Peter Braunstein, WWD Writer Turned Tabloid Monster, Still Has Issues

In an exclusive excerpt from the ebook <em>Speak of the Devil,</em> Braunstein's former colleague sits down with the 'Fire Fiend.'

The girl he calls Salander, after Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, first wrote to Peter in early 2008, when she was 16 and living in Maryland.

“You get people who write to every crazy person in prison,” he said. “She wasn’t one of those.”

The relationship, he said, was hard to characterize. “I never had a daughter, so I can’t say it’s a father-daughter thing. And I can’t say it’s some weird-ass November-May romance, either.” They’ve never met face-to-face, since that would necessitate a visit to prison, and as Peter put it, “A teenage girl? People would be looking at her like a giant pastry in a place like this.”

In addition to her regular job, working freelance for an online reputation management company, Salander now runs errands for Peter on the outside. “She’s like my Nikita,” he said. She was the one who posted the W letter—a second copy, actually, in case the original didn’t get through. She later sent me an email, using the alias Gerald Lewis (the name of a serial killer) to ask for my address so Peter could contact me.

braunsteinsophie e1323820664353 Peter Braunstein, WWD Writer Turned Tabloid Monster, Still Has Issues

Peter Braunstein

Peter and Salander’s relationship went through several phases. “At first, she wanted to impress me in a Manson Girl kind of way,” he said. “She tried to come off as more fucked up than she actually was.”

Soon, the letters became erotic—handwritten phone sex. “There was a lot of ‘I’m doing this to you,’” Peter recalled, noting that given his age—47—and what he called his “whole PTSD-from-life thing,” he wasn’t “physically, emotionally, or acrobatically capable of doing any of this stuff.”

Salander did not respond to messages sent to the Gerald Lewis email address. “She doesn’t trust you,” Peter explained. “She doesn’t trust reporters. And the day-to-day snarkifying of The New York Observer? I want to shelter her from that.”

(This seemed ironic—the fireman perv was protecting his teenage pen pal from me? It occurred to me that perhaps the reason I couldn’t speak with her was that she didn’t exist at all. Then again, she probably does—someone sent me those emails and posted that letter from New York City.)

Over time, he has developed a very tender attachment to her. “What I like doing is giving her the kind of advice I could have used,” he said, adding, “Don’t get me wrong—it’s evil advice. I’m like an evil life coach.”

The two of them seem to have forged a powerful bond. They talk about favorite TV shows and books, like True Blood and Hunger Games. They hatch plans to market edgy gift items, like T-shirts that say “Sex Crime” and prayer cards with Lindsay Lohan, “the Patron Saint of Train Wrecks,” as Peter put it, on the front, and the Desiderata, a famous spiritual poem on the back.

Not long ago, Peter even bought his young friend a little gift with some of the money he got for taping an episode of I (Almost) Got Away With It: a Burberry biker jacket he spotted in W.

“It’s a really cool relationship because it defies categories,” he said. “It’s kind of like, if I could raise a girl, it would be Salander. I mean, she’s fucking cool.”

 

In the days before Women’s Wear Daily and W, the fashion trade paper’s glossy sister title, were purchased by Condé Nast, Peter and I worked just a few steps apart in the massive third-floor newsroom on East 34th Street. His work stood out, so I suggested he write for the magazine and wound up editing several of his stories, including the piece on Guy Bourdin, the French fashion photographer notorious for his sadomasochistic imagery, that was later taken as a sign of Peter’s twisted mind. He filed on deadline, and his copy was clean. The guy seemed okay.

In January 2011, the first letter from Peter turned up in my mailbox at The New York Observer. “Guess who,” it began, going on to suggest I visit him in prison to get “the definitive interview.” He said he’d been following my work and expressed annoyance that he’d failed to kill himself that day in December 2005, when he stood on a street in Memphis, Tenn., confronted by a campus security officer after being recognized from America’s Most Wanted, drew a T-shape punch knife and repeatedly plunged it into his neck in an attempt to sever his jugular vein. “I was so close, man,” he wrote. “I felt like I had played my part to the hilt, but death cheated me and refused to validate my parking ticket. (That’s right—as you might have suspected, death is from LA).”

It was a long letter, seven pages penned in a tight hand, amusing and genial, without a single cross-out. Peter has a keen sense of irony and a disarming if mordant wit, qualities that were highly evident during his stint as journalist. They are also qualities that made what followed all the more bewildering. A talented, well-connected writer with a graduate degree in history and a bright future, Peter didn’t fit the profile.

Receiving a letter from prison can be a seductive thing—especially for a journalist, especially if it comes from a “celebrity inmate,” a notorious figure whose crimes were lurid and sensational. While the crime had been avidly covered, Peter had never told his story in real depth, particularly his time on the run. Moreover, none of the many journalists writing about the case had access to Peter’s voluminous writings, including his criminal manifesto, his “Fugitive Diary,” or the Off-Off Broadway play Andy & Edie, the failure of which contributed to his mental break. I was, I’ll admit, curious to see this stuff.

Still, I had misgivings. Perhaps the most potent was the fear that I’d somehow be betraying my former colleagues—two of his victims—by even hearing his story. There was also a moral dimension. When you make the decision to eagerly harm an innocent person, there are consequences besides life in prison. It means the rest of us don’t need to sympathize with you, or like you, or be amused by you, or listen to a word you say ever again.

But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this way of looking at it was flawed. Feeling that he’d been exiled and marginalized for his increasingly erratic behavior—most notably, quitting WWD in a fit of pique in October 2002 (having been reprimanded for insisting on an extra ticket to the Vogue/VH1 Fashion Awards)—was part of what had set Peter on his criminal path to begin with. Now that he was safely locked away, was there really anything to be gained from shutting him out further? Peter wasn’t just any psycho—he was a psycho I once knew. My psycho.

So on a gorgeous day in late August, I went.

 

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice.

  2. How entirely without courage walks Aaron Gell in penning the story of his former colleague. Journalism 101, 102 and 103 have been trampled on with seemingly utter abandon. There is no justification for reporting on, about or with  a convicted felon that the reporter has a connection with. That is the bottom and only line. There is no “new” journalism, only the old school of integrity and separation of association.

  3. Brysonphoto says:

    If you don’t know the two are connected–does it make any difference that it is a valid work of art? Far better than the endless vomit of TV crime dramas–here is a real look into the mind of a sociopath and human nature at its freakiest. Perhaps more interesting because the criminal is intelligent and has some insight into his own dilemma. That’s what real journalism is about, and that the two were connected might be the only access to the story.

  4. Brysonphoto – Thank you for your considered response. The non-fiction genre, under which journalism falls, must be absolute in its fidelity to the truth. It is black and white writing and anchored by footnotes, accreditation, annotations and the like.

    Peter Braunstein was born with a soundbite burping out of his mouth. He is a sociopath and true to form would readily speak to any reporter, would let anyone gain “access” as you have mentioned.

    I’m not sure why the author of this piece would have a reader believe it to be balanced or ethical once the connection is made between Aaron Gell and Braunstein. The real disconnect is why his editors would allow it, and as such, spur Gell to publish it with XYZ. I won’t name where it is because I’m not looking to knock down another author.

    Chris Roberts

     

    1. Aaron Gell says:

      Chris, I appreciate your point of view, but I think it’s a little simplistic. To me journalism is about the truth, and truth has many layers and is not arrived at by a single route. My point of view as someone who knew Peter is no less valid or deserving of consideration that that of a reporter who didn’t. Perhaps more to the point, this piece is an excerpt from a much larger story that considers this issue in real depth. I’d urge you to read that and would love to hear what you think of it.

      1. Aaron, I think a fundemental tenet of journalism is to be impartial. That’s not to say you haven’t been, but you have stirred up the question of propriety by conducting an interview with a former co-worker. I know this will sound odd, but I rather believe that you and Braunstein would have worked better in a creative non-fiction genre, in the vein of Capote and killer Smith from “In Cold Blood.”

        That said, I want to be fair and will read your larger work and always one for full disclosure, my work (fiction), is available where Mr. Gell’s volume can be found.