A journalist blew up her life for ‘pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli. The writer who told her story isn’t sure why
Thought the story of “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli couldn’t get any weirder? Wait till you hear how he met his girlfriend.
Shkreli is the securities savant-turned-pharmaceuticals exec who was sentenced in March 2018 to seven years in prison for securities fraud. Earlier this year, the former online provocateur was sued for alleged antitrust violations related to his 4,000% price increase on a lifesaving drug after he took over the company that sold it. The 37-year-old is also the guy known for buying the Wu-Tang Clan’s “secret” one-of-a-kind album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” for a reported $2 million in 2015.
Christie Smythe, 38, is the journalist who blew up her life after falling for Shkreli while covering his story — or at least most of it — for Bloomberg News. Elle published an account Sunday of her life-altering relationship, written by freelance journalist Stephanie Clifford, who interviewed Smythe in November.
“Over the course of nine months, beginning in July 2018, Smythe quit her job, moved out of the apartment, and divorced her husband,” Clifford wrote for Elle. “What could cause the sensible Smythe to turn her life upside down? She fell in love with a defendant whose case she not only covered, but broke the news of his arrest.”
Theirs was a relationship that morphed from journalist-source to something more intimate. Smythe calls Shkreli her “life partner,” while his attorneys referred to her back in April as his fiancée.
“This woman gave up so much to be dating Martin Shkreli,” Clifford told The Times, adding that Smythe kept making “little decisions” that led her to this point. “It wasn’t like one giant decision where she was like, ‘Yes, I’ll chuck it all to be with Martin Shkreli.’ It was all these tiny decisions she made along the way that got her to this very strange place.”
Clifford’s first brush with Smythe’s story came when the two were covering the Shkreli case from the same federal district court press room in Brooklyn. Clifford, then a New York Times reporter, overheard the Bloomberg correspondent on the phone with Shkreli at work one day. Clifford’s radar went off because she and other reporters hadn’t been able to get Shkreli to talk to them.
“In a friendly way, we were all jealous of her,” Clifford said. Smythe had gotten the “get.”
Clifford would continue to pay attention to Smythe as the latter moved from simply covering the trial to writing a book about Shkreli. Smythe’s tweets about Shkreli suggested that there was more to the story than she was letting on.
“This is getting tricky, ethically,” Clifford said she thought at the time. She didn’t want Smythe to get in trouble with her editors.
Then earlier this year, she said, she learned that Smythe and Shkreli were in “a committed relationship.” Clifford reached out to Smythe, offering to tell her story.
At first Smythe declined, more than once, Clifford said, but by fall she was ready to talk.
“I didn’t know the timeline [of their relationship], I didn’t know why she had fallen for him,” Clifford said. “My worry going in was that she wasn’t approaching this in a clear-eyed way. That maybe she was manipulated by him. ... But it became clear as we talked that she had thought through all of this. She had thought through the journalistic implications. She had thought through the ethical implications. And we talked very frankly about what it would mean for her life if this came out.”
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In the beginning, Shkreli had toyed with Smythe, she told Clifford, promising an exclusive but refusing to talk on the record. Then one day he asked her for her advice when he was looking for a new lawyer.
“It really felt like he didn’t have anybody to talk to that he could bounce ideas off of,” Smythe told Clifford. “I was like, ‘All right. I guess I can do that.’” That conversation appears to have been an inflection point in the relationship.
“I think that was a key moment where she suddenly felt like, ‘He needs some support. He’s reaching out to me. I should give it to him,’” Clifford said.
Smythe wound up eventually taking a leave from her job to work on her Shkreli book, an endeavor that had been suggested to her in the fall of 2016 by the professor of a class she was taking. That professor also warned her of the perils of writing a book about someone who was “so manipulative,” as Smythe had described Shkreli in an essay for the class.
“Maybe I was being charmed by a master manipulator,” Smythe later told Clifford.
In mid-2017, Smythe — by then on a book leave from her job at Bloomberg — was present in the courtroom during Shkreli’s trial, had lunch with him at the courthouse and hung out with supporters of his whom she’d met online. She visited him at his apartment and listened to the Wu-Tang album, “for research,” she said. The relationship was still entirely platonic.
Wu-Tang Clan’s ambitious, one-of-a-kind secret album “Once Upon A Time in Shaolin” — of which only a single copy was produced — has been sold to an American buyer for an undisclosed figure that was in the millions, private auction house Paddle8 announced on Tuesday.
But during Shkreli’s sentencing in early 2018, emails between the two surfaced and were used by the prosecution to demonstrate Shkreli’s lack of remorse. Smythe realized she was now part of the story, so she told her Bloomberg editors and was reassigned. A few months later, amid concerns about her professionalism regarding Shkreli, she quit her job. Her book deal ultimately fell through, though Smythe did manage to option the movie rights to her story.
Smythe’s marriage, which had been strained by her stress over Shkreli, fell apart. She continued to visit Shkreli in prison, and wound up venting to him about how angry she was that the publishing industry and other entities had rejected her efforts to tell his story. And he listened.
“Before, she had tamped down the sparks between her and Shkreli, but now, she gave them air,” Clifford wrote for Elle. “She thought about when he’d teased her about being a nerd in an old photo he glimpsed, and how she felt when he added her to his visitors’ list (he’s not a big fan of visitors, but wanted her to come). A realization hit her. In the visitors’ room, ‘I told Martin I loved him,’ Smythe says. ‘And he told me he loved me, too.’ She asked if she could kiss him, and he said yes.”
Though their relationship has been chaste, Smythe said in the article — which will appear in the March print edition of Elle — it moved forward through visits, emails and phone calls.
“At first he’s like, ‘Can I call you my girlfriend?’” she told Clifford in November, adding that “this led very naturally into thinking about a future together.” They discussed kids’ names, talked about prenups, and Smythe froze her eggs.
Things are harder now. She hasn’t seen Shkreli in a year, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. And when he found out that her story would be published by Elle, he cut off all communication.
His lawyers referred to her as his fiancée in April when they requested he be allowed early release due to the virus — he didn’t get it — but when Clifford reached out to Shkreli for comment on the Elle piece, his people sent a message that she passed along to Smythe: “Mr. Shkreli wishes Ms. Smythe the best of luck in her future endeavors”
Smythe, however, seems to believe everything is still on track. In the article, she says she will wait for him until his release from prison.
“That’s him saying, You’re going to live your life and we’re just gonna not be together. That I’m going to maybe get my book and that our paths will — will fork,” she said in the article.
Clifford, who is working on her second novel and writes about criminal justice and business for magazines including the Atlantic and the New Yorker, said she believes the relationship is sincere, from Smythe’s point of view: “She’s a smart, sensible woman — clearly there’s something there that’s pulling her along.”
But Clifford said she doesn’t know what to make of Shkreli’s response to Smythe.
“I listened to so much testimony about him — but I don’t know his motives,” she said.
Meanwhile on Sunday and Monday, Smythe was on Twitter interacting with people who were commenting on Clifford’s article.
“Thank you again to @ELLEmagazine for letting me tell my crazy tale. It takes bravery, too, to publish it. It still amazes me HOW HARD it is to get a story as messy and complicated as this to see the light of day. But it’s out now. At least that’s done,” tweeted Smythe, who now works at a journalism start-up.
“I didn’t do it to ‘look good,’” she added in a reply. “I did it because I couldn’t keep it hidden forever. I’m compelled to tell painful and awkward truths.”
In a follow-up Q&A with Clifford that posted Monday afternoon, Smythe spoke about why she’d chosen to engage with people online.
“I’m so insulted by the fact that people would think I’d be afraid to stand up for what I said,” Smythe said. “Why would I do that? Why would I slink off? That does not sound like me.”
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