Martin Shkreli was the reviled 'pharma bro' hedge funder who inflated the price of life-saving drugs and was jailed for fraud. Christie Smythe was the reporter who quit her marriage and job for him. Why?
It was an unfortunate scheduling clash. In November 2017 Christie Smythe had finally persuaded her husband to attend marriage counselling, but their opening session coincided with her first visit to see Martin Shkreli in jail.
The Bloomberg News journalist had led the way reporting on Shkreli, who had become America's pantomime villain after hiking the price of a life-saving drug by more than 5000 per cent overnight; as if that wasn't bad enough, he'd later been imprisoned for an investment fraud. Smythe was plotting a book about the so-called "pharma bro"; her husband had warned that she was becoming too tangled in his web.
The jail and the therapist were on opposite sides of New York, but Smythe wouldn't sacrifice seeing Shkreli. After visiting him, she raced back across town from the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn, which has also housed Ghislaine Maxwell and Bernie Madoff, arriving 52 minutes late for the hour-long therapy session. "I didn't count the minutes — he did," Smythe recalls, referring to her now ex-husband. "We still went to marriage counselling later and it was a disaster, of course. Nothing was counselled."
That day of dashing between clashing commitments was "emblematic of the entire situation", she tells me from her Harlem apartment, sighing wearily at the memory. The "entire situation" was extraordinary. In late 2017 Smythe was a successful journalist who lived an enviable life with her financier husband, Devin Arcoleo, and rescue dog Jack in a gentrified corner of Brooklyn. The following year, in quick succession, she resigned from her job, abandoned her marriage and left her home to pursue a new life with Shkreli, a pale, unprepossessing crook who had been labelled the "most hated man in America". At that time he was at the start of a seven-year sentence for securities fraud.
It's difficult to overstate how loathed the dodgy, millennial hedge funder was in the US. His company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, had acquired the rights to Daraprim, a drug used by people with conditions such as Aids, cancer and malaria, then in 2015 increased the price from US$13.50 to US$750 per pill (a jump from NZ$21.42 to NZ$1190 at today's exchange rates). Hillary Clinton described the price-gouging as "outrageous". Even Donald Trump, at the time a presidential candidate, called Shkreli a "spoilt brat".
Shkreli appeared to relish his role as America's new poster boy for greed and capitalist chicanery. He vowed to drop the price of Daraprim and then didn't. He unashamedly promoted himself in the media and made cringeworthy boasts about living the high life: photographs poolside in the Hamptons, megabucks Lafite Rothschild wine, flying over Manhattan in a helicopter and so forth. He also vilely trolled women on social media before being booted off Twitter for harassing a female journalist.
This was the man Smythe fell madly in love with — and who later dumped her without warning. Why did she do it? Does she have any regrets? And what has become of her and Shkreli?
Smythe's professional interest in Shkreli was first piqued when she read a business profile of him before his drug price scandal — she was curious about this quirky, nerdy-looking self-starter and lobbied her editors to write about him.
In 2015 they began exchanging emails about work, Shkreli dangled the potential for an exclusive interview and Smythe broke the news of his arrest on security fraud charges late that year. So far so professional.
In January 2016 they finally met in person at Shkreli's Manhattan office while he was on bail. "I don't think I was attracted to him initially," she says. "Well, maybe. It was more of a curiosity. I was not thinking about him as a romantic subject." The pair met up occasionally to talk shop and Smythe started planning a book about Shkreli, even talking to a handful of his ex-girlfriends for research ("not one weak woman in the bunch").
"As presented in the press, he was like Hannibal Lecter somehow crossed with a cockroach," Smythe writes in Smirk, her memoir of their relationship. "But in person he was something entirely different — a quirky nerd, antagonistic, insecure, brimming with bravado and imposter syndrome, and extremely bad at the optics mainstream media relies on."
Smythe was impressed that this Brooklyn-born go-getter, who hadn't attended an Ivy League university (he got a business degree from Baruch College in New York) and whose Albanian and Croatian immigrant parents were janitors, was making waves. Nakedly ambitious, Shkreli had worked for a hedge fund before launching his own, which crashed in failure. Dusting himself off, he launched a second hedge fund, which also later closed, then tried to cash in on the pharmaceutical industry.
Smythe's upbringing was more privileged — she came from a middle-class family on the outskirts of Kansas City and had studied journalism at the University of Missouri and Columbia University in New York — but that didn't stop her seeing Shkreli as an ally. She too was an outsider, making it against the odds in the world's toughest city. By mid-2017 Smythe was on book leave from Bloomberg to write about Shkreli in depth and attended every day of his high-profile five-week trial. Though accused of lying to investors about the performance of two hedge funds, then stealing from his drugs firm to pay back disgruntled clients, Shkreli commanded the Brooklyn courtroom, according to Smythe. "Even though he's kind of shy, he's like a lightning rod," she says.
Nevertheless Shkreli was found guilty of fraud on three out of eight charges. While awaiting sentencing he lost none of his rebelliousness: he had his bail revoked because he offered to pay his Facebook followers US$5000 for each hair grabbed from Hillary Clinton's head. He had made strange comments about cloning the politician, and although he later insisted he was joking, it didn't stop him going to prison.
In late 2017 Smythe began to visit Shkreli behind bars. "I was the first person he added to his visitor list," she says proudly. Initially she'd catch the 6am prison van to New Jersey, and when he was moved to Pennsylvania she got a driving licence solely so she could see him more easily. Unsurprisingly her husband had long been wary and warned Smythe that Shkreli was using her. Their marriage therapy sessions began but made no difference.
Meanwhile her employers at Bloomberg were becoming increasingly unhappy with Smythe's close relationship with Shkreli, whom she regularly defended on Twitter. In July 2018 she resigned.
"I was feeling extremely frustrated by having to keep everything bottled up," she says. "I was just, like, 'Everyone is so worried about what? That I will fall in love with him?' After that thought sunk in, I was like, 'You know what, maybe I do love him — screw everyone.'"
In the jail's visiting room, fragrant with chicken wings, she confessed her love to Shkreli, who said he felt the same, and they shared their first kiss. Weeks later her marriage to Arcoleo, whom she'd been with for almost a decade, fully imploded.
Prison rules meant that sex with Shkreli was off the cards; instead the pair had hours-long conversations about "books, science, pharmaceuticals, crypto, family, hopes and dreams". Smythe recalls that he took her writing career seriously too: "That, of course, is very flattering." It was, she says, a meeting of minds: "We were never at a loss for anything to say. We were always making each other laugh."
Over snacks from vending machines and under the watch of guards, the couple plotted their post-prison future, discussing marriage, prenups and children. With Shkreli's encouragement, Smythe — then in her mid-30s — froze her eggs, hoping they could start a family when he was freed. Although there was no proposal, they began to refer to each other as fiance(e).
Then things went wrong. In early 2020, with coronavirus sweeping through prisons, Shkreli's lawyers campaigned for his early release and Smythe pleaded for mercy towards her "would-be life partner". But they had no luck and, unable to see each other for months owing to lockdowns, the couple started squabbling. At the end of that 10-month period of long-distance relationship, Smythe felt unable, as she saw it, to keep living a secretive "double life". She spilt her heart to the magazine Elle, in which she described her entanglement as a series of "incremental decisions, where you're, like, slowly boiling yourself to death in the bathtub".
When Shkreli discovered that she had talked to the press, his response was ice cold. After Smythe had seemingly sacrificed everything — job, marriage, home — for him, he dumped her via a statement from his lawyers to Elle: "Mr Shkreli wishes Ms Smythe the best of luck in her future." It was "hurtful", Smythe says, but also somewhat expected. She vowed in an interview with The New York Times that she would wait for him.
Fast-forward to 2022 and Shkreli, 39, has been released early from prison for good behaviour; Smythe, also 39, has begun releasing chapters of her memoir on the online publishing platform Substack (it's free but you can pay for bonus content). If she had portrayed herself as a victim, "thrown Shkreli under the bus" and "played along with the arch-villain narrative", she would have been offered a more traditional book deal, she claims. Perhaps she would also have been paid more money. "If I just gave up everything I actually thought and went along with what [the publishers] thought would sell, I'd have published a book. But I can't do that," says Smythe, who's clearly bright but bull-headed. The editor she's now working with advised that, whether she liked it or not, she is "an unlikeable heroine" — and it helped. "When I realised that was where I fit," Smythe says, "it became so much easier to write and to deal with the negative reactions."
Falling in love with such a notorious fraudster — "Martin Shkreli is Big Pharma's biggest asshole" ran one headline — was always going to bring opprobrium. "We live in an era where guilt by association is something people go to right away," Smythe says. "We cancel people because of who they're friends with, who they support or maybe even who they like on Twitter, as ridiculous as that is."
Today Smythe maintains that, in Shkreli's mind, the Daraprim price hike was a way to raise capital from insurance companies, that he was vilified by people who know "nothing about business" and that the rest of the industry is equally greedy. "They're constantly trying to figure out ways to profit from people with diseases," she says. "To pick him out and say this person who's a start-up founder with a tiny company who's trying to research rare diseases … to say he's the worst just doesn't add up."
Such claims might be more persuasive had Shkreli not lied to his investors; splurged ill-gotten gains on a Picasso painting and a one-off Wu-Tang Clan hip-hop album (costing US$2 million and later sold by the US government to pay off Shkreli's fraud debt); and rubbed shoulders with Anna Sorokin, the "Fake Heiress" scammer who gallivanted around New York on other people's dime.
In the inevitable social media pile-on after the Elle interview, strangers had questioned Smythe's mental health. That reaction still rankles. "It's incredibly sexist," she claims. "It's, like, 'Are you kidding me?' Seriously, I'm a professional who has supported myself in a very competitive field for, I think, 17 years now. I've handled myself in a lot of difficult situations and you're questioning my mental health?"
I try to interrupt, but Smythe is fired up: "You must assume that somehow women are weak or emotional, or somehow cannot take risks or understand risks. That, in itself, is the type of sexism that is so embedded in culture that it's hard to eradicate."
Other reactions have been more positive. "I definitely heard from people who said, 'I also gave up the quote-unquote 'perfect little life', and I've never looked back.' So I do think that resonated with some people."
Though Shkreli did resume communication with Smythe after the Elle article, their romantic relationship was finished. Today the pair are friends. He is now living in a halfway house in New York and they've been in touch about meeting up. "I'll always care for him, that will never go away, but I want him to be happy," she says. "I want me to be happy."
Intelligent, attractive, capable women fall for narcissistic criminal men with alarming frequency; can she shine a light? "Let's face it, sexual desire isn't politically correct," she says. "You can't impose an academic view on what we're supposed to be turned on by. As a woman, yes, I find people who take some risks and are a little bit irreverent to be sexy. I definitely find it appealing to be with somebody who is willing to break the rules sometimes."
Shkreli encouraged Smythe to stop focusing on life's safety nets. "I think security was always in the back of my mind as something I had to worry about," she says. "Knowing Martin actually gave me the confidence to take my career into my own hands, not to be pursuing the safe option."
Soon Shkreli will be fully free; is he a changed man? Cue long pause. "Mmm, he's still the very individualistic person he has always been. I hope he has learnt at least where the lines are and why he shouldn't cross them," Smythe says, half-convincingly. "But he's still himself."
In January he was barred for life from working in the drugs industry and fined US$64.6m for his Daraprim scam, which the judge called "particularly heartless and coercive": not only did Shkreli hike the price enormously, he also tried to block cheaper generic competitors. The judge called him "unrepentant". Yet Shkreli, like his fellow scheming chum Anna Sorokin, still enjoys a large online following and, according to Smythe, he will now focus on cryptocurrency (naturally).
Smythe has moved on with her life. Last summer she met a new man — a Colombian-born, New Jersey-based horror film-maker in his early thirties called Humberto Guzman — on a dating app. When we speak they've just returned from a wedding in Scotland, but Smythe herself is not planning on walking down the aisle again anytime soon: "[Humberto] doesn't really want to settle down and have kids, so we're just enjoying each other's company. He's a lovely person, very low-drama, which is a nice change of pace."
Once upon a time she planned to have pharma bro's children. Now she speaks positively about her egg-freezing, explaining that it led the way to a second round of freezing that she carried out for her brother and his husband. "They're just looking for a surrogate now," she says.
Currently living with Jack the dog and working for a little-known online publication called The Business of Business, Smythe insists she has no regrets. She also dismisses the idea that her feelings for Shkreli were not reciprocated: "I don't think anyone who's ever seen us interact would think it was a one-sided romance."
Did she title her memoir Smirk after Shkreli's irritatingly smug expression? "Yes, but it's also my smirk," she says. "I'm smirking because I kind of got everything I wanted out of this. I finally get to write this book. I'm secretly, or maybe not so secretly, the winner in all this."
• To subscribe to Christie Smythe's memoir, visit www.smirk-book.com
Written by: Laura Pullman
© The Times of London