Not being an avid viewer of Fox News, I didn’t know much about Gretchen Carlson before her landmark lawsuit filed in July 2016 against her former boss Fox News chairman Roger Ailes in which she claimed her fired her from the network for refusing to have sex with him. The former Miss America, who hosted a daily afternoon news show on the network, successfully sued Ailes for sexual harassment and retaliation, won a $20 million settlement and got a rare public apology.
Little did she know that the chain of events set off by her going public with her story would open the floodgates of women in all walks of life coming forward with their own harrowing tales of sexual harassment and lay the groundwork for the #MeToo #TimesUp movements that are reshaping every aspect of our cultural lives.
“This is not something you wish for,” said Gretchen shortly after she settled into our corner table having turned more than a few heads as she made her way through Michael’s dining room. “You don’t wake up and say, ‘I wish I was the face of sexual harassment.’”
But that’s exactly what happened. The former television news anchor who grew up in Anoka, Minnesota has reinvented herself as an activist and icon of female empowerment in a head-spinning series of events – and some incredibly prescient writing with her book, Be Fierce.
I first met Gretchen at Michael’s (where else?) in December 2016 a few months after she’d won her lawsuit when we were both invited to Joanna Coles’ annual Hearst 100 luncheon. Back then, she seemed to be hanging back a bit in the noisy restaurant filled with the media’s most accomplished women. I sensed a slight reticence when I asked her about her future plans. She told me she was writing what she described as “a playbook on dealing with sexual harassment.” Her eyes widened when I asked her if her future included TV. “Yes,” she told me she “wanted to get back into television” but, “I’ve got all these new buckets to fill in my life.”
I was struck by her transformation when I heard her speak at The Greenwich Chamber of Commerce’s Women Who Matter luncheon in November of last year. Supremely confident and composed, Gretchen stood at the podium looking out at the sell-out crowd commanding their rapt attention as she recounted the excruciating details of the two sexual assaults she experienced early in her career. “One man helped me all day, making calls to help me break into the television business. Then when we were riding in the back of his car, he was all over me and his tongue was done my throat. I didn’t realize that getting into TV meant him getting into my pants.” Some women at my table had tears in their eyes when she told another story. “In the second incident, the perpetrator took my neck in his hand and shoved my face into his crotch so hard I couldn’t breathe.”
That afternoon, I was very moved by Gretchen’s comments about how important speaking out had been for making sure our daughters would not silently endure the same attacks and humiliations – and our sons would not become men who sexual harass and assault women.
When I asked her what has surprised her most by all this, she answered without missing a beat. “I’ve been amazed by how many men have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for doing this for my daughter.’ I realized then if that was the only benefit to come of all this then it was worth it.”
That hit home especially hard when Gretchen’s then 12 year-old son Christian watched her on CNN’s Town Hall with Anita Hill and heard the staggering statistic that every 73 seconds a woman in this country is assaulted. “He looked at me and asked, ‘Is that true, Mom? And when I told him that sadly, it was he looked at me and said, ‘I want to be a part of the solution.’ I went into my husband’s office and just lost it.”
Gretchen told me about the evening in July 2016 when she had the difficult task telling her son and her 14 year-old daughter, Kaia, she had lost her job. “Mommy got fired and now I’m going to do something about it,” she said then added with a laugh, “My son asked ‘What’s going to happen to Tara? She’s our babysitter.”
Her husband, Casey Close, a sports agent, and two children left immediately after the lawsuit was filed on a previously scheduled trip to California . “It was a blessing,” she said between bites of her Hamachi appetizer. “The kids were away from the melee. I was all by myself and I had no idea what the hell was going to happen. I thought that I was going to sit home and cry. My career that I had worked so hard to build had been taken away.”
But she was about to become the accidental activist that kicked off one of the biggest cultural shifts this country has ever seen. “Women started reaching out to me almost immediately. In the beginning, I responded personally to everyone because my mid-western sense of responsibility had taught me you write thank you notes. I went from getting dozens of emails to hundreds very quickly,” she said. When the volume of correspondence spilled into “thousands” and she couldn’t write back to each person at length, Gretchen did “acknowledge” every email and note she received. “I heard from women in every profession; every socio-economic background — waitresses and women who worked on Wall Street. I heard from oil rig operators.”
That’s when it hit her. “I was standing in my office with stacks of these stories around me and that was the birth of the idea for the book.” Even more importantly, “What I thought was very personal became an epidemic in the space of one month.”
Once she began writing, Be Fierce, morphed from the “playbook” to fight sexual harassment Gretchen had envisioned (“That’s chapter four. I tell women to tear it out and keep it in their back pocket”) into the definitive chronicle of issue.
“I never even called [her experiences] assaults before all this,” she told me between bites of her Dover sole. “It was when I was working on the book and I was interviewing Natasha Stoynoff [the People magazine reporter who has accused Donald Trump of sexual assault] and we were talking about it and she said, ‘You know that’s assault. Right?’ I thought, oh my gosh, it’s assault. My own shame and level of trauma prevented me from being able to call it what it was – assault.”
Gretchen told me exclusively that the new paperback edition of Be Fierce which will be published this fall will include new material about the tidal wave of sexual abuse cases that hit after the book’s publication. “I had to write about Weinstein,” she told me. And what of the stories involving Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer? I told her I’d spent years on the set of the Today show during the Katie Couric-Matt Lauer era and never heard or saw anything that would have indicated what was going on with Lauer behind the scenes. “That’s just it, you think you know someone, but you don’t,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised.”
Even with her “seven jobs” she is juggling (“It’s a good thing I’ve always been very organized!”) Gretchen told me she is planning a return to television without specifying if that means another full-time gig. “There’s another announcement coming in the next few weeks, but I can’t talk about that.”
She is currently a correspondent and executive producer of the Epix show, “America Divided”, produced by Norman Lear. The docuseries follows Gretchen around in real time as she works to pass a bill – The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017 – that would end forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts.
The cameras were rolling when she had to ask the bill’s original co-sponsor, Senator Al Franken, who had just been accused of sexual harassment, to take himself off the bill. It is now co-sponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Lindsey Graham. “People thought we had solved this problem [of sexual harassment] because they weren’t hearing about it,” explained Gretchen. “Because of secret arbitration and secret settlements all these women could not tell their stories. That has to end.”
She is heartened by the bill’s bipartisan support. “In this climate, you have to have that to succeed. This is an apolitical issue.” In fact, said Gretchen, “It’s not even a women’s issue – it’s a men’s issue. We have to shift the dynamic and reframe it. There is only one way to stop it from happening –men have to stop sexually harassing women. We have to educate young men in school and at home – it’s almost too late by the time they’ve entered the workforce.”
In the midst of her non-stop schedule of speaking engagements and return to television, Gretchen’s role as chairman of the board of directors of the Miss America pageant, which she won in 1989, may prove to be her most challenging job. She stepped into the role last year after a scandal erupted from the disclosure that its chief executive had written disparaging and offensive emails about former contestants. The chairman position is a volunteer position that Gretchen said takes up between 70 and 80 hours per week.
She told me she wants to make the pageant “relevant for the twenty-first century” but wouldn’t directly answer if that meant eliminating the swimsuit competition. She noted that there was something to the idea that being fit demonstrates “discipline” which is an important quality for contestants but then added, “That was always my toughest category.” Stressing the scholarship aspect of the pageant (“It paid for my last year at Stanford”), Gretchen told me, “I would not have signed on to do this unless I could make this a 100 percent empowerment and leadership organization.” She had previously held a seat on the board, but stepped down two years ago, she said, “to make time for other boards” but when pressed further, indicated she also wasn’t satisfied with how some unspecified matters were being handled.
Before we could continue, we were interrupted by media executive Tom Rogers, who came up to our table, extended his hand and introduced himself to Gretchen saying. “I wanted to thank you for all that you’re doing,” he began. “I hired Roger Ailes at CNBC and it was the biggest mistake I ever made. It took me a lot longer to get rid him than it took you.”
After lunch had been cleared, I noticed she was checking a small black notebook. She had her day’s schedule on a yellow Post-It on the inside cover. “I can’t miss my train,” she said as we hugged goodbye. She was headed back to Greenwich to do a long promised interview via FaceTime and then dive into the most important task of her growing list of jobs – being a mother. “My son has a science test tomorrow.”
Seen & Heard Around the Room
Kathie Lee Gifford looking great with a grey-haired gentleman we didn’t recognize on Table Five Anyone? …Ellen Levine and Steven Haft on Four … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia at his usual perch on Table Eight with Alex Hitz and Brooke Hayward … Judy Licht on Nine .. Dr. Robi Ludwig, who stopped by our table to say hello on Eleven … My pals Judy Twersky, Lisa Birnbach and Maurie Perl having a lively lunch on Twenty-one… And Stu Zakim with director Jyoti Singh, whose new film Yadvi, The Dignified Princess, is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.
See you next week!