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Why now? A Trump accuser confronts her silence

The writer's friends and confidantes talk publicly for the first time about her sexual assault allegation against the president

By Jessica Bennett, Megan Twohey and Alexandra Alter
Published: Jun 29, 2019

Why now? A Trump accuser confronts her silenceE. Jean Carroll, the longtime advice columnist and author who has alleged that Donald Trump sexually assaulted her in 1996, in Manhattan, June 24, 2019. Carroll says coming forward now was part of the realization that she hadn’t followed advice she’d given her readers for years: to speak up. “I felt like a fraud,” she said. Trump has said Carroll is "totally lying." (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

E. Jean Carroll tore through the doors of the Fifth Avenue entrance of Bergdorf Goodman, her heart racing.

Carroll, a journalist and the host of the “Ask E. Jean” television show at the time, had taped a segment that day in 1996 at a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. When it ended around 5 p.m., she decided to come into Manhattan to shop at her favorite store.

From the sidewalk, she phoned Lisa Birnbach, a friend and author of “The Official Preppy Handbook.” Carroll was laughing at first as she described an encounter she said she had just had in a Bergdorf’s dressing room with Donald Trump that began as cheeky banter. But what she was saying didn’t strike Birnbach as funny. “I remember her being very overwrought,” Birnbach said in an interview. “I remember her repeatedly saying, ‘He pulled down my tights, he pulled down my tights.’” When Carroll finished her account, Birnbach said, “‘I think he raped you.’”

“Let’s go to the police,” she recalled telling Carroll. But Carroll refused. A day or two later, she described the episode to another friend, Carol Martin, a TV host at the same network. She advised Carroll to stay silent.

“These traumas stay with you,” Martin said. “I didn’t know what to do except listen.”

The three women didn’t speak about the incident again until Carroll began preparing for her forthcoming book, they said. It became public last week when Carroll, in a New York magazine excerpt from the book, accused the president of sexually assaulting her years ago. It was the most serious of multiple allegations women have made against him, all of which he has denied.

Birnbach and Martin, who haven’t previously spoken publicly about Carroll’s account, say they are doing so now to bolster their friend, especially since she has been attacked in recent days by skeptics and some supporters of Trump.

“I saw some horrible things that people were posting on social media,” Birnbach said. “I believe E. Jean in this episode that she recounted to me in 1996. Yes. Without hesitation. She’s not a fabulist.” She added, “She doesn’t make things up.”

Trump has said that Carroll was “totally lying,” that he didn’t know her and that “she’s not my type.”

In media interviews in recent days, Carroll, who once wrote for “Saturday Night Live,” has been confident. Asked on MSNBC why she made her accusation in a book, she replied: “What? A woman is not allowed to take a pen and put it to a piece of paper?” (“That didn’t go over very well,” she said in an interview later.) On CNN, she explained why she preferred the word “fight” to “rape”: “I think most people think rape is sexy. Think of the fantasies.” (She explained later that she was referring to romance novels that depict men ravishing women. “This was not thrilling, this was a fight,” she said. “A fight where I’m stamping on his feet and I think I’m banging him on the head with my purse.”)

Those public appearances are in keeping with how friends describe her: the girlfriend who would ride a Yugoslav freighter to Tangier; the plucky author of a popular column who dispensed advice on every aspect of her devoted readers’ lives, from sex to careers, but kept her own struggles private. She is a former Miss Cheerleader USA turned journalist, whose gonzo-style approach led The New York Times in 1981 to call her “feminism’s answer to Hunter S. Thompson.”

“The thing with E. Jean is she doesn’t adhere to a script,” said Marilyn Johnson, an author and longtime friend. “She’s a total original.”

‘She Was Fearless’
Carroll, now 75, grew up Betty Jean Carroll outside Huntertown, Indiana, though her family and oldest friends call her Jeanie. She spent more than a decade living on a ranch in Montana, changed her name to Elizabeth Jean, then shortened it in her first Esquire byline to “E. Jean.” She now lives in upstate New York, on what she calls “an island” of secluded forest near the Appalachian Trail. Her home, which she shares with a cat named Vagina T. Fireball, is a small cottage painted with black and white stripes, with polka dots on the chimney. “It’s like part refuge, part fortress, part headquarters,” said Lisa Chase, her editor at Outside magazine and later at Elle, where Carroll has written the “Ask E. Jean” column for more than 20 years. “If you go there, look in the oven. I think she’s got a lot of books in there.”

Carroll often wears workwear-style jumpsuits, of which she has more than a dozen in varying shades. “Try to get this unzipped,” she said to a reporter, standing up in a restaurant. “Go ahead! Good luck.” She is an archer who keeps five arrows, along with a bow and a quiver, above her fireplace. “I’m a crack shot,” she said.

When she wanted to profile Hunter S. Thompson, she showed up at his house in Colorado and all but moved in. She later wrote that the two had become intimately involved, and had done acid together. For Esquire, she profiled Dan Rather and Lyle Lovett (she asked him his penis size), and she persuaded humor writer Fran Lebowitz to go camping with her for an article in Outside. For Playboy, she trekked across Papua New Guinea for a story “in search of primitive man.” In 1995, when Carroll found a lump in her breast, she brought a film crew to her surgery — and aired it on her television show.

“She was incapable of being uninteresting, or writing a boring sentence,” said Bill Tonelli, her editor at Esquire. “She was fearless.”

She co-founded a dating website in 2002 called Greatboyfriends.com — where women could recommend their exes — and later, a matchmaking service called Tawkify. (Greatboyfriends sold to The Knot in 2005 for $600,000.) But, she revealed in the New York magazine excerpt, she has not had sex since the encounter with Trump that day in the dressing room.

“I just was not lucky enough to meet someone,” she said in an interview. “The desire for desire was over.”

In her book, “What Do We Need Men For?,” which comes out Tuesday, Carroll describes “hideous men” in her life. In addition to Trump, the list includes former CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, who she said groped her in a hotel elevator when she interviewed him for a 1997 Esquire story; a childhood camp friend who sexually assaulted her as a young girl; and her second husband, television personality John Johnson, whom she described as physically abusive.

Moonves has denied Carroll’s account of his groping. Reached by phone, Johnson declined to comment.

Confidantes provided some corroboration of Carroll’s claims. Nancy Hass, a writer for The New York Times’ T Magazine, said that in the late 1990s, Carroll mentioned having been groped by Moonves, but didn’t go into detail. “E. Jean is the anti-victim,” Hass said in an interview. “She can’t bear pity.”

Another friend, a former news producer named C.C. Dyer, said in an interview that she was with Carroll one morning and saw red marks on her neck, a ripped nightgown and bloodshot eyes after what Carroll said was an altercation with Johnson, an incident described in the book. Dyer said she told her husband at the time, Geraldo Rivera, about it. (A Fox News spokeswoman said Rivera was traveling and not available for an interview.)

Dyer was among more than a dozen former colleagues, family members and friends interviewed by The Times who attested to Carroll’s credibility.

“It’s inconceivable to me that she would make up a story like this,” said Stephen Byers, a former editor at National Geographic and her first husband, referring to the Trump allegation. He and Carroll were married for more than a decade. “She’s a very honorable woman.”

Still, there are unresolved questions about Carroll’s accusations, including the absence of any witnesses or, apparently, staff in the lingerie department at Bergdorf’s, and the lack of physical evidence. She has acknowledged that her response afterward — when she called her friend, laughing — may appear odd, but she attributes it to being in shock. In her book, she was hazy about whether the incident had taken place in 1995 or 1996; after recent conversations with Birnbach, they believe that it was most likely in 1996. And despite the president’s growing political profile, for years Carroll never raised the subject of her encounter with Trump.

Why speak up only now? If not when it happened, why not in 2016, when more than 10 other women came forward accusing Trump of sexual improprieties? Or when the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he bragged about assaulting women, was revealed?

Cande Carroll said that she, E. Jean, and their two other siblings — Tommy and Barbara — were in Indiana at their dying mother’s bedside the day the tape was disclosed. “We were all horrified,” Cande Carroll said. Her sister, though, said nothing about a personal story.

E. Jean Carroll said the “Access Hollywood” tape and the allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump did not compel her to speak about her own experience with him. If anything, said Carroll, who describes herself as a “gun-owning Democrat,” she figured the accusations made Trump appear strong in the eyes of his supporters. “I suspected it was helping,” she said.

On election night in 2016, Carroll was at Birnbach’s home watching the results. Carroll thought there was a moment when she and Birnbach shared a knowing look about Trump, but Birnbach did not recall it. In fact, she said, by that point she had forgotten what Carroll had told her.

The #MeToo Moment
As Carroll described it, the original idea for her book had nothing to do with Trump. Rather, after years of listening to her readers’ concerns — most of them related to men — she had decided to take her dog on a trip around America and ask women the question: Do we really need men? The plan was to visit towns named after women, such as Cynthiana, Indiana — “it sounds like poetry!” she said — to eat in restaurants named for women, read books by women and listen to women artists in the car.

“I actually thought this was going to be a ‘Travels With Charley,’” Carroll said in an interview.

But then #MeToo happened. The news of allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke as she was driving through Pennsylvania in the fall of 2017. “I just kept pulling over to see the story,” she said. “And I couldn’t help but think of men in my own life.”

She also thought of the women she had advised over the years to buck up, to speak up, to go to the police or “move everything out when he’s at work.” “I felt like a fraud,” she said, because she had taken no such action herself. By the time she submitted her book proposal, in May 2018, she’d rethought it as part memoir, with the Trump allegation included. St. Martin’s Press paid a modest sum.

Carroll invited Birnbach and Martin to lunch last year and showed them the chapter depicting the encounter with Trump and the friends’ discussions about it. (Their names do not appear in the book.) In it, she wrote that she and Trump had recognized each other at Bergdorf’s, talked playfully about what gift he might buy for a woman, and ended up in the lingerie department, challenging each other to try on a lilac bodysuit. She remembered thinking it would make a great story.

But in the dressing room, with no one nearby, Carroll said Trump pushed her against a wall, pulled down her tights and put his penis inside her. “It was violent, I fought, but didn’t think of it as ...” she trailed off, never saying “rape.” “I have a hard time even saying that word,” she said.

She said she blamed herself for going into the dressing room with him. “What an idiot,” she said. “You don’t combine lingerie and going in a closed room.”

Sitting in Birnbach’s living room this week, the three reflected on the secret’s finally being out in the open.

As prominent journalists in New York in the 1990s, all three had at one point operated in overlapping circles with Trump, the real estate heir and tabloid news fixture with a messy personal life.

Carroll and Martin both had shows on America’s Talking, the cable channel run by Roger Ailes, and Martin said she had a brief exchange with Trump when he came in for an interview. She also had a friend who briefly dated him. Birnbach had interviewed Trump for an article about Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, in the months before she received that phone call from Carroll. And Carroll and her husband at the time had been photographed with Trump and his then-wife, Ivana Trump, at an NBC party in the late 1980s.

Carroll seems undaunted by the criticism and doubt that her accusations have unleashed. After taping an interview with CNN on Monday, Carroll went to a party in Brooklyn, where friends and former editors had gathered to toast her with a bottle of Chartreuse (her favorite) and a cake that read BRAVE. How was she? They wanted to know. Was she checking Twitter? Was she scared?

“I’m having a ball,” she replied.

She handed over a small box to the hostess — a gift to thank her for organizing the party. It was from Bergdorf’s.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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