Vol. 111 (2021)

Stay Thirsty Presents:


A Conversation on Clubhouse with

New York Times Bestselling Author

Gerald Posner


Moderated by Dusty Sang

Recorded: Wednesday, May 12, 2021 @ 7pm



DUSTY SANG: Good evening and welcome to Stay Thirsty Presents: Conversations on Clubhouse with Fascinating People, presented in conjunction with Stay Thirsty Magazine whose guiding manifesto is to keep our fingers on the pulse of contemporary expression and to introduce you to some of the most interesting and accomplished people on the planet. I'm Dusty Sang, Publisher of Stay Thirsty Magazine, and I'll be your moderator for this program. Please note that the program is being recorded.


Now it is my great pleasure to introduce tonight's guest, Gerald Posner. Mr. Posner is the author of thirteen acclaimed books, including New York Times Nonfiction Bestsellers: CASE CLOSEDWhy America Slept and God's Bankers. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the History category for his book, CASE CLOSED. He was called a "... merciless pit bull of an investigator..." by the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times said his latest book, PHARMA, was a "withering and encyclopedic indictment of a drug industry that often seems to prioritize profits over patients. It reads like a pharmaceutical version of cops and robbers."


A political science major, he is a Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude graduate of Berkeley, where he was also a national debating champion. At Hastings Law School, he was an honors graduate and the Associate Executive Editor of the Law Review. He was a litigation associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore before co-founding his own public interest law firm based upon years of pro bono legal representation on behalf of surviving twins of Nazi experiments at the Auschwitz death camp. He co-authored his first book in 1986, Mengele - The Complete Story, a bestselling and critically acclaimed biography of the infamous Nazi angel of death. He has been a regular contributor on NBC, the History Channel, CNN, Fox News, CBS and MSNBC. His wife, author Trisha Posner, works with him on all projects.


His latest book, PHARMA, was chosen as a Best General Nonfiction Book of 2020 by the Florida Book Awards; as a Best Books of March (2020) by Apple Books; one of the Top 10 Picks for March Books (2020) by the Christian Science Monitor and one of eleven Editor's Choices for April (2020) by the New York Times.


Reviews for PHARMA included:


"Gerald Posner's PHARMA could be seen as the 2020 equivalent of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, which led to public outrage over the meat-packing industry. His unsettling book, five years in the making ... is not only a careful history, it is also a staggering indictment of pharmaceutical companies." - Christian Science Monitor


"Encyclopedic exposé ... a Pandora's box of shocking malfeasance, perfidy, and corruption. Explosive, even addictively, readable." -  Booklist.


"A shocking, rousing condemnation of an industry clearly in need of better policing. - Kirkus


Now, it is my great pleasure to welcome Gerald Posner for tonight's conversation.


DUSTY SANG: Your new book, PHARMA, had a release date of March 10, 2020. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic because of the COVID virus. How did that impact you?


GERALD POSNER: Well, I will advise anybody who was a writer or aspiring writer or accomplished author, if you're looking at when's the best time to publish a book, I, having been through this experience, would suggest it's not the best time. When all the nation's bookstores close about six days after you release your book, Amazon's still a great outlet for selling books. But a lot of people like to go into bookstores and that wasn't available. The entire book tour was cancelled. We had a dozen cities planned. And in those very early days, when, before everybody learned to go virtual, and everything was on Zoom, there were some events that just got lost ... the possibility of a Bill Maher interview – they went on hiatus – the Harvard bookstore, which was going to be a great event, just never took place, not even in a virtual way in the beginning. And it was challenging ... all the focus for the publisher was going to be on revelations about the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, the opioid crisis. And then, when the pandemic jumped to the top of the news, they instead focused on the penultimate chapter in the book, which was titled "The Coming Pandemic," but it wasn't about COVID. That word doesn't appear in the book. But it was about sort of the fear of some infectious disease doctors that I interviewed, that said, they were very, very worried about a bacterial pandemic coming down the road. So it got press for the book, we got play, as you said, you read some of the reviews, the reviews were great, the reception was good, and it stayed strong and stayed alive. And recent things like the Florida Book Awards and the being shortlisted by the Society of Editors and journalist, business books for the best business book means that some people still realized it was there. So it's been good. And the paperback has just been released. But it was a frustrating experience because you lost the ability to actually talk about your book for a while.

DUSTY SANG: You were riding the tiger, but you couldn't find the audience.


GERALD POSNER: I think that's right, I look at ... there was also something else ... book sales. Many people may remember, there were reports in May and June of last year that book sales had actually creeped up in the beginning of the lockdown of the pandemic because people had more time ... they were at home more. But if you looked at what books they were, they were largely novels, a good deal of escape fiction, people wanted to get away from the gloom that the pandemic and a deadly disease was changing the way we knew the world. And so, I think the idea of size, of a five or six or 700-page book on the history of the pharmaceutical industry was made more difficult because it wasn't necessarily the type of what they viewed as relaxation reading in the middle of a viral pandemic. So there was an additional challenge despite the fact that it did get a lot of press.


DUSTY SANG: Well, let's go backwards a little bit. When did you decide that you wanted to write a book about the pharma industry? And what were the steps that you took in order to begin the process?


GERALD POSNER: Actually, the idea for a book about the pharmaceutical industry came up in the late 1990s in a conversation I had with it then legendary, investigative reporter James Phelan, who worked for the Saturday Evening Post. He was best known probably for uncovering the hoax that had taken place when somebody put out ... Clifford Irving ... writer ... and put out a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. And it was Phelan that unmasked that. We were having a conversation and I asked him, he was then 85 years old, he died not long after that conversation, and I asked him what he would do if he was doing another book. And he said, "I would do something on the American drug industry." He said, "I think as an investigative reporter, it's like throwing a dart at a board, you're gonna hit a good subject." And as many things in the book business, it took a long time to get around to that ... number of books came in between and wasn't until I finished a 200-year history of the finances of the Vatican, God's Bankers, that I really had a chance to make a full proposal to my publisher, Simon and Schuster. And they said, Yeah, the pharmaceutical industry, American drug industry, the history of it, go ahead and do it, in the hope that I would come up with something fresh in a different tale. And that was the challenge in the past five years was to be able to do that.


DUSTY SANG: So in your thinking, you're going to take on the pharmaceutical industry, you're going to do the meticulous research that you're known for. Did you really think it was going to take you five full years?


GERALD POSNER: Oh, I always underestimate how long it's going to take me. The deadline is just sort of a wish list thing for me ... when I'd get there. And then my publisher has some understanding that I'm going to come back and say, about an important story, you know, I haven't done the research yet. What I mean is I've done enough of the research to know that I can be passionate about the subject. I believe it's a good subject. There hasn't been a book written exactly like what I want to do. But I don't know what the reporting is until I get out there and do it. And I think the problem in a lot of publishing today is that publishers want you to have your conclusions drawn up before you go off and do your book. They want to know what the big finds are – what's new. The old-fashioned way of doing it was you put together a writer, you thought that with an ambitious project on a subject that seemed interesting and then keep your fingers crossed that they were going to go out and find something new. And that's always the gallop, the gamble and the challenge. And that was the case here plus the fact there's something different.


I see somebody in the room [in the Clubhouse audience], Chris Peterson, he's been a great friend of mine since school days, and he's been a researcher. He's helped me on the Vatican books.


So he knows how long and deep into the details we can get on these projects in terms of archival interview research, but there was something in PHARMA that I had not expected. When I'm doing something on 911, on terrorism, on the Vatican finances, political assassinations, the heroin trade, I have a certain familiarity with the way that it breaks down, the political science behind it, the politics behind it, the investigative end. What I had forgotten about or didn't really get into until I started the research in earnest on PHARMA was that I had to spend the first year at what I call my own sort of school, my wife, Trisha Posner, you mentioned before, Trish and I had to learn the sciences, we had to know enough in terms of the medical and background and the pharmacology of the drugs and their history that when we started to do the interviews with a doctor or somebody who worked in a pharmaceutical company or been a scientist or researcher ... an infectious disease doctor would sort of roll their eyes and say, "Oh, can you believe that they're doing a book on the pharmaceutical industry and they don't even know how this drug interacts with another." So there was a catch-up period for understanding the sciences which I had never had before on another the subject and that made it more difficult. It was like going back to school a little bit.

Gerald Posner researching PHARMA

DUSTY SANG: It's a very long-distance marathon – five years. How did you manage to keep your energy and interest and your wife's energy and interest in this project? Because five years is a long time.


GERALD POSNER: Yeah, it is, except that, you know, so we sort of pick projects together. We have to have the same desire to want to do the project ... share the same passion with it. And, she also had put out in 2017, she published her book, The Pharmacist of Auschwitz. And I was doing the editing on that ... she had finished all the writing and there was no work for her publication. So that came out at one point while I was still working on the research for PHARMA, which is unusual, we normally just do one project at a time. That seemed to break it up. When I say five years, it is five years from the time that the publisher says go ... out of the gate. But then there's this long period in which you're reading everything you can about the subject, you're reading dozens and dozens of books here, you're delving into the articles, into the archives, and you're looking for how you're going to tell this story and you're mapping it out. You don't start the interviews or at least I don't until I've got a handle on all of that. And that's another year down the road. So the third year is the start of what could be dozens or over 100 interviews and they take you in a different path. And then you're getting back the files from your Freedom of Information Request. The request you make to the government on different subjects. They start to filter in 18- to 24-months after. Then you're starting to write two and a half years into a it. By the end of three and a half years, you've got a rough draft of the manuscript and off it goes to the publisher, and then starts the long process of back and forth and the editing. You're going through copy editing, you're going through legal review. When you finally end up with what I call the galleys, the drafts that are sent off to reviewers, you're well into the fourth year and you're published by me in the fifth year. So it's not five years of just sitting on the sidelines. There's always something to keep you going and you keep your fingers crossed that you're publishing at a time when there's not something else so big in the news that nobody cares about the subject that you've been consumed by and so passionate about.


Jeff Toobin, who put out a book, I think, on the Supreme Court on September the 10th of 2001, was on the Today Show and got a lot of press, and the next day was 911. And nobody remembered that book. They put it out the following year ... is it under a different title? Sometimes you publish into an environment that you're lucky that it's the subject. Years ago, Daniel Yergin had done a book called The Prize about the history of oil. And it's a very comprehensive book but it's a pretty dry history in some ways. He happened to publish, was about two years late, when he published, it was the first Gulf War. And suddenly everybody was interested in understanding oil and its political dynamics, and the book was a roaring success. So as an author, you have no control over that. And you just sort of hope that the public might be interested in that, might be enough time for you to get a little bit of publicity about your book when you finally put it out, because that's the stage at which you have a very short window. It's like the carton of milk. It has an expiration date on it. You publish the book. And if it doesn't get that attention and focus in reviews the first four to six weeks, there's a whole new slew of books coming right on top of it and it's hard to reclaim that time. So we all know the window is short.


DUSTY SANG: Based on your research, let me ask you some questions about the good part of pharma and the bad part of pharma. Clearly, the messenger RNA technology has been effective in creating a COVID vaccine. Were you able to predict something like that? And, based upon all the research you've done, do you think there's a lot of promise going forward for the messenger RNA as a technique for other diseases?


GERALD POSNER: I think messenger RNA is going to be a fantastic tool for other diseases and in targeted cancer research as well. And it was clear to me, because I stayed in contact even though the book was published on March 10, I stayed in touch with a number of infectious disease doctors and researchers, two of them at the National Institutes of Health, very involved in COVID. And they were saying from the very early days, we're going to have a vaccine on this within a year to 18 months. It's not just an impossible stretch and they felt confident because there had been research on a Coronavirus vaccine with H1N1, sort of the pandemic around Coronavirus that had broken in 2009-2010 in the Obama administration. And then it stopped because the virus does what viruses sometimes do, it mutates and, in that case, it mutated to become less infectious. And less lethal and it was not a threat and so they stopped the vaccine research, but they had a head start when they started this time because it was a closely related Coronavirus, different, but still it gave them a head start. The thing that became key for me wasn't just that there was going to be a vaccine down the road, but would people take it when they feel safe about it? And what would pharma do? You know, pharma ranks somewhere, if you take a national poll, around where used car salesmen and politicians in Congress are in terms of popularity, not very popular. And so would they use this as an opportunity to reclaim the high ground that they had once had when they put up penicillin in the 1950s – were viewed as people who really saved lives and weren't that concerned about profits? The history of pharma told me that they were going to try to hold onto the intellectual property rights for the vaccines, which they did, because no government forced them to share it, even though we were spending billions of dollars on it. And that they would also build in a profit, although AstraZeneca said they would give it away at cost, certainly Pfizer and Moderna have not. And that became an issue, but not one so important that either side of the party in Washington was concerned about it. So both the Democrats and Republicans allowed the companies to earn the profits and keep the intellectual property rights. And those are still issues today.


DUSTY SANG: In your book, you talk about viral pandemics, but also you indicated that the big one is yet to come and it could be a bacterial pathogen.


GERALD POSNER: Well, I hate to sound like the person who says the glass is always half-full and empty out fast, but the viral pandemic has been terrible, no doubt about it. The fear that some infectious disease doctors have is that a bacterial pandemic is even more daunting. And that would be like the black plague or what has hit before, in terms of completely different than a virus, because with the virus, you're looking at either treatments for it, which had been developed by some countries, by some companies, Regeneron, and other treatments, steroid treatments, or you're looking for a vaccine to be able to stop it from carrying on the infection. With a bacteria, you're looking for an antibiotic to treat it because antibiotics have changed the world in terms of bacterial infections, but the problem is we overuse them so much and given them out like candy every time somebody had a scratchy throat or runny nose that a lot of people have built up antibiotic resistance. So as a result, the book opens, as you know, with the chapter called "Patient Zero" and it is a woman who died in her 70s, who dies in a Reno, Nevada, hospital in 2016, after she gets a stomach bacterial infection that should not be lethal, should not be that dangerous, but it sort of keeps ravaging her body. And eventually the doctors tried every antibiotic that we know in their arsenal in America on her and nothing worked. She was resistant to all of them. So that's the fear in the future, is that a bacterial pathogen that is resistant to most antibiotics will be the passed, that jumps from another animal species to us, and then becomes infectious to other humans. And at that point how do you stop it? The reason that's particularly vexing is that in 1980, for instance, you take a snapshot of the pharmaceutical industry. There were thirty-six American companies developing antibiotics, today, there are none. There were six, ten years ago. Today, there are none. And that's because they've all abandoned antibiotics for much more lucrative drugs: chronic disease drugs, hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol drugs that you take every day for the rest of your life. And that's where the real money is. Antibiotics are five-day, seven-day regimen, maybe a three-day. Sometimes you spend a billion dollars to try to develop it and then people only use it for a few days. So they basically left the field. There very few new antibiotics coming out. And the old ones we're getting resistant to. You get a bacterial pathogen and it's not going to be pleasant.


DUSTY SANG: Does government need to step in here and force the pharmaceutical companies to start to research new antibiotics?


GERALD POSNER: There were some proposals in the Obama administration and then they stalled, and they didn't move forward to the Trump administration. They haven't yet been revived in the Biden administration, but they essentially create economic incentives for the companies to do it. So look, we are a for-profit business, for health, in the United States, in particular. We are the only country in the world that allows drug companies unfettered pricing power. They get to set whatever price they want. In every other country, all through the EU and in South Asia, etc., there's some committee or government entity that negotiates prices to some extent, but not here. And this is where the companies make the biggest profits. So what do they respond to – they respond to economic incentives and that's why in the early 1980s, I have a chapter about so called "orphan drugs," which companies have now learned to completely game the system. But the original intent was very good. It was the idea we give you tax incentives, we give you tax breaks, we give you credits, we give you a longer patent to own the rights and we'll expedite the approval process if you as a pharmaceutical company develop these drugs for very small patient populations that have rare genetic illnesses. The patient populations are so small that the companies would ignore them because they'd say there's not enough profit, while now the government has given them enough incentive financially to go ahead and build the drugs for them. They price them very high and as a result, orphan drugs are now one of the biggest growth areas in the drug industry. So how do you get antibiotics revived? You do consortium of drug companies and you give them some financial incentives in terms of taxation, fast approval processes of the FDA, longer patent policies and then you might bring some companies back to the fold.

Gerald Posner

DUSTY SANG: Did the pharmaceutical companies that developed the Messenger RNA vaccines see them as the next big profit center or were they looking at them in a more humanitarian way?


GERALD POSNER: Well, I think they were looking at it as a new revenue stream. I told a reporter early on, I think it was in April of 2020, the pandemic was maybe six weeks old, in terms of having been an official pandemic from the WHO, that COVID-19 is one that some pharmaceutical executives look at it as one of the biggest business opportunities in a generation. Now that's a cold calculus, but it was absolutely true because I was still talking to some of those very same people that I interviewed for PHARMA who had been in the boardrooms of pharmaceutical companies over the years. They have, these large companies, like Johnson & Johnson and Merck and Pfizer and others, literally maybe 80 to 100 drugs in the pipeline coming up, not just for the next year, but we're talking a five- to seven-year period. They have a pretty good idea of what their revenues look like unless they hit a speed bump on something, unless there's problems with the drug and there's a recall. They know when their patents are expiring. They have an idea what the competitors are working on. So there are a few things that are more welcome, if you're just talking dollars and cents, then a multi-billion dollar new revenue stream that's just opened up. That's what COVID is in terms of treatments, but also in terms of vaccines. So Pfizer reported three and a half billion dollars in terms of their revenues on their COVID vaccine. They're also now doing the testing to see when, six months to a year after the second dose, a third dose, a booster dose, would be given. And you have Moderna talking about the fact that we might need a booster dose on an annual or 18-month basis. So this is a new revenue stream down the road. They're looking to make money on it. There was, and I don't know if the people in the room [Clubhouse audience] remember this, but when COVID first broke out in March of 2020, in terms of being a national issue that suddenly grabbed the attention of the Federal government, the first amount of money passed by the government was an $8 billion Bill. It wasn't a stimulus Bill – it didn't come to us. But three billion of that went to funding drug research for vaccines and treatments at drug companies. That Bill ... we had a Democratic Congress in the House and we had a Republican President, so both parties have to be onboard to get that Bill through in record time, literally a week and a half. The very first draft of the Bill include two things: that any of the companies that took government money to do the research for the vaccine would have to share the research with one another ... so nobody owned the intellectual property rights. And the second part of it was a built-in, a real measure for the government to be able to go to these companies that they thought were building in too much of a profit and knock the price down to lower the cost. Both of those measures were out ten days later when the Bill passed. So I always say, people ask me sometimes, is this a Republican issue or is this a Democratic issue? Who's to blame? And I say, tell me what decade you're talking about. 1960s the Democrats were at the forefront and the Republicans were to blame. 1980s it is vice versa. And today, both parties are in sync and making sure that the former keeps the profit motive very, very high. So pharma has been able to buy friends on both sides of the aisle. And it's one of the reasons that Joe Biden has had some difficulty in formulating what I call a comprehensive plan to lower drug prices, although he did shake them up recently when the US backed the idea of stripping the patent rights and possibly making the vaccine available to developing countries. That sends shivers through the most drug boardrooms.


DUSTY SANG: So the pandemic has provided one income stream. Another income stream that you focus in on your book is the opioid crisis. And the history of that. You also have a video that your production company did. I was struck by a picture in the video of a label for heroin, which was used as a patent medication, it had a patent number on it, in the 1900s. When you started to investigate what the Sackler family had done with their company, with respect to pain and addiction and then marketing opioids to satisfy pain, knowing full well that it would be addictive to the recipients, how did you feel and what did you uncover?


GERALD POSNER: It's an infuriating story, a story that will make your blood boil because it's almost the perfect storm. We say the Sacklers ... the Sackler family ... their name is coming down from some institutions, but it was up on Harvard, in the Metropolitan Museum, Tufts, the Smithsonian, in London at the Serpentine and at the Royal Albert Museum and others. They're big philanthropists. They are a billionaire family on the shortlist of the Forbes richest American families, and they've made that money. Well, they've made money from the '50s and on by changing the way a pharmaceutical company advertises drugs. It was really the eldest of three psychiatrist brothers, Arthur Sackler, who remade the drug advertising business into the aggressive business we know it to be today. And they were wealthy before they came out with Oxycontin, which was their blockbuster painkiller in 1996. It was Oxycontin that put them into the billionaire category. Oxycontin had $35 billion in sales and the Sacklers were a one-hit wonder. They were not Johnson & Johnson or Pfizer with a lot of other drugs. That was the drug that was selling for them and that's the drug that made them their money. The reason I say it's the perfect storm is they came out with the drug in '96. In the 1980s, quite separate from them, there was a reevaluation by a group of doctors, mostly from Sloan Kettering, the cancer hospital, and they thought that opioids had been tarred-and-feathered for too long as too addictive. They reevaluated them. They thought maybe they weren't as addictive and as dangerous as we'd thought in the past. And they also thought that pain was undertreated. It led to a movement that eventually made pain the fifth vital sign. So if you go to a doctor today for treatment, they'll take your pulse, your breathing rate, take your temperature and see what your blood pressure is. They added pain to that in the 1990s, the early 90s, so that now you go to the doctor, and they say, "What's your pain level on a scale of one to ten? What do you feel?" Doctors used to think if you had a pain that some other condition was causing it. I have a pain in my back, maybe it's from your kidney. Now they're supposed to treat pain as a standalone condition on its own without necessarily looking for what's causing it. And so that led to a more permissive attitude when the Sacklers put out their time release opioid product in the '90s. They got the FDA to say that it might be less addictive and less subject to abuse because it was a time release product. There were no studies to prove that. The person at the FDA who put the extraordinary language on the label a couple of years later went to work for Purdue Pharma [Sacklers] for about $400,000. Not saying that there was anything under the table ... that's the way it works in the drug industry. You work for the government, it happens with the SEC as well, and then they go to work for the people they used to regulate. And so, Purdue came out with the Oxycontin at a time when some medical views were changing. The FDA was lax in its enforcement – I showed that in the book. The DEA wanted to crack down on Oxycontin by 2001. The FDA did not. And there were ... they have a lot of accomplices. The accomplices were what I call the middlemen, the distributors, the drug distributors like Cardinal and AmerisourceBergen. These are multi-billion-dollar companies. They know where every pill goes. They know when a little pharmacy in West Virginia, a town of 5,000 people, is getting four million pills, a couple of hundred pills for every person there for the next three years, and then not reporting it to the FDA. So the distributors have to be quiet, the FDA has to be overwhelmed and not paying enough attention to do anything. The manufacturers, like Johnson & Johnson, Teva, and others, and Purdue, have to be greedy. And their sales forces are out there pushing the items for every type of pain possible, from loss to arthritis to back pain. And then you have the last element, you have to get doctors who are greedy, and there are over-prescribers, there are doctors running pill mills, day and night, and some of them lose their license and some go to jail, and others still don't. And they fly right under the radar. And then you have pharmacist do the same things, who are filling what they know to be fake prescriptions for these opioids. And they are eventually fined by the FDA who comes in, brought by the Justice Department, to pay these large fines. And that's happened to Walgreens and CVS and others. So, you know, we talked about the Sacklers and Purdue – definitely culpable. And the fact they may not pay a price by going to jail or lose all their money is disheartening. But there are plenty of other people in the opioid crisis – the devastation of death and destruction that has been left behind by the overprescribing of these pills – who have a guilty role in it. And there are plenty that should hang their head in shame.


DUSTY SANG: Well, obviously you uncovered something very important with respect to the Sacklers. Were you concerned ... was your publisher concerned by putting it in the book that the Sackler lawyers would rain down on you?


GERALD POSNER: No, because I'm a lawyer in another life, you said that in your introduction, and that doesn't mean anything because lawyers can still make mistakes. But I'm subject always in a nonfiction book, I'm doing books that are investigative books, have disclosures in them, so publishers put you through a legal review. And that's always an outside firm. They come in and they essentially do the check on you that I'm expecting. They want to know how I got this. Where did I get it from? What was the source? Show me the source? Is it a written source? Do you have two sources for that? Who told you that? How do you know that's true? And it's a fabulous vetting process because they want to make sure that what you publish is accurate. That it's correct. And that if you're dealing with people with billions of dollars.

I had the same concern when I published a book years ago called Why America Slept or a book about the Saudis called Secrets of the Kingdom. The Saudis have endless amounts of money. They have the power of the government behind them, they could sue me in a London court and tie me up for five years if they wanted to and it wouldn't at all bother them. So you really want to make sure ... anybody can sue you in this country for any reason. And it's a great country for that. I know that we are over litigious at times, so you can't stop a suit from being filed. But you want to make sure that if one is filed you absolutely are able to say this material is accurate, it's not defamatory, it's not libelous, it's not done with malice aforethought or intentional disregard for the truth. And really, I'm very, very careful on that and so are my publishers. I'm grateful for that. A lot of people, a lot of writers, for whatever it's worth, and I know that nonfiction writers would talk to them, and you mentioned the legal review, they generally hate it because they view the attorneys as coming in with all these nitpicking points. And as journalists, they say, but this is my journalism, I don't like to have to modified or changed or defended to attorneys. I view it differently. I don't view the attorneys as being antagonistic to the work. I view them as sort of partners with me. They've been brought in by my publisher and they're testing it to make sure that it's as good as I think it is. And during that process, it really shakes it out. So it's a good process to make sure. It's that last fact check that you have to go through. And I don't mind it at all.


DUSTY SANG: Your book before PHARMA was God's Bankers and you took on the Vatican. How difficult was it to get information for that book? What did you find out?

GERALD POSNER: So the great part of doing research is ... and writers know this ... nonfiction writers know that it's just not a straight line. So you read a book and eventually, Oh, that makes sense and goes from that part ... it starts off here, like you said before with Bayer and heroin ... and ends up with the Sacklers and opioids ... and that was just how he set out to do the book ... and they just went ahead and did those interviews and that research and then they put it all together. What actually happens is you end up researching a lot of different things that don't turn out to be productive, you go down a lot of routes in which you get "No's" and people don't want to talk to you. And they don't give you a good interview. They close the door to you and that forces you to go somewhere else. No better example than the Vatican in which I applied to get into the Secret Archives. It's actually called the Secret Archives. Love that. It just means really the Pope's archives, where I thought there would be these key files on the Vatican Bank, which had been their sort of central bank founded in World War II. And I went through the process that I was told would give me the best chance to do it, which was to have the local Bishop in Miami, where I live in South Florida, vouch for me to the Nuncio for the Vatican in Washington, DC., Archbishop Viganò, who then would go ahead and send it on to the Bishop who was responsible for the archives in Rome. And then they would say, Okay, Posner, you're a serious journalist come in and do this workSo I got all the right recommendations and finally arrived over in Rome. And I suppose that the Head Archivist, the Bishop who's running the gate, to keep the gatekeepers up for the Vatican archives, The Secret Archives, looked at my bio and said, Come on. This guy's the biographer of Joseph Mengele, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray and you want him into the Secret Archives of the Vatican, No way. Forget about it. Get lost. So they wouldn't let me near them. And even when we went to Rome on two different trips, Trisha and me, the last one 2013, we got some great material from people ... the doors were open, but nothing official from the Vatican. So what did it do, forced us to go other ways. We ended up finding the big disclosure ... in the end ... was that the Vatican Bank had invested in German and Italian insurance companies during the war, which they've always denied. And they made outsize profits from those insurance companies when the insurance companies escheated the life insurance policies of Jews sent to the death camps. They took the cash value right off the books because they said these Jews are being sent away to the death camps and they're not coming back. We'll take the cash value of their life policies and now it brought their profits way up. After the war, when the family showed up and said, by the way, my uncle my grandfather, my father, they were killed at Auschwitz and they had a life insurance policy with you at Generali or Allianz, I'd like to collect. Those companies said show us a death certificate, knowing that was impossible. So it was really theft at the highest order in the Vatican, which profited in fantastic ways from this with this secret web that they had hid all of this. And we found those files in the Allianz papers of the German insurer and the Generali papers, which many people thought had been lost for decades, and they turned out to be in a warehouse in Trieste that somebody led us to; the reinsurance files in the German companies, which people haven't gone through because they'd never thought they had any relation to the Vatican. So being told "No" by the Vatican forced Trisha and me to go out and look in entirely different directions to get the story. We might not have had to look down there and found it if it hadn't been the "No" from the Vatican. So, every time I get a "No" on a project from somebody, it just means I'm not going to stop looking, I'm just going to find a different way to try to get the information.


DUSTY SANG: How involved was the Pope during World War II, and subsequent Popes, in terms of managing the funds of the Vatican?


GERALD POSNER: I mean, the problem is that Popes over time have thought that they actually know something about finances. And that's always very dangerous, because they don't. I mean, you're dealing with a Church that even when it was its own country, is its own country now, they have a flag at the United Nations, so it's this odd little thing where it's a sovereign postage-stamp piece of property inside the heart of another capital, Rome. And they do, in fact, now embrace capitalism completely, although they used to disdain it. So they used to just live based upon indulgences, which is selling shortcuts for sins that you commit, or giving what they call Peter's Pence donations to the Pope. And finally, when that could no longer support the church, they decided, Okay, we really need something else. They started the Vatican Bank in the middle of a war. The Popes generally know, they don't know enough to run the Vatican Bank, so they put somebody else in control. The guy who was in control in World War II, and afterwards in the 50s, a fellow called Nogaro was brilliant. And he bought property in London. He was early in derivatives. He understood things that the Popes would never understand. And he had the Vatican Bank in all types of things. And then in the '60s and on, an American Bishop, a Monsignor, became involved and he didn't know anything at all. He was a bodyguard to the Pope. He didn't know anything at all about finances. So he bought about eight or nine books and read them and they put him in charge of the Vatican Bank. And it's not surprising that starting in the '60s and on the Vatican Bank became a great sort of cash haven for everything from mobsters to offshore banks and got involved with a couple of very unusual Italian bankers, one of whom died of poison when he was sent to jail for killing a prosecutor who was investigating him. He sipped from his Espresso and it turned out there was cyanide in it and he was poisoned. The Italians called that suicide. And the other one, I opened the book with it, was found swinging under a bridge, Blackfriars Bridge in London, in the '80s, and had somehow managed, even though he had vertigo, to climb up this 12-foot ladder and put rocks into his pockets and sort of put a noose around his neck backwards, and then did a double flip. That would have rivaled anyone in the Olympic diving championship. And they concluded that was suicide as well. So that's the Vatican Bank. And the Popes oversaw all of it. They weren't involved in each and every transaction, but they certainly oversaw one of the most corrupt banking institutions on the European continent. It made the Swiss look as though they were behaving like angels.


DUSTY SANG: Let me shift gears and bring it back to the United States. You did a book called Miami Babylon and a book called Motown. Both deal with money and power in different ways. Can you give a little history of why you did each of those books?


GERALD POSNER: Miami Babylon was a book that I did because I moved to Miami and I found it an absolutely fascinating place, with a very short history that had come out of swamp land and had a group of characters ... they always say that Miami is a sunny place for shady characters. And that was an attraction to me in the story of this little town and the money and power behind it was one that I was intrigued by. Motown was quite different. Motown was a period after my book on Martin Luther King's assassination. That was really one of the books that Trish and I like, it is one of our favorite books, but it was incredibly exhausting to do over two and a half year period. We said, You know what, we need to do something different. And, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David Halberstam and others had done fantastic books on baseball. The Yankees and that. We aren't big enough sports fans, but we're big Motown fans. And I said what about the business of Motown? And Trisha, only half had jested, knowing that we always discover something that's controversial, So you're probably going to find out that Stevie Wonder was lip-syncing or that you'll have all the Motown fans after us. We didn't find out ... we did find a chapter called "Suitcases of Cash" about how Motown avoided paying taxes for a long time, and we found a lot of stories about the breakups of these incredible stars and this amazing record label. And there ... where was all the research ... it was in the basement of the Wayne County Courthouse in downtown Detroit where almost every good relationship between a Motown star and Berry Gordy and the company ended up in a lawsuit. And those files had not been combed through in a long time. And there were depositions, there were original statements, it pieced together this amazing story of the rise and fall of one of America's most iconic record labels. And it was a lot of fun to do.


DUSTY SANG: You were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for your book, CASE CLOSEDLee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of JFK. Why did you write that one?

GERALD POSNER: I wrote that one because I didn't intend to do a book that would say what happened to the Kennedy assassination. I pitched the book to the publisher to say: I'm interested in the case. I'm not a conspiracy buffer. I'm not a buff who follows the case all the time, but I know all the theories can't be right. It can't be the KGB killed the men, the mob killed the men. I mean, some of them have to be wrong. So let me go in as a researcher ... I'll go through all the evidence and all the theories. And I'll settle on the four or five issues that cannot be resolved. And then you could say this is a primer for the JFK assassination. Read this before you read any other book on the case. And I approached the publisher with that in late '88, early '89. They said no one will be interested in that. And so instead, I did a book called Hitler's Children. Interviews, a dozen interviews with sons and daughters of Nazi war criminals. And then Oliver Stone did the only good thing he ever did for me his life. He did JFK, fantastic film, horrible history. But it reenergized the Kennedy assassination for the public. And my publisher said, Oh, you know what? That book you were thinking of doing, the primer on the assassination, maybe it's worth doing that. They didn't pay a lot for it. They didn't expect it to be a big book, and it was about halfway through the research, when I went back to Random House and sat on 51st Street in their conference room with Bob Loomis, my editor and Harry Evans ... his wife was Tina Brown. She was running at the time, The New Yorker, and he was running Random House. He had been the editor, the great investigative editor of The Times (of London) & The Sunday Times. And I sat down with the two of them and said, "You know, I don't think you need to put out a book that says: here's the five or six issues left after the Kennedy assassination, but actually put out a book that says: this is who killed Kennedy." And Harry said, "Who?" and I said, "Oswald," and he said, "And who?" And I said "Oswald," and you could tell there was this moment of panic on my editor and the editor-in-chief because they thought, Oh, my God, he went down and he read the Warren Commission. That's what he's come back with, Oswald again, what are we going to do. And when they saw it was new and was first, they got very excited by it, and they pushed that book. And they made that book into a hit. We didn't realize at the time that was the 30th anniversary of the assassination. That actually ... the most controversial position then, for a serious writer or journalist, was to say you thought Oswald did it because everybody had a theory about how Kennedy had been killed. And when it was embraced by the mainstream media and the New York Times and PBS and others as being right, then that fed that conspiracies, because they said, you know if the mainstream media is embracing this Johnny- come-lately book that says its Oswald alone, we must be getting close to really uncovering the truth. So it was quite a book when it was published. Was the only book for which, by the way, Trish and I ever needed to actually file police reports because we got threats. We got a rat's tail sent to us in the mail. We had dead fish sent at one point. I got accosted on the street in New York. Filed a police report ... we had at the airport, once a problem on a plane. We had pickets in Boston that said I was a CIA agent. So you write books about Chinese triads or the heroin trade or written articles about the Boston Strangler, write about terrorism and 911 and you don't get the threats, but you write about Oswald having killed Kennedy a lot of people want to kill you.


DUSTY SANG: In your search for truth, I believe you did some unusual things when you were doing your book on Josef Mengele. Looking for papers. Were you successful?

GERALD POSNER: No, I never found ... so at the time when I started doing that work, representing the twins who had been experimented in Auschwitz as a pro bono lawsuit, I thought Mengele was still alive. That was '81. They didn't find his bones until '85. And by that time, I'd been spending a few years on the research ... the lawsuit was unsuccessful. And so it turned into a biography with a British journalist who had done, John Ware, great journalists, and he had done a TV documentary for Grenada. So the two of us, we're putting together this biography. We donated a portion of our proceeds back to the twins. Looked for the documents down in Argentina and in Paraguay. I did get some of those documents. But the biggest sort of breakthrough that came through was sometimes not that you're good on research, you're lucky and the luck here was that I arrived in Argentina in November of '84. That was just the first research trip down there. Trisha was with me. She ended up going back after a week to New York because somebody had to pay the bills. I stayed and I applied to get into the Federal Police files to see the Mengele file because there have been rumors that Mengele was in Argentina after the war, but nobody had ever seen an official file on him. Now that was silly to do because, I didn't realize, that the Israelis had asked and they were officially told "No," the Americans had asked and told "No," international, different organizations had asked, Nazi hunters had asked, they'd all been told "No" by the Argentines. I happen to arrive and asked for it just a couple of months after the Argentines had lost the war with the British over the Falkland Islands, what they call the Maldives, and the military junta was overthrown. A new civilian government was in place, Raul Alfonsin, and Argentina was going through a spasm of democracy, this openness, and I just happen to be there at that moment. They came one night to my hotel, at the Hotel El Conquistador, I was staying at this little rundown fleabag hotel in central Argentina, in Buenos Aires, and it was members of the Federal Police. Two of them without uniforms and one with. They had a little Blue Falcon outside the hotel, which was the car that they used to take people away or that disappeared ... and not too good. I would manage to make a telephone call to Tricia before I left that hotel room saying, "I'm going down to the central police headquarters." And it turned out that when I arrived, there was nothing bad. They had been ordered, the police, to open up the Mengele file to me and there was literally ten years, a treasure trove of documents about him, his arrival card into the country under the alias of Helmut Gregor, the times he had tried to start other companies, people that he had known, his application before the West German Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1956 ... to go into them and say, By the way, my name is not Helmut Gregor. I'm a German here. My real name is Joseph Mengele. And I want a passport in that name. And they gave him one without anybody saying, and by the way, why are you here under a fake name? And what name is Joseph Mengele. Let's look it up. And he went back to Switzerland for a vacation to meet his wife, who is still in Germany, and his son, Rolf, who thought that he was his uncle from Argentina and didn't even know it was his father. And then he starts a pharmaceutical company up. And in 1958, the man that we think of as one of the most wanted men of all time, was in the telephone book under his real name in Argentina. So it's not until he's indicted in '59, that he suddenly leaves there and goes to Paraguay ... all of that material was there. Six weeks after I got access to it another journalist from England had asked to see the Mengele file and was told "No." The Federal Police had gotten their act together and they were able to close the door again. So there was this one small window of opportunity. And I'd like to say to you, Dusty, that I was smart enough to know that that was the time to go to Argentina and apply in this confusion of the New Democracy, but I wasn't. I took advantage of that. And I now understand why it worked. But sometimes you realize that's what you need in breaking new ground.


DUSTY SANG: Let me circle back to PHARMA for one second. I understand that you are participating in a multi-part television series on the book. When is that happening?


GERALD POSNER: When is that happening ... from your mouth to God's ears ... as we always say when it comes to television series. It has been bought by RJ Cutler who you'll be surprised how many documentaries you've seen of his over time. He's very enthusiastic about PHARMA and he has an outline for what looks like a superb six-part documentary series. He now needs to take that and sell it to a Netflix or Hulu or Apple, as it goes along, or Disney or whoever is going to put it out. And this is the great process where you then wait for that to happen. And even when that happens, people who know the business understand that you sometimes get a company to buy it. I had ... Touchstone-Disney bought the rights to Warlords of Crime back in 1989. My book on the Chinese triads and it was going to be made into a movie ... it sat on the shelf. The book I had called Why America Slept was bought by SHO and they flew Trisha and me out to L.A. We met with Greenblatt, who was then head of SHO and he was developing it as a six-part miniseries. They paid an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter to write the six-hour script. They started a cast for it, looked like it was going to be made, and sat on the shelf. And then it became a three-hour Movie of the Week at CBS, a sister company to SHO inside the Viacom umbrella, and that was going to happen and sat on the shelf. So I have high hopes for RJ Cutler doing a documentary on PHARMA, but I've also, after 15 books between Trisha and me, many of them being an optioned, and many of them getting close. but no cigar, I'm also a realist that it's a very difficult process to eventually see it on the screen. And if you do, that's a bit of good fortune as well.


DUSTY SANG: We just have a few minutes left, let me ask you a really important question. Who is Trisha Posner?

Trisha and Gerald Posner (Miami Beach)

GERALD POSNER: She's my secret weapon. After 41 years together, Trisha is not only the person who is my muse, and my research assistant, but I often say that I get the credit for coming up with all these breaks on interviews and everything else, but they don't realize we do the interviews together. And as this happened with Ross Perot, and it happens often on the intelligence interviews or the ex-FBI interviews, they sit down with the two of us, and instead of just one person coming in, like me as a journalist, now it's a husband-and-wife team. She's British. She's much more charming than I am. And after a while, they start to tell her stories they would never tell me and I always say, when I leave the room, and she doesn't even ask that many questions during the interview, she'll come in with one or two at the end that are zingers, but they're telling her these stories, they feel comfortable with her. And I said many, many times, that the reason for any success I have, although my name is on thirteen of these fifteen books, there should always be Gerald Posner and Trisha Posner because I know how important she is to getting it done. And she listened intermittently, at times, to my own self-doubt about ever finishing the project, you know, every book, I will say, we'll never finish this. Oh, it's much too bigIt's much too ambitious in scopemuch too much to doI might as well just forget about it. And she's the one who says, well, you're never gonna finish it if you just keep talking about like that, get back in the room and keep working. So it's good to have someone like that. That's Trisha Posner.


DUSTY SANG: And she is going to be a guest on this program in two weeks about her book, The Pharmacist of Auschwitz. I see that we are out of time. Our special thanks to tonight's guest, Gerald Posner, for letting us into his life and being so frank about writing, researching and what it takes to be a successful New York Times bestselling author. It's been a truly fascinating Conversation here on Clubhouse.



Gerald Posner     

Trisha Posner     



Dusty Sang is the Publisher of Stay Thirsty Magazine




All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.