Michael Lewis is best known for milling complicated subject matter like mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations into compulsively readable bestsellers, including Liar’s Poker, The Big Short and Moneyball. His books get churned into movies that star Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling and Sandra Bullock.
In the world of financial journalism ― actually, just in journalism ― the 56-year-old New Orleans native is a king. A rock-star millionaire writer at the top of his craft, far above the kinds of workaday hacks plugging away at places like the New York Post.
But back in 1994, when he was senior editor at The New Republic, Lewis tackled a simpler topic, one that’s back in the conversation this week, courtesy of the Post: The difficulties of a man being with a smoking-hot woman.
“The most ill-conceived work of his career,” proclaimed a lengthy Vanity Fair profile of Lewis written a few years later. “Though it masqueraded as a work of humility, it reeked of the pride that lay just beneath the mask of the naif.”
Lewis’ column drew a fair share of controversy at the time ― angry faxes, phone calls and real-paper letters. Titled “Scenic beauty,” the lengthy piece describes Lewis’ then-wife, a former model who he never names, as “terrifyingly beautiful.” Living in the shadow of that beauty is a “weird degradation,” he writes, at one point describing a scene in which several men gather behind his wife to ogle her butt. “Can you believe that shit?” one says. (Scroll to the bottom for more excerpts from the piece.)
Kate Bohner, then Lewis’ wife and a writer for Forbes, was “blindsided,” by the piece, recalled Joshua Levine, who worked with her. Apparently, Lewis didn’t tell her about the article before it was published.
Lewis’ piece comes to mind this week, as the New York Post catches flack (and lots of shares and clicks) for an article in a similar vein. The Post story, “Why I won’t date hot women anymore,” interviews a man fed up with the difficulties of hooking up with attractive models (and touches on the difficulties woman face dating super-hot dudes).
“Beautiful women who get a fair amount of attention get full of themselves,” Dan Rochkind tells the paper, explaining that he used to only pursue women for their looks. “Eventually I was dreading getting dinner with them because they couldn’t carry a conversation.” He says he has since settled for a woman who is not a swimsuit model, “but is still beautiful.”
The Lewis column is, of course, miles better written, crafted in his trademark conversational tone. But in the end, they’re the same: stories about what a woman’s looks mean to a man. The women are beside the point. They are shiny objects.
Back in 1994, Lewis’ wife, Bohner, already had an impressive resume: an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, a few years as an investment banker at the prestigious Lazard firm. She also had a master’s in journalism from Columbia.
Even though she wasn’t named in the magazine, Bohner’s colleagues surely knew it was about her. As a woman who works in a newsroom, this reporter can only imagine with horror what the fallout would be like.
Lewis mentions nothing about Bohner’s degrees or jobs. His article ― essentially a page-long humblebrag about how he bagged a babe ― tells readers only that she once appeared in a full-page New York Times advertisement for the Bloomingdale’s hosiery department. Since there’s no photograph in the New Republic, Lewis helpfully offers a soft-core description of the ad:
“It depicts a young woman, to me terrifyingly beautiful, reclining in midair, clad in a black slip and spiked heels. Her head tilts back, exposing the delicate line of her neck and making a niagara of her thick golden hair,” he writes. “She curls one of her long slender legs under her perfectly shaped bottom; the other she kicks up to the top of the page like a dancer in a chorus line,” he writes. “What is shocking is that the women in it is now my wife.”
The piece offers four “scenes,” meant to demonstrate the difficulties of being with such a precious gem of a woman. At a tennis lesson, the instructor becomes aggressive and makes Lewis look like a loser by drilling aces at him. At a restaurant, a maitre d’ fawns over his wife. At stores, it’s assumed Lewis will pay top-dollar for whatever she wants. At one point, Lewis marvels when construction workers fail to catcall his wife when they’re out together. He calls himself “the tamer of a lionesss,” because in his mind, he’s protecting the construction workers from her.
“[Of] the many theories that purport to explain and interpret the role of female beauty in our society,” he writes, “none fully captures the weird degradation of being intimately associated with the genuine article.”
Bohner disappears into the story. You could easily swap her out for, say, a very expensive sports car. Owning a Porsche also comes with difficulties ― you pay more for service and parts, valet parkers race to greet you, store salesmen assume you’ll pay full price. The Porsche lacks substance ― it’s just a vessel to make you look good. To Lewis and to his New York Post counterpart, the hot woman lacks substance, serving only to reflect glory on her owner. She is just a pretty hot rod.
The New Republic has not made the piece available online, but portions of it can be seen here:
The year 1994 was after Clarence Thomas landed on the Supreme Court, even though he’d been credibly accused of serious sexual harassment. But even in that pre-Twitter era, when people were less likely to take offense to sexism, Lewis’ piece raised hackles.
“It is discouraging to know that one of your staffers has nothing better to write about than how women are sex objects and to instruct us that the more successful sex objects get lots of perks,” Sara Wermiel, a New Republic reader from Boston, wrote to the magazine, which ran a half-dozen complaints about the piece in a subsequent edition. “I can’t remember ever coming across anything that reeked of such blatant self-promotion,” wrote Joseph Bornstein of New York City.
The New Republic published a one-line response from Lewis: “And she can cook too.”
Lewis proposed to Bohner after just three weeks of dating, according to Vanity Fair. He whisked her into a jewelry store, proposed, and plunked down $30,000 for a ring.
One reader predicted Lewis’ marriage to the “Bloomingdale’s model” wouldn’t last.
Three years after his column was published, Lewis married Tabitha Soren, a photographer and former MTV newscaster. They are still together and have three kids.
He offered a more detailed defense of his article to the Los Angeles Times a few years after it was published:
“It was just a funny little piece, meant to be touching,” he’s quoted as saying. “If I’d written it for Elle magazine, nobody would have paid attention to it.”
Lewis could not be reached for comment for this story.
Bohner declined to comment, but at least we offered her the opportunity to speak for herself.