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Judith Regan, Back In The Spotlight

At a recent lunch on Park Avenue, O.J. Simpson publisher Judith Regan rose and offered a toast to novelist Jess Walter, a finalist for the National Book Awards. Regan spoke of her friendship with the 41-year-old author, dating back to a phone conversation a decade ago when Walter, she joked, still had "not reached puberty."

Only half-true, responded Walter. If he had yet to come of age before knowing Regan, their first chat made him into a man.

Regan has been on the receiving end of a torrent of criticism for interviewing Simpson for a Fox Broadcasting program and publishing a book in which the former football star and celebrity endorser says how he would have killed his ex-wife and a waiter - if he did it - which he's denied.

Controversy is nothing new for Regan, one of the most well-known publishers in the U.S.

"She's just a total publisher, very aggressive about signing authors and then promoting them. And she has the best Rolodex in the business," says Laurence J. Kirshbaum, a literary agent and the former head of Warner Books.

"I'm not saying she's not a terrific publisher. She is, but she's slimy," says Otto Penzler, who publishes his own crime books imprint for Harcourt.

Regan was not immediately available for comment, but she did talk briefly on Wednesday to The Associated Press about the Simpson book, "If I Did It," saying, "This is an historic case, and I consider this his confession." The book has been climbing steadily, but not rapidly, on the best-seller list of, reaching No. 30 as of Thursday night.

Outrage is old news for Regan. The latest Simpson go-around not only brings back memories of a shocking celebrity trial, but adds yet another installment to the ongoing serial of the book world's most shocking publisher.

Labeled a "foul-mouthed tyrant" and the "enfant terrible of American publishing," Regan has long stood out in an industry that still values — or attempts to value — propriety over profit. Ridiculed for her taste, envied for her success, she's a scrapper and a survivor whose life would make a most fascinating movie, if only Joan Crawford were alive to star in it.

Born in 1953, Regan is an alumna of Bay Shore High School on New York's Long Island who went to Vassar College, resented her wealthier classmates and, after graduating, became rich on her own. She began her publishing career as a reporter for the National Enquirer. In the 1980s, she showed her tabloid touch at Simon & Schuster by backing celebrity hits by Drew Barrymore among others. Her decision to publish Howard Stern, she says, brought accusations of bad taste, death threats, and, of course, plenty of sales.

"What she does very well is connect a personality with an audience, someone with a fan base whom she can deliver a book to," says Simon & Schuster CEO Jack Romanos.

Over the past decade, running the ReganBooks imprint at HarperCollins, she has proved a moneymaking fit with the Murdoch empire, consistently on best-seller lists with such smashes as Jose Canseco's "Juiced" and Jenna Jameson's "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star." She has also been a name in the gossip columns through numerous travails, including a prolonged divorce trial and her reported affair with former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

She is the rare publisher to put her own face — and not a whole lot of clothing — on the cover of one of her catalogs. She is enough of a character that one former Regan employee, Bridie Clark, has fictionalized her experiences in the upcoming novel "Because She Can," which features a maniacal publisher with her own imprint at a major publishing house.

Regan often points out that she doesn't only publish pulp, with Wally Lamb and Douglas Coupland among her authors. Walter is an Edgar Award-winning crime writer whose latest novel, "The Zero," was the first Regan book to gain a National Book Award nomination and the rare Sept. 11 story to receive literary approval.

"My experience has been great," Walter says. "They've published all of my books, and my editor, Cal Morgan, is a great, old-fashioned editor. I don't think a house's other books really affect an author. Certainly, readers don't know the difference."

But just as this week brought together the high and the low of the Regan experience, with news of the Simpson project coming out on the eve of the National Book Awards ceremony, so Walter's career leads back to a few folks from the wild side, like Kerik — and Simpson.

Research for "The Zero," a densely narrated tale of city police after a terrorist attack, was based on firsthand observations of Kerik, with whom Walter spent time at ground zero. Walter also collaborated with Christopher Darden on "In Contempt," in which the Simpson prosecutor tells his side, the losing side, of the murder trial.

Some passages from "In Contempt" might seem familiar: Darden addresses Simpson directly, finds him guilty as charged and imagines how he committed the crime.