ken auletta finally wrote the harvey weinstein story he wanted to tell

Ken Auletta Finally Wrote the Harvey Weinstein Story He Wanted to Tell

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Are monsters made or born?

That is the existential question Ken Auletta takes on in his new book, “Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence.”

“What is Harvey Weinstein’s Rosebud — a loss, a lack, that explains what came after?” Mr. Auletta asks at the start of his ogre’s odyssey. Or is he just a sociopath?

How did Mr. Weinstein — raised in a housing project in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, the son of a withdrawn diamond cutter and a domineering mother he christened “Momma Portnoy,” a boy drawn to movies because he wasn’t part of the cool crowd — turn into a monster? Who enabled him as he climbed up to the most powerful circles in film, fashion and Democratic politics, even as he bullied people, sometimes violently, and stalked and attacked young women, with nondisclosure agreements and payoffs piling up?

Last week, I sat with Mr. Auletta, 80, by the pool of the Hamptons hacienda he and his wife, the powerful literary agent Binky Urban, 75, share, a shingle-and-cedar spread straight out of a Nancy Meyers rom-com that overlooks the polo grounds. Ms. Urban, who works at ICM, talked about being taken over by CAA that very morning in a $750 million deal. Meanwhile, in their big, open kitchen, Mr. Auletta whipped up a gourmet lunch. He thinks about food from the time he gets up until the time he goes to bed, Ms. Urban joked.

The longtime New Yorker media reporter talked about his Ahab-like pursuit of Mr. Weinstein, which began more than 20 years ago. He reported on every detail of this white whale’s life — including a juvenile scam with Boy Scout cookies — and tried to pin down the sexual assault rumors for 20 years, but in the end, he had to watch others “crack the case.”

Now, Mr. Auletta has done a full-scale biography, out July 12. The writer’s reporting suggests, among other things, that Mr. Weinstein did not abuse women until he had power, as a Buffalo rock promoter, when he began getting obsessed with making them submit. Mr. Auletta did 30 new interviews with Bob Weinstein, and examines Harvey’s “unhinged, Shakespeare-worthy relationship with his younger brother.” The writer exchanged 50 emails with Mr. Weinstein in prison and covered his trial.

“He’s not just a monster,” Mr. Auletta said. “He was also an incredibly talented movie executive who made some really good movies. So trying to do that, even though I want to punch this guy, was an interesting challenge.

“I admire the way he understood that a script was central to making a successful movie. If you had a good director and a good cast and you had a bad script, it wouldn’t be a good movie. And sometimes he had charm.”

(Mr. Weinstein’s business judgment wasn’t perfect; he passed on acquiring Marvel.)

Ms. Urban said that her husband “has an infuriating inability to see anything in black and white, only in grays — coupled with rose-colored glasses through which he views most people as being well intentioned.”

Mr. Auletta likes to write while listening to Puccini arias, which is fitting, since Mr. Weinstein resembles Scarpia in “Tosca.” I asked Mr. Auletta why this man, married successively to two beautiful, loyal women, would want to force himself on legions of young women who found him repellent. (In the book, the victims describe his body odor — like “poop,” as one said — the blackheads on his back, the scar on his stomach, the lack of testicles, the injections he had to give himself in the penis to get an erection.)

“Because you don’t think you’re repellent,” Mr. Auletta replied. “He thought he was really God’s gift, Don Juan.”

Mr. Auletta’s friends say it’s striking that The New Yorker writer, known to them as one of the nicest people on the planet, longtime captain of the writers’ team at the annual Writers and Artists charity softball game in the Hamptons, wanted to do a deep dive on one of the nastiest people on the planet.

“The joke with me and some of our friends is that he’s doing a book about this sexual monster and Ken doesn’t know anything about sex,” said Richard Cohen, the former Washington Post columnist. “He’s so far from Harvey. There’s nothing in Ken that’s sinister or ugly. He’s so clean and good. He’s so lovely. I’ll stop. This is starting to sound homoerotic.”

Mr. Auletta protested, “I’m not nice when I’m writing,” adding that journalists have to be “ruthless.” (He didn’t look that ruthless in his beige Bermuda shorts and flip-flops.) He noted that as a teenager growing up in Coney Island, “I was not quite a juvenile delinquent but I walked around with my sleeves rolled up.” And he had a turn as a political operative and worked for Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, but turned to journalism after Kennedy was assassinated.

“Ken moves so easily among the titans of media and business that it’s easy for them to forget that he’s a guy from Coney Island,” said David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, “but you can be sure that he never forgets.”

Harvey the Ripper created a culture of fear at Miramax — named after his parents, Miriam and Max — and built what Mr. Auletta calls “an architecture of collusion.”

He brandished, like a shield, the embraces of Barack Obama and the Clintons, the encomiums of Hollywood royalty, the friendships with fashion elites, the support of the Mickey Mouse house and the complicity of some in the media, who succumbed to Harvey’s “favor system” trading access, and dangling book contracts and film deals, for silence. (He hired the daughters of Mr. Obama, Anna Wintour and Sharon Waxman of The Wrap as summer interns.)

Mr. Auletta said, echoing The New York Times’s reporting, that some of those luminaries, or people in their circle at least, knew about the Weinstein rumors. “Over the years, when Hillary Clinton’s aides were reportedly warned of Harvey’s abusive ways, particularly with women, these warnings had no obvious impact on the Clintons’ fealty to Harvey,” he writes in his book.

He told me that many Democrats thought, “Harvey’s a good guy. I mean, he supports our candidates. He gives money. The press likes him.” They probably preferred to believe it was, as one woman who worked for Mr. Weinstein put it, “the casting couch on acid.”

“I actually liken it to what’s going on with the Republican Party and Trump,” Mr. Auletta said. “Republicans know that this man is a lawbreaker and outrageous and threatened democracy. And yet they keep quiet. Why? Why did people keep quiet around Harvey? For the same reasons, they were afraid or they lack character.”

Mr. Weinstein was an apotheosis of refinement when it came to films, obscuring the fact that he was an apotheosis of defilement behind the scenes.

“Championing good movies and exhibiting good behavior did not always overlap in Hollywood,” Mr. Auletta writes dryly, “but Harvey broadened the chasm between the two.”

Judi Dench was so grateful for the bravura roles provided by Mr. Weinstein — including an eight-minute turn as Queen Elizabeth in “Shakespeare in Love” that won her an Oscar — that, before his assaults were documented, she had a temporary tattoo of his name emblazoned on her butt by a makeup artist.

Gwyneth Paltrow said some actresses in Hollywood were familiar with Mr. Weinstein’s lunging (but not his full depredation) and reacted with an “eye roll.” “He was making all these great movies,” she said frankly. “And I was about to be in those movies. How do you calibrate that? We all wanted to make excuses for a lot of his behavior over the years because of the movies he was making.”

The book mines material Mr. Auletta collected in 2002, when he did a 20,000-word profile of Mr. Weinstein for The New Yorker that exposed the producer’s rage and volatile temper. He tried to uncover the truth about Mr. Weinstein’s sexual assaults back then, but could not persuade sources — some of whom were the same ones who would later expose Mr. Weinstein — to confirm the story.

In 2015, when there were screaming tabloid headlines about Mr. Weinstein grabbing the breasts of Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, a 22-year-old Italian model, like a dog in heat, as she put it, Mr. Auletta tried to report out the story again. But Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, decided not to prosecute the case, thinking he could not win, and then Ms. Gutierrez took $1 million from Mr. Weinstein to sign an affidavit backing up his claim that “he behaved appropriately.”

The dam of silence began to collapse in 2017. Mr. Weinstein was paying millions to David Boies, the superlawyer, whose firm in turn hired Black Cube, an intelligence company dominated by ex-Mossad agents, which would dig up information and dirt on Mr. Weinstein’s victims and spy on reporters trying to break the story.

“For many years Harvey had been reassured by the knowledge that males in the media business were long permitted their sexual pleasures, granted or coerced,” Mr. Auletta writes. “But it was a new day.”

Bill Cosby fell. Roger Ailes fell. Bill O’Reilly fell. Two Times reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, were hot on Mr. Weinstein’s trail, and so was Ronan Farrow, then an NBC reporter.

Mr. Farrow called Mr. Auletta seeking information about Mr. Weinstein. At first, Mr. Auletta was worried that, given the fact that his father was Woody Allen, Mr. Farrow may be “a zealot.” But after talking to him, he decided the younger journalist was “judicious.”

Mr. Auletta generously gave him access to the tapes and notebooks from his 2002 New Yorker profile. But Mr. Farrow’s NBC investigation was rejected by the scared suits, including the current head of NBC News, Noah Oppenheim. NBC executives assured Mr. Weinstein — before they told Mr. Farrow — that they were not going forward with the story, even though Mr. Farrow, according to Mr. Auletta, had three women on camera accusing Mr. Weinstein of sexual abuse and five women giving their stories on camera, with their names and faces shielded. He also had a secret tape that Ms. Gutierrez had made of Mr. Weinstein at a hotel in TriBeCa.

Mr. Auletta called Mr. Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and urged him to run the story. Mr. Farrow’s blockbuster came out a week after The Times’s blockbuster, with all three reporters getting Pulitzers.

Mr. Remnick said that Mr. Auletta helped Mr. Farrow “without hesitation. That kind of generosity and decency is part of who he is.”

It wasn’t the first time Mr. Auletta had planted the seeds for another writer to break a huge story. In 2014, he profiled Elizabeth Holmes in The New Yorker. He did not think she was a fraud — her board, after all, included George Shultz, Sam Nunn, James Mattis and Henry Kissinger — but he did write acerbically that the technology behind her blood test was treated like a state secret, with an absence of clinical tests, and that her description of it was “comically vague.”

John Carreyrou, a Wall Street Journal reporter, read that paragraph in the Auletta story and realized something was off. By the following year, he had unraveled the shocking saga of Theranos, going on to write the New York Times best seller “Bad Blood.”

Mr. Auletta doesn’t dwell on the scoops that got away. He said that “Jodi and Megan and Ronan got women who were very scared to feel comfortable enough to talk to them. And that’s an extraordinary feat.” As for Theranos, Mr. Auletta conceded that “I feel angry at myself that I didn’t get the story, actually.” But he added: “John proved it and did a brilliant job.”

Mr. Weinstein, who was sentenced to 23 years in New York, is now in prison in Los Angeles awaiting trial on new charges in that city. “It’s maybe a stronger case against him than New York was,” Mr. Auletta said. “They’ve got 11 indictments versus five in New York.”

Mr. Weinstein, who never drank but was a heavy smoker and gargantuan eater, constantly shoveling peanut M&Ms into his mouth despite having severe diabetes, is not well. “He’s in a wheelchair,” Mr. Auletta said. “He’s got a stent in his heart, glaucoma and high cholesterol, and he looks like hell in the Zoom appearances before judges. And I can’t imagine, climbing inside his head, what he feels like.”

I wondered about the fate of his brother, who was seen in Hollywood as Mr. Wolf from “Pulp Fiction,” the guy who cleaned up the mess and made the money for the company. He overcame alcoholism back in 2004 and tried a comeback in 2019, announcing a project with Téa Leoni.

“No one will do business with a Weinstein,” Mr. Auletta said. “He’s unemployed. He’s trying to figure out how to get a life.”

For four and a half decades Mr. Auletta, who writes the Annals of Communications column in The New Yorker, has covered media, Hollywood and the digerati, doing buzzy profiles of Ted Turner, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Sheryl Sandberg, John Malone and Rupert Murdoch.

So, I asked him, who was the creepiest person you ever interviewed?

“Roy Cohn,” shot back Mr. Auletta, who did the landmark profile of the Trump mentor in Esquire in 1978. “He was the worst human being I’ve ever met. No one even close. Harvey’s angelic compared to Cohn. So we go to “21″ Club for lunch, where he had his own table, and he’s sitting there and he doesn’t order. He had these lizard-like fingers. And I had French fries and a hamburger, and the long fingers would literally snatch fries off my plate. He disclosed all these confidential things about his clients. It was so appalling, truly disgusting.”

Will anyone still want to read those classic 20,000-word profiles you specialize in, I asked him, in an A.D.D. world where journalists tweet hot news and Axios runs stories in bullet points? Will we go from incomplete sentences to emojis, just the name David Zaslav and three fireworks emojis?

“If you’re good, if you tell a good story and you have good information, people are going to read it,” Mr. Auletta said, with his easy smile. “Otherwise, go to bed and quit.”

Maureen Dowd: You want to write about Jeff Bezos’s midlife crisis.

Ken Auletta: I want to read about Jeff Bezos’s midlife crisis.

Elon Musk will actually acquire Twitter and make it better.

To invite Trump back on is not to make it better. But I believe he will not buy Twitter, he will back out.

Your lifelong obsession is finding the perfect chicken parmigiana and you are part of a group of grown-up men, men of distinction, who actually travel all over the greater metropolitan area doing taste-tests of this dish.

A test of a good Southern Italian restaurant is whether their chicken or veal parmigiana had a good sauce, the breading is crisp and has not been drowned in sauce, and the chicken or veal is not so thin it tastes like cardboard.

The best hitter of all time at the annual Artists vs. Writers softball game in the Hamptons was CNN anchor Brian Stelter.

Brian Stelter’s never played in the game. The funniest hitter was Peter Jennings, who was thrown a melon and he didn’t know how to play. He knew how to play soccer, not baseball, and smashed the fruit all over his face. I remember George Plimpton, who hadn’t come in a couple of years, came and said, “Put me in.” I said, “George, do you want a runner?” He said no, and he hits a rope line drive single. And he ran to first base and got a hit. But he was, like, 76 years old, five months before he died. And it was just one of the great thrills of his life and mine that he got to come back and hit.

You agree with the media mogul John Malone that CNN needs to be less opinionated.

I agree that CNN should be less opinionated. I disagree with John Malone when he also said Fox was a model for what a good newscast that should be.

Warner Brothers C.E.O. David Zaslav’s Gatsbyesque annual end-of-summer East Hampton party, with $360 tequila bottles, explains 98 percent of his success.

He’s been a successful executive without his party since Covid.

Rupert Murdoch told you in 2014 at the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley that before he died, he would marry into the British royal family.

Murdoch hasn’t talked to me since 1995, when I profiled him.

Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek will be fired by next year and will be replaced by Reed Hastings when Disney merges with Netflix.

Well, Disney wouldn’t merge with Netflix. I can imagine Chapek not surviving. But I don’t think Reed Hastings would be right for Disney. He doesn’t have the Ted Sarandos flair, but he’s a brilliant engineer.

The only mistake you made in your Elizabeth Holmes profile is not talking to Henry Kissinger.

I did talk to Kissinger. He said, “We were all afraid of her.” He said, “When I go to board meetings, I feel like I have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. She was so dominant.”

Your next book will be about Rupert and Jerry’s divorce.

It would be a very short book.

The Upper East Side has the best restaurants in New York.

Wrong. The best restaurants in New York are in Brooklyn, including Williamsburg, and Gargiulo’s in Coney Island. Only Lucali in Carroll Gardens rivals a Totonno’s pizza in Coney Island.

Your daughter says your best dish is a Greek chicken. You learned the recipe on a Peloponnesian island one summer from an old chef who barely spoke English, and you love to talk about the “secret” ingredient.

It’s French’s mustard.