It takes a lot to get everyone on the Internet to read the same thing — especially in Trump and plague times — but on Sunday night, “The Journalist and the Pharma Bro” did it. Published in Elle magazine, it’s a reported account of Bloomberg News reporter Christie Smythe giving up her career and her marriage for a now-scuttled relationship with reviled hedge-funder Martin Shkreli, who is serving a seven-year sentence in federal prison for fraud. The story includes a kiss in a room redolent of chicken wings. The reaction came as something of a surprise to its author, Stephanie Clifford, who said she is now fielding requests from Hollywood for adaptations. Smythe, who had already sold the film rights to her book proposal about her relationship with Shkreli, has been gamely tweeting through the chatter. On Monday morning, Clifford got on the phone with Intelligencer to discuss how the story came to be published, whether she believes Smythe is delusional, and what was up with that fashion shoot.
You mention in the piece that you sat next to Smythe in the courtroom during the Shkreli trial. How well did you know her, and how did you become the one to tell this story?
We were pressroom colleagues, and it was a very friendly pressroom — the Daily News guy and the Post guy and me and Christie all knew each other, and we’d occasionally grab drinks after work. I knew her sort of like the way you know a co-worker. We stayed in touch, we went to colleagues’ going-away parties from time to time.
While I was covering the Shkreli case, I got the sense that something more was going on between Christie and Shkreli. It wasn’t really my business, I didn’t ask about it, but it seemed to me like more than a journalist-source relationship happening. Once I left the Times and was writing magazine pieces, I kept my eye on it. It’s every journalist’s fear in some ways. Christie is so level-headed; she’s not a silly person. If it was happening, I thought it was a fascinating story, but I also wanted her to be aware of it, for it not to be an exposé. I thought the only way that it would work, and the only way that I could feel ethically okay about it, is if she knew about it and would talk to me.
I learned earlier this year that they were in a serious relationship. I reached out to her again and said, “Listen, if and when you want to tell your story, I’m here.” And she didn’t at the time. I stayed in touch with her, I didn’t want to put pressure on her, but I said, “You’re a journalist, you know it’s a good story” — the angle is about a journalist falling in love with a source. We stayed in touch and then in the fall she reached out. I think a couple of things had changed: I think she’d gotten tired of basically covering this up, about not being able to say to the world that she was in love and she was in love with Martin Shkreli.
Based on what you knew about Smythe, did it come as a surprise?
Yes, very much, and I wanted to get that across in the piece. She’s ambitious, she’s smart, she was totally focused, she was business oriented. It reminds me a little bit of covering trials. Usually, the defendant, when they start getting into crime or fraud or whatever it is, it starts really small. They stole cigarettes or something and then it snowballs, so by the time they’re arrested and charged, they’re running a gang. It’s these tiny decisions. And this reminded me of that. I wanted to understand, What were these tiny decisions, and how was she thinking about that? And in fact, she did think through these issues when we were talking. She was quite open about trying to navigate the ethical territory with some care.
From an ethical standpoint, she could have disclosed it a lot sooner to Bloomberg News.
I think she could have. She says she was in denial, and I think that’s true. She was trying to hold on to some sense of control in what had become an uncontrollable situation.
I saw some surprise about this story running in Elle. You used to work at the New York Times. Why Elle? Was it your first choice?
Yes, it was. I wanted a magazine. I love the Times, but I don’t really have a relationship with the magazine there; I have a relationship with the daily [paper]. I didn’t want it to be a news story or a media story per se. I wanted it to be a careful, slow telling of Christie and Christie’s story, and I think women’s magazine’s — I kind of hate the term women’s magazines because I think they are so much more ambitious and smart and they do terrific work and they’re often siphoned off as not doing that work. Elle in particular has a really strong history of telling sensitive stories about women. The first piece I wrote for them, this summer, was on the first woman to die of COVID in a federal prison. I wanted to give this fair and careful narrative telling of it, and Elle seemed like the best place for that.
Did Smythe have any thoughts, given that she was a journalist, about where it ended up?
She knew where I was pitching it. She was dubious that they would be interested, because she met so much resistance with her book. I said, “I think by focusing on you, rather than on Shkreli, that will interest people.” Because everybody’s thought about, What would it be like if I threw my life away? She’s followed through with that and seen what life is like on the other end of the decision.
How did you go about corroborating this story from both sides of the narrative?
I sent a letter to Shkreli early on, saying I’m writing about this, I’ll get back about specific facts that I’m using about you, but if you have a comment or [want to] talk. He responded with a statement through his lawyer. Once I had a draft, I sent him and his lawyer letters with all the facts regarding him that we were planning on using. Other things you can check. That he was transferred from a New Jersey prison to Allenwood, that’s in records. I corroborated with people who had seen them at the prison; I talked to, I think, three or four people who had seen them together in the visiting room; I talked to a man who had been in prison with Shkreli who’s now out. It is complex. The prison does not make it easy to talk to inmates. The trip to Princeton, there’s a YouTube recording of that, and he mentions her at some point in the video. I was able to corroborate other things through court documents. I relied on her calendars as well.
Did you speak to her ex-husband?
I spoke to him on background. I didn’t want to use his name — he’s a private person, and he doesn’t really need or deserve to be looped into this.
Here’s a tweet I just read: “So you’re telling me there’s some newly divorced, gainfully employed guy in Brooklyn who likes dogs and has a great party story?” Do you think he would appreciate the overtures?
That’s so New York City. I love it.
You have this twist at the end, where Shkreli issues a statement totally, coldly repudiating Smythe. What was your reaction to that statement?
One of his lawyers called me with that statement, and when she read it to me, I gasped because it seemed so cold. I remember screwing up my face because it seemed calculated to inflict maximum emotional damage on Christie, to upset her. I have to say when I called Christie and told her what the statement was, that was one of those calls where I felt like I was going to break her heart, and I felt terrible.
Is this ultimately a story about a very delusional person? Was this a one-sided thing — that he was sort of manipulating her?
I think he gave her a lot of reasons to believe that this relationship was a serious relationship and that this relationship would work. He approved his lawyers calling her his fiancée in a letter. He approved the letter to the court saying he’s in a serious relationship, he can stay with me when he’s out. Having sat through this trial, one thing that struck me was that he was a bit of a shape-shifter. He would meet with investors in his hedge fund and be who they wanted him to be. So with a gay investor, the investor recalled him hitting on male waiters. With a sophisticated young, rich investor, the investor recalls him meeting her for dinner at a chic midtown restaurant and giving her book recommendations. I still wonder if he was doing the [same] thing with Christie. And we talked about that. She doesn’t think so. She thinks it’s a genuine, committed relationship, and she hopes he’ll come back around.
I was not expecting her to be as self-reflective as she was in the interviews. I was expecting a fairly high level of resistance as to how she got here and maybe journalistic or ethical issues she was facing, and she was very clear-eyed about it. She’s very open and thoughtful about it. I interviewed her friends and family, and they all said basically that she knows what she’s doing. And she knows what she wants, and what she wants is Martin Shkreli, for better or for worse.
I also saw some critique that you were exploiting a woman with a mental illness. I wonder what you make of that.
I think people need to be careful about assigning labels like a mental illness to somebody on Twitter. Christie is aware of what journalism is; she’s aware of what a story is. I talked it through with her as much as I could, so she understood, even before she agreed to do this, what it would mean, the kind of publicity it might attract, what it would mean for her personally and professionally. And I wanted her to consider that before she agreed to participate. That was the main reason I didn’t do an exposé. I probably could have, had I wanted to, but it just didn’t feel right. I thought the only way that it would work, and the only way that I could feel ethically okay about it, is if she knew about it and would talk to me.
We’re talking about ethical issues in journalism. Part of it is, when you’re a journalist writing a story, you’re asking people to put their lives out there for the story. I’ve done that with incarcerated people, and I’ve done that with people who have lost their children and people in really difficult situations. The best thing you can do with a journalist is tell their story fairly and accurately and make sure they completely understand what they’re getting into.
People are saying mean things to Christie about Shkreli on her own feed, and she’s handling it well and sensibly, I think, from what I’ve seen.
I have a lot of questions about the photo shoot!
I had little to do with the photo shoot. I put my editor in touch with Christie, who I think connected with the photo editor. I found out about it when she mentioned it in passing.
What did you think when you saw it?
I thought she looked great. Coming from a news background, I was a little surprised. It makes sense; it’s a fashion magazine in part. Reading the credits, it’s a little jarring to see the fashion next to a question about somebody dating someone in prison. But I get it.
She seems pretty happy with the story overall.
Obviously, you can’t share a story ahead of time, but I don’t think sources should be surprised with what’s in a story. I tried to walk her through it and say, “Here’s the angle I’m taking,” and give her the opportunity to respond or challenge it if she wanted to. She texted me yesterday after it came out and said it feels raw and real. She said she felt relieved to have it out there.
Do you know if she’s still trying to write the book?
You know, I don’t. She kind of gave up on it. I read the book proposal, which was very much focused on Shkreli, obviously, and a little bit on their evolving friendship at that time. She’s not actively trying to write it, but I imagine there will be some degree of interest after this.
You said she believes he will come around. Based on your reporting, do you believe he will — that this relationship will be rekindled?
I really don’t know. I don’t have the knowledge of him that she does. I observed his actions in court. I’ve seen him livestream, I’ve seen that side of him. The side she described I really have not seen. I don’t know. I feel like it could go either way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.