A Private War

Marie Colvin and Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades

About The Book

Now a major motion picture starring Rosamund Pike, Stanley Tucci, and Jamie Dornan, A Private War is the story of legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in 2012 while covering the Syrian civil war.

In February 2012, Marie Colvin crossed into Syria on the back of a motorcycle. A veteran war correspondent known for her fearlessness, outspokenness, and signature eye patch, she was defying a government decree preventing journalists from entering the country. Accompanied by photographer Paul Conroy, she was determined to report on the Syrian civil war, adding to a long list of conflicts she had covered, including those in Egypt, Chechnya, Kosovo, and Libya. She had witnessed grenade attacks, saved more than one thousand women and children in an East Timor war zone when she refused to stop reporting until they were evacuated, and even interviewed Muammar Qaddafi. But she had no idea that the story she was looking for in Syria would be her last, culminating in the explosion of an improvised device that sent shock waves across the world.

In A Private War, Marie Brenner brilliantly chronicles the last days and hours of Colvin’s life, moment by moment, to share the story of a remarkable life lived on the front lines. This collection also includes Brenner’s classic encounters with Donald Trump, Roy Cohn, Malala Yousafzai, Richard Jewell, and others.

A Private War Introduction
To understand the arc of her career, you have to know how it ended.

Marie Colvin’s last assignment was in February 2012, in a ravaged war zone in Syria. She operated from what she called “a media center” in the town of Baba Amr, crouched with a few other journalists in a small building in narrow streets. The top floor had been blown off by the deluge of rockets and shells raining down from the forces of the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now, on a Wednesday morning in the early hours, the American-born foreign correspondent who worked for decades for the Sunday Times of London awakened to the convulsions of rockets and shells around her.

The night before, she’d left her shoes outside in the hall—the gesture, her longtime colleague and friend Jon Swain noted later, would cost her life. With her was Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, fraught with anxiety because he was certain Colvin’s insistence on returning to Baba Amr could end in catastrophe. But Colvin was there to record it all: “Snipers on the rooftops of al-Baath University . . . shoot any civilian who comes into their sight. . . . It is a city of the cold and the hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire.” There was, of course, no telephone or electricity. Freezing rain filled potholes and snow drifted through the windows during the coldest winter anyone in Baba Amr could remember, Colvin wrote. “Many of the dead and injured are those that risked their lives foraging for food,” Colvin wrote.

The essence of that detail was what mattered to Colvin most: the need to bring to vivid life the human costs of war. Sprinting through a barrage of rockets, Colvin spent a day in a makeshift clinic, interviewing victims. The Sunday Times bannered her report across two pages. Later it would be noted that hers was one of the first convincing reports predicting al-Assad’s genocide, which would overtake Syria. After her first piece was filed, Colvin mailed her colleague Lucy Fisher, “I did have a few moments when I thought, ‘What am I doing? Story incredibly important though.’?” Mx. She demanded to return to Baba Amr and would not hear otherwise. “It is sickening that the Syrian regime is allowed to keep doing this,” she wrote her editor when she returned three days later. “There was a shocking scene in an apartment clinic today. A baby boy lay on a head scarf, naked, his little tummy heaving as he tried to breathe. The doctor said, ‘We can do nothing for him.’ He had been hit by shrapnel on his left side. They just had to let him die as his mother wept.”

“This is insane, Marie,” Conroy told her angrily when she announced she had every intention of returning. “Assad has targeted you and all the journalists.” Trained in the British military, Conroy understood the peril. He also had an acute sense of Marie’s vexed tech skills. She was a woman of a certain age, who had started her career when you dictated a story over the phone to an editor. Often, in the field, Conroy would retrieve lost files that had vanished into the nether land of her laptop. How could she ever truly understand the consequences of dialing from a SAT phone in an area where an enemy was trying to track her location? He argued with her in the tunnel, until she stalked off, saying, “Save a place for me at the bar.” Then he followed her, terrified of what could happen if he was not, as always, by Marie’s side.

I arrived in London a few days after Colvin died to write about her life for Vanity Fair. Conroy was still recovering from the explosions that almost cost him his leg. Dragging his IV poles, he forced himself to speak about Colvin at a reception at the Frontline Club, where London’s foreign correspondents meet. The next day, at the hospital, I spent hours by his bed. One of the first stories he told me took place outside Sirte in the Libyan civil war. Colvin and Conroy had been trapped for days as the troops who surrounded Libya’s strongman Muammar Qaddafi fought with those who were trying to depose the vicious despot. Minutes from deadline, in a speeding car heading for the border, there wasn’t a whisper of power they could use to transmit Marie’s copy from her laptop. The driver screamed as Conroy crawled onto the back of the car with his gaffer tape to place a booster, with sand and dust blowing in his eyes. Marie hit send. Then, both Paul and Marie screamed with relief as the car streaked down the highway. “I have never seen journalists who worked this way,” the driver told them. “Well, you have never worked with the Sunday Times,” Marie yelled.

A few words of context: For years, Colvin had dined out on her early days as a thirty-year-old reporter for the Associated Press posted to Beirut in 1986. Her first real scoop was the penetration of Qaddafi’s underground lair at the moment he was in a tense stand-off with then-president Ronald Reagan. Qaddafi was at this point an eccentric under-the-radar autocrat who posed as a Bedouin chief, then anointed himself a colonel, directing bombings across Europe from subterranean rooms underneath his palace. Colvin refused to stay with the small press pack that had converged on Tripoli, hoping to get an interview. Arriving at his palace gate, she pretended to be French and captivated Qaddafi’s guards with her dark, curly hair and reporter’s moxie. At 3 a.m., she was summoned to a hideout three stories beneath his palace garden. It contained an underground medical clinic, armored doors with automatic locks, and a throne room where Qaddafi would later lay out green shoes for her to wear. After one interview, he sent a nurse to her hotel room with a hypodermic needle. The nurse announced, “I Bulgarian; I take blood,” before Colvin could flee with her cassette tapes. The scoop made her name and brought Colvin to the attention of the Sunday Times, where she quickly rose to become one of the most acclaimed war reporters of her generation.

Colvin never wavered in the essential understanding of who she was and the importance of what she did. She could somehow use the term “bear witness” and get away with it. You can call a phrase like that grandiose and self-inflated, and sometimes people did, but Marie had a mission that she turned into a vocation, and that was to go to the most violent and dismal places on earth and bear personal witness to what man does to man. She was glamorous, but there was nothing glamorous about what she did. She was a paradox—a girl’s girl with a posse of devoted friends. From time to time, she would appear at someone’s door with fabulous shoes or clothes that she had spotted as a gift for a friend or cook midnight feasts for a crowd. She was a romantic drawn to another world reality, a ferocious war correspondent who refused to recognize obstacles when she went into the field. Nothing deterred her—not rocket strikes, or military censors, or the loss of balance from her vision problems. Colvin did not think in gender terms; she just got the job done and used whatever means she had. She regaled her friends with stories from the field, shaped into performances that camouflaged the raw truth of her existence. After being rescued from bombings in the mountain of Chechnya—where she existed on snow and one jar of jam—she teased a friend that she could not have survived without the pricey fur the friend had pushed her to buy.

Colvin’s sangfroid and wit fit beautifully in London media and political circles, but there was a price: She battled PTSD and alcohol, and fiercely maintained a size 4, determined never to be fat, wearing La Perla in the field. She made no secret of her love of men—and she was faithful to the ones she loved. In that way, she was often and easily betrayed. Her north stars were the glamorous war correspondents who came before her. At all times, she carried Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War, a masterwork of dispatches from Gellhorn’s decades in the field, including her on-the-ground reporting from the liberation of Dachau, where her view of corpses stacked like kindling haunted the rest of her days. Colvin, too, had a recurring nightmare—of a twenty-two-year-old Palestinian girl gunned down in a refugee camp in Lebanon. She was not interested in the strategy of war or its artillery, but rather the very real human dramas of those who suffered the consequences of what wars actually do to those who are somehow able to survive them.

A theme of basic justice links the cluster of profiles in this collection. It seems almost unnecessary to observe the obvious: I don’t like to see the innocent get railroaded or the perpetrators of evil get away with it. The length of these stories and the months spent reporting them were a gift of what is now called the golden age of magazine reporting. My editors were generous with time and resources. The essence of the craft is always the same—obsession. As a reporter, I am drawn to others as obsessed. In 1993, on assignment for The New Yorker, I wrote of Constance Baker Motley, who had helped draft Brown v. Board of Education with NAACP founder Thurgood Marshall and went on to become the first African-American woman to be appointed to the federal bench. She was a woman of quiet elegance who shopped at Lord & Taylor for a new suit before she flew to Jackson, Mississippi, to face down racist crowds outside a segregated courthouse where she argued her case to integrate the University of Mississippi in front of a mural of a plantation and its slaves memorialized on the courtroom wall. She argued case after case in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, bringing in crowds of African-Americans who would marvel that a woman of color was at last causing real change. In Jackson, the local paper referred to her as “that Motley woman.”

Her pursuit of justice did not incite the murderous violence that came out of the quest, twenty-five years later, of a school teacher in the Swat Valley of Pakistan who attempted to alert the world to the sadism being perpetrated by the Taliban in collusion with the powers inside Pakistan. Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala Yousafzai, almost lost his daughter in an attack that galvanized the world and turned the then-fourteen-year-old Malala into an international heroine who won the Nobel Prize.

I am also drawn to those who have been somehow caught in the vise of public events and have been shredded by overwhelming forces. The death threats and the smear campaign waged against tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and CBS’s 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman as they attempted to break the story of the corporate malfeasance being perpetrated by Big Tobacco preoccupied me for months. The chilling winds that could come from corporate big footing at news organizations could only lead to censorship—as it had at CBS, which had killed Bergman’s story. Not long after, I was in Atlanta, spending days with the hapless security guard Richard Jewell, wrongly accused by the F.B.I., NBC, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of a terrorist attack on the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It took Jewell months to escape from the machinations of the F.B.I. He was rescued by a quirky contrarian local lawyer named Watson Bryant who had once employed Jewell as an office boy. How could the news outlets have gotten it so wrong? Why was I not surprised?

The answer is perhaps rooted in my childhood in San Antonio. My father, feisty and opinionated, styled himself as a self-appointed one-man district attorney’s office. He was a businessman; his day job was running a small chain of discount department stores, but his hobby was exposing, as he phrased it, “the god damn hypocrites and corrupt sons of bitches” who lived around us in our leafy garden suburb. I have written before of my gratitude for the background music of my growing up years—the pounding of my father’s typewriter keys churning out furious letters to editors and the heads of the Federal Trade Commission, and the copy for the thousands of handbills that every day would be placed in the shopping bags of Solo-Serve, the discount store that was started by my grandfather, a Mexican immigrant by way of the Baltic. His mission in 1919 was revolutionary: Solo-Serve was South Texas’s first “clerkless store” and welcomed all customers, especially the Mexican-Americans who were forced to use separate entrances at Texas schools.

Who and what didn’t my father take on? The tax frauds and attempts to demolish historic Mexican-American neighborhoods for real estate development that were being perpetrated by San Antonio’s social set; the escalation of South Texas electrical power rates that would implicate a prominent local lawyer and his client, Houston’s oil magnate Oscar Wyatt, the chairman of Coastal States, who was often splashed in Vogue and Town and Country, with his wife, the ebullient social swan Lynn. Wyatt later pleaded guilty to foreign trading violations for his relationship with Saddam Hussein.

My father’s own command post was a glassed-in office on the second floor of his downtown store where he loved to bark into the public address system. “Attention, shoppers,” he once announced in his deep Texas drawl, “the chairman of the Estée Lauder Company is in our stores today in the cosmetics department trying to find out how we are able to sell his products at 50 percent off what you buy them for in New York. I want y’all to go and tell him a big Texas hello!” He came home gleeful at the melee he had caused. As an advertiser responsible for multiple pages of weekly Solo-Serve coupon specials, he was tolerated by the local newspaper editors and publishers, and beloved by reporters, who relied on him for scoops, but loathed by many of the husbands of my mother’s friends and members of our temple who were occasionally the targets of his investigations. The implicit message of my childhood was that it was our moral duty to speak out against injustice loudly and often, no matter who might be offended. I’m not sure this lesson did me any favors beyond the essential one of setting me on my path as a reporter.

There was no other profession I could choose. Tom Wolfe had thrown down the gauntlet and lured in just about anyone who had ever thought about lifting a pen, hooking us with his neon language and Fourth of July word explosions that made vivid the race car drivers and the follies of the nouveau riche and limousine liberals, including the art collector Ethel Scull, whose pineapple-colored hair and taxi fleet owner husband allowed her to buy walls of Andy Warhols. And there was Wolfe himself in Austin, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at the University of Texas in 1969. I jammed myself into the room to hear my idol and, during the question and answer session, waved my hand until Wolfe looked my way. Then, nerves overcame me. All I could stammer was, “What did Ethel Scull think of the story you wrote about her?” The question, fifty years later, still mortifies with its naïve assumption that what anyone thinks matters, but Wolfe, always so kind and impeccable, took the time to answer. “Well, she did not like it very much,” he said. The assertion of fact with its unspoken corollary—what difference does it make?—delivered by this god in his white linen suit was, for me, the beginning of liberation.

Like Marie Colvin, I fell in love with the exhilaration of reporting, the flow state where your obsession to Get the Story makes all distractions melt away. My father lived to be almost ninety and encouraged me to go after the corporate scoundrels of the 1990s—the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, which poisoned its products; the Houston thugs who ran Enron; Michael Milken and his junk bond schemes; the F.B.I. and its false accusation and tarnishing of the reputation of Richard Jewell; and the crass opportunism of New York real estate con man Donald Trump and his mentor, the moral monster and rogue darling of the New York establishment Roy Cohn. “Those sons of bitches!” he said in his last years. “How do they get away with it?”

“I would fly to Canada for a bobby pin,” one writer told me, describing her research methods, not long after I joined Vanity Fair in 1984. We were given the expense accounts and salaries to be able to do such things and were ferried about the city in sleek black town cars from a company called Big Apple. All day long they idled, tying up the traffic, firmly double-parked outside the Condé Nast Building at Madison Avenue and Forty-fourth Street. Take a subway? Why bother? It was boom time in the world of media. Anyone who had a major role in what we now quaintly refer to as “a content company”—then defined as a movie studio, a network, a talent agency, or a newspaper or magazine—was treated as if he or she was a god on Mount Olympus. Incredibly, in the atmosphere of surging magazine sales and new magazine start-ups that all attempted to describe the bonfire of 1980s vanities, we traveled the world and would linger for weeks, hoping to get a source to talk, turning in five-figure expense accounts for stories that could run eighteen thousand words. Fly to the South of France with one of the editors in hopes of snaring an interview with the deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier? Not a problem. Weeks were spent near Moulin de Mougins, three-star meals charged without a thought. The interview was finally secured because of the intense vanity of Michelle Duvalier, the wife of “Baby Doc” Duvalier—Madame le President, as she insisted we call her. “Why didn’t you tell me that I would be photographed by Helmut Newton?” she asked (referring to that decade’s most celebrated chronicler of the beau monde) when we stuffed a final note inside her gate. The brazen larcenies of Michelle Duvalier, a former fashion model who appeared at our interview in a jewel-encrusted appliquéd jacket, had taken $500 million from a country where the average yearly income was $300. Mired in splendor on the Riviera, she spent much of our interview complaining because the locals hated her and she had to make dinner reservations under an assumed name—and she was forced to give her husband a manicure every fortnight.

On the same trip, I visited Graham Greene, perhaps the finest literary stylist of the century, in his modest one-bedroom flat in the port of Antibes. Greene wrote on a card table and was mildly irritated when I expressed surprise. “What else would I need?” he asked me. Then the man who had defined the barbaric Haiti of the Duvaliers in his masterpiece, The Comedians, said, “You can kill a conscience over time. Baby Doc proves that.”

It was not all glamorous or luxe. From time to time I felt in some degree of danger. Landing in Kabul in the summer of 2004, there were explosions nightly and a guard posted outside my door. “Keep your windows closed,” my fixer, Samir, cautioned as we drove into Herat in search of a warlord and anyone who could tell us anything about the location of Osama Bin-Laden. My reporting in that period as well took me to the most dismal areas in the outskirts of Paris, where the police often failed to respond to crime. There, I found a terrified group of Muslim women trying to assimilate. Their terror was of their families, who insisted that they marry and return to Algeria or Tunisia, to remain in a more traditional life. Their fear was real—already five thousand French women reportedly had been virtually kidnapped, as France grappled with its failure to come to embrace their immigrant population.

As I write in June of 2018, America and the world are in the grip of a political and cultural civil war, ramped up by the machinations of a president who appears untethered from any sense of legal reality, respect for our institutions, or moral core. As corrupt as the Duvaliers, he has installed his children in positions of power and enrichment. The frame of our daily life is now dictated by the scolds and pronouncements of cable TV and the urgencies of infotainment news that helped to create Trump and define the era. All of this was done with the implicit acquiescence of a New York establishment that helped Trump rise to power, pushing his buffoon antics into frequent headlines in the 1980s and 1990s while reporting in whispers to each other his vulgar asides, as if the display of his id was somehow an art form.

Perhaps it was. His ghostwriter Tony Schwartz perpetrated the Trump myth in The Art of the Deal, baffling his colleagues for his willingness to sign on as a Trump biographer. Eventually he realized that he had helped to create “a Frankenstein who got up from the table,” as former New York editor Edward Kosner phrased it. That phrase would be used and used again, as well as all the others that have defined this era—“we are beyond the tipping point”; “we are in uncharted territory”; “he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know”—and have been rendered meaningless by the constant barrage of cable TV against forces that cannot be shamed or, as of this moment, stopped.

I was reporting for Ed Kosner and his New York in 1980, just after Trump burst onto the scene. It was a moment when the city still hovered in the twilight of a world controlled by the Tammany bosses and the Favor Bank politics of the party bosses. The elite old-money values of the WASP power structure were evaporating. Few would mourn the passing of their predatory monopolies and quotas—or almost complete exclusion of women and minorities in jobs, clubs, and real estate. The ad “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread” seemed revolutionary when it appeared in the 1960s, but the snobberies and anti-Semitism depicted in Gentleman’s Agreement seemed almost as relevant a decade later. Soon all of that would change: We were hovering on the edge of the volcano of deregulation brought by newly elected president Ronald Reagan and the greed and glory of the Wall Street buccaneers. Trump rode the gossip columns, shamelessly called the columnists pretending to be a Trump PR man, and charmed his way into Manhattan with his rogue antics. For a generation that had grown up in the sixties, the kid from Queens sticking his fingers in the eyes of authority was catnip, and we could not get enough of him. “I called Trump every time I wanted to juice up my copy,” the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman said recently.

Trump was, for all of us, irresistible, even as a target. Everything about him was fishy, I wrote in 1980, not least his antics in getting the Hyatt hotel developed in a desolate part of Forty-second Street near Grand Central Terminal. He spoke to his lawyer Roy Cohn at least “a dozen times a day,” Cohn preened from his shambles of an office with dusty stuffed frogs decorating every surface. He was obsessed with his young protégé. “Donald can’t make a move without me,” Cohn said, as if he wished they were lovers. Trump had transferred from Fordham to the Wharton School, where my older brother Carl was in his class. Learning I had been assigned to write about him, my brother laughed. “That jerk. He had no friends and rode around in a limousine talking about his father’s deals in Queens.” At the time, the future actress Candice Bergen was also at Penn. Trump called her for a date and appeared, she later remembered, in a maroon jacket that matched his limousine. “I’m a vegetarian,” she told him. “That’s good,” he said. “We are going to a steak house.” He was all id, even then, a man-child trying to hide what seemed to be anxiety about himself. By the time he was in his thirties, the bully-boy tactics and flouting of all rules began to leak into public view, but the lack of censure of his corrosive persona was impossible to predict. The bankruptcies and financial shenanigans that sank his empire in 1990 will be seen as predictive when the Trump bubble finally bursts. America will be affected for decades to come.

I mentioned the ways subjects respond to profiles. I wrote a piece about Donald Trump in Vanity Fair in 1990, as Trump’s world seemed about to collapse. He was close to bankruptcy and had left his wife Ivana, moving to a separate apartment at the Trump Tower, where he was reportedly spending his day eating hamburgers and fries in front of a large TV. I have never written about Trump’s reaction to my reporting. Upset that I reported for Vanity Fair that he kept a copy of My New Order, Hitler’s speeches and pronouncements, by his bed, Trump went on a rampage, appearing with anchorwoman Barbara Walters in prime time to announce he was suing me. Of course he never did. Instead, for a decade, he attacked me as “an unattractive reporter with men issues” in the tabloids, and in his own book, Trump: The Art of the Comeback. I am happy to report that he described “After the Gold Rush” as “one of the worst stories ever written about me.”

And that brings us to the wine. Since 1991, the wine Trump may or not have poured down my dress—or over my head, in one Trump retelling—has changed color and amount depending on who recounts the tale. Trump told New Yorker writer Mark Singer that he threw red wine on me. Singer was gallant enough not to report whatever else he said.

Trump’s inability to tell the truth extended even to misstating his form of revenge on my reporting.

At a charity dinner, almost a year after my twelve-thousand-word story appeared, Trump slipped behind me as I sat with friends and took a half glass of white wine and poured it down my black jacket. I thought it was a waiter and did not flinch, but the faces at the table froze in horror. Trump scurried out the door, a coward’s coward, incapable of even facing me. I will never be able to express my gratitude for Trump’s remark to Mark Singer. That half glass of wine has become a badge of honor.

What was it that really angered Donald Trump in “After the Gold Rush”? The fact that he had grifted—among others—his close associate Louise Sunshine, who had to borrow $1 million from her friend the developer Leonard Stern to retain property rights in one of his buildings? Or that his children did not speak to him? The detail that stays with me occurred in the press room of the New York State Courthouse in lower Manhattan. Trump was fighting a brutal case brought against him by scores of Polish immigrant workers who allegedly had been paid under the minimum wage to build the Trump Tower. The tabloids had turned on Trump, accusing him of paying “slave wages,” exploiting the Polish workers. Trump settled, at a cost, it was said at the time, of millions of dollars. I made my way to the press room to hear my colleagues erupt in rage, at themselves and at the man to whom they had devoted so much ink. The babble in 1990 seemed definitive: “We made this monster. We gave him the headlines. We created him. Never again.”

The piece I wrote about Marie Colvin—“A Private War”—has been made into a movie. In January of this year, I visited the set. It was snowing in England that day outside London. The movie A Private War was being directed by Matt Heineman, adapted from my piece. Heineman, just 34, had been nominated for an Oscar for his documentary Cartel Land, but had never made a feature. He had however directed a searing film—City of Ghosts—detailing the lives of several of Syria’s citizen reporters. He was galvanized by Marie’s career and for three years had worked tirelessly to bring her life story to the screen.

The newsroom of the Sunday Times of London had been meticulously re-created to look like the newsroom that Marie Colvin worked from. I was there to see the actress Rosamund Pike playing Colvin. On the day I visited, a pivotal scene was being filmed. Colvin was determined to get herself assigned to Sri Lanka in April of 2001 to cover a yet unreported scene of hundreds of thousands of refugees who were under siege by government forces. She had a shouting match with her editor in the newsroom. He wanted her to write about the leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat; she insisted she would go to Sri Lanka. He was furious she had run up $56,000 in SAT phone charges. The Sri Lanka decision was catastrophic for Colvin: She would lose the sight in an eye to a grenade thrown at her when she announced she was a reporter and wear an eye patch for the rest of her life.

The afternoon I spent on the set was unnerving, as I knew what was coming for Colvin once she left the safety of the London newsroom. It was for me a time warp on many levels, not least of which was the atmosphere of the Sunday Times. Struggling as a freelance foreign correspondent in the London of the late 1970s, I had the immense good fortune to be befriended by the legendary Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, whose investigations into the horrors of thalidomide and the unmasking of the elite spies Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt inspired not only my reporting but also Colvin’s. Evans had fallen in love with a young writer, Tina Brown, and had brought her to dinner. “Use my telex room any time you want to send your copy,” Evans told me. “Just take the telex operator a bottle of scotch and tell them I said it was okay.” Evans was at the top of his game—the foreign correspondents of the Sunday Times were dispatched to every remote war in the world.

That night would begin a long and enduring friendship and two decades of reporting for Tina during her eventual tenure at Vanity Fair. Two of these stories—including “After the Gold Rush”—were written with Tina’s strong encouragement and editorial hand, Wayne Lawson’s sharpened red pencils and rigor enhanced every word I wrote for three decades at the magazine. Trying to close Trump, my fax machine blipped out all hours of the night with Tina’s notes. “Not there yet—” “What does——prove?” “You need more sources.” I tried to sleep but heard the beep of the fax machine until dawn. “Can you get more inside?” “Can you go deeper and more reflective? It needs more you.” She was right—and is responsible for the macabre final scene at the courthouse.

If you are lucky as a reporter, you get that kind of editing—and the ethical judgments that accompany it. In 1995, I returned to Vanity Fair from The New Yorker to write about the hypocrisy of CBS killing a 60 Minutes episode that featured a mysterious tobacco whistleblower—so as-yet-unknown that we called him Jeffrey “Wee-gand.” I had gone back to work at Vanity Fair at the gracious invitation of Graydon Carter, whom I had only briefly worked with before. At a lucky lunch with a close friend named Andrew Tobias, an anti-tobacco activist and later the Democratic National Committee treasurer, Andy quickly set me on the right course on the subject of Jeffrey Wigand. “It’s not about CBS. It’s about who is the whistleblower and what does he know?” he said. I took that back to Carter, who said, “Christ. Let me find out how much advertising we get from Brown & Williamson.” He came back the next day. “Go for it. It’s only $500,000.”

It took weeks to discover that “Wee-gand” was in fact pronounced “WY-gand,” and that he was being smeared by John Scanlon, a genial public relations man who had taken $1 million from Brown & Williamson to demolish Wigand’s reputation. Scanlon was a close friend of Carter’s as well as a Vanity Fair consultant. “I can’t go forward with this unless John is put on leave,” I told Carter, unsure of his reaction. He did not hesitate. “He is out as of now,” he said. Their friendship would never fully recover, but Carter did not change a word of the lengthy description of Scanlon and his machinations detailed in the eighteen-thousand-word “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Carter stayed at Vanity Fair for twenty-five years and sent me to India to report on 26/11 and the terrorists who overtook the Taj Palace in Mumbai; to France, on multiple occasions, to report on the rise of anti-Semitism; to Afghanistan; and to England to chronicle the life of Marie Colvin. He knew legal dramas attracted me and called when one caught his attention—Richard Jewell; the savaging of the Haitian immigrant Abner Louima by a New York City police detective; the build up to the Iraq War in 2003. Over the years, we did dozens of stories together, several of which would be beautifully edited by Wayne Lawson’s successor, Mark Rozzo. A few years ago, Graydon collected them and presented them to me in a stylish leather-bound volume that he had archly titled Dynasties, Angels and Compromising Positions. On the spine, I saw his display title: The Brenner Years in Vanity Fair. The reporter in me wondered: was he telling me to retire? He was not.

Our last story together was the profile that closes this collection: Graydon and my current editor David Friend divined it was time to revisit the history of Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn and his long, sordid association with his final prodigy, Donald Trump. As always with Graydon, an elegant typed thank-you on a Smythson’s card appeared after the story was published. This one was particularly poignant. Graydon had made the decision to retire, but I did not know it yet. He had written profoundly and at length, month after month, in his editor’s letter, about the rise of the moral monsters around Trump and felt the time had come to move on. In his note, he seemed almost sentimental about the rogues and con men that had fed both our careers. How had we both started out thinking and writing about Roy Cohn and Donald Trump, and how could we still be grappling decades later with their legacy? “To think it would all resurface today,” he noted, restraint hardly disguising the emotions he kept in check.
About The Author
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Marie Brenner is the author of seven books and Writer at Large for Vanity Fair. She has been a staff writer at The New Yorker, a contributing editor at New York and has won numerous awards for her reporting around the world. Her expose of the tobacco industry, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was the basis for the 1999 movie The Insider, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. She lives in New York City.


Product Details
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 2018)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501183867

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