Martin Peretz is an obscenely wealthy moral cripple who owns the New Republic. His penchant for spouting ethnic slurs against Arabs recently earned him two lengthy and intense magazine profiles. Neither one saw fit to report that he is gay.
It's an open secret in Washington, D.C., that Peretz, who came to own the New Republic after marrying Anne Labouisse, an heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, is sexually attracted to men. We've spoken to several people who have direct (though not intimate) knowledge of Peretz's sexual preference and say that he makes no effort to hide it. We're told that his children have spoken openly of their father's life as a gay man. This is not a closely guarded secret or fleeting rumor; it's a commonplace among members of the Washington politico-media power axis.
Peretz's life has sort of fallen apart over the last year. Though he has been an avowed bigot for most of his adult life, he has only been held to account for his ethnic hostility to Arabs and Persians recently, when he wondered aloud on his New Republic blog "whether I need honor these people and pretend they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse." The "these people" were Arabs, for whom Peretz also said "life is cheap" (he later apologized for the First Amendment line). The naked racism of the sentiment caused even some of Peretz' oldest friends to hang their heads in shame, and served as an ignominious cap to his career. He and his wife divorced in 2009 (they had been separated since 2005), and late last year he stepped down as the New Republic's titular editor-in-chief and moved to Tel Aviv, where he teaches high school students and is active on the social circuit (he still maintains residences in New York City and Cambridge, Mass.).
A late-life crisis for such an eminent figure—not to mention Peretz's defiance in the face of critics that included longtime supporters—is catnip for magazine editors. So in December, New York published Benjamin Wallace-Wells' 5,500-word profile, "Peretz in Exile." The piece delved into all manner of details of Peretz's personal life—"theirs was a complicated union," Wallace-Wells wrote of his marriage, quoting Peretz saying "our values—and our lifestyles—sundered us apart." The piece noted that some of Peretz's closest friends and family members viewed him as "more compartmentalized than ever-open, almost to a fault, and yet also hidden." And it noted—with a wink to insiders so Wallace-Wells wouldn't appear clueless—that Peretz's "friendships with younger men were sometimes so intense that they could seem to border on the erotic." As for Peretz's actual erotic relationships with men, or the role they may or may not have played in the dissolution of his marriage—they apparently didn't merit inclusion.
And now this week comes another 5,000-plus-word profile, this time in the New York Times Magazine. Stephen Rodrick's "Martin Peretz Is Not Sorry About Anything" covers much of the same ground—though it includes the rather insane story of Peretz testifying on behalf of notorious New Republic fabulist-turned lawyer Stephen Glass at a California Bar Association hearing last year. Like Wallace-Wells, Rodrick aimed squarely at Peretz's personal romantic life but chose not to mention the most salient fact about that life. "His wife cited his infidelities and explosive temper as problems in the marriage," Rodrick writes, "but Peretz pre-empted any discussion of his romantic world, declaring, 'My sexual life is too complicated for one word, and not complicated enough for 15.'" Unless he is an idiot, Rodrick knew precisely what Peretz was talking about, but chose to leave readers with a blurry evasion—just as he chose to write without further clarification that Peretz "lives part of the year in a high-rise apartment tended by his assistant, a 26-year-old former I.D.F. officer." More winks for those in the know.
Both pieces purport to be attempts to understand Peretz's psyche, and their deliberate elisions of one of the most foundational aspects of that psyche is fundamentally dishonest. We are given to understand that Peretz is important to know, and that in order to know him we must know about his wife, his marriage, his infidelities—but not his sexuality.
Peretz presumably asked both magazines not to mention that he's gay—that's the only conceivable explanation for the information's absence from the profiles. But why would they agree? All it takes is something along the lines of "Peretz, who is widely said to be gay, declined to directly address the subject, saying, 'My sexuality is too complicated for one word.'" To pledge to not even broach the subject is collusion between reporter and subject over the disclosure of crucial information that could in no way be considered damaging to Peretz. Would they agree not to mention his divorce? His comments about Arabs? Their decision allows Peretz a fine-grained control over who gets to know a fundamental fact about himself: He can be gay to friends, family, and reporters writing profiles about him, but straight to the general public.
One of Peretz's proteges, former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, provided the best argument for why reporters shouldn't cede that sort of control to their subjects: "I'm all for privacy; I am not for dishonesty about simple facts of a person's public identity," he wrote of the press' hesitance to ask Elena Kagan about her sexual preference. "The NYT's bizarre profile of Kagan, which plumbs every minute aspect of her most intimate and private life while saying nothing whatever about her emotional relationships, home, dating, or indeed anything that might even touch upon her sexual orientation, gay or straight, is so contrived in its avoidance of the obvious it is almost comic." The Peretz profiles aren't quite as blindered, but they do suffer from the same basic flaw. Incidentally, we asked Sullivan what he thought of Peretz's ability to keep his gayness out of the press that he otherwise seems to relish, and he didn't respond.
We also asked the New Republic, the New York Times, New York, Wallace-Wells, and Rodrick for comment. A spokesperson for New York wrote that the magazine "thought hard about how to write about Peretz, and Ben ended up with a story that was true, tough and fair—in our view an artfully nuanced portrait of a pretty complex figure." The New York Times and Wallace-Wells declined to comment, Rodrick and a spokesperson for the New Republic did not return messages.