In the days since E. Jean Carroll said that she was assaulted over twenty years ago by Donald Trump, she has been questioned and scrutinized, for both the story she’s told, and the winding, sometimes, colorful way that she has told it.
And yet, Carroll says, this moment is ” probably one of the most carefree and happy times of my life,”
”I’ve been in a cocoon of love and support,” Carroll told USA TODAY in a phone interview Tuesday, adding that people have been sending her messages, texts, and even approaching her on the street. “It’s just been overwhelmingly delightful.’’
Her response is likely not what some would have imagined. But Carroll has spent a lifetime defying expectations.
A former beauty queen, she became a pioneer in the world of literary journalism. A daughter of the Midwest, she found renown in the elite media circles of New York City. And, in her 70’s Carroll remains a beacon to millions of readers seeking out her frank talk about sex, success and love.
Lisa Chase remembers the first time she read a piece by Carroll.
“I thought she was hilarious,” says Chase, who first edited Carroll thirty years ago when Chase was an editor with Outside magazine. “When you hire E. Jean, you want a funny story with feeling and empathy.”
But though the two women became friends, Carroll’s account of being sexually assaulted by Donald Trump in a posh Manhattan department store more than twenty years ago was one Carroll never shared.
“I was asking her for years to write a memoir,” says Chase, who edited Carroll’s advice column in Elle magazine from 2005 to 2017. “I had no idea she had these stories. She kept them to herself.”
Carroll’s book, “What Do We Need Men For?”, details an allegation. first excerpted in New York Magazine, that Trump assaulted her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid 1990’s. Two of Carroll’s friends have confirmed to the New York Times that she told them about the incident shortly after it allegedly occurred. Trump has denied assaulting her. The book went on sale to the public on Tuesday.
“Totally lying. I don’t know anything about her,” Trump said. “I know nothing about this woman. I know nothing about her. She is — it’s just a terrible thing that people can make statements like that.”
But long before this fraught moment in the media’s glare, Carroll was a journalistic luminary, known for her Ask E. Jean advice column, and for being a presence amid the glitzy nightlife scene of 1980’s and 90’s New York.
“There’s a circuit in New York,” says Chase. “You go out to events. You go to premieres. … You go to dinner parties. She was on TV. She was writing. She was beautiful and smart and funny. She was married to a person (John Johnson) who was a big on air personality. She was in that world.”
Carroll carved a niche in television, writing for Saturday Night Live in the 1980’s and hosting her own “Ask E. Jean” show on MSNBC’s predecessor, America’s Talking, from 1994 to 1996.
But it was her writing, featured in publications like Rolling Stone and Playboy— where Carroll became the first woman to be named a contributing editor—that established Carroll as a trailblazer.
“That was the tabloid era,” says Roger Friedman, editor in chief of the entertainment news website Showbiz411, who edited Fame magazine from 1987 to 1991 and later wrote New York Magazine’s Intelligencer column. “People were chasing scoops. You didn’t have cell phones. You didn’t have the internet. You had to get up, put your hat on and get the story… She was a person out talking to people,.”
Carroll became known for a style of writing and reporting dubbed gonzo journalism. A hallmark of writers like Hunter S. Thompson, whose biography Carroll wrote, and Tom Wolfe, it was a school of storytelling in which journalists often made themselves part of the tale, offering up humorous—sometimes outrageous— personal experiences.
“In the literary journalism world, she was a player, which is saying a lot,” Chase says. “There weren’t a lot of women who were being hired by men’s magazines. And she was.”
Carroll also drew comparisons to famed filmmaker and writer Nora Ephron.
“Both are fiendish reporters who find their subject matter in left field,” Kirkus Review wrote in a critique of Female Difficulties: Sorority Sisters, Rodeo Queens, Frigid Women, Smut Stars, And Other Modern Girls, a book Carroll penned in the 1980’s. “Carroll, though, is wilder than Ephron, content not just to set a scene but sometimes to steal one, too.”
Chase says the last piece she asked Carroll to write was about an all woman rafting trip. “I think we called it women who run with no clothes on because at some point in the trip all the women took off their clothes and rafted naked down the river, which I’m sure was her idea…She’s had an adventurous life.”
Elizabeth Jean “Jeannie” Carroll’s journey started out much more conventionally.
Carroll spent her childhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the oldest of four children in a family that included a younger brother, and two sisters.
It was a Midwestern life, in mid-century America. But Carroll felt that she could be whatever, and whoever, she wanted to be. “I was free,” she told USA TODAY. “I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s. I rode my bike all over town. I started to drive when I was 14. …Just trying being 35. The world will knock you down, pay you less, tell you you’re not as good. But when you’re a kid, everything is possible.”
Carroll’s writing ambitions bloomed early. “I was filing the U.S. mail with pitches to magazines … at the age of 12,” she remembers. “So apparently I thought of myself as a writer. I mean, if I’m writing to the Sears and Roebuck catalog, pitching a story to them, I guess I wanted to be a writer.”
A member of the class of 1967, Carroll was named Miss Indiana University as well as Miss Cheerleader U.S.A., which earned her a scholarship.
Carroll was also a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, but in an article in the October 1996 issue of Indianapolis Monthly, she says that the group “kicked me out 20 years later for something I wrote for Playboy about sorority rush. I wasn’t too kind.”
The first time Carroll touched down in New York was after college.
“I thought it was the most marvelous place in the world,” she said. Her first job? “Honda had their new motorcycle and I sat on the Honda and greeted people at the World’s Fair in the Japanese exhibit right across from the Japanese tea ceremony people. It was fabulous.”
People from Indiana visiting the exhibition recognized her, asking if she was that cheerleader who’d been Miss Indiana University. “I’d say no. Who are you talking about?”
After that first brush with Manhattan, Carrolltraveled to Africa, lived in Montana with her first husband, Steve Byers, and spent some time in Chicago. But after she landed a piece in Esquire, Carroll’s writing career began to take off.
She returned to New York to interview Fran Lebowitz for the cover of Outside magazine, and she stayed for good.
“I had jeans, cowgirl boots, a fringe jacket, a couple of shirts,” she says. “And that’s it.”
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
In her book, Carroll says that she had only met Trump once before the day she says she encountered him at Bergdorf Goodman. Trump, meanwhile, has said that he doesn’t know her.
However, there is a photograph showing that their paths did cross. Dated “around 1987,” it is a shot of Carroll, her then husband, former New York City anchorman John Johnson, and Trump with his first wife, Ivana.
At the time the picture was taken, Times Square had not yet become the tourist mecca some now disparagingly liken to Disneyland. In those days, visitors to New York were still being warned not to ride the subway after dark.
“In the 80’s everyone worried about getting mugged,” Friedman recalled. “There was graffiti everywhere and your car was constantly broken into … Cars all had signs that said ‘no radio inside.’ “
But New York was also the capital of media, finance and fashion, and for a glittering set, it was a glamorous, golden era. Studio 54, the legendary disco, shut its doors in 1980, but new night spots like Nell’s rose up on the scene, and eateries like Michael’s were among the cool corners where the chic and powerful gathered.
One of the most legendary was the bar and restaurant, Elaine’s, frequented by a local who’s who of writers, actors and artists.
“I lived in Elaine’s,” Carroll said. “I knew everybody there. I was sitting at the writer’s table and that was heaven on earth… You could go in at any time and there was always a table of writers and you would just sit down. Sometimes detectives would join us. Sometimes prizefighters. But there was always a writers table and it was usually on a Thursday night.”
Everyone who was anyone in the world of publishing would pass through, she says, from Jackie Kennedy who was an editor, to Normal Mailer, to Gay Talese. “Sometimes the evenings would be so hot with celebrities, it was unbelievable.”
Elaine’s was also where she met Johnson, “the big-time New York anchorman, and one of the prettiest and most accomplished men in Manhattan,” she wrote in What Do We Need Men For? Johnson was sitting with TV journalist Geraldo Rivera, who, when the couple got married in the Hamptons served as their best man.
Trump was also a fixture on New York’s nightlife scene. The 1980’s was the decade when Trump Tower first opened its doors and Trump’s memoir “The Art of the Deal” was published. Both helped turn him into a celebrity, propelling Trump’s brash, boastful persona beyond the pages of the local tabloids to appearances on national shows like Late Night with David Letterman and 60 Minutes.
Meanwhile, Carroll’s writing career continued to thrive. In 1993, her Ask E. Jean column debuted in Elle, and for nearly three decades, Carroll has doled out tough love to its millions of readers, cushioning her guidance with humor, irreverence and references that range from Saint Teresa : to the artist Frida Kahlo.
In one column, dated Sept. 20 2006, a woman wrote that she was “married to the perfect man” but was miserable because her wealthy husband was reluctant to even pay for her to get a facial.
Carroll first gave the woman a recipe for a home made beauty treatment, (“Puree three tablespoons of honey, two tablespoons of milk and 10 strawberries … Your skin will be instantly shimmerized.”) She then told the advice seeker to get a job and to get out of the marriage.
“Now that you feel better, take a look around and ask yourself: Why am I letting this creep control my life?” Carroll wrote. “Hunny, he’s well on his way to becoming an abuser. Get out while you can…. Hire a good divorce attorney and leave.”
“There was a lot of realism in her advice to women.” Chase says. “She thought about the way women really lived… She might say, ‘Yes you should leave him but will you? Can you? And if you can’t, here’s what you can do to … get to that point.’ “
In the course of their friendship, Chase says she, too, has received some straightforward advice from Carroll, who runs a dating service, and has set her up on a couple of dates.
“She said to me … ‘It’s impossible, you’re never going to find anybody,” says Chase, who was resuming dating after her husband, Peter Kaplan, the former editor of the New York Observer, died in 2013. “I knew what she was saying. ‘It’s going to be very hard for you to find somebody who you love the way you loved him’ … It turns out she wasn’t totally right because I did find someone I love. But it was a truthful moment which I really appreciated.’’
Still, given the era in which Carroll grew up, Chase says that she is not surprised that a consummate giver of guidance would keep some of her own troubling experiences to herself.
“She’s of a generation of women who were brought up not to do that,” Chase says. “She was beautiful and expected to do and be certain things and she wanted a bigger life…She’s empathic. But she’s also private about things.”
Carroll’s writing style and voice has informed her recounting of Trump’s alleged sexual assault. And some have questioned the way she’s described a traumatic event, as well as her refusal to call what she says happened rape.
“Every woman gets to choose her word,” Carroll said in an interview on the New York Time’s The Daily podcast,. “Every woman gets to choose how she describes it. … I have not been raped. Something has not been done to me. I fought. That’s the thing.’’
Carroll told USA TODAY that there is no mystery to how she comes up with the nuggets she dispenses to her readers. “Giving advice is just following common sense,” she says. “Nothing special. That’s it. I think that’s why a lot of therapists write to me… They have studied for years and years and years, the psychology and the human being, but sometimes it’s just a commons sense thing and the simplest advice will work.”
When Carroll needs guidance, she turns to an unexpected source, reading passages written by classic writers like Henry David Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius.
Aurelius in particular has provided her the words she seems to have lived by.
“I learned that when you get up in the morning you have to believe that this could be the day you die and that grass will be very shortly growing on your grave,” she says, “and so get on with it. It’s a real good way to get up. .. It really keeps you happy, oddly enough, because you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Contributing: Nyssa Kruse, Indy Star
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones