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.

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Paul Belden

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