Although they saw each other nearly every day in the sprawling newsroom, the Woman in Market almost never spoke to Braunstein, as far as anyone can remember. But Braunstein made inroads with other women, notably a beauty editor. She had a softer, more welcoming mien than the hard-edged, quasi-European market girls. The Woman in Beauty’s look is Babe Paley, with her fur tippets, perfect fifties heels, and flamboyant flip hairdo. A childhood friend of Dina Lohan’s from Long Island and a bridesmaid in her wedding, she was famous for her vintage finds, sleeveless white shift dresses that were mod but not extremely mod—at the opening of the Mary Quant boutique, she wore a Quant dress she bought on eBay for the occasion. She is the Platonic ideal of a refined New York woman, a trained singer, a volunteer at a breast-cancer charity, an avid chef who clips from Gourmet for dinner parties at her mod midtown apartment.
“Such a beautifully maintained façade usually conceals ugly machinery behind it, but with her there was none of that,” says a friend. “She wasn’t an intellectual snob, a social snob, a fashion snob, or a gossip—not a fashion person in any of those Vogue-etty ways. She looks good because she is good.”
Braunstein fell hard for this mod-era emblem come to life, the perfect hostess setting down martini glasses in front of an Eero Saarinen chair. The relationship began in secret. She had recently broken an engagement with a handsome editor of Fairchild’s men’s-fashion trade paper. Braunstein held the Woman in Beauty in high esteem. He moved into the Forest Hills Inn, an Arts and Crafts masterpiece in the cobblestone square next to the LIRR stop, and told confidants that he and the Woman in Beauty would go to midtown hotels during the day but did not have sex. “Peter said she was so much more worldly and sophisticated than Deb Michals,” says a friend. “He made a big deal about how their relationship was so pure and above everything else.” She called him “My Dark Prince.”
Braunstein and the Woman in Beauty’s official coming-out party as a couple was at a 35th-birthday party in an East Village railroad apartment. The two sat close together on the end of a couch, the beauty editor in vintage Missoni. The editors of fashion-gossip outlet hintmag.com, notorious practical jokers, sat kitty-corner. Now, you’re the media columnist, and you’re the beauty editor, so how does that work? asked one, setting off a round of questioning designed to make the couple uncomfortable. “As soon as I started asking about sex, they got up and left the party,” says the other.
The relationship had the odd characteristic of both feeling that they were each other’s saviors, their insecurities in precise balance. To Braunstein, the beauty editor took solace in her career because it made her feel better than him; to her, Braunstein was a fragile man who hid behind an image of himself as swinging cultural hero. A big advertiser would pull out, and the beauty editor would blame herself and worry that she was going to lose her job; Braunstein’s pitches to magazines would go unanswered, and he would unleash a stream of vitriol and then collapse in a ball. Still, “he was into the concept of marriage,” says a friend.
Braunstein wasn’t one of the chosen at W, though he steadily contributed articles, like on seventies sex kitten Helen Mirren, and Guy Bourdin, whom he called the “godfather of porno chic—his work was a meticulously executed tableau of his childhood fears.” Nevertheless, editorial director Patrick McCarthy was wary of him, says a former W editor: “It was the snobbery of W, and something about his hairstyle. People saw that as a symbol of his ambivalence about their world, and questioned how badly he wanted to make it.” Braunstein was aware of this, and he readily shared his views on the “fashion bitches.”
He enjoyed his job, and the power accrued. A favorite game was grading the editors’ letters of women’s magazines, then soliciting responses. Some editrixes sent packages of cookies and framed photos of themselves in response; Lesley Jane Seymour of Marie Claire sent him a handwritten letter: “Dear Professor Braunstein, Sorry my first try at my editor’s letter was so poor: my cat ate the best version, the second got caught in the rain, the third got slipped under the door of the wrong teacher!”
At the same time, Braunstein was unfulfilled. He was an artist, and yet people whom he regarded as not as talented were being richly rewarded. His envy reached its zenith in October 2002, when Vogue star writer Plum Sykes received a $625,000 advance for her first novel, Bergdorf Blondes. A week later, Braunstein called Vogue public relations to request an extra ticket to the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. Though he received the ticket, there was some initial resistance, and Braunstein became incensed. The next day, he received an e-mail from his editor, James Fallon: “It was kind of the publicist simply to invite you, and then he gets harassed for another ticket for you and yelled at by [another reporter] for giving him a ‘bad’ seat. I have told both of you that aggressiveness in pursuing a story is fine, but I will not tolerate bullying, sarcasm or prima donna behavior . . . The behavior will end, and it will end now.”