At HarperCollins, Friedman and Regan circled each other warily. Friedman realized quickly that their two successes would be intertwined—within a few years, she had doubled the company’s profits, thanks in part to Regan’s frontlist. (In some years, Regan had as many as fifteen best sellers and five No. 1’s.) Employing Matthew Hiltzik as HarperCollins’ corporate publicist, Friedman clearly relishes her power. At one Take Your Kids to Work Day, she began a speech with, “What do the letters C-E-O stand for?” With Regan’s sexiness, her Midas touch, and her penchant for the limelight, Friedman worried that she could be a prisoner of Regan’s success, and she knew she needed to keep Regan onboard by making her feel like she was in control. But she also wanted her in her place. It was this complicated dynamic that underlay the violent unraveling of the O.J. project.
“Jane likes to have everyone stay on the reservation, and Judith was in her own galaxy, far, far away,” says a HarperCollins editor. Nor does she tolerate people speaking to her in impertinent tones of voice, the kind of tones that Regan is capable of using. Over time, Regan became convinced that Friedman was standing in her way. For all of her bravado and over-the-top personality, Friedman doesn’t like confrontation.
Among many employees, there was a sense that you were either with Regan or you were with Friedman—Regan was fond of yelling exactly this sentiment, too, when she felt someone had disobeyed her command. “They’re two really needy women who can’t be wrong,” says one HarperCollins editor. Though the two women did not argue much in person—they were usually cordial, even saccharine to each other—by many accounts their relationship became one of legendary horror. “They were blinded by their hatred of one another,” says a News Corp. executive.
A few years ago, after I wrote a story for this magazine on the then-burgeoning Internet-dating scene, timid young editors from ReganBooks began to call to ask if I wanted to write books on various topics, such as the man with the biggest penis in the world. Um, no. Regan asked me to lunch, and we instantly bonded. To a woman, there’s something enticing about Regan’s anti–plastic surgery, pro-sex feminist stance, mixed with a She-Devil-ish anger at the power men have in the world (even though she sometimes expresses it by saying that she’s going to eat their testicles). She told me that I reminded her of herself when she was younger and that she could give me a great job, show me the ropes, take me on a tour—perhaps one day I would even become as powerful as her. “I used to be a writer, too, but I wanted to do more in the world—don’t you?” she asked. Yes! I told her I was worried about managing a career and a family, and it seemed like I could have only one or the other. You can do it all, she said—don’t let anyone trick you into thinking it’s a choice. Wow. Aren’t you sick of playing by men’s rules, having male editors, writing about what men want you to write about? she asked. She was building her own gang, her own posse, to take on the publishing industry, and I was going to be her capo. We had to make our own group, she said, like the Jews.
Somehow, this didn’t make me run screaming from the restaurant (I am married to a Jew, for the record). I think I took it as a joke at the time, plus, as many of her supporters have pointed out in the wake of the scandal, she says so many crazy things in conversation that such statements don’t sound like ugly hatemongering coming out of her mouth. Anyway, I didn’t go work for her, although we delved into it further, and though she has always been kind and delightful when I’ve seen her, when I hear what employees have to say about her—usually assistants—I’m pretty glad I didn’t. Usually, they start the conversation by screaming, “She’s fucking crazy! She’s a crazy bitch!” And “It’s really sad. If she had the trust gene instead of the paranoid gene, she could be the Oprah of publishing.” And “There were a bunch of assistants sitting in one small area, and Judith would call them cunts who only had a job because of her hard work.” And, perhaps most viciously, “She’s just afraid she’ll end up back in Long Island someday.”
And yet. Judith’s friends speak of her with unmistakable fondness, even associating her profane cast of mind with her gifts. “For Judith, prurient things are really part of the world, and if we pretend otherwise, we’re fooling ourselves,” says Kate Saltzman-Li, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a friend for 35 years. “That’s the world, and you talk about it as it is—there’s good parts and sex parts and bad parts, and each is significant to our lives.”