Judith Regan, the powerful, cocky and often outrageous publisher who cooked up the recently aborted O.J. Simpson book and TV deal, was fired Friday night by HarperCollins, the publishing company that owned Regan’s imprint.
In a terse two-sentence statement that did not explain reasons for the termination, HarperCollins President and Chief Executive Jane Friedman said Regan’s imprint, ReganBooks, would remain a part of the parent company.
Regan had recently moved most of her employees from their New York office to new headquarters in Century City, and it was not clear what their future with the larger, New York-based publishing firm would be.
Spokespeople for Regan and Friedman did not return phone calls Friday night, after the news of Regan’s termination was made public.
The firing ended a flamboyant 12-year run in which Regan, 53, built her own publishing and TV empire within News Corp., an international media giant run by Rupert Murdoch that includes 20th Century Fox, Fox News Channel, the New York Post and TV stations across the nation.
Regan, known for her brash style and cagey business instincts, helped generate a stream of bestselling books by highly praised authors such as Wally Lamb and Jess Walter -- a novelist recently nominated for the National Book Award in fiction -- and by icons such as U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, baseball star Jose Canseco and porn star Jenna Jameson.
Regan was also branching into television, with the reality show “Growing Up Gotti.” It was part of a long-range plan, connected to her move to Los Angeles, to blend publishing content with TV programming.
She is known for having practically invented the right-wing “rant book,” giving Rush Limbaugh his first bestseller. But she also published works by left-wing activist Michael Moore. And until the Simpson debacle, she had seemed to be the darling of Murdoch’s media world.
But her winning streak ended loudly and publicly when she reportedly paid Simpson $3.5 million for a book and television deal. In the TV project, a two-hour interview with Simpson, conducted by Regan, was to have aired on Fox. The book, “If I Did It,” was billed as a hypothetical account of how he might have carried out the 1994 slayings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman.
Facing protest over the project, Regan issued an emotional, disjointed eight-page statement defending her decision on the venture. She wrote that as a victim of domestic violence, she felt a kinship with Nicole Brown Simpson.
Murdoch announced Nov. 21 that he and other News Corp. officials had decided to terminate the project because of growing public protest over its content. The project drew fire from some of Fox News’ biggest stars, including Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera. A number of television affiliates had said they would not air the interview.
Since the project’s termination, Murdoch, Friedman and others have not spoken about Regan’s future with the company. They did not return repeated phone calls in recent days about Regan’s status, and did not answer questions as to whether Friedman, as HarperCollins CEO, had given the approval for the Simpson book along with Regan.
It was widely known in New York publishing circles that Regan and Friedman did not like each other. “That’s actually an understatement,” joked one HarperCollins official recently, before the firing was announced.
Additional controversy surrounded Regan this week with disclosures that she would publish “7: The Mickey Mantle Novel” by Peter Golenbock. The book, scheduled for March 1 publication, has been criticized as a fictional biography that includes unflattering scenes from the life of the New York Yankees legend.
In firing Regan, HarperCollins may have spared itself further controversy. But it also lost a publisher who was one of the industry’s most successful women. Before she went to HarperCollins, at Murdoch’s behest, she had spawned a series of bestselling books by Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern that reinvigorated the genre of the celebrity autobiography. She got her start as a reporter for the National Enquirer in 1978 and was hired as a consultant by Simon & Schuster in 1987 after she pitched several book ideas.
Former employees say Regan has a volcanic temper and frequently berated staff members behind closed doors, using off-color language. In her business dealings, she has brought tough Hollywood-style negotiating tactics to the comparatively genteel world of publishing.
“A lot of people in this business may not like me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in a New York interview this year. “But people in publishing, who like the bottom line, love what I do. And that’s all that really matters to me. This is a business, and I’m very good at this business.”
Regan’s decision to shift her operation to Los Angeles, a move that took place this year, reflected her belief that there were “tremendous synergies” to be mined between Southern California writers and the entertainment business.
It was also a chance to start over in a community that she had predicted would be less critical about her behavior and her business manner.
Last year, New York tabloids seized on revelations that Regan and former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik -- a nominee, for a short time, to be Homeland Security secretary -- had had an affair, including trysts in an apartment overlooking a still-smoldering ground zero, while Kerik was married.