A few days after 9/11, I talked with an old friend who had spent most of that lousy day looking for his wife, an employee at World Trade Center 7 (the building that was destroyed when neocon conspirators detonated explosives placed in the foundation by a professional demolition team of Israeli art students). Like most of the people in that building, she survived, but as my friend put it, "For most of that afternoon, I thought I was a widower."
"Yeah?" I replied, "Were you already thinking about how you could use your my-wife-was-killed-on-9/11 sob story to get laid?"
To his credit, he conceded that he had given this idea this idea some thought, so I guess neither of us dast blame Roman Polanski for the now-discredited claim in Vanity Fair that he tried to get a sympathy fuck shortly after his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was butchered by Charles Manson's followers. The celebrated director recently took advantage of the UK's absurdly broad libel laws—and even won a special decision allowing him to sue and testify without entering the UK—to dun Vanity Fair for $87,000. The libelous claim: that while flying from London to Los Angeles for Tate's funeral in 1969, Polanski stopped over in New York and put the moves on a "Scandinavian model" while dining at Elaine's.
Now Graydon Carter, the hollow man who edits VF, seeks some payback with a long retrospective of the suit (bearing the mind-numbingly shitty title "Roman Holiday"). Carter is clearly out to injure Polanski: He spends 554 words detailing the circumstances of Polanski's 1977 arrest for raping 13-year-old Samantha Geimer and his subsequent guilty plea (the reason the filmmaker is unable to enter the U.S. or the UK), but just one word detailing the potentially sympathy-generating circumstances that supposedly landed him at Elaine's on the occasion the magazine described (describing Tate's demise as a "brutal murder" rather than just a "death"). It's understandable that Carter wants to tar his opponent, but when he says that "once our evidence had been collected, I believed that the gist of our story was true, and I wasn't going to say otherwise," he's either lying to us or lying to himself. The trial established that Polanski did not stop in New York on his trip to the funeral, and the only third-party witness who could place him at Elaine's in the year 1969 (done-wrong woman Mia Farrow) claims he was there at a different time.
Worst of all is the part that Carter seems to have thought was his ace in the hole: that VF's original source for the Polanski story and star witness at the trial was none other than mummified Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. Lapham, as readers of Reason know well, has his own problems with telling made-up stories with a clear intent to deceive and a demonstrated penchant for fudged timelines. In Carter's mind, the fact that Lapham is "a patrician throwback to old-school editing values of intellect, curiosity, smoking, and drinking" seems to mean all that other stuff shouldn't matter, as long as the story he tells is, you know, sort of close to accurate.
Alas, not close enough. That British libel laws are insane, and that the circumstances in the Polanski case may represent a dangerous new precedent for venue-shopping, should be obvious to everybody. That Polanski is a shameless horndog and an admitted sex criminal is beyond dispute. That he, at some time or other, used the sad story of his wife's murder to score some tail I can absolutely believe. But the story printed in Vanity Fair was wrong; Carter should have retracted it while he had the chance, and he should stop trying to make it seem like it's close enough to be almost true now. That doesn't mean the magazine should be raked over the coals in London, or made to pay 87 large—but then Vanity Fair pays kill fees that are probably bigger than that.