"She Went 'Leaving Las Vegas'"
Close readers might have noticed that I wrestled yesterday with the post about the death of Diann Slattery, the former Sun-Sentinel and Miami Today editor who died Monday at 46. I rewrote a specific part of it about six times -- publishing a different version here each time. It gnawed at me. I finally cut it out altogether.
It was about Diann's drinking.
I never met Slattery, never even had heard of her before I was told about her death on Monday. They said she collapsed and had gone into a seizure while doing some research at the Plantation library. She later slipped into a coma. After several days of hospitalization, her heart stopped early Monday morning.
Everybody I talked to about Diann said she had a drinking problem. They said she'd gone to rehab, but fell off the wagon. That she'd get drunk at lunch, at employment functions, at the office. That it had cost Slattery her vaunted job as Broward Metro Editor at the Sun-Sentinel, her job at Miami Today, and, ultimately, her life. The drinking, they said, had destroyed her body.
I brought up the subject with her last boss, Miami Today editor and publisher Michael Lewis.
"That's funny, the Sun-Sentinel never told me anything about that," he said. "The only issue I ever had with Diann was that she worked too much. It was a serious issue. She never wanted to leave the building."
Did he know her to have had a drinking problem?
"There aren't many reporters who don't drink," said the veteran newspaperman, before regaling me with a few anecdotes from his long career in journalism that featured a lot of half-drunk bottles of alcohol he'd seen on many a city desk.
So when I wrote the post yesterday, I had information that she had had a serious drinking problem at the Sentinel. And I had information indicating that it wasn't a problem at Miami Today. My instinct was to include something about the drinking because I thought the fact might help explain her career arc and possibly her early death. But I didn't know those things. What if the problem was exaggerated? What if she just had a few binges? What if it had gotten blown out of proportion by a bunch of talk over the years?
I put it all kinds of ways. She battled alcoholism. No, that may not be true. That she battled the bottle. That she had been "portrayed by some as an old-school hard drinker and by others as a troubled soul struggling with unknown demons."
None of it seemed right. So I killed it. Then, in the afternoon, I got the e-mail with the subject line, "Diann Slattery."
"Do you know even a tenth of this story?" it read. "CALL ME."
I called the number. It was a reporter who'd worked for Slattery at Miami Today, a 37,000-circulation newspaper founded by Lewis in 1983. The publication is aimed at the business community and, despite having only a handful of newspeople who are paid relatively low wages, has a solid reputation.
"This is terrible story, a classic story about how the bottle destroyed a phenomenal journalist," the reporter said with near-reverence for the profundity of the human tragedy that had occurred at the newspaper.
Slattery was a disaster at Miami Today, the reporter said, an obvious alcoholic in terrible health.
"She totally let herself go," said the reporter. "She would roll in at 4 in the afternoon and proceed to get hammered throughout the day and trap us there until late at night. Weird things would happen to our copy. Mistakes would get edited into the copy. She would destroy the copy sometimes because she was totally trashed."
Another reporter who worked for Slattery at Miami Today confirmed these things (as did anecdotal evidence from a half-dozen other sources who knew her through the years). Slattery would often stay in the building until the early morning hours. She'd go to her car periodically throughout the day and had a bottle of Scope at her ready. Sometimes she'd be found passed at her desk in the morning. She missed work, suffered strange injuries, and behaved erratically and at times abusively.
And it went on for five years.
While Lewis had said that Slattery had left the newspaper last fall to take care of her late mother's estate, the reporter told me Diann had been fired in September for work-related issues, including failure to show up for work.
"[Lewis] should have done something," said the reporter. "He had to know what was going on."
But the reporter conceded that everybody who worked there during those years should have done something. Everybody knew about Diann's drinking, even though she meticulously hid her bottles (likely in her car). That's the truly horrific aspect of the story: Nobody did anything about it.
The reporters, however, did have a reason to keep quiet: They feared being fired if they brought it up. And there was a feeling of inevitability that Slattery, who lived alone in Plantation, was set in her ways and wouldn't be moved. "She went Leaving Las Vegas," said the reporter.
When I called Lewis, whom you may know from his regular appearances on the buttoned-up political show Issues on Channel 2, he continued to deny any knowledge of Slattery's drinking problem. When I told him that former staffers had told me that Diann was a raging alcoholic, he said: "That very well may be, but I saw no evidence of it. I don't think she was an alcoholic, but I'm not going to talk about this."
I asked him if she had been fired in September for failure to show up to work.
"That's not true. Diann no longer works at the paper. Diann is deceased."
Did he fire her in September?
"I'm not going to discuss internal matters."
Did staffers confront him with the issue of Diann's drinking?
"I'm not going to talk about that."
But this isn't about Michael Lewis. None of us can know how we would have acted in the same situation and, to be sure, this is an age-old occupational hazard in the newspaper business. Even if Lewis had confronted the issue, it might not have helped Diann.
But that doesn't mean we can't learn from her story -- or hope that, when confronted with a similar situation, we might be able to help.