This week, we’re sharing stories from Matthew Shaer, John Woodrow Cox, Bethany McLean, Robin Wright, and David Sedaris.
If you already don’t trust the ways some big banks invest your money, Wells Fargos’ treatment of customers won’t increase your confidence. At Vanity Fair, Bethany McLean reveals the widespread corruption among Wells Fargo salespeople, and the way staff high up the corporate chain tolerated it. Between 2011 and 2015, bankers created over 1.5 million deposit and 565,000 credit-card accounts without customer approval. Employees blamed the company’s intense culture, and internal complaints made little difference. In 2016, Wells paid a $185 million fine, yet it admitted no wrongdoing, and it didn’t immediately eliminate its retail product sales goals. So what changes have been made to protect its customers? And why should anyone trust them again?
Guitron says that customers began coming to her, complaining about getting mail from Wells Fargo on accounts or services that they had never authorized. “People knew me and knew I could fix the problems,” she says. A common denominator, according to Guitron, was that most of the customers were Spanish-speaking, like her, so they didn’t feel comfortable going to management in English.
“All the tellers and staff knew it, but no one else would complain,” Guitron says. “People needed the job. So did I, but I knew right from wrong.” On September 19, 2008, she sent an e-mail to her branch manager. “I have come across instances where I’ve opened accounts and shortly after they are closed and new sets of accounts are opened,” she wrote. “I find NO banker notes to explain why this is happening. I am very concerned as I know this to be GAMING!!!” She collected approximately 300 printouts of accounts that were problematic in various ways, she says, such as a minor having more than a dozen accounts. But, according to Guitron in legal documents, her manager would say only, “It’s a misunderstanding.” Or “You need to mind your own business.”
Nothing changed, so Guitron requested meetings with more senior executives. Overall, she claimed that during her tenure at Wells Fargo she raised concerns on more than 100 occasions, including about a dozen calls to the Wells Fargo EthicsLine, and on no fewer than 37 occasions she provided records that supported her complaints. Guitron alleges that her managers began to retaliate, making it harder for her to meet her sales goals. She was fired in January 2010.
For Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz profiles 83-year-old iconic editor Nan Talese, who rose through the ranks of one publishing house after another before being given her own eponymous imprint at Doubleday in 1990. Aside from being one of the most powerful women in publishing, Talese is also known as one-half of one of the most interesting and curious marriages in recent history. One of the underpinnings of her union with famously non-monogamous New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese is a pledge she made to him early on that she wouldn’t ever impinge on his “freedom”—an agreement that allowed him to have many affairs, some supposedly in the name of “research” for his book about the loosening of sexual mores in the free love era. The profile comes just as Gay plans to write a book about their marriage.
In 1981, when Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out, something discomfiting was starting to happen to Nan and Gay: their power in the world began to shift. Gay’s book was critically panned, not for the substance, which reviewers barely paid attention to, but for the salaciousness of its author. “What was alleged was I was doing frivolous research. Getting my jollies, hanging around massage parlors, getting laid, getting jerked off, all that,” says Gay, whose reputation dimmed. An active member of the writers group PEN, he’d been on the verge of becoming its next president. But in light of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the women of PEN revolted, and he resigned. Nan’s career, meanwhile, was skyrocketing. In 1981 she was named the executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, the old-line publishing company based in Boston; she’d commute there while still running the New York office. Gay believes her rise was at least partially tied to his downfall. “She started getting a lot of publicity about Thy Neighbor’s Wife . . . . What about this guy’s wife? This guy’s wife is Nan Talese. She’s this terrific, revered editor, and she’s married to this disgusting guy.”
But, for Nan, who still saw herself first as Gay’s champion, the power shift hardly felt like comeuppance or victory. His bad reviews, and his fallen reputation, were as devastating to Nan as they were to Gay. She defended him publicly, as she does today. “I think most of the press told more about the reporters than it did about Gay,” she says. And so, for the next few years, life continued as it had before, in keeping with the pledge—only, now the pressure had intensified for Gay, as he was looking to recapture literary greatness. There continued his long periods of absence, notably in Rome, where he went to research Unto the Sons, about his ancestors in Italy. There continued romantic entanglements on the road. “I don’t want to degrade people by representing the whole all-star cast of women. I could, but I won’t,” says Gay.
Last week, on February 18th, Norma McCorvey — aka “Jane Roe,” the plaintiff in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case that legalized abortion — passed away. Four years ago, in February, 2013, Vanity Fair published this fascinating profile of of her. McCorvey, who wasn’t able to actually have the abortion she fought for because of the timing of her pregnancy and the drawn-out case, famously had a change of heart many years later, becoming a pro-life activist. Through most of her adult life, regardless of whether she was fighting for or against women’s reproductive rights, McCorvey managed to monetize her position, not only publishing two memoirs, but forming one sketchy foundation after another, on either side of the argument. Author Joshua Prager had to write around the subject — whom he and all those interviewed portray as mercenary — because she refused to be interviewed without payment of her $1,000 speaking fee.
Young Norma McCorvey had not wanted to further a cause; she had simply wanted an abortion and could not get one in Texas. Even after she became a plaintiff, plucked from obscurity through little agency of her own, she never did get that abortion. McCorvey thus became, ironically, a symbol of the right to a procedure that she herself never underwent. And in the decades since the Roe decision divided the country, the issue of abortion divided McCorvey too. She started out staunchly pro-choice. She is now just as staunchly pro-life.
But in truth McCorvey has long been less pro-choice or pro-life than pro-Norma. And she has played Jane Roe every which way, venturing far from the original script to wring a living from the issue that has come to define her existence.
“I almost forgot i have a one thousand dollar fee,” she texted in August in response to a request for an interview. Told she could not be paid, she texted back: “Then we wont speak.”
At Vanity Fair, Allen Salkin examines the downfall of Pure Food & Wine proprietor Sarma Melngailis. It all seems to stem from her involvement with Anthony Strangis, an ex-gambler she met on Twitter and then married, and whose alleged “coercive control” may have led the vegan icon and Wharton graduate to destroy her business and become a fugitive from the law:
A source close to Melngailis describes a scenario in which Strangis resorted to cult-like techniques, including gaslighting, sleep deprivation, and sexual humiliation, to control her. (Strangis, through his court-appointed attorney, Samuel Karliner, denied all these allegations but did not elaborate on his denials in responding to 80 questions from Vanity Fair.) Perhaps if you can understand how a sane, successful businesswoman comes to believe the insane idea that her dog can live forever, everything else snaps into focus—how that person might be accused of bilking her investors of $844,000, owe her employees more than $40,000 in unpaid wages, financially strip her restaurant, and now find herself awaiting trial, with a potential 15-year sentence. She had thought all harm would be magically reversed, just as Leon’s life span would be extended, according to her camp.
KAHANE CORN COOPERMAN(field producer, later co-executive producer, 1996-2015):
I produced a field piece, with Stacey Grenrock Woods as the correspondent, about a guy, Alexander P., who had been a rock star in Ukraine and came here and was now a waiter in a hotel restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This piece may well have been in the works before Jon arrived. But it airs, and after the show you have a postmortem. And Jon was not happy. He said, “Your targets are just wrong. They shouldn’t be people on the fringe. Our targets need to be the people who have a voice, and that’s politicians, and that’s the media.”
STACEY GRENROCK WOODS(correspondent, 1998-2003):
I heard Jon was very unhappy with that piece, and I don’t blame him at all. I didn’t like it, either, but it was given to me. I think it ended up being a policy-changing piece.
-From a new oral history of The Daily Show, by Chris Smith, excerpted in Vanity Fair.
Springsteen may today be a man who splits his time between a horse farm in his native Monmouth County, a second home in New Jersey, and luxury properties in Florida and L.A., but Born to Run is an emphatic refutation of the notion that, as a songwriter, he can no longer connect to the troubled and downtrodden. Especially in its early chapters, the book demonstrates how honestly Springsteen has come by his material. Cars, girls, the Shore, the workingman’s struggles, broken dreams, disillusioned vets—it’s all right there in his upbringing.
“One of the points I’m making in the book is that, whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you,” he said, expanding upon this thought with the most Springsteen-esque metaphor possible: “I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”
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Sam Kashner delves into the mysterious world of Michelin stars in the new issue of Vanity Fair, talking to top chefs about what it takes to gain—and keep—the restaurant world’s highest honor. Although restaurant critics are often recognized, Michelin inspectors remain virtually unknown. Kashner spoke on the phone with one inspector (even he wasn’t allowed to know her name), who described her life on the road, eating at least 200 restaurant meals a year.
When you start as a Michelin inspector, your first weeks of training are abroad, she says. “You go to the mother ship in France. Depending on your language skills, maybe you go to another European country and train with an inspector there.” There’s no prescribed path to becoming a food inspector, “though inspectors are all lifers in one way or another,” she explained, and they usually come from families devoted to food and the table. “One inspector was a chef at a very well-known, three-star restaurant, another came from a hotel…. I think you’re either built for this or you’re not,” she added. “You have to really be an independent personality. You have to be somewhat solitary but also work as part of a team. You have to be comfortable dining alone. Most of the time, I think, inspectors all live in a perpetual state of paranoia. That’s the job: the C.I.A. but with better food.”
“Lunch With M” (The New Yorker, ’09)
John Colapinto joins an undercover Michelin inspector (code name: Maxime) for lunch at New York’s Jean Georges restaurant.
In 2008, Vanity Fair published a story about a guitar salesman named Steven Schein, who found a photograph of Robert Johnson, the world’s most influential Bluesman, for sale on eBay for $25. The photo was mislabeled “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B. King???”. Only two photos of Johnson had been publicly released. The article is about Schein’s experience buying and identifying Johnson’s face, and the issues it raised about who gets to control and profit from the music and images of one of the world’s most influential musicians, and one of Columbia Records’ big sellers, who happened to be a black man:
With the eBay photo still on his computer monitor, Schein dug up his copy of the Johnson boxed set and took another look. Not only was he more confident than ever that he had found a photo of Robert Johnson, he had a hunch who the other man in the photo was, too: Johnny Shines, a respected Delta-blues artist in his own right, and one of the handful of musicians who, in the early 1930s and again in the months before Johnson’s death, had traveled with him from town to town to look for gigs or stand on busy street corners and engage in a competitive practice known as “cuttin’ heads,” whereby one blues musician tries to draw away the crowd (and their money) gathered around another musician by standing on a nearby corner and outplaying him.
Shines had died in 1992. His picture was included in the boxed-set booklet, and Schein saw a resemblance; if both of his hunches were right, then the photo was even more of a find. At that point, Schein became possessed of two thoughts: One was “to hold the photo in my hands,” he says. The other was “to protect it.”