"I always got along with creative people," said Judith Regan, the 54-year old former book publisher who has brought a $100 million lawsuit against News Corporation, its book publishing division HarperCollins, and HarperCollins president and CEO Jane Friedman. "I was that quirky, eccentric, creative person," she continued. "I was off in my own lab doing my thing, playing, doing my thing, laughing. I never expected to become as successful as I was. I never had any of those goals.
"Never ever, ever."
That is Judith Regan 2007 speaking. About a year ago, Ms. Regan was head of her own imprint, ReganBooks, at HarperCollins, granted by News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch himself in 1994. Earlier that year, she completed her staff’s move to Los Angeles—Century City—and dark-sheened, glossy-lipped, hard-nosed Judith Regan was doing what Judith Regan would do in L.A., signing authors and making deals. She also had a radio show, on Sirius Satellite Radio, that she recorded in her new offices.
It seemed as though the whole impetus behind the L.A. move—the synergy that would package the entire Judith Regan style, a raw, unflinching, sexy, direct, aggressive curiosity, a dismissal of prissy publishing convention, a roaring office manner, a personal voraciousness, a good old-fashioned vulgarity—might actually work in Hollywood.
She had booted the New York stiffs and taken her business to L.A., where they didn’t know from publishing convention, and where a tough boss could yell like a studio executive as long as she was a success. And if there was one thing Judith Regan knew it was how to make best sellers—four Times best sellers in 2006, though that was a drop-off from the previous year, when she’d had 14.
And then, last year, it crumbled around her.
In November 2006, HarperCollins provoked a public outcry when it announced plans for ReganBooks to publish a bizarre "hypothetical" tell-all by O. J. Simpson, in which he described the steps he might have taken had he killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. The royalties of If I Did It would go to a trust for his children. To accompany the book, Fox would broadcast a two-hour interview that Ms. Regan had conducted with Mr. Simpson, after Barbara Walters and ABC had backed out, in which she asked him about the murder and just about got him to confess.
Cue public outrage, stoked by, among others, Fox’s own Bill O’Reilly, who declared on air: "I’m not going to watch the Simpson show or even look at the book. I’m not even going to look at it. If any company sponsors the TV program, I will not buy anything that company sells ever."
If there were questions about Ms. Regan’s taste, they were compounded by the report that she was preparing to publish a tawdry-sounding fictionalization of the life of Mickey Mantle.
When the dust settled, Ms. Regan was out of a job, amid accusations from HarperCollins, which she has denied vehemently, that she had referred to a group of HarperCollins executives and a prominent New York literary agent as "a Jewish cabal."
That was that: There was an order sent by Rupert Murdoch to Ms. Friedman, the HarperCollins chief, and Century City was no longer Judith Regan’s second home.
But no one expected Ms. Regan to go quietly. After dropping out of sight for much of this year, on Nov. 13 she filed a lawsuit against News Corp, HarperCollins, and Jane Friedman for defamation, breach of contract, and sex discrimination.
Most spectacularly, the lawsuit alleges that Ms. Regan was the victim of a vast conspiracy, set in motion by two unnamed News Corp executives, who were worried that she would expose secrets about her now-indicted former lover Bernard Kerik—the former New York City police commissioner—that would imperil his former boss Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid. News Corp conspired to not only fire her, according to the lawsuit, but also defame her and discredit her so that any allegations she made would be immediately discounted as the ravings of a crazy person.
HarperCollins and Ms. Friedman declined to comment for this story. A News Corp spokeswoman called the suit "preposterous."
According to a source close to Ms. Regan and familiar with the negotiations, she was offered a $6.5 million settlement in August but turned it down. Bertram Fields, Ms. Regan’s lawyer (though he is not directly representing her in the case) told The Observer last week: "We told them their number was unacceptable. They were warned in advance that she was going to file if they didn’t increase the settlement offer they’d made and they responded that they were not going to increase it by one dime. And as a result she filed. "
If there’s one thing Judith Regan has, it’s impeccable timing. Whether it was deliberate or not—and no one’s saying—having her lawsuit ready to go just as the first indictments were handed down against Mr. Kerik is a not-so-subtle stroke of genius. Just as he is getting further discredited in the public eye, here comes his former girlfriend to say that not only was he a cheat, but he also might have told her incriminating stuff about the current leading Republican presidential nominee.
And the rest of the charges—that executives at the biggest media company in the world leaned on her to keep quiet about a relationship she’d had because it might harm the chances of the G.O.P. front-runner—were so sensational, and reached so far into the very highest echelons of American and international media and political power, that, as with most conspiracy theories, the immediate reaction from many commentators was one of ridicule.
But looked at in another light, the lawsuit’s very scope may be revealing in a different way. After all, by sticking narrowly to the breach of contract angle, Ms. Regan would likely have increased her chances of winning. Why go further, and threaten to bring down senior News Corp execs and upend the 2008 presidential campaign? In other words, does Judith Regan have a smoking gun? Or is this just her next sensational, headline-grabbing project?
There’s a story Judith Regan likes to tell about the time she went back to Bay Shore High School, from which she graduated in 1971, to be inducted into its Hall of Fame. She got up on stage, in front of 500 people, and told them about when she was 16 and she and a girl named Robin were both up for the position of yearbook editor. Robin was just about perfect. Beautiful and brilliant. But people were always sniping behind her back. Everyone resented her success. And so Judith, not Robin, was selected to be yearbook editor.
But then a funny thing happened. Robin told Judith she’d be happy to help her to put the yearbook together, and Judith found out that Robin was actually fantastic, that everything that everyone said about Robin was trumped up, exaggerated, and that Robin still had to deal with vicious assaults all the time.
It’s hard not to hear this story and think this is also how Ms. Regan sees herself: as the prom queen who got tripped up by the vicious meanies at News Corp. Indeed, there are really two related prongs to Regan’s lawsuit: One has to do with her alleged treatment at the hands of HarperCollins C.E.O. Jane Friedman and News Corp C.E.O. Rupert Murdoch, and the other with how the rest of the company was threatened by her success.
That threat, she alleges, came from what she may or may not know about Rudy Giuliani and Bernard Kerik, and how News Corp allegedly not-so-subtly encouraged her to keep quiet about that knowledge.
But Ms. Regan remains convinced that it was fundamentally jealousy that engineered her downfall at HarperCollins. After all, there she was, a smart, successful and sexy woman who made more than a few men uncomfortable with the way she threw her sex appea
l, and her vulgarities, around.
"The men don’t want a woman who can outshine them," one source with knowledge of Ms. Regan’s thinking told The Observer. "They want women who can look up to them and bat their eyelashes. But honestly? She was more interesting than they were. She had a better life. She had more creativity. Men want to be on top."
Some who know Ms. Regan say her problem is she’s drawn to the wrong types.
"Men are her Achilles’ heel," said a former editor at ReganBooks. "She’s always had notoriously bad taste in men. From Bernie to Rupert Murdoch—if anything, that’s been her downfall, the men she’s involved herself with. I can see why she was so enthralled with Bernie Kerik, but I don’t think she knew quite what kind of person he was."
"Judith has been subject to serious sexual aggression," her longtime friend Roger Friedland, a sociology professor at the University of California—Santa Barbara, said. Dr. Friedland co-wrote a book, The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, that ReganBooks published last August. "People have hit on her in very aggressive ways. And if they can’t get you, they want to bring you down. And the women who aren’t as sexy and beautiful as you are, resent you as well. What happens is she got taken out through intimations and allegations that she’s a crazy slut."
"I was always very good at conceptual stuff," Ms. Regan told The Observer, "so with Neil Strauss’s book"—The Game, a how-to guide for men looking to pick up girls—"it was my concept, to do it as a Bible. I decided to do the gilded pages and a red ribbon. The sales department went crazy because we had to move the date, but this is what I was really good at and it always worked. … I know what looks right and what doesn’t. Probably my finest skill relates to art directing the process, which includes the design, the marketing, and the sales. The books on my list were so beautifully designed, I used to take art direction credits under a pseudonym—I didn’t want anyone to know. And I had the best art director in the business.
"I just did the work," she continued. "And then they became successful and more successful. It kind of happened because I was focused on doing the creative stuff."
When Ms. Regan arrived at HarperCollins, in 1994, she’d just spent five and a half years as an editor at Simon & Schuster, where she published sensational best sellers by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern while putting up with tweedy editors who she later said openly regarded her as a vulgarian. When Mr. Murdoch told her she could run her own imprint at HarperCollins, Ms. Regan saw a chance to leave all those weenies behind, and go to work instead for a guy who appreciated her style and shared her instincts for the mass market. And Mr. Murdoch’s multiplatform media empire offered her the chance to expand her reach into television and film, to become a true American crossover star in the tradition of Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.
For about four years, Ms. Regan reported directly to Mr. Murdoch as she grew the imprint he’d given her into a lively cash cow. She idealized him: in a 1994 interview with The New York Times Magazine, she called him "a benevolent dictator," and a "cultured and erudite guy" whose nose for business distinguished him from the supposedly "free-thinking intellectuals" she had been used to dealing with at Simon & Schuster. But as ReganBooks flourished, HarperCollins as a whole struggled, and rumors circulate that Mr. Murdoch was trying to sell the company.
Instead, in 1997, he brought in Ms. Friedman, a publishing veteran of 30 years who had previously been a high-level executive at Knopf, to lead the company. By purging HarperCollins of more than 100 author contracts and scaling back its list, Ms. Friedman began turning things around.
To a great extent, Ms. Friedman has been successful. She has made the company profitable, and is widely recognized in the industry as a shrewd and talented publisher. For Ms. Regan, though, if her lawsuit is to be believed, Ms. Friedman’s arrival ruined everything. According to the lawsuit, Ms. Friedman resented Ms. Regan’s prominent profile within the company, and perceived Ms. Regan’s success as a threat to her authority. The suit also alleges that Ms. Friedman tried to undermine Ms. Regan by bad-mouthing her to new and prospective employees, criticizing her authors and sending spies to work at her imprint.
"The problems with Jane Friedman started from the very beginning," said a source close to Ms. Regan who is familiar with the case. "When you have an independent operator in the sense that Judith was, unless you’re a very secure executive, that can be very threatening to you. Most people who worked with Judith at the time, both authors she worked with and editors, witnessed a tremendous amount of hostility and harassment from the top."
According to this source, who would not comment for attribution due to the ongoing litigation, Ms. Regan believes that Ms. Friedman had been looking for a way to get rid of her for years, but did not pull the trigger, because ReganBooks was generating too much profit for HarperCollins. Through a spokesperson, Ms. Friedman declined to comment.
Another source, a person with firsthand knowledge of the relationship between the two women, told The Observer: "There was an enmity between the two that goes back 10 years. Judith is hellbent on embarrassing Jane any way she can. They are two strong-willed divas in the same company both courting Rupert’s attention. And Jane won in the end. So Judith will extract her pound of flesh."
The source continued: "[The relationship] was cordial on the surface, [but] Jane said to her on at least several occasions, ‘If you continue to talk like that to me, Judith, I’m going to hang up the phone.’"
But several other people with knowledge of Ms. Regan and Ms. Friedman’s relationship, none of whom would agree to speak for attribution, said that the alleged hostility between the two women has been overblown. One of the sources said Ms. Friedman had no intention of firing Ms. Regan until she made the alleged anti-Semitic comments. Ms. Regan denies making the comments, and in her suit, she claims that a witness who was on the call will confirm her account in court.
But the uneasy relationship with Ms. Friedman put Ms. Regan in a difficult position when the outcry over the O.J. project flared. Ms. Regan now charges in her suit that Ms. Friedman did not back her up when the venture came under fire—that even though Ms. Friedman had signed off on the project and, according to several sources, expressed confidence in its market potential at a sales meeting with HarperCollins staff several days after its publication was announced, she let Ms. Regan take the fall for it on her own.
Then, the coup de grace: On Friday, Dec. 14, the Daily News ran a very negative story on Peter Golenbock’s novel 7, about Mickey Mantle. The next day, Ms. Regan had a heated phone conversation about the crisis with HarperCollins lawyer Mark Jackson. What she said is in dispute, but according to Mr. Jackson’s notes, Ms. Regan lashed out at him with anti-Semitic slurs, and told him she thought a "Jewish cabal" within the publishing industry—she allegedly named Mr. Jackson, Ms. Friedman, HarperCollins executive editor David Hirshey, and literary agent Esther Newberg—was out to get her. Mr. Jackson did not respond to a request for comment.
When Mr. Jackson told Ms. Friedman about the remarks, Ms. Friedman reportedly called and told Mr. Murdoch, who gave her the green light to dismiss Ms. Regan.
Ms. Friedman moved fast: By the time the annual News Corp holiday party kicked off later that evening at the Hilton, securi
ty guards had been sent to the ReganBooks office and The New York Times was calling Ms. Regan’s office for comment.
"I’ve seen so many people fired, and I’ve never seen anything handled the way this was," a former editor at ReganBooks told The Observer. "It really was something out of Dynasty! It was so cutthroat. She had a contract! It just seemed crazy to me that they would take the risk unless there were other things at play."
What other things?
For about a year, starting in the spring of 2001, Ms. Regan had been having an affair with the married Mr. Kerik, whose autobiography ReganBooks published in November of that year. When he was briefly nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security, it was revealed that the two had used a Battery Park apartment, designated as a recovery area for rescue workers, for trysts.
As a result of the relationship, Ms. Regan appears to have been privy to secrets about Mr. Kerik and his boss, Mayor Giuliani, who at that time was leaving Gracie Mansion and establishing a consulting business that later added Mr. Kerik as a partner. According to several public accounts, when Ms. Regan tried to break things off with Mr. Kerik—after discovering that, in addition to his wife, he also had another girlfriend—he refused, and began stalking her. Conversations with Ms. Regan’s friends and confidantes confirm that, after the breakup, she was for at least two years deathly afraid of Mr. Kerik, to the point where she employed a bodyguard for at least six months. "She was convinced he was tapping her phone," said a former ReganBooks editor. "She was absolutely afraid of him." Mr. Kerik, through his lawyer, declined to comment.
Ms. Regan’s suit charges that News Corp executives grew concerned that she might reveal information about Mr. Kerik and Mr. Giuliani—who presided at the wedding of Fox News president, Roger Ailes.
"There were higher-ups at News Corp who were aware of what was going on, who were afraid of its impact on Giuliani, who told her to keep her mouth shut and threatened her if she wouldn’t," said the source close to Ms. Regan. "It was made clear that if she didn’t play ball, she would pay a huge, huge price for it."
(The Giuliani campaign declined to comment.)
Allan Mayer, who is acting as a spokesman for Ms. Regan, told The Observer:
"I should explain it’s not just out of coyness [that we're not revealing the names of the News Corp executives who allegedly pressured Ms. Regan]. When you file a lawsuit you’re under no obligation to include all your evidence; in fact it’s considered irresponsible to do that. You don’t name names if you’re not prepared to produce the evidence right away—and to produce the evidence right now would be crazy, because then everybody and his brother starts arguing about it in the press and all of a sudden you don’t have a legal process anymore, you have a public debate. The whole point of the legal system is to put it in a venue where it’ll be argued fairly and dispassionately."
"I remember her, in late 2001 and into 2002, getting pressure not to talk about it," said one of her former authors. "It’s hard to know with Judith, but I mean—she’s been consistent about that the whole time. I certainly wasn’t privy to any conversations, though. I just know what she told me."
Ms. Regan hasn’t tried to quash speculation that she’s sitting on some explosive material. Franklin Foer, the editor of The New Republic, recounted to The Observer a lunch he had with Ms. Regan and several others during the summer of 2006. "She started talking about Kerik and about Giuliani," said Mr. Foer. "She said that the two of them talked as if she wasn’t in the room, because she was a girl. And that she couldn’t believe the types of things that they were saying. She implied that she had material on Giuliani. It wasn’t clear how she’d kept it. But she said she would spring it when the moment was right."
As Ms. Regan’s side tells it, News Corp executives seized on the outcry over the O.J. and Mantle books—and the fact of her strained relationship with Ms. Friedman—to try to discredit her. By locking in her image as a loose cannon, the Regan camp says, News Corp might lessen the impact of any future revelations about Mr. Giuliani.
"Judy’s relationship with Bernie Kerik put her in a position that made Murdoch and Roger Ailes very nervous because of their ties with Giuliani," said a source close to Ms. Regan. "The problems with Jane, that became the vehicle for them to try to deal with that issue as opposed to letting it bubble up on its own."
Many in Ms. Regan’s camp question the official reasons given for her firing. "There was nothing wrong with the O.J. book," said the source with knowledge of Ms. Regan’s thinking. "That was also spin. Ted Bundy also wrote a hypothetical confession! She wasn’t allowed to talk about any of this. She was gagged during the whole O.J. thing. Ted Bundy confessed to these two reporters and he did it as a hypothetical and it was a number one best-selling book in the 1980′s.
"Look at how they spun the complaint," the source continued. "There’s Giuliani in Iowa saying, ‘Oh, it’s just a gossip story.’ And what did the New York Post do? They made it a Page Six item. Do you actually believe that wasn’t coordinated? I can tell you absolutely, positively, they got on the same page and they decided how to spin it. They decided it would be dismissed as a gossip item."
Since her departure from HarperCollins, Ms. Regan’s life has taken a new turn. Lately, she was spotted belting out a rendition of "My Way" at BINY, the karaoke bar in SoHo; a recording of the song later ended up on Gawker. She also penned a piece for the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar, in which she compared her experience over the last year to that of Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde—"bullets flying from every direction." And she’s working on an album now—standards, mostly, but also some original songs, that she’s recording with producer and composer Rod McBrien. "We’re just in the talking stage about going further, but I think we will go further," Mr. McBrien told The Observer. "We don’t have a deal with a major label—but we haven’t shopped for one yet. There’s a lot of things happening with her and we’re just kind of riding them out. We’re going to put this on the Internet so it’ll be available online—we’ve just got to get a good picture and a good album cover." In college, Ms. Regan was a member of the Vassar Madrigals, and she plays the violin and the viola.
Judith Regan remains convinced that jealousy played a major role in her downfall at HarperCollins. She continues to think of herself as "a child of the Sixties. I didn’t want to amass power and fortunes and all that, it just kind of unfolded."
"I do love to win, I love to be the best. I loved the actual doing of it. I never had a plan in my life."
"She’ll be vindicated," said the source with knowledge of her thinking. "The truth will come out."
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