Sackler Family Secrets: New Book Reveals OxyContin Heirs’ Self-Pitying Emails
“Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe exposes the inner psyche of the scions of an opioid fortune and crisis.
A new book on the Sackler family—the secretive billionaires who kept America steadily supplied with OxyContin—contains private emails that show the heirs complaining about how hard their lives were as they tried to downplay and shift blame for the deadly opioid crisis that left nearly half a million Americans dead.
The messages, along with other revelations in Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe, shed light on how the Sacklers saw themselves not as beneficiaries of a company that invented, aggressively marketed, and profited from a dangerous drug, but as victims of a smear campaign. They also lay bare the internal tensions behind the family’s public profile.
In a 2017 email, Mortimer Sackler, son and namesake of one of the three brothers who co-founded Purdue Pharma, requested a $10 million loan—and “a possible additional $10 million...MAX”—from the family trust to fund his lavish lifestyle, with instructions to keep the cash infusion secret from his relatives.
“Start off with saying I am not happy,” he wrote to a psychiatrist and “leadership confidant” named Kerry Sulkowicz. “I am falling significantly behind financially.”
The heir was prepared to sell off “artworks, jewelry, stock positions,” but it would not be enough to get him into the black. “I have been working for years on Purdue at what I consider to be a considerably discounted value relative to what MY TIME IS WORTH,” Mortimer wrote. “I am LOSING money by working in the pharma business.”
As for the secrecy, he conceded, the money could be “reported in the trust accounts as loan/cash flow assistance to family members but not be specific... I don’t want to hear my siblings’ opinion on this and I don’t need more stress for this. I need to have this resolved... This needs to happen, the only question is how much DRAMA will be needed for this to happen.”
“Historically,” he added, his father, Mortimer Sr., who died in 2010, had been “more than willing to help me.”
Feelings of aggrieved entitlement were not exclusive to Mortimer. When David Sackler, grandson of co-founder Raymond, got married, the book reveals, he wanted to buy a bigger apartment but was snubbed by his father and boss, Richard—the man who oversaw and pushed the development of OxyContin more than anyone.
On June 12, 2015, David wrote an email to his parents to “voice some thoughts.” He griped that as Richard’s assistant, he had worked hard to “manage the family fortune” and “make the family richer.” He was Richard’s “right hand for everything”—a grueling job because “beyond pushing myself to excel, I work for a boss (Dad) with little understanding of what I do.”
All told, he wrote, it was “quite literally the hardest job in the world.”
The Sacklers have always publicly denied any wrongdoing related to the opioid crisis, but other emails show the private lengths they went to in order to downplay their own role in the disaster. In one correspondence, Mortimer insisted prescription opioids had little to do with addiction, casting doubt on whether a crisis even existed.
In a Feb. 17, 2019, email, Mortimer ranted to the family that prescription opioids “are NOT the CAUSE of drug abuse, addiction, or the so called ‘opioid crisis,’”—setting off the phrase in scare quotes throughout the message to underscore his skepticism. “I also don’t think we should use the term ‘opioid crisis’ or even ‘opioid addiction crisis’ in our messaging,” he added, favoring the terms “drug abuse and addiction.”
The same day, Mortimer’s cousin Jonathan, who died from cancer in July, suggested the family’s predicament resembled that of the millions imprisoned in America’s bloated carceral system.
In a message to two high-profile lawyers and a publicist, Jonathan fingered the “tort bar,” which he believed had framed pharmaceuticals as the “bad guy”—just the latest in a series of injustices the judicial system had wrought upon innocents. The billionaire scion compared his family’s plight—the legal consequences of peddling faulty science to convince physicians to prescribe their medication in monumental quantities for long-term use—to “mass incarceration.”
The problem, Jonathan wrote, wasn’t the family or its myriad businesses, or anything either had done, but how the narrative had been framed. “The media is eager to distort and portray anything we say or do as grotesque and evil,” he griped.
While almost none of the Sacklers agreed to comment for Keefe’s book, an attorney for the family issued a statement after this story was published.
“This author has refused to correct errors in his past reporting and also blatantly violated journalistic ethics by refusing to meet with representatives for the Raymond Sackler family during the reporting of his book,” the lawyer, Daniel Connolly, wrote.
“Documents being released in Purdue’s bankruptcy now demonstrate that Sackler family members who served on Purdue's board of directors acted ethically and lawfully.”
In a response, Daniel Novack of the publisher Doubleday said that “representatives for members of the Raymond and Mortimer Sackler family have attempted to disrupt this book from the outset with legal threats and unfounded attacks on Mr. Keefe's professionalism.
“They refused to be interviewed or to substantively engage with Mr. Keefe's request for comment. Empire of Pain is scrupulously reported, thoroughly fact-checked, and vetted by legal counsel. All responses and materials received from representatives of the family were reviewed in good faith.”
The book is a sweeping saga that tells the family’s story from the birth of patriarch Arthur Sackler in 1913; to the founding of the original company, Purdue Frederick, with his two brothers in 1952; up until the congressional hearing on its subsidiary Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis at the end of 2020.
Keefe paints the picture of a family rife with contradictions—a dynasty that carefully distanced themselves from their company (named, not for the founders, but for its initial office building), while internally micro-managing its operations and siphoning billions into their personal coffers; one that refrained from all publicity, but spent decades slapping the family name on everything from entire museums to minor architectural features, like the Tate Modern’s “Sackler Escalator.”
Perhaps the most salient irony concerned the Sacklers’ stance on mental illness. At the start of his career, it was Arthur Sackler who pioneered the idea that diseases of the mind were not immutable problems brought on by genes or Freudian trauma, but flukes of brain chemistry that could be altered with medication. And yet for decades, his heirs have blamed the rampant abuse of their product not on the medication itself but on the intrinsic character of their customers—whom they derided as “criminals” with “addictive personalities.”
That attitude is reflected in the emails Keefe obtained. In a Dec. 18, 2018, message, the younger Mortimer questioned whether the data on opioid-related overdoses had been fraudulently inflated, asking Purdue’s general counsel and other attorneys if any victims had taken out life insurance policies. Some insurers, he noted, paid out for accidental drug overdoses, but not suicides. “I believe it is fair to assume,” he wrote, “that some proportion of the overdoses are actually suicides.”
The Sacklers’ utter lack of empathy for sufferers of addiction and mental illness carries particular weight because both afflictions devastated those close to them. In 1975, Robert “Bobby” Sackler, the first son of founding brother Mortimer Sackler Sr., died at the age of 24. Bobby had struggled with mental illness; Keefe confirmed with the family’s former housekeeper of three decades that he had spent time in a psychiatric facility not long before his death. “Robert was very distraught. He was off the charts,” a friend of his mother told Keefe. Recalling an instance when Bobby had been found wandering Central Park entirely naked, the friend remarked: “Probably, it was drugs.”
Bobby had used PCP, the hallucinatory tranquilizer known as angel dust, the former housekeeper confirmed. Decades later, Bobby’s sister would hint at a heroin addiction in a deposition, without mentioning her brother by name. The circumstances of his death remain unclear. On a Saturday morning, after an audible argument in his mother’s New York apartment, the doorman heard the crash of breaking glass and a loud thud. Bobby had fallen—or jumped—nine stories from the apartment window. There is almost no other information about Bobby’s life or death. The Sacklers rarely speak about him.
Bobby never used OxyContin; he died before it was invented. But others in the Sackler orbit did. For decades, the family employed an attorney named Howard Udell, a figure so intensely loyal he invites comparisons to Tom Hagen in The Godfather (when Udell died, they would hang a giant portrait of him in the office). For two of those decades, Udell worked with a secretary referred to in the book by a pseudonym: Martha West.
In 1999, West recalled in testimony years later, Udell instructed her to research ways people were abusing OxyContin (notably, the Sacklers long maintained they only became aware of abuse risks in 2000). She would log into various online forums to scour drug discussions using the pseudonym “Ann Hedonia,” a pun on the word “anhedonia,” meaning “an inability to feel pleasure.” As Keefe recounts, West later wrote a memo about users who reported “crushing OxyContin tablets, sucking the time-release coating off, snorting the drug, cooking it, [and] shooting it with a hypodermic needle.”
The underlying tragedy of West’s memo (which mysteriously disappeared, but was found in a Department of Justice investigation years after) is that she would later resort to similar methods. After a bout of back pain, West explained, she began taking Oxy. Its effects were supposed to last 12 hours, but West found they wore off much earlier, so she started taking pills for immediate release by crushing the drug and snorting it. She became addicted. Though she had been sober for eight years, she began drinking again and using other substances to deal with Oxy withdrawal. Purdue fired her for “poor work performance” and West later filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the company. When she was supposed to testify in a 2006 lawsuit filed by Virginia prosecutors against Purdue for felony misbranding, West never showed. “Her lawyer found her the next morning,” Keefe wrote, “in the emergency room of a local hospital, where she had shown up to beg the staff for painkillers.”
Hundreds of thousands like West suffered from the Sacklers’ drug empire, but as Keefe notes, most will not receive compensation or reparations of any kind. In 2019, in response to the 2,500 lawsuits brought by a range of litigants from school districts to Native American tribes, Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy—a move which typically freezes all legal proceedings against the complainant. Perhaps oddly for a company headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut, Purdue filed in White Plains, New York, a district with a single bankruptcy judge who had a curious record. Years prior, the judge had ruled in a similar case to suspend all litigation against not only the bankrupted petitioner but also some associates who were not even filing for bankruptcy—people like the Sacklers, who are still worth billions.
In Purdue’s case, the judge did the same. His ruling rendered prosecutors powerless to pursue both the company and the family. Instead, the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump arranged a sweetheart settlement of $8 billion last fall, in which the company would plead guilty to three criminal charges and transition into a public trust. Almost none of the money will come from the Sacklers themselves, who also won’t have to admit any wrongdoing.
But Empire of Pain suggests an alternative legal interpretation. Back in the 1960s, before most of the living heirs were born, the original Sackler brothers entered into an agreement about what would happen to their business interests when they died. At the time, Purdue was nothing like what it became; the original iteration hawked more embarrassing treatments, like the laxative Senokot and the earwax remover Cerumenex. But Arthur Sackler already had a hand in many projects. He worked at a top advertising firm, William Douglas McAdams, where he pioneered pharmaceutical advertising by appealing directly to doctors themselves and helped make the tranquilizer Valium the most prescribed drug in America. He also had a secret stake in McAdams’ rival firm, L. W. Frohlich, whose president, Bill Frohlich, was a close friend.
The three Sacklers and Frohlich made for a secretive coalition, referring to themselves as the “musketeers,” and together arranged a pact. Arthur tended to prefer verbal agreements, but this one had been drafted and formalized by an attorney, Richard Leather, who spoke to Keefe. In keeping with the slogan of Alexandre Dumas’ novel from which they’d taken their nickname—“One for all and all for one”—the men agreed to pool their business holdings. When one died, the remaining three would inherit control of his businesses, instead of his heirs. When a second died, his holdings would go to the other two. The last survivor would get everything, until his death—when all would pass into a charitable trust. At various points, the original Sacklers harbored some sympathies for socialism. Even if their businesses did not at all hew to those ideals, the hope was that their inheritance would.
The four men honored this pact at least once: when Frohlich died young, his stake in the company he’d founded passed to the Sacklers. But Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, who had grown resentful of brother Arthur’s power, cut him out of the estate. If a copy of the agreement still exists, it had disappeared by 1987, when Arthur died, leaving his collection of ex-wives and children to battle their cousins for cash.
The Sackler family did not respond to Keefe’s queries about the four-way agreement. But Leather argues that it remains binding, meaning that the Sackler children and grandchildren should never have inherited Purdue, or pocketed its billions. The last of the four musketeers, Raymond, died in 2017. “Nobody had a right in any of these assets. Those assets were to go to a charitable trust,” Leather said. The Sacklers’ inheritance was, as he put it, “a fraud.”