At the start of her eighth grade year, Heather was struggling. She was insecure, and lonely, and she wasn’t getting along with her mom. She worried that she wasn’t popular enough, or attractive enough, and that she’d never have a boyfriend. These insecurities were hard to talk about. The one place she felt comfortable expressing them was in Mr. Bailey’s English class.
By 1998, when Heather entered eighth grade, the 35-year-old Blake Bailey was already a legend at Lusher Extension, a magnet middle school in New Orleans. A published author, he was funny, charismatic, and academically demanding. In his yearbook photo, he looked like an eager preppy, with dark hair parted to the side and a loosely knotted tie. In 2000, he’d be named Louisiana’s Humanities Teacher of the Year.
Mr. Bailey expected his eighth graders to read challenging books, and to think independently. He made his students feel like grown-ups: He cursed in front of them, told off-color jokes, and acknowledged the existence of sex. The teacher also wasn’t above acting like a teenager. In between lessons on Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger, he sketched Beavis and Butt-Head on the blackboard.
At 14, Heather (not her real name) was eager to get the most she could out of English class. She went beyond the assigned texts, devouring books that Mr. Bailey personally recommended to her and other high achievers. Sometimes, during lunch, she’d head back to Mr. Bailey’s classroom to talk with him about what she’d read, or maybe about something else that was on her mind. Heather’s English teacher understood what she was going through, and not just from their lunchtime conversations. Mr. Bailey had each of his eighth graders keep a journal. The assignment was totally open-ended. They could write about whatever they wanted, he told them, even deeply personal stuff—they just had to write something. And Mr. Bailey would read every word.
Like many students, Heather used her journal as a diary, transcribing her fears, ambitions, and secrets onto its pages. Mr. Bailey jotted reassuring notes in the margins, telling her that she’d grow out of her awkward phase and be beautiful. “He was somebody who listened and made me feel like I wasn’t ridiculous to be feeling the way I was feeling,” she says now. “There weren’t any adults in my life who I had those conversations with.”
Heather stayed in touch with Blake Bailey after she went off to high school. She was happy when she got his letters, and felt reassured that he was interested enough to wonder if she’d gotten past her eighth grade worries. Bailey asked if she’d started dating, and he wanted her to share the details. Of course he wants to know, Heather thought. He cares about me.
When she was a freshman in college and living far away from home, Bailey, who was then married, told her he’d be passing through town and asked to get drinks. Heather was excited. The idea of meeting up with her beloved eighth grade teacher in her own city, over a drink, made her feel mature.
The night started out great. She remembers Bailey saying something like, “Ever since you were in my class, I knew you were beautiful, and you really blossomed.” Heather had always craved Bailey’s approval. Now, he was telling her what she thought she needed to hear. “Not having the highest self-esteem as a 19-year-old, it was like, Wow, someone always saw something in me.”
After a couple of drinks, Heather says, Bailey placed his hand on her thigh, then started kissing her. She couldn’t help but feel a little flattered by his attention. At the same time, she thought what was happening was wrong. She was confused.
Heather went back to Bailey’s hotel room, and they had what she describes as consensual sex. After that night, they kept up their email correspondence but never talked about what had happened. A year later, everything repeated itself—the visit, the drinks, the hotel room, the sex.
Over the next decade, Bailey and Heather continued to email. They would update each other on their careers, and Bailey would ask about her love life. When she didn’t reply quickly enough, he would playfully accuse her of abandoning him and say that he felt distraught. His last email came in 2017, when he asked her to meet up for coffee. They never did.
Heather, who is now 36, had never told anyone about those two nights with Bailey before now. “It’s just been something I’ve been incredibly ashamed of, and unhappy that I engaged with, my whole life,” she says. “I’d do anything to undo it, and talk some sense into my 19-year-old self.”
A few months ago, Heather found her eighth grade journal when she was cleaning out a box of old school stuff at her parents’ house. Almost 25 years later, she reread Mr. Bailey’s comments to her teenage self, including the one where he’d promised she’d grow up to be beautiful. She threw the journal in the trash.
On March 30, the New York Times Magazine published a long profile of Blake Bailey, calling him “one of the great chroniclers of America’s literary lives.” That article, which ran a week before the publication of Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography, recounted Bailey’s early years in a handful of paragraphs. He was born in Oklahoma in 1963. He briefly wanted to be an actor. He did his undergraduate work at Tulane, tried to make it as a fiction writer, and found his first professional success in 2003 with a biography of the novelist Richard Yates. Buried in that capsule history, set off by a pair of commas, is a passing reference to his seven years at Lusher: “a job teaching middle school in New Orleans.”
Many of Bailey’s students kept up with their old teacher’s career—they’d heard his interviews on NPR and read glowing reviews of his books. For a subset of these students, the acclaim their eighth grade teacher was getting, particularly for his latest book—which several prominent critics described as a 900-page-plus apologia for Philip Roth’s misogyny, but most hailed as a masterwork—was too much to bear. On April 16, a woman who’d been in Mr. Bailey’s class wrote on Facebook that his grooming of young students had long been the subject of “quiet discussions” in the Lusher community. A couple of days later, some of those allegations made their way into the comments section of Edward Champion’s literary blog. Another two days after that, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported that four former Lusher students had come forward to say that Bailey had “exploited their trust to pursue sex with them early in their adulthood.”
That account has been followed by additional reporting from the New Orleans paper, plus pieces in the New York Times and Associated Press. Those articles feature numerous accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior by Bailey, including multiple allegations of sexual assault. One anonymous former Lusher student told the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that Bailey had sex with her when she was 17 years old. (Seventeen is the age of consent in Louisiana.) “She didn’t rebuff Bailey,” the newspaper continued, “but said that was because she was overwhelmed at how quickly her former teacher had changed the nature of their encounter.”
Another woman, Eve Crawford Peyton, told the Times and the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate that Bailey raped her when she was 22. In an essay for Slate published in tandem with this article, Eve writes in depth about her decadeslong connection to Bailey. “In many ways, staying in touch with him minimized the horror of what had happened,” she writes. “It also helped me to be able to continue to believe that the nice things he’d said about me were true.” (Disclosure: One of the authors of this piece, Josh Levin, attended high school with Eve and many more of Bailey’s former students, including several interviewed for this article.)
Not every accusation has come from one of Bailey’s former students. The publishing executive Valentina Rice told the Times that Bailey raped her in 2015, when she was in her early 40s and both were staying overnight at a Times book critic’s home.
Bailey, who is now 57, said last week that the allegations against him are “categorically false and libelous.” He has been dropped by his agency, the Story Factory. His publisher, W.W. Norton, says it will take his Philip Roth biography out of print permanently.
Blake Bailey taught at Lusher from 1993 to 2000. Conversations with more than 20 of his former students have turned up uncomfortable encounters from their time in his class, new allegations of inappropriate behavior after middle school, and previously unreported details about stories first described in other outlets. In response to the accusations made in this piece, Bailey’s attorney, Billy Gibbens, told Slate, “the allegations of sexual impropriety are false, exaggerated and imagined. These complainants kept up longstanding, friendly relationships with Mr. Bailey for many years. These relationships—between highly educated, intelligent adults—continued long after the supposed assaults occurred, and they are not the type of friendships that anyone would have with someone who raped or abused them.” Gibbens added, “Mr. Bailey was an outstanding teacher and was awarded the 2000 Humanities Teacher of the Year for the State of Louisiana.”
Our reporting has revealed a clear pattern. Time and again, Bailey would become deeply involved in his students’ personal lives. He’d flatter their intellects, or their looks, and win their devotion, only to abuse that loyalty as they became young women. Nearly everyone we spoke to said Mr. Bailey was one of the best teachers they’d ever had. They also described a man obsessed with getting deep inside his subjects’ psyches. That habit has paid off for Bailey as a biographer. It’s also been his tool of choice as a predator.
Nobody cared as much as Mr. Bailey did. His love of literature, his delight at the power of words, his interest in his middle schoolers’ growth—all of that was obvious to everyone at Lusher, kids and adults. Steve Burt, a now-retired Lusher English teacher, saw Mr. Bailey’s work ethic and charisma up close. “A lot of his students would gather around him like a little flock on field trips, and he’d entertain them with witty banter,” Burt says. “It wasn’t unwholesome. It was kind of nice to see.”
Mr. Bailey’s classroom was on the top floor of a repurposed courthouse in Uptown New Orleans. The historic building that housed Lusher Extension wasn’t in great shape, but the English teacher’s room, with its big windows and high ceilings, was more glamorous than the temporary trailers that some of his colleagues were stuck in. Mr. Bailey had been hired to teach “gifted” students, a designation for children who excelled on screening tests. As of 1998, Lusher’s lower and middle schools were 46 percent white in a 91 percent Black New Orleans public school system. The gifted classes at Lusher were even whiter, often with just a handful of Black students.
Many of the kids in Mr. Bailey’s classroom were the children of lawyers and Tulane professors. They’d been hearing they were smart their whole lives. But Mr. Bailey made them feel like they were really using their brains. Jackie Delamatre, who had Mr. Bailey in 1993 and 1994, felt like the teacher had “just landed deus ex machina in our class to teach us what it means to be intellectual.” In seventh grade English, she’d spent a big chunk of the year diagramming sentences. In eighth grade, she read Black Boy, 1984, and Slaughterhouse-Five. In class discussions, the students grappled with morality and death and love.
“In a lot of ways Blake Bailey is the reason I got two English degrees,” says Katie Franklin, Heather’s classmate during the 1998–99 school year. Like several of Mr. Bailey’s former students, Katie is now a writer and teacher herself. She says Bailey “made me see literature in a way that was a lot more related to how to be a grown-up.”
As a 13-year-old, Katie believed that her English teacher “was the smartest, coolest person in the world.” She can still picture “the way his shirt billowed out at the bottom because of the hunch in his shoulders. … And that’s a weird thing to remember. I have long-term romantic relationships that I don’t remember like that.”
To the teenage Katie, Mr. Bailey felt strangely like a peer. When the class read The Catcher in the Rye, he made it clear that he identified with the adolescent Holden Caulfield, legendary hater of phonies. One time, on a vocabulary quiz, Mr. Bailey cited the Doors’ lyrics as an example of drivel, because he knew she liked the band.
Katie developed that easy rapport with Mr. Bailey via her eighth grade journal. For devoted students like her, the journal project didn’t feel like homework. Rather, it was an opening for an intimate conversation with a charming, brilliant adult.
Katie and her classmates turned in their journals once a week, and Mr. Bailey studied them with the same ardor he’d later apply to the personal papers of Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Philip Roth. He’d read his students’ diaries over lunch in the cafeteria, stopping now and then to laugh at the crazy things they’d written. Mr. Bailey wrote and doodled in the margins, often in red pen, creating a running commentary that sat alongside the teenagers’ own fears and longings. It was hard to imagine any other teacher spending all that time jotting personalized marginalia.
Mr. Bailey’s journals weren’t popular with everyone at Lusher. They could be a distraction in other classes, and Steve Burt was skeptical that all this journaling served a pedagogical purpose. But Mr. Bailey’s most avid students took the project seriously, and learned very quickly what their teacher wanted to read. “Our homework was to bare our souls to him,” says Mary Laura Newman, who had Mr. Bailey in 1993 and 1994. “In eighth grade, you are craving that sort of attention that says, I am not just a kid anymore. I am a person. I’m somebody who’s becoming an adult. And so to be treated that way is very satisfying, and very seductive.”
Sam Brandao, who also started eighth grade in 1993, was one of Mr. Bailey’s most eager correspondents. He hungered for his teacher’s intellectual and social guidance, at times using his journal to pose questions to Mr. Bailey directly. There could be a tenderness to the teacher’s responses. Mr. Bailey urged Sam to be less spiteful and a better friend to a classmate who was struggling. He told his student to visit Europe after high school graduation and to read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey “all the way through.” And he quoted the Max Ehrmann poem “Desiderata”: “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
Sam’s most pressing concern, though, was dating; as an eighth grader, he fell in and out of love on a weekly basis. “It’s perfectly normal to be fickle—esp. if you’re blessed w/the choice—but you’ve got to survey the field a bit more carefully before acting,” Mr. Bailey wrote. The details of Sam’s romantic intrigue drew the teacher’s eager attention. “Thanks for the dirt, Samuel,” Mr. Bailey scribbled at the bottom of one page. “Keep me apprised, pls, of yr delightfully complicated love life.”
Mr. Bailey had opinions about many of Sam’s options. One female classmate, the teacher wrote, “is a splendid girl. I never have understood why you’ve hesitated there.” When Sam said he wasn’t interested in being a different girl’s boyfriend, Mr. Bailey asked, “Why not? [She]’s a babe. Smart, too.”
Some of Mr. Bailey’s comments were even more obviously prurient. When Sam wrote, in reference to one teenage girl, “You’re drooling, Mr. B,” the teacher responded, “Not at all” … accompanied by a red-ink illustration of drool. On another page, Mr. Bailey wrote, “OK, pal. Time to deliver the goods. You know what I mean … start scribblin’—Re that tousle-haired chick.” Eight pages later, he gave Sam a specific instruction: “Less talking, more mugging.” Sam, confused, asked his teacher what mugging meant. Mr. Bailey’s definition: “making out.”
Mr. Bailey told Sam that he saw himself in the eighth grader’s girl-addled mind. In the guise of a wise older brother, he laid out his life experiences for the teenager’s benefit, filling most of a page with stories of his own high school and college romances. He’d been “liberated” from years of infatuation with one young woman, Mr. Bailey told Sam, after a single kiss around Christmas time.
“This would’ve been a huge day for me when he wrote this,” Sam says now, looking back over his journal. A sprawling comment from Mr. Bailey gave Sam the “feeling of being heard.” The absence of that feeling could be difficult to bear. Sam says he felt a “momentary twinge” of jealousy whenever he remembered that other people were sharing their journals with the teacher, too.
Some of Mr. Bailey’s students, including Heather, were getting something different from their adult correspondent: reassurance that, someday, they’d overcome the mortifying discomfort of teenagedom. Sam’s classmate, 13-year-old David Gross, wrote about his home life, his friendship insecurities, and his new, as yet unrequited interest in girls. Mr. Bailey’s red pen was kind and reassuring. “Chicks dig you,” the teacher wrote.
After just two months in Bailey’s classroom, David saw his teacher as a surrogate parent. It was traumatic, then, when Mr. Bailey revealed his own emotional vulnerability. One morning in November, the teacher started crying in front of the whole class, telling his students that kids from fifth and sixth period had written mean stuff about him in their journals. When David went home that afternoon, he cried, too. He then got to writing a long, effusive note, telling Mr. Bailey he was the best teacher he’d ever had.
In his own reply, Mr. Bailey told David that his tear-stained letter was “the kindest, most thoughtful, empathetic, etc., thing that anyone’s ever said to me” and “proof positive that someone, someone, liked + appreciated me.” He told his student that he would keep the note forever.
Although Mr. Bailey had the trust of so many of his students, he could be loose with information. The teacher’s massive stack of teenage diaries gave him a kind of classroom omniscience, which he didn’t hesitate to deploy. “If you mentioned a crush in your journal,” Sam says, “there was a chance that Bailey would think it was a good match and drop a note to her.” That worked for Sam. Nothing he could possibly say or do, he felt, carried nearly as much weight as an endorsement from Mr. Bailey.
Some students were not as keen to have their private information shared. “The journals were kind of like emotional blackmail,” says Amelia Ward, who was in eighth grade in 1996 and 1997. “He knew a lot about what was going on with the kids, socially.” Jessie Gelini, who took Mr. Bailey’s class in 1998 and 1999, remembers the teacher publicly airing a negative journal comment—something a male friend of Jessie’s had written about her boyfriend. “Here’s this adult, getting involved, and making it a class discussion,” Jessie says. She was humiliated.
While Mr. Bailey told Sam that he was just like him, Jessie remembers hearing the teacher say something very different to eighth grade girls: “I would have been your boyfriend in high school.” At the time, the casualness of that kind of remark felt thrilling, even though she knew it wasn’t quite right. “I was grossed out by him,” Jessie says now. “But at the same time, I was enamored.”
Eve Crawford Peyton, who took Mr. Bailey’s class in 1993 and 1994, still remembers when he first started paying attention to her. The class had just read Slaughterhouse-Five, and he’d asked his students to do a project, writing timelines of all the good and bad things that had ever happened to them. “I had, you know, my brother’s suicide. I had my parents’ divorce. I had all of this on this timeline that I turned in for a grade and for his approval,” she says. “Essentially, I handed him proof that I was easy pickings—that I was damaged.”
In the pages of his female students’ journals, Mr. Bailey often assumed the posture of a close friend or confidant. In person, he was sometimes less avuncular than leering. Sarah Stickney Murphy, who took Mr. Bailey’s class in 1998, remembers hearing her teacher tell eighth grade girls that they looked cute in their outfits, or that a piece of jewelry was “sexy.” Stickney Murphy also recalls him hovering behind the girls in a particular way, curling his torso over theirs and bracing his arms on their desks to speak into their ears—“arms touching arms, chest against your back, face against the side of your face.” (Kathy Riedlinger, the former principal and current CEO of Lusher, told Slate that the school has no record, and that she has no recollection, “of any complaint against Mr. Bailey involving alleged inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature on his part during his time at Lusher.” Riedlinger says she also “cannot recall any concerns about student journals shared with Mr. Bailey.”)
Two former students who took dance at Lusher Extension say that Mr. Bailey would regularly go to the cafeteria, where they practiced, to drink his coffee and watch them. “I remember being really aware that he was watching us closely, and feeling uncomfortable,” Elizabeth Gross, David’s sister, says. In a journal entry that year, she asked Mr. Bailey if he had a caffeine addiction, given that he came down “at least once” every dance practice. Below that, she theorized that he might just be trying to see the students in their leotards. Then she scratched out that line with her pen to cover it up.
In 1998, Mr. Bailey singled out Caryn Blair for special attention. As the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate first reported, he asked Caryn to sing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story as part of a class skit. When she told her teacher she couldn’t carry a tune, he told her she could speak it instead. She felt relieved by the switch, even though Mr. Bailey instructed her to deliver the soliloquy “really slow and sexy and kind of rub on your body.” He had Caryn practice, just for him, in the stairwell outside of the classroom, explaining that she might feel awkward doing it in front of the other students in her group. Eventually, though, Caryn performed “I Feel Pretty” for the whole grade.* Later, her friends told her that Mr. Bailey had photographed her performance. But when he brought his photos back to the classroom, the ones of Caryn were missing. Mr. Bailey said that something had gone wrong with the film and he couldn’t get it developed.
Caryn says that she wasn’t one of Bailey’s “types”—she didn’t have aspirations to be a writer, and she didn’t obsess over the teacher’s attention. By seventh grade, when Caryn first started spending time with Mr. Bailey, she looked grown up for her age. She could buy alcohol from the corner store without being questioned, so she would do that for friends, and she had smoked weed once or twice. She’d tell Mr. Bailey about her exploits—typical teenage stuff, but not things you’d usually share with a teacher—and he never intervened in any way. He just listened. She found Mr. Bailey a lot more interesting to talk to than other middle schoolers.
But after “I Feel Pretty,” Caryn started to pull back. Mr. Bailey, in turn, got snippy. When she finished eighth grade, he wrote a note in her yearbook that referenced The Catcher in the Rye—“Mr. Antolini to Holden; me to you,” he signed it—presumably to imply that Caryn had gone off track in the same way Salinger’s teenage protagonist had. He also scribbled that she should “unfasten your gaze from your own navel (I’m speaking figuratively of course),” then signed off with: “P.S. the above is meant affectionately, of course. Don’t sulk about it.” They fell out of touch after that.
Amelia Ward, who was more bookish than Caryn, also met Mr. Bailey as a seventh grader. She was working in the art room, alone, when he came in and praised her papier-mâché rendition of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Seventh grade had been tough for Amelia, so Mr. Bailey’s recognition meant a lot to her. When she joined his class in 1996, Amelia first told the Associated Press, she could tell she was getting special attention. He wanted to talk to her all the time, but about personal stuff rather than school and homework.
Like Caryn, Amelia sometimes felt Mr. Bailey’s eyes on her teenage body. For a school performance, she had to wear a dark maroon gown that exposed the back of her shoulders. Mr. Bailey told her that she looked “stunning.” For the next play, Amelia switched to working on the stage crew.
Sometimes, Mr. Bailey would ask Amelia to meet up outside of school, at a coffee shop. Once, when she biked to meet him, her long skirt got caught in the bicycle chain. Mr. Bailey helped her cut the skirt to free herself. She remembers him looking at her legs, and realizing this meeting had nothing to do with her education. “I was like, This was pretty clear,” she says. Over the summer, she sent Mr. Bailey a letter telling him she thought he was a narcissist. He never replied, and they didn’t speak again.
Plenty of students did stay in contact with Mr. Bailey in high school. Some even continued showing him their journals and other written work. Caryn Blair’s classmate Elisha Diamond, an aspiring writer, sent Mr. Bailey her poetry, looking for feedback from the man she considered her mentor. “He took young girls who had a passion for writing and made it so we equated that passion with him,” she says. Mr. Bailey called her Elishapoo—he gave lots of students cutesy nicknames; Caryn’s was Carynius—and he probed for the personal details that inflected her poems. She wrote to Mr. Bailey about her drug use and sex life, and he urged her to explore “her truths.” Elisha relished this feeling of closeness. “I loved him,” she says. “I admired him. I adored him. I wanted his attention. I wanted his praise.”
Sometimes, Mr. Bailey would turn up at his former students’ high school get-togethers. Anya Kamenetz hadn’t gone to Lusher, but she remembers meeting Mr. Bailey at a friend’s house her sophomore year. It seemed strange to her that all these teenagers were hanging out with their eighth grade teacher. But it wasn’t like any of this was a secret—one of the kids’ mothers was there. Still, she found it a little unusual when Mr. Bailey started drawing on her body. He spent several minutes that night doodling all over her arm.
Mary Laura Newman, an artistic student with no ambition to become a writer, had always appreciated Mr. Bailey’s frankness. She remembers writing in her eighth grade journal that she might want to be a flight attendant, and him joking back that it was a job that lent itself to promiscuity. That line didn’t bother her. “Nobody wants to hear that 13-year-olds are sexual beings, but they are coming into their sexuality,” Mary Laura says. “So those off-color comments just made us feel more seen, and more respected.”
Mary Laura kept up with Mr. Bailey after she finished eighth grade. He’d sometimes come over for dinner at her parents’ house, where her boyfriend might join them. They also met up occasionally for coffee. By this point, she thought of Mr. Bailey less as her teacher than an older friend.
When Mary Laura was 16, an adult cornered her and kissed her. Later, when she got coffee with Mr. Bailey, she told him about it, sharing something with her former teacher that she hadn’t disclosed to any other adult.
“Oh ML,” he replied. “You’re such a tease.”
In 2000, Mr. Bailey became Blake Bailey again. He left Lusher and New Orleans for Gainesville, Florida, where his wife—the older sister of one of his former eighth grade students—was getting her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. In Florida, he worked on a proposal for a biography of Yates, the author of Revolutionary Road. That book, A Tragic Honesty, would elevate the stature of the mostly forgotten fiction writer, a man who, per one review, was “[c]apable of tremendous affection” but “too often jealous, cruel, self-pitying, misogynistic, homophobic and filled with rage.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin described the biography’s 2003 release as a “landmark event.”
It was around this time when Bailey first met up with Heather—his former student who worried she’d never get a boyfriend—in her college town. To Heather, he was still Mr. Bailey, the teacher who’d made her feel important and cared for. To Bailey, Heather was a potential conquest. She had “blossomed,” he told her. They were both adults. But while Bailey was no longer Heather’s teacher when he initiated sex with her, she couldn’t forget the time they’d spent together in middle school. He was still the man who’d marked up her eighth grade diary.
“The grown-up, now adult part of me sees that he created this quote-unquote safe space for me to talk to him and confide in him,” Heather says. “And that continued for years and years. But there’s also this other part of me that’s like, What was so damaged and screwed up with me that I was doing this thing that I knew was wrong?”
No longer at Lusher, Bailey encountered, or sought out, many of his former students while he was on the road. Mary Laura was just out of college and living in New York when Bailey reached out to say he’d be in the city. They’d fallen out of touch not long after he’d called her a “tease.” But now, as a young adult, she was up for getting dinner and drinks. As the evening stretched on, Bailey asked Mary Laura to join him for a nightcap in his hotel room, where they could continue to catch up. They talked for a while, but then Bailey grew impatient. “That’s enough of that,” she recalls him saying, before he began to kiss her.
“This is so fucked up,” she remembers telling him. “You’re married. You’re my eighth grade teacher.”
At 16, Mary Laura had told Mr. Bailey about an older man kissing her against her will. Now, Bailey was that older man, and Mary Laura pushed back. When she insisted that she wouldn’t have sex with him, she says, Bailey “spent a lot of time talking about how great my breasts were.” When he’d calmed down, she asked him how many other students he had “come after.” Bailey admitted that things had “gotten weird” with two others. Mary Laura says that one of the former students that Bailey mentioned was Eve—the woman who, years later, would accuse him of rape.
That night in New York, Mary Laura left the room before things could go any further. “I definitely felt degraded and embarrassed,” she says. “I just completely trusted him. I completely trusted that I could share a space with him, and just be that eighth grader again.”
In 2002, Elisha Diamond was a freshman in college, studying creative writing at the University of New Orleans. That year, her old teacher invited her out to dinner, then to a bar. She didn’t drink, but he did. Bailey asked Elisha about her sex life, a move that didn’t strike her as all that strange, since she’d been so accustomed to baring personal details in her journal. He then put his hand on Elisha’s thigh, and asked why she was insecure given that she’d always been so beautiful. He tried to pull her close.
Elisha, mortified, made a quick excuse and left. She was shaken but willing to brush it off as a drunken mistake. She continued to email with Bailey. She still wanted his attention and praise.
Her perspective shifted after learning she wasn’t the only woman who’d had an unwanted encounter with Bailey. A year or two later, when Bailey had moved back to New Orleans, she met up with him for coffee and confronted him about his behavior. Elisha didn’t hear from him after that.
Bailey’s silence devastated her. She questioned why he’d lost interest in her writing, and in her as a person. She was racked with anxiety over the idea that she had made a mistake. “If I would have slept with him, if I wouldn’t have run out of the bar, I wouldn’t have lost my mentor,” she says.
Caryn Blair didn’t see Bailey for years after she graduated from Lusher. But in the months after Hurricane Katrina, when she was working in a restaurant in New Orleans, he came in with a friend to eat. Bailey asked if she wanted to get a drink some time, and she agreed. When Caryn told her boyfriend about her plans with her eighth grade teacher, she remembers, he said, “ ‘It seems really odd.’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s just Mr. Bailey.’ ”
When they met up, it was so soon after the storm that the city still had a curfew. Caryn remembers Bailey telling her that he was staying in a mansion off St. Charles Avenue because the house he shared with his wife had flooded after the storm. (Bailey wrote a series of pieces for Slate about his experiences during and after Katrina.) When the bar closed down that night, he invited Caryn back to the mansion.
They went back to the house, and drank and talked. Caryn found a bottle of anti-anxiety pills in the medicine cabinet and asked if she could have one; Bailey took one, too. With her boyfriend calling repeatedly, Caryn asked Bailey to drive her home. But when she went to get up, she says, he pushed her into a bedroom and tried to kiss and touch her. “Those breasts, those breasts, I’ve been dreaming of touching them since I met you,” she remembers him saying.
Caryn pushed Bailey by the shoulders, knocking him off the bed and onto the floor. She told him, “I need you to take me home right now.” On the way to her place, they got pulled over for being out after curfew, but the police just gave them a warning. When Caryn walked inside her house and saw her boyfriend, she immediately started crying and told him he’d been right.
For a long time, Caryn thought of that night as a perfect distillation of how New Orleanians felt after Katrina: lost and disoriented. After reading the news about her middle school teacher these past few weeks, she’s changed her mind. This wasn’t a New Orleans experience. It was a Mr. Bailey experience. “I was like, Wow, these are all my story.”
Mr. Bailey’s former Lusher students are in their 30s and 40s now. Many have children themselves. Mary Laura is a fashion designer in Salt Lake City. Elisha runs an environmental engineering and consulting firm in New Orleans. Eve, also in New Orleans, works at a high school.
In the past weeks, those women have had to reimagine what they’d experienced in a vacuum as part of something larger. Other Lusher alums have been reckoning with the Blake Bailey in the news and the one from their memories.
“Before him and after him, I never had a single teacher who gave two shits about me or thought I was interesting,” says a woman from Bailey’s first Lusher class. “The one guy who stood up for me, and he turned out to be a creep.”
“I don’t know if in my heart there’s much room left for the good” that Mr. Bailey did, Sam Brandao says. “He did the good that he did with the same charm and intellect that he used for the evil.”
“I feel ashamed at how much I depended on him for validation at that time,” David Gross says. “But we were middle schoolers. We hadn’t really figured out who we were yet.”
Even now, Katie Franklin says, some messed-up, middle school part of her can’t stand the thought that Mr. Bailey may have preferred the company of other students. “I worshipped him,” she says. “I can’t imagine ever saying no to Blake Bailey.”
“He was such a good friend and teacher and we loved him so much,” says Mary Laura Newman. “And totally trusted him. Totally trusted him. And I’m just going to put this out there: Still love him. Still.”
Though many of the women we talked to had stopped communicating with Bailey a long time ago, Eve’s connection with her eighth grade teacher was more consistent. They talked and emailed throughout high school and college.
In June 2003, they made plans to meet up when they were both in New Orleans. Bailey changed that plan from coffee to drinks, but Eve—who was 22, engaged, and not a big drinker—stayed sober. When they were done, she agreed to go back to where he was staying. It was there that Bailey kissed her. When he did, she couldn’t help but laugh, a memory from middle school rushing back to her. Her eighth grade boyfriend had been in Mr. Bailey’s class, too, and back then, that boy had written in his journal that he was afraid Eve would be a bad kisser. At the time, Mr. Bailey told him not to worry—that he was sure Eve would be great at kissing. Months later, when they did kiss, Eve’s boyfriend told her that Mr. Bailey had been right.
Now an adult, Eve told Bailey that whole story, still nervously laughing. He wasn’t interested in reminiscing. He took off her pants and started performing oral sex on her. She pleaded with him to stop, which he did for a second. But then he got on top of Eve and penetrated her. She said “no” and “please” and “stop” and “don’t.” He stopped only when she said that she was not on birth control.
Later that month, Eve got an email from Bailey. He wanted to say he was sorry about what he’d done, and also tell her that he thought his biography of Richard Yates was about to get a rave review. He referenced The Catcher in the Rye, one of the books he’d assigned to Eve in English class. He still called her “Eveness”—the nickname he’d bestowed on her in middle school.
Eveness: See below from blakester’s publicist. This was sent just a few hours before i behaved so disgracefully in your company, and since that sawdusty shitehole that i stayed in (ie, while in N.O.) had no computer,tv, etc., i missed it altogether. however–i just learned a few minutes ago, on my return to florida–thru a total fluke me own mum DID see it (CBS Morning News) and said that maslin called the book “excellent” and recommended it for summer reading, etc., and since maslin is reviewing the book for NY Times, well, that’s pretty dope. so. so that helps me a little bit over the bottomless chagrin and depression that i’ve been feeling about the other night, but not quite. eveness, i’m so sorry. i simply don’t know what possesses me sometimes. nothing to say, really,except “sorry” over and over. i guess if nothing else, this will validate your marriage–which i bless and pray for in the strongest possible terms–more than ever. be happy. be cool. maintain buddhalike detachment toward the baileys of the world. love, b. ps. you will do what you will do, but i’d be ineffably grateful if you’d see fit not to succumb to an impulse to Share with Jamie, kate, et al. i’m a madman, as holden would say.
Eve told two of her best friends that Bailey had raped her, and eventually told her fiancé, too. She didn’t tell her parents until this month, when she wrote the letter to the New York Times.
Over the years, Eve’s father would send her clips about Blake Bailey’s literary successes. One of the items he passed along was Janet Maslin’s review of Bailey’s first biography. That review was just as glowing as Bailey had hoped it would be. Eve’s father had no idea what Bailey had done to her. He just thought his daughter would want to read everything she could about her favorite teacher.
Update, May 5, 2021: After publishing this piece, we received the following from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities:
We are troubled at the news of the accusations made against Blake Bailey. We have not worked with Mr. Bailey since 2000. Out of an abundance of caution and to allow time for the pursuit of truth, we have retroactively revoked his 2000 Humanities Teacher of the Year award.
If you have more information about the allegations against Blake Bailey, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction, April 29, 2021: This article originally misstated that Caryn performed “I Feel Pretty” in front of the whole school. It was in front of the eighth grade. Also, due to a production error, a photo that was courtesy of Caryn Blair was misidentified as being provided by Elisha Diamond.
Update, April 29, 2021: One of the names in this article has been updated.