Sep 14 • 10M

Chapter 7, Part 2: The Bonfire of the Shkrelanities

This is Chapter 7, Part 2 of SMIRK, a serialized memoir of my relationship with "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli.

Open in playerListen on);
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
Episode details
Martin Shkreli next to lawyer Benjamin Brafman outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. (Another one of Martin’s lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, is standing to the right of Brafman.) (Getty Images.)
Martin Shkreli next to lawyer Benjamin Brafman outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. (Another one of Martin’s lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, is standing to the right of Brafman.) (Getty Images.)

“Cancel culture,” however you want to define it — as either an overreaction by an irrational mob, or as a reasonable consequence of despicable deeds — is considered by many to be a contemporary phenomenon, arising from social media. 

But many of its features, including branding someone a villain and crusading against them in lieu of addressing difficult social problems, have been with us for quite some time. You can find all of the hallmarks of “cancel culture,” minus Twitter dogpiles, in Tom Wolfe’s satirical 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

There are no heroes in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Its protagonist is a greedy and amoral finance guy, Sherman McCoy. He is blamed inaccurately for the death of a Black teenager, Henry Lamb, in a hit-and-run accident in the Bronx. (It was actually McCoy’s mistress at the wheel.) 

Uninterested in bringing the real killer to justice, or in fixing the longstanding racial and economic disparities that plague the city, journalists, prosecutors and politicians instead foment public outrage at McCoy, and milk the reaction for their own gain.

There is much more SMIRK to come. Sign up here to subscribe for free occasional posts or a paid subscription for full access.

Characters see McCoy as the “Great White Defendant, a rare white person who is so widely despised that going after him or her can absolve public servants, at least optically, of all of their years of putting mostly Black and Brown people in prison. Instead of fixing a system that disproportionately targets racial minorities, the public servants seek out a Great White Defendant to present as a sort of ritual sacrifice.

At the end of the novel, almost nobody wins. A trial against McCoy ends with a hung jury, and a district attorney, up for re-election, brings new charges. Henry Lamb’s family secures a $12 million civil judgment against McCoy, but he’s financially in ruin and can’t pay it.

The poor and marginalized neighborhoods of New York remain poor and marginalized, and the justice system remains broken. The only character who is better off is an unethical tabloid reporter, Peter Fallow. He is awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

To say The Bonfire of the Vanities is a cynical take would be putting it mildly. Wolfe, the recently late author, was one of a very few conservative writers among the New York literary elite, and he was particularly unsparing toward the city’s left-leaning institutions. But regardless of the political lens it’s viewed through, the pattern the book describes continues to be relevant today. If anything, social media has only amplified and made the pattern more pervasive.

The parallels hit me almost immediately when I started to get a sense of the dimensions of the public contempt toward Martin Shkreli. Like with Sherman McCoy, the nitty-gritty details of what the “Pharma Bro” actually did, and the circumstances of his actions, and how much actual harm he caused, were irrelevant to the public conversation. He was someone upon whom all of society’s ills could be projected, and he needed to suffer and be ground down into nothing so that society could be purged of its own guilt.

Both as a journalist observing Martin’s securities fraud case case unfolding, and as a person who was starting to become his friend, I began to recognize that news stories about him were only “allowed” to fit into one of two frames: Either Martin Shkreli was doing something bad that should be hated, or something bad was happening to Martin Shkreli. Facts that did not fit either one of those themes were either discarded or contorted so that they did fit. 

That aspect, too, was a thread in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The tabloid journalist in the book, Fallow, deliberately stretches the truth by describing Henry Lamb as an “honors student” in order to increase public sympathy for the teenager. For Martin, the yellow journalism went in the opposite direction: His relatively unassuming, middle-of-the-road Manhattan rental apartment (not on the top floor) suddenly became a “multi-million-dollar penthouse” in media accounts, no doubt to make him seem more “posh” and therefore hate-worthy.

Photo illustration (by me) of a copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Photo illustration (by me) of a copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Although I’m quite sure Martin never read The Bonfire of the Vanities, there was also an interesting echo from the book in his choice of defense counsel. McCoy’s street-savvy defense attorney in the book, Tommy Killian, was based on a real-life New York lawyer, Eddie Hayes. Hayes epitomizes a certain style of big-city defense lawyer: tough enough to win a bar fight but refined enough to sweet-talk a judge. These are the frontmen (and women) who are at home in a spotlight, baring their teeth to protect high-profile clients.

Whether Martin realized it or not, he helped life to imitate art. Martin hired a contemporary of Hayes, Benjamin Brafman, to represent him in his criminal trial. Brafman is Jewish, a child of Holocaust survivors, and Hayes’ ancestry is Irish. But both came from hardscrabble roots in Queens, and are now in their 70s; both are equal parts aggressive and charming; both are known for thriving in the glare of media attention; and both have a penchant for expensive suits

At first I was a little surprised when Martin told me, back in January 2016, that he was going to hire Brafman. At the time, Martin had fired his first batch of lawyers, who were from a “white shoe” firm, a bit more upper crust, and more focused on the delicate nuances of securities law  and other stuff that white-collar prosecutors were concerned with. I had thought Martin would pick others of that ilk. 

But he went with Brafman, a bulldog. When I thought about the media circus surrounding Martin, though, his choice started to make sense. Brafman had helped represent hip-hop legend Sean “Puffy” Combs in a gun possession and bribery case, successfully winning an acquittal. (Johnnie Cochran of O.J. fame was also on the defense team.)

Sign up here to read more SMIRK. Free subscriptions get you occasional posts, and paid subscriptions get you all posts and access to the archives.

I also remembered him representing Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who resigned in disgrace in 2011 after he was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York. (The charges were later dismissed.)

I attended the arraignment, in Manhattan state court, as a reporter for website Law360 and I was stunned by the level of media attention. Crowds were so thick surrounding the courthouse that I felt like I was at a concert or a football game. Indeed, several news outlets had set up tents across the street from the courthouse.

So it seemed to me that at least Brafman could navigate the media explosion that followed Martin everywhere he went, even if perhaps it was a bit challenging to keep Martin, always outspoken, from fueling more controversy. It also struck me that Brafman, much like Tommy Killian had with Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of Vanities, could help instruct Martin in the realities of being the type of defendant that public servants would pursue with the fierce dedication of Melville’s Captain Ahab.

Another similarity between the 1980s fiction and 2010s reality: Though one could argue that neither Wolfe’s protagonist nor Martin deserved much sympathy, the sh*tstorms that surrounded both of them accomplished nothing — except enhancing some individuals’ careers.

Despite vast public outrage at Martin for raising the price of a toxoplasmosis medication  in 2015 while he was CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, other pharmaceutical companies continued to hike the prices of drugs more quietly without consequence. And though it later went generic, the toxoplasmosis drug at issue in the controversy, Daraprim, continued to cost tens of thousands of dollars a bottle. 

Martin’s criminal conviction on securities charges, and relatively steep sentence of seven years in prison, also seemingly did little to deter fraud. Millennial frauders like Fyre Festival promoter Billy McFarland and an untold number of crypto scam artists followed soon after him.

State attorneys general and Federal Trade Commission officials who later won a $65 million civil judgment against Martin and a ruling banning him from the pharmaceutical industry for life over Daparim, however, crowed about their effort as a massive victory for patients. A prosecutor whose main claim to fame was leading the criminal case against Martin eventually became Acting U.S. Attorney for Brooklyn, and then landed a well-paying job at a white-shoe law firm.

Plenty of journalists who had written viral stories about Martin, including some that were a little slipshod with facts, gained numerous Twitter followers and higher-profile jobs. For breaking the story of Martin’s arrest in 2015, which resulted in a piece read by millions, I got my own share of the spoils. That achievement helped me secure a generous fellowship at Columbia University. And it also won me a prestigious Newswomen’s Club award.

For some reason, while I was soaking up free drinks with colleagues at the awards ceremony in 2016, dressed in a gorgeous purple gown I borrowed from Rent the Runway, I couldn’t help but think for a moment of Peter Fallow.

Bruce Willis playing Peter Fallow in a 1990 film adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Bruce Willis playing Peter Fallow in a 1990 film adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Enjoying SMIRK? Sign up here for a free or paid subscription to get more posts and access to archives.