Tuesday, December 17, 2019

My near-brush with Harvey Weinstein

By Damien Hirst

     Probably nothing that Harvey Weinstein could possibly say would alter his image as a predatory swine who, along with Bill Cosby, finally shattered the Hollywood code of silence. Eighty women, including some of the most beloved stars of cinema, lined up to accuse him of a raft of nauseating crimes—he goes on trial for rape next month. No slick spin or millions in hush money will wash that away.
     Weinstein's self-pitying interview this week with the New York Post only made his reputation worse, if such a thing is possible, and instantly entered legend in the annals of self-immolation. The second paragraph begins: "The alleged serial sex predator and disgraced Hollywood producer whined to The Post in an exclusive interview that he should be remembered for doing more professionally for women than anyone in history — rather than the slew of sickening accusations against him."
    I have to admit, I read that with a tinge of envy mingled with regret—that might have been me feeding rope to Weinstein as he hung himself. The Sun-Times could have gotten all those clicks and I, in my naivete, blew it.  An apology to my bosses is in order. I'm sorry; I dropped the ball.
     Might as well just tell the story.
     Last February, I wrote a column about Jussie Smollett that put me on the Weinstein team radar, though I didn't realize it right away.  Among the load of  email was this:
      I think your piece is very important and pivotal for our times. I am working with a lawyer on behalf of his client on something similar, where the subject of this story lied about everything, and had media help her con several businesses and government agencies. I also work with another client who is having some bigger issues, but some fall into this category too.
     If you are interested in hearing more and possibly looking at an issue more critically, please let me know. Thank you and congratulations on your bold piece.
   The name of the writer—Juda S. Engelmayer—meant nothing to me. I responded as I would respond to any reader:
     Thank you for your kind observation. I would never go so far as to describe anything I write as "important," never mind pivotal, but I'm glad you found value in it. As to your client, you do get that I'm in the business of putting stuff in the newspaper, right? Because your vagueness makes me wonder. If you want to know if I'm interested, tell me what you're talking about—name, specifics, etc. Otherwise, I'm not interested in the Dance of a Thousand Veils.
     His reply caught my attention:
                I work with Harvey Weinstein.  

     I immediately did a little digging and found that Engelmayer is indeed one of Weinstein's spokesmen. My reply telegraphed surprise:
     Ah. If you're asking me whether I'll talk with Harvey Weinstein, the answer is, "In a heartbeat."
     Had I shut up there, I might have been the one fanning the flames after Weinstein doused himself with gasoline and struck a match. But that's exactly what I wanted to avoid and I did not shut up, alas, but blathered on, as is my habit:
     I would be worried about being played by Harvey Weinstein. I'm just a small potato slowly decomposing in a neglected Midwestern field. I tend to avoid stars and Hollywood, if I can. Too much stress. But I don't want to be a coward here. The only stipulation I'd have is that, after we speak, I might not use it. I'm not TMZ, I'm not interested in gossip, in dirt.
     I must have been nervous, because I nattered on a lot. I'm doing both you and myself a kindness leaving out most of it: not only explaining my reluctance, but also sort of pitching my open-mindedness by musing whether Woody Allen got a raw deal.  But the bottom line was I didn't want to give a platform for the kind of lame self-justification that the Post cannily whittled into a splintery stick and shoved up Weinstein's ass. Not that I'm incapable of that, but I couldn't smile benevolently and welcome him into my lair. Engelmayer took my cue and spun off his own involved tale of various situations with various Hollywood actors and assorted circumstances and justifications, all of which the media were cruelly ignoring. His argument struck me as off point. I was worried that I would end up with this detailed defense from Harvey Weinstein that had nothing to do with the central question readers wanted to know about him. I doubted he'd say anything to me of interest to anybody outside the helping professions. Hoping to test the waters, I wrote back:
     I can't vouch for the entire media, only my little corner of it.  If I just jumped in and started addressing the various specifics you allude to—Vigo Mortensen—my readers would think I had lost my mind....Why don't we do this: I talk to your guy, completely off the record. If he says he killed Elvis, I'm not going to use it. Maybe we get along, maybe we don't. If we don't, fine, we gave it a try. If we do get along, then we have a second call which introduces the idea that I'm now in communication with Harvey Weinstein. He says something about what it is to be him, now. My guess would be, a certain bitterness, a feeling that the wheel of fate, so good to him, had now turned. But I don't write fiction and I don't want to guess. He can say whatever he likes and I'll put it in the paper, as said by him. But if he isn't persuasive, in the last three paragraphs, well, he might not like them. I want to be clear about that. If he is persuasive, we might continue to another day, and get to Vigo Mortensen, eventually.... The question I have for you is: What does Harvey Weinstein want to say to people in Chicago? If he's a victim, he needs to say that. I can't; I'm not God, I have no idea of the truth of these situations and don't want to judge or guess. The bottom line is, I have to face my wife at dinner every night, and I so I have to approach this opportunity like a man smoking a cigarette, walking up to a pool of gasoline.
     That sufficiently scared off the Weinstein team, because they fell silent. When I realized what I had done, yes, I kicked myself—I should have just grinned and bobbed my head and got my tape recorder ready. "Shutting up is an art form," as I say at the end of the Smollett column. 
     In my defense, the opportunity was so out of my realm of experience—it was like getting a collect call from Bill Cosby in prison—that I can't beat myself up too much: my instincts were good; I didn't want to deceive anyone, even Harvey Weinstein. I didn't want this guy to think he was getting a sympathetic audience when he wasn't.  A person, even a journalist, especially a journalist, has to be honest and conduct himself in a direct manner, even when his immediate interests might dictate otherwise. It's a shame that Harvey Weinstein still hasn't figured that one out because, you know, he's had plenty of hints.  


  1. You can't blame yourself for being careful.

  2. This is reminding me of Joe McGinniss' interactions with Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret physician who was convicted of murdering his wife and two little daughters. MacDonald enthusiastically shopped his story around to numerous journalists before, during and after his trial. One of these was Joseph Wambaugh. In his book "Fatal Vision," McGinniss quotes a letter that Wambaugh sent to MacDonald in response. Wambaugh takes the same tone that Neil did with Weinstein's flack, although in more direct, even harsh language: "Let's face another ugly possibility: What if I...did not believe you innocent?"

    McGinniss, by contrast, allowed MacDonald to believe he was an ally. For this he was criticized, especially by Janet Malcolm, who wrote a book on the topic that began with the declaration that journalism was a despicable practice and those who didn't share her view were full of themselves or stupid. (I'm not sure I would take lectures on journalistic ethics from Malcolm, who was later caught making up quotes and defended the practice in court.)

    McGinniss was also sued by MacDonald, and his publisher settled the suit.

    Was McGinniss wrong? It's hard to say. I do believe that Neil probably ca, and should, live with himself just fine having made the choice he did in this matter.

  3. Neil, you would have done better than the Post. In fairness, maybe this tragedy needs to play out before a lengthier piece is composed. Since his company's insurance is paying off most(?) of his accusers, he's getting off the hook monetarily. The price he pays in the penal system will dictate the rest of the story. That he can transfer some of his guilt through his company, onto an insurance policy, just seems wrong. Had you taken the job, you could have asked this pompous jerk why he thought he was doing such a service to the talented actors he hired and thus deserved to abuse them.


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