Why They Called it XS
It's been more than six years, yet Ronnie Greenspan can't talk about the staff party without feeling a rise of queasiness in the pit of her stomach.
The shame she felt that night, though diminished by time, has never quite disappeared. Rather, it has spiraled down through the years to color the canvases she paints in somber tones and may have contributed to her need for the pills she takes to control her recurrent depression.
"It's still very upsetting and confusing to me," she says. "Sometimes I think it was all my fault."
In the summer of 1991, Greenspan was a 26-year-old writer struggling to launch a career the hard way, selling articles and features at low-ball prices in order to get some bylines. As an aspiring journalist just starting out, though, she could count herself lucky; she'd managed to carve out a small but welcome niche as a freelance arts writer with a new Broward County weekly called XS magazine, owned by a subsidiary of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. A painter herself, she was getting into the paper with some regularity by covering exhibits and trends as well as by profiling artists and gallery owners. Exhilarated by the work and the exposure, she nevertheless found it somewhat intimidating. "I was very nervous about the whole thing," she remembers.
Although her stories usually brought in less than $250 apiece, she was hoping they would lead her to bigger and better-paying assignments. "What I really wanted was a cover story," she says.
But as the year progressed, Greenspan realized that those goals were being jeopardized by her increasingly bizarre relationship with the paper's founding publisher and editor, Stephen Wissink -- a relationship in which the professional and the personal were becoming dangerously entwined.
This was an important partnership for Greenspan in several respects. For one thing, Wissink had direct control over much of her career; not only did he edit her work, he approved her assignments and determined her pay. Plus, she was enamored with him.
Within days of editing her first article, Wissink left a "very sweet" birthday message on her answering machine. Soon he asked her out. On their first date, the editor and the writer went to the movies and kissed in the parking lot afterward. On their second date, they walked on the beach and shared secrets under the stars. "I felt like we were a couple of kids," she recalls. She was flattered by Wissink's attention, awed by the power of his media position, overwhelmed by his manic energy, and thoroughly smitten.
"I thought he was brilliant," she says wistfully. "He did all the right things. He said things a girl wants to hear, things about the future, about us. For a while I thought maybe we were going to have a life together."
Those hopes faded as the courtship degenerated into curtness. Although the calls continued, there was nothing tender about their content any more. "He'd call at three in the morning and say come on over, the door's open," she remembers. "It was kind of like I was a groupie. He even gave me an XS T-shirt." Sometimes she hung up on him; other times she answered the summons. "I was lonely," she admits. "And infatuated, I guess."
At the staff party, a nadir was reached. It wasn't a swank affair -- "just a summertime barbecue by the pool with a bunch of staffers," says Michael Farver, then an assistant editor at the paper and the party's host. People brought their kids. They drank some beer and had fun.
Despite feeling a little apprehensive about how Wissink would treat her with colleagues around, Greenspan decided to attend. And at first she was glad she did. He flirted and bantered with her, and that made her feel wanted.
Later Wissink went outside, gesturing for her to follow. She did. Leading her into the bushes, he kissed her. She responded. They made out. Then she says he started pressuring her to have sex right there on the lawn. She refused. He insisted. They compromised. "We had oral sex," she says. They also had an audience: While they groped, a couple of XS staffers climbed onto the roof and took photographs.
"When I came back inside, someone told me I had grass stains on my face," Greenspan says. "They were laughing."
Eventually Greenspan stopped going to the XS office. She had the feeling that people were talking about her, and she thought she detected a condescending attitude and tone of voice in some employees. That perception, coupled with her own shame, led her to tell Wissink that she thought it was time she quit writing for the paper. "I couldn't sleep. I was anxious all the time -- I just couldn't take it psychologically," she remarks. Wissink's response? "'Good, there are twelve other women I can get to replace you,'" she recalls him saying.
Seven weeks ago, Stephen Wissink unexpectedly resigned.
When the news was announced to a stunned roomful of XS employees -- not by Wissink himself but by Mark Jones, the Sun-Sentinel's new human resources director -- late in the afternoon of Friday, October 17, the reigning mood was one of bewilderment. "There was a lot of confusion, a lot of questions," according to Colleen Dougher-Telcik, a staff writer who has worked for the magazine since its launch in January 1991.
There weren't, however, a lot of answers. The assembled staff was told that Wissink had left for "personal reasons," she recalls. Later Jones, speaking to a reporter from another paper, added some detail: "Among other reasons, he wants to spend more time with his family."
That's true, Wissink says, but it's also misleading. Yes, he would like to involve himself more closely in the life of his eleven-year-old daughter Erin, who in February moved to North Carolina to live with her mother, Wissink's ex-wife. But the implication that he was so overwhelmed with parental guilt that he left the paper he'd helped found is simply not the case, he says. It was deception by omission.
Wissink claims he didn't want to leave -- at least not yet. The paper had just changed its name a month before his departure and was trying to redefine its goals and content. "In my heart I know that I was forced out," he says. "I had no choice."
The pressure came in the form of an "intense" interrogation conducted earlier that week by Jones. Wissink says he had to endure questioning about his relationships with two women: Sandra Schulman, a Sun-Sentinel arts columnist and former XS freelance writer, and Somer Simpson, the weekly's online editor. (Ronnie Greenspan's name did not come up.)
Jones gave the strong impression of being dissatisfied with Wissink's descriptions of those relationships -- relationships Wissink thought were legitimate and proper. Although neither Jones nor Wissink will detail exactly what was said in that meeting, Wissink explains that "it gradually became clear to me that they would rather not have me around." He obliged them.
So despite the words coming from behind the masks of the corporate spokesmen, it seems clear that Wissink was forced out amid suspicions of sexual improprieties. But other factors also played a large part. One was alcoholism. Another was greed. Perhaps the most important, however, was revenge.
For a man only recently given the Jonah's heave over the side of the corporate ship, Wissink seems remarkably serene as he sits down to breakfast in a diner near Young Circle in Hollywood.
"Bitterness will eat you up if you let it," he says. "It will devour you." The redemptive quality of forgiveness is a relatively new theme for Wissink, who once defaced a competitor's photograph with hair spray and nail polish because the man had criticized him in print. Inner peace, he explains, came in 1994, following the realization he was an alcoholic. Under pressure from friends who could see he was losing control, he checked in to Community Psychiatric Centers (which has since changed its name to Fort Lauderdale Hospital) and fought his addiction for six weeks. He beat it and has managed to stay clean ever since.
He asserts that his battle with alcoholism taught him the danger of destructive and negative thinking. Even so, the name Sandra Schulman still manages to dredge up a sudden surge of malevolence. "I've heard Sandra Schulman was trying to shake down the Sun-Sentinel for money she could use to move to Nashville," he says.
He's right. "I was hoping to get some money from the Sun-Sentinel so that I could move," she says. How was she going to do this? By making allegations of sexual harassment against Wissink. But greed wasn't her only motivation. It was actually "revenge and greed," she admits candidly. Her secondary goal was to accomplish an act of vengeance against Wissink. In this she was successful.
Schulman is a regular contributor to the Sun-Sentinel whose columns on the South Florida music scene appear once a week. She also writes the occasional music or cultural piece for Billboard and the New York Daily News. An acerbic New York City transplant whose northern roots are still evident in a pronounced accent and a Village hipster's proclivity for wearing black, Schulman apparently knows how to nurse a grudge. Last year when Michael Koretzky, the former XS arts and entertainment editor, was regularly tweaking her in his column, she not only responded with anger; she also clipped all mentions of her name in XS and saved them in a scrapbook for future reference.
Those column items were the latest in a litany of complaints Schulman had about Koretzky. She also blamed him for driving her out of XS in 1994. In the early Nineties, she had been a regular music and arts writer for the magazine. When Koretzky was hired in 1994, she says, he began making her life miserable.
"He would make me rewrite simple things, little things, three, four, even five times," she says. "It was obvious what he was trying to do. So I left -- I didn't have a choice."
As much as she blamed Koretzky for what she believes was her unwanted departure from XS, she faulted Wissink even more, because he didn't stand up for her when she complained about Koretzky. As time passed, she neither forgave nor forgot.
Rather, she says, her anger grew as Koretzky debuted a column feature he titled the "Sandra Schulman Alert." Usually only a sentence or two in length, it was devoted to the gleeful exposure of any mistake or misspelling that made it past Schulman's keyboard and the Sun-Sentinel's editors.
A typical example, from May 1996: "In last week's column, the Sun-Sentinel's local music writer wrote about Dade blues duo Piano Bob & the Snowman, but she called them Piano Bob and the Snowmen, which would make them more than a duo. Schulman has now misspelled or misnamed at least one musical act (and usually more) in four of her last six columns."
As regular Koretzky readers and acquaintances know, that's his style. "He likes to pull people's chains just to see how they react," says former girlfriend and former XS associate editor Janine Sieja Hagerman. And he does it all the time -- both in his column and out of it.
For example, local poet and spoken-word artist Adam Matza has been subjected to several blasts of abuse. First, Koretzky wrote a piece implying that a poem Matza had published in a compilation had been accepted only because of a friendship between Matza's mother and the book's publisher. Then last summer Koretzky stood up at an open-mike spoken-word event and read a poem called "I Am Adam Matza," in which he accused Matza of walking out on a personal debt. "He really ripped me," says Matza, who has never lost an opportunity to rip Koretzky back. "He's a weasel." Koretzky says Matza is "disgruntled" because Koretzky stopped buying his freelance articles.
So when Koretzky goaded Schulman with the "Alert," he was only being Koretzky. In fact, you might say he was engaging in just the style of commentary that's squarely in the tradition of the independent alternative newsweekly -- except for the fact that he wasn't working for an independent.
His paychecks were coming from Gold Coast Publications, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sun-Sentinel, itself a link in the massive Tribune Co. chain of papers and television stations. After Schulman complained about the "Alert" to Sun-Sentinel arts and entertainment editor John Dolen, he in turn complained to Wissink, and in June 1996 Koretzky's own chain was yanked and his nose swatted with a folded-up Sun-Sentinel, Schulman says. In his column Koretzky wrote, "My boss has asked me not to pick on Sun-Sentinel local music writer Sandra Schulman any more. He thinks it's becoming redundant to repeatedly point out her mistakes." Koretzky and Wissink now deny that pressure from above had anything to do with the demise of the "Schulman Alert." Koretzky says, laughing: "It was becoming too easy."
Koretzky wouldn't be muzzled. In a freelance piece he wrote this past summer for Better Days, a zine put out as a side project by XS designer W. Kelly Lucas, Koretzky quoted a local musician as saying, jokingly, that "Sandra Schulman should be shot." When Schulman read that, she decided it was time to be direct.
On August 27 she delivered a letter to Wissink:
"I was hoping the harassment against me by Michael Koretzky, that you allowed, had run its course.... I worked pretty darn hard for your publication for three years and this is the thanks I get -- a bunch of cheap shots in print, including the recent article where Koretzky quotes a band as saying I should be shot.... Sorry Steve, but it's not funny, or fair, any more."
She also included a little jab at Wissink himself, reminding him that when she had written for XS, "harassment also came in other forms from you...." The allusion was to a 1991 incident in which Wissink admits to coming on to her.
After reading the letter, Wissink called Schulman, who informed him of her plans to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against him because of the 1991 incident. "He was begging," she says. "Groveling, absolutely groveling. He wanted to know what it would take to satisfy me. I said, 'There's nothing you can do to satisfy me. I want you and Koretzky fired.'"
Wissink admits calling Schulman, but he says there was no pleading involved: "I tried to give her a call, but she didn't want to talk about anything." Of the threat of the lawsuit, he says, "It was just another routine thing. The nature of the beast is that you get complaints." In the next week's paper, Koretzky's name and title (arts and entertainment editor) were missing from their usual place in the masthead. Wissink won't say on the record whether he out-and-out fired him, but he does say that "Koretzky went around telling people in the newsroom he got fired." And Adam Matza says Koretzky's answering machine had a message that week telling callers: "I've been fired." In any case, the former "arts and entertainment editor" was suddenly just a "contributing writer."
Wissink denies dumping Koretzky in an attempt to appease Schulman. "Koretzky's departure had nothing to do with Sandra Schulman," he says. But she doesn't buy it. "I talked to Stephen on the phone one day, and the next day he fired Koretzky. You figure it out," she says.
Whatever the truth, Koretzky didn't fall too far. When the September 4 XS issue came out, his column was still there in its usual place. The only thing different was his lack of a management position.
In the Sun-Sentinel newsroom, meanwhile, the rumor mill was cranking up. One story making the rounds, according to a staffer, was that Wissink had paid off Koretzky with a new contract in return for his keeping his mouth shut about things that had happened back in Wissink's drinking days. Bob Pignone, owner of the Poor House nightclub, says a friend who works for the daily paper "told me the word going around the Sun-Sentinel was that Koretzky had incriminating photographs of Wissink with some girl."
No one seems to know the exact fate of those vintage shots of Wissink rolling in the grass with Ronnie Greenspan. Greenspan says Wissink told her that he was trying to get ahold of the film, but she doesn't know whether he did. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: If Wissink thought that by giving Koretzky a contract he was buying silence, he was mistaken.
Shortly after his exit as arts and entertainment editor, Koretzky called Schulman with an offer to feed her information she could use against Wissink, she says. "He said, 'I know there were other girls,' and 'I know there were pictures taken at a party.'" she claims. Koretzky refuses to comment on the record about her allegations.
Meanwhile Schulman was having a hard time implementing her plan for a lawsuit. She talked to four different attorneys -- three in West Palm Beach and one in Miami -- but none would take her case. According to the attorneys, the fact that she'd waited six years to pursue any action reflected poorly on her credibility, and the statute of limitations had run out.
So instead of taking her complaint to court, Schulman took it to the Sun-Sentinel human resources department. On Monday, October 13, she sent Mark Jones a memo detailing the harassment she says she suffered at Wissink's hands:
"I began freelance writing for XS magazine, a Tribune publication, in 1991.... Almost from the first month Wissink made constant suggestive comments about my clothing, body, etc. He asked me 'over to his place for a beer' using the interoffice Atex message system.... I repeatedly told him no, I will not date an editor, especially one living with someone else. The requests continued, one time he said, 'Let's have sex in the elevator,' another time after a staff meeting at a local restaurant, he leaned over, grabbed my face and tried to kiss me."
Two days later, Schulman says, she sat down with Jones to talk matters over. She told him that all she wanted at that point was an apology from Wissink. Jones's attitude, she claims, was blase. "He sort of blew me off," she recalls. "He told me it was a long time ago, and people can remember things differently." (Jones refuses to discuss specifics about his meetings with Schulman or Wissink.)
Schulman made her next move by handing Jones the name of a woman -- a current employee of City Link, the new incarnation of XS -- who she claimed could corroborate Wissink's pattern of alleged unprofessional and sexually harassing behavior. Jones said he'd get back to her. On Friday he called Schulman and told her Wissink had resigned. "I asked him why, and he didn't say anything," she says. "But he said I probably shouldn't expect an apology from Wissink."
The name that Schulman gave Jones was Somer Simpson.
Hearing the name, Wissink leans forward, shuts his eyes, and begins to knead his temples with slow, deep, strokes. As the tape recorder silently chronicles the muted clatter of a waitress busing a table across the room, the former editor contemplates what he wants to say on this still delicate subject. It takes him about half a minute.
Finally, he looks up. "Somer and I were buddies," he says.
Wissink is at a loss to understand why Simpson's name came up in his meeting with Mark Jones. "He asked me to describe my relationship with Somer Simpson. I told him the truth -- we were friends."
If so, they were unlikely chums. When they met, Wissink was in his late thirties with a fiancee, an ex-wife, a child, and a magazine to manage. Somer Simpson, the online editor, was in her early twenties and had a whimsical penchant for dyeing her hair in offbeat colors. Still, Wissink says, they hit it off from the start: "She has a ribald sense of humor, and so do I. When she was having problems, she would come talk to me."
At one point, when Simpson was having trouble in a relationship, Wissink says, she called his home and left a message asking if she could come over and stay awhile. (She ended up not coming over because Wissink and his new wife were away and didn't get the message until they got back.)
The friendship, it seems, has now been put on hold after the grilling Wissink was subjected to. "To this day she hasn't contacted me," he says, "and I haven't contacted her. She has my phone number."
Simpson won't say anything about her relationship with Wissink: "I've been advised not to talk about it." By an attorney? "No comment."
Schulman says she called Simpson after hearing from XS film critic Barbara Lester that Simpson wanted to talk to her. (Lester refuses to comment.) Schulman says, "Simpson told me she was glad to hear what I was doing -- that it was about time somebody put a stop to what was going on."
Simpson also reportedly told Schulman that Wissink had been sending her suggestive e-mails and making off-color comments. For example, Simpson told her that Wissink had joked that maybe he should take her home to pleasure his wife (the woman he had married four months earlier).
Schulman says Simpson told her that after Simpson had started avoiding Wissink, her position with the paper was threatened. "There was a meeting with her and Scott Anderson where she was left with two choices: take a lesser job at a lower salary, or freelance for less than half the salary she had been making." Anderson, an executive producer for Digital City South Florida, which produces Websites in partnership with the Sun-Sentinel, is technically Simpson's employer. He refuses to comment.
Schulman had some advice for Simpson: "I told her to hire an attorney."
So far no woman has come forward to explicitly accuse Wissink of trying to either threaten or reward her professionally in return for sex. Schulman alleges that he made advances to her when she was working for him. She characterizes Simpson's alleged complaint as one in which he made her feel uncomfortable with his unwelcome bantering. And in Ronnie Greenspan's case, the relationship was consensual.
Wissink defends himself, in part, by making a distinction between his conduct before and after he quit drinking in 1994. Back in the boozing days, when he was putting away all the Canadian Club he could handle -- and more -- Wissink says he was often out of control. "I could be rude," he says. "I would try to be charming and end up being obnoxious."
He blames his "one encounter" with Sandra Schulman, during which "I probably made a pass at her," partly on the fact that he'd had "too much to drink" that day. And he maintains that his relationship with Ronnie Greenspan has to be understood in the context of the near-daily plunges into drunkenness that characterized his life then. His memory of those days consists of "varying shades of gray."
About the time Wissink went into rehab, he says, he started having qualms about dating women who worked for the paper. Since then, Wissink claims, he hasn't done or said anything to any co-worker that could be construed as crossing the line.
The attempt to construct a coherent portrait of Stephen Wissink seems a fool's errand. Successive glimpses of the man through the eyes of those who know him serve only to compound the confusion, not to dispel it. "He was a charmer," says one friend. "A bitter man," says another. "Brilliant." "Vapid." "Nurturing." "Cutting." Each new source describes Wissink in terms nearly contradicting the one before. "He was always very truthful, even if it hurt," says Colleen Dougher-Telcik. "He was always full of little white lies," says Ronnie Greenspan.
Nowhere do the perceptions of this complex man differ so greatly than in the minds of the women he worked with. But according to one commonly held view, Wissink was constantly on the make. A former Sun-Sentinel employee says Wissink's behavior was a fertile subject of gossip among her and her women friends on staff: "We'd go, 'Did you hear the latest about Wissink? Did you hear what he did this time?'" Ronnie Greenspan says he was still calling her even after he'd moved in with another woman. He allegedly made suggestive remarks to Somer Simpson before and during his second marriage. "I think the man had a problem," says Schulman. "There's no way he could have actually been attracted to all the women he hit on."
Nevertheless, two women -- both of whom worked for Wissink for years -- say they did not see this side of him and doubt it existed. "I don't always get to select my bosses, but I do select my friends," says Dougher-Telcik. "And I could never be friends with someone I didn't respect. Steve Wissink is my friend." Janine Sieja Hagerman, who was hired by Wissink as associate editor when the paper started up, echoes that assessment. "I can't say I ever saw anything untoward in the newsroom. The atmosphere was very collegial, relaxed, and comfortable."
And what of Wissink's opinion of himself?
The single most telling adjective, according to the former editor -- the one that ties all the loose scraps into an understandable whole -- is "insecure." If his story has a theme, it is this: "A very insecure guy who was trying to cover his insecurities by being a man about town."
But the last word of this story should not be Wissink's. It should be Ronnie Greenspan's. She was the one, after all, who supposedly bore the brunt of this "man about town's" attempts to work out his insecurities on someone even more vulnerable than himself.
In telling her story, however, Greenspan has almost nothing critical to say about Wissink. In fact, she frequently points out the good she sees in him: his love for his daughter, his charisma. The loyalty of some of his staff especially impressed her -- particularly at the time he was hospitalized for alcoholism. "Everybody was so kind and understanding," she recalls. So was the paper, which was paying for his treatment.
These days Greenspan too is being treated. For depression. And now, she finally displays a touch of bitterness. "Of course, nobody is paying for my treatments," she says. "I've got to pay for them myself, because I don't have a job at the moment."
Neither does Wissink.
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