Years ago, I fact-checked two memoirs by powerful men. Their books wised me up to an invisible poltergeist in world events: the feverish infatuation of one straight man for another.
One of the authors was Michael Eisner, then the CEO of Disney. He offered insight into how powerful producers of the ’80s and ’90s used to fall head over heels for the glamorous movie star Warren Beatty. After nothing more than an evening out, I learned, they’d give Beatty a blank check to make some loser movie like Ishtar (1987) or Bulworth (1998). It was laughable and also mysterious to bottom-line men like Eisner, who like data and track records, but he couldn’t deny that Beatty’s hold on producers had determined a swath of American film history.
My other boss was Michael Korda, then the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster. In Man to Man, his memoir about having prostate cancer, Korda, who unlike many richies is a deft writer, supplies an exquisitely self-aware account of how he rejected veteran doctors offering data-driven treatments for his disease, and instead turned his gonads over to a he-man surgeon after locking eyes with him in a single meeting.
From Eisner’s and Korda’s descriptions of these dynamics, I came to understand that there are certain domineering, athletic, authoritative, hard-eyed and often deep-voiced or excessively tall men who might seem like vain douchebags to the rest of us but who captivate certain vulnerable other men. So charismatic are they that their prey sometimes will throw caution to the wind and give away the keys to their kingdom, often ruinously.
It’s no exaggeration to say that these emotional affairs of the male heart can influence geopolitics. Paris’ blind love for Helen of Troy cannot have upset the world’s balance of power any more than the irrational intoxication of vulnerable men by the hypermanly: Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Mohammed bin Salman, and even child rapist Jeffrey Epstein. When we consider how structural forces and complicity networks drive abuses of power and even human-rights abuses, we should also consider how passionate homosocial romances figure in.
The workings of these radioactive dyads are almost always a black box to people like me, who are not party to them. But from Eisner and Korda I learned their hallmarks: The “love at first sight” lightning bolt. The role of physicality, including height, eyes, hair. The setting aside of common sense, moral compass, and even self-interest. The enormous costs. And finally: the regrets.
Michael Cohen, the former lawyer and businessman who is now under house arrest for lying for Trump, admits in his new book Disloyal that he’d been “an acolyte obsessed with Donald J. Trump, a demented follower willing to do anything for him.” An acolyte—as if to a holy man. Cohen still seems stunned that for 10 years he did nothing but his idol’s dirty work, which included everything from “[arranging] golden showers in a sex club in Vegas, to tax fraud, to deals with corrupt officials from the former Soviet Union, to catch and kill conspiracies to silence Trump’s clandestine lovers.”
But American presidencies have been torqued by similar lovesickness for a long time. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul,” George W. Bush announced in 2001, on meeting Vladimir Putin. Sustained eye contact features frequently in these coup de foudres. Putin may make up in athleticism what he lacks in height.
Though Bush and Putin discussed press freedoms and Chechnya in their first meeting, the Kremlin allegedly continued having journalists murdered and ravaging Chechnya.
And then there’s Jared Kushner’s disturbing relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, which Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Middle East envoy, calls a “bromance.” Though MBS is described by journalists, including at The Wall Street Journal, as having charisma, relentless energy, and a “self-confidence that borders on bravado,” Kushner has never given his own account how MBS first impressed him. We do know that, soon after they had a long lunch in the White House’s regal State Dining Room on a snow day, Kushner was WhatsApping with MBS regularly, and then acting against established American interests. They evidently talk some nights till 4 am, nurturing what could be among the most momentous bromances of our time. Indyk says the infatuation has determined the Trump administration’s reliance on the Saudis in dealings with Israel, its support of the Saudis in their feud with America’s ally Qatar, and its backing of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
“Bromance” is also a word applied to the relationship between multibillionaire Japanese-Korean investor Masayoshi Son and the Israeli-American punk Adam Neumann of the We Company. The story of the moment Son first beheld Neumann, and how quickly he committed to capitalize his company, is told so often that Son and Neumann may go down in history as the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet of venture capital.
For Son, cupid’s arrow struck at a conference in New Delhi. Although Son was—coincidentally—already in deep with Mohammed bin Salman, and other formidable top dogs like Prime Minister Narendra Modi were present, “it was Neumann who caught [Son’s] eye” according to Katrina Booker in Fast Company. “At 6-foot-5, with long jet-black hair and chiseled cheekbones, Neumann stood out,” Booker writes. Just 28 minutes later, according to Neumann, Son whipped out an iPad and contracted to give Neumann’s company more than $4 billion. “The last person I felt this with was Jack Ma,” Son reportedly said, referring to the founder of Alibaba, in which he had invested with more success. Felt this with. Surely even the mystic Marianne Williamson would conduct business with more due diligence and fewer heart eyes.
Neumann, of course, blew Son’s investment with reckless spending and tricky self-dealing, and was driven out by the We board, having squandered the company’s chance at an IPO. All of Silicon Valley felt the reverberations.
On a (deceptively) smaller scale, think of Donald Barr, father to Attorney General Bill Barr, who was headmaster at the posh Dalton school when 21-year-old college dropout Jeffrey Epstein came to work with teenagers there in 1974. There was nothing in Epstein’s short résumé to suggest he’d do well teaching teens at a private school that, under Barr, styled itself as both academically and morally rigorous.
But Barr must have believed something about Epstein exempted him from professional standards. “Barr didn’t care about credentials as long as you were interesting,” according to Susan Semel, a historian of the school. And thus Dalton became a hunting ground where Epstein could target not just girls for his trademark lechery but other influential men to sponsor him.
According to The Miami Herald, Epstein “launched his financier career during a parent-teacher conference at Dalton in 1976 when he dazzled a student’s father with his intelligence.”
Off Epstein went to his career in money. But he wasn’t done dazzling. His biggest quarry was yet to come: Leslie Wexner, the multibillionaire founder of L Brands. The details of their meeting are hazy, but by the mid-’90s, according to The New York Times, Epstein “had developed an unusually strong hold on” Wexner. Just a few years after they met, Wexner—again, this is the Times—“handed [Epstein] sweeping powers over his finances, philanthropy and private life.” Soon Wexner also furnished Epstein with a massive Manhattan mansion.
A year ago, Wexner, now well out of his swoon, still seemed confused by how irrational he’d been. “Being taken advantage of by someone who is … so depraved is something I’m embarrassed I’m even close to,” Wexner told investors last September.
When I worked for them in the 1990s, Eisner and Korda were extremely good at calling attention to what might be called the Bromantic Theory of History. Neither of them was habitually on either side of these macabre duets, mostly because they knew how efficiently they could corrupt and bankrupt the unsuspecting. (Eisner had also known from real collaboration, as he had worked closely with the onetime president of Disney, Frank Wells; in Eisner’s account, theirs was the kind of Frodo-Samwise relationship of philia that comes along once in a lifetime.)
Eisner’s and Korda’s memoirs are both heavily populated by other powerful men: Larry Ellison, Michael Ovitz, Ronald Reagan, Bennett Cerf. And nearly all of the plot twists in the memoirs, I noticed—except “I got married” and “I got divorced” interludes, which involved women—concerned alliances and skirmishes among alpha males.
Decades later, when I try to fathom how in the world so many seemingly bright-enough men, from Bill Barr to Mike Pence to Lindsey Graham to Jim Jordan, have generously enabled a disastrous president, I remember what Eisner said about how costly but common it was to fall for Beatty’s charisma. And what Korda, who is especially precise and self-searching about his psychological experience, said about his urologist.
If Beatty was described as “the samurai of sex,” Korda’s famous urologist might be the samurai of penises. Korda called him “the guru and doyen of urology”; elsewhere he’s “a kind of a secular saint.” A rich CEO friend of Korda’s also gives the doc high marks: “[The CEO] knew greatness when he saw it, and when it came to [the doctor] he knew himself to be in the presence of a superior man.”
Though Korda’s doctor is described as soft-spoken and bespectacled, he might be a manliest man of all the male objects of desire. After all, he’s the architect of the “radical nerve-sparing prostatectomy,” and renowned for saving the erections of men with cancer. Notably, he’s also tall, and Korda says he has “the advantage of height” in his showdowns with people who disagree with him about medicine. (How does height help in disputes about medicine? I may never understand men.)
After the set-piece moment of eye contact, Korda is enchanted by the surgeon’s irises—“bright, hard stainless steel.” But Korda, who also wrote a book about wolfpack dominance called Power!, resolves not to be dumbstruck by the doctor’s charm. At a consultation, Korda even summons his courage to ask point blank about the 10-year survival rates of his patients.
The surgeon goes ice cold. He tells Korda to take the pages of highlighted numbers back. “Better yet,” Korda recalls. “I should throw them away. Numbers meant nothing.”
Korda immediately folds. He worries he’s offended the doctor. Then comes the magical Bush-Putin moment. “He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me right in the eye. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I am going to take care of you.’” Korda decides on the spot to throw over his more measured physician in favor of the superstar. It’s those “commanding and imperious” eyes.
Why bring prostate nerves into this? Simple: All of the “charismatic” men in these love stories style themselves as hypermasculine. Many of us recoil from the pose—the overworked hair, the hulking gait, the monstrous height, the hard eyes—but some seem to cotton to it. And even if, in the wolfpack schematic, the charismatic dude seems awash in resources, those who come under his spell want to give him more. Korda says that, while still in the recovery room, he was approached by someone soliciting donations of up to $1 million for an organization called “Friends of [The Surgeon].” And this came after Korda had submitted to him his delicate nerves to operate on.
Who’s to blame in these reckless relationships between men that can do so much damage? In some ways, the manipulator is the less mystifying and more familiar figure in the couple. He can be anyone from a persuasive surgeon to a sketchy financier turned human-rights abuser.
So I blame the mark. It’s the fault of the Cohens and Wexners of the world when they forget to be skeptical, and love not wisely but too well. If there’s a lesson in Trump times—and maybe there isn’t—it’s from the pundit Karen Schwartz: We never should have normalized the hair. Or, I’d add, the lies about the height. Anyone so committed to sham virility and cartoonish domination is a hazard to civilization, even or especially to minds that should know better.
In working on this piece, I came across one startling feature of these male romances that even Eisner and Korda didn’t tip me off to. In short: It’s ominous how often the same names recur in these stories of alpha males thunderstruck by other alpha males. Donald Barr is connected to Epstein; Barr’s son Bill is connected to Trump; Trump’s son-in-law Kushner is connected to Mohammed bin Salman; Mohammed bin Salman is connected to Masa Son; Son is connected to Adam Neumann; Adam Neumann worked on marketing Jared Kushner’s Middle East adventuring. And on and on.
And here’s perhaps the most sinister instance of these connections: After Jeffrey Epstein was found dead by hanging awaiting trial on his gruesome crimes, New York Times contributor James B. Stewart remembered finding Epstein “undeniably charismatic” when he visited him in the mansion Wexner gave him. To Stewart, part of Epstein’s allure came through in the dazzling photos on his wall. “He pointed to a full-length shot of a man in traditional Arab dress. ‘That’s MBS,’ he said.”
Before men with money give access or authority or capital or their lives to a beguiling steely-eyed stranger who comes on strong, maybe they should consider more vetting—by someone better at detecting liars, frauds, and criminals. Sometimes, just sometimes, these are people of another gender.
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