Leon Wieseltier Was Always Hiding in Plain Sight


On Tuesday night, The New York Times, Politico, and The Atlantic all published stories detailing numerous sexual harassment allegations against Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s famed literary editor for over 30 years before he left the magazine in 2014. Wieseltier had been accused of “workplace harassment” on an anonymously crowdsourced list of “Shitty Media Men” that was circulating among women in the media. Over the past week, after the list was brought to the public’s attention, a group of female ex-TNR staffers started exchanging emails about their own “Leon stories.”

I’ve seen the email chain, but I won’t expound on the details here, as they were shared in confidence between and among women. (Reporters from other publications, including the Times, have also been made aware of the emails.) When I saw the chain, there were no allegations of violent physical assault—but many allegations of workplace harassment. And I will say that reading the chain—and seeing the clear sense of powerlessness that generations of women have felt and continue to feel because of one man’s actions—wore me down beyond belief.

(Full disclosure: I worked at TNR from 2016 to 2017 both as a reporter-researcher and a staff writer, starting two years after Wieseltier left and a month before Win McCormack purchased the magazine from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. All of the events reported here allegedly occurred before my time at TNR.)

“There’s a reason why someone like Leon has lasted as long as he has at a place like the New Republic—that doesn’t happen by accident.”

In light of these allegations, the Emerson Collective—an organization led by Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’ widow) that was planning on funding Wieseltier’s new magazine, Idea, expected to launch this month—severed ties with him. He had been listed on Emerson Collective’s site as “philosopher.” This was the statement that Wieseltier provided to Politico, which first broke the news:

For my offenses against some of my colleagues in the past I offer a shaken apology and ask for their forgiveness. The women with whom I worked are smart and good people. I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected. I assure them that I will not waste this reckoning. And I am profoundly sorry to my extraordinary collaborators at the journal we began together that the misdeeds of my past have made it impossible to go forward. My gratitude to them is boundless.

The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance called the snowballing around Wieseltier the “Harvey Effect.” But it should not have taken Harvey Weinstein’s downfall to bring Wieseltier to his reckoning. In my conversations with seven former editorial staffers, it’s clear that much of his alleged behavior was far from secret. The fact that he faced no consequences in his three decades at TNR shows how sexism and harassment can become so intrinsic to a company’s culture that it is rendered completely banal. But the revelations also raise uncomfortable questions about what the media and literary world celebrates and who we hold accountable. After all, much of Wieseltier’s character was already in the public eye—if you cared to look.

Phone calls and emails to Wieseltier requesting comment on the allegations included in this story were not returned.

“I wouldn’t call it an ‘open secret,’ it was just the way he was,” one former female TNR staffer told me. “Open secret implies that anybody else in management understood it was shameful and shouldn’t be done, which was definitely not the case… It was a culture there, there were a lot of other problems. There’s a reason why someone like Leon has lasted as long as he has at a place like the New Republic—that doesn’t happen by accident.”

The women I spoke with all requested anonymity to speak candidly about Wieseltier and the New Republic. Their stories range from disturbing to depressingly familiar: Wieseltier kissed his female employees on the mouth and forehead; he made sexual comments in the workplace and would brag about his sexual exploits; he would often comment inappropriately on what women were wearing.

“I went to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and I was wearing a low cut dress and Leon commented on my breasts,” one former TNR staffer told Splinter. Another former staffer recalled that it was common to hear “comments about how you looked, being told that you had a good body. There were comments that your significant other was a lucky man in a winky way. I don’t have a good memory of the exact things that he said, partially because it happened so frequently that I didn’t take note of it. It stopped being shocking.”

“Just the way that he talked about prominent women, it was clear they were second tier to male intellectuals.”

Nor did Wieseltier’s harassment stop at the New Republic’s doorstep. In October 2014, a building manager from the magazine’s former D.C. office sent the company a letter alleging that Wieseltier had sexually harassed an employee of the building’s management company. In a statement to Politico after the site broke the news about Wieseltier, Chris Hughes, then-owner of TNR, wrote:

Our CEO and I immediately moved to ensure that the woman was protected by bringing in outside counsel to investigate the situation. Representatives from the building made clear to us that the woman in question had not submitted a complaint, but another of their employees had been concerned. We directed Mr. Wieseltier to immediately cease any communication with her, and I made sure he knew The New Republic had a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment of any kind.

That no one brought Wieseltier to heel was indicative of the larger power imbalance at the vaunted liberal magazine. If you were to pick a single person who defined the New Republic over its 100-year-old legacy, it would probably be Wieseltier, who outlasted numerous owners and editors-in-chief. One ex-TNR staffer described his role at the magazine this way: “Leon was potentially more valuable to the company than anybody else. Leon was that magazine.” His list of famous connections was formidable: In a well-known Vanity Fair profile, “Pop Goes the Wieseltier,” written by Lloyd Grove in 1995, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that, “Whenever I have literary questions, Leon’s my consultant.” (Articles referenced throughout this piece are linked where available; the rest are embedded as PDFs at the bottom of the post.)

The result was a man who acted above reproach. If you look at the public record, the fact that Wieseltier had free rein and was barely controlled by anyone above him was always on display. The Vanity Fair profile reported that Wieseltier went through a period of openly snorting cocaine in the office, with one co-worker saying, “he dares you to tell him to stop it.” In a New York Times Magazine profile from 1999, Sam Tanenhaus wrote that “It is well known that Wieseltier, with [TNR Editor-in-chief Marty] Peretz’s backing, protects his 13 pages like a walled estate. The colleague who makes the mistake of offering even mild criticism can expect to find himself under siege.” The Times piece also noted that Wieseltier “squired a sequence of ‘extremely beautiful, alluring girlfriends.’” That the literary world romanticizes controlling and demanding white male public intellectuals only made Wieseltier all that much more untouchable.

Mix Wieseltier’s outsized power with the fact that women have historically rarely held senior positions at TNR and you get an extremely lopsided gender dynamic. (During his tenure, the nearly all-white magazine also had a well-documented problem with race.) Numerous women I spoke to described the magazine as a “boys’ club.” One look at the masthead over the decades corroborates this—in its over 100 years of existence, the New Republic has never had a female editor-in-chief. Marty Peretz, the man who ran the magazine from 1974 to 2010, overlapping with much of Wieseltier’s tenure, was said to be a notorious sexist. “The only time Marty came to the office I was told, ‘He doesn’t really like women’ and ‘make sure you wear something nice,’” one female ex-staffer told me. Many women told me that even if they had wanted to speak up, there was no one they could have turned to. “HR did not exist,” the same staffer told me. “We would make a joke, ‘I’m going to bring something to HR.’”

Much of the magazine’s sexist dynamic was also in plain sight. In 1985, Henry Fairlie told Esquire that “Marty [Peretz] doesn’t take women seriously for positions of responsibility. He’s really most comfortable with a room full of Harvard males.” James Wolcott wrote in 1988 for Vanity Fair, “The New Republic has a history of shunting women to the sidelines and today injects itself with fresh blood drawn largely from male interns down from Harvard.”

Peretz declined to comment for this story.

“Wow, dude, that’s Leon’s turf. You’re not usually the sexual harasser type.”

And as literary editor, Wieseltier published very few women, at least at the end of his tenure. According to VIDA, a non-profit organization that started tracking the gender breakdown of literary publications in 2010, the New Republic rarely published female book reviewers between 2010 and 2014. The lowest points were in 2012—when there were only nine female reviewers compared to 79 male reviewers—and in 2013, when Wieseltier’s section published four reviews written by women. (A similar disparity holds when it came to the gender of authors whose books were reviewed.)

Many of the women I spoke to said that Wieseltier simply did not consider women to be public intellectuals. “Just the way that he talked about prominent women, it was clear they were second tier to male intellectuals,” one former staffer told me. While Wieseltier could be incredibly harsh about men he disliked, other former employees detailed staff meetings in which Wieseltier would spend much of the time berating female public figures.

“At weekly all-staff meetings, Leon’s favorite thing to do was to discuss women he thought were stupid,” a former staffer said. “He had a list of five or six people who he would always talk about how he couldn’t believe they got so far in life for being so stupid. That list of people included [former Republican Senator] Kelly Ayotte, who he didn’t think had any foreign policy brains, Hillary Clinton, and Nora Ephron. A couple of other women were on that list. John Kerry was the only man on this list. He would use these meetings to hold court.”

And then there were Wieseltier’s assistants. “He’s always had an assistant, who, 95 percent of time, was a woman,” one former staffer told me. “She would do everything for him, including getting him lunch. The editor-in-chief didn’t even have an assistant.” That isn’t to say that many of these assistants did not have good relationships with Wieseltier. In a blog post for the London Review of Books, one former assistant, Deborah Friedell, wrote fondly about her time working for him. But even when his former employees were being laudatory, it wasn’t hard to see the dark side of Wieseltier’s personality seeping through, as in this passage from Friedell’s account:

Like all Leon’s assistants, I never earned more than the minimum wage, but it wasn’t unusual for me to find a pair of ballet tickets on my desk, or all the novels of Jean Rhys, or a not-yet-released album by Leonard Cohen, or Lionel Trilling’s essays. They were rewards, but they were also intended to improve my taste. … ‘You see out there it’s 2004, but in this office it’s 1954,’ he would say, which suited me fine.”

In her Atlantic piece, LaFrance wrote, “Now, as Wieseltier’s former colleagues reckon with his alleged inappropriate behaviors, several of them told me they worry they were complicit in enabling him over the years.” Since the news broke, multiple former male senior editors have spoken up. Some say they knew nothing. Others acknowledged complicity. Charles Lane, a former lead editor, told HuffPost that the “buck stopped” with Peretz. Peretz claims no knowledge of Wieseltier’s actions, but that he could see how he “overpowered” the staff “but that was because of his cerebral capacity.” Others, like former editor-in-chief Franklin Foer, have remained quiet.

But there is no question that Wieseltier’s behavior was there to see for many of the men who worked there. One former female TNR staffer forwarded me an email she sent when she worked at the magazine complaining to a friend outside the company about a sexist incident she experienced. The email detailed how a male senior editor had made a blowjob joke about her (while she was in the room) to another male senior editor, who replied, “Wow, dude, that’s Leon’s turf. You’re not usually the sexual harasser type.”

Other contemporaneous emails and messages forwarded by the same former staffer claim that someone had put a sign on the sofa in Wieseltier’s office that read “WARNING: A REGISTERED SEX OFFENDER LIVES HERE.” When Wieseltier found it, he allegedly yelled at a number of staffers.

It’s clear that the problem inside TNR ran deeper than the transgressions of one man, as is almost always the case in a workplace that engenders continued sexual harassment. But asking the men there “what did you know and when did you know it” is almost beside the point. Even if some senior male staffers didn’t know specifically about Wieseltier, they surely knew about the material sexism that was happening around them—embodied by the fact that women almost always occupied lower level positions and that a slim number of women were being published in Wieseltier’s section. They would have heard the way Wieseltier talked about women who were public figures. They would have known that Peretz didn’t consider women to be worth his time. All signs pointed to an environment where a harasser could find a safe harbor under their noses.

And if the senior male staffers did know, it’s worth revisiting the rapture of 2014, when Franklin Foer, who was then editor of the magazine, and Wieseltier resigned over differences with Hughes. Many of the staff—a majority of them men—followed suit, lamenting the downfall of TNR, which was being turned into a “vertically integrated digital media company.”

It’s worth questioning a culture—and you could say this goes for the media industry as a whole here, as many outside of TNR applauded the exodus—that would take a principled stand against a perceived attack on a magazine’s values but not one against an accused serial workplace harasser whose behavior was considered an open secret; where you can venerate a man as one of the greatest intellectuals of our time while turning a blind eye to his alleged treatment of women for three decades.

The problems that existed at The New Republic are in no way unique. Over the past few days, as many in the media have applauded the downfall of Wieseltier and some have righteously condemned the complicity of the other men on staff, it’s important to keep in mind that there were over 70 men, from many different publications, alleged to have committed various degrees of harassment and assault on the Shitty Media Men list—and that’s just the number that were compiled within a few hours, before the list was taken down. There are plenty of young male writers today who aspire to become the same type of unfettered, domineering intellectual as Wieseltier, and they will likely be rewarded for it. Harvey Weinstein’s allegations were well known by many people; Donald Trump, of course, remains president. The sobering fact is that every man—many of whom who fail to speak up—knows something that’s happening, somewhere. But it’s the women who have to look.

Embedded below are two articles referenced above: “Partisans Reviewed,” by James Wolcott in Vanity Fair (1988) and “Citizen Peretz,” by Gwenda Blair in Esquire (1985).

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin