Judith’s Untold Story

One day recently, sitting in the remote camera booth at 30 Rockefeller Center waiting to be joined via monitor with my fellow panelists in the MSNBC studios in Secaucus on the issue of Monica Lewinsky, I watched my old college classmate Judith Regan suddenly pop into view. (I had recently been matched with Helen Gurley Brown on this same subject.) She was poised (an in-your-face, carriage-is-everything poise), smiling, and looking much younger than 45 (which, if I am, she is).

The book she was promoting was a relative trifle for her, a parody of Monica’s Story called Monica’s Untold Story, written by “Anonymous.” But it seemed to have engaged her hotly (as, in fact, everything she does engages her); she had lost out on publishing the actual Monica book – Regan says she withdrew her offer based on the proposed content of the book – and was now directing the energy she might have brought to the project at Monica’s morality (“This cautionary fable,” Regan says, in promotion materials for the book, “is a parody of the nightmarish materialism that … threatens to destroy America, as we pursue money, sex, and power at the expense of family life, duty, and goodness”). Indeed, it seems reasonably likely that Anonymous is Judith Regan herself.

I thought this had some elegant symmetry: Both women came out of nowhere and gained major roles in modern media and culture; both defied the traditional wisdom of how you achieved success; both had saved a semen stain.

Certainly, Judith is, hands down, the most successful editor in the book business; not only has she sold millions of pallets of books, but she’s put a decided spin on the culture, too (she almost single-handedly moved Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern off of the radio and out into the mass market, but she isn’t just Rush and Howard; her oeuvre includes O.J. prosecutor Christopher Darden, Gen-Xer Douglas Coupland, Oprah novelist Wally Lamb, and diet-category-killer The Zone). She is said to be responsible for a king’s ransom of the HarperCollins bottom line (as much as 25 percent, I have heard); and Murdoch has given her an imprint, ReganBooks, along with her own Fox talk show, This Evening With Judith Regan.

She really is a phenomenon. Knowing her, trying to explain her, you can easily feel like Nick Carraway, a narrator for some contemporary Gatsby (without the charm).

I am not betraying confidences. She tells her story compulsively – in business meetings, to casual acquaintances, to the media.

Like Monica, she puts herself in harm’s way to great narrative effect. Judith – like Monica on the telephone – is also a great monologuist on the subject of her personal dramas. For Judith, there is her divorce from her money-manager husband – in court for six years – which the New York Times has described as among “the most hoary and bitter on the docket.” A conversation with her can quickly become a near-violent screed against her husband, men in general, her lawyers (including, at one point, my wife’s law firm), and the legal system as a whole. Monica’s Untold Story acknowledges “the inspiration provided by every pig lawyer in America.”

There is the father of her oldest son, a convicted drug smuggler, who was sentenced to a long prison term. And then there are her business battles, her personal vendettas, and her domestic issues (the details of which she seems quite ready to share with anyone she is talking to), almost all of which have at one time or another become publicity grist.

While victimhood is certainly a big theme for her, she adds a twist by being an avenger too. She may be the most combative victim in history.

Once, shortly after she joined Simon & Schuster, she entered into a dispute with the police who had stopped the cab she’d just hailed. The dispute put her in jail for the evening, and the story – the Times ran a Madonna-like portrait of her – immediately became an if-it-could-happen-to-her-it-could-happen-to-anybody cautionary tale. (Indeed, all charges were dropped.) As the story of the incident was being discussed around town the next day, a good liberal friend asked if I’d heard what the police did to the young editor.

I said: “That wasn’t just an editor, you know. That was Judy.”

“Oh,” our mutual friend said, shaking his head, “those poor police.”

And this was by no means her first encounter with the law – nor her first victory in a false-arrest suit (in her suit over a Utah strip search, the ACLU came to her defense).

verything about Judy is a story (the Holly Hunter-Danny DeVito film Living Out Loud is said to be inspired, at least in part, by her – she makes a cameo in the film castigating the elevator man played by DeVito for leaving his post). Her career itself – a mirror of our evolving tabloid sensibilities – is Judith Krantz-ish (rather than Fitzgerald-ish).

Twenty-five years ago, at Vassar, where we met, she was a pretty, plumpish hippie girl, with a soft-focus interest in music, painting, creative writing. Her focus was sharpened by the fact that her family, from Bayshore, wasn’t rich, and she resented those whose families were. She took up with a boy whose parents were very wealthy and after college stayed with him in his parents’ apartment in the San Remo on Central Park West – speaking volubly and bitterly about their wealth and pretensions. She and the boy moved to San Francisco, then to Boston, where she became a secretary at Harvard. She perfected one of the early anti-yuppie rants. Other people’s privileges revolted her.

She applied for a job at the National Enquirer in its unreconstructed Generoso Pope incarnation. Got hired. Flourished chasing stories about Siamese twins and Hollywood miscreants. A new world opened up. Among the names that suddenly rolled easily off her tongue were Bernie Cornfeld (the legendary white-collar con man), Adnan Kashoggi (the legendary arms dealer), and Ray Stark (the legendary movie producer).

Around this time, she met her son’s father, a psychiatrist (in addition to drug smuggler), and became in the early eighties a pioneer in Ivy League unwed-motherhood. Not long after her son was born, the baby’s father was convicted of drug smuggling and went to jail.

She left the Enquirer. She wanted to get into television. The next thing I knew, she was living with a money manager in Connecticut. But it was a rocky relationship. She moved back into Manhattan. She got a producing job with Geraldo Rivera. Left the Geraldo show. Went back with the money manager. Decided to become a literary agent but instead took a job with Simon & Schuster.

It turned out that she wasn’t just good at publishing books; she was better than everybody else. Her resentments, her tabloid training, her victimhood, her attack mode, coalesced into some new model of popular taste.

But she fought pitched battles at Simon & Schuster. Ranted. Raved. Attacked. The penalty of not loving her enough (and it is doubtful anyone can) is that she will punish you without remission. She always wins, because life is too short.

Then Judith and Rupert found each other – and ReganBooks was born. Not only did their commercial instincts mesh, but Judy’s what’s-the-world-ever-done-for-me politics were highly compatible with the Murdoch view.

And then the sex part. It’s a one-woman show.

I have never heard anyone talk about sex the way Judy does. I have never heard anyone talk about their sexual partners the way Judy does. I have near heard anyone analyze individual motivations, the workings of the marketplace, and politics, too, in such precisely sexual terms. The other day, on her show, she kept interrupting her tempered guests on the subject of why women like Bill Clinton, and, voice rising, saying: “They want to have sex with him – that’s why they like him!”

Early in her career at Simon & Schuster, she published a book called The Rogue Warrior and fought tooth and nail for a full-face cover photo of the author. “Don’t they understand?” she stormed to me. “Women will buy this because they want to fuck him!” She got the full face and a best-seller.

A world that seemed ordered and civil to me was an R. Crumb cartoon of otherwise ordinary yuppie men uncontrollably drooling or even dropping their pants in front of her.

I cannot explain it, but I have seen it: Men get crazy over Judith. Mesmerized. Radically lobotomized.

At Simon & Schuster, she complained, she was exposed to sexual harassment that, as she described it, seemed more like all-out sexual war. I am not the only one she told about a colleague in the company whose harassment of her left a semen stain that she preserved. (As an Esquire editor wrote in a “Women We Love” profile of her, “By the end of lunch, I knew all about her divorce, her kids, her custody battle, and an executive she hates who jerks off in his office with the door open.”)

I have been thinking about what Judy’s success says about success. And what her success says about the media business. And I have been thinking about Judy in terms of Monica. They are both media savants. They have the natural ability to project their character as the character of the country. To be able to make that leap distinguishes you: What I feel others feel. What I do others do or want to do. No doubts, no shame here.

Or you might define both Judy and Monica in more old-fashioned terms: They are troublemakers. Of course, conflict is the essence of modern media.

Another aspect of Judy – and of Monica, too, I’d bet – is a very narrow focus. A lack of objectivity. When you speak to Judy, one of the disconcerting things is her inability to take in other points of view – any other point of view. It is never an inquiry; it is always a prosecution. (Unless she’s flirting, her eyes wander when someone else talks.) A conversation with her is about only her goals, her agendas, her beliefs. It is about what’s stuck in her craw. To have to listen to this can be very frustrating, and boring, but for the person with the thing stuck in her craw very powerful. Others have to give way. Let her have what she wants. It’s too arduous to object, too painful to keep listening.

Ironically, not entertaining other points of view, living with blinders on, is a set of virtues that serves you well in the book business. The book-business model is one of competing products within the same company. Judy’s dead-set determination that she is right and everyone else is wrong yields results under that model (this is one reason why many famous wackos have succeeded in the book business). The obsessiveness she brings to anything she does is economically reinforced in the book business. If you obsess, it will sell.

She believes she has succeeded by sheer force of will. Everything, she will tell you, is against her. She represents a different kind of culture, which the existing culture would have chosen to suppress if it could. But the existing culture (its libido-corrupted men, its namby-pamby women) is weak. She is strong.

Monica may have lost out by not having Judith publish her book.

When young people call me up to ask about getting started in the media business, I say Judith Regan is the person you want to speak to. Call her. Use my name.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Judith’s Untold Story