Chapter 5, Part 1: “You should write the book”
Here's how and why I started working on a boook about "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli.
It was an unseasonably warm Friday night in February 2017, and, though I was out with Martin Shkreli, it wasn’t a date. We were just wandering down Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, more or less aimlessly, both totally inept at finding a suitable place to sit down and chat about the book I was planning to write about him.
“What about here?” he asked, pointing to a basement bar with red velvet curtains. I wrinkled my nose and muttered that it seemed seedy. “It looks like a strip club,” he agreed.
“How about that one?” he asked, pointing to what appeared to be a high-end bistro. “Mmmmm…too fancy,” I protested. He laughed and we continued walking south, towards Union Square.
Our easy rapport might have suggested there was something more going on between us, or at least that we were old friends. But I still mostly saw him only as the subject of the book I wanted to write. He was the “Pharma Bro,” who looked too young to be a CEO, with a tendency to flout social norms, an over-the-top social media presence, and an open sense of defiance that made him a lightning rod… and an interesting subject.
And he saw me as the legal reporter who broke the story of his arrest on securities fraud charges in December 2015, a move that I knew was coming even before his lawyers did.
Improbably, over the course of our professional interaction, Martin and I had also struck up a friendship — of a type that wasn’t uncommon between sources and journalists, or biographers and their subjects. After all, if you spend a lot of time talking to someone, it’s likely that you probably at least somewhat enjoy their company.
I’d met up with Martin before our restaurant quest at a capsule-like office in a Chelsea coworking space. Even amidst his legal problems, he was busy working on a new startup, a software company he’d named Godel Systems after a famous mathematician. (This was a common pattern for him, naming companies after his heroes: His now-infamous drug company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, was named after the World War II-era codebreaker Alan Turing.)
He excitedly explained the software platform to me, then showed me the website of a pharmaceutical company he was considering targeting for a short-sale. He was going back to his roots, he told me.
I found it interesting how little his immensely negative public image, as well as his rapidly-approaching criminal trial, seemed to outwardly affect him. He remained cheerful, even effervescent, as we walked out of the coworking space, despite the other occupants’ curious glances. When we got to the elevator banks, a woman waiting there apparently recognized him, and she eyed him she would a dead rat.
Martin did sort of notice that, he placed himself so that I stood between them, but there was no pause in our conversation. Catching her eye as we entered the elevator, I smiled brightly.
SMIRK is a book being published via Substack. Subscribe here for a free or paid subscription and full access to the archives.
We meandered about half a mile from the coworking building, ending up at one of his regular hangouts in Union Square. But it was too crowded for a relaxed conversation. And, as luck would have it, we ran into one of his more serious ex-girlfriends — a pleasant, conservatively-dressed professional woman in her 30s with whom he was still friendly. They hugged and he introduced me: “She’s writing the ‘Martin Shkreli book,’” he told her proudly.
We left and headed back north, finally finding a modest little Italian restaurant where we could sit at a quiet table. We had a lot of catching up to do — I was on a leave of absence from Bloomberg, having received a fellowship to study both business and journalism at Columbia University. Over drinks and a couple of appetizers, I launched into my rehearsed spiel about the book. I wanted to make it crystal clear to him that although we were, on some level, friends, and I didn’t consider him to be a “morally-bankrupt sociopath” (or whatever nasty things people liked to call him), I was still going to call the shots.
It wasn’t that Martin had ever demanded a certain kind of coverage from me; in fact, most of our past conversations had been “off the record,” meaning we had a mutual understanding that they wouldn’t be published. But in a narrative writing class I was taking at Columbia, where I’d started to experiment with a first-person feature exploring the public perceptions of Martin in the context of our personal and professional relationship, I’d run into some skepticism.
Martin was so notorious at the time that other journalists were practically tripping over each other to write, or tweet, about their one-off encounters with him (usually negatively). I felt I had a different, and more nuanced and intimate perspective to add. My professor liked the piece I had ultimately turned in on Martin, and I got Martin’s permission to use the “off the record” material in it. In late January, when I exchanged emails with Martin over what I had written, he immediately said: “I think you should ‘write the book’!”
I told him that I did want to write a book, but only if it was my book, not his, and if I had complete control over the content, without needing his review or approval. He readily consented. “You know I have a lot of love for you,” he told me. “And clearly I don’t expect a puff.” (He meant a “puff piece.”) And I started to move forward to develop a proposal almost immediately.
But both my professor and my ex-husband tried to talk me out of the project. Both argued that Martin was somehow trying to “manipulate” me for his own benefit. “He’ll ruin your life,” my professor even told me, as we passed each other on the steps of the journalism school in Morningside Heights
It was hard for me to understand their concerns. I was going to have complete agency over the final product and, even if Martin was somehow angling for a warmer take than I was inclined to give him, I didn’t see how that was different than with any other subject. If the worry was that our friendliness would cloud my judgment, well, journalists and subjects forged amicable relationships all the time, some of which led to sympathetic stories and books. And the writers continued on in their careers, and the world kept turning.
What it felt like, though, was that two men I had trusted — my ex-husband and my very well-respected professor — did not think I could assert myself with Martin, or clash with him and hold my own if necessary. I had a sinking sensation that they did not respect my independence and intelligence. But Martin, the man they were so worried might manipulate me, ironically, did.
SMIRK is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Without hesitation, he shared almost any information I asked for from him, whether it was flattering to him or not. Realizing that I had done my homework, and knew a lot about his legal case and the people involved, he would sometimes query me on my expectations for how I thought the proceedings would go. He even had solicited my feedback on his choice of legal counsel, which is one of the most sensitive and important decisions a criminal defendant can make.
And that fact that he had opened up so much to me, off the record, for months and trusted my word that I wouldn’t publish it was remarkable — especially for someone who had developed such an intense bitterness toward the press.
Meanwhile, I could recall many times when my ex-husband had denigrated my work, or belittled my expertise when I offered my view of some legal controversy or another in casual conversation. I was only a journalist, he would say dismissively. I just wrote about things. I didn’t actually do them. What did I know.
Elite New York journalism men, of which my professor was one, also seemed to routinely underestimate me. At Bloomberg, I could recall well-meaning editors often “mansplaining” reporting and over-instructing me on a regular basis when I was tackling assignments. They did not appear to do this as much with my male colleagues.
Aware of my friendly relationship with Martin, one male editor even gave me a vague admonition about the young drug company founder’s “strong personality.” I raised an eyebrow. This was Bloomberg, a leading global business news publication. Everyone in the newsroom covered, and sometimes got fairly close to, sources with big egos and strong personalities. I couldn’t fathom why my interaction with Martin was somehow more dangerous. To me, that warning sounded an awful lot like my professor proclaiming Martin would “ruin” my life — just patronizing bluster.
Back at the Italian restaurant, as I looked at Martin sitting across from me at the table, I could see nothing in his demeanor that suggested any intention of coercion or bullying, or even trying to exert any power over the situation at all. In his navy polo shirt, his bony shoulders were drawn inward as he hunched forward over his glass of wine and looked at me expectantly.
“There are going to be both good things and bad things in there,” I told him of the book, and I studied his reaction carefully. “You know if I find out anyone died from a lack of Daraprim, that’s going in the book.”
He grimaced and nodded.
While it was difficult for me to track down individual patients who had used Daraprim, the drug whose price Turing Pharmaceuticals has infamously raised by 5,000%, I did eventually speak to a doctor who showed me dozens of accounts of people struggling to obtain the toxoplasmosis medication, at least at first. There were problems with distribution, and with obtaining insurance for some patients, even though insurers were purportedly supposed to cover the cost. Even with insurance, some patients found copays too high and opted for other treatments.
I only came across two stories about deaths linked to Daraprim access, though. One was described in a U.S. Federal Trade Commission complaint that was later filed against Martin. The patient could only get Daraprim in a hospital after the price increase, and contracted an unrelated infection during a lengthy hospital stay and died.
Another was mentioned in a letter from a doctor to U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto, who referenced it during Martin’s sentencing in March 2018. She did not file the letter in the public record, and so I was unable to learn more about the account.
By the time Martin and I left the restaurant in February 2017 and parted ways, I was satisfied that I would be able to write what I wanted to write without his interference. “Strong personality” or not, he was willing to yield to mine — at least as far as the book was concerned.
If you’ve read this far, I assume you’re at least sort of liking SMIRK. Sign up here for a free or paid subscription.