The internet was set ablaze on Sunday night by a viral interview in which a former reporter for Bloomberg News described how she upended her “perfect little Brooklyn life” by falling in love with Martin Shkreli, a maverick hedge funder who rose to infamy before being sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud.
Under the title The Journalist and the Pharma Bro – a play on Janet Malcolm’s famous discourse on journalistic ethics, The Journalist and the Murderer – reporter Stephanie Clifford described how “over the course of nine months, beginning in July 2018”, Christie Smythe – who broke the story of Shkreli’s arrest in December 2015 – “quit her job, moved out of [her] apartment and divorced her husband”.
“What could cause the sensible Smythe to turn her life upside down?” Clifford asked. “She fell in love with a defendant whose case she not only covered, but broke the news of his arrest.”
“It was a scoop that ignited the internet, because her love interest, now life partner, is not just any defendant, but Martin Shkreli: the so-called ‘Pharma Bro’ and online provocateur, who increased the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000% overnight and made headlines for buying a one-off Wu-Tang Clan album for a reported $2m.”
Shkreli, now 37, was convicted of two counts of securities fraud and one of conspiracy in August 2017 and sentenced in March the following year. In April 2019, he was moved from a low-security prison in New Jersey after the Wall Street Journal reported he was still running his old company, via a contraband cellphone. He is now in a federal facility in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, due for release in 2023.
As told to Elle, Smythe has divorced and left Bloomberg and now lives in a “bright basement apartment in Harlem”. She describes how her relationship with Shkreli developed from reporter and subject to something more, to the point where they shared a first kiss in a prison visitors’ room.
“I told Martin I loved him,” Smythe told Elle. “And he told me he loved me, too.”
Clifford adds: “She asked if she could kiss him, and he said yes. The room smelled of chicken wings, she remembers.”
“They couldn’t touch beyond a chaste hug and kiss, per prison rules, and have never slept together, but the relationship moved forward through continued visits, phone calls, and emails.”
Smythe and Shkreli discussed “kids’ names and prenups”, Clifford reported, adding that Smythe now refers to Shkreli as her “life partner” and supported his unsuccessful application for release due to the coronavirus pandemic, in which he said he would live with an unnamed fiancée in Manhattan and work to find a cure for Covid-19. The piece also detailed Smythe’s attempts to land deals for a book and a movie.
Many readers, however, hailed the story’s “jaw-dropping twist”.
Shkreli stopped communicating with Smythe, Clifford reported, when he found out about the article. His only comment: “Mr Shkreli wishes Ms Smythe the best of luck in her future endeavors.”
Elle reports that Smythe responded to Shkreli’s comment by saying “‘That’s sweet,’ quietly, not convincingly.”
Describing her own reaction to Shkreli’s arrest back in 2015, the event which both gave her a huge scoop and kicked off her own personal saga, Smythe said: “I had the sense that there would be massive schadenfreude.” Such was the tone of much reaction after her own interview with Elle was published.
“Here’s another way to look at this whole mess,” wrote Katie Rosman, a New York Times reporter. “Christie Smythe sells Martin Shkreli out for the fame and the big book deal. Uses him, goes for the money, beats him at his own game. Price gouges the hell out of him while he sits in prison. Fairytale ending for the pharma bro age?”
But there was also sympathy for Smythe from some commenters.
“I don’t care how bad your love life has been this year,” said the writer Charlotte Clymer on Twitter. “If it doesn’t approach getting ghosted by Martin Shkreli from prison after torching your career and marriage for him, you’re doing just fine, Sweetie.”
In her own tweets, Smythe said: “I realise it’s hard for many people to accept that 1. Martin is not a psychopath, and 2. a woman can choose to do something with her life (which does not affect you) that you in no way approve of. But that’s OK.”
She also wrote that “going public is such a relief, no matter what people think. You have no idea how hard it is to keep this kind of a story bottled up. So messy and complicated. I’m glad it was told well”.