I always kind of liked Peter Braunstein.
This is when he was Peter, before he became the Fire Fiend, or Pervy Pete. Before the unusually temperate autumn day, October 31, 2005, when he dressed as a fireman and set off several smoke bombs in the hallway of a Manhattan apartment building. Before he then talked his way into the apartment of a woman he barely knew, knocked her out with chloroform, tied her up, sexually assaulted her, and held her captive for 13 harrowing hours. Before the six-week manhunt that followed, and the armed robberies, and the discovery of his plot to murder Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Back when what he and I had in common — two straight guys on the mostly gay or female staff of a fashion-oriented publishing company, neither one of whom seemed to have much of a future in the fashion world — hadn’t yet been so completely overshadowed by what we didn’t.
True, he could come off like a bit of an asshole back then, a little too full of himself, swaggering around in his leather pants and velvet blazers, his corkscrew curls glistening with product. Then again, plenty of people are full of themselves. There’s no crime in that. It’s why we come to New York, many of us, to get more full.
Peter’s tenure as a writer at Women’s Wear Daily overlapped with mine as an editor at W, the fashion trade paper’s glossy sister title, and in the days before both publications were purchased by Conde Nast, he and I worked just a few steps apart in the massive third-floor newsroom on East 34th Street. His work stood out at WWD, so I suggested he write for the magazine and wound up editing several of his stories, including the piece on Guy Bourdin, a French fashion photographer notorious for his sadomasochistic imagery, that was later taken as a sign of Peter’s twisted mind. He filed on deadline, and his copy was clean. Like I said, the guy seemed okay.
Eventually we lost touch, one thing led to another, and a couple years went by. The next thing I knew, Peter was a regular on “America’s Most Wanted,” the perpetrator of a sensational crime that shocked New York and sparked a tabloid frenzy.
It was January of 2011 when the first letter from Peter turned up on my desk at The New York Observer, where I was employed an editor. “Guess who,” it began, going on to suggest I visit him in prison to get “the definitive interview.” He said he’d been following my work. “I never figured you for a closet subversive iconoclast,” he wrote, a bit of flattery that vastly inflated the political subtext of my resume. “You, in turn, probably never suspected that I was one downward spiral away from criminal notoriety,” he went on. “Neither did I.”
He expressed annoyance that he’d failed to kill himself that day in December 2005, when he stood on a street in Memphis, Tenn., confronted by a campus security officer after being recognized from news reports, drew a T-shaped “punch knife” and repeatedly plunged it into his neck in an attempt to sever his jugular vein. “I was so close, man,” he wrote. “I felt like I had played my part to the hilt but death cheated me and refused to validate my parking ticket. (That’s right — as you might have suspected, death is from L.A.)”
He noted that he was enjoying prison, compared himself to the Michelle Pfeiffer character in White Oleander, and explained that he’d recently emerged from a lengthy medicated phase, during which he was like “an extra in a George Romero flick.”
It was a long letter, seven pages penned in a tight hand, amusing and genial, without a single cross-out. Packed with cultural references, from Shannon Doherty, Kim Kardashian, The Vampire Diaries, and Mean Girls to Carl Jung, James Ellroy, and the Marquis de Sade, it displayed all the breezy humor I recognized from his work as a journalist. But there were troubling passages as well, in which he ranted about his ex-girlfriend, an acquaintance of mine I’ll call Jill, and muttered darkly about his plans for exacting revenge on his enemies.
It also contained a personal reminiscence: All these years later, Peter still remembered an email I’d written to our colleagues announcing the birth of my son in 2001. “You said, ‘Remember that name!’ and I think I was jealous,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, that guy Aaron made something of his life, and he even has plans — hopes — for his newborn child. From Day One! It made me slightly sad, because it was just so alien to me. That optimism. I could never imagine my dad trumpeting my arrival in an email blast…” (My first thought on reading that: I sure am a wonderful father. Followed immediately by another thought: A psychopathic sex-criminal is jealous of my son?)
Peter has a keen sense of irony and a disarming if mordant wit, qualities that were highly evident during his ill-fated stint as media critic for Women’s Wear Daily in 2001 and 2002. They are also qualities that made what followed all the more bewildering. Plenty of successful journalists and writers have antisocial tendencies, and a few harbor deep wellsprings of resentment, but they tend to exorcise them on the page. For the most part, they (we) are wallflower types, more comfortable on the sidelines reporting on the action than jumping into the fray with bizarre acts of aggression. The type of person who might be expected to commit such an act tends to be alienated and anonymous. Peter, a talented, well-connected writer with a graduate degree in history and a bright future, didn’t fit the profile.
Which isn’t to say he was a particularly obvious fit for a job at WWD either. Neither of us were, though in many ways he seemed better suited to the place than I was, especially after he somehow caught the eye of W’s beauty director, Jill, an elegant blonde with a closet full of vintage dresses. As for me, I did a decent job and my presence was tolerated, even appreciated, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. Not long after one of Anna Wintour’s former assistants published a nasty roman à clef, The Devil Wears Prada, I remember joking with my boss, Fairchild’s urbane editorial director Patrick McCarthy, that his exceedingly loyal long-time secretary might one day do the same. “Better watch out for Gloria,” I suggested. He raised an eyebrow. “I better watch out for you,” he replied dryly, smiling but not exactly joking.
I mostly kept my head down at work. I was only dimly aware of Peter’s relationship with Jill and didn’t pay much attention to his stormy departure, in 2002, except for being disappointed to lose a good writer. I knew nothing of his downward spiral, his 18-month campaign to destroy Jill’s life. I’d have guessed he wouldn’t last long at Fairchild, but only because I suspected he was headed for a more interesting job, not a nightmarish spasm of fury and a life in prison. I never pictured him disguising himself as a fireman in order to gain entry to the apartment of a colleague in the fashion department, a woman with whom both of us had worked but whom neither of us knew, knocking her out with chloroform, assaulting her.
He seemed like an okay guy to me. Who would have imagined any of that?