A July 4 overnight company retreat gone very, very wrong has led to the firing of the founder of one of the country’s top literary magazines. Marc Smirnoff, founding editor of the Oxford American, is accused of berating young staffers for playing a drinking game, and then pressing a 19-year-old intern to drive home alone with him, asking her to hold hands in the car and come with him to his favorite “make-out spot.” Her awesome response: “[I’d rather] hold hands with a dead dog.”
The Oxford American has only 20,000 subscribers, but it’s a major cultural force, publishing writers like Charles Portis and Karen Russell, and previously unpublished work by 20th-century Southern icons including William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Carson McCullers. Smirnoff founded the magazine 20 years ago after moving to Mississippi from California.
According to New York Times reporter Julie Bosman, an internal investigation after the July 4 retreat “produced detailed accounts of a workplace rife with sexual harassment, as staff members described how Mr. Smirnoff, 49, called female interns ‘baby’ and made lewd comments and unwanted sexual overtures.” Smirnoff is accused of hugging interns and kissing them on the top of their heads. The board of directors fired him on July 15, along with his longtime girlfriend, Carol Ann Fitzgerald.
In an interview with Bosman, Smirnoff acknowledges most of the physical details of the case: The hugging, the ride home, even the rebuffed offer to hold his intern’s hand in the car. He admits yelling at the staff members who wouldn’t quit their loud drinking game. He admits hugging the intern and kissing her on top of her head. But he insists that his physical contact with employees was always “paternalistic and nonsexual.”
Smirnoff compares himself to Ricky Gervais’s bumblingly offensive boss character in the British version of “The Office.” “I understand that I walk a fine line with my joking, my banter,” he explains (er, tries to explain). “I have made bad jokes. My intent with regards to that humor is just as important.”
Ok, sure, let’s give Smirnoff the benefit of the doubt and assume that his creepy, aggressive actions toward his staff members were simply the actions of a fool with good intentions, rather than a devious serial harasser. Is that supposed to make it better? This is intro-level management stuff: Don’t touch the interns. Don’t touch the employees. Don’t be a creep. It’s a shame that a 49-year-old man had to lose his career over something that he should have figured out on his first day of his first job.
Photo: Arkansas Literary Festival