Opponents Flail Each Other Over Who Did What at 'Rosie' Magazine

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NEW YORK ( -- The latest media circus has come to town, in the form of Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing vs. Rosie O'Donnell, which hit a Manhattan courtroom this morning.
Photo: AP
Rosie O'Donnell arriving at the courthouse on Thursday, shortly before she vomited.
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Over $100 million could be at stake in the breach of contract dispute between the two former business partners, whose co-venture, Rosie magazine, was terminated by Ms. O'Donnell in September 2002 and last published that December. But the satellite trucks parked outside indicated that the case is not merely about money and a publishing venture gone remarkably sour but about celebrity -- and by extension the magazine world's most ill-fated attempt to monetize it.

'Enron guys'
"It's funny I'm going to court for this," said Ms. O'Donnell, clad in a bright red coat and simple black slacks, outside the courtroom this morning. "Where are the Enron guys?"

The reasons why she went to court was that the parties have resisted settling their lawsuits in the months leading up to the trial, despite ample potential to embarrass and damage both parties, especially Ms. O'Donnell and Dan Brewster, president-CEO of Gruner & Jahr. The magazine's former creative director, Doug Turshen, said on the witness stand today that Ms. O'Donnell had said "she was going to take [Mr. Brewster] down."

G&J's opening statement, delivered by attorney Marty Hyman, took a notably hard tone as he told the courtroom that "the evidence will show Ms. O'Donnell is a celebrity addicted to getting her way." He detailed what he called "foul-mouthed temper tantrums" and displayed numerous e-mails in which she threatened to quit the venture.

Pop star Boy George
His opening statement even managed to include pop star Boy George as a key turning point for the fate of the magazine. Mr. Hyman said Mr. George told Ms. O'Donnell, after she had been "enthralled" by his London stage show Taboo in June 2002, that she was "too suburban and too mainstream" -- and she returned to America "determined" to prove him wrong.

Mr. Hyman said Ms. O'Donnell "did not have the right" to quit the venture in the way she did.

In her opening statement, Ms. O'Donnell's attorney, Lorna Schofield, said G&J "manipulated financial statements" with the consent of its top management.

"They claim she was wrong to terminate," she said, but there "was a breach. She gave 30 days notice" to terminate the contract."

Editorial rights?
Ms. Schofield said G&J breached the contract by ignoring Ms. O'Donnell's right to control the editorial process. She said breaches also occurred in its leaks and "disparaging" of Ms. O'Donnell in the press -- and that G&J "managed" finances so that a provision allowing either party to terminate the venture should yearly losses total $4.2 million would not kick in.

She displayed an e-mail from a top G&J financial executive that appeared to request from its German corporate parents that "we manage" Rosie's finances "so we do not fall below the threshold ... [in order to] continue to publish Rosie."

She also sought to inoculate against claims about Ms. O'Donnell's temper. "She is not Mother Theresa," Ms. Schofield said. "When provoked, she yells and cusses."

Sacked editor
Much of the day's testimony focused on the events beginning in June 2002, when G&J decided -- with Ms. O'Donnell's consent, judging from some e-mails introduced as evidence -- to replace original Rosie editor in chief Cathy Cavender with Susan Toepfer. Almost immediately, Ms. O'Donnell repeatedly and loudly clashed with Ms. Toepfer. She also sought repeatedly to reinstate Ms. Cavender and fire Ms. Toepfer, according to G&J's attorneys.

Some internal tensions at G&J came to light during the testimony of Susan Ungaro, editor in chief of G&J's Family Circle, who served as editorial consultant for Rosie and who worked on the venture with Ms. O'Donnell during its formation. Ms. Ungaro appeared to imply that she was concerned Ms. Toepfer didn't understand Ms. O'Donnell's humor -- which Ms. Schofield set up as a key brand attribute of Ms. O'Donnell. When asked by Judge Ira Gammerman whether she felt "there might be a problem" with Ms. Toepfer getting along with Ms. O'Donnell, Ms. Ungaro said yes.

However, attempts by Ms. O'Donnell's attorneys to show that G&J tried to transform Rosie into a magazine similar to Time Inc.'s People -- where Ms. Toepfer had worked -- were rebuffed by the testimony of both Ms. Ungaro, who seemed generally sympathetic to G&J's perspective, and Mr. Turshen, the former creative director, who was not.

Show-biz moments
The day, unsurprisingly, had its share of only-in-show-biz moments.

At one point Mr. Turshen described Ms. O'Donnell's 2002 appearance at the Mohegan Sun -- in which she famously declared "the Queen of Nice ain't so nice anymore" -- by saying "she sort of bombed," to laughter from Ms. O'Donnell.

Outside the courtroom was a ragged coterie of well-wishers for Ms. O'Donnell. One, wearing a Martian-esque Halloween mask, declared: "I'm here for Rosie!"

In a brief appearance on the courthouse steps at the end of the day, Ms. O'Donnell confessed to vomiting in a courthouse bathroom just before the trial began, saying she briefly felt "like a kid going to get into trouble." But she said she felt the day "boded well" for her case.

In the morning, Ms. O'Donnell grinned and waved to the cameras parked outside as she ascended the steps to the courtroom -- before catching herself. "I'm not supposed to look too happy," she said.

A footnote: Ms. O'Donnell evidently was able to convince Boy George that she was not too mainstream and suburban. She is co-producing Taboo, which will open on Broadway in November.

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