Who's Christie Smythe? How 'Pharma Bro' Martin Shkreli's 'love' made journo freeze her eggs, quit job and marriage
A former Bloomberg News reporter quit her job, got divorced and froze her eggs for imprisoned former CEO of the biotechnology firm Retrophin, Martin Shkreli, known as the ‘Pharma Bro’. On Sunday, December 20, Elle, in an explosive report, traced the relationship between Christie Smythe and Martin. Martin allegedly increased the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000 percent overnight and made headlines for purchasing a one-off Wu-Tang Clan album for a reported $2M. In 2017, he was convicted of fraud and is now serving seven years in prison.
As per Elle, Smythe attended journalism school at University of Missouri and worked for two small newspapers before moving to New York in 2008. After her stint at a legal news company, she started covering Brooklyn federal court for Bloomberg News in 2012. It was a high-pressure job — Bloomberg kept record of how many seconds its reporters filed stories ahead of their competitors — but she was well regarded at the company and churned out reliable stories over the years. Her personal life was doing well too. In 2014, she married her boyfriend of five years, who worked in investment management. However, things were about to change for her.
In 2015, Smythe was tipped off by a source that Martin was under federal investigation for securities law violations. At that point, Smythe wasn’t aware of who he was — few people were — but after some research, she learned he was a brash, self-taught young executive who’d started hedge funds in his twenties, then moved on to establish pharmaceutical companies Retrophin and Turing. Smythe called up Martin, and he argued she “had no idea what I was talking about". But believing her source, she published the story anyway, breaking the news of the investigation. But since Martin wasn’t well known, it didn’t make an impact. In December 2015, Smythe broke the story of Martin’s arrest, and “the Internet lit up", she says.
Smythe managed to get an in-person meeting with Martin after the legal procedure had started and he was allowed to go home and continue working at Turing after posting a $5M bond. When Martin came for their meeting, he immediately “started giving me a spiel", she says. He insisted on talking off the record. He showed Smythe spreadsheet after spreadsheet with investors’ holdings in his funds. “You could see his earnestness,” Smythe says. “It just didn’t match this idea of a fraudster.”
Later, Smythe says, “He kept toying with me for a while.” He would indicate an on-the-record interview and then give it to one of her competitors. Smythe had to remain cordial; Martin kept making news. At one point, when Smythe called him for comment, something changed. Martin was searching for a new lawyer and asked her for advice. She felt “flattered,” she says and offered her opinion. “It really felt like he didn’t have anybody to talk to that he could bounce ideas off of,” Smythe says. “I was like, ‘All right. I guess I can do that.’ ” He sounded “ragged and fragile, and I got concerned he would commit suicide because all this stuff was all happening at once.” However, she prioritized her job first. She pre-wrote an obituary for Martin in case he did, in fact, kill himself.
She again insisted on a profile, asking Martin to meet her in person again. He selected a wine bar near his Murray Hill apartment for the meeting. After he said he’d consider allowing her to write a feature, they started talking about his childhood. The Brooklyn-born son of immigrants who worked as janitors had dealt with serious anxiety as a child. Smythe too had anxiety and they connected over how they’d both succeeded in competitive New York fields as outsiders to the Ivy League.
In 2016, Smythe started the prestigious Knight-Bagehot Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University. She wrote about Martin for a class, “describing how manipulative he was to reporters,” says her professor, Michael Shapiro. She wrote “quite candidly about how he had so successfully drawn her in.” Shapiro worried that Martin was stringing Smythe along in order to make “her evermore grateful for access". And “once that happens, you’re at a profound disadvantage as a reporter,” Shapiro says. She showed the essay to Martin, and after he read it, he told her, “You should write the book” — as in a biography and memoir of Martin. “Maybe I was being charmed by a master manipulator,” Smythe tells Stephanie Clifford of Elle.
In 2017, Martin invited Smythe to a talk he was giving to a Princeton University student corporate finance club as material for the book. Smythe was moved when Martin mentioned her: “Even if you find an honest reporter — I made friends with one, she’s here right now,” he told the audience. Later, Martin met with students at a brewpub. “Martin’s mobbed with kids, people talking to him, and he’s really animated and excited,” she remembers. When Martin went to the bathroom, Smythe stepped in to entertain the students. “It almost felt like I was a political wife,” she says.
In 2017, Martin’s trial had started. After a brief book leave, she was back covering the case for Bloomberg. A Bloomberg News spokesperson said, "Ms Smythe’s editors did not know about these actions. Had they been aware of them at the time, at a minimum, she would have been immediately taken off the beat.” He was jailed after he allegedly offered his online followers $5,000 for a strand of hair from Hillary Clinton, who’d criticized his drug pricing. His sudden imprisonment affected her.
Smythe pressed Martin to let her visit him in jail, and he agreed. In the visitors’ room, not aware about Martin’s preferences, Smythe spent $30 on vending-machine snacks. They struggled to hear each other over the other visitors. For the meeting, she put her first counseling session with her husband in the backseat. He had refused to move the appointment, and she wouldn’t reschedule with Martin. She arrived at the session 52 minutes late.
The judge was requested to give Martin a lengthy 15-year sentence, prosecutors quoted emails between a person known as “Individual-1” and Shkreli, sent through the jail email system, where all messages are monitored. Prosecutors referenced the emails to argue that Martin was making up his remorse, telling individual 1 that he would do “everything and anything to get the lowest sentence possible". Smythe knew she was the ‘individual 1’. “I knew I was a part of the story at that point,” she says. She informed her editors and changed to covering different cases. By then, book publishers had passed on her proposal; they wanted a scathing take on Martin, which she refused to write. So she focused instead on selling movie rights to the book proposal, attending Martin’s March 2018 sentencing for research.
With Martin in prison, Smythe “definitely felt like an advocate for him,” she says. She confronted tweets condescending of Martin and told supporters how to contact him. In 2018, her editor called her to a conference room at Bloomberg headquarters and an HR rep was also there. They’d already warned her about her tweets regarding Martin, her superiors told her that behavior was biased and unprofessional. Smythe understood and quit on the spot. "Ms Smythe’s conduct with regard to Mr Shkreli was not consistent with expectations for a Bloomberg journalist,” the Bloomberg spokesperson says. “It became apparent that it would be best to part ways. Ms Smythe tendered her resignation, and we accepted it." By then her marriage was also almost over.
After leaving Bloomberg, Smythe visited Martin again. “I was so angry at the establishment, and people who wouldn’t let me tell my story in the book: publishers, Bloomberg, everybody,” she says. Without her job or her marriage “that totally eroded any defenses I had left.” She realized her feelings for Martin and in the visitors’ room said, “I told Martin I loved him,” Smythe says. “And he told me he loved me, too.”
“It’s hard to think of a time when I felt happier,” Smythe says. “At first he’s like, ‘Can I call you my girlfriend?’ ” she says, and “this led very naturally into thinking about a future together.” Soon they were discussing their children. After Smythe was concerned about being too old to have children when Martin got out of prison, he suggested she freeze her eggs, and she did that too. However, when Martin found out about the Elle article, he stopped communicating with her. He didn’t wish for her to tell her story, she says. Smythe assumes it’s because he’s worried about fallout for her.
These remarks were made by third-person and individual organizations, MEAWW cannot confirm them independently nor does it support these claims. The respective references are linked in the article.