LN: Latif Nasser
RK: Robert Krulwich
JA: Jad Abumrad
SM: Sara Jane Moore
KM: Ken Maley
DM: Dan Morain
DL: Daniel Luzer
GS: George Sipple Jr.
DLk: Daryl Lembke
OS: Oliver Sipple
WF: Wayne Friday
JA: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.
RK: I'm Robert Krulwich.
JA: This is Radiolab.
RK: And today, we're just going to start.
LN: Okay, so let's start
JA: With our producer Latif Nasser.
RK: Ok, well, let's just go back to San Francisco on a particular day at a particular time.
LN: And a particular woman.
LN: Hi. Is this Sara Jane?
SM: Yes, it is.
LN: A woman named...
SM: Sara Jane Moore.
LN: Sara Jane.
LN: So this is San Francisco, the particular date was September 22nd, the particular time…
LN: It's a Monday morning.
LN: It was a nice day?
SM: Oh, yeah. I don’t remember anything different, so I assume it was a nice day.
LN: Ok, alright, sure, sure.
SM: I was kind of in my own head.
LN: So, Sara Jane, on this Monday morning, she wakes up early, drops her nine year old off at school, runs a few errands, then she drives downtown to this big fancy hotel.
LN: What as the name of the hotel?
SM: Uh, I think it's the St. Francis, isn't it? I'm 87 years old, don't expect me to remember all the details like that.
LN: Ok, alright, fair enough.
SM: But at any rate, you know, I parked in the parking garage across, right across from the hotel, there’s a park, but there’s a parking garage underneath. Walked over and walked across the street. There were sidewalks on both sides of the street. There were people on both sidewalks.
LN: She joins the crowd across the street from the hotel.
SM: It was very crowded.
LN: A couple thousand people. It’s like a big scene.
SM: and there was a barrier, a rope barrier right keeping us back on the sidewalk. And my plan had always been to be back in the crowd...uh, you know, and I was dressed like every other middle aged woman that was there.
LN: What were you, do you remember what you were wearing? I mean, I’m sure there’s, uh...
SM: Oh, there are pictures of it, yes. I was wearing slacks. That was at the beginning of when it was natural for women to wear slacks. I had a coat on. And I was carrying a purse. And I went back into the middle of the crowd, as I had planned to do. Anyway. I felt a man come up against me, and socialized as I was in that day and time, I spun around to slap his face.
LN: She sees this guy there, big strong guy, blond hair...
SM: Looked at him and realized that it was crowd pressure, that he had not done anything out of ordinary.
SM: So I turned back around and uh, went on about my business.
SM: Uh, I was then pushed up,
SM: the crowd pressure was such, I tried to stay back in the crowd, but I got pushed up almost onto the ropes in the front. Right up on the curb of the sidewalk. Where I had not planned to be. And he was still right behind me, so maybe he had been pushed up also.
LN: And so Sara Jane is just crammed into this crowd and she’s just standing there.
LN: And were you nervous?
SM: Oh, no, uh uh. You set out to do something, and I was just going about doing what I had set out to do.
LN: So, she waits and she waits, and an hour goes by and two and three and...then finally...out of the hotel comes none other than the president of the United States, Gerald Ford. And he has police and Secret Service and they're all coming, they're walking out of the hotel.
SM: To get in his car, which was parked there on the street.
LN: But he sees the crowd, Sara Jane actually says he looks directly at her, and he waves. He waves to the crowd, and everyone starts applauding and cheering...now, right at that moment...Sara Jane reaches her right hand into her purse...
SM: And pulled the gun out of my purse.
LN: A 38 caliber revolver. She cocks it, and then she takes aim right at Gerald Ford's head. And then...
SOUND OF GUN SHOT/ARCHIVAL TAPE
SM: But...Mr. Ford did not fall.
LN: The bullet flies a few feet to the right of Ford, chips the wall behind him. Ford freezes in place. Sara Jane…
SM: Never planned to take a second shot.
LN: She is just still standing there.
SM: With my hand still holding the gun.
LN: Looking over the smoking barrel of the gun. And she’s got enough time if she wants it, but before she can take it, the blond man behind her lunges at her, grabs her gun arm, pulls it down, and deflects it for just that crucial second that these police officers nearby need to get to her. They tackle her, they take her gun, and they pin her to the ground.
SM: So I couldn't move.
LN: And by that point, the Secret Service has whisked off the president into the limousine..
SM: And I was immediately picked up and carried across the street...
LN: Into the hotel...
LN: And eventually...uh, she went to prison. And she served 32 years in prison and, after that, was released on parole. And then we talked to her.
JA: I was not prepared to be told the-a first person narrative from the perspective of someone who was about to assassinate the president. That was not what I was expecting.
LN: I was hoping that.
RK: Wait, can you explain to why it is she decided to shoot the guy?
JA: Yeah, we did she shoot?
LN: Well, Sara Jane's never fully explained that and, in fact, when I asked her...
SM: Well, this is not...
LN: She was like, I'm not going there.
SM: This is not an interview about what was driving me or about what I did or why I did it. This is an interview about Mr. Sipple.
RK: Sipple, you said?
LN: Yeah. Oliver Sipple. He’s the random blond guy who just happened to be standing next to Sara Jane Moore that day. The guy who grabbed her arm and saved the president's life.
SM: And he paid dearly for that.
LN: I actually called up Sara Jane and had her tell that whole story because I was actually interested in what happened to Oliver Sipple after that.
SM: because had he not reached out and put his hand on my arm, none of this would have happened to him.
LN: So Oliver Sipple actually died in 1989, but um, before we get into the story, I just want to give you a picture of the guy. So uh, just google search Oliver Sipple Ford or something...
JA: Wait, okay, wait, I see the picture. Oh, see, look at that.
LN: He’s a muscular guy, kind of blond hair. He’s a, he’s, he's um a handsome guy.
JA: He's a little bit James Dean and Marlo Brando had a baby, kinda?
LN: He feels like an all American, he feels all American. There's something all American about him.
DL: Thank you.
LN: Oh, yeah, we're bringing in another all American for this story. Daniel Luzer.
DL: An editor at Oxford University Press. Um, and a few years ago, this was probably more than five years ago, I wrote an article about Oliver Sipple. But anyway.
LN: To get back on track.
DL: September 22nd, 1975...
LN: Sara Jane Moore fires that shot. Oliver Sipple grabs her arm...the police...
DL: Wrestle Moore to the ground...
LN: And then the police actually grab Oliver, too, pull him inside the hotel to question him.
DL: Because there's initially some confusion about what he was doing there, and some thought that you know, he might have been a suspect.
LN: So, he was in this hotel, trying to light a cigarette, but he just couldn't do it because he was shaking so hard. Turns out, Oliver had served two very rough tours in Vietnam.
DL: Loud noises would make him very unhappy. I think this is the sort of thing we might call post traumatic stress disorder now.
LN: But when eventually Oliver started to calm down, the Secret Service were like, what are you doing here?
DL: It was kind of hard for him to answer, because it's like, he didn't even really know. It was just like, I don't know, I was taking a walk.
LN: And I just bumped into this huge crowd of people, asked what was going on.
DL: People were like, oh, like Gerald Ford is going to be here, the president is going to be here.
LN: So, he said he thought, I might as well see him. Then he was standing there for a couple of hours until...
DL: He saw a flash of metal...
LN: Realized it was a gun.
DL: Reacted quickly.
DL: And then...
LN: You guys all pulled me in here.
DL: That's how I came to be here.
LN: So he's questioned for three hours. He goes home, home to his fourth floor walk up, and there's a reporter there waiting for him. But he just wants to sort of be left alone, and he told this reporter, "I'm a coward. I don't know why I did it. It was the thing to do at the time." And then even after that, he just kept getting phone calls from reporters. And some of them learned that he was a Marine, and so they would ask him questions like, oh, was it your training? Is that why you did this heroic thing?
DL: But he said, oh, you know, listen, don't mention any of that stuff about the Marines. Let’s keep that under wraps.
LN: “I’m no hero or nothing.” But...the next day...
LN: Oliver's story...shot across the country. His name's on television...on the front page of newspapers where there's headlines like, ex-Marine deflects weapon as woman shoots. That's the LA Times. Chicago Tribune, hero tells how he deflected woman's arm. And so, despite his best efforts, Oliver becomes a national hero for a day.
DL: And it appears that he thought that would be it.
LN: Maybe his friends would give him a pat on the back, buy him a couple rounds.
DL: And then...you know, over the next couple of days, it all sort of like rippled out of control.
LN: Because that very same day that Oliver was being painted as a hero, this guy named Herb Caen...
DL: The longtime San Francisco columnist.
LN: Walked into his office and on his answering machine were two messages saying, hey, that guy Oliver Sipple, the hero?
DL: Who has saved the president's life? Is gay.
JA: Was he, was he out?
LN: Yeah, well, he was sort of out...and sort of not.
RK: What does that mean?
LN: Well, to explain, you've got to understand this particular time and the place. So let’s take a magic carpet ride. Close you eyes and let the sound take you away.
LN: So, San Francisco...was one of the first cities in America to have a gay pride parade. In the ‘70s...for gay people, San Francisco was like this shelter from the storm.
KM: Many of us were immigrants from somewhere.
LN: This is Ken Maley.
KM: Longtime San Francisco resident...
LN: And gay activist, who at the age of 19, uh, came to San Francisco from Kansas...
KM: I escaped from Kansas because what the west offered was the ethereal promise, if you will, of reinvention. You could cross a line in which your past stayed behind you.
LN: It was a place where you could be out, but to the people you left behind, you could still be in. And so for Oliver, you know, he came from Michigan...
DL: From a working class family. Uh, he had a lot of brothers and sisters. I think he was one of eight children.
LN: And so, after the war, when he got to San Francisco, he actually started going by the name Billy.
DL: Billy. Uh, Billy Sipple. And he was perfectly open about his sexual orientation and would tell anybody who asked that he was a gay man. But you know, he never told his family.
LN: And so Oliver lived, like a lot of gay people at the time, this double life.
DL: Yeah, yeah.
LN: And do we know like, this is why Sipple came to San Francisco or was there a different reason...
DL: It may have just been because Harvey Milk was there.
LN: The Harvey Milk, famous gay activist, San Francisco politician
DL: He was friends with Harvey Milk.
KM: The New Yorker. An immigrant from New York.
LN: Turns out, Oliver had actually met Harvey a decade earlier in New York, and I just want to mention this because I think it's so cool, at different points in time, they actually dated the same guy...
DL: Who was the inspiration for Sugar Plum Fairy.
LN: In Lou Reed's Walk On The Wild Side. Just a fun fact, just a fun fact, that’s it. But actually, Oliver and Harvey, they were pretty good friends. They corresponded, stayed in touch while they lived in different places in the country. Actually, Harvey even loaned Oliver some money sometimes because Oliver didn’t have a job. He collected disability from his time in the Marines. Um, but anyway...
KM: By the beginning of the '70s...
LN: When Oliver got to San Francisco, reconnected with his old friend...
KM: Harvey was...shall we say, evolving into...
DL: A huge figure there.
KM: A gay public figure.
LN: Ken was actually friends with Harvey, worked on some of his campaigns.
KM: But...I’m sorry.
LN: And -- no, no, no, I'm just thinking, one of the things we were talking about on the phone was about sort of the kind of two different schools or two different --
KM: I was just about to segway to that.
LN: Oh, perfect. Go for it.
KM: This, older, other, I would say older, but other generation of gay, mostly men, was that...they were content to go to tea with a mayor or public official of some kind.
LN: They would show up to like a rally...
KM: Wearing jackets and ties.
LN: And like, ask for their rights politely.
KM: They really weren't, shall we say, activists.
LN: Because according to Ken, the activism came…when
LN: In the late '60s, early '70s, you had young, gay men and women...
KM: Who came out of the Vietnam war protests into the world...
LN: Took a look around...
KM: The police are still raiding bars...people are still getting beaten...both violently and nonviolently. And...after a while, a body of people get to a point where they just will not take oppression anymore.
LN: So, in came the activists like Harvey.
KM: Pony tail, mustache, he was a banker turned hippie.
KM: He was very outspoken...very militant...and to Harvey...gay people were living in a half life opportunity. Not being able to be who they were.
HM: Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends, you must tell you neighbors, you must tell the people you work with, you must tell the people at the stores you shop in, you...and once, once you do, you will feel so much better.
LN: And so...cut back to...
DL: September 22nd, 1975.
LN: In the blink of an eye, Oliver Sipple … becomes .. this hero. And that same night, Oliver’s friend Harvey hears about all this news and kind of senses, wait, maybe there’s an opportunity here. So, he picks up the phone and he calls the columnist Herb Caen, a very, very well known, well loved gossip columnist. And Caen isn’t there, so Milk leaves a message on his answering machine. And he basically says, look, I’m a friend of Oliver Sipple’s. I’ve known him for years. Oliver Sipple worked on my campaign for supervisor. So, basically, without Oliver’s consent-
KM: Harvey who outed him.
LN: Milk outed him.
RK: What was Harvey Milk thinking that he would do this?
KM: Well, for Harvey...
HM: I think the stereotypes, the lies, the innuendos...
KM: Of gay people as limp-wristed and drag queens and stuff...
HM: Distortions...all gay people are child molesters.
KM: Well, here's a true gay hero.
LN: A square jawed, heroic Marine...
DL: Who seemed to be a sort of like, regular like, red blooded American.
LN: And so Harvey said, and this was written down by his biographer, who I'm quoting, "It's too good an opportunity. For once, we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms."
RK: Wasn't there someone who said, no, no, no, you gotta ask the guy, you can't just do that?
KM: Harvey just did it.
KM: Yeah, he just did it.
LN: So, the next morning, Caen arrives at his office, he listens to the message, and Caen tries to call Sipple, but can’t reach him. But there was another guy who was a gay activist. His name was the Reverend Ray Broshears. He was the head of what's called--was called the Lavender Panthers. And he also independently called Herb Caen to say, oh, that guy Oliver Sipple everyone's talking about on the news? Gay. So he got two independent sources, both people who said that they were friends with Sipple and that he was gay. And for Caen, I think, this was juicy. This was a juicy thing.
DL: Um, and he uh. Let's see. What's this? Let me like just go back and get this.
LN: So, two days after the assassination attempt, Caen’s column comes out.
DL: And the way that he wrote it up, this is the precise paragraph: one of heroes of the day, Oliver Billy Sipple, the ex-Marine who grabbed Sara Jane Moore's arm just as her gun was fired and thereby may have saved the president's life, was the center of midnight attention at the Red Lantern, a Golden Gate Avenue bar he favors. Reverend Ray Broshears, head of Helping Hands Center, and gay politico Harvey Milk, who claim to be among Sipple's close friends, describe themselves as "proud, maybe this will help break the stereotype."
LN: And then, that day, this guy Daryl Lembke…
DLk: Lembke. L-E-M-B-K-E.
LN: Picks up his issue of the Chronicle, sees Herb Caen's column.
DLk: I read and I reported to the office.
LN: The office of the Los Angeles Times.
DLk: I was a reporter for the LA Times in San Francisco, and so, my office told me, get an interview with Oliver Sipple.
LN: But really quick before we get there, we actually managed to get a recording of this very specific interview from the LA Times collection at the Huntington library in Los Angeles. And I think the reason they hung onto it was cause it was kind of controversial.
LN: So, the night that Caen's article comes out, Daryl goes to Oliver's house, Oliver's there.
DLk: Two reporters from the Sentinel were there also.
DLk: What is the Sentinel...
LN: That right there is Daryl.
??: It's a gay newspaper.
DLk: Gay newspaper.
??: Wanna be put on our mailing list?
LN: So they're all sitting in Oliver's living room, and what the reporters are all wondering is...have you heard from the president?
DLk: The president hadn't bothered to thank him at that point.
??:...the president can award what they call Medals of Freedom to people for outstanding acts. If he offered having you brought down to the White House, would you go?
??: Would you like to meet him?
OS: Well, yeah, I stood in line for three hours to see him. Of course I would.
LN: And that voice right there? That’s Oliver.
DL: He didn't have time to meet you at that occasion. Have you heard from the mayor?
OS: No. I've heard from nobody. I've heard only from the press and reporters and reporters and the press...
DLk: Of course, you have been hard to get a hold of...
??: You really have to dig-
DLk: but then, I'm sure the mayor could find you. He has access to police records, that know where you are.
??: Okay, can we go on background...
??: For some reason, San Francisco police department has now referred any inquires about you to the sex crimes and missing persons detail. That's something I think you should know.
LN: Something Oliver should know because this is, again, at a time when the assumption was that gay men were just...pedophiles. Perverts.
??: And when I said background, this is information that cannot be printed.
DLk: Well, can I ask somebody about it? .
LN: Daryl actually asks if he can call somebody and ask about it.
OS: Yeah, would you do that right now?
DLk: No, I...well, do you want me to?
OS: You're damn right I do.
??: They aren't giving any reasons as to why. The number is 553-1361.
DLk: Who is the guy to talk to?
??: Talk to either Sullivan or Hettrick.
DLk: He said to call back around 1:00.
??: And they have said nothing to you about that?
OS: Mm, mm (negative).
DLk: Do you have any sex crimes on your record?
OS: I've never had a sex offense in my entire, I've never been arrested, well, except for being drunk a couple times. But I don't think there's no marine in the world who hasn't been drunk a couple times.
??: Would you like us to check that out further to see if there's more...than they're giving you?
LN: And then the tape recorder goes off. Comes back on.
OS: Uh, well, who do I call with some authority with the police department, then?
LN: And now, Oliver's on the phone with the police department.
OS: Yeah. Is this Detective Allen? Yeah, well, my name is Oliver Sipple, and I'd like to know why I've been turned over to your department, sex crimes and missing persons. This is me, yes. That's correct, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I'd like some information, a bunch of press came over...well, not a bunch, just a few people from the press came over this afternoon, and they said they were trying to get some information about me from the police department, and I was turned over to sex and crimes acts? What the hell is that all about? Oh, I see, well, Jesus, God, I mean, I said, what the hell is going on? Okay, guy. I tried to call the mayor's office just now, and I tried to call the chief of police office just now, and I thought, what the Sam Hill is going on? Okay, thanks a lot, guy. Yeah. Just the opposite. One of the officers that was involved with the assassination, er assassination attempt, is in that department, that's all. That's why it's being turned over. Is that making sense to you? You got me really shook up, young man. I was just about to go downtown and whup some ass somewhere.
??: We find anything more about it, I'll let you know.
LN: Now, the reason this tape is so controversial is because according to Oliver, before the interview began, before the recorder started rolling, he turned to the reporters from the Sentinel, and he said, okay, I'm going to talk to you guys about my sexuality, but then he turned to Daryl from the Times, and he said, I don't want you to write anything about that. I don't want that in a national paper. Daryl says he doesn't remember that. But then right here in this interview, this thing happens where Daryl says...
DLk: Oh, I'll make one more try on the gay thing. Uh...
LN: I'll make one more try on the gay thing.
DLk: You don't...you don't want to change your mind on that?
LN: You don't want to change your mind on that?
OS: No, uh...I just don't want to change my mind on that.
??: May we quote you as saying homosexuality has nothing to do with this?
OS: You can quote me as saying if I were a homosexual, I was not -- you can quote me on that. It doesn't make me any less of a man than I am.
OS: But I think that that has nothing to do with the act itself. Uh...so I don't think you should be pushing for me to...[can't make this out].
LN: And eventually...
LN: Interview ends. And Daryl says that when he left that interview, he felt like when it came to Oliver’s sexuality....
DLk: He didn’t want to be quoted.
LN: Like that was it, just don’t quote me on it.
DLk: I was trying to report from all sides about it. The big side for me was that he was a hero and the president of the United States was very slow on the take in thanking him for saving his life.
LN: And Daryl thought that Oliver's sexuality, the fact that he was gay might have something to do with that. Because just seven months earlier...
LN: This Air Force sergeant named Leonard Matlovich who, uh, had the purple heart, had the bronze star, he comes out as gay and he’s kicked out of the Air Force.
LN: And now, you've got this ex-Marine, saved the president's life and it’s two days later, he still hasn’t heard from the president. So for Daryl, even though Oliver had said, don’t make this about my sexuality…
DLk: I still thought it was a national story and it was pretty hard to ignore after Herb Caen had started the ball rolling.
LN: So that night, after the interview, Daryl calls in his story to the LA Times office, and he uses this phrase. He says that Oliver is an former Marine who was "a prominent figure in the gay community.”
DLk: Put it downaways in the story, but the rewrite guy put it in the lede...and it made it the big thing.
LN: And so, three days after the assassination attempt, the LA Times runs a story with the headline, no call from president, hero in Ford shooting active among SF gays.
DLk: And uh, the LA Times did a news service...
LN: And so, Daryl's story, it goes, I mean, it goes everywhere. Headlines are like, gay vet, or homosexual hero...
LN: And so, it was not just running in Los Angeles. It was also running in Chicago, it’s running in Dallas, it’s running in Indianapolis, and it’s running, you know, off all places, in Oliver Sipple’s hometown. In Detroit.
RK: I guess what I'm wondering is, if you have this guy who says... please don't talk about this. This has nothing to do with what I did yesterday. Shouldn't that play some role in what you decide to write or not to write?
DLk: Well, these news sources are always reluctant to talk, and so I guess I took it as my duty to...take up that angle, especially since it involved the president of the United States.
RK: Right. Well, if you were to do it all over again, would you do anything differently?
DLk: Uh...I don't know. Uh...I...hadn't...taken into account maybe, uh...the potential harm of saying it. I don't know if I'd do it over again or not.
DLk: But I'm not able to turn back the clock for something like that.
JA: The clock marches forward after the break.
JA: This is Radiolab. We're back with the story of Oliver Sipple from reporter/producer Latif Nasser.
LN: So the assassination attempt was on the Monday, and on Thursday...Sipple and his lawyer call a press conference.
Lawyer: Well, I think you all know this is Oliver Sipple, who saved the president's life, and he has a prepared statement on a subject that's appeared in the press today.
OS: In the past few days, I have been asked many questions having to do with my sexual preferences. I have been asked whether or not I am gay or homosexual. This is, there is, this is my reply to the line in question: the first reason...you are...interested in my, in me is the fact...the woman who tried to shoot the president -- see, I'm sorry, I'm so nervous, excuse me.
Lawyer: This is a handwritten statement and he's having a little difficulty reading it. We Xeroxed it in order to get it to you this afternoon. Reason you were interested in me is the fact that I deflected...
OS: Oh, okay, I couldn't get the word there. Go from the other line. my sexual orientation has nothing at all to do with saving the president's life, just as the color of my eyes or my race has nothing to do with what happened in front of the St. Francis Hotel on Tuesday. My sex...my sexuality is a part of my...private life, and I have not, I have now...and has no bearing on my...response to the act of a person seeking to take the life of another. I am first and foremost a human being who enjoys and respects life. I feel that a person...person's worth is determined by how he or she...responds to the world in which they live, not on how or what...or with whom...a private life is shared.
LN: He basically says like, stop, stop. It's kind of as simple as that.
LN: But there's something else that happens in the press conference that is...makes the whole thing, I mean, so much more...personal. And it actually was the very reason that Oliver called the press conference in the first place.
OS: I want you to know that my mother told me today...that she could not walk out of her front door or even go to church because of the pressures she feels because of the press stories...concerning my sexual orientation. Naturally, I never anticipated such...interference with my family's relationship, which I...when I supposedly saved the president's life.
LN: Oliver would later say that uh, when he was talking on the phone with his mother, she said to him, I don’t want to speak to you ever again.
Lawyer: And she hung up on him.
OS: And also hung up.
LN: Did you call him Uncle...Uncle Oliver, or --
GS: Yes, I called him Uncle Oliver.
LN: This is George Sipple, Jr., one of Oliver's nephews. And George told me that most of Oliver’s family stayed in Detroit. Oliver’s two brothers and his dad worked at an auto plant there.
GS: They all worked for General Motors. And the story that I've heard is that...
LN: The day after Oliver saved the life of President Ford...
GS: They walked in and everyone wanted to like, buy them a beer. Everybody on the factory floor was congratulating them, patting him on the back, you know, your brother's a hero, your son's a hero. You know, when they would take their shift break, and this was the old days, right, they would take a shift break and they would go to the bar, and everybody wanted to like, buy them a round of drinks. So then, the news comes out whatever, a day, a couple of days later, that he's this gay Marine, and there's teasing on the factory floor.
RK: Teasing mean teasing, or teasing --
GS: Yeah. Yeah. Mm hm. Yeah.
LN: And George says, what happened is, reporters back in Detroit just sort of like descended upon Oliver’s parents...
GS: to get more of the story. And so they kept, uh, knocking on my grandmother's door, and she, I guess apparently told them to go away, I guess neighbors were harassing her. She thought the media was harassing her. My grandmother just said, I don't want to deal with it. And so, don't come knock on the door, leave us alone. They just wanted it to go away, and go back to their, you know, private lives.
LN: Now, one of the things that I found actually after talking to George, were these interviews done with Oliver's family after the news broke that Oliver was gay. And I just want to read you this one particular passage. Here. Have you talked to any other members -- this is from George F. Sipple, who is Oliver Sipple's brother. Have you talked to any other members of your family since September 1975 about Oliver? Um, I mentioned it once to my father. Question, and what was his response, what did he say? And if you can remember. I was on afternoons then, and I had seen him because I had come in early. And he mentioned the fact that the next person that even said he had a son named Oliver, he was going to literally break their damn neck.
JA: Whoa. So his dad was like...this is his brother talking about his dad's reaction?
LN: Brother talking to the dad, yeah. And so then the brother says, and he told me quite clearly in two letter words, "just forget you've got a brother." And I let him alone.
OS: I never anticipated such interference with my family's relationship, which I...when I supposedly saved the president's life. This is all I have to say on this subject. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Any questions, they go to the minister to my lawyer.
??: I'd like to ask Mr. Sipple, what would you like to see happen now?
OS: I don't know. I'm just, I'm very shook up. I may even have to go even see a doctor over this. I'm very emotionally shook up, and I'm feeling very sorry for my family, too. It's awful. Just awful. I've got nothing more to say.
RK: Can you tell us the story of the letter?
GS: Uh, I wish I would have brought it. I, I do have it, but I didn't bring it today.
LN: The same day as that press conference, which was three days after the assassination attempt, Gerald Ford actually did write a letter to Oliver Sipple, which was then released publicly.
GS: It's a nice letter. It's White House stationary, White House envelope. It's basically...Ford telling my uncle that he's thankful to him for this heroic deed, and he signed it Gerry Ford, which I've been told that Gerald Ford signed different ways. So, if he signed Gerry Ford, it meant something, it was like a personal touch.
RK: Well, there's this other chapter where your uncle says to the president, I guess, writes the president --
LN: So this, we found a letter, we found a letter in the Gerald Ford library, it's from your uncle to the president-
LN: That, yeah...
GS: I did not, I did not know about that letter.
LN: Really? I have the letter right now, so it's, so the date on it is September 30th, 1975. So here's what it says. Uh, dear Mr. President --
GS: Wait, wait, wait, wait. You said it was what? When?
LN: September 30th, 1975.
LN: So that would be a couple days after he got the letter from Ford.
GS: This was...so obviously, he got, my grandmother must have hung up on him,
GS: And then he wrote the letter.
LN: Yeah, yeah, it sounds like...
GS: Cause, cause, he couldn't-
LN: Yeah, yeah-
GS: That's really interesting.
LN: Ok, but-
GS: What's the letter say?
LN: Yeah, and stop me any time if you have thoughts or reactions. Dear Mr. President, thank you for taking the time to write to me. In view of some of the events since the unfortunate attempt on your life on Monday, September 22nd, I really appreciate your publicly thanking me. As you probably know, there have been a number of stories concerning my personal sexual orientation in the news media. These stories have caused great anguish to my parents and to the rest of my family, I am sure. My mother hung up on me when I first called her after these stories began to be published. I know you are concerned with very many matters which are too important and pressing for you to be concerned with the details of my private life. However, the unexpected and glaring publicity, which has been given to my private life has very seriously disrupted my family relationships. Mr. President, it is a very hard thing to have your mother and family not want to have any contact with you. I know that your schedule is heavily occupied, but I respectfully request that you take the time to see my family or at least call my family. The telephone number is ... I love my family, and I do not want to be separated from their love and companionship. Your help would be gratefully appreciated. Respectfully, Oliver W. Sipple.
GS: Wow. That's sad. Sadder to think that nothing came of it. You know?
LN: We tried really hard to find out if Ford ever made that call. The archivists at the Ford Library, they went through his call logs and there was no evidence that he ever made that call. And then, we talked to George Jr. and he talked to everybody in his family and they don't remember it, either. Anyway, you can't say for sure but, as far as we can tell, that call never happened. But we did find out that the same day Oliver sent that letter, back to Ford, he and his lawyer filed a $15 million lawsuit against the press.
JA: Really? Saying what?
LN: That the newspapers, when they publicized that he was gay without his consent, they violated his privacy.
JP: Okay, walking out of Civic Center BART, onto Civic Center in San Francisco.
LN: It's just one of these cases where it pulls your head in one direction and it pulls your heart in the exact opposite direction, and so we wanted to get into the legal case files, and could not find them. We looked and looked and looked, and then we found them.
JA: You found them?
LN: We found them.
JA: Where'd you find them?
JP: Uh, so the clerk's office is I guess not surprisingly right off City Hall.
LN: They were at this court in San Francisco, and so we recruited this guy, this researcher, a historian of the gay movement in San Francisco, uh, great name, Joey Plaster, and he...
??: Okay, so I'm going to need your ID...
LN: Um, went and got these files for us. And then when we found them, it turned out there were like, thousands and thousands upon thousands of pages.
JP: And is that everything?
??: This is everything.
JP: That's everything, okay.
DM: So the issue, it’s a very fundamental issue for those of us in journalism…
LN: And to help us make sense of the arguments lurking in those pages…
DM: What is privacy and what is invasion of privacy?
LN: We talked to Dan Morain.
DM: Editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.
LN: He actually first heard about this case in journalism school and also wrote about Oliver Sipple way back in the 1980s. So, anyway.
JP: Okay, so here’s the first page of the file.
DM: The lawsuit was against the Chronicle.
JP: The case is Oliver W. Sipple, plaintiff v. Chronicle Publishing Company, et al.
DM: It was against the LA Times.
LN: the Des Moines Register, the Chicago Sun Times, the Denver Post, the Indianapolis Star, and the San Antonio Express.
JP: Let’s see, so this is the deposition of Oliver W. Sipple. Let's see...
LN: So one of the arguments that the lawyers for the newspapers were making is that Oliver’s sexuality was not actually private.
JP: Lawyer: Were there any people that you knew in San Francisco in say, September 1975 who knew that you were homosexual?
Lawyer: Approximately how many people?
Sipple: I have no idea.
Lawyer: More than 10?
Lawyer: More than 50?
Lawyer: More than 100?
LN: There were people in New York who knew he was gay, there were people in Dallas who knew he was gay, and it kind of-they settle in the hundreds.
JP: Lawyer: Did you tell anybody before September of 1975 that you were a homosexual?
Sipple: If I were asked.
Lawyer: I am asking you.
Sipple: I don't know what you are asking.
LN: And they make the argument, the newspapers' lawyers that hey, this was already somewhat public a fact.
DM: But his personal business was his personal business.
JP: I have never attempted to obtain publicity for the fact that I am gay or predominantly homosexual in my sexual orientation.
DM: He was a private citizen.
JP: I have made my home approximately 1,800 miles away from home of my parents and my family so that I could move somewhat freely in the gay community without the fact of my sexual orientation getting back to my parents or family. And it goes on.
LN: But the newspapers made this other argument that was like, okay, whether or not you’re living a double life, whether or not you wanted to or whether or not you had to, there’s something here that’s bigger than that, that’s bigger than you.
DM: Which was he was a private citizen who thrust himself as anybody would hope they would do. He ran, he went toward danger, and when he did, he also thrust himself into the public eye.
LN: And to journalists, when you're in the public eye...you become something else entirely. You become a public figure.
LN: And when that happened to Oliver...
DM: He lost his right to privacy.
LN: And the newspapers argued, when it came to Oliver's sexuality...
DM: It was news at the time.
JP: It is, was, and at all pertinent times has been my judgment that Mr. Sipple's activities in the gay community are highly significant and newsworthy for two important reasons. First...
LN: So, like we said, when Daryl Lembke was writing that article about Oliver...you had this big story about the US Air Force trying to kick this guy Leonard Matlovich out because he was gay. And Oliver has heard nothing from the president. The president later said that that had nothing to do with Oliver being gay...but to people at the time
JP: The suggestion that the president's expression of gratitude to Sipple might have been affected by rumors of Sipple's activities in the gay community...
LN: ... that was news.
JP: Second...Sipple's public display of heroism in saving the life of the president of the United States...presented an image
DM: That gay people are like everybody else. That they're heroes.
JP: An image certainly contrary to the stereotype of persons associated with the gay community as weak and unheroic figures.
LN: which is to say, this is newsworthy, this is worth knowing and it is something that the whole country wants to know. And the value of that is more than the value of this individual person’s privacy.
JA: Did they make that explicitly? I mean, sort of putting it in terms of the public benefit outweighs the private privacy…
LN: So Oliver's case, it actually, it dragged on for nine years, so from 1975 to 1984. Um, but this is, I’m quoting the judgment, "The record shows that the publications were not motivated by morbid and sensational prying into appellant's private life but rather were prompted by legitimate political concerns, i.e. to dispel the false public opinion that gays were timid, weak, and unheroic figures, and to raise the equally important political question whether the president of the United States entertained a discriminatory attitude or bias against a minority group such as homosexuals." So...the court tossed Oliver’s case out. He lost. He didn’t get a dime.
JA: I mean, if you think about it, it is weird that a journalist can take a person's most private details and then, if it feels relevant.... if they can can make that argument, they can just put it out there.
RK: That's our j--if we were to go silent because somebody says, don’t say that about me, then...and the government backs him up —
JA: If it's meaningful, then the person...out of which the meaning is being pulled painfully has nothing to say about it...that's just weird to me.
RK: It's really hard...
DL: I mean, I was thinking about this like even sort of on the train coming over here.
LN: Again, Daniel Luzer.
DL: and it's like...the thing that like makes journalism law so complicated, and the things that make an invasion of privacy discussion so difficult is that like...what makes something not an invasion of privacy is not that it's okay, it's that it's politically, you know, relevant. So the fact that the story, that the private details of his life are politically relevant means that it's not an invasion of privacy. It doesn't mean that it isn't rude or that it doesn't hurt. It means that it's an appropriate story to publish.
LN: But I do think like, why should the journalists be the only ones to decide what is newsworthy? Like why is it that journalists...you just pick up a notepad and pencil and, all the sudden, you have so much more power to say what's sayable than anybody else.
DL: Well, I mean, we have the sort of long tradition of that in the United States. I mean, like that's what the first amendment is. I mean, yeah, sure, it's like, why do journalists get to decide that? Well, like, who would you rather have decide it? It's not a perfect system, but it's-you know-it kind of works.
TH: So is Oliver just like this…
LN: This is producer Tracie Hunte, who was in on the interview.
TH: Somebody whose life is basically kind of sacrificed to the altar of the first amendment in like this sad way?
DL: Yes. Yeah.
JA: Yeah, it feels like he was sacrificed from all sides, actually.
LN: Yeah. It feels like there is this one kind of man in the middle and then there are all these forces around him, these like larger than life forces, like the White House, there's the gay movement, there's the freedom of the press, and all these people are sort of batting around all these enormous and important abstractions, and then in the middle of it, there's this guy that just is trampled by all of them.
JA: And so what ends up happening to him in the end?
LN: Apparently, some people in the gay community -- during and after the lawsuit -- felt that he was trying to go back in the closet, so they sort of turned their backs on him. He, surprisingly, he was friends with Harvey Milk, actually, right up to the end. Like when Harvey Milk was assassinated, Oliver Sipple went to his funeral. Um, he did have one brother, George Sr. who stuck by him throughout, but his parents did not. They never fully accepted the fact that he was gay. And when his mom died, it was so bad that Oliver Sipple's father didn't let him go to the funeral. And because he had sort of so few people at the end and because there weren't a lot news articles about him and because a lot of people from the gay community at that time have died because of the AIDS crisis, it was really hard to find out what happened to Oliver Sipple in those last five years of his life. And the only way we could was because when we were talking to Daniel Luzer, he mentioned this interview he had done with this guy named Wayne Friday. He was friend of Oliver's...
DL: Wayne Friday was sort of like a, a pillar of the community in San Francisco, like a pillar of the gay community and then also a sort of political figure, and he was a cop and he was sort of fingers in every pie kind of thing.
LN: Wayne died last year, but Daniel still had the transcript of their conversation about Oliver Sipple's last days. And so:
GP: If you guys need time to absorb or just think about for a sec, that's fine with me.
LN: We found an actor, the very gifted Gordon Pinsent, and we had him read it for us. J
WF: Okay, let me have a go. Uh, I forget. Was it 1975 the Sara Jane Moore...or...yeah, then I met him around '73. He was a swamper at a gay bar called Cockpit. Swamper, they used to clean the bars at night. They'd set the bar up for the next bartender in the morning, that's what he did. He...did it at two or three different bars. He was always at the bars. I'd see him. We actually became friends because we discovered we were both from Michigan. Bill was a good guy, he was just a fucking alcoholic. I mean, he'd get his disability check once a month, and then he'd go down, one of the bars in the Tenderloin where he used to hang out was called the Queen Mary's Pub. He would go in there the day he got his check. I swear to God he'd spend the whole fucking check on everybody. And he'd get broke the rest of the month. He just couldn't control himself. And he was a little bit of a blowhard, you know. He'd get drunk and loud. And he'd get tossed out of bars. I used to drive him home. He had an apartment on Van Ness, had a little studio. A one bedroom on the first floor at about Turk. He'd be drunker than hell at the bar and I'd drive him home, so I always knew where he lived.
WF: And after this thing with Ford, it really fucked his mind up. Sipple was a broken guy after that. The whole thing worked him. The publicity of it all and the fact that everyone knew he was a faggot, you know. He said to me a couple times, I went to the Marine Corps and I got hurt. And now what I am known for? For being a faggot. And I'd say, no, you're not. You're known for saving the president's life. You won't be known for what you did in bed, for Christ's sake. But he would get drunk and he'd start bemoaning that. I'd sit there in the bar with him, and I'd talk to him about it. Hey, man, it is what it is. But he was just...he was just...down to nothing. This thing happened, and it overcame him. It was too much for him to handle. And I think he got to feeling sorry for himself, and his family. Just...many a night, I would sit in the bar with Bill Sipple, and he'd cry on your shoulder, and you'd say, ok, Sipple, it's time to go home. And then I'd drive him home.
SOUND OF RAIN
WF: I remember it was raining. It was pouring fucking rain. Bruce called me at my office over at the DA's office and said, Wayne, will you do a well being check on Sipple for me? I said, why? And he said, nobody's seen the dude. He hasn't been around for a while. So we go out there together, and it was raining, and I'm ringing the bell, ringing the bell, ring...he doesn't answer. I notice on his door, there were these little stick 'em things, post its. And he'd befriended this little old lady who lived next door, and they kind of looked after each other. And she'd left all these little notes. Bill, call me. I can't get ahold of you. So I rang the manager's bell, and it was a little Filipino guy. I showed him my badge and I said, you've got to let me in. And so he did. And the door opened...and I knew what was going on. It's the smell. It's the smell you never forget. It's a sickening, sweet smell. Bill was sitting in the chair. He was bloated. He was bloated out real big. He had a bottle of Jack Daniels sitting there, and the television was still on. The coroner told me he'd be dead about ten days, as near as they could figure. God, I didn't know he was only 47. I thought he was older than that. Anyway. I got the guy to open the door for me. And the minute he did, I said, close it. And then I had to stand there and wait for the coroner.
WF: I remember it was over here at the Campbell Funeral Home on Market Street. And then we buried him out in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. And I remember it was very small. The casket wasn't opened. The funeral was just, I mean...there was more media there than anything else. I've seen him buy more drinks for people than were at that funeral. He could have been buried in Arlington if they'd made an issue out of it. I mean, shit, there he was, this national icon, a gay whatever, and...there were just a few people out there for the funeral.
OS: I believe in human life and I believe that this country stands for human values.... including life and freedom. I am first and foremost a human being who enjoys and respects life, but I feel that I... I feel that a person's worth is determined by how he or she responds to the world in which they live, not on how or what or with whom a private life is shared. These are my words and they're my feelings. This is all I have to say on this subject. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
JA: This story was reported by Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunt. It was produced by Matt Kielty and Annie McEwen with Latif and Tracie.
RK: Special thanks to Bruce T. H. Burke, to Stacy Davis at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library, to the GLBT Historical Society, Stephanie Arias at the Huntington Library, James Kramen [spell check this] who's Gordon Pinsent's agent, and as long as we're on the subject of Gordon, the actor you heard just ending piece, just wow.
JA: Yeah, wow.
RK: Just wow.
JA: Yeah, thank you to Gordon.
RK: Special thanks also to Allen Jones [sp?], Danny Meyer [sp?] and Floyd Abrams [sp?]. Thank you all.
JA: We had original music in this story. We used a lot of music from a guy named Patrick Cowley. He was a guy who grew up in Buffalo, moved to San Francisco in the seventies like Oliver Sipple, and, in 1982, he died of AIDS. This music was released posthumously by the label Dark Entries. We're super grateful to them and to Patrick Cowley wherever he is for the use of his music. And last but not least, before we close, we just wanna say a very sort of special belated goodbye to our senior producer Jamie York
RK: who did a little of the legal research inside this story - or tried to - because we had to really probe fairly deeply to get the legal files. Thank you, Jamie, for doing that...
JA: And for everything-
RK: -for everything
JA: For guiding so many of our stories and our whole team for the last few years. Jamie, we will really miss you.
RK: Yes, we even do, at this very moment, miss you.
JA: Alright, I'm Jad Abumrad.
RK: I'm Robert Krulwich.
JA: Thanks for listening.