Leon Wieseltier: A Reckoning

Women who once worked at the New Republic reflect on their experiences with the legendary literary editor, who is now facing allegations of workplace “misconduct.”

Brooks Kraft / Corbis / Getty / The Atlantic

It was never an “open secret” among me and my then-colleagues that Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary czar of the New Republic, behaved inappropriately with women in the workplace. It was simply out in the open. This week, Wieseltier’s previously forthcoming culture magazine was suspended, and Wieseltier publicly apologized for past misconduct. Multiple women have complained of sexual harassment they say occurred during much of his three-decade reign at the New Republic. (Emerson Collective, which owns a majority stake in The Atlantic, was the financial backer of the now-scrapped publication. Wieseltier was also a contributing editor at The Atlantic until today, when Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief, announced in a note to staffers that the magazine is severing its ties with him.)

I spent 12 years at the New Republic, starting in 1999, at age 28—a relatively long tour at a publication where young staffers often left after only a few years in its poorly paid trenches. During that time, Leon and I were more or less friends, as were our spouses. (My husband also worked as an editor at the magazine for years.) Leon and I attended each other’s weddings, I went to his wife’s baby shower, he would come to my office to chat, and I would occasionally grab drinks with him after work. All of which may sound slightly odd now—but will sound much odder as I go along.

As a result, I have perhaps more “Leon stories” than some of my former colleagues, well over a dozen of whom I have been talking with as the accusations have boiled over into the public sphere. Everyone’s experience was unique, of course. But many—and what has been eye-opening is just how many there are—share striking similarities. And on one point, almost everyone seems to agree: With Leon, things were complicated.

When a young woman started work at the New Republic, she would be swept into Leon’s glittering welcome wagon. Maybe it would be lunch at one of his favorite haunts (The Palm, back in his heyday) or a cozy chat (and maybe a sip of bourbon) in his office. The venue shifted, but the purpose was constant: to gauge the newest member of the family’s potential as a playmate.

For Leon, women fell on a spectrum ranging from Humorless Prig to Game Girl, based on how much of his sexual banter, innuendo, and advances she would put up with. Once he figured out where to place you, all else flowed from there. “He was good at figuring out which things he could say to which people—knowing where you could push somebody’s limits,” recalls Rachel Morris, an executive editor at HuffPost who was TNR’s managing editor, then an executive editor, from 2010 to 2014.

My own Leon test took place after a party that the New Republic was hosting in New York City shortly after I came aboard. Leon was eager to show me the hotel where he was staying (it had some connection to old New York literary types), so he invited me to its bar for a drink. When we arrived, however, he decreed the bar too crowded and insisted we go up to his room and order room service. (If I recall correctly, champagne—a Leon favorite.) There, I spent an awkward hour or so with his name-dropping (at one point, he answered the phone, then shared with me that Tina Brown wanted him to come have drinks with her and David Bowie); grilling me about my personal life (even then I was living with my husband-to-be); and relishing my obvious discomfort at the situation.

A common refrain I’ve heard as women have been dragged back into their memories: Whatever else he was aiming for, Leon delighted in making young women sexually uncomfortable.

That night in Leon’s room, I made clear I was in a serious relationship. And after our drink, I headed back to my hotel unscathed, if weirded out. But I also had shown that I was willing to hang out with Leon in intimate settings, drink with him, and laugh at his naughty stories. And so the parameters of our relationship were set.

As for the bulk of my Leon experience, it was pretty standard: He made constant comments about my looks and clothes—including the time he left a CD on my desk as a gift, along with a thank-you note for the miniskirt I was wearing that day. I don’t think I ever wore a skirt to the office again.

I was not the only one receiving such fashion critiques. “I remember one time I was wearing a black shift-like dress and black tights,” recalls Amanda Silverman, an editor at Mother Jones who did two stints at the New Republic from 2008 to 2014. “A male colleague, who was a friend of mine, teased me that I looked like I was going to a funeral. Leon overheard the conversation and said, ‘The only problem with that dress is that it’s not tight enough.’” Hillary Kelly, a contributor to Glamour magazine who worked at the New Republic from 2009 to 2014, adds, “More than once, before a function outside the office, he’d tell me to ‘wear something tight’ and then wink or smile.”

One of Leon’s favorite topics of discussion was his sexual history. I was far from the only staffer with whom he shared graphic tales of his lovers and sexploits from his wilder days. (By the time I came along, Leon was with his now-wife.) “Unsolicited, he told me a long, detailed story about how magnificent his long-ago girlfriend’s breasts were,” says Kelly.

Leon also ribbed me about my sex life, which was more than a little awkward once my husband-to-be joined the staff. And while my partner’s presence kept Leon in check in some ways, it also gave him another avenue of teasing. He repeatedly suggested that, before I officially got hitched, he and I needed to go out on a proper date so I could slip into something super sexy and we could paint the town red. (Never happened.)

Of course, any sort of sexy talk would do. Seyward Darby, the executive editor of The Atavist Magazine, who held a couple of different editorial positions at the New Republic from 2008 to 2011, recalls a 2009 column Leon wrote on circumcision, its place in Jewish culture, and its effects (or lack thereof) on male pleasure. Leon sent her the document, titled “foreskin,” and then went into her office to watch her read it: “When I told him that the word foreskin as a document title had raised my eyebrows, he said sarcastically, ‘Oh, report me to HR!’ Then he left. In the same time frame, he gave a fellow female colleague ‘a book of portraits of Jesus with hard-ons.’ He told her to ‘take it home and really have fun with it tonight.’”

Eliza Gray, a freelance writer, had a similar experience in 2010, early in her tenure as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic: “Leon suggested I come see him so we could fact-check his column together, which is strange, since the process doesn’t require in-person communication. The piece must have mentioned something about art or beauty, because he picked up an art book and showed me a picture of a naked male marble sculpture and asked me, ‘Isn’t that the most erotic picture you have ever seen?’ It was a long time ago, but I do remember feeling the kind of heightened vigilance one feels when speaking in front of a crowd, or walking on a dark street at night. I think he enjoyed using the sexual subject matter to make me feel uncomfortable.”

Then there was the touching. Leon is a famously “touchy” guy. He doles out kisses—on cheeks, lips, foreheads—and dispenses hugs and grabs shoulders and pats legs. His friends (myself included) came to think little of it. But it made many women on staff exceedingly uncomfortable.

“Leon kissed me on the lips under the guise of congratulating me on a life event,” recalls Katherine Marsh, a writer of children’s books who was managing editor and deputy editor at the New Republic from 2005 to 2009. “I have been hugged and even cheek-kissed by plenty of male colleagues, but this raised my alarm bells. I told several family members at the time because it creeped me out. I felt uncomfortable around him for pretty much the rest of my time at TNR. I remember warning a new female colleague, Britt Peterson, not to be in a room alone with him.”

Marin Cogan, a freelance writer who was a reporter-researcher and assistant editor at the magazine from 2007 to 2009, notes, “Last week, I put ‘Leon kissed me’ into the search bar of my email, and to my surprise, four incidents popped up. I’d completely buried it. In all of these incidents”—none were on the mouth, Cogan clarifies—“I told co-workers, and we all just treated it as an awkward but not uncommon fact of working at TNR.”

“Leon would take every opportunity he could to touch me, including kissing me on the face when I did tasks for him,” recalls Kelly. “He was notorious for the forehead kiss, which involved putting his hands on either side of your face so you were stuck inside. It was, ‘Very good job, little girl. This is your reward.’”

And, of course, there were those occasions when Leon would push even those boundaries. On a couple of occasions, after a few drinks, he hit me with an abrupt, decidedly nonplatonic kiss. (Yes, a hint of tongue was involved in those cases.) This did not happen often and was a move just comic enough that he could brush it off as a half-joke.

Decidedly not a joke was what happened to Sarah Wildman, a writer at Vox who worked at the New Republic from 1999 to 2003: “One night most of the staff went out. Leon cornered me by the bathroom and kissed me. I clapped my hand over my mouth and he said, ‘I’ve always known you’d do that.’ I felt terrible afterwards.”

Another classic Leon move: More than once, when he and I were out for drinks, he would pass along a mundane bit of office gossip, suggest it was a great secret, and tell me that if I ever revealed it to anyone, he’d “tell people we’re fucking.” He framed it as a joke, but it was a joke-as-threat.

Which brings us to the awkwardness of Leon Stories. As woman after woman has stressed, Leon’s was not a Harvey Weinstein or Roger Ailes type of predation. No one I spoke with was ever physically afraid of him. Yes, some feared his ability to make their life miserable and ruin their future. (No one ever doubted his ability to do this.) Leon had a reputation for turning hard on those who displeased him. Upon joining the New Republic, most people knew (or quickly learned) not to get on Leon’s bad side. Bad Leon could be scary, no matter where you fell on the org chart.

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.

Should I have slugged him at some point? Probably. More responsibly, I should have lodged a formal complaint. At the very least, I should have had the sense not to accept Leon’s invitations for postwork drinks. But I was ever so much more tolerant and conflict-averse then than I am now, and life is full of regrets.

Indeed, what I am regretting most is having thought only about how I could or could not handle Leon. I did not think in terms of how uncomfortable he may have been making the more junior women on staff. Listening to their stories now breaks my heart, especially as so many of them are feeling guilt-ridden and “complicit.” (How many times have I heard that word this week?) They blame themselves for having rolled their eyes instead of loudly saying “Stop”; for not having been stronger or braver; for not having stood up for themselves and demanding more respect because, well, with Leon it was … complicated.

Stop beating yourself up, ladies. These things are always complicated. But they are not your fault. They never were.