O.J. and his editor: An ex-client calls them 2 of a kind

November 26, 2006|By Eileen McNamara | Eileen McNamara,Boston Globe

Judith Regan finally found an envelope that even she couldn't push.

O.J. Simpson might well have killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but the tasteless exploitation of that slaughter reeks of Regan, the editor known as the "culture vulture" for the tabloid publishing style she helped to define.

I know. I once got caught in her claws.

After I spent months researching a book for Simon & Schuster about a psychiatric malpractice case, Regan returned the manuscript to be rewritten with less emphasis on psychiatry and more on sex. When I protested, she invited me to lunch in New York to explain publishing to the rube from Boston. It did not go well.

No one wants to wade through chapters on the tension between psychoanalysis and psychopharmacology, the exasperated editor enlightened me; they want to read about the psychiatrist's underwear. Silk? Satin? Cotton? No one cares if there is a theoretical basis for the doctor's unconventional therapy, she said; they want to know if she slept with her patient. If I were not willing to say definitively that she did - and I was not - then the book would be a pointless flop.

The editor who propelled Rush Limbaugh into the national spotlight, who claimed to have rewritten Howard Stern's autobiography during one marathon weekend in his guesthouse, was offering me the key to the best-seller list if only I would listen and learn. I wouldn't, so she kicked me over to a free-lance editor and publishing obscurity. I could not have been more relieved.

I have never met anyone like Regan, before or since. The phrase "force of nature" could have been invented to describe her, although other phrases have been used, including "foul-mouthed tyrant" and "enfant terrible of American publishing." She might be the most successful editor in history, if profits are the measure.

This time, Regan's instinct for the lowest common denominator failed her. She aimed too low.

On Monday, News Corp., which owns both HarperCollins and its imprint ReganBooks, canceled publication of If I Did It the book and the television special in which Simpson explains to Regan how he might have killed his former wife and her friend. The decision by News Corp.'s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, to ax the odious project reflects a revolt by Fox affiliates and advertisers and the revulsion of the public, not his own moral outrage.

At our lunch all those years ago at the trendy Royalton in midtown Manhattan, Regan kept her eyes focused over my shoulder to monitor the arrival of well-known personages and to predict how long it would take each one to drop by the table to pay homage to the editor with the golden touch. It never took long. In between, she regaled me with a hair-raising and much-too-personal narrative about her bitter, long-running divorce.

She really understood Betty Broderick, she said of the California housewife who in 1989 shot and killed her former husband and his new wife as they slept. That is why Regan had the late Bella Stumbo of the Los Angeles Times, one of the finest feature writers in the business, write a book about the case. The book was too long for Regan's taste and not sympathetic enough to Broderick, who was convicted of the double murder, but the meticulously researched account won the Edgar Allan Poe Award that year.

As Regan predicted, my book made a quick trip to the remainder table, but Regan developed an interest in psychiatry after all. "I listened carefully, and what went through my mind surprised me," she said of her now-shelved interview with Simpson. "Mental illness. Thought-process disorder. No empathy. Malignant narcissism." Kind of what went through my mind when I heard that Judith Regan was behind this debacle.

Eileen McNamara is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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