One day in early June, an embattled but determined news anchor, a public relations man and a group of attorneys settled into chairs around the conference table on the 35th floor of a law office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
Gretchen Carlson's tenure as an on-air host at Fox News was imperiled, and she knew it. For the previous nine months she'd been quietly meeting with attorneys to craft a sexual-harassment lawsuit against her boss, the all-powerful Fox News chairman, Roger Ailes. Now she was almost ready to go public with her allegation that Ailes had sabotaged her career because she wouldn't have sex with him. But questions ricocheted around the room.
What would be the fallout? How would this be perceived? How would it play?
"We knew Fox was a high-powered, very potent machine that would go into full attack mode," recalled Carlson's public relations agent, Allan Ripp, who was meeting his client for the first time that day. "But she was resolved."
Within weeks, Carlson would be out of a job, and a cascading series of events, unfolding with dizzying speed, would culminate in the public shaming and resignation this week of Ailes, one of the most influential executives in American television history, as well as a primary architect of the modern-day Republican Party and conservative movement. News of Carlson's firing, and the lawsuit she filed shortly thereafter, have now prompted 25 women to come forward with what they describe as similar harassment claims against Ailes that stretch across five decades back to his days in the 1960s as a young television producer, according to Carlson's attorney, Nancy Erika Smith.
Interviews with four of those women portray the 76-year-old television powerhouse as a man who could be routinely crude and inappropriate, ogling young women, commenting about their breasts and legs, and fostering a macho, insensitive culture. Among those who agreed to interviews is a 2002 Fox intern who spoke for the first time about her accusation that Ailes grabbed her buttocks and repeatedly propositioned her.
Ailes has vigorously denied the sexual-harassment allegations and called Carlson's lawsuit "defamatory." Ailes and his attorneys did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Many of the allegations that have become public - first in New York magazine and then elsewhere - are clustered in the decades long before Ailes became the founding chief executive officer and guiding light of media mogul Rupert Murdoch's new Fox News Channel in 1996. Some involve instances of Ailes kissing or touching women against their will; others fall into the realm of boorish behavior, off-color quips and assertions that women needed to provide sexual favors to advance their careers.
Some Ailes loyalists suspect the scandal has been seriously overblown and has become a convenient vehicle for Murdoch's sons - Lachlan and James - who have long wanted to vanquish the bombastic Fox titan who had always been shielded by their father.
A long list of the ousted executive's current and former staffers have come to his defense, including Maria Bartiromo, Neil Cavuto and Greta Van Susteren, the latter who said she'd "never seen or heard about" sexual harassment involving Ailes.
Mary Matalin, who hosted a program when Ailes ran CNBC and has been a friend for years, said she'd never seen or heard of harassment allegations.
"To us, sexism at the workplace was not being treated as roughly/honestly as men; politics and TV are not places for sugar cubes," she wrote in an email.
Others have painted Ailes as a somewhat out-of-touch relic of another era but far from a serial harasser.
"I look at Roger, it's like 'Mad Men,' " said an ex-high-ranking Fox executive, one of more than two dozen current and former network employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution or had signed nondisclosure agreements. "This guy came of age in the '50s, '60s and '70s when it was a whole different culture. I don't think he was thinking that [what he was saying] was really all that bad."
Ailes, the son of an Ohio factory foreman, learned the television business in the 1960s during stints at stations in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Television was a male-dominated field in those days - it wasn't until 1976 that change came, Barbara Walters became the first female co-anchor of a network newscast.
Ailes's break came when he got a job as a prop boy on "The Mike Douglas Show," a talk show that was nationally syndicated in 1963. In the mid-1960s, while Ailes was still on the rise, a woman who was then an 18-year-old model says her agency called her for an audition with the Douglas show. They were looking for two women to do a skit, the woman - who spoke on the condition of anonymity - said in an interview.
She was called into a room - she thinks it was at a hotel, but isn't sure - and met Ailes.
"Suddenly, he grabbed me and kissed me," she told The Washington Post. "I froze. I just didn't know what to do. I think I had just gotten my first kiss from my boyfriend, so I didn't know what to do. I just froze."
The woman said Ailes told her: "I need you to be receptive. We only hire girls who are cooperative."
"I was speechless," she recalled. "No one has ever violated me that way before or since. . . . I never saw something like that coming. I wasn't worldly. I grew up on a farm. It was a shock to me. I got out of there as fast as I could. I was so horrified. I said to myself, 'I'm going to remember that man's name.' "
Ailes, who eventually became executive producer of Douglas's show, met Richard Nixon while the presidential candidate was waiting to appear on the program. Soon, he was working for him.
Ailes's work on the Nixon campaign made him a political star. He started his own political consulting firm and became a key adviser to a generation of national Republican figures, later playing a central role in shaping the public image of George H.W. Bush in his successful 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis.
Around that time, another woman - a receptionist in Ailes's consulting office - says he sexually harassed her.
"He said I was a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield," the woman said in an interview. "He said I was sexy. . . . I had studied theater, dance and voice in school, so I wanted to work in television."
Ailes once called her into his office, the woman said, then locked the door. She said he then told her that he could introduce her to power players in the industry who would cast her on television shows.
The woman recalled being "thrilled."
Then, she said, her spirits sank.
"He said: 'Let me explain to you how casting works. There are 20 people up for a part, and maybe 10 are right for it. And maybe five really show how much they want the part. You understand what I'm telling you?' "
She had no doubt that he was suggesting that she would have to sleep with him.
"It was pretty obvious what he meant," she said. "I went into shock. I was shaking at my desk. I went home from work and told my mother to forget the big dreams I had, that I wasn't going to see my name in lights because I wasn't sleeping with Orson Welles."
Later, she recalled, she decided to quit. She ran into Ailes as she was leaving.
He didn't seem surprised, she said, and he didn't seem to care.
Ailes's bravado and insouciance seemed like a perfect match for the new network that billionaire Rupert Murdoch was launching in the mid-1990s. The newsrooms in Murdoch's empire were salty places, and Fox would assume a measure of that swagger.
"Boorish behavior is Murdoch company behavior - boorish behavior as defined by tough-guy behavior," Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff said in an interview. "The tough-guy behavior sometimes intersects with sexual harassment, and this is very strong within the organization."
In a statement Thursday announcing Ailes's resignation (which made no mention of the claims against Ailes), Lachlan and James Murdoch said: "We continue our commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect. We take seriously our responsibility to uphold these traditional, long-standing values of our company."
Ailes birthed an unabashedly right-leaning network, heavy on opinion, and succeeded in obliterating his main rival, CNN, in the ratings and making huge profits. He also pushed for a very specific look: blond and leggy. Television had long been the realm of perfectly coiffed commentators and anchors, but under Ailes, Fox seemed to be taking the ethos to another level.
"Generally, women accept that at Fox you are expected to wear skirts [and] dresses and that the makeup people are going to slather it on and make you look like a bimbo," said a former frequent guest commentator. One time, the former commentator said, higher-ups at the network reprimanded makeup artists for putting her on-air without false eyelashes, even though she hated wearing them.
A late-night anchor boasted about the "leg chair" on his set, where the audience could get a full view of the on-air talent's legs.
"From the very beginning, Roger wanted attractive women, translucent desks," a prominent early staffer said in an interview. The message from Ailes was unmistakable, the former staffer said: "I want to see her legs. I want the viewers to see their legs. I want people to watch Fox News even if the sound is turned down."
The signals sent by Ailes were quickly picked up by the employees, the former staffer said. Some women began showing up to news meetings in short skirts and blouses that showed their cleavage.
"It became common knowledge that women did not want to be alone with him," the former staffer said. "They would bring other men with them when they had to meet him. It became a locker room, towel-snapping environment. He would say things like, 'She's really got the goods' and 'look at the t--s on that one.' "
Sometimes, the former staffer said, Ailes made "jokes that he liked having women on their knees. The tone he set went through the organization."
From at least 2003 to 2005, women who worked in the advertising and promotions division of Fox News said their boss, Fox Vice President Joe Chillemi, routinely berated them with obscenities and vulgarities.
After investigating the reports, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against Fox News, alleging that Chillemi, a top Ailes deputy, had created a hostile workplace. The EEOC said Chillemi cursed and denigrated women in the office, calling them "bitch" and telling them to "be a man."
Fox News denied the allegations and settled the suit in 2006 for $225,000.
All the while, former staffers say, Ailes wasn't moderating his tone. He sometimes made remarks in meetings about women's appearances, such as calling them beautiful or saying everyone would want to date them.
There were women who didn't like it but said nothing.
"I always found working at Fox like being in the military," a former high-ranking Fox executive said in an interview. "Everybody was a loyalist. Everybody was a lieutenant to Roger the general."
The general always had attendants. In May 2002, a 20-year-old college student scored an accounting internship with Fox, but to her surprise she ended up being assigned to work for Ailes, the woman recalled in an interview with The Post.
The woman fit the profile of a future Fox standout. She was pretty and blond.
Not long after she started the job, Ailes asked her to get him a copy of Maxim, the racy men's magazine.
"When I gave it to him, he said: 'There are some great articles in here. And you're pretty enough to be in here. You look like the women in here. You have great legs. If you sleep with me, you could be a model or a newscaster.' "
She told him she "wasn't that kind of person." But he persisted, she said.
"At first it was once a week," she said. "Then it got to be every day.
She said she quit after only a few weeks.
"When I told him I was leaving, he said he was sorry I was leaving and that he was really disappointed that I didn't sleep with him," she recalled. "He said, 'You could have gotten anything you wanted.' "
"And then he grabbed me," she said, "and grabbed my ass."
Three years later, when Gretchen Carlson, a CBS reporter and 1989 Miss America pageant winner, joined Fox, she was under no illusions about what people thought of the network's anchors.
"I like to joke that when I joined Fox News I hit the 'bimbo trifecta": Former Miss America. Blonde. Fox News host. . . . I may have achieved a Google record for being called dumb or a bimbo," she wrote in her memoir, "Getting Real," published in 2015. "Never mind that I'd graduated with honors at Stanford or studied at Oxford."
Ailes was part of the appeal of the network for the rising television star.
"I thought Ailes was brilliant," she wrote.
At Fox, she landed a spot as a co-host of the wildly popular morning program "Fox & Friends." For a time, she was happy there.
In her book, she writes glowingly of Ailes.
"Roger Ailes, the most accessible boss I've ever worked for, was behind the scenes. He saw Fox as a big family, and he cared about everything we did."
But by 2009, Carlson alleges, she was being subjected to a "hostile work environment" by one of her co-hosts, Steve Doocy. Carlson alleged that Doocy was "sexist and condescending," and she accused him of "putting his hand on her and pulling down her arm on live TV." Doocy did not respond to an interview request.
Carlson, however, could engage in sexually charged banter on-air. Once she seemed to surprise Doocy by giving him a present during the program - a container of "potent Turkish Viagra" - and telling him that if "you take this you can 'blank' many times. . . . All you do is take a few sips at night and you're a man."
When Ailes heard about her concerns, Carlson alleges, Ailes called her a "man hater" and said she should learn to "get along with the boys," punishing her by blocking her from doing big interviews, she alleges.
In 2013, she lost her co-host job and, according to her lawsuit, took a substantial pay cut. She was, however, given her own program, "The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson." But it would air for only an hour in a less-desirable midafternoon slot.
After the switch, Carlson alleges, Ailes, who has been married since 1998, continued to harass her. He asked her to turn around so he "could see her posterior," she alleges, and told her "I'm sure you can do sweet nothings when you want to." She said he embarrassed her by telling her in front of a group of people that he likes to remain seated when women greet him, so they have to "bend over."
Carlson says she confronted Ailes in his office last September.
"I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, and then you'd be good and better and I'd be good and better," she alleges he told her.
It was after that meeting that Carlson called Smith, the attorney who would represent her in the lawsuit. They worked on the lawsuit. But they didn't say a word to Fox, according to Ripp, the public relations consultant.
On June 23 - two days after her 50th birthday - Fox fired Carlson.
What Fox didn't know at the time, Ripp said, was that a version of Carlson's lawsuit had already been drafted.
Fox was aggressive. Ailes blasted her, accusing her of filing the suit in retaliation for her firing.
Wolff, the Murdoch biographer, couldn't help thinking the billionaire's sons were taking advantage of the situation to achieve their goal of excising Ailes. "This is not principally about sexual harassment," Wolff said. "This is an internal coup." ("Nothing could be further from the truth," said a person at 21st Century Fox with knowledge of the situation.)
Carlson and her team had decided early on that they would need to move fast to counter the Fox public relations offensive, which was portraying the former anchor as a disgruntled employee. The network released friendly handwritten notes Carlson had sent Ailes, including one with a smiley face.
But Carlson was able to punch back because she had something else working in her favor: The story kept getting bigger. Smith said other accusers began contacting her.
"I was enraged," said the woman who claims Ailes harassed her as an 18-year-old in the '60s. "I emailed her and said, 'Any way I can help, I will.' I signed my real name. This guy has gotten away with this for a long time. Every time I saw his name on the news through the years, it brought it back."
Days after the lawsuit was filed, New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman, author of an Ailes biography, published a report detailing the allegations of six women, including one who described Ailes's genitalia in graphic detail and said he'd exposed himself to her.
Even on Thursday, as the media world was rocked by news of Ailes's resignation, Smith said she was hearing from more women.
"They keep coming," she said. "I got three today."
The Washington Post's Alice Crites and Ana Swanson contributed to this report.