Last week, Judith Regan, the seemingly unassailable dragon lady of book publishing, was finally brought down. But after weathering more than a decade of hostility from nearly every corner of the industry — from accusations of questionable taste to serious charges of harassment and abuse — the editor was dethroned by one allegation that had never appeared on her rap sheet: antisemitism.
The firing came a month after Rupert Murdoch — whose News Corporation owns HarperCollins, the parent company of ReganBooks — canceled Regan’s planned publication of a memoir by O.J. Simpson that purportedly described how he would have committed the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. It was a major blow to Regan, who had frequently battled (usually successfully) against executives within the company — most notably HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. But a fever pitch was reached last Friday, when Regan allegedly lost her temper during a conversation about a controversial new novel about Mickey Mantle that she was publishing. It was undoubtedly not the first time she raged at company suits (it might not have even been the first time that day), but, mere hours later, security guards showed up at Regan’s office and ordered her to leave. According to news reports, the final straw was Regan’s comments that three HarperCollins executives — includin g Friedman — and literary agent Esther Newberg constituted a “Jewish cabal” operating against her, and that “of all people, Jews should know about ganging up, finding common enemies and telling the big lie.”
“[Friedman] called Rupert and Rupert said he won’t tolerate that kind of behavior,” said a source quoted by The New York Times. Regan was terminated.
The problem with this storyline is that, among the many charges that have been leveled against Regan — including but not limited to being a manipulator, a tormentor of employees and a legendary narcissist — antisemitism is the least supportable. Indeed, if observers and former employees are to be believed, it might be one of the few transgressions of which she is not guilty.
“If you were going to take an opportunity to make someone unsupportable, antisemitism would be the easiest charge to use,” argued Ron Hogan, co-editor of GalleyCat, a daily blog about the publishing industry, who said he does not believe Regan is guilty of the allegation. “The only reason Judith has for hating people is whether they have done anything to hurt or help her. I don’t think anything else factors into her equations.”
The Anti-Defamation League isn’t so sure. Since its high-profile reaction to Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ,” the organization has been accused of crying wolf even before the teeth of antisemitism are truly bared. But, as evidenced by a statement released post-haste, it seems unfazed by the criticism.
“If Ms. Regan did make the charge that a Jewish cabal was conspiring against her, she clearly stepped over the line by employing the age-old antisemitic canard that Jews conspire against non-Jews,” ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman said. “The Jewishness of her critics had absolutely no relevance to the matter at hand, which leads one to question why she resorted to raising the Jewish issue.”
It might lead Foxman to this question, but even those with a passing familiarity with Regan’s reputation know that “she’ll say anything to raise an eyebrow,” as a former editor at ReganBooks put it in an interview with the Forward. Indeed, a simple Google search reveals a woman whose consistent reaching for profanity and offensiveness of all kinds seems to border on reflex. Here’s an example, taken at random, from a 2005 profile in Vanity Fair: “Many staffers — and other colleagues — had epithets according to their sexual orientation or ethnicity: ‘I was the lesbian c—,’ says one former competitor. ‘Then there was the black c—.’ When she got mad, people were called ‘f—— retards’ and ‘f—— idiots’; if she got really mad, she’d accuse people of being either ‘fags’ or ‘on drugs’ or, preferably, both.” If a brief scan of Regan’s greatest hits is any indication, her repertoire of verbal insults brims with stereotyping of all kinds, with nearly every group caught in the crosshairs of her equal-opportunity offending at one time or another. When viewed in the broader context of her personality, it seems obvious that these comments are driven not by authentic prejudice but by a need to provoke and offend.
(Full disclosure: Regan interviewed me for a job a few years ago. I didn’t get it and, with each tale since relayed to me, I’ve been increasingly grateful.)
Genuine prejudice often leaves track marks, a series of questionable incidents or statements that gives off the unmistakable odor of something amiss. The best example, of course, is Gibson. By the time the filmmaker unleashed an antisemitic tirade after being stopped by Los Angeles police for drunk driving, he had a record of very problematic statements and actions — all made voluntarily and while lucid. As Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News and former managing editor of the Forward, recently wrote, “The Passion of the Christ” was “perhaps the most successful 127 minutes of antisemitism in movie history,” not to mention Gibson’s “creepily unsatisfying” refusal to disavow his father’s clear Holocaust denial.
In contrast, Regan’s very full and very public record consists of two items: possession of a maddeningly difficult personality, and a knack for publishing phenomenally successful (though often repugnant) books that seemed to render her invulnerable to firing. But the debacle over the Simpson memoir clearly left a chink in her armor, and it appears that forces within HarperCollins saw it as their long-awaited opportunity to take down a woman who was, by many accounts, a deeply divisive figure in the company.
Alas, the opportunity was not perfect, since Regan’s most recent crime was that rare one not committed alone. “The News Corporation, after all, was riding with Ms. Regan every step of the way as she bolted together the multiplatform deal for ‘If I Did It,’” noted David Carr in The New York Times. “It was only after an outcry that included two dozen Fox affiliates that the HarperCollins project was junked.”
It’s hard to escape the impression that, though the Simpson book put Regan in a coffin, executives needed one nail to secure it — and they reached for the most powerful one in the toolbox of contemporary discourse.
“They were looking for an excuse to fire her,” said Hollywood lawyer Bert Fields, who is representing Regan. So, “they fired her and called it antisemitic.” Of course, Regan is hardly blameless — it seems safe to assume that she did make some sort of derogatory comment — but she hardly seems guilty of genuinely hating Jews. If the label “antisemite” is to retain its radioactive quality, it must be used with great care. “It shouldn’t have been about antisemitism,” the former ReganBooks editor said. “What they should have said was that this was one example of the kind of abuse she’s inflicted on many people who have worked with her.”
“She threatened our lives on a daily basis,” the editor added. “Why that’s never been grounds for firing I’ll never know.”