“There are probably people getting away with such things right now”: Sarah Weinman discusses her new book, about a con artist who convinced a right-wing pundit to save him from death row

Convicted killer Edgar Smith should never have seen the outside of a prison cell. It took a jury of ten men and two women an hour and fifty-one minutes to find Smith, a resident of New Jersey’s Bergen County, guilty of the murder of fifteen-year-old Victoria Zielinski in March 1957. Following the guilty verdict, Judge Arthur O’Dea wasted no time imposing the mandatory death sentence on Smith, which is where the story might have ended.

For Sarah Weinman, author of the 2018 literary history/true crime hybrid The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World, the death sentence is where the most fascinating part of Edgar Smith’s story begins. While in prison awaiting execution, Smith struck up a correspondence with right-wing firebrand William F. Buckley, Jr., a conservative journalist and broadcaster who became convinced that Smith was innocent. An article by Buckley for Esquire magazine caught the eye of Sophie Wilkins, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf in New York; before long, Wilkins and Smith were corresponding (often in heated, sexually explicit terms) and the killer had been signed to a book contract.

The finished volume, titled Brief against Death: Written by Edgar Smith in His Eleventh Year on Death Row, would appear in 1968 and would result in a deal that saw Smith released from prison. He would appear on not one but two full-length episodes of Buckley’s television news show Frontline and publish a number of other works of fiction and nonfiction before succumbing to his old habits on October 1, 1976, when he kidnapped and almost murdered Lefteriya Ozbun in California. This time he was sentenced to life in prison; he died behind bars in 2017.

Smith’s story was intended as a follow-up to the Hazlitt article that produced The Real Lolita. Weinman first became aware of the saga as a result of falling down a similar internet rabbit hole to the one that drew her to Sally Horner, the eleven-year-old girl at the centre of the earlier book. But several factors conspired to convince the author that there was sufficient material for a full-length nonfiction work. The book would become Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free, published in February by Knopf Canada.

Weinman had long been intrigued by the story of Norman Mailer’s relationship with Jack Henry Abbott, a convicted murderer whose book about prison life, In the Belly of the Beast, was endorsed by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Executioner’s Song. Nine days after the launch of Abbott’s book, the ex-con was a fugitive, having killed again. Weinman wrote about the case in a review for The New Republic. Another influence on Scoundrel was rereading Janet Malcolm’s 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer, about convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald’s lawsuit against writer Joe McGinniss, whose true-crime work Fatal Vision told the story of MacDonald and his crime.

“I’m fascinated by public intellectuals and journalists getting caught up with murderers,” Weinman says. “I keep coming across this over and over again.”

Researching Edgar Smith’s relationship with William F. Buckley, it felt to Weinman as though the details could have been ripped from the pages of a Janet Malcolm book. But as she dug deeper into the connection between the two men, Weinman became convinced that it transcended even those other dubious interactions with which she was already well versed. “What I was discovering was in a lot of ways worse than the Mailer-Abbott story,” she says. “And I think it’s just because you have this wilful disregard of the murder of a teenage girl.”

But although Weinman was intrigued by the friendship between the convicted killer and the right-wing pundit, it wasn’t until she stumbled across the archive of Sophie Wilkins’s papers at Columbia University that she knew the project would end up being longer than a magazine article. “I requested some boxes and I started looking through and basically I realized – oh, holy shit! – this is a lot bigger and weirder than I thought,” she recalls. “And now I have a book.”

“If Edgar had been poor and Black, this never would have happened,” says Weinman (Photo: Nina Subin)

Scoundrel is many things: a true-crime story of a charismatic con artist who managed to charm powerful media figures – along with Buckley and Wilkins, the story also intersects briefly with Mailer and Truman Capote; a narrative of a strange, epistolary love affair between the convicted killer and a highly placed literary editor; a cautionary tale about media manipulation and miscalculation.

On the subject of whether Smith’s charming hustle, and Buckley’s willingness to buy it, is an indictment of the media as a whole, Weinman is circumspect. She keeps returning to Buckley’s sense of loyalty, which transcended most other values in the conservative journalist’s life and drove him forward in his advocacy for Smith, to the point that he contributed the introduction to Brief against Death. But Weinman is also cognizant of the fact that certain aspects of Smith’s identity served him well in his initial approaches to the journalist. “It says a lot about who the media will elevate and who they won’t,” she says. “If Edgar had been poor and Black, this never would have happened.”

It is also Weinman’s feeling that Buckley genuinely believed in Smith’s innocence. “He advocated out of a sense of tremendously good faith and that’s what did him in,” she says. As to why he developed this belief in the first place, Weinman returns to an idea put forward by Donald Coxe, a writer for Buckley’s magazine, The National Review, who was the first to treat the Edgar Smith story. “We just never imagined that somebody who could write so well was a savage killer,” she recalls Coxe saying to her.

In attempting to piece together the internecine relationships between her major characters, Weinman was helped by the voluminous archive of documents left behind by Smith, Buckley, and Wilkins, all of whom are now deceased. “The volume and breadth of the letters was beyond my wildest dreams,” she says. “Between Buckley and Edgar, Sophie and Edgar, Sophie and Buckley, I would know what they were thinking and feeling in real time.”

This was a marked contrast to her work on The Real Lolita, where such primary documentation was scarce and forced her to work much harder to find material. “In this instance, I was drowning in correspondence. It was much more incumbent upon me to figure out what’s actually necessary for the narrative. There were a lot of interesting digressions – some of them X-rated – that didn’t make it in because they weren’t necessary to keep the story moving.”

What she also had at her disposal were out-of-print copies of Brief against Death, as well as a second volume of nonfiction, Getting Out, and two novels, A Reasonable Doubt and 71 Hours, all of them written by Smith himself. None of the books is valuable from a literary perspective, according to Weinman, and the novels in particular are poorly executed. But she does note one aspect of Brief against Death, perhaps resulting in part from Wilkins’s input as editor, that stands out. “It’s a persuasive book. I don’t know if it’s good,” Weinman says. “Ultimately, it’s most interesting for asking how does someone construct a narrative that is so diametrically at odds with the truth.”

This, of course, is the core appeal in stories about con artists in general, and the eponymous antagonist of Weinman’s Scoundrel specifically. “Part of what’s so fascinating about con artistry is just the level of audacity,” she says. “All of us are susceptible to being conned; all of us are susceptible to being manipulated.” One reason we read about such nefarious manipulators, Weinman believes, is in a vain attempt to shield ourselves from their charms, a project she suspects may be doomed from the start. “It’s this false sense that if we read enough and if we watch enough and if we listen enough this won’t happen to us. But life is random and everyone is susceptible and it probably will.”

The internet has provided a whole new venue for con artists to thrive; the ease and speed with which disinformation and misinformation can traverse the globe is a boon for those people trolling the world looking for marks whose goodwill outstrips their credulity. On the subject of whether Edgar Smith could have got away with his prevarications as easily in 2022 as he was able to in 1957, Weinman is wearily clear-eyed. “I would like to think that. But I know enough about how the world works. There are probably people getting away with such things right now. We just don’t know about them yet.”

“There are probably people getting away with such things right now”: Sarah Weinman discusses her new book, about a con artist who convinced a right-wing pundit to save him from death row
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