In 2001, I was walking home from my shift at a clothing store on the Upper East Side when a bearded man stopped me a block away from my apartment. “Excuse me,” he said, in the middle of a crosswalk. I tried to maneuver around him, but he continued. “Have you ever been in the movies?” he asked. “Ever done anything cinematic?”
I was curious about seeing myself in the bright lights, but tried not to be naïve. I was tired, had reading piling up for grad school and another job waitressing the next day. All I wanted to do was have a Heineken and some pizza with the three guys I shared a five-floor walk up with. But he didn’t let up: “The reason I ask is that I direct movies. Have you seen The Original Pick Up Artist, Black and White, or Two Girls and a Guy?”
I had. I nodded.
“Come here,” he said, putting his hand on my back and leading me to the curb. He introduced himself as James Toback. “Look me up,” he said, asking me for a piece of paper. It was weird that this big movie director didn’t have a card. Handing me back his phone number, he suggested I call him if interested. He said I might have “incredible potential.”
The next time we met, I had a tape recorder in my coat pocket. We went for a walk through Central Park. I said I was interested in writing about him for my master’s in journalism program, and I wanted to make sure I recorded every detail. I was worried about the sound being muffled because Toback’s hand kept rubbing my hip, right where the recorder was. But I got enough and I wrote about him for Salon in 2002. I got more than I could handle in a lot of ways. But, much of those details didn’t make it into my story.
At the time, I guess I told myself that it wasn’t that bad or that it could have been worse.
Since then, over 300 women have come forward with allegations about sexual misconduct by James Toback. Why did I leave that part of my experience out of what I wrote? Who was I protecting? Was I not brave enough, or too naïve or scared to face it in writing? Was I selfish? Reading it again I feel like a failure.
At the time, I guess I told myself that it wasn’t that bad or that it could have been worse. And it could have been. But reflecting now, I wonder, was I at fault in some way? After all, I got a master’s degree and was published–my dream at the time–because I wrote about Toback.
During that phase in my life I was an aspiring journalist with big dreams, on the lowest rung of my career. I was working two jobs, living in an apartment where the “doorman” was the homeless guy, and surviving off of loans.
On that walk through Central Park, Toback held me by the shoulders as we approached a woman sitting on the lawn. He whispered in my ear:
“I want to show you something. This is an example of how I get a bad reputation. This is what I do. I see this girl, and she looks like she may be interesting. And as I get closer and closer I see if she still holds my attention. I see if there’s a gravitational pull; because if there isn’t, what’s the fucking point?”
Then he used the same line on her that he had used on me: “Excuse me. I wonder, have you ever done, or would you be interested in doing, anything cinematic? And if you are, would you be interested in discussing it?”
I thought to myself, he’s basically playing out the character in his 1987 movie about a compulsive womanizer who combs the Upper West Side for dates. And this girl would be greener than the grass she was sitting on if she fell for this. Somehow, I didn’t consider myself ignorant.
After we parted with the women, Toback told me: “I do that 15 times a week. Well, okay, maybe 50 times a week. Forty girls and 10 guys.”
He asked how sexual I felt on a level from one to 10.
Over the course of the next several months, I met Toback at a film editing studio, bodegas, restaurants and coffee shops. Often, he’d run off inexplicably. We had phone calls on a private cell number. There were offers of trips–he especially pushed me to accompany him to the Montreal World Film Festival.
We went to a studio to meet his Harvard Man film editor, Suzy Elmiger, and I was wide-eyed to be in the presence of the woman who had edited Big Night. The way she looked at me felt circumspect. It seemed like she had seen this Toback chick flick before.
From the moment we sat down, Toback was agitated and fidgety. Why were his eyes always bugging out that way? Was he on something? He kept getting up from the leather couch, which he insisted I sit closely next to him on, while Suzy worked at the computer in front of us.
When she left the room for a moment he became still, leaned in, and asked how often I masturbate. “Why I ask is have you ever tried to have an orgasm with your eyes open?” I tried to evade the question. He asked how sexual I felt on a level from one to 10. Then he suggested I should look at myself, between my legs, with a mirror. He said something about having bought his daughter a mirror for her birthday.
When Suzy was back in the studio, he directed her on how to cut and sync narrative in a rowing scene with Adrian Grenier. I said I had to leave early for class. I wanted to explain something, anything, to Suzy, but I didn’t know what to say.
Another night, with my deadline approaching, I called Toback asking if we could meet to talk about one of his earlier movies. I thought we could take a walk or grab a coffee. He suggested a late dinner. My boyfriend at the time thought a place near my apartment called Island would be good, since both he and two roommates would be three blocks away. Toback said we couldn’t go there because his wife and her friends went there too often and might find out.
Confused, I thought, I’m just an aspiring journalist working on a project. What would it matter? We wound up meeting at another restaurant that was closing. Sweating and pacing, Toback decided to hail a cab and take us somewhere else.
In between swallowing forkfuls of pasta, Toback asked about how much pubic hair I had and how long it was.
When we arrived at the celebrity institution Elaine’s, I was starstruck. I immediately saw cast members of Sex and the City and other celebrities I recognized. Chris Noth came by to say “Hi.” The owner Elaine–an institution in and of herself– dropped by the table. In between swallowing forkfuls of pasta, Toback asked about how much pubic hair I had and how long it was. “The reason I ask,” he said, putting his hand on my leg, “[is that] there’s a Harvard study correlating a lot of pubic hair on females with sexual drive and testosterone.” He flagged a waiter and asked for extra parmesan cheese. “And when I say a lot, I mean a lot,” he said, his eyes popping out at me. Then he pointed out the illustrations of the most famous people adorning the walls of the restaurant, mumbling something about his own picture going up.
Throughout our interactions I felt something was weird. But I was getting my story. Maybe I wasn’t the only one working an angle, so to speak. But why was I reluctant to include the full story in my writing? Why did I help to protect a sexual predator? All I know is that I convinced myself his behavior was really nothing. How could a person get that far in the industry if he was such a big creep?
Looking back, I cringe. But I guess there is some relief in knowing I had enough clarity in our last meeting to say “No.” When Toback was pushing me to join him at Montreal’s film festival, he asked me if there was “anything” he could do to get me to go. He told me I could get more information. He grabbed my butt and patted it a few times. I said, “I think I have enough.”
But I think I meant that I’d had enough.
Editor’s Note: Over 300 women have now accused James Toback of sexual harassment. In October, an L.A. Times story detailed 38 allegations that involve the director approaching women in public and luring them into “meetings” that quickly turned sexual. Toback has denied the accusations, calling them “too stupid to waste time on” and claiming he has no recollection of meeting any of his accusers.