As a close intimate of the magazine’s owner, not to mention a quasi-celebrity himself who hobnobbed with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Kirk Douglas, Leon was the most powerful person at the magazine—regardless of who was the top editor at any given moment.
“It felt like Leon could make or break my career,” says Kelly. “Seeing how he treated people he had once worked with and had a falling out with—the way he could just turn off the kind and generous person he could be—it could be terrifying. I lived in horror of alienating or upsetting him in some way.”
“When he was suggestive with me, I laughed it off, made it a joke,” says Sacha Zimmerman, a senior editor at The Atlantic who held a range of jobs at the New Republic from 2001 to 2014. “Any other reaction sure seemed like a quick way to get ostracized at TNR.”
“I didn’t feel like there was ever any recourse for his behavior, because he was treated as a powerful, even untouchable, person, certainly more important and indispensable than me,” says Marsh. “I was managing editor—one of the senior-most women on staff—and I felt as if I couldn’t protect myself, let alone younger women.”
At the same time, many women longed to be in what one called “the sunlight” of Good Leon. Complicating matters, the owner of the magazine during my tenure, Martin Peretz, had a reputation as a scorching sexist (a tale for another day), and the magazine was seen as something of a boys’ club. Leon always presented himself as a champion of women, which in many cases he was: He helped some women fine-tune pieces, he introduced them to famous and powerful people, he helped them find jobs a step up the career ladder.
“Leon was the one who gave me a column,” says Zimmerman. “He advised me; he helped me get a new job. He was important to me—and he was also unquestionably inappropriate with women.”
“Like many women, I fell in a trap of being demeaned by him and yet finding myself looking to him for assistance,” says Marsh. “Several years after the incident, I emailed to ask him for career help. I feel quite ashamed of this now.”
“I owe a great deal to his support and his mentorship,” says the book critic and author Ruth Franklin, who held multiple editorial positions, including Leon’s associate literary editor, from 1999 to 2014. “It was no secret that Leon regularly acted inappropriately with many women on staff, including me, but his actions were largely overlooked because he wielded enormous power and because he was often charming, funny, and brilliant. Regardless of what he intended, numerous women found his actions and remarks patronizing, insulting, or damaging.”
As a senior political writer, I didn’t look to Leon for mentoring. Even so, I wanted to stay in his good graces—not merely because I feared Bad Leon, but because Good Leon could be, yes, incomparably charming, funny, and brilliant. I rationalized that I could handle the rest and that his low-level lechery was simply the cost.