In the end, Waksal may believe that it doesn’t matter so much what he did or why he did it. The success of Erbitux is his ultimate justification. As we’re getting ready to leave the Carlyle, Waksal tells me a story. His usual charm disappears. “There’s a guy in England,” he says. “A publisher, who had pancreatic cancer. He’s still alive. Gets his Erbitux every week.”
He’s defiant now. “He certainly didn’t think Erbitux was snake oil—and to this day he’s grateful every day that I exist.”
For one of our last visits, I’ve asked Waksal to take me to a place in the city that has some meaning to him. He’s chosen the Greek and Roman wing of the Met—specifically the rooms with Etruscan pottery and the older Greek pieces. Here, he’s like a kid in the front row of class, shouting out answers before there are questions. “I have that piece right there,” he says, pointing into a cabinet. “I have a better piece than that. Much better. It’s Middle Bronze Age. And it’s this wonderful handle that I found, that I dug up. And I was gonna stick it in a door and have it as a doorknob. The most primitive stuff’s the most interesting. The Romans copied, you know.”
What he most loves to do here, he says, is commune with the artisans and thinkers he would someday like to be mentioned alongside. “I wanted always—and I hope I did it in a way, but you don’t ever want to stop—to be creating something that’s part of this continuum of ideas, right? And the science that we did was that. A targeted therapeutic that really changed the way cancer therapy’s gonna be done—forever.”
Then, later on, he turns pensive.
“My typical nights are really, you know, spent thinking about this next phase of my life. But I would be dishonest if I said to you, you know, this was no big deal, just this little respite—my interregnum, as it were—and I’m back, and I don’t even think about that anymore. When something happens to someone like me the way it did, you feel rather wounded, right?”
He glances at me.
“What do you think I think about?”
How to get back to where you were?
“But what’s that called?” he says. “It’s a religious term. It’s called redemption. One does think about a redemptive moment. You’d have to be crazy not to. Or mediocre.”