of unfiltered airtime during the campaign (but has since steered CNN to solid opposition ground). Wolkoff would be the First Lady’s first hire, as a senior adviser. Cohen became a rabid Trump surrogate. Threatening a reporter who asked him about Ivana Trump’s claim, later recanted, that Donald had raped her, Cohen said, “I will take you for every penny you still don’t have . . . . What I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.” (Cohen later apologized for his “inarticulate comment.”) He is now reportedly under scrutiny in the Trump-Russia investigations but has denied any wrongdoing.
To The White House
With Donald entering national politics, he would be asking even more of Melania. In the spring of 2011, he began to shore up his support from the far right for a potential presidential run, by casting doubt on President Obama’s citizenship. Melania agreed to be interviewed by talk-show host Joy Behar, to whom she repeated his birther claims almost verbatim: “Do you want to see President Obama’s birth certificate or not?,” Melania asked Behar. “In one way, it would be very easy if President Obama just show it. It’s not only Donald who wants to see it. It’s American people who voted for him and who didn’t voted for him—they want to see that!” (No matter that Obama had released his birth certificate in 2008, showing he was born in Hawaii.)
Trump decided not to run in 2012, saying he wasn’t ready to leave the private sector. Four years later, the time had come. Trump’s official story is that he consulted with his family about his decision to run, and they all agreed. A former campaign aide recalls a conversation in which Melania told this aide that she didn’t want Donald to run, because she was terrified he might win. According to another Trump insider, “She never wanted this, and never had any interest.” (Grisham maintains that “Mrs. Trump has always been supportive of all her husband’s endeavors.”) Tolerating his boorishness—that she could do. Repeating a couple of lame sound bites to Joy Behar—fine. But serious campaigning for one’s spouse required far more actual effort.
Melania seemed to do her best to ignore the new reality, on the grounds that she wanted to be home for Barron. Over the course of Trump’s 17-month campaign, she rarely joined her husband at rallies, and the speeches she gave could be counted on one hand. Compare that with Michelle Obama, who spoke all over the country on Barack’s behalf, though she too had young children. During the primaries, Donald made do by re-tweeting a picture of Melania next to an unflattering shot of Heidi Cruz, Ted’s wife, with the caption “The images are worth a thousand words.
But then he clinched the nomination, and more Melania participation was required—which, alas, did not do her any favors. In February 2016, in an interview with MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, Melania expounded on illegal immigration, using her personal story as an example of model behavior. “I followed the law . . . . And you should do that. You should not just say, O.K., let me stay here. And whatever happens happens.”
To some, this statement pointed up a lack of compassion toward a group she herself is part of. Her immigration attorney Michael Wildes, who worked for Trump Models and the Miss Universe pageant, denies that Melania’s stance toward fellow immigrants is unsympathetic, likening her to “the biblical Queen Esther” on this issue. When I pressed him to explain how, specifically, Melania has demonstrated concern for immigrants, he put me on hold for some time, and returned with what sounded like a carefully crafted non sequitur: “She’s extremely thoughtful and sincere about asking about family members who are not in her circle. She’s fully aware of your family.”
Then there was that speech she had to give at the Republican convention. According to a source with knowledge of events, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, took control and hired two George W. Bush speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, to write it. It was Kushner, not Melania, who provided them with the outlines of her story, and the touching personal anecdotes. The speechwriters assumed that eventually they’d get some input from Melania, but the call never came. After the speech sat around for a few weeks, Donald’s frequent ghostwriter, Meredith McIver, got her hands on it. The final draft of the speech was nothing like the one the speechwriters had turned in. The radical rewrite may not have been ordered by anyone in particular, says this source, but was perhaps the product of a campaign in disarray. Hours before her convention speech, Melania told the Today show’s Matt Lauer, “I wrote it, with as little help as possible.”
Later that night, after she delivered the speech, it was revealed that passages had been lifted from the convention speech Michelle Obama had given eight years earlier. All of a sudden, campaign spokesmen were blaming “Melania’s team of writers,” and insisting Melania had nothing to do with the “unfortunate oversight.” In the end, McIver took the fall, writing a public letter, apologizing to the Trumps and saying how honored she was to work for such great people. “It wasn’t Melania’s fault,” insists Zampolli. According to a campaign aide, “she was distraught” at the turn of events. She disappeared from view and holed up in Trump Tower.
It got worse. In October, the “grab them by the pussy” tape was leaked—Trump’s bragging to Billy Bush of Access Hollywood about touching women’s private parts, recorded during the first year of his marriage to Melania. Donald dismissed his words as “locker-room talk,” but then one woman after another came out of the woodwork to claim that these weren’t just words. But Donald boasted that he had never apologized to Melania, because there was nothing to apologize for. At campaign rallies, he made his case by saying that some of the accusers weren’t hot enough for him to hit on.
This was a five-alarm fire, and it seemed as though Melania, in spite of her previous missteps, was the only person who could put it out. On October 17, she went on CNN to defend her husband, dismissing his words as “boy talk” and blaming everyone else—Billy Bush, who had “egged him on,” NBC for releasing the tape, the “left-wing media” for reporting on it, and the accusers, whose accounts were “lies.” Trump’s defenders dug in. Zampolli, while acknowledging that the tape wasn’t pleasant to hear, waves it away. “Sometimes, [during] Girls Night Out, you guys make some comments about bodies like this.” Pignatelli agrees. “He adores women. And he respects women. When you adore your daughter, you respect women. And he adores Ivanka. Literally adores her. So when a man adores his daughter, he respects women.”
Not Over Until the First Lady Sings
There were signs that the pressure was taking its toll on Melania. At Columbia Prep Parents Night, shortly after the recording was released, “she looked really thin, tired, and sad,” recalls a parent. “Nobody was talking to her. Nobody knew what to say.” But Election Day was right around the corner, and duty called. As a potential First Lady, Melania needed to come up with a “platform.” On November 3, she gave her first solo speech since the debacle at the Republican convention, and announced that she intended to fight . . . cyberbullying, a claim she made seemingly with no awareness that she was married to the worst cyberbully on the planet. Was she really that clueless?
Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus—whom Trump attacked on Twitter as “a real dummy” and a “major loser” after she criticized him on CNN—believes “it was the height of spoiled self-centeredness. Of a very privileged, wealthy woman looking only at herself, who clearly has no thoughts or care for the people her husband has damaged, ruined, and traumatized by his cyberbullying.” Again, Melania was pilloried by the media. On the plus side, the election was in five days, and the prospect of Trump winning was then estimated to be as little as 10 percent.
Tens of millions of Americans watched the election returns with disbelief. It’s likely that Melania, who watched with the family and allies at Trump Tower, was among them. Stylist Phillip Bloch, an acquaintance of Melania’s, who worked with Donald on his pageants, says, “I’ll tell you, that pantsuit didn’t look like she was going to a victory rally. That outfit was like, ‘I’m getting on the plane going to Palm Beach. This is over now. Thank God.’ ”
And yet, here was a chance—a golden opportunity for Melania to do something transformative for the world, or at least to serve as the compassionate partner, a kinder counterweight to a man whose lifeblood was to insult.
The tradition of First Lady is no lightweight anachronism. According to A. Scott Berg, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Wilson, the best-selling 2013 biography of Woodrow Wilson, “President William Howard Taft called the White House ‘the loneliest place in the world.’ It has fallen upon 40 First Ladies of the United States before Melania to assuage that loneliness by offering a sympathetic ear and often the only advice their husbands could trust implicitly.” From Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as “her husband’s legs” as she toured coal mines and front lines, to Betty Ford, who bravely presented herself as a survivor of breast cancer, to Hillary Clinton, who led the charge on health-care reform, to Michelle Obama, who encouraged fitness through a national program of diet and exercise, the majority of modern First Ladies have played robust roles. “Even those First Ladies who evaded the spotlight—such as Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, and Pat Nixon—graciously and publicly stood by their men,” Berg says.
But Melania has approached the job of First Lady hesitantly. According to a source close to the transition, the East Wing, where First Ladies have their offices, was practically a ghost town. “A First Lady comes in with seasoned partnerships,” said this source. “You come in with a staff, your people. They have no people. Look who was at Thanksgiving: Don King and Fabio.”
True, Melania’s first hire was her old friend Stephanie Wolkoff. Her next hires included people who weren’t obvious White House material: decorator Tham Kannalikham, who once worked for Ralph Lauren’s home-furnishings business, and, as social secretary, Anna Cristina Niceta Lloyd, whose previous job had been as an account executive at a catering company.
In April, Melania became somewhat more visible, standing by Trump’s side at Mar-a-Lago during the visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping and his wife, and visiting an all-girls charter school in Washington, D.C., with Queen Rania of Jordan.
But as this article was going to press, she hadn’t yet done anything about cyberbullying. Offers have been made to gather experts in the field to educate her. When asked what Melania intends to do with the issue, a source in frequent contact with the Trumps shrugs and says noncommittally, “I suspect she’ll do something.” (Grisham says the First Lady “continues to work on building her agenda in a thoughtful way . . . . She likes things to be done right, and doing things right takes time.”)
“The only action Melania Trump has taken in regard to cyberbullying is in regard to herself,” Cheri Jacobus told me. She may have a point. In February, Melania successfully settled with a blogger, for a “substantial sum,” according to her lawyer, for making the unsubstantiated claim that she’d been an escort. She filed a $150 million suit against the Web site of the Daily Mail for reporting the claim. The suit alleged that the defamatory statement destroyed her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to make millions during this “multiyear term” in which she is “one of the most photographed women in the world.” Only after the media pointed out that the wording implied a blatant intention to profit from the presidency was that part taken out. (The tabloid and its Web site retracted the article, but the suit went ahead, ending in mid-April when the Daily Mail and MailOnline issued an official apology and paid damages reported to be around $3 million.)
With Melania often absent, Ivanka has gone a long way toward filling the role of First Lady, and has even moved into her own office in the West Wing of the White House. In the first months of the Trump presidency she, instead of Melania, met and socialized with a number of world leaders and C.E.O.’s. To be sure, Ivanka seems to have an intense personal will to power, but there is no doubt that stepping in for Melania has also been an obligation. Two sources in fashion and media have observed a frostiness between the two. (A source close to Ivanka said that their relationship is “fine.” Grisham says, “Ivanka and Mrs. Trump have always shared a close relationship, and that continues today.”)
New York’s chattering class has recently been abuzz with gossip that Melania was considering a divorce after the Access Hollywood tape came out. But Melania’s camp denies those rumors, and Zampolli says that during New Year’s Eve at Mar-a-Lago “it looked like they were on a first date. I don’t have that kind of romance with my wife.” Us Weekly has reported that the Trumps sleep in separate quarters, both in New York and at Mar-a-Lago. Grisham dismisses this as “fictional.” In any case, Zampolli explains that, for people like him and Donald, that’s no big deal. “I built a very big house,” he says, gesturing at his massive town house, “that goes to six floors . . . . [My wife] wants to live in her own spot, trust me. The house is 20,000 square feet, as you can see.”
Despite official statements that Melania will move to Washington at the end of the school year, at press time the Trumps had still not announced a D.C.-area school for Barron. According to a well-placed member of the Washington education community, they had not yet applied to some of the schools one might have imagined. A St. Albans parent notes, “There’s been no ‘Barron will be going to my school’ ” sort of dish one might expect. (Grisham says, “They are still looking at a few schools.”)
New Yorkers are paying dearly for Melania’s gilded boundaries. It’s costing the city about $1 million per week to protect her and Barron. The Columbia Prep community is struggling to deal with a situation it never bargained for. Despite official statements that Melania will move to Washington at the end of the school year, at press time the Trumps had still not announced a D.C.-area school for Barron. According to a well-placed member of the Washington education community, they had not yet applied to some of the schools one might have imagined. A St. Albans parent notes, “There’s been no ‘Barron will be going to my school’ ” sort of dish one might expect. (Grisham says, “They are still looking at a few schools.”)
Pick-up has become a complicated ordeal, according to a parent. Choppers have hovered overhead. Recently, a suspicious truck was parked outside, causing the school to go on lockdown. The children were told to move away from the windows. “The parents are very unhappy,” says one, who believes no president should have a child at a New York City school. “We’re not geared for it. The kids feel the anxiety, too.” In addition, the public expression of political fervor has been discouraged, as the members of the community were asked to refrain from discussing the election on school grounds.
What will become of Melania and Donald? Perhaps some kind of feminist fantasy (involving Michelle Obama or not) will come to pass. To be sure, it would provide a gripping melodrama and an “I told you so” victory for those who were appalled by Donald’s misogynist outbursts revealed during the campaign. But shouldn’t we be entitled to more? As Berg says, “A nation now wonders what role, if any, the new First Lady might play in its life. So too, perhaps, does her husband.”
Like most things involving Angelina Jolie, stepping foot into her house is an experience so heightened one wonders if it’s for real or the product of careful orchestration. The large gates to her recently purchased Los Feliz house—an 11,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts mansion once owned by the epic filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille—slowly swing open, revealing rolling lawns, lush trees at the perimeter. No one’s there, and all is quiet except for the delicate sound of fountains, arched in a row over a swimming pool. A number of doors to the house are open, as if posing some riddle from a fairy tale—which one to enter? Inside, the vibe is airy and calm: all open windows and cross-breezes, creamy-white unlit candles, soft creamy-white furnishings. Finally she emerges from the other side of the house and glides across the room in a creamy-white, floor-length caftan. Her hair is down, her feet bare, only a touch of makeup, her skin luminous. She smiles widely—a beneficent, ethereal wood nymph.
But as soon as she starts speaking, you realize that your preconceived notions about Jolie aren’t quite right. She’s not a celestial goddess. She’s not the high-and-mighty do-gooder. She’s not the intense control freak—or at least not obviously so. She comes across, rather, as normal-person friendly and practical, even chitchatty. She explains the deal with the big empty mansion. She moved into this space just four days ago with her six kids. It wasn’t for the prestigious history or the architecture. She needed a good place fast, somewhere secluded, with a lot of rooms; this one, which was listed for around $25 million, has six bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. Following her September 2016 filing for divorce from Brad Pitt, she and her children spent nine months in a rental, basically living out of suitcases. And so she hasn’t really unpacked, barely knows her way around the place, has never had a real visitor, and isn’t sure where the best spot is to sit and talk. With that in question, she roams from room to room—the fabulous kitchen, worthy of a Nancy Meyers movie, charming gray library with a library ladder (her favorite room in the house), the generous landing at the foot of a sweeping staircase, anchored by a roundtable with a bouquet of white flowers. She finally settles on the living room, which a set-decorator friend furnished on the fly, with two creamy-white sofas and some big throw pillows. She looks at them curiously. “I didn’t even know I needed ‘throw pillows.’ ” Decorating, house stuff, “that was always Brad’s thing.” On cue, as if taunting her, Jolie’s large Rottweiler, Dusty, soaking from a trip to the pool, jumps onto the sofa, soiling it. She sighs, amused, half tries to wipe it off with her bare hand, then gives up and sits somewhere else.
Life in her household is apparently like this—messy, relaxed, normal. The kids are polite but not phony polite. Zahara, 12, whom Jolie describes as “the rock” of the family, comes downstairs. “Zaz!” Jolie cries, midsentence. They discuss the whereabouts of everyone else. Zahara hugs the wet dog. Jolie laughs and tells her daughter about the swim Dusty just took. We move to the kitchen, where Jolie fixes herself a cup of tea. Vivienne, 9, comes in with a friend, having just been at a sleepover. She’s wearing a jean backpack covered with pins. Jolie envelops her in her arms. I ask the girl if she’s called “Viv” or “Vivienne.” “Either one!” she says with a smile. She dumps her stuff on the counter and goes out to play with her friend. Jolie picks up a small piece of a blanket, shredded to death, and explains, laughing, “She has 32 blankets. She is very into her blanket, and she gets very mad if you wash her blanket. She actually said to me the other day, ‘Mom, I can taste my blanket.’ ‘That, honey, is a sign that it really, really needs to be washed.’ ”
Jolie tidies up Vivienne’s things and promptly spills her entire mug of tea all over the counter. We step outside and there’s Shiloh, 11, and Knox, 9, hanging out. Shiloh, who likes to dress like a boy, is wearing a camouflage jacket, long shorts, and heavy black sneakers, despite the blazing heat. Knox immediately wants to know when Jolie’s going to put up the waterslide. “How about a ‘Hello, Mom’?” she says, with a hug, sounding like just about every other loving, exasperated mother in America. So far, there’s only one piece of personal artwork up—a black-and-white photograph on the mantelpiece of the six children, smiling and holding their various pets—dogs, reptiles, and rodents.
Jolie and Pitt, who’d been together for 12 years and appeared to be the most gloriously evolved couple in Hollywood, split last September. She filed for divorce suddenly “for the health of the family,” according to her lawyer, and announced she was seeking sole custody of the children, three of whom are adopted (Maddox, 15, Pax, 13, and Zahara), three of whom are biological (Shiloh, Vivienne, and Knox). Things had been rocky for some time, but the last straw was a dramatic trip on a private plane, where there was reportedly a physical and verbal altercation between Pitt and Maddox. When they touched down, Jolie went home with the kids, effectively kicking him out. This was no “Conscious Uncoupling.” An anonymous phone call was made to authorities. The F.B.I. and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services began investigating Pitt for child abuse. He was soon cleared and later said in an interview with GQ Style that he was smarting from the pain of his suddenly broken family and admitted he had a serious drinking problem.
There were rumors he was having an affair with Marion Cotillard (denied by both Pitt and Cotillard). Jolie got the early jump P.R.-wise. But Pitt won hearts and minds with the mea culpa in GQ Style. The two are still negotiating the terms of their divorce.
As for Jolie, a life already bursting at the seams—with acting, directing, humanitarian work, parenting six kids, and guest-lecturing on women’s rights at the London School of Economics—just got exponentially bigger and more complicated, because she’s now doing it alone. There’s the chaos surrounding the practical day-to-day—playdates, doctors’ appointments, packing and unpacking, and organizing mealtimes. And there’s the deeper, emotional chaos. “It’s just been the hardest time, and we’re just kind of coming up for air. [This house] is a big jump forward for us, and we’re all trying to do our best to heal our family.”
As it happens, the personal trauma has coincided with her most personal film yet. Jolie has directed a moving, large-scale adaptation of First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of the Khmer Rouge genocide, in which Ung’s parents and two of her siblings perished, along with an estimated two million other Cambodians, a quarter of the country’s population. Shot entirely in Cambodia, and in the Khmer language, the film, a Netflix original, is the largest production the country has witnessed since the war, and according to the reports of several Cambodians who’ve seen it, it’s one of the most revelatory pieces of art about that chapter in the country’s history, a history that’s still difficult for Cambodians to discuss. But if Cambodians consider the film to be something of a gift, then it’s surely a thank-you gift. For Jolie, Cambodia is where she started her family, and it’s where she made a cathartic personal transformation, becoming the woman she is today.
Recall, if you can, the Angelina of the late 90s, the era of Angie Peak Crazy. Specializing in dark volatile characters that seemed extensions of her wild-child restless self, Jolie won three Golden Globes for her roles in television movies and a best- supporting-actress Oscar for her portrayal of a young woman with apparent borderline personality disorder in Girl, Interrupted. She talked freely about having dabbled in heroin and self-cutting, and her love of knives. She and new husband Billy Bob Thornton wore each other’s dried blood in pendants around their necks, and publicly bragged about their wild sex. At the 2000 Oscar ceremony, she talked provocatively about being “so in love . . . right now” with her brother, James, and kissed him with unsettling intimacy. To be sure, Jolie had legitimate pain in her early life—her father, actor Jon Voight, had been unfaithful to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, and the two split up early on. But it was First World pain. Being Hollywood’s newest “It girl” landed Jolie the title role in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, based on a popular video game. As it happened, the movie, an example of Hollywood’s most vacuous, commercial, shoot-’em-up instincts, was filmed on location in Cambodia. There, Jolie, who’d grown up in privileged bubbles in Los Angeles and New York, witnessed what real suffering looked like: poverty, the loss of limbs from land mines, a generation of relatives wiped out. In this world there was no room for free-floating malaise or self-indulgent antics. And in spite of their profound trials, “I found a people who were so kind and warm and open, and, yes, very complex,” recalls Jolie. “You drive around here you can see a lot of people with many things, but not often expressing happiness. You go there, and you see the families come out with their blanket and their picnic to watch a sunset.”
She suddenly became curious about the world—starting with the country she was in. One day in Siem Reap, Cambodia, she picked up a book that was being sold on the side of the road for $2: Ung’s memoir. It was among the factors that inspired Jolie to find a greater purpose. In 2001, equipping herself with as much knowledge as she could, she contacted the United Nations and eventually became a goodwill ambassador for the High Commissioner for Refugees. On one of her first U.N. missions, in 2002, she returned to Cambodia to meet up with NGO workers who were dealing with land-mine issues. Among them was Ung, the author of that transformative book, who had moved to America since the war but had spent her adult years working on Cambodia’s troubles. She had never seen an Angelina Jolie movie, but Jolie certainly didn’t seem like anyone’s vision of a movie star. “She was just a really cool human being,” recalls Ung. “And she didn’t mind getting dirty.”
She and Jolie clicked and made a plan to travel together to a land-mine-filled part of Cambodia where Ung hadn’t been since the war. Thus began a sequence that sounds as though it must have been written for a movie—but it wasn’t. They met up with a bunch of de-miners, took off on mo-peds, with only a flashlight and some extra toilet paper as supplies, when a monsoon started. Soaked, they went to bed in hammocks. Before going to sleep, Jolie realized she already trusted Ung enough to ask her about something personal, something big she’d been thinking about—adopting a Cambodian orphan. “I asked her as a Cambodian orphan if she would be offended for somebody like me, an outsider, [to do that], or if that would be a nice thing,” recalls Jolie. Ung was wholeheartedly supportive. “Angie was maternal to everybody around her, not just children, but adults included. I wanted her to adopt me,” says Ung. “I was orphaned when I was eight years old, and so I think, when you’ve gone through experiences like that, there’s always a part of you that craves to have full parent figures in your life.” Jolie says that Ung’s enthusiasm for the idea of her adopting was a deciding factor. Had she responded differently, explains Jolie, “it might have changed my decision. It might have made it very hard for me.” Ung has been in Jolie’s life ever since and is now one of her few close friends.
Jolie immediately set the adoption process in motion. A couple of months later, she visited an orphanage in the provincial town of Battambang, having promised herself that she’d go only to one, that she wasn’t going to shop around. But Jolie felt uneasy as she wandered the rooms, meeting the children. “I didn’t feel a connection with any of them,” she recalls.
“They then said, ‘There’s one more baby.’ ” Baby Maddox was lying in a box that was suspended from the ceiling. She looked at him. He looked at her. “I cried and cried,” she recalls.
And thus began a 15-year project, in which Jolie rebranded herself, expanding her world, her family, her career, and her image. She bought a house in Cambodia and became a citizen. In 2003, she started what became the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, focusing on Cambodia’s environmental conservation, health, education, and infrastructure. She intensified her U.N. work, going on dozens of fact-finding missions, to such global hot spots as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, and Haiti. (She’s now been on more than 60 missions.) She split from Thornton, who didn’t understand her newfound passion. She adopted her second child, Zahara, from Ethiopia.
In 2004 she met Pitt, on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, when he was still married to Jennifer Aniston. For Jolie, dating Pitt—Hollywood’s gorgeous, laid-back golden boy—catapulted her to another level of fame. Though she has maintained that they didn’t become romantically involved until he and Aniston had split, the couple wasted no time in exhibiting their romance for the pages of W, which did a 32-page spread of them playing house, with a pretend brood of five. Aniston was devastated. For Pitt, dating Jolie meant doing it her way, at least at the outset. It marked the beginning of his own philanthropic life—in Africa, Haiti, and New Orleans—and he formally adopted Maddox and Zahara. He persuaded Jolie to have biological children. She gave birth to Shiloh in 2006, in Namibia, then the twins, Vivienne and Knox, in 2008. In between they adopted Pax, then three, from Vietnam. They bought more homes—in France, Spain, New York, and New Orleans. While Pitt, as a producer and actor, churned out one prestige movie after another (Moonlight, The Tree of Life, Moneyball, 12 Years a Slave), Jolie took a new chance with directing—with In the Land of Blood and Honey, about Bosnia, a project inspired by some of the U.N. work she’d done there.
Together, they appeared unstoppable, the most creatively alive citizens on the planet. Nothing seemed beyond their abilities. They traipsed around the globe as a nomadic clan of eight, making art, doing good, and setting up home wherever they happened to be. They tied the knot in 2014, mainly because the kids wanted them to. They had the means to take along tutors for the children wherever they went. But Jolie’s idea of an education meant immersion in the real world, to bring an understanding of one’s “small part in the bigger picture.” For a time, it all worked beautifully.
It was 2012, and Jolie had recently finished In the Land of Blood and Honey. She wanted her next project to be just as meaningful, and Ung’s story had at this point been with her for a decade. By the time they had a completed draft, the chance for Jolie to direct Unbroken, based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, had come along, and they put the script aside. After that, Maddox, who knew “Auntie” Loung’s story, brought it up. “He was the one who said, ‘It’s time to do it,’ ” says Jolie. She knew that Maddox would be deeply involved in the production, that he’d be “standing there watching horrors that his countrymen did to each other. [So] he had to be ready.”
Jolie and Ung dived back in. Credited on the film as an executive producer, Maddox read draft after draft, giving comments. Jolie took it to Netflix, where chief creative officer Ted Sarandos signed on without hesitation. “In the room, she created a visual experience of what this film could be,” recalls Sarandos. “The film is in many ways about the death of beauty, about the way the Khmer Rouge had killed all things beautiful, color itself, which becomes part of the joy of life. . . . That’s what hooked me more than anything.”
Despite Jolie’s Cambodian ties, she felt she needed a Cambodian filmmaker to help shepherd the project. So she reached out to Rithy Panh, one of the most famous filmmakers in Cambodia, who had lost family members to the genocide and had chronicled the Khmer Rouge in several documentaries, including The Missing Picture, which was nominated for the best-foreign-language-film Academy Award in 2014.
She and Panh agreed that the only way this film could be made was if Cambodia wanted it to be—not a foregone conclusion, given that Cambodians are still somewhat reticent about their painful history. (The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé’s 1984 film about the Khmer Rouge, had to be filmed in Thailand and elsewhere.) The war tribunals, which were set in motion in 2009 and are ongoing, have helped open up the topic. Still, Jolie was trepidatious and approached the country’s culture ministers gingerly, explaining that they were telling not just Ung’s story but also the story of a people. Jolie’s Cambodian track record made the difference, says Ung. “In a country like Cambodia, respect is very much elevated—respect for each other, respect for the culture, respect for the history, respect for the elders. Angie walks in Cambodia with this respect.”
Cambodia went all in—closing off Battambang for days, giving the filmmakers permits to land in remote zones, providing them with 500 officials from their actual army to play the Khmer Rouge army. “It’s not a poetic thing to say—[this film] was made by the country,” says Jolie. Between cast and crew, some 3,500 Cambodians participated.
To cast the children in the film, Jolie looked at orphanages, circuses, and slum schools, specifically seeking children who had experienced hardship. In order to find their lead, to play young Loung Ung, the casting directors set up a game, rather disturbing in its realism: they put money on the table and asked the child to think of something she needed the money for, and then to snatch it away. The director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie. “Srey Moch [the girl ultimately chosen for the part] was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,” Jolie says. “When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back.” Jolie then tears up. “When she was asked later what the money was for, she said her grandfather had died, and they didn’t have enough money for a nice funeral.”
That authentic connection to pain was awakened in everyone involved, says Jolie, making for a film set like nothing she’d ever seen. “There wasn’t a person who was working on the movie who didn’t have a personal connection. They weren’t coming to do a job. They were walking in the exodus for the people whom they had lost in their family, and it was out of respect for them that they were going to re-create it . . . It completed something for them.” Some had flashbacks and nightmares. For this reason, a therapist was on set every day. And then there were the odd bystanders who hadn’t been aware that a movie was being made, and were traumatized. In one scene, recalls Jolie, “when the Khmer Rouge came over the bridge, we had a few people who really dropped to their knees and wailed. They were horrified to see them come back.”
Given the size and complexity of the production, a different Hollywood director might have, consciously or not, muscled in and flexed her power in a way that might have seemed boorish. According to Ung and Panh, Jolie knows Cambodia so well she’s internalized the country’s character traits. At lunch, she waited in line like everyone else, recalls Panh, and she never raised her voice. “Here we don’t shout. We talk,” he says. In Cambodia, yelling is not just disrespectful—it’s also considered a sign of weakness.
Many eyes were on Maddox, who is as famous in Cambodia as Jolie. “It was a way for him to walk in the steps that most likely his birth parents walked,” says Jolie, who wasn’t sure how he’d ultimately react to the experience. Would he connect? Would he want to flee? Jolie was thrilled one morning during the shoot when she heard Maddox say, “Can I go sleep in my house with my friends?,” referring to their house in the jungle, which she had bought back in 2002. “I hadn’t heard him refer to it that way. You can’t push it. You can’t say, ‘Isn’t this great?’ You just have to kind of keep bringing them there, putting it in front of them . . . and hope that they find the pride and find the comfort.” She considers the endeavor to connect Maddox to his homeland—as she does Zahara to Ethiopia and Pax to Vietnam—a family effort, not a solo one. With that in mind, while Pitt was in the Middle East working on War Machine, the other five kids also went to Cambodia and played a role, official or not, in their mother’s movie. Pax did still photography. The other four were on set every day and became close playmates with the child actors.
In February, the film premiered for an audience of 1,000 at the outdoor amphitheater near the temple complex of Angkor Wat. According to numerous reports, it was a screening filled with tears of recognition, remembrance, and catharsis. What moved Jolie perhaps more than anything was that “the Cambodian people had a big movie premiere. They saw a movie for which they made the sets. [It was] their actors doing a great job, their country looking beautiful even through all the horrors.”
Alas, while she was making film history for a country, her relationship with Pitt was suffering. By the time First They Killed My Father was in postproduction, in the summer of 2016, “things got bad,” says Jolie. “I didn’t want to use that word. . . . Things became ‘difficult.’ ” There has been Hollywood talk that their lifestyle had taken its toll on Pitt, and that he was craving a more stable, normal life for the whole family. When I bring this question up to her, it’s the one moment when Jolie becomes a bit defensive. “[Our lifestyle] was not in any way a negative,” she says quickly, adamantly. “That was not the problem. That is and will remain one of the wonderful opportunities we are able to give our children . . . They’re six very strong-minded, thoughtful, worldly individuals. I’m very proud of them.” Jolie has indicated that, for the sake of the kids, she doesn’t want to talk about the breakup. And yet it seems she wants to get her point across, which calls for a careful choice of words, something of a high-wire act. “They’ve been very brave. They were very brave.”
“In times they needed to be.” Other statements are similarly cryptic. “We’re all just healing from the events that led to the filing . . . They’re not healing from divorce. They’re healing from some . . . from life, from things in life.”
I mention Pitt’s mea culpa in GQ Style. Did it surprise her? “No,” she replies, looking unmoved. I refer to tabloid reports that suggest their communication has improved, and ask if that’s true. There’s a long pause. She looks down, formulates an answer. “We care for each other and care about our family, and we are both working towards the same goal.” There’s anger and pain right there beneath the surface. But she’s trying to keep the emotions at bay. “I was very worried about my mother, growing up—a lot. I do not want my children to be worried about me. I think it’s very important to cry in the shower and not in front of them. They need to know that everything’s going to be all right even when you’re not sure it is.”
Her protectiveness over the kids has become all that more fierce due to her recent brushes with the specter of ovarian cancer; the disease took her mother’s life when she was just 56, as well as those of other family members. In a 2013 New York Timesop-ed column, Jolie chronicled her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery after she learned she had the BRCA1 gene. Two years later, while working in the editing room on By the Sea, she got a call from the doctor saying that he was concerned about certain levels in her blood work that potentially suggested cancer. “Ten minutes later, the room’s spinning, and you just think, How . . . ?” She kept the news from the kids, did further tests, and waited a few agonizing days. When she finally learned she didn’t have cancer, “I dropped to my knees.” She made an appointment to get her ovaries taken out. “I went into the actual surgery happy as they come. I was skipping. Because at that point it was just preventative.” She instantly went into menopause.
Last year, in addition to hypertension, Jolie developed Bell’s palsy, a result of damage to facial nerves, causing one side of her face to droop. “Sometimes women in families put themselves last,” she says, “until it manifests itself in their own health.” Jolie credits acupuncture for her full recovery from the condition.
Lately, her skin has become drier, she reports, and she has extra gray hairs. She quips, “I can’t tell if it’s menopause or if it’s just been the year I’ve had.” The idea that she could still be anyone’s idea of a sex symbol is laughable to her. But she says, “I actually feel more of a woman because I feel like I’m being smart about my choices, and I’m putting my family first, and I’m in charge of my life and my health. I think that’s what makes a woman complete.
Apart from promoting First They Killed My Father, on Netflix this month, Jolie has no interest in working on another film at this particular moment—her life just doesn’t have the space for it. Right now, “I’m just wanting to make the proper breakfast and keep the house. That’s my passion. At the request of my kids, I’m taking cooking classes. As I go to sleep at night, I think, Did I do a great job as a mom or was that an average day?” (But it is rumored she is negotiating to star in Bill Condon’s remake of the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein.)
She’s reconnected with her father, from whom she’d been estranged. “He’s been very good at understanding they needed their grandfather at this time. I had to do a therapy meeting last night and he was just around. He knows kind of the rule—don’t make them play with you. Just be a cool grandpa who’s creative, and hang out and tell stories and read a book in the library.”
Her main source of comfort has been Ung. “She’s that girlfriend who rolled up her sleeves, got on a plane, and helped me on Christmas morning,” says Jolie. “She’s been my closest friend. I cried on her shoulder.”
Tomorrow, Jolie and the kids are headed to Africa. They’re visiting Namibia, where Shiloh was born, and Kenya, where Jolie will be checking in with a project connected to the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, an organization she co-founded with British former foreign secretary William Hague. Specifically, members of the British military and peacekeepers will be receiving training in how to protect women from sexual violence in crisis zones. It’s not the obvious dream itinerary for a kid, and Jolie admits that she’s started to get a little pushback with the older ones. “I’m conscious that the boys are teenage boys, and maybe they’d rather be watching TV with their friends, and they’ve been to Africa, and they may not be as excited as the little ones. But they don’t really challenge me. They just kind of sit on the edge of my bed and say, ‘What are we going to do there?’ ” She assured them that she’d planned fun activities for them, like sandboarding. In any case, “they know that it’s important, and they know that Mom thinks that it’s going to be important when they’re older.”
She knows it sounds a little strange, but Jolie can’t help who she is. “I never woke up and thought, I really want to live a bold life. I just can’t do the other. It’s the same as I can’t make a casserole. I cannot sit still.” For all her earlier talk about being interested in keeping house, now, as the conversation turns to Africa, she’s champing at the bit, desperate to flee. “I’ve been trying for nine months to be really good at just being a homemaker and picking up dog poop and cleaning dishes and reading bedtime stories. And I’m getting better at all three. But now I need to get my boots on and go hang, take a trip.” She believes that her personal will is infectious. The other day she made some joke to Knox along the lines of “Pretend to be normal.” “He said, ‘Who wants to be normal? We’re not normal. Let’s never be normal.’ Thank you—yes! We’re not normal. Let’s embrace being not normal!”
At 83, Nan Talese might just be the new image of having it all. She’s dressed in a black sweater, cozy black pants, and black ballet slippers, girlishly ensconced on her tufted leather couch with a manuscript she’s considering for publication by her imprint at Doubleday. She’s looking rather adoringly at her husband, Gay Talese—best-selling author, iconic charmer—who’s emerged from the top floor of their town house, in a three-piece bespoke suit as per usual, and is already commanding the room. The subject is the original residents of the house, on East 61st Street, a cast of characters that brings to mind a Billy Wilder movie. They included model Hope Bryce (with her blind dog), who was having an affair with director Otto Preminger. “I’d see Mr. Preminger sneaking in and out,” says Gay, at 85 still razor-sharp. There was an airline stewardess who “went on a flight, leaving her goddamn toaster on . . . and it burned the goddamn fourth floor enough that they kicked her out.” And don’t forget Lucile Lawrence, the ex-wife of world-renowned harpist Carlos Salzedo, “the most famous teacher of the harp in the history of America . . . . Beautiful girls playing the harp would wind up in bed with him sooner or later. He was a notorious guy. The Donald Trump of harps.”
Nan has a small correction to make, but when she tries to interject, Gay’s not having it. “Either you’re telling the story or I’m telling the story,” he barks. “But if you keep doing this, I’m going to talk to her alone. You’ve had your chance . . . . You can correct it later. Write a letter of correction.” Nan responds with an eye roll.
At first glance, it may look like another marriage between an egomaniacal genius and his docile enabler. Indeed, Gay’s the famous writer—one of the pioneers of New Journalism with his rich, novelistic articles for Esquire about Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and others, and the author of 15 books of nonfiction. He’s one of New York’s great scene-makers—in all senses of the term. A social peacock, he’s been out “every goddamn night” of the week for the last five decades (this week includes writer Erica Jong, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton, and a Mexican thief, as Gay puts it, who visits from time to time). He’s the one who, in the service of his work, freely enjoyed the pleasures of other women while researching Thy Neighbor’s Wife, an immersive look into sexual liberation in America.
And yet, all this time, Nan was quietly doing something extraordinary—becoming one of the first female editors of literary fiction, and rising through the ranks at four major publishing houses before getting her own, eponymous imprint at Doubleday. After nearly 60 years in the business, she’s now one of a small handful of living publishing pioneers, with a list of authors that includes Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, the late Pat Conroy, and Thomas Keneally, Barry Unsworth, Louis Begley, Peter Ackroyd, Antonia Fraser, and Thomas Cahill. But, like many remarkable women of that generation, Nan has no interest in being celebrated, and can’t even see her accomplishments. A Vanity Fair profile? Well, it seems like a lot of fussing. In an initial e-mail, she pooh-poohed the idea that she’d done anything noteworthy. “Doesn’t breaking the glass ceiling mean becoming president or CEO? I simply have my own imprint and I have been lucky to have authors follow me when I went to another publishing company. Best wishes, Nan.” But her daughters, Pamela and Catherine, twisted her arm. They were tired of her attributing her success to Gay. “She’s always giving him credit for things,” says Pamela, an intense and darkly wry 52-year-old painter, who has had years of therapy trying to figure out her family. “But maybe she knows best. It’s her career; it’s her life; he’s her husband.”
Indeed, Nan is a bit of a mystery—wherein may lie her power. At first glance, she’s an enchanting paragon of grace, with a bearing designed to make others comfortable. Consider Ian McEwan’s rapturous recollection of first setting eyes on her in the mid-70s, a description that still feels apt. “Oh, she was beautiful, with this wonderful, fluting, bird-like voice that has never changed. It often starts improbably high and ends improbably low, a sort of charming kind of ripple and peal of a voice. And very merry eyes. [She] shimmered in front of me.”
But beneath the white gloves, as some admirers have said, are brass knuckles. “What would they call Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’?” says writer Nick Pileggi, Gay’s cousin and a longtime friend of both. “She’s bubbly and sweet and charming, but you don’t get to be able to put her name on books, major books, without being able to really get what she wanted. She’s very competitive. She’s not a backstabber or anything like that . . . . I’ve never heard her in my whole life ever boast or name-drop. But she knows what she wants, and she will fight to get it.” Gay goes even further, warning one to not be fooled by her agreeableness. “She does what she fucking pleases,” he insists over dinner at Le Veau d’Or, one of his six regular restaurants. “She just does it quietly, nicely. It’s really amazing! I’ve watched this with awe. How do you get away with this stuff?”
The most intense mystery has surrounded the Talese marriage—and why it’s lasted so long. She’s as decorous as he is licentious, as easygoing as he is bossy, as content to stay home with a glass of wine and Masterpiece on PBS as he is voraciously social. And then there are his romantic adventures, which have been something of an open secret for some time. “She’s had a lot of hoops to jump through,” says Margaret Atwood. “One of the big mysteries of Nan and some of those years was: How does she manage to remain so cheerful?” Her daughters have a perspective from nearly 50 years of observation—that she was forever twisting herself in pretzels to accommodate him, and subjugating her own desires to his. As Pamela puts it, “There was one pedestal in the household, and my father was on it.” But in Nan’s narrative, she’s the one who got her way. Sure, there’s been pain and frustration, but she got to marry the most glamorous, interesting man she’d ever met—she’s never been bored for a day. And Gay still believes she has called the shots.
Good Girls Do
Whatever the truth is, this wasn’t the life her parents imagined for her, growing up in the well-to-do suburb of Rye, New York, in the 1930s and 40s. Her father, Thomas Ahearn, 18 years older than her mother, was a banker, who served in F.D.R.’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and liked to drink. Her mother, Suzanne—“Mummy,” as Nan still refers to her—was from an old family in Houston, Texas. The Ahearns went to church every Sunday but never spoke about religion. The children ate separately from the parents, who dressed for dinner and ate alone. “We would paddle down in our bathrobes and slippers and say good night to them,” says Nan, the third of four siblings. The older two turned out to be rebels—her brother got kicked out of school for throwing rotten tomatoes at the prefect; her sister eloped at age 18. Nan, already a big reader, was the good girl, getting high marks at Convent of the Sacred Heart, and an eager debutante. At Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, where she majored in philosophy and literature, she did what other good Rye girls did: joined the Ivy League dating circuit, a world of football weekends and illicit gin-and-tonics, in hopes of meeting a nice future banker or lawyer.
In 1957, fate intervened when a college friend said there was someone she should meet, a young man who had served as a tank officer at Fort Knox. Gay’s background couldn’t have been more different from those of the boys in her world. The son of an Italian immigrant in Ocean City, New Jersey—his father was a tailor, and his mother ran a dress shop—Gay got rotten grades in school and ended up at the University of Alabama. Though his pedigree wasn’t up to snuff, he had something else: an edgy, obsessive curiosity about the world, which he was honing as a reporter for The New York Times, where he was writing about sports.
Pileggi, then living with Gay on MacDougal Street, in Greenwich Village, says of the couple’s attraction, “She was just about everything he was looking for: clearly really smart, really beautiful, and she had it all. While it’s hard to talk about Gay’s earthiness, he’s a very practical, straight guy. He has a sense of the street. He had, more importantly, from her point of view, an artistic temperament.” Their first date was lunch at Toots Shor, a saloon frequented by sports people. “She was not impressed,” recalls Gay. But they’d soon find their connection in books. The next date was at P. J. Clarke’s restaurant. Nan recalls, “We talked and talked and talked”—about Graham Greene, John O’Hara, Irwin Shaw, John Cheever—“and finally they said, ‘You really have to leave.’ ”
Gay brought out her inner wild child. Still living with her parents, she called him one night to inform him that she was coming to spend the night with him—like it or not. “She came down to MacDougal Street. Her parents thought she was with somebody else,” recalls Gay. “I’m like, ‘God, she’s going to get caught. What’s wrong with her?’ ”
Gay was it—the man she wanted to marry, and yet there were looming obstacles. The first was her parents, who considered him an unpredictable rascal. Nan recalls, “Mummy said, ‘Nan, you don’t know what it’s like to live with a writer.’ [I thought,] How would she know?” The more serious obstacle was Gay himself, who was burning with ambition to be more than a sportswriter and had no interest in being tied down, period. “I had a lot to do. I had ideas I wanted to follow up on. And I didn’t want anyone in my way,” says Gay. “I didn’t want to see her mother play tennis somewhere . . . . They’d go on yachts. I didn’t have time for that. But Nan was not going to let that stop her. She really wanted me.”
In the summer of 1959, Nan willed her marriage into existence. Gay invited her to visit him while he was in Rome, writing a story for The New York Times Magazineabout the Via Veneto, where Fellini was shooting La Dolce Vita. Nan, the sly go-getter, saw her chance. She bought a ticket on Alitalia, told her parents that Gay had asked her to marry him—a bald-faced lie—and collected Gay’s baptismal certificate from his parents. She arrived in Rome and informed Gay that his bachelor days were ending, and that they would be married at the Trinità dei Monti. Turned out, the chapel was no longer performing weddings, so they married in a civil ceremony, with writer Irwin Shaw, who happened to be in Rome, as the best man, and some of the cast of La Dolce Vita at the after-party, including Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni.
“You know, I only think of things a step at a time,” recalls Nan of the episode, all la-di-da, a breezy deflector. “I don’t look at things in the future. And I thought, We’ll see what happens! But it was a beautiful wedding—you saw the pictures.”
As for Gay, he says he was strong-armed. “It wasn’t my choice. She decided she’s going to marry this guy. She could have married the secretary of state,” he says. Still, he didn’t want to lose her, and to turn her down would be to bring disgrace to her. And so he agreed, but made her make a promise—that he would always be “free,” a loaded term that neither parsed. “I really have a fear of losing my freedom. But she guaranteed that I wouldn’t have to. And it turns out that’s the one pledge she made that lasted almost 60 years.” The newlyweds had her parents over for dinner once, and then Gay never saw them again, until Suzanne Ahearn developed Alzheimer’s decades later, forgetting what it was she had objected to about him. Nan rolls her eyes at his refusal to make nice with them. “If someone doesn’t approve [of him] 100 percent, he wants nothing to do with them.”
With his allergy to domesticity, Gay was eager that Nan should work. In fact, she had a job at the start of their relationship—as an assistant in the accessories department of Vogue—but it was of limited interest to her. Gay saw that she loved reading, and in 1959 he suggested that she try to get a job at Random House. She aced the test they gave her—to spot all the errors on a page of text—and landed a job as a proofreader. Little did she know she was stepping into one of America’s premier publishing houses, in its heyday. Located within the Villard mansion, on Madison Avenue and 51st Street, Random House was an unusually intimate place, with a staff directory the size of a postcard, which Nan keeps framed in her current office. The famously charismatic Bennett Cerf, who founded the firm with Donald Klopfer, set a tone of joviality. Every Friday the editorial staff gathered for a drinks party. As editor Jason Epstein wrote in Book Business, writers would show up unannounced—W. H. Auden in a torn overcoat and carpet slippers; John O’Hara in a three-piece suit, his Rolls-Royce parked outside; Ralph Ellison, smoking a cigar, talking Thelonious Monk; Andy Warhol, speaking in hushed, obsequious tones.
But, for all its intimacy, Random House, like the publishing world at large, was still a boys’ club. The editors, all male, became the giants of the business—Epstein, Albert Erskine, Robert Loomis, Joseph Fox. The women were secretaries, edited the cookbooks, mysteries, and children’s books, or were copy editors. Nan’s gaggle was a whip-smart group that included Berenice Hoffman, who went on to have her own literary agency, and Alice Stewart, who would marry Calvin Trillin. Maxine Groffsky, who was the “first reader” of the manuscripts that came in (and later an editor of The Paris Review), recalls, “I’d never met anyone like Nan. I thought she came straight from the convent.”
Rising in the ranks seemed inconceivable for a woman, which was just fine for Nan, who was thrilled just to be Gay’s wife and to spend her days reading. And so it was much to her surprise when Erskine told Nan that his plate was full, and asked if she might edit a new novel, Flood, by Robert Penn Warren, who’d been impressed by her copyediting on his previous book. “I remember thinking, How am I going to ask the author of [the book-length poem] Brother to Dragons if he really means that word?” But she steeled herself, at one point gingerly pointing out that a character who had suddenly appeared had not been clearly introduced. According to Nan, “Warren replied, ‘Oh, I talked about him in Chapter Two.’ I thought I had failed. But he said, ‘No, no, no. If you don’t remember him, then I need to strengthen his introduction at the beginning.’ It really taught me to ask questions.”
Not every male author was as immediately receptive to a young woman questioning his brilliance. A. E. Hotchner had finished the first draft of his biography of Ernest Hemingway—which he called Mr. Papa—when he came into Cerf’s office at Random House. Cerf informed him that he was putting a good editor on it, and called in Nan, who looked to Hotchner as if she’d stepped off the campus of Bryn Mawr. As she led him out of the room, he naturally assumed that she would be taking him upstairs to her boss’s office. Instead, he recalls, “we proceeded to go downstairs three flights. And she opened a door to a small room that obviously they had taken the mops and other utensils out of . . . . I suddenly realized that I’d been downgraded to the most junior of all editors.”
The affronts were only beginning. After a few pleasantries about the book, she laid out her concerns. First off, his title, Mr. Papa, was a bit inscrutable. How would people know the book was about Ernest Hemingway? How about Papa Hemingway, she suggested—isn’t that more to the point? Second, the thing was fairly unwieldy. Could it be cut by 50 pages? Most important, where was he in the work? He was calling this a memoir, after all. “I felt that was outrageous,” says Hotchner. “I was on the verge of parading upstairs, the three flights, and telling Bennett that maybe Simon & Schuster would be a better fit.”
Alas, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the young lady was right about everything, and executed every note. Putting himself in the book elevated it to a universal story of transference: the son to a formidable father figure ultimately watches his physical and mental decline and becomes his caretaker. Under Nan’s guidance, Hotchner went further and revealed the truth about Hemingway’s death—that it was a suicide and not a rifle accident, as the world had believed. When Hemingway’s widow, Mary, read it, she was furious and sought an injunction against its publication. Mary made an overture—she would agree to let it be published if they took out the last three chapters, which detailed his decline and suicide. But Nan, according to Hotchner, said, “I’m not going to take out one word. This is the way it is.” The case ended up in court. “Nan just stood there the whole time with her battle garments on and fought them off.” The book would be excerpted in Life, a major coup, and became a huge best-seller.
Her success put the other editors on edge. Nan recalls, “Joe Fox said, ‘Well, I suppose you’ll be uppity now.’ I said, ‘Did you hear what you just said?’ ” With no political point to make, no precedent or road map for a woman, Nan simply assumed the duties of editor. She brought in groovy poet Rod McKuen, who’d been selling books out of his car in California; he ended up accounting for 24 percent of Random House’s revenue for a few years. She found A. Alvarez’s daring The Savage God, an unlikely best-seller about suicide and art. The concept of maternity leave didn’t exist then. So in 1963, when she got pregnant for the first time, she didn’t tell anyone until it became obvious—not because she feared for her job, but because it was none of anyone’s business. She’d been working on copyright certificates up until labor and continued to do so from her hospital bed. Following Pamela’s birth, Nan immediately returned to work.
Nan and Gay had their second daughter, Catherine, in 1967, and together the young couple made a life that was bustling with people, endlessly varied—and, according to their daughters, geared largely toward Gay, whose fame was on the rise. Nan raised her girls with the kind of rules she had been brought up on—no candy, no television (except for Masterpiece and other shows with English accents)—and with an intense dash of playfulness from the hours of six P.M. to eight P.M. “At bedtime, she’d kiss us good night and we’d say our farewells, and then we’d ask her to do this little jig she would do,” recalls Catherine, a photographer, who’s as wry as her older sister. “She would jump up and click her heels . . . . So it always felt that she was this marvelous playful spirit.” But the moment their father walked in, she recalls, the room was “on hold. Suddenly, they’re enlocked, and you’re in suspended animation until he leaves.” As Pamela puts it, “In my mind, there was an urgency to [my mother’s] joy,” because Gay exacted so much.
There was Gay’s writing. Each night after playing with the girls, Nan would read what he’d written that day and give him her thoughts. There was his preferred weekend milieu, a house in Ocean City, which Nan didn’t especially love, but which they bought because it reminded Gay of his childhood. There were his routine needs—the doughnut and coffee at 8 A.M., the two poached eggs at 11 A.M. that Nan or one of the girls walked up to his office, on the top floor, if they were home. And there were the many unforeseen needs that could pop up at any moment. Conversations happened on the stairwells, or in other catch-as-catch-can moments. Catherine recalls, “I’d call home, and he’d be like, ‘Hi, Catherine, just one minute—Nan, are we going to the Schlesingers’ [Arthur and Alexandra] tonight? I just want to know because it’s black-tie, and are you going to be ready on time, because I have a car coming?’ And she’d be like, ‘Yes, dear,’ and he’d go, ‘All right. Good-bye, Catherine.’ He hangs up.”
In between her duties as wife, mother, and editor, Nan was also the foreman of the town-house renovation and an amateur mechanic. When Gay’s vintage Triumphs would break down, as they constantly did, Nan was often the person he consulted first—once while she was in the middle of a work lunch at publishing lunch spot Michael’s.
And then there was the socializing, starting with the dinners at Elaine’s, the Upper East Side literary hangout frequented by writers and artists, such as Woody Allen, magazine editor Clay Felker, Joe Heller, and Hotchner, who’d become a close friend of Gay’s. Their town house became the fizzy center for Manhattan’s literary giants—Norman Mailer, William Styron, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, David Halberstam, George Plimpton, Pileggi and Nora Ephron—and the city’s cognoscenti in general. The daughters recall falling asleep to sounds of chatter, clinking glasses, the smell of cigar and cigarette smoke, and of Nan’s perfume, when she came upstairs to check on them. Socializing wasn’t second nature to Nan, but this was part of the deal. “She would talk about breaking out in hives because of the social anxiety,” says Pamela. Later, when Pamela became an insecure teenager, mortified to go to a fancy party, “my mother would say, ‘Well, just pretend you’re invisible!’ I would say, ‘No, I want to be visible and adored.’ The indication there is that she’d much rather be invisible.”
And yet, there was something intoxicating about it all to Nan—even in its discomfort, or perhaps because of its discomfort. One can imagine the odd thrill young Nan had in 1957, when Gay, writing for The New York Times, told her about chasing alley cats for a column he was writing about the lives of New York cats. Nan was drawn to stories, after all, and here was one of the country’s pre-eminent storytellers—a master in the art of “hanging out,” as Gay puts it—bringing his subjects into their living room on a regular basis: the prizefighters he wrote about in his magazine articles; the New York Times writers and editors he was meeting for his book on them, The Kingdom and the Power; members of the Mafia, for his book about the Bonanno crime family, Honor Thy Father. One night, in a pinch, mafioso Bill Bonanno even babysat for the girls, his two bodyguards in tow. “They were never safer in their life,” says Gay. What stay-at-home mother, wife of a banker in Rye, was having this kind of fun?
The Husbands Life
But there were limits to how far Nan was willing to become enmeshed in Gay’s world. One night in 1972, while they were walking down Lexington Avenue, Gay spotted a sign that said, LIVE NUDE MODELS. He turned to Nan and said, “Let’s go see what’s going on.” Nan declined. She recalls, “I put out my hand and he gave me the keys. And I saw that it was a very significant moment. And I said, ‘Just buzz when you want to come home.’ ” Thus began the research for Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a project he’d been noodling on—about the changing morals around sex in America. Believing this to be the most important cultural shift in the country, Gay took immersion journalism to a new level. He became the manager of a Manhattan massage parlor, Middle Earth, just a block from Nan’s Random House office, and freely enjoyed himself with his female subjects. For six months, he participated in Sandstone, a swingers’ retreat in Malibu. He was unnervingly public about his adventures from the start. In 1973, eight years before the book would come out, he agreed to let Aaron Latham, a New York-magazine writer, shadow him in sex clubs and orgies. Nan was beside herself and told him, “Are you crazy? You’re looking like a fool here!” But Gay didn’t care. It was too much for Nan to bear. One night, she left a note on the living-room side table saying she was leaving. Gay was with Latham when he made the disconcerting discovery, and privately panicked as they went on with their scheduled interview. But Nan was back a few days later, with no explanation given. According to Nan’s best friend, Susan Madigan, Nan never spoke about what she was going through during those years. Little has changed. With the exception of the New York-magazine moment, Nan insists that it was fine. “He was very considerate of me,” she says. “And we used to meet in Chicago every six weeks. And that was very romantic.” But the daughters, who didn’t understand their parents’ relationship—and knew nothing of the pledge—felt the tension.
Gay’s absences during the eight-year period of researching and writing Thy Neighbor’s Wife might have enabled Nan to have fleeting adventures of her own. Instead, she spent the time making more lasting, significant relationships—with great writers, at the moment when books were becoming big business. By 1974, Nan had been hired away from Random House by Dick Snyder, of Simon & Schuster, at the suggestion of Alice Mayhew—another important woman editor in the business at the time, by virtue of her smash All the President’s Men. (Mayhew’s distinguished career would focus on history, biography, and politics.) Unlike Random House in the 60s, Simon & Schuster was cutthroat and competitive, which rubbed up against Nan’s civility. “Sometimes they’d say, ‘Oh, that piece of trash.’ It was pretty ruthless. People were rather harsh to each other.”
Determined to squeeze the most out of his employees, Snyder tried to get Nan to work during August—but she wouldn’t have it. She recalls her response, which she considers so “smart-alecky” she almost doesn’t want to repeat it. “I said, ‘You know, Dick? I don’t want your job. I just want to do what I’m doing.’ That was the end of any problems with my going away for the summer!”
And Nan wouldn’t let the hunt for the best-seller stop her from looking for great literature. There was some luck involved in nabbing her first future star writer, Margaret Atwood, as Atwood’s previous novel had been published at the imprint. But when the editor of that novel left, Nan’s notes on her next book, Lady Oracle, gave Atwood confidence in hitching herself to Nan. Ian McEwan was a more arduous courtship. Jack Leggett, one of Nan’s writers, who was running the Iowa writers’ workshop, had told her about an extraordinary young English writer who was teaching there and had just finished a draft of his first novel. Nan read McEwan’s first collection of stories, which had been largely ignored, and saw he was something special. She called him, asking if she might read the novel. McEwan resisted.
“For reasons I can’t quite connect with now emotionally, I said, ‘No,’ ” recalls McEwan today. “What was I doing? What was I saying? I felt possessive about it. I didn’t want it out of my sight. I was being very precious.” Nan persisted, saying, “Suppose I came out to Iowa and stayed with Jack and suppose your novel happened to be sitting on the bedside table at his house. Would you have any objection to that?” McEwan agreed. He went on a road trip to New Orleans with a girlfriend, while Nan went to Iowa to read his novel, then untitled, about four orphaned children who encase their mother’s dead body in cement to avoid going to foster care. Upon McEwan’s return, Leggett invited him to dinner, and he met Nan. “Nan was just the most excited person an author could wish his editor to be,” he says. “To imagine I said no to this person! A near folly.” Nan soon found the title: The Cement Garden.
It wasn’t all gushing and glowing. She was determined to make her writers’ work the best it could be, even when it called for criticism that could be crushing. Thomas Keneally, the author of Schindler’s List, which Nan had to fight Snyder to publish, says of his years with her, “I say this with considerable affection. Nan begins by praising the novel. And there follows then a letter that is full of its radical, irremediable, irredeemable flaws. I say ‘irredeemable’ advisedly because Nan then turns into the nuns that taught her. And then she becomes Sister Mary Nan, who is the only one who can save this document . . . . Having been praised to the skies, you are now terrified to the depths.” Even McEwan, who’d never received anything but praise from people, would get an uncomfortable wake-up call from Nan. In the early 80s, at a moment of personal turmoil, he sent her the first 50 pages of The Child in Time, about a couple losing their child. She wrote and phoned to say that she didn’t like them, that the tone of irony and comedy didn’t fit the subject matter. “Everything she said, you know it’s true even as it’s being said,” says McEwan. “That was very depressing. But out of that, I thought, she’s right . . . . And it set me off on a completely different direction . . . . The Child in Time was broader, more political, more historic, more evocative of a certain time, a certain place. A lot of that grew out of that letter from Nan.”
With other writers, like the late Pat Conroy, her stamina for streamlining byzantine plotlines into a clear narrative was epic. His 1,500-page manuscript for The Prince of Tides was something of a hot mess when he first handed it over to Nan. She graphed the story onto six pages of taped-together legal paper, mapping out the book’s dozens of characters, sorting time lines with forward arrows, backward arrows, and double backward arrows. He told her, “No one has ever read my books this carefully.” Conroy’s line on Nan became “I hand her the manuscript, and she finds the book in it.”
In 1981, when Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out, something discomfiting was starting to happen to Nan and Gay: their power in the world began to shift. Gay’s book was critically panned, not for the substance, which reviewers barely paid attention to, but for the salaciousness of its author. “What was alleged was I was doing frivolous research. Getting my jollies, hanging around massage parlors, getting laid, getting jerked off, all that,” says Gay, whose reputation dimmed. An active member of the writers group PEN, he’d been on the verge of becoming its next president. But in light of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the women of PEN revolted, and he resigned. Nan’s career, meanwhile, was skyrocketing. In 1981 she was named the executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, the old-line publishing company based in Boston; she’d commute there while still running the New York office. Gay believes her rise was at least partially tied to his downfall. “She started getting a lot of publicity about Thy Neighbor’s Wife . . . . What about this guy’s wife? This guy’s wife is Nan Talese. She’s this terrific, revered editor, and she’s married to this disgusting guy.”
But, for Nan, who still saw herself first as Gay’s champion, the power shift hardly felt like comeuppance or victory. His bad reviews, and his fallen reputation, were as devastating to Nan as they were to Gay. She defended him publicly, as she does today. “I think most of the press told more about the reporters than it did about Gay,” she says. And so, for the next few years, life continued as it had before, in keeping with the pledge—only, now the pressure had intensified for Gay, as he was looking to recapture literary greatness. There continued his long periods of absence, notably in Rome, where he went to research Unto the Sons, about his ancestors in Italy. There continued romantic entanglements on the road. “I don’t want to degrade people by representing the whole all-star cast of women. I could, but I won’t,” says Gay. Pamela suspects his absences were, in part, tests of Nan’s will, with Nan coming out victorious. “ ‘You think I’m going to divorce you? No I’m not. We’re in for life, honey. You’re not going to shake me that easily’ . . . She has more tenacity than he is aware,” says Pamela. Whatever the motivation, while Gay indulged in his psychic, frustrating quest for freedom and literary redemption, Nan continued finding new books that captured the Zeitgeist—Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, Judith Rossner’s August, Susanna Moore’s My Old Sweetheart. Upstanding and hardworking Nan was helping others win at his game, and it began to rankle him, say his daughters.
“Her infidelity was taking other authors’ books into bed with her,” says Pamela. “And then to read them in bed. And he would get very agitated about certain of her authors and become very competitive.” Indeed, it’s hard not to detect a tinge of irritation when Gay speaks about her devotion to her writers. “In our marital bed for more than a half a century there’s never a night in bed where there are not manuscript pages all over the sheets,” he says. “If you roll your foot around, there are manuscript pages under your feet. And all over the floor.” The daytime provides little respite. “I hate it because the goddamn phone rings all day long. I’m trying to work, the phone rings—it’s not for me. It’s always for her. Tom Cahill is on there, and she talks to him for an hour on the phone about something he’s writing.”
A Marriage of Likes
But by 1986 an internal shift began to take place within Nan—away from Gay. Deep into writing Unto the Sons, Gay planned to work in Sicily for four months and wanted Nan there with him. Nan told Houghton Mifflin director Austin Olney that she needed to go for Gay, and that she’d manage to get her work done with the help of DHL. At their rented villa in Taormina, Nan dutifully spent her days working two time zones on the phone, editing her manuscripts, bringing Gay his 11 o’clock poached eggs, to the tower where he worked, and seeming happy enough. But one day, toward the end of their stay, she snapped. Nan handed him the eggs and told him, “This is the last time I’m cooking eggs.” She exploded at him, telling him that this had been the worst four months of her entire life. “I thought we had a nice time!” recalls Gay, who was stunned. “‘This is the worst four months?’ . . . Jesus!”
It was a measure of her misery that, when she returned home, her right arm was frozen—every night she’d slept on the very edge of the bed, the resentment building in those muscles. Looking back at the Sicily stint, Nan says, “I didn’t feel real because suddenly there was no place to which I belonged.” She was no longer content to be just Gay’s wife. She had become a woman in the world, and she liked it.
Still, her professional empowerment would continue to happen a few steps ahead of her internal independence. In 1988 she was wooed away to Doubleday, and in 1990 she was given her own imprint. Her writers were intent on following, even those, like Conroy, who were under contract with Houghton Mifflin. He told Houghton that if they didn’t let him go he’d never write again. Atwood says, “My story about Nan is that she’s whipping the troika through the snow, followed by the wolves, with me clinging onto the back as she troikas from one publisher to another.”
At her Nan A. Talese imprint, she found new literary hopes, such as Mark Richard (Fishboy) and Jennifer Egan, who’d just written her debut novel, The Invisible Circus, and she attracted established high-profile authors, such as historian Lady Antonia Fraser (Marie Antoinette) and the wildly prolific Peter Ackroyd (London, Shakespeare, Hitchcock). Her tenure has not been without its bumps. Her major best-seller James Frey’s A Million Little Piecesended in scandal when it was revealed that he had fictionalized portions of it. When Oprah Winfrey eviscerated him on air for his dishonesty, Nan stood up to her with grace. Remembering Nan’s support when he was alone in the wilderness, and how she took his hand in the limo as they left Oprah’s studio, still brings Frey close to tears. And he still laughs affectionately at a buck-up phone call he got from her. “ ‘James, I’ve just spoken to Philip Roth, and he went through many of the same things you are going through right now with the controversies surrounding his book. And that’s why you need to remember the career he’s had since and the career you’ll have after. And Philip said just to stay strong and keep writing.’ . . . I’ve just spoken to Philip Roth! Who else could do that, and who would do that?” says Frey.
Even now, after 58 years in the business, Nan’s energy hasn’t flagged. She speaks passionately about current projects—the recent World War I novel No Man’s Land, by Simon Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandson; the upcoming publication of Owen Sheers’ anti-war verse play, Pink Mist, which was a critical hit at the Bristol Old Vic; and The Cloister, James Carroll’s modern take on the love story of Abelard and Heloise.
Nan’s drive toward personal independence would come out in pent-up bursts. It took its most dramatic form about 10 years ago, when Nan bought a house in Roxbury, Connecticut, behind Gay’s back. She’d had it with Gay’s beloved Ocean City, a town where, she’d complained, “a person wouldn’t know a book if it hit them over the head,” says Pamela. After 50 years, Nan wanted to do it her way—she wanted green lawns, refined neighbors, a place that reminded her of her childhood. After a few summers of renting, she found the perfect house, saw that she could cobble enough money together to pay for it, and went ahead. At breakfast one Sunday morning, she casually brought it up. “You know that house in Connecticut I liked? I bought it.” Gay was furious. “I want a fucking divorce!” Gay announced. “God knows I wouldn’t do something like this without telling you.”
‘They’re always talking about getting divorced,” says Pamela. “And it may happen. Who knows? But one of the things that I said: ‘You’re just too lazy to get a divorce.’ ” Whatever is keeping them together, Gay is intent on figuring it all out. For the past decade or so, he’s been at work on a book about their marriage, using anecdotes, Nan’s letters, and various mementos he’s kept over the years in obsessively constructed files. “The only reason I’ve stayed married for so long, there’s never been one hour in almost 58 years I didn’t respect her,” says Gay. “It’s not sex, love. Fuck it. ‘Respect’ is the only word that matters . . . . No matter who I was with—beautiful, intelligent, successful women, I never felt I wanted to leave Nan for those people. I never felt anybody could match Nan on a full-time basis, meaning nighttime, daytime, bed life, breakfast. That’s the trick. The breakfast is a big deal.” He’s terrified of her dying first. “I don’t know how I would get along without her being close.”
Pamela, too, is still working out her parents’ issues and their effect on her. She sees Gay’s marriage book as an exercise in self-exoneration, and the anger from her childhood still feels raw. “They can say now in their 80s that they were clear. And I suspect that he was clear. She made a deal with herself that she would do whatever it took, that she wanted to be married to him and she would agree to his terms.” And though Pamela disapproves of those terms, “that’s the deal she made with herself.”
The only one who seems to have gotten over it is perhaps Nan. After all, she got the man she always wanted, the daughters, the dream house, and a career for the ages, so what’s a book by Gay Talese really going to matter at this point? She smiles sweetly and gives her line on the book: “He doesn’t know anything about marriage, so I’m not concerned.”
There are many Hollywood-star things you will never see Natalie Portman do. You will never see her pole-dancing with Kate Moss at Scores, or read obscenities she scrawled about Scarlett Johansson on a bathroom wall. You will never see her in a homemade porn video. And you will never see her slip into the ladies’ room with pals and re-emerge distinctly re-invigorated.
“I saw cocaine for the first time a month ago in Spain,” says Portman, her large, innocent, Audrey Hepburn eyes popping wide open as she curls her tiny body into an armchair. “I mean, for the first time in my life somebody was like, ‘You want a line?’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’” she says, recalling the unbelievable moment.
Her only sniffing addiction is to handbags, to make sure they don’t contain a trace of leather, as her strict vegetarianism extends to the materials she lets touch her skin. She wears sneakers every day (usually Converse), and for special events, like the Oscars or Golden Globes, a brand called Beyond Skin, vegan footwear that looks a lot like Easy Spirit. She doesn’t wear diamonds to such events, but rather “conflict-free” earrings, such as $3 knockoffs from a place called Claire’s that she swears look just the same. She drives a Prius. She had wanted it in black, but when they didn’t have it in stock, she settled for lavender. She has no idea what kind of jeans she wears. “Citizen?” she asks hesitantly, about one pair that she got after a photo shoot. Most of her clothes are the same ones she has had since she was 14, when she stopped growing.
Her entire wardrobe fits into a normal-size closet, in a normalsize house, in a deeply normal part of suburban Long Island, 20 minutes from her parents’. She has a Mac computer, but only uses it to check e-mail and the news on the Web sites of The New York Times and Ha’aretz, the Israeli paper. She has a television, but doesn’t actually watch any shows—except for the occasional David Chappelle or Ali G on DVD. Her taste in comedy is the only thing about her that veers toward stoner: the one movie she can watch over and over is The Big Lebowski. Her real weakness is for books, which are arranged neatly on massive shelves. (On her most recent film shoot, she took along 30 of them.) Her Harvard diploma, for “Natalie Hershlag” (her real last name), is displayed proudly in her bedroom, near a stuffed animal that belonged to her mother.
How can a young woman so levelheaded and brainy be such a hot Hollywood commodity, you wonder? Certainly, the tabloids have never found her interesting, except on two minor occasions, when she was sunbathing topless on vacation and when she was picking a wedgie. She puzzles, quite adorably, about her Goody Two-Shoes image, saying, “Granted, I’m not superscandalous, but I’ve had drunken nights out, you know?” Yet she can’t help but acknowledge the reality. “I don’t court it, I don’t go out every night. I don’t date famous people most of the time.” (She has, however, been linked with actor Gael García Bernal, something she will not comment on.)
Portman, however, is anything but a bore. Anyone who has spent real time with her invariably comes away mesmerized; first by her exquisite beauty, which she seems oblivious to, and then by the thing that sets her apart from almost every actor in Hollywood—a total, intelligent absorption in everything but herself. Her curiosity about the world knows no bounds. She will talk breathlessly about her old law professor Alan Dershowitz’s ideas on justified torture, or about how the New Zealand Moriori tribe’s philosophy of nonviolence doomed them to extinction, or how the two-party system is hampering American politics. She never sounds pompous, because it’s all punctuated with “like”s, goofy laughs, and the word “super,” which she frequently uses as a prefix to adjectives. “She’s got a little bit of the spaz going on,” says Peter Sarsgaard, who worked with her in 2004’s Garden State. Still, highly educated people often walk away from her questioning their own intelligence. “Sometimes when I’m talking to Natalie about a book or a film, it feels like I’m in grad school. And she’s the professor,” says Aleen Keshishian, who, like Portman, went to Harvard and has been managing Portman’s career since its start. As Dershowitz, one of her several prominent admirers, puts it, “She’s not one of those Hollywood stars who plays on her stardom to have you listen to her on other issues. She’s worth listening to because of her own inherent intelligence, experience, and background.”
Besides all that, she exudes a warmth and an authenticity that carry over onto the screen and have made her one of the most moving actresses working today. Mike Nichols, who directed her in 2004’s Closer and who has become her mentor, sees her on a very short list of all-time icons. “It confuses people to think that someone so completely beautiful could really be a first-rate actor too. It’s hard to grasp, but it’s happened. It’s happened a few times before, with Garbo and Louise Brooks.” Just the other night, at the 50th anniversary of New York’s Public Theater, he was reminded of Portman’s odd, transcendent power when the petite actress was onstage surrounded by many other actors. “I said to [the person] I was with, ‘Look. Everybody, if they’re near Natalie, they look like they’re out of proportion.’”
Given her thirst for probing complex questions, it’s no surprise that she jumped at the chance to work on the controversial new humor, about how to stop doing that. We are all in this club. We’ve all suffered; if you’ve gotten to be in your 40s, you’ve won and lost, been up and down, and all the while you’ve given and given and given and given to everyone in your life, because that’s a woman’s job. I know the reality of what I deserve, and yet often I find myself not making the choice to treat myself right—the choice to pick the right guy, or realize that it was not my fault. I want to start treating myself better, and I want you to start treating yourself better, too.”
And since the heaviest part of Hatcher’s lifelong burden is the story of her sexual abuse, she’s finally unloading it. “I only wanted to talk about it if I thought it was going to help people,” she says. “But I’m 41 years old, and it’s time for me to stop hiding. It’s time for me to accept all the complicated things about me—and if I do that, maybe I’ll find somebody who wants that whole package, instead of continuing to hide and finding somebody who doesn’t. I want to be able to say, ‘Yes, this did happen to me, and it did have an effect—but you can put somebody in prison 35 years later; you can have a voice; you can be part of stopping it.’”
Perhaps in retrospect, this year’s Valentine’s Day will have marked a turning point in her life. Mystery Man never made an appearance; now he’s burnt toast. “If you want to be open and generous and loving and somebody creams you,” Hatcher concludes, “you just move on to the next guy.”
In her book, she never does explain why she and her ex-husband didn’t have sex on their honeymoon, but that pattern endured throughout their nine-year marriage. “I know exactly when Emerson was conceived, because we had sex once that year, on Valentine’s Day,” Hatcher says. “From the beginning, our marriage was probably more defined by friendship.”
Tenney declines to comment on his sex life with Hatcher, but through a spokesperson he says, “She’s the mother of my daughter, so obviously I wish her the best.” For her part, Hatcher says her days of avoiding intimacy are over. “Now I want sex: trusting, deep, fabulous, open—did I say trusting?—wild, crazy sex, with the same person, over and over. Without a marriage license!”
And with any luck, maybe that person will finally appear. After all, stranger things have happened to the poster girl for the over-40 set. “Since the success of Desperate Housewives, people keep asking me, ‘Aren’t you angry about all those people who didn’t hire you before? Don’t you want to say to them, “Screw you!”?’ But I don’t feel angry at all,” Hatcher says. “I feel like, Aren’t I lucky that I’m actually getting to have this time! Wow—I got this blessing! And deciding that this is the moment to tell my story is another blessing. I don’t want to pretend it never happened anymore. Now everyone is going to know. I’m really a survivor, but I’ve learned so much, given so much, and received so much out of all of it that I don’t think I’m damaged goods. I think I’m a deeply sensitive, knowing, beautiful woman.”
She stops, glancing around apprehensively, as if someone might contradict her. No one does. “There—I said it!” she says, looking surprised.
On the street in front of Susan Mayer’s cozy little house, Teri Hatcher is sprawled on the pavement, shooting yet another take of the wheelchair scene. Hovering worriedly at the outskirts of camera range, Wally Crowder, the stunt coordinator, shakes his head. “She’s just such a trouper,” says Crowder, who still feels guilty about the time that Hatcher, called upon to fall into a large fake wedding cake, cracked several ribs on a protruding tier of frosting-covered cardboard. “She went on like nothing happened. She k eeps her mouth shut and doesn’t say, ‘Wally, I’m hurting!’”
But even as Hatcher conceals how much she’s hurting, she’s started to hope for a different way of living. “I guess the biggest effect of everything that happened to me is this area of fault and love and men, which hasn’t been so great,” she tells me later, as earnest as Susan herself. “But I’m working on that.”
On the set, however, she goes off to take another fall. As the cast and crew focus on what the cameras are recording, few take note of the rustling and scrabbling in the tall trees beside the house. But every once in a while, a dark, masked face peers out from behind a curtain of leaves. Four large raccoons are racing up and down the trunks and darting through the branches.
Suddenly there’s a blood-curdling howl— one that’s not in the script. A rat has fallen out of a tree and scurried up the inside of a hairdresser’s pant leg. As he jumps up and down, screaming, another crew member shrugs. “That’s nothing,” the man says. “Somebody saw a mountain lion around the craft-services area a while ago.”
To a visitor, that seems like an awful lot of wild animals for a working night on the set of Desperate Housewives, which is filmed at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. But to reach Wisteria Lane from the congested studio lot below, you have to drive up a long road that winds around and around through the pitch-black night. The road is deserted; there are no lights to guide the way, as Mary Alice, the spectral narrator of Desperate Housewives, might point out in one of her chilling voice-overs from beyond the grave.
And you never know what dangers could be lurking in the dark, waiting to leap out when you least expect them.
film V for Vendetta, written by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brothers who made the Matrix films, and produced by Joel Silver. Based on the 1989 graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the film tak es place in a post–World War III, totalitarian Britain. Its hero is V, a masked vigilante who blows up London landmarks, takes over the airwaves, and urges citizens to overthrow their tyrannical government. Although the original was written in response to Thatcher’s England—with V an updated version of Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605—the film plays as a commentary on the Bush administration and its policestate tactics. It is one of the most genuinely subversive films to come out of Hollywood since the 70s.
“I started reading it out loud,” says Portman, who plays a mild-mannered girl who is imprisoned by V before falling in love with him and, finally, carrying his torch of destruction. “That’s always a sign to me that it’s something I want to do.” Throughout filming, Portman, Larry, Andy, and director James McTeigue plumbed notions of violence through a book-and-film circle, passing back and forth such works as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, White Nights, an autobiography by Menachem Begin, the 1965 film The Battle of Algiers, and a documentary about the Weather Underground Organization, the 1970s radical group.
“People are asking, ‘Does this movie justify violence?’” says Portman. “I think it tak es you to look at terrorism from a new perspective. It puts it in new shoes so that you can see reasons where the methods of terrorism might be justifiable. . . . I think when you make any kind of art you’re trying to open a conversation—you’re not trying to tell someone what to think.” The seriousness with which she contemplated those issues is reflected in her performance, a subtle yet powerful transformation from good girl to revolutionary. As McTeigue explains, “Natalie transcends the actorly thing. . . . She’s not just drawing on past actor experience. She’s drawing on autobiographical experience and fiction experience.”
If you ask Portman, naturally, the autobiography is tedious. “I get really bored reading about myself,” she says a little guiltily, and a little embarrassed. “Really nice, good parents. I grew up really well. Happy.” Indeed, the Hershlags—he is an Israeli doctor; she is an artist and homemaker from Ohio—were Long Island’s anti-Lohans, their household the epitome of safe, supportive, and wholesome. Natalie’s idea of a crazy good time was watching Dirty Dancing, the ultimate Long Island Jewish girl movie, which she has seen countless times. “That was my movie growing up.” It was Natalie who pushed the acting thing, and her parents resisted. When a Revlon scout approached the nine-year-old in a pizza parlor and asked if she wanted to get into modeling, the hammy little girl said, No, but I would like an agent. When, at age 11, she landed her first film, Luc Besson’s The Professional, a love story of sorts between a hit man and the waif-like orphan he takes in, her father didn’t hesitate to address his issues. “My dad had stipulations about how many drags on a cigarette I could take [in a scene], how many times I could curse. I wasn’t actually allowed to inhale. My dad would have people standing behind me, blowing the smoke out.”
Audiences found her enchanting, and, as much of her fan mail revealed, many dirty older men found her titillating. “I think I saw one [letter],” Portman recalls. “My parents didn’t allow me to look at anything after that.” She did, however, read the many editorials “about how my parents should be in trouble for allowing me to be in that movie. It was really upsetting. They kept saying ‘Lolita-esque.’ I had no idea what Lolita was.” Ted Demme’s 1996 film, Beautiful Girls, in which, as the self-confessed “old soul” on ice skates, she stole Timothy Hutton’s heart, didn’t do much to quell the unwanted attention. Finally, Portman’s parents and her manager, Keshishian, decided that, moving forward, it would be best for young Natalie to keep a low profile and simply not engage. There would be no talking to fans and no signing of autographs, except for children. (Her aloofness at public appearances has occasionally led paparazzi to call her “cunt.”) And when it came to choosing film roles, she steered clear of anything too erotic. She turned down the actual role of Lolita in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film of the Nabokov novel, and she turned down The Ice Storm (1997) because there was too much sexual content. She even turned down Havana Nights, the sequel to Dirty Dancing, which, naturally, was harder to resist.
Her performance in The Professional captured the attention of major directors—Woody Allen, Michael Mann, and Tim Burton, who cast her in small roles in, respectively, Everyone Says I Love You, Heat, and Mars Attacks!—and she landed a starring role opposite Susan Sarandon in the charming but overlooked Anywhere but Here. While many teenage actors might have struck while the iron was hot and moved to Hollywood, Portman went to college. It was simply a given. The decision to go to Harvard, above Yale or Columbia, where she also applied, came from her grandfather—on his deathbed. “I was like, ‘Where should I go?,’ and he was like . . . ‘Harvard,’” she recalls, laughing. “No explanation, nothing, and he died two weeks later.”
Harvard freshmen tend to be an insecure, arrogant group, and nothing threatens them more than a person who’s really good at something. “I felt like I had to prove myself more,” says Portman, “and it made me nervous all the time because I felt that people always thought I was there because I was famous and not because I deserved to be there. And so it makes your stupid comment in class even stupider. Everyone’s got a moment when they say something really lame. But me, I was like, Oh my God, I’m just confirming everyone’s belief here—everyone thinks I’m the dumb actress.”
But Alan Dershowitz, who taught her in a seminar on neurobiology and the law, says she was one of the most remarkable students he’s had. He still cites a paper she wrote debunking a new method of liedetector tests, well before this particular practice had come under question. “She was really on the cutting edge,” says Dershowitz, who, for a time, had no idea that Natalie Hershlag was a Hollywood movie star. “I think there were a lot of people in the class who really were taken with this new methodology. She just ripped it apart.” Eventually she became his research assistant, and he encouraged her to go to graduate school in psychology.
Still, her self-consciousness about being an actress was apparent. Dershowitz recalls one evening when the students from the seminar came over for dinner. “She was embarrassed,” he recalls, “saying, ‘I hope you don’t see this movie or that movie.’” To some classmates, she came off as aloof or mistrustful. One student notes how, at the beginning of freshman year, she tried overly hard to pepper everyone around her with friendliness, but then withdrew from the masses, hanging out only with the jock types who were members of “final clubs.” Another, who shared the laundry room with her, recalls the awk ward time he held the door for her. “She look ed at me as if I were a stalk er,” he says. Many classmates were stunned, says one student, when they saw her on David Letterman, being overly coy about where she was at college and sounding like a ditz. “It was a huge disconnect,” this student says.
On either side of her college career, and over one summer during it, she completed three episodes of Star Wars, for which she was paid enough millions on the back end that she could have retired at age 18. (However, she now makes about half of what her comtemporaries like Kate Hudson and Lindsay Lohan make, due to her choices of smaller films.) At once she became a bank able, global household name, the face of a deity in the Star Wars pantheon, and, in the eyes of some important directors, a bit of a hack. She now admits that, for a time, Queen Amidala hampered her career. Episode I—The Phantom Menace was downright suffocating. One can see how Portman suffered—delivering lines like a robot and being crushed under the weight of a headdress the size of an armadillo, all the while trying to sell romantic chemistry with a nine-yearold. Although the next two episodes were improvements, they didn’t exactly expand her acting horizons. (Sample dialogue—Anakin: “You’re so beautiful.” Amidala: “It’s only because I’m so in love.” Anakin: “No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”) One reviewer called their romance “a love affair between a hothead [Hayden Christensen] and an ice bucket [Portman].” “After Star Wars,” she admits, “people were really like, ‘Uh, I don’t know if she can really act.’”
But the dearth of interesting scripts coming her way opened her up to something special: Zach Braff’s 2004 directorial debut, Garden State, the sort of film she wouldn’t, at face value, take at this point in her career. “Now, I wouldn’t be lik e, ‘Let’s work with the first-time director who’s in a television show that I haven’t seen.’” But the movie, whose budget was just $2.5 million, allowed her to do something she’d never quite done before: play someone utterly kooky. For Braff ’s part, he had landed someone who ultimately could get the film financed, as well as his dream actress. His only reservation was that she might be too pretty. “I said to her, ‘I don’t want you to wear makeup,’” recalls Braff. “Some people will laugh, ‘Oh, it’s Natalie Portman, so who gives a shit,’ you know? But women, I think, in general are terrified about that. She wore the most minimal makeup I’ve ever seen any person on film ever wear.” Sarsgaard was particularly impressed by her instinctual, non-intellectual approach to acting. “You think of someone who went to Harvard and is very well read and all of that,” he says. “As far as I saw her, the camera rolls and she goes. She doesn’t whittle the scene down into its finer elements.” Around the same time, she stood out as the lonely, desperate Civil War widow in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain.
Her biggest leap was undoubtedly in Closer, Nichols’s 2004 film about the ugly ways four beautiful people treat one another. Portman took on the erotically charged role of a stripper. “I will not allow myself to be on a porn site, which happens,” Portman says, explaining her modesty. “I don’t want to be used by someone else for turning me into something I’m not.” But for Closer she agreed to shoot a scene topless—only because she was working with Nichols, someone she’d come to trust since being directed by him in his Central Park production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. “I was doing everything because I knew that Mike was going to get my permission about everything and show me everything and talk to me. . . . And he was like, ‘That stuff’s going to be burned if we don’t use it.’” Indeed, it was destroyed.
Portman earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for her performance, but she never got puffed up over it. “She said such a Natalie thing after seeing Closer,” recalls Nichols. “She said, ‘I’m not awesome yet.’” In fact, she e-mailed Dershowitz and said, “Please don’t watch Closer. It’s embarrassing to have my teacher see me half-nak ed.” (“It was embarrassing,” Dershowitz admits.) While most Oscar nominees gleefully rifled through their gift bags, which are worth more than $100,000 these days, Portman, Keshishian recalls, showed zero interest. “I honestly don’t know what she did with it. She probably gave it to her grandmother or a friend.” For Portman, the most important thing she got out of doing Closer was Nichols’s devoted friendship and mentorship. “[Mike] will take me out to dinner and be like, ‘This guy’s not treating you right.’ He’ll take me out to dinner and be like, ‘You need a new agent,’” she says, referring to her change from ICM to CAA. “You send him a book, he reads it the next day. You ask him for advice on a script, he reads it and gives you notes on it. I call him and I’m like, ‘I’m stuck with this character.’ He’ll spend three hours on the phone with me and give me his thoughts. And he doesn’t have anything to do with it, you know? It’s not his movie.”
As for Nichols, who has had that sort of affinity only with Meryl Streep and his old Second City colleague Elaine May, he says, “I love her very much. I feel something akin to the way I feel about my kids.” Since V for Vendetta, she has created yet another older, male admirer—this one more unlikely: Joel Silver. Known for his brashness and liberal use of obscenities, he becomes positively gentlemanly in her company, says one observer. “She is remarkable,” Silver gushes. “She is this oddity—this beautiful, intelligent, warmhearted, fantastic person, you know?”
Following the accolades brought about by Closer, Portman did another very Natalie thing: she left Hollywood in the dust and went to Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, to study for six months, kicking back with spoken Arabic, spoken Hebrew, the history of Israel, the history of Islam, and the anthropology of violence—a course taught in Hebrew. And for the past few years she has thrown herself into her charitable work with the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA), an organization she discovered through a meeting with Queen Rania of Jordan that provides micro-loans to poor women in developing countries who are starting small businesses. Between trips for FINCA to Uganda, Guatemala, and Ecuador, she has had oneon-one sit-downs with members of Congress, including Hillary Clinton and John McCain, to discuss the organization and its issues. “McCain really cared,” she says. “Sincerely. I mean, I’m an actor so I can pick up on bullshit pretty quickly.”
The only things calling her back to Hollywood are interesting projects—really interesting projects. Up next is Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts, a drama set against the Spanish Inquisition about Goya’s relationship with two subjects. What she’d really love to do, somewhat surprisingly, is a romantic comedy. In Portman’s opinion, comedy is the most socially valuable genre. “That’s the movie we want to watch a thousand times. That’s the movie that when you’re sick you watch. When you’re sad, it makes you forget.” She only wishes that every female lead in every romantic comedy didn’t have to work in fashion. “The girls are either a model’s agent or a photographer’s assistant or a stylist or a fashion designer,” she says, annoyed, “because they want to have cute clothes.”
Hollywood—the ass-kissing, backstabbing, social-life aspect of it anyway—simply holds no interest for her. In fact, it gives her the creeps. “I always make sure that anytime I go to a Hollywood event I have five school friends with me, because they’re like my monitors. They’re like, ‘That person’s nice, that person’s not. That person won’t even look me in the eye or shake my hand to say hi.’ You sort of see how people are by how they relate to people around you. With me, everyone’s like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ Like, super-over-exaggeratedly sweet.”
But even the most obnoxious antics of the Nicole Richie–Paris Hilton–Lindsay Lohan set won’t illicit any snottiness from this young woman. To start with, she barely knows who Paris and Nicole are. As for Lindsay, she thinks she’s a sweet girl and has a Long Island bond with her, starting with Lohan’s signed head shot from The Parent Trap hanging at the local bagel shop. “You can’t judge anyone else,” says Portman. “Every moment in my life I’ve always known my parents would go to the end of the earth for me. And when you have that k ind of rock , you can’t judge anyone who doesn’t, and most people don’t.”
Still, she’s had her moments of Hollywood craziness. With her dad, the doctor. Her wildest night in recent memory was in December in Madrid, while filming Goya’s Ghosts. “We went to this club that had really fun music and we were dancing with people from the crew until five in the morning. It’s the latest I stayed up the whole time I was there. I was with my dad. I was like, awesome.”