The Spy Reporters Who Broke the James Toback Story 28 Years Ago on Everything Since
Last month, as a torrent of revelations about Harvey Weinstein began to inspire people to speak out about other men in Hollywood, the Los Angeles Times’ Glenn Whipp published an article reporting that 38 women said director James Toback sexually harassed or sexually assaulted them. The article outlined a pattern in the women’s accounts: In allegation after allegation, Toback used his name and reputation as a director to entice young women to meet with him alone then quickly turned the conversation to sexual topics before masturbating or dry-humping his victims. Those first 38 opened the floodgates: In the days after the story was published, Whipp was contacted by more than 200 additional women who shared their own experiences with Toback. (Toback has repeatedly denied all of these allegations, stating that he has never met any of his accusers, or, if he has, it only lasted “five minutes” and he has “no recollection.” He has also repeatedly said that for the last two decades it has been “biologically impossible” for him to act in the way his accusers allege because he has diabetes and takes medication for a heart condition.)
It was a shocking and appalling story, but what it alleged wasn’t entirely new. In March 1989, nearly three decades earlier, most of Toback’s alleged M.O. was laid bare in a Spy magazine feature that included a fold-out chart that took 13 separate accounts of Toback’s behavior and broke them down into neatly labeled columns, highlighting common elements (“The Credentials,” “Pitching the Project,” “Talking Dirty,” and so on) to trace a pattern similar to the one reported by the Los Angeles Times. (Toback, for his part, went on to call the Spy article slander and “an occupational hazard of personal filmmaking,” claiming to the New York Times in 2000 that he was scrutinized in a way other directors weren’t because he didn’t have a publicist.)
The article was bylined Vincenza Demetz, who never existed.
The name was a pseudonym for two reporters who this week are coming forward: Bonnie Bertram and Julie Iovine. (A Spy staff writer of a different name wrote the introduction in the house style, but it was Bertram and Iovine who reported the story.) In 1989, when Bertram was a junior editor at Premiere and Iovine was freelancing, the two women collaborated to compile stories about alleged encounters with Toback—two of which, it turns out, were their own. Today, Iovine reviews architecture for the Wall Street Journal, while Bertram produces documentaries for Retro Report. (Coincidentally, Bertram was working on a documentary about sexual harassment when the 2017 version of the James Toback story broke.) Now, they’ve come forward by name in an article in Vanity Fair, finally claiming their byline from 28 years ago. Bertram and Iovine talked to Slate about their memories of reporting the original story, watching Toback’s career continue more or less unimpeded over the years, and their feelings about the current wave of sexual harassment and sexual assault stories in the entertainment industry.
Slate: Let’s talk about how this article came to be. Where did you each get the idea to write about Toback? How did you end up working together?
Julie Iovine: Well, Bonnie, let me start, because I think it leads naturally to you. Toback, in just kind of the classic entrée story, [on the] Upper West Side, hit me up on the curb outside of a [copy center]—I think that’s one of his places—and said I had a look, [and that] he was making a movie. “Here’s my Directors Guild card, and here’s my number. Call me up, I’d like to talk to you about casting” or something.
And being a freelancer, I went home. I was all excited. And I called my editor at Elle magazine, and she was like, “Oh, he picked me up, too, and, you know, he’s tried to pick up a lot of people.” And within two hours, I had the phone numbers of about a dozen women.
And Bonnie, I believe, was one of those. And so when I came round to calling Bonnie, she told me her story, and it snowballed from there …
Bonnie Bertram: Yeah, I was working at Premiere, and a friend of mine called me and said, “Hey, this movie producer tried to pick up my roommate. Have you ever heard of James Toback?” So I asked around the office and people were like, “Oh my God, he’s a lech, you shouldn’t call him back.” So I called her back. And then he came up to me—I think it was like a week later—just by coincidence, at Fairway Market.
Iovine: Also on the Upper West Side.
Bertram: Yeah, New York’s Upper West Side. And I was like, “I know who you are. Leave me alone.” … But it didn’t stop him—I mean, he showed me his Directors Guild card. And he was with a woman who was, like, waiting on the curb as he was talking to me. I could see she was getting impatient.
And then a few weeks later, I saw him at some party for a movie screening or something. And he was like, “I can’t get you out of my mind. Your eyes!” And that time, I remembered that I was a 24-year-old aspiring journalist, a wannabe magazine editor. And I remembered the sort of apocryphal stories about how Gloria Steinem had gotten her break by going undercover as a Playboy Bunny. So, by that point, I was like, “Oh, yeah. I’ll have dinner with you.” And so we had dinner together, and I thought I would write a magazine article about it.
So I had dinner with him, and I would excuse myself. And the Algonquin Club had these wooden phone booths. And I would go into the phone booth, and I’d scrawl down on a cocktail napkin the most disgusting things he’d said to me, stuff it in my pocket, and then go back to the table and have him talk more. I think I excused myself two or three times, and when it was over, I went back to work. And one of the more senior editors, who was a friend of mine, said, “You should really write an article about this.” And at first, she thought, “Maybe you should take it to Time.” And then she said, “No, no, no, you should maybe do it at Spy.” And then I think somehow, Deborah Kirk from Elle, who was Julie’s editor—I think Deborah knew us both? I think Deborah put us together. Because I didn’t want to write it alone, ’cause it was …
Bertram: It was creepy! And it was going to be a lot of work, because we knew it was going to be a lot of research. Because we had the feeling that he had called a lot of people.
Iovine: It was interesting, because we were able to get in touch with dozens of people almost instantaneously. And we always felt at the time that it was only because it was our circle of acquaintances …
Bertram: Yeah, we were like, “Wow, he has a thing for women who went to good colleges, who were English majors, who worked at magazines.” But the truth is if we had been lawyers, we would have said, “Oh my gosh, he’s got a thing for lawyers who went to good law schools who work in a law firm.”
Iovine: And that has been borne out by, you know, 300 women stepping forward.
Bertram: It had nothing to do with magazine editors or freelance writers.
Slate: So how did you find them, the women you spoke to?
Bertram: Oh my God.
Iovine: The grapevine.
Bertram: But it was so easy.
Bertram: Even today, since I’ve talked about it, my Pilates teacher, my dog-walking friend, and another mom friend have all been like, “Oh my god, me, too.” They are everywhere. But back then, you couldn’t put out a Facebook post and be like, “Have you ever heard of James Toback?” So we were working phones and leaving messages on answering machines.
Slate: So you were cold-calling your friends?
Iovine: Yeah, or if a friend of a friend had their experience, call them. You’d call them, and go, “We’re collecting Toback stories.” And they’d go, “Well, here.”
Bertram: It was weird, though, because some people were sheepish, because maybe they’d gone further with him than they wanted to admit. And as soon as we said, “We won’t have to use your real name,” which I think was a decision Julie and I made pretty early on, they were a lot more willing to talk with us. But of course, because Spy is so carefully fact-checked and vetted, we had to have all of their real names and phone numbers so that the fact-checker could call back and verify that they were, in fact, actual people.
Iovine: This is true, yeah.
Bertram: Because Toback subsequently has claimed that they were made-up people.
Slate: You mentioned that more people came forward when you told them that you weren’t necessarily going to use their actual names. Did you begin this with the idea that people would come forward by name, or when did you make that decision?
Iovine: It was almost instantaneous that no one was going to, because we met with everybody. Coffee, lunch, or whatever, and to tell us their story, we had to tell them we weren’t going to use their names.
Bertram: And it’s weird, like, another sign of the times: Maybe because of social media, some people are more forward now about putting their names on these things. But there was also, I have to say, at least I think in my case, a sense that this guy might actually be somewhat … just spooky, you know what I mean? Just spooky. He was a really big, imposing, and really physically unattractive man.
And it’s like, being a young, recent college grad in New York City in the 1980s, you kind of didn’t want your name to be out there in any way that would make you vulnerable.
Slate: How did it feel when you realized how many people were having these experiences, when you were originally reporting it?
Slate: There must have been a mix between horror and like, “Oh my gosh, this is actually a huge story.”
Iovine: Actually, that’s a funny thing that Bonnie and I have been talking about a lot. I wouldn’t say “horror.” It was really more “yuck.”
Iovine: I mean, horror is a contemporary word, like sexual harassment. Because horror—I mean, a lot of men hit up women. And he was yuckier by far. I wouldn’t say horror, would you?
Bertram: No, and this is something that Julie and I have been thinking about a lot, because for us, anyway, we felt like, “We’re going to expose you.” And so we felt empowered by the fact that we were going to try to turn the tables on him. Even though we weren’t putting our names on it. A friend of mine who worked, I think, for Disney, said that they put up the article in the women’s bathroom. And as gross as that sounds, it was an ultimate victory. “Great! We’re getting this guy where he lives,” right?
So, in a way, it was gratifying. I don’t think either one of us really took him seriously, that he was really going to make us a movie star. And I think we both realized pretty quickly, too, that there were leagues of women like us who he had approached, so we didn’t take him seriously.
Iovine: It was also the details that have emerged in the L.A. Times story, and there was another one today or something, the Janet Maslin story. Much grosser details, more extreme behavior than anyone reported to us. And whether those things happened to them and they were not comfortable telling us, we’ll never know …
Bertram: Yeah, we didn’t find it.
I don’t know if his M.O. changed or people were too embarrassed to talk about it. I mean, with me, he talked about guns and sex pretty explicitly … Even me at 24 was like, “Oh, give me a break,” you know?
Slate: So that brings me to something else, which is the foldout that you guys did. I think it’s a brilliant way to show that it’s just the same rubric over and over again. But when did that idea come to be?
Bertram: I don’t think we can really take credit for that, I think that was the editor at Spy.
Iovine: Well, definitely the actual graph was a style, a thing that Spy made famous. But it was really clear to us in our interviews that he was absolutely almost ritualistic. The exact same thing, the same sequence, the same places …
Bertram: Which is so creepy. When Julie and I first got back in touch with each other, we were like, “Oh my God, Harvey Weinstein, the lotion, the massage,” these creeps all go through the same drill every time.
Iovine: Yeah, and that was very obvious. We were able in our interviewing to just: Upper West Side? Check. Invitation to the Harvard Club or the Algonquin? Check. Dinner? Check.
Bertram: [Claims that he’d discovered] Nastassja Kinski.
Iovine: Nastassja Kinski. “Rub my nipples,” check!
Bertram: I never [heard that one in my interviews], that one is …
Iovine: I got that [in one of mine]. [Laughs.]
Bertram: I would have barfed over my dinner.
Iovine: I know.
Slate: Did they do physical foldouts like that often?
Bertram: I don’t think they did a foldout very often.
Iovine: Yeah, it’s expensive.
Slate: Do you remember when they decided to do that?
Bertram: So you would put a magazine to bed and see it three months later. We got galley proofs early on to check [spellings] and layout and stuff like that. But all of that stuff goes to bed three months before, then you see it later. So there was a long lag time.
And if you want some of the backstory on what happened, we’re doing our research, we’re turning our stuff in, we had, you know, reams and reams of notes of our phone conversations and meetings we’d had with people in person, and their names and their phone numbers for the fact-checking department.
And then somebody … leaked to Toback that Spy was doing this story. And we really wanted our names protected, and Spy was very good about protecting our identities. So the editors called and said, “Toback wants you guys to take a lie detector test.” So a friend of mine, who was a staff writer at Spy—again, let me just remind you I was 24 years old, I’d never been to New York, I was practically fresh off the turnip truck—he called me and he said, “There is no way you agree to take that lie detector test, because just subjecting yourself to it throws your credibility into question.” So we said, “No, we’re not going to do a lie detector test.”
So then I got a phone call from another friend of mine who knew Toback, who said, “Toback has [unsavory] connections.” [Ed. note: Attempts to reach Mr. Toback for comment were unsuccessful.] OK, so this is back in the day, I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Desperately Seeking Susan, but New York in 1989 was quirky and violent in, like, a funny way. I don’t know how to describe it, but, like Madonna-ish.
And then, when the piece came out—again, it was a different era. Liz Smith was the reigning gossip columnist in New York, and every day you’d get up and pay 25 cents to get the Daily News or whatever it was to read her column, because it was must-read stuff. And she wrote about us in the column, and then we heard the David Letterman booker might be interested. So it was a big deal when it came out, but there was a lot of drama behind the scenes. … They hired a security guard.
Iovine: Because when it came out, he did threaten them as well.
Slate: How early in the process did he find out that you were working on this?
Bertram: Pretty late, pretty late.
Iovine: It was already in galleys; he couldn’t have stopped it.
Slate: When did you decide that you were going to use a pseudonym?
Bertram: I think when we realized that the other women weren’t going to talk, so it would be weird if we used our own names and they didn’t.
Iovine: … He didn’t seem entirely safe, and it seemed like the wise thing to do.
Bertram: And it didn’t seem that important. Unlike today, where using your name is so critical, it didn’t seem that important, really, whether we used our name or not. It was more important to potentially save us from any harm than to put our actual names out there.
Iovine: Spy used a lot of pseudonyms. A lot of writers had made-up names.
Bertram: Spy was very clubby and in-the-know. People who remember it remember it very lovingly. And they did throw the very, very best parties in New York. Julie and I were laughing at that: We think we would have written it for free. They paid us something nominal, but we would have written it for free just to get the ticket to the Puck party.
Slate: What do you remember about the reaction when your story first came out?
Bertram: I think we couldn’t believe everybody was talking about it. And everybody wanted to know: “Who was Vincenza Demetz?”
Iovine: That’s my middle name and my married last name that I never used, so no one was ever going to figure out that name.
Slate: I Googled it. There was an Italian skier by that name, except it was Vincenzo. So I was like, “Huh. I guess Italian, or a skiing fan.” But it was the article of the moment?
Bertram: It was, I would say, the talk of the town for a little while. Liz Smith picking it up was great, but she never knew who it was either. She just talked about what a devastating takedown it was. It was classic Spy, because Spy really specialized in attacking self-important New Yorkers and boldfaced names.
Iovine: I mean, Spy got the credit for it. We really didn’t. We kind of melted back into the background, I gotta say.
Bertram: It was a Spy magazine article.
Iovine: And they were thrilled with it. They were very happy, and it’s one of the popular pieces in their anniversary issues and all that. So it did them proud, it was a classic Spy piece.
Slate: Who knew that you two had written it?
Iovine: Well, Susan Morrison and Kurt Andersen. You know, everybody. Graydon …
Bertram: I don’t know if everybody did, because I had a friend who was an editorial assistant there, and another guy … I think they knew, but we were pretty careful.
Iovine: I’m sure Kurt knew, because Kurt also is an architecture writer.
Bertram: I think Kurt knew, because once it came out, Julie and I were like, “Oh my gosh, I wrote that!” And he apparently came over to my friend and said, “I hear your friend is talking. Not smart,” is how it was communicated to me. We sort of clammed up.
Slate: That must have been frustrating.
Bertram: No, we considered it wise counsel.
Iovine: No, it was for safety. It was wise, exactly.
Slate: I don’t mean the advice, I just mean having written the big article and not being able to …
Bertram: Oh, that. Again, I think we erred on the side of safety. And Letterman, they were gonna put us behind a screen, so that we wouldn’t have to come forward. Like there wasn’t any—there was no impetus or movement, to say, “Who is Vincenza Demetz? Let’s get this on record.” It was fun, you know, like a tilting at windmills sort of thing.
Iovine: I mean, that’s the weirdest juxtaposition with now. It’s so grimly realistic, these stories women are coming forward with. There was definitely a Spy lark aspect to it.
Bertram: You know there was our article in ’89, the Gawker article in 2010—and Alec Baldwin characterized it with something to the effect of, “There were a few silly articles about it.” And it’s true, I mean, it was kind of silly. Which is so different than today. And, you know, I think if Julie and I were writing the article today, we would have certainly taken a different tone.
Iovine: A much different tone.
Bertram: And it would have been received much differently.
Slate: Did you expect that there would be any professional or personal consequences for Toback when the original piece ran?
Bertram: Yes! I thought that he was going to be outed as a total scumbag. It didn’t really go that way.
Iovine: He didn’t get work immediately. I think it might have slowed down work for … a month.
Bertram: I don’t know, because Bugsy [which was based on a screenplay by Toback] came out right after that. And I have to say it was somewhat disheartening. Like, as a 24-year-old, you kind of think Warren Beatty must be a cool guy. And then you’re like, “Wait a minute, he’s hanging out with Toback?” And then Toback does that film that’s received as legitimate, like that Mike Tyson documentary …
Iovine: Yeah, that was a heartbreaker.
Bertram: His career accolades since then—and Alec Baldwin, right? I mean, just to know the guy, you had to be aware of what he was doing. [Baldwin told the Los Angeles Times that he wasn’t aware, saying, “I never had any idea that Jimmy’s appetites took him in that direction. I had no idea.”] And to be that kid who wrote about it in 1989 and see this guy not really have much of an impact on his career … Although—Julie, should we tell the stories about subsequent encounters?
Iovine: Or nonencounters.
Slate: I vote yes.
Bertram: All right. Well, I can just tell you one. I moved back to New York, and I got invited to join this sort of clubby movie club with, let’s say, sort of racy, high-profile women. And it was my first meeting of this film club. It was like a book club, but instead of reading books, we’d go to movies. And it was at this woman’s apartment on the Upper East Side.
And I go to ring the doorbell, then I see Toback. And I’m like, “Come on, Bonnie, you’ve been here for like a month, what are the odds?” So I go in, and I’m sitting around with all these completely gorgeous women who are dating billionaires and movie stars and stuff. And the woman who’s hosting comes out and she rubs her hands together, and she’s like, “Ladies, we have a special guest this evening: a real, live movie director!” And I swear, my heart sank into my shoes. I turned to my friend who invited me, and I said, “I know you don’t really know me, but I’m just going to disappear in the bathroom for about 20 minutes.”
So I went into the bathroom, and Toback comes in to talk to this group of women. And I was like, “This is insane. I shouldn’t be standing in a bathroom in a stranger’s house.” So I came out, and he, of course, had no idea who I was. And I certainly didn’t introduce myself or even talk to him or even make eye contact. But I think even if I had, he wouldn’t have remembered me, because he’s done this to so many people.
Iovine: Yeah. And I was a reporter at the New York Times on design subjects. And he did this Two Girls and a Guy movie, and it took place in a loft. And so my editor sent me to do a piece about, it was supposed to be a “seduction space” or something like that. Or he had to hide one girl, like there was some kind of farcical aspect to it.
Anyway, I went and interviewed him about it, and he was actually perfectly professional. I was writing a short piece, and it was obviously going to be a positive—it was not a negative piece, it wasn’t about his life or anything. And it went off without any event whatsoever.
Bertram: Maybe we were too old for him by then.
Iovine: No, I think he knows how to be professional when he has to be professional.
Slate: But of course he had no idea that either of you were behind the article, right?
Iovine: Yeah, no!
Bertram: No, no, no, no idea.
Iovine: No way he would know. Apparently, he hit up Julianne Moore twice within like three months, and she was like, “You already hit up on me three months ago!”
Bertram: My Pilates teacher, too, said it happened six times, he hit up on her.
Iovine: Yeah, I think he’s absolutely telling the truth when he says, “I do not remember that woman.” I don’t think he even registers them.
Bertram: What was the interview he gave to Rolling Stone when he [called his accusers] cunts and cocksuckers? People who are telling these stories are telling truthful stories.
Iovine: “I have diabetes, I couldn’t possibly be doing any of this.”
Bertram: Yeah. And it was disheartening, too, when I revisited this again more recently, and I saw that he gave an interview [in], I don’t know, 2012 or something, where he talked about how we were all made-up people in the Spy magazine article? That was a gut punch. I mean, it’s really, frankly disgusting and disheartening that everybody has been complicit in this network of people who don’t do more to stop people like this.
Iovine: Looking the other way.
Bertram: And even more galling to think, in a way, Julie and I might have been part of it, because, you know, we didn’t say, “Hey …” I mean, we didn’t have language like sexual harassment, right? We were like, “Hey, ladies, here’s this creepy guy roaming New York. Beware.” And that was the best you could do.
Slate: Were you aware that the story shows up in later profiles of Toback, and it’s described as, like—I don’t want to say a tribute …
Bertram: Don’t say it, you’re going to make my blood boil.
Slate: Well, essentially that it was about his skill—a record of his conquests.
Bertram: I found that, too. I saw it as, like, an affirmation of all his sexual conquests. Yeah, I just about barfed in my mouth.
Iovine: Well, we now disparage a little bit the title that the piece had, which was “The Pickup Artist’s Guide to Picking Up Women.”
Bertram: “Oh, like a pickup artist!” And that was the name of one of his movies, so in a backhanded way, it ended up promoting one of his movies. And also, a “pickup artist” and a “womanizer,” all that is language that would intimate …
Iovine: “Boys will be boys.”
Bertram: “This guy with this magnanimous love of women, who’s unstoppable and whose affection knows no bounds,” belies the fact that he’s a frickin’ predator.
Slate: Did you hear more Toback stories after it was published?
Iovine: Well, I didn’t so much, because nobody knew that I’d contributed to it unless I told them.
Bertram: My friends told me about it in the bathroom in L.A. I heard from more people in L.A. who he’d approached. I guess not tons. I mean, it was this girl I went to college with who told me it had been posted in the bathroom, and she said that she knew of people, so. But it was all kind of still on the down low. And it’s been on the down low for a long time.
Slate: Did you follow the Gawker coverage, when it started writing about, essentially, the same thing you had been?
Iovine: I missed that.
Bertram: I missed it, too.
Iovine: Also, by then, “Toback Schmoback.” Who cares? He’s a jerk.
Bertram: It wasn’t like he was front of mind for us. Like, I think this was an awesome ticket to the Spy party for us in 1989, and we quickly moved on.
Iovine: Yeah, exactly.
Slate: How was the party?
Iovine: Although the challenge was, like, “Now why are you here?” because no one knew who we were.
Slate: So what was your answer to that question?
Iovine: “We wrote the Toback piece!”
Slate: Are you concerned at all about coming forward now?
Iovine: Hopefully not. Hopefully it’s not a stupid thing to do.
Slate: How would you have reported it differently if you could go back in time? Not how would you report it now, because you can see the way people are doing it, but are there things that you would have done differently then?
Bertram: Julie and I are both older. And we were talking about a conversation I had with an editor at Premiere about whether we should go to Newsweek. Because back then, you know, news magazines were sort of the tome of record. But I think we realized that if we went to a probably male editor at Newsweek, it wouldn’t have had the same …
Iovine: It wouldn’t have happened. It would not have happened.
Bertram: It wouldn’t have happened. I think they would have shrugged and been like, “Oh, director preying on one of the actresses? Tell me something I don’t know.” And Spy just instantly got it. So as much as Julie and I in some ways have sort of done some soul-searching like, “As feminists, did we make a misstep in taking this to Spy and calling it a pickup artist’s guide?” the truth was, there was no other way to play it. I mean the evening news wasn’t going to book us, Letterman was going to book us, you know what I’m saying?
Slate: That was just the media environment then.
Bertram: Yeah, it was the media environment, and it also sort of predated this bullying paradigm of bully and victim. We just felt like we were going to call this guy out and do our best to hope it didn’t happen to other women. Or that other women wouldn’t fall for his B.S.
Slate: That they’d know that this was a pattern with him or whatever.
Iovine: At least the readers of Spy wouldn’t fall for his B.S.
Slate: It seems we’re kind of at a moment of change right now for this whole thing.
Iovine: It’s great; it’s a moment of change. This is different, and these guys are really being called to task.
So it’s great to see. It’s great to see.
Bertram: I would just caution you, as a documentary filmmaker for Retroreport.com—let me repeat: Retroreport.com—my documentary revisits all of these quote-unquote watershed moments in sexual harassment. Looking at the long view of history, I would caution you against trying to give this moment something.
Slate: The thing that, to me, has been most shocking about this is just, with any of these people, if you look back over the years at their press, it’s not just that this stuff wasn’t a secret, some of it was reported.
Bertram: Yeah, it was; it was an open secret, right? It was an open secret.
Slate: But it seems like the reaction now is just very different.
Bertram: Yeah, totally. I’d say, like, 180.
Slate: What’s it been like, finally being able to come forward as the authors? Is that gratifying? I guess you’ll know more in a couple of weeks.
Bertram: Matt, sisterhood is powerful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
via Slate http://slate.me/2lhZOuy
November 13, 2017 at 05:22PM