If you’ve heard the story that Donald Trump keeps a copy of Hitler’s speeches on his nightstand, then you’ve stumbled across the reporting of Marie Brenner.
The anecdote comes to life in “After the Gold Rush,” Brenner’s 1990 Vanity Fair profile chronicling the messy divorce between Trump and his then-wife Ivana. When the reporter confronts the playboy about his predilection for Nazi bedtime stories, Trump immediately gets squirrelly. “Actually, it was my friend Marty Davis from Paramount who gave me a copy of Mein Kampf,” he replies, “and he’s a Jew.” Brenner confirms in parentheses that Davis is not, in fact, Jewish.
An incident that might have sparked a day’s worth of reprimands in the age of social media outrage was drawn out over years in print. Trump, or at least his ghostwriter Kate Bohner, refers to the article as “one of the worst ever written about me”—with a dig at Brenner as an “unattractive reporter” to boot—in his 1997 book The Art of the Comeback. In a 1992 New York magazine cover story titled “Fighting Back, Trump tells journalist Julie Baumgold that in retaliation, he poured a bottle of red wine down Brenner’s back. (It was a glass of white.)
Brenner refers to the stain as her “badge of honor,” and I’m reminded of a different colorful anecdote she tells, of another famed reporter named Marie. This story belongs to Marie Colvin, the swashbuckling war correspondent for The Sunday Times who was killed by the Syrian regime in 2012, a few months before Brenner’s profile of her ran. A decade before her death, Colvin lost her left eye to shrapnel from a RPG fired by the Sri Lankan Army. As Brenner tells it, photos of Colvin’s half-naked and unconscious body found their way to her editor at the Times, who remarked upon her “lucky red bra.” Except the bra wasn’t red at all – it was a cream-colored La Perla, dyed scarlet with blood.
The cinematic stories that Brenner weaves are ripe for adaptation to film. In 1999, Michael Mann adapted her investigative report on the tobacco industry, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” into the lauded thriller The Insider. This week, director Matthew Heineman released his telling of “Marie Colvin’s Private War.” A third film, based on Brenner’s story of a security guard falsely accused of terrorism, is in the works.
These stories and more have been reissued this year in A Private War: Marie Colvin and Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades, a collection that represents longform journalism at its peak. This offered me an opportunity to talk to Brenner about the scars and stains she sustained on the front lines of holding power to account.
—Matthew Miles Goodrich for Guernica
Guernica: In the introduction to the new collection, you mention that your father had an outsized influence in your decision to become a reporter. Can you expand on how his moral compass was imprinted upon yours?
Marie Brenner: I was stamped with my family’s DNA in every way. My aunt, Anita Brenner, was a well known journalist and anthropologist, and one of the first women who worked for The New York Times in the 1930s. She interviewed Trotsky while wearing a blindfold in Paris, she brought Diego Rivera to New York for the first time, she wrote a seminal book on Mexican art called Idols Behind Altars—this was the conversation in my household. It was an intimidating atmosphere!
But in San Antonio, where I grew up, I was lucky because I had such an extraordinary father. He ran a discount store, and he just completely believed that you have to stand up to the people doing bad things and bring them to justice. He would antagonize anyone and everyone—from the governor, to corrupt local power-brokers, to the gentrifiers stealing the neighborhood from the Mexican Americans in historic San Antonio. And he ran these campaigns out of our family department store! I have a scrapbook filled with thousands of handbills that say, “Don’t vote for this person,” or “Write to the FTA,” or “This company is trying to raise your electricity bill.” At one point, my father offered a pretty large reward in the local paper for anyone who could explain why the power rates in San Antonio had quadrupled. A neighbor around the corner, a lawyer and friend of my parents, turned out to be responsible! It was a joyous childhood.
Guernica: It sounds remarkably similar to the investigative journalism that you’ve made into a career.
Brenner: My dad was so fun to talk to while I was in the midst of reporting. I’d get on the phone with him and say, “Daddy, can you believe they’re doing this at Enron?” He’d say, “Hell yes!” My first political lesson came in high school, when he told me that, to understand the Vietnam War, all you had to know was how much money Clark Clifford—the Defense Secretary—was getting from “these corrupt sons of bitches.” And then he’d point to one of our neighbors, who ran the company that put the highways in Vietnam for President Johnson. He’d say, “There they are, making a goddamn fortune off what they’re doing in Vietnam.” That was just my father.
Guernica: Did you imagine journalism as part of your trajectory while you were in San Antonio?
Brenner: I don’t think I had a sense of trajectory. I wanted to write; I wanted to be in the world; I wanted something with drama. Life zig-zagged more back then. My generation didn’t have a strong sense of what we were going to do by the time we were twenty-two. Everything just seemed like a lucky accident.
Guernica: A lot has changed in the world of journalism since then! Clearly, this was the golden age. You describe flying to the French Riviera to interview Michele Duvalier, which isn’t something I can imagine happening anymore.
Brenner: Totally! Editors just asked, “Who do we know in the South of France? Who’s our connection?” “Let’s send so-and-so to suss it out, and let’s see if she can get Salvador Dali in Barcelona on the way.” It was absolutely a different time, and story was paramount. We were story-driven—whatever the story was going to cost, we were going to do it. Sometimes you’d interview 50 or 60 people in different cities. We didn’t think about it.
Guernica: A lot has definitely changed.
Brenner: Oh my God, yes.
Guernica: And one of the big changes that’s roiling the media industry right now is the #MeToo movement. So many well-known editors of prestigious publications are getting called out—and sometimes pushed out—for sexual misconduct. I’m thinking in particular of the Shitty Media Men list, which served as a whisper network for younger women and freelancers who wouldn’t have access otherwise. When you started reporting, what recourse did you have from shitty media men?
Brenner: I don’t think we really thought about it. This is a generational divide. We had a goal: to tell big, big stories. If someone came onto us inappropriately, you just pushed them off, ignored it, and kept on. If you went down the track of trying to call the men out, you weren’t focused on that goal of telling big stories anymore.
Every woman has a catalog of these horrifying episodes that she can tell you. I have a list as well. For my generation, it was a question of perspective. Many of us have been called out by the younger generation, and I understand that. I think this is a game-changing time in media. That said, there has been a certain amount of unfairness. Is there due process? What are the rules? There weren’t rules before. What are we missing when we’re adjudicating this all? But I’ll say to the younger women that this is an extremely important moment, and I’m very glad it’s happening.
Guernica: Are you optimistic about the state of media right now? Pessimistic?
Brenner: I think this is an extraordinary time for reporters, because the stories have never been more interesting or more important. There are have been many great arcs of journalism over the past forty years. Think of Harold Evans’s The Sunday Times of the 1970s, which is really what inspired Marie Colvin and me to become journalists. He wouldn’t hear from his foreign correspondents for months at a time. He would send a team to Africa—the Times would dispatch their own private planes to find these wars in the Congo, and six weeks later they would call in and say, “Ok, Harry, this is what we have.” Marie Colvin came up under the next proprietor of The Sunday Times, and she would run up these SAT phone bills of $30,000 because she—well, she was not a tech savant and didn’t understand how to turn off the phone. She would keep these stacks of receipts on the floor in her office, and every three or four months her editor would have to send someone to her house to scoop up the jumble and try to make sense of it.
That’s what happened when you had a million subscribers and profitable stories that brought in readers for the paper. It was the same at Vanity Fair. Our stories won awards, they broke new ground, they were lavish and important, and they were extraordinarily cost-intensive to pull off.
Guernica: And there’s another side to that lavishness, right? I’m reminded of the anecdote you tell about when you were breaking the story about the tobacco whistleblower, and your editor had to check to see how much money Brown & Williamson gave to the magazine. And then the PR man who was slandering the whistleblower was a consultant for Vanity Fair! But the story was okayed anyway.
Brenner: Look, the PR enablers all just wanted money. They have country houses in Sag Harbor to pay for. I’m closing a story right now and it involves some of these enablers, and I just wish I could call up my father and scream about how outrageous it is that some of our finest law firms and best PR agencies are all in bed with the kleptocrats!
Some of this self-dealing existed when I began reporting, but it was new. It started under Reagan, this era of Roy Cohn and Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. In a precursor to this current political moment, Clark Clifford, the elegant Washingtonian, was indicted after he got involved with this kind of mafia bank called BCCI. It was considered such a scandal then, but the moral sensor has faded.
Guernica: That seems quaint by today’s standards. And this is also the era where Donald Trump learned it all, trying to be his own PR man and leaking stories about himself to the press.
Brenner: That was the least of it! That was sort of fun. In the early days, Trump had this gruff, vulgar charm. It was amusing to watch this guy in his thirties with monogrammed cuffs and bravado. It was catnip! And then as it progressed, it became more and more sinister and toxic. You can’t even conjure up enough words to describe the period we’re in.
Guernica: Would you do anything different knowing where we’d end up?
Brenner: I don’t think anyone could have stopped it. The fact is that he’s a master communicator. There have been all kinds of superb reporters—starting with Wayne Barrett—who have generated whole volumes on Trump’s chicaneries and shady deals and indictable offenses. Doesn’t matter.
He welcomes it all. The lies are so brazen, dozens of times a day. Anthony Scaramucci actually said something very smart on Morning Joe, which is that the more Trump lies, the more it plays. In other words, we’re in a different age, where the only thing that matters is that Trump is a wrecking ball trying to tear down the establishment. According to Scaramucci, Trump just fits into a working-class desire to burn the system down, and now it’s out of control. That might be glib, but it captures what Trump is trying to do.
Guernica: What was your reaction, given your history with Trump, when he declared he was running for president?
Brenner: Utter disbelief. I thought it was a joke, and then it wasn’t a joke. Eventually I thought he’d be successful because of the crowds that he drew. It was a bellwether that things are going on, and there’s no question that he’s an extraordinary communicator.
Guernica: I remember seeing him for the first time and thinking just how incoherent he sounded. He speaks in such fragments. But he connects with an audience in a visceral way.
Brenner: He reaches deep into the psyche. He’s Archie Bunker with Twitter.
Guernica: And it’s terrifying that he’s railing against fake news, in a moment where Jamal Khashoggi was dismembered for being a dissident member of the press.
Brenner: One of the extraordinary things about working on the Marie Colvin adaptation is that it occurred in this atmosphere of fear that Trump enveloped reporters within. Colvin, who was targeted by al-Assad, is one of hundreds of journalists who have been killed by these tyrants. This is something that’s never happened before. Reporters could enter war zones with gaffer tape on their jackets saying PRESS, and that would guarantee them protection. But seven or eights years ago, that changed; now reporters are targeted. It’s terrifying, and now you see a glimmer of it happening in the US, when Trump would point to CNN reporters packing up their laptops and say “go and rough them up.”
Guernica: It reminds me of what Marie Colvin said in 2010, that bravery is not being afraid to be afraid. You’ve taken on some of the richest and most powerful entities in the country, from the tobacco industry to Enron to Donald Trump himself. What’s the most fear you’ve experienced while on the job?
Brenner: It would have to be when I was reporting in Kabul in 2004. I was going to interview a warlord, and I remember feeling real anxiety after landing on this runway pockmarked by bombs. There was still a lot of rocket fire, and besides, if you were a Western woman and you had one lock of hair exposed—well, it was tricky. But that was the experience that Marie Colvin would have on a weekly basis, in Iraq or Afghanistan. She walked from Albania into Kosovo with the British Army. She was just fearless.
Guernica: We haven’t gotten to the point here in America where that kind of bravery is required, but it seems we might be on track.
Brenner: As a writer, I’m always so attracted to those on the frontlines, whether it’s Marie or Sammy Ghozlan, the French-Jewish cop who discovered all the attacks on the Jews during the intifada. These people exhibit incredible bravery when they’re caught in a vise. Their pain becomes your pain. Their bravery becomes your bravery.
Guernica: How do you get the emotional perspective to be able to write those stories?
Brenner: I spend so much time with the people I write about that I try to tell the story through their point of view. I try to take on the emotions they were feeling, so I get to know them fairly well. I try to erase myself into their emotional state. It’s been so powerful to me to get to understand so many different kinds of people coping with excruciating circumstances.