The Oxford American, "the Southern Magazine of Good Writing" is embroiled in a scandal. The short story, as Julie Bosman writes in the New York Times, is that founding editor Marc Smirnoff, 49, who started the magazine in 1992, was fired after being accused of sexual harassment. In the time since, managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald—Smirnoff's girlfriend—was fired as well. The long story, as usual, is far more complicated, as evidenced by a piece by Smirnoff titled "Our Story of Losing the Oxford American," posted on his website, Editors in Love. So: what happened? We may never know, exactly. Per Arkansas law, an employer can fire an employee at any time without having to give a reason why. This is just one of the things Smirnoff is upset about:
"Carol Ann and I are not contesting Arkansas’s 'at will' status," he writes on the site. "We are, however, contesting the ethics and honor of [publisher] Warwick Sabin and [board chairman] Rick Massey and The OA Board itself in firing the magazine’s two most faithful, long-serving editors (one of whom is the magazine’s founder) without having the decency of saying why they made that decision."
Bosman writes that the conflict began at a Fourth of July retreat, intended to be morale-boosting for staff, at a cabin on Mt. Petit Jean:
But things quickly went awry, beginning at night when Mr. Smirnoff berated young staff members playing drinking games, and continuing the next morning when he exploded in anger at a 19-year-old intern, then insisted that she ride home alone with him, asking her to hold his hand and accompany him to his favorite “make-out spot.”
On July 15, he was fired by the magazine's board of directors, who uncovered a series of HR-nightmare type stuff—allegedly: sexual harassment, inappropriate comments (Smirnoff was said to have called female interns "baby," for example), and "unwanted sexual overtures"—after conducting an investigation.
The Editors in Love timeline of what went down is equally, if differently, incriminating, with no shortage of both petty and substantial complaints. A modern twist on the sexual-harassment accusation story: It's extremely easy to mount an "an aggressive public counteroffensive," online, as Smirnoff and Fitzgerald do. (Smirnoff's email address, listed on the page, is "firstname.lastname@example.org").
Though lengthy, it doesn't fail at being a dramatic bit of writing in itself. Of the "Top Ten Possible Outcomes" of his 53-page defense, Smirnoff writes:
"4. Marc Smirnoff and Carol Ann Fitzgerald disappear under mysterious circumstances. (Or some contraband will be planted in the Smirnoff bungalow or in his station wagon or some new false witness, like a Jack-in-the-Box, will pop up for another round of “he said/she said.”) 5. Warwick Sabin becomes publisher of Garden & Gun or governor of Arkansas."
As for the harassment charges, Smirnoff has defended himself, saying that his behavior was playful, benign, "paternalistic and nonsexual," and likening himself to the character played by Ricky Gervais on The Office.
More than that, though, there's the extensive screed devoted to the cause on their website, in which Smirnoff denies that he sexually harassed anyone and attacks the board that fired him (the f-word appears in his defense no less than six times, attributed to people other than himself). "As for the length of this document -- the long length -- I apologize, but length is, unfortunately, necessary," he writes. "The many falsehoods spoken against us and leaked behind our backs might have been easy enough to utter and spread, at least at one point; but they are hellish to rebut and stop." At the same time, though, there are plenty of cringeworthy details that he's admitted. At the Fourth of July trip, Bosman writes,
The next morning [Smirnoff] berated the female intern in front of the other staff members when she refused to help clean up a mess in the kitchen. Then, after insisting that the intern ride back to Conway with him, he asked her if she wanted to hold hands. She declined, he said, saying she’d rather “hold hands with a dead dog.” Still, he told her he wanted to take her to his favorite make-out spot.
That's also what the intern (who remains nameless) then told the board, saying she "was repeatedly humiliated, sexually harassed and intimidated by Mr. Smirnoff on that occasion and others." Smirnoff denies harassment and says what he did do—kissing her on top of the head, for instance—was OK, and that she hadn't objected. In his own defense on the Internet, he notes, "I know in writing so truthfully we will be judged harshly. I don’t think we mind that so much any more. We just want to be judged fairly" and "What I write here is the truth--at least as far as I sincerely see it and think it." He also writes, of the accusations, "For example, I have been accused of sexually harassing one intern (she made these claims the very day after I fired her). She lied; there was nothing sexual in our relationship except PG-rated back-and-forth banter (meaning I wasn’t the only one bantering)."
Now the magazine's publisher, Warwick Sabin, who's been there just four years, is tasked with the job of holding the publication together in the absence of Smirnoff. (On their site, Sabin doesn't escape some accusations of his own: "Warwick Sabin hosts Film Festival party at OA business headquarters in Little Rock. Alcohol is served openly to underage OA interns and non-staff minors," for instance, is listed on the mini-timeline.)
The December issue of the magazine, which has a subscribership of 20,000, will have a guest editor, with Sabin looking for someone to fill the permanent job. That's not to say that just because Smirnoff has been fired that he will go quietly; in fact, his website seems to indicate the opposite. Bosman writes, "People who know Mr. Smirnoff said they were wondering whether he is trying to burn down the house he built on his way out. In addition to his public accusations he has demanded that the quarterly be stripped of the name he gave it two decades ago." Ironically, that's a name that, because of this scandal, many people may be hearing again—or perhaps for the first time.
In any case, Smirnoff and Fitzgerald are not sitting idle: On Editors in Love they also ask for contributions to help them in a next venture: "After our many years of work, Marc and Carol Ann will be using the next six months to reflect, read, and write. We already know that in six months we will be working with a few others on a new literary project. We don’t have a lot of money so if there’s anyone who would like to contribute to our next venture (or to our reflection period!), we are open to that."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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