By Elizabeth Gleick
February 14, 1994 12:00 PM

JUDITH REGAN UNDERSTANDS TWO KEY THINGS: THE BEST Defense is a strong offense, and a strong offense must be relentless. Interview her, and you will have a charming, outrageous—and controlling—new telephone pal. She will call to offer the phone numbers of friends and relatives who have funny anecdotes about her. She will urge you on a date with her good pal Rush Limbaugh (“He’s a real gentleman.”). And she will have one of her assistants dictate her favorite quotation from George Patton, an exhortation about carrying on courageously in spite of fear. “When you go into the office, shut down your emotions and play war all day long,” the 40-year-old Simon & Schuster editor advises. “You have to, to prosper.”

Such tactics have worked for Regan, the hottest, brashest, loudest—and currently most famous—book editor in New York City. Aside from shepherding offerings from Kathie Lee Gifford, Dawn Steel and Georgette Mosbacher into the book world, Regan also made celebrity writers out of Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be spent 54 weeks on The “Sew York Times best-seller list in hardcover, and the paperback is selling briskly as well. His sequel, See, I Told You So, also went straight to the lop of the charts last year, bumping Stern’s Private Parts, which has some 1.25 million copies in print, down to second place. Regan’s most recent zeitgeist-savvy product, the Beavis and Butt-head tell-all, This Book Sucks, spent six weeks on the best-seller list as well. “I’ve never seen anything quite as extraordinary in my life,” says her very happy boss, Dick Snyder, chairman and CEO of Paramount publishing.

Still more extraordinary, perhaps, is the way Regan has managed to become a celebrity in her own right, frequently appearing on talk shows and in the gossip columns. Regan’s controversial authors have certainly helped—Stern, for instance, refers to her as “Judas Limbaugh” on his radio show, giving her a hard time for publishing his conservative counterpart. But Regan herself, an Isabella Rossellini look-alike who wears Armani into battle, is not exactly shy and retiring. She expresses herself loudly and clearly on virtually any subject, from the brilliance of her authors to how much she hates to shop. And she becomes positively vitriolic on the subject that most consumes her: the “horrible” breakup of her marriage to Robert Kleinschmidt, a New York City financial planner. The couple were married in 1987 and had a daughter, Lara, in 1991. Shortly after that, they split up. The divorce is not yet final, and Kleinschmidt refuses to discuss the matter. Regan, for her part, swears she will never marry again.

In all things, Regan’s resolve is legendary. She is famous at Simon & Schuster for trying to control the fate of her books—from editorial content to jacket copy to promotion. “There are very few doors that Judith can’t get through,” says a colleague with grudging admiration. “If one exists, she’ll try to go through anyway.”

Naturally, Regan’s authors love her passionately. Limbaugh, who says he never considered writing a book until Regan called him out of the blue and began badgering him relentlessly, calls her “flawless as an editor.” And Stern’s glowing acknowledgment in Private Parts reads: “An editor’s job is to push you, teach you and to wear miniskirts with black mesh stockings, all of which Judith did so well.” Even her noncelebrity authors have experienced the full Regan treatment. “She hired kids in New York to stencil the sidewalks with the name of my book, says Wally Lamb, a Connecticut high school teacher whose first novel, She’s Come Undone, was published by Regan in 1992. “And she [successfully] banged it over the heads of people in Hollywood.”

A woman this brash is not without detractors, of course—though they all refuse to be named. Regan knows she has enemies—in fact, she sees them everywhere and quotes them chapter and verse—but she dismisses them. “I don’t think of myself as mean, difficult or bitchy,” she says. “I think that I’m really strong and have a firm idea about what I want, where I’m going and who I am.” Now that she is successful, she believes, people have started “creating myths” about her.

The real Regan story, she wants to make perfectly clear, is not complicated at all. “I am an average woman with average tastes and average concerns,” she says. “And everything I have, I’ve built.” She spent her early years on a farm outside Fitehburg, Mass., growing up without a lot of money in a large extended family that included her Sicilian-born maternal grandparents, her parents, Rita and Leo, both schoolteachers, and her two brothers and two sisters. Regan was the middle child or, as she puts it, the “monkey in the middle, craving attention at all times.” When she was 10. the family moved to Bay Shore, N.Y. Regan credits her mother for instilling in her the will to succeed. “I still have this morbid fear that I won’t get all As,” says Regan. “She created a monster!” (Rita Regan, proud of her daughter’s success but slightly embarrassed by her tendency lo exaggerate, prefers to say that she was simply “happy” when her children got As. When Regan hears this, she shouts, “She’s lying!”)

Regan attended Vassar College on scholarship, and after graduating in 1975, spent several years drifting from job to job and city to city. During this era, while living in Boston, she met David Buckley, a psychologist, whom she never married but who is the father of Regan’s son, Patrick, 12. Though Regan says she and Buckley have a “decent” relationship, she also refers lo him as “the sperm donor.”

In 1978 she landed a position al the National Enquirer, where for three years she wrote and edited stories about Siamese twins and “a little girl who was dying of old age.” After that she moved to New York City and did brief stints at Woman’s World and Real Life magazines, then worked as a producer for Geraldo and Entertainment Tonight.

In 1987, after meeting with editors at S&S about a book she wanted to write, Regan—with no book editing experience whatsoever—became a book editor. Jack Romnanos, now president of Paramount Publishing’s Consumer Group, hired Regan because he liked her tabloid sensibility. “I thought [it] would be an interesting experiment,” he says. “We very quickly found out it worked.”

It worked perhaps too well. Regan now has her sights set on projects that go well beyond books. She is currently trying to create for herself a new position within Simon & Schuster (which is owned by Paramount Communications) that would allow her to create what she calls “entertainment product”—books, film or television programs—and she hopes to move with her two children to Los Angeles. She has also received an offer to do a radio show of her own. “Judith Regan, voice of rage, voice of reason” would be her sign-off, she says.

In the meantime, she says her biggest struggle—aside from finalizing her divorce—is trying to balance her frenetic work schedule with the demands of Patrick and Lara, whose art projects and photographs she proudly displays. That leaves little time for romance. Though there have been reports linking her with Limbaugh, both parties deny the rumors—she emphatically, he wistfully. She claims, in fact, that it’s a relief, after thinking about sex “constantly for years,” to be unattached.

And someday she hopes to find the time to write her own book, The Art of War for Women. It wall be an autobiography of sorts. For if nothing else, Judith Regan has fought long and hard to create herself, and the battle lines are clearly drawn. If you are with her, she will fight for you to the death. But if you are against her, well…as she puts it: “I hold a grudge forever. I believe in an eye for an eye.” She laughs, then thinks the better of herself. “No,” she says, “I believe in two eyes for an eye.”