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She Came, She Stole, She Hit the Bestseller List

Not for the first time, nor probably the last, Elizabeth Wurtzel has found a topic to set her to whining.

This time it's not the canopied bed that a local hotel was nice enough to set her up with ("repulsive") or the Broward County scene ("shallow") or even men in general ("incapable of having relationships") that weighs on this sometime Fort Lauderdale resident who also happens to be one of the hottest wunderkind authors-of-the-moment in the New York publishing world.

No, this time it's the press, which to Wurtzel's mind has been lacking in adequate appreciation of her second book of trendy nonfiction, the just-released Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women.

One reporter in particular comes in for Wurtzellian scorn: Newsweek arts writer Yahlin Chang. Last month Chang wrote a story in which she described the writing of Bitch as a yearlong descent by the lovelorn author into a cocaine-and-Ritalin-filled pit of emotional disintegration, a scenario played out in a series of small apartments and hotel rooms in Fort Lauderdale.

According to Chang's magazine piece, a low point came when Wurtzel was nabbed by the police while buying drugs and forced to spend the night in the Fort Lauderdale city jail. It is this particular aspect of the story that seems to bother Wurtzel the most. "I don't know, [Chang] made it seem as if she had a big scoop or something," she sniffs.

Scoop or not, the fabric of this tale unravels upon inspection.
The Broward County court system contains no record of anyone named Elizabeth Wurtzel ever having been arrested for, or charged with, a drug-related crime. Although Wurtzel seems to enjoy talking about the emotional trauma of a night in jail (she even mentions it in her book), she's shy about providing details. Doubleday publicist Allison Cherwin says only that "it was a bad time in her life. She was really messed up. The details are certainly foggy." Cherwin also says that Wurtzel's court records were sealed because it was a first offense.

That's unusual. The only way Wurtzel could have had her records sealed for a cocaine bust would have been to submit to a mandatory, yearlong program of supervision by the Broward County drug court involving random urine tests, drug counseling, and education classes. "It's an intense program," says Broward County assistant public defender Howard Finkelstein. "It's time-consuming. It's definitely not easy." Therefore it's difficult to understand how Wurtzel could have completed such a program while simultaneously living in the whirlwind of drug-induced craziness described in Chang's piece.

The turmoil supposedly began in the fall of 1996 when Wurtzel fled to Fort Lauderdale, where her mother keeps an apartment on Las Olas Boulevard, to escape a fail-ed relationship that had left her devastated. Over the course of the next year, she drifted from one small apartment to another while apparently ingesting massive amounts of cocaine and cutting herself off from former friends up north.

"I was running out every five minutes to do coke," she's quoted as saying in Chang's story. Somehow, in the midst of all the derangement, she produced a book, writing trenchantly about all sorts of hot-button women's issues: feminism, domestic abuse, Paula Jones, the O.J. Simpson case, Amy Fisher, et al. The writing, she says, was therapy, a sort of catalyst by which she healed herself.

It's a story that makes for great marketing: The wounded writer descends into hell and then claws her way back out using her art as a lifeline. In fact it's a story that Wurtzel -- backed by the powerful Doubleday publicity machine -- flogs relentlessly in an interview. (Her selling power isn't hurt by the fact that she possesses the wide eyes and smile of a Lolita-like seductress, a shoulder tattoo that bears the acronym of her motto ("Fuck The World"), and has no problem with posing topless on the cover of her book.)

But her wild-child depiction doesn't ring entirely true. In an interview with this writer, Wurtzel says she didn't know anyone in Fort Lauderdale when she moved here. So who was selling her all this coke? "I had somebody sending it to me," she says.

She did make one friend while she was living in Fort Lauderdale, a downstairs neighbor named Laura Breuer, whom she thanks in the epilogue. Breuer says she never saw drugs of any kind in Wurtzel's apartment. "I thought the Newsweek article seemed to blow things up," Breuer says. "They made it sound as if she had pills spread out from one end of her apartment to another and she was sitting there spaced out in the middle of it all." In fact, Breuer says, Wurtzel's apartment contained "iced tea, stray cats, and mounds of paper."

Not that Wurtzel didn't get into trouble while sojourning in Fort Lauderdale. A court-records search reveals that an Elizabeth Leigh Wurtzel -- one whose social security number, New York address, Fort Lauderdale address, and New York phone number match those of Wurtzel the writer -- was arrested, but her offense wasn't buying drugs to stave off life's demons. It was the far less melodramatic crime of shoplifting.

It seems that shortly before closing time on the evening of January 20, 1997, Wurtzel was videotaped by a security camera trying to walk out of the Saks Fifth Avenue store in the Galleria Mall with an unpaid-for bracelet valued at $199.90 on her wrist. Arrested and taken to the Fort Lauderdale jail, she was charged with larceny, a misdemeanor. She didn't actually end up spending the night in the jail, although she did wait four hours to be booked.

Two months later, Wurtzel pleaded no contest to the charge and paid a fine of $117 by credit card.

Chang thinks Wurtzel must have been merely mistaken about her drug bust instead of purposefully deceitful. "I don't think she intentionally lied to me. I think it was probably more a matter of her being confused. That would be sort of typical of Elizabeth," she says.

Call it confusion, but Wurtzel is a woman with a history of playing loosely with the truth, as well as outright deception. As reported by writer Ann Zimmerman of New Times' sister paper the Dallas Observer, Wurtzel was fired from the Dallas Morning News in 1988 for the ultimate journalistic sin: plagiarism.

Zimmerman also reported that Wurtzel had embellished her first book, Prozac Nation, with scenes that friends and coworkers described as either invented or redrawn to the point of fictionalization.

Even Wurtzel's mother told Zimmerman that her daughter's book was "a little dishonest" due to "her need to exaggerate, her need to dramatize, her need for attention."

In her Newsweek article, Chang dismissed questions of Wurtzel's veracity, mocking skeptics as those who apparently believed that "Wurtzel had staged a decade of depression so she could emerge as its poster child."

In fact, though, if anyone could pull off such a marketing ploy, it would be Wurtzel. As she travels across the country promoting Bitch and titillating reporters with wild stories that make for great copy, her salesmanship is clearly on full display. Her credibility, however, is not as evident.

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Paul Belden

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