Aug 2 • 11M

Chapter 5, Part 5: Princeton

In a strange twist on "cancel culture," Martin Shkreli started getting invited to speak at universities...mostly because he was canceled. The appearances didn't always go smoothly.

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My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
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Princeton University’s Blair Hall.
Princeton University’s Blair Hall.

In a strange twist after Martin Shkreli became infamous, first for his drug pricing tactics as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, then for his arrest on securities fraud charges and then his social media posts, students started inviting him to give talks at college campuses. 

Although he had been branded “the most hated man in America,” or maybe because of that, students who were interested in business, science or right-wing politics often were intrigued by his story and his radioactive public persona. They wanted to meet him. And he agreed to give a few of those talks for free.

It didn’t always go smoothly.

In January 2017, he attempted a joint appearance at the University of California-Davis with openly gay, alt-right firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos. But the event ended up canceled because of rowdy protests that both the campus police and their hosts, the College Republicans, believed were on the verge of turning violent. Martin briefly attempted to talk to the protestors outside the venue, but he was escorted — or possibly shoved — back in, though not before someone reportedly threw dog poop at him. (He claimed that all that landed on him was a fist full of leaves.)

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Martin had mixed feelings about then-Breitbart editor Yiannopoulos, who’d been sympathetic toward him when much of the rest of the media turned decidedly unfriendly. While both men agreed about what they termed freedom of speech — especially the freedom to shock and offend so-called “social justice warriors” with few consequences — Martin did not ascribe to Yiannopoulous’s maybe-ironic-maybe-sincere promotion of neo-Naziism, white supremacy, and other forms of bigotry. 

In a livestream video in 2016 that was unfortunately deleted by YouTube, but which I watched in its entirety, Martin delivered a lengthy sermon to his followers condemning Yiannopoulos for instigating a hateful and racist Twitter dogpile against Black comedian Leslie Jones (prompted by the release of the all-woman “Ghostbusters” reboot, which she starred in). That attack led to Yiannopoulos getting kicked off Twitter. (It didn’t stop Martin from going to UC-Davis with him, however.)

In February 2017, at Harvard, where Martin had been invited by the Financial Analysts Club, protestors gathered outside the building where he was supposed to speak. And the event was delayed by someone pulling the fire alarm. “Let’s talk about how we’re going to make money off of the less fortunate,” one audience member, who was filming the speech, said to himself by way of critique. 

And on April 28, 2017, Martin Shkreli was at Princeton. It was his second attempt to give a speech to students there. His first, via an invite from the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, had been canceled by the organization after Martin was, himself, kicked off Twitter for harassing a Teen Vogue writer by pretending to be worshipfully in love with her. 

But the student Corporate Finance Club stepped into the breach…and sold out the venue. The club hired a black SUV to pick him up from his apartment in Murray Hill and drive him to the central New Jersey campus. I was also there.

Since I had just started working on a book about him, Martin let me tag along for the trip. I wanted to get a sense of the full range of perceptions of him, both bad and good, and the extent of the fame or notoriety, or whatever public presence he had. I rode in the back of the SUV with Martin; his friend and business associate, Kevin, sat in the passenger seat next to the driver. 

I had hoped to use the drive down to interview Martin. But the driver, an older man with a white handlebar mustache, monopolized the conversation instead. He peppered Martin good-naturedly with questions about the drug industry and various business-related topics.

When we arrived at the campus, Martin eyed the expanse of lawn surrounding the classroom buildings, looking for protestors. He told me that he was more worried about me seeing an ugly scene because of the book I was writing than for his own safety. The driver pulled as close to the building as we could, but we were still going to have to make our way on foot down a winding sidewalk to the front door

Kevin, who was taller and broader-shouldered than Martin, volunteered to lead our tiny procession. I followed at the rear. But in the end, no protesters or hecklers materialized. We were simply greeted by a dean and some campus security officers, who all ushered us inside.

We waited in a small classroom for about a half-hour or so, with a security officer posted outside the door. The student Corporate Finance Club officers who were there with us, Benjamin and Sophia, gave Martin a gift bag of items from the campus bookstore. The three of us munched some chocolates emblazoned with the Princeton shield. 

The Princeton shield.
The Princeton shield.

“Did you want to go to an Ivy?” I asked Martin, a graduate of Baruch, one of the City University of New York public colleges .

“Yes,” he replied, nodding vigorously. “Or M.I.T.”

As we continued to wait, he paced anxiously around the room. Energy rippled through him, sharpening his already-angular features, and he twisted his arms from time to time oddly behind his back. He was morphing into Public Speaking Mode.

He started politely interrogating Benjamin and Sophia about their families, their studies, and their plans were for the future. Then he used their answers as jumping off points to pivot into long-winded and excited monologues. They stared at him, transfixed by curiosity. When they asked, he paused to take selfies with them.

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At 7:45 p.m., an administrator finally arrived and escorted us to the lecture hall. Kevin and I were directed to two reserved front-row seats. Kevin held up Martin’s iPhone and started to live-stream the event for his Facebook page.

Benjamin introduced Martin — a bit awkwardly, as the point event wasn’t well-defined — and Martin launched into a PowerPoint presentation. It was a jaunt through the highlights of his life, musings about science, math and philosophy, with a few snide comments about the media and the government sprinkled throughout. 

At the beginning of the presentation, he posted a geometry proof and generously offered $40,000 to the first student in the audience who could solve it. (He had told me that he considered this to be a worthy and difficult challenge.)

Not long after he posted it, though, a hand shot up in the audience: It belonged to  Yuan Wang. He was the first of many students who offered completed proofs to Martin during his talk. Martin ended up giving about $20,000 to Yuan, months later after I reminded him of his promise.

Shapeless as Martin’s talk was, it entertained the students: Most seemed rapt and engaged, even charmed, throughout the rambling presentation. During a question-and-answer session, when Martin cracked wicked jokes about the media, the audience roared in approval.

A screenshot of Martin Shkreli giving a talk at Princeton in April 2017.
A screenshot of Martin Shkreli giving a talk at Princeton in April 2017.

When the two-hour event was over, Martin, Kevin and I headed to a bar near campus, where Martin had encouraged attendees of legal drinking age to come hang out. 

Several dozen students accepted and clustered around him, eager to talk with him more. Many of the students who showed up seemed to have come from immigrant families or otherwise modest means, like Martin had. They all seemed to be either critical of or on the fence about his drug-pricing tactics and public antics, but appeared to genuinely admire his chutzpah.

A couple of them approached me with friendly questions, too, about who I was and why I was with him. I chatted with Yuan, the student who won Martin’s math proof challenge, about his family’s immigration from China and his plans to launch a robotics startup.

Another student named René, who was studying economics, told me he’d become aware of Martin by participating in the trading subreddit WallStreetBets (for which Martin was then a moderator). 

“Martin seems like he could really use better PR,” René said, adding that he was surprised Martin had chosen the particular geometry proof that he’d posted during his talk. “It was really not very hard at all.” I laughed.

While Martin and I chatted with the gaggle of students, Kevin quietly hung back and bought us beers and sliders.  And, when Martin excused himself to go to the restroom briefly, I stepped into the void he’d left behind and continued the conversation. I didn’t even think about whether it was appropriate to keep Martin’s audience “warm” for him; I was having fun.

Tipsy from the two beers I had, I again found myself unable to question Martin intensely on the long drive back to New York City. Martin, who was similarly a lightweight, wasn’t any more focused. I tried asking some serious questions, but instead we ended up talking about kids we’d met at the bar, and how impressed we both were with some of them, and we made some jokes about the evening.

The SUV driver deposited all three of us in front of Martin’s apartment building; I gave both Martin and Kevin brief hugs and took the subway back to Brooklyn and my then-husband, whom I knew wouldn’t appreciate the experience I’d had. To him, Martin Shkreli was a depraved and awful person, full stop, so if Martin had “fans,” they had to be similarly “deranged.”

But I had just been in a room full of some of the people tipped as some of the country’s brightest young minds. They saw Martin, warts and all, and not only accepted him, but admired him.

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