One day in October 2010, Peter Braunstein’s monthly subscription copy of W magazine arrived right on time. It was one of the first under the direction of a new editor, Stefano Tonchi, and the cover featured Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in an artfully staged embrace: a red-lipsticked Ms. Williams, staring out at the viewer as if surprised by the camera; Mr. Gosling cradling her head with the tenderness of a ballet dancer.
Mr. Braunstein—or Peter, as I know him from our time working together at Fairchild Publications, when he was a media columnist for Women’s Wear Daily and I was an editor at W a decade ago—is serving 41-years-to-life for a horrible crime: On Halloween night, 2005, he dressed as a fireman and attacked a woman he barely knew, a mutual coworker, knocking her out with chloroform, stripping off her clothes, tying her up with parachue cord, fondling her, and then hanging around her apartment for 13 harrowing hours while fantasizing that they were a couple.
Peter is permitted to receive magazines in prison, and he subscribes to several, including New York, Playboy, and the indie fashion magazine Nylon, which is particularly popular among his fellow inmates. “All the pervs love it,” he said. “It’s like giving them SweeTarts.”
But Peter pores over W with particular interest, because of his history with the place.
For a time, Peter had seemed to thrive at Fairchild. In July 2002, he wrote an amusing column critiquing magazine editors’ letters, and his assessments seem to have hit home. The editor of Glamour, after being taken to task for expecting readers to “pass through the smiley-faced crucible that is Cindi Leive’s photo,” sent over a framed copy of the picture with batch of cookies and a note reading, “Dear Peter, I know you love this picture—thought you might want one all your own! Cindi.”
After spending much of his professional life as an outsider, it was a heady feeling. The editors “took it really seriously,” he explained in 2006, during a videotaped evaluation with a psychologist hired by the Manhattan DA. “If I wrote something negative it really hurt their feelings and their egos. And if I wrote something positive, they were just thrilled.”
His career up until that point—contributing the occasional freelance piece to the Voice and working as an archivist —was “almost like being invisible,” he continued. His experience at WWD, then, “was like going from being in a cave to being thrown in front of Klieg lights, you know? The transition was so abrupt and it really threw me for a loop.”
Interestingly, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, whom he later plotted to murder outside her home, had received an “A” on her editor’s letter (“a truffle”) but had made no effort to suck up to Peter. When he called her office for a comment on the grade for a follow-up item, she remarked to her publicist, “I can’t believe it’s that slow a news day.”
Reading the new W in his jail cell at Clinton, the media critic grabbed a pen and a yellow legal pad and dashed off a letter to the editors. “As a current subscriber—and former contributor,” he began, “I am happy—and proud—to say: I [heart] the new W.”
He went on, in a tone of high sarcasm. “I love how much it’s like a slightly larger Elle. I love Stefano Tonchi’s editor’s page photo and its old-school vibe, very Vegas lounge lizard two-sets nightly at the Sands circa 1961.”
What really got his attention, however, was a small squib that most readers probably overlooked, just floating on the cover in tiny, italicized type. “Just get naked and who cares if it ends up on the Internet,” it suggested. “My feelings exactly,” Peter wrote.
He was making an allusion to the elaborate campaign of harassment he’d initiated after being dumped by his girlfriend Jane, W’s beauty editor, including nude photos that indeed ended up on the internet. Peter claimed that his goal had never been to harass her at all but “to show the world that (to quote the comely Ryan Gosling in October’s W) ‘sex is messy.’”
Finally, he concluded: “Let me salute you, new W! Truly, we are kindred spirits.”
Mr. Tonchi and his colleagues didn’t agree. They forwarded the letter to the authorities, who decided it was violation and placed Mr. Braunstein in solitary confinement, or “keep-lock,” for six months.
The misbehavior report indicates the letter was seen as a thinly veiled attempt to communicate with Jane, which Peter had agreed not to do. But it seems that his more serious violation was mailing it through a third party. The envelope did not have the proper facility stamp, the report stated, and was posted not from Dannemora but from New York City.
Peter had found himself an accomplice.