Oct 1, 2021

Oliver Sipple

One morning, Oliver Sipple went out for a walk. A couple hours later, to his own surprise, he saved the life of the President of the United States. But in the days that followed, Sipple’s split-second act of heroism turned into a rationale for making his personal life into political opportunity. What happens next makes us wonder what a moment, or a movement, or a whole society can demand of one person. And how much is too much? 

Through newly unearthed archival tape, we hear Sipple himself grapple with some of the most vexing topics of his day and ours - privacy, identity, the freedom of the press - not to mention the bonds of family and friendship. 

Reported by Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte. Produced by Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte.

Special thanks to Jerry Pritikin, Michael Yamashita, Stan Smith, Duffy Jennings; Ann Dolan, Megan Filly and Ginale Harris at the Superior Court of San Francisco; Leah Gracik, Karyn Hunt, Jesse Hamlin, The San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, Mike Amico, Jennifer Vanasco and Joey Plaster.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.

Episode originally published 09/21/2017

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JAD ABUMRAD: This story contains a couple moments of profanity, cursing—just a few. Know that before you go in. 

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

JAD: This is Radiolab, I’m Jad Abumrad. So today I want to play for you really one of my favorite stories we've ever done on Radiolab. It's one of those like perfect stories where all the different things you want in a story come together all at once. Like you've got this single human being going through something truly unique and difficult. But inside that single human being story is—in that kind of universe, in a blade of grass sort of way—is everything. You know, it's that kind of story. Comes from Latif. This is back in the days when Latif was a producer and this is before he was hosting the show with Lulu Miller and I. It’s back in the time when I was hosting the show with Robert Krulwich, so I don't know, let's just let it roll. 

JAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich. 

JAD: This is Radiolab. 

ROBERT: And today, we are going to start. 

LATIF NASSER: Okay, so let's start... 

JAD: With our producer, Latif Nasser.

LATIF: Yeah...

ROBERT: Well, let's just, let's just go back to San Francisco on a particular day at a particular time...

LATIF: Well and a particular woman. 

SARA JANE MOORE: Hello. 

LATIF: Hi. Is this Sarah Jane? 

SARA JANE MOORE: Yes, it is. 

LATIF: A woman named... 

SARA JANE MOORE: Sarah Jane Moore. 

LATIF: Sarah Jane. 

JAD: Okay. 

LATIF: So this is San Francisco. The particular date was September 22. The particular time... 

SARA JANE MOORE: 1975 

LATIF: It's a Monday morning. Was it a nice day? 

SARA JANE MOORE: Oh, yeah. I don't remember anything different, so I assume it was a nice day. 

LATIF: Okay, all right, sure, sure. 

SARA JANE MOORE: I was kind of, you know, in my own head. I remember...

LATIF: So Sarah 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—this big fancy hotel. 

LATIF: What was the name of the hotel?

SARA JANE MOORE: 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.

LATIF: Ok, alright, fair enough.

SARA JANE MOORE: Yeah.

LATIF: Yeah.

SARA JANE MOORE: Uh-huh, 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—there were sidewalks on both sides of the street. There were people on both sidewalks.

LATIF: She joins the crowd across the street from the hotel.

SARA JANE MOORE: It was very crowded.

LATIF: A couple thousand people. It’s like a—it’s like a big scene.

SARA JANE MOORE: 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. So I…

LATIF: What were you—do you remember what you were wearing? I mean, I’m sure there’s, uh…

SARA JANE MOORE: Oh, there are pictures of it, yes. I was wearing—I was wearing slacks. That was—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.

LATIF: She sees this guy there, big strong guy, blonde hair…

SARA JANE MOORE: Looked at him and realized that it was crowd pressure, that he had not done anything out of—out of ordinary, that…

LATIF: Mhmm.

SARA JANE MOORE: So I turned back around and uh, went on about my business. Uh, I was then pushed up, 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. It’s where I had not planned to be. Uh and—and he apparently was still right behind me, so maybe he was pushed up by the crowd also.

LATIF: And so Sara Jane is just crammed into this crowd and she’s just standing there.

SARA JANE MOORE: Yes.

LATIF: And were you—were you nervous?

SARA JANE MOORE: Oh, nuh-uh. You set out to do something, and I was just going about doing what I had set out to do.

LATIF: So, she waits and she waits, and an hour goes by and two and three and then finally…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP [drumroll]]

LATIF: 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.

SARA JANE MOORE: To get in his car, which was parked there on the street.

LATIF: 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…

SARA JANE MOORE: And pulled the gun out of my purse.

LATIF: A 38 caliber revolver. She cocks it, and then she takes aim right at Gerald Ford's head. And then…

[NEWS CLIP [sound of gunshot]: Oh my God, there’s been a shot—there’s been a shot…]

SARA JANE MOORE: But—Mr. Ford did not fall.

[NEWS CLIP : We’re being pushed back by the police.]

LATIF: The bullet flies a few feet to the right of Ford, chips the wall behind him. Ford freezes in place. Sara Jane…

SARA JANE MOORE: Never planned to take a second shot.

LATIF: Now she’s just still standing there.

SARA JANE MOORE: With my hand still in the air holding the gun.

LATIF: Looking over the smoking barrel of the gun. And she’s got enough time if she wants it, but before she can take that second shot, the blonde 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.

SARA JANE MOORE: So I couldn't move.

LATIF: And by that point, the Secret Service has whisked off the president into the limousine…

SARA JANE MOORE: And I was immediately picked up and carried across the street…

LATIF: Into the hotel…

SARA JANE MOORE: Arrested…

LATIF: And eventually—uh, she went to prison. And she served 32 years in prison. 

JAD: Huh.

LATIF: Uh and then—and then after that was released on parole. And then we talked to her.

JAD: Woah…

LATIF: There’s a...

JAD: 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.

LATIF: I was hoping that, um...

ROBERT: Wait, can you explain though why it is she decided to shoot the guy?

JAD: Yeah, why—why did she shoot?

ROBERT: Yeah...

LATIF: Well, Sara Jane's never fully explained that uh and in fact when—when I asked her…

SARA JANE MOORE: Well, this is not…

LATIF: She was like, I'm not going there.

SARA JANE MOORE: 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.

ROBERT: Sipple?

LATIF: Yeah. Oliver Sipple. 

ROBERT: Huh…

LATIF: He’s the random blonde 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.

SARA JANE MOORE: And he paid dearly for that.

LATIF: 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.

SARA JANE MOORE: Because had he not reached out and put his hand on my arm... 

[NEWS CLIP: Somebody fired a shot...]

SARA JANE MOORE: None of this would have happened to him.

JAD: Wait, what happened to him?

LATIF: So Oliver Sipple actually died in 1989, but um, before we get to the story, I just want to give you a picture of the guy. So uh, just google search Oliver Sipple, Ford... 

JAD: Okay...

LATIF: Or something…

JAD: Wait, okay, wait—I see the picture. Oh, I see, look at that.

LATIF: He’s a muscular guy, kind of blonde hair. He’s a—he’s a—he's a um—he’s a handsome guy.

JAD: He's a little bit James Dean and Marlo Brando had a baby, kinda?

LATIF: He feels like an all American—he feels all American. There's something all American about him.

DANIEL LUZER: Thank you.

LATIF: Yeah—yeah, we're bringing in another all American for this story. Uh, Daniel Luzer.

DANIEL LUZER: 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…

LATIF: To get back on track.

DANIEL LUZER: September 22nd, 1975…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: Gun shot]

LATIF: Sara Jane Moore fires that shot. Oliver Sipple grabs her arm—the police…

DANIEL LUZER: Wrestle Moore to the ground…

LATIF: And then the police actually grab Oliver, too, pull him inside the hotel to question him.

DANIEL LUZER: Because there's initially some confusion about what he was doing there, and some thought that—you know—he might have been a suspect.

LATIF: And so he’s in this hotel, trying to light a cigarette, but he just couldn't do it because he was shaking so hard. 

JAD: Hm.

LATIF: Turns out, Oliver had served two very rough tours in Vietnam.

DANIEL LUZER: Loud noises would make him very unhappy. I think this is the sort of thing we might call post traumatic stress disorder now.

LATIF: But when eventually Oliver started to calm down, the Secret Service were like—what are you even doing here?

DANIEL LUZER: 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.

LATIF: And I just bumped into this huge crowd of people, asked what was going on.

DANIEL LUZER: People were like, oh, like Gerald Ford is going to be here, you know, the president is going to be here.

LATIF: So, he said he thought, I might as well see him. And then he was standing there for a couple of hours until…

DANIEL LUZER: He saw a flash of metal…

LATIF: Realized it was a gun.

DANIEL LUZER: Reacted quickly.

LATIF: Instinctively.

DANIEL LUZER: And then…

LATIF: You guys all pulled me in here.

DANIEL LUZER: That's how I came to be here.

LATIF: 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—he just wants to sort of be left alone, and he told this reporter, um quote—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—and some of them learned that he was a Marine, and so they would ask him questions like, oh, was it your—you know—was it your training? Is that why you did this heroic thing?

DANIEL LUZER: But he said, oh, you know, listen, don't mention any of that stuff about the Marines. Let’s keep that under wraps.

LATIF: Quote—I’m no hero or nothing.—But...the next day…

[NEWS CLIP: Yesterday in San Francisco, a shot fired…]

LATIF: Oliver's story...shot across the country. 

[NEWS CLIP: But the aim deflected by an ex-marine. A Vietnam veteran named Oliver Sipple.]

LATIF: His name's on television…

[NEWS CLIP: Marine, Oliver Sipple…]

LATIF: 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.

DANIEL LUZER: And it appears that he sort of thought that would be it.

LATIF: Maybe his friends would give him a pat on the back, buy him a couple rounds.

DANIEL LUZER: And then—you know, over the next couple of days, it all sort of like rippled out of control.

LATIF: Because that very same day that Oliver was being painted as a hero, this guy named Herb Caen…

DANIEL LUZER: The longtime San Francisco columnist.

LATIF: Walked into his office and on his answering machine were two messages saying—hey, that guy Oliver Sipple, the hero?

DANIEL LUZER: Who has saved the president's life? Is gay.

JAD: Huh, Was he—was he out? 

LATIF: Well, he was sort of out—and sort of not.

ROBERT: What does that mean?

LATIF: Well, to explain, you've got to understand this particular time and place. So let’s just—you know—take a magic carpet ride. Close your eyes and let the sound take you away.

[NEWS CLIP: A city has emerged where homosexuality is not only tolerated, but prized.]

[NEWS CLIP: San Francisco—sometimes labeled with a sly caption, Queen City of the West.] 

LATIF: So, San Francisco…

[NEWS CLIP: It’s a great day, it’s a gay day.] 

[NEWS CLIP: Happy day.]

[NEWS CLIP: Happy day.]

LATIF: Was one of the first cities in America to have a gay pride parade. And in the ‘70s…

[NEWS CLIP: It’s a wonderful city, this city.]

[NEWS CLIP: Boys go to bed with boys, and girls go to bed with girls, and...]

LATIF: For gay people, San Francisco was like this shelter from the storm.

KEN MALEY: Many of us were immigrants from somewhere.

LATIF: This is Ken Maley.

KEN MALEY: Longtime San Francisco resident…

LATIF: And gay activist, who at the age of 19, uh, came to San Francisco from Kansas…

KEN MALEY: 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.

LATIF: It was a place where you could be out, but to the people you left behind, you could still be in. 

DANIEL LUZER: So uh, so...

LATIF: And so for Oliver—you know—he came from Michigan…

DANIEL LUZER: From a working class family. Uh, he had a lot of brothers and sisters. I think he was one of eight children.

LATIF: And so, after the war, when he got to San Francisco, he actually started going by the name Billy.

DANIEL LUZER: 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.

LATIF: And so Oliver lived, like a lot of gay people at the time, this double life.

DANIEL LUZER: Yeah, yeah.

LATIF: And do we know that this is the reason why Sipple came to San Francisco or was there a different reason…

DANIEL LUZER: It may have just been because Harvey Milk was there.

LATIF: The Harvey Milk—you know—famous gay activist, San Francisco politician.

DANIEL LUZER: He was friends with Harvey Milk.

KEN MALEY: The New Yorker. An immigrant from New York.

LATIF: Turns out, Oliver had actually met Harvey a decade earlier in New York, and I—I just want to mention this because I think it's so cool, at different points in time, they actually dated the same guy…

DANIEL LUZER: Who was the inspiration for Sugar Plum Fairy.

[MUSIC IN: Walk on the Wild Side]

LATIF: In Lou Reed's Walk On The Wild Side. Just a fun fact—just a fun fact, that’s it. [MUSIC OUT] But um, Oliver and Harvey, they were pretty good friends. They corresponded, stayed in touch when they lived in different places in the country. Actually, Harvey even loaned Oliver money sometimes because Oliver didn’t have a job. He, you know collected disability from his time in the Marines. But anyway…

KEN MALEY: By the beginning of the '70s…

LATIF: When Oliver got to San Francisco, reconnected with his old friend…

KEN MALEY: Harvey was—uh shall we say, evolving into…

DANIEL LUZER: A huge figure there.

KEN MALEY: A gay public figure.

LATIF: Ken was actually friends with Harvey, worked on one of his campaigns.

LATIF: And—and. 

KEN MALEY: But this, I’m sorry.

LATIF: No, no, no, and and I'm just thinking like one of the things we were talking about on the phone was about sort of the—the kind of two different schools or two different…

KEN MALEY: I was just about to segway to that.

LATIF: Oh, perfect. Okay go—yeah, yeah go for it.

KEN MALEY: So this, older, other—I would say older, but other generation of gay, mostly men, was that—they were content to go to tea with the mayor or public official of some kind. [MUSIC IN]

LATIF: They would show up to like a rally…

KEN MALEY: Wearing jackets and ties.

LATIF: And like, ask for their rights politely.

KEN MALEY: They really weren't, shall we say, activists. [MUSIC OUT]

LATIF: Because according to Ken, the activism came…

[NEWS CLIP: Peace now, peace now, peace now...]

LATIF: When in the late '60s, early '70s, you had young, gay men and women…

[NEWS CLIP: [Protest chant]]

KEN MALEY: Who came out of the Vietnam war protests into the world…

LATIF: Took a look around…

[NEWS CLIP: The CBS news survey shows that two out of three Americans look upon homosexuals with disgust, discomfort, or fear.]

KEN MALEY: The police are still raiding bars…

[NEWS CLIP: What they consider discrimination in jobs and housing...]

KEN MALEY: People are still getting beaten…

[NEWS CLIP: One of whom has said, uh, queer faggot we’re gonna beat the shit out of you, something to that effect, uh, we’re gonna kill you.]

KEN MALEY: Both violently and nonviolently. 

[NEWS CLIP: Got up in the middle of the street, they knocked me down and started beating me with their hands and their feet, their elbows, uh tried to muffle my screams.]

KEN MALEY: And...after a while, a body of people get to a point where they just will not take oppression anymore.

LATIF: So... 

[NEWS CLIP: Oh Harvey…[MUSIC IN]]

LATIF: In came the activists like Harvey.

KEN MALEY: Pony tail, mustache, he was a banker turned hippie.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: You know you lying, you know you’re changing the statements around.]

KEN MALEY: He was very outspoken…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: I question what is your real motive behind it.]

KEN MALEY: Very militant…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: And stop this phony issue that you know is a phony issue.]

KEN MALEY: And to Harvey…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: We are saying that a gay person should have the right to say.]

KEN MALEY: Gay people were living in a half life opportunity. 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: I am gay, that is a part of society, period.]

KEN MALEY: Not being able to be who they were.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: Every gay person must come out...As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family, you must tell you 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 in the stores you shop in, and once—once you do, you will feel so much better.]

[JAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.]

LATIF: And so...cut back to…

DANIEL LUZER: September 22nd, 1975.

LATIF: 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. Uh Oliver Sipple worked on my campaign for supervisor. So, basically, with—without Sipple’s consent…

KEN MALEY: Harvey outed him.

LATIF: Milk outed him.

ROBERT: What was Harvey Milk thinking that he would do this?

KEN MALEY: Well, for Harvey...

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: I think the stereotypes, the lies, the innuendos...]

KEN MALEY: Of gay people as limp-wristed and drag queens and stuff…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: Distortions...all gay people are child molesters...]

KEN MALEY: Well, here's a true gay hero.

LATIF: A square jawed, heroic Marine…

DANIEL LUZER: Who seemed to be a sort of like, regular like, red blooded American.

LATIF: 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."

ROBERT: Wasn't there someone who said, no, no, no, you gotta ask the guy, you can't just do that?

KEN MALEY: Harvey just did it.

ROBERT: Really?

KEN MALEY: Yeah, he just did it.

LATIF: So Caen—the next morning—Caen arrives at his office, he listens to the message, and Caen tries to call Sipple, but he 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—what 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 of 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. 

DANIEL LUZER: Um, and he uh. Let's see. What's this? Let me like just go back and get this.

LATIF: So, two days after the assassination attempt, Caen’s column comes out.

DANIEL LUZER: And the way that he wrote it up, this is the precise paragraph: one of the 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."

LATIF: And then, that day, this guy named Daryl Lembke…

DARYL LEMBKE: Lembke. L-E-M-B-K-E.

LATIF: Picks up his issue of The Chronicle, sees Herb Caen's column.

DARYL LEMBKE: I read and I reported to the office.

LATIF: The office of the Los Angeles Times.

DARYL LEMBKE: I was a reporter for the LA Times in San Francisco, and so, my office told me, get an interview with Oliver Sipple.

LATIF: But really quickly before we get there, we actually managed to get a recording of this very specific interview in 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.

LATIF: So, the night that Caen's article comes out, Daryl goes to Oliver's house, Oliver's there.

DARYL LEMBKE: Two reporters from the Sentinel were there also.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: What is the Sentinel?]

LATIF: That right there is Daryl.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Sentinel reporter: It's a gay newspaper.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Gay newspaper, uh-huh.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Sentinel reporter: Wanna be put on our mailing list?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Sure.]

LATIF: So they're all sitting in Oliver's living room, and what the reporters are all wondering is—have you heard from the president?

DARYL LEMBKE: The president hadn't bothered to thank him at that point.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: The president can award what they call Medals of Freedom to people for outstanding acts. If he offered to have you brought down to the White House, would you go?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: Certainly.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: Would you like to meet him?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: Well, yeah, I stood in line for three hours to see him. Of course I would.]

LATIF: And that voice right there? That’s Oliver.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: He didn't have time to meet you at that occasion. Have you heard from the mayor?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: No. I've heard from nobody. I've heard only from the press and reporters and reporters and the press and that’s it...]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: Of course, you have been hard to get a hold of...]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: You really have to dig…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: But then, I'm sure the mayor could find you. He has access to police records that know where you are.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: Okay, can we go on background...]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Yeah.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: 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.]

LATIF: Something Oliver should know because this is, again, this is at a time when the assumption was that all gay men were just...pedophiles. Perverts.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: And when I said background, this is information that cannot be printed.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Well, can I ask somebody about it?]

LATIF: Daryl actually asks if he can call somebody and ask about it.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: Yeah, would you do that right now?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: No, I...well, do you want me to?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: You're damn right I do.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: They aren't giving any reasons as to why. The number is 553-1361.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Who is the guy to talk to?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: Talk to either Sullivan or Hettrick.]

LATIF: Daryl calls local authorities, but he can’t get ahold of anyone. 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: He said to call back around 1:00.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: And they have said nothing to you about that?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: Mm, mm (negative).]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Do you have any sex crimes on your record?

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: 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.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: Would you like us to check that out further to see if there's more...than they're giving you?]

LATIF: And then the tape recorder goes off. Comes back on.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: Uh, well, who do I call with some authority with the police department, then?]

LATIF: And now, Oliver's on the phone with the police department.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: 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, I'd like some information, a bunch of press came over...well, not a bunch, just three 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 the 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.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: We find out anything more about it, I'll let you know.]

LATIF: Now, the reason this tape is so controversial is because according to Oliver, before the interview began, before the you know recorder started rolling, he had said to the reporters from the Sentinel, um okay, I'm going to talk to you guys about my sexuality, but then he had said to Daryl I don't want you to write anything about that. I don't, 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…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Oh, I'll make one more try on the gay thing. Uh…]

LATIF: I'll make one more try on the gay thing.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: You don't...you don't want to change your mind on that?]

LATIF: You don't want to change your mind on that?

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: No, uh...I just don't want to change my mind on that.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: May we quote you as saying homosexuality has nothing to do with this?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: You can quote me as saying that 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.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: Okay.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: But I think that that has nothing to do with the act itself. Uh...so I don't think you should be pushing for any of that...]

LATIF: And eventually…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: Okay.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Okay.]

LATIF: Interview ends. And Daryl says that when he left that interview, he felt like when it came to Oliver’s sexuality....

DARYL LEMBKE: He didn’t want to be quoted.

LATIF: That was it, like just don’t quote me on it. But still…

DARYL LEMBKE: 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.

LATIF: 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…

[NEWS CLIP: On March 6th, Sergeant Leonard Matlovich disclosed to a supervising officer at Langlay Air Force Space in Virginia that he was a homosexual and wanted to stay in the Air Force.]

LATIF: This Air Force sergeant named Leonard Matlovich who, uh, had the purple heart, had the bronze star, he comes out that he’s gay and he’s kicked out of the Air Force.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Leonard Matlovich: In conversations, you hear people say that you know we’re discharging this queer, that queer, throwing them out of the Air Force. I mean inside I just burn up with, you know just, am I a coward here, and I’m just gonna stand here. And never really can have the protection of my fellow minority group and—and just keeping quite and my consciousness wouldn’t let me do it anymore. I had to come forward and say, no more America.]

LATIF: And now, you've got this former Marine, saved the president's life and it’s two days later, he still hasn’t heard from the president. 

DARYL LEMBKE: So that’s when I knew...

LATIF: So for Daryl, even though Oliver had said, don’t make this about my sexuality…

DARYL LEMBKE: I still thought it was a national story and it was pretty hard to ignore it after Herb Caen had started the ball rolling.

LATIF: 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 a former Marine who was quote, a prominent figure in the gay community.

DARYL LEMBKE: Put it downaways in the story, but the rewrite guy put it in the lede…

LATIF: Really...

DARYL LEMBKE: And it made it the big thing.

LATIF: 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.

DARYL LEMBKE: And uh, the LA Times did a news service…

LATIF: And so, Daryl's story, it goes, I mean, it goes everywhere. 

[NEWS CLIP: In another strange twist to the story…]

LATIF: Headlines are like, gay vet, or homosexual hero... 

[NEWS CLIP: It’s been reported that the ex-marine who deflected Mrs. Moore’s shot on Monday is well known in San Francisco’s gay activist circles…]

LATIF: And so, it was not just running in Los Angeles. It’s 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.

ROBERT: I guess what I'm wondering is, if you have a 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?

DARYL LEMBKE: Well, you know 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.

ROBERT: Right. 

DARYL LEMBKE: But uh….

ROBERT: If you were to do it all over again, would you do anything differently?

DARYL LEMBKE:  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. But I'm not able to turn back the clock for something like that. [MUSIC IN]

JAD: The clock marches forward after the break.

[JAZ ADAM: My name is Jaz Adam, and I’m calling from Los Angeles. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

JAD: This is Radiolab. We're back with the story of Oliver Sipple from reporter/producer Latif Nasser.

LATIF: So the assassination attempt was on Monday, and on Thursday...Sipple and his lawyer call a press conference.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, 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.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: 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.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, 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…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: Oh, okay, I couldn't get the word there. 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—

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Lawyer: Sexuality...]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: my sexuality is a part of my—private life, and I have not—I have no…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Lawyer: and has no…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: 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’s…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Lawyer: Person’s worth…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: worth is determined by how he or she…] 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Lawyer: Responds…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: responds to the world in which they live, not on how or what—or with whom a private life is shared.]

LATIF: He basically says like, stop, stop. It's kind of as simple as that.

JAD: Yeah.

LATIF: But there's something else that happens in the press conference that is—makes the whole thing, I mean, so much more—personal. 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: Finally…]

LATIF: And it actually was the very reason that Oliver called the press conference in the first place.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: 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…] 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Lawyer: interference...] 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: interference with my family's relationship, which I—when I supposedly saved the president's life.]

LATIF: 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.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Lawyer: And she hung up on him.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: And also hung up.]

LATIF: Did you call him Uncle—Uncle Oliver, or…

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: Yes, I called him Uncle Oliver, yeah.

LATIF: This is George Sipple, Jr., Oliver's nephews. He told me that most of Oliver’s family stayed in Detroit. Oliver’s two brothers and his dad worked together at an auto plant there.

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: They all worked for General Motors. And the story that I've heard is that…

LATIF: The day after Oliver saved the life of President Ford…

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: They walked in and everyone wanted to like, buy them a beer. You know, everybody on the factory floor um was congratulating them, patting them 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.

ROBERT: Teasing, mean teasing, or teasing...

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: Yeah. Yeah. Mm hm. Yeah.

LATIF: And George says, what happened is, reporters back in Detroit just sort of descended on Oliver’s parents…

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: To get more of the story. And so they kept 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.

LATIF: 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 there’s just—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."

JAD: Whoa. So his dad was like—this is his brother talking about his dad's reaction?

LATIF: Brother talking to the dad, yeah. And then so then the brother says, "and he told me quite clearly in two letter words, "just forget you got a brother." And I let him alone."

JAD: Wow.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: I never anticipated such interference with my family's relationship, which I…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Lawyer: when I…]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: 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 or to my lawyer.]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: I'd like to ask Mr. Sipple a question if I could, what would you like to see happen now?]

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: 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 just—I'm feeling very sorry for my family, too. It's awful. Just awful. I've got nothing more to say.]

ROBERT: Can you tell us the story of the letter?

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: Uh, I wish I would have brought it. I, I do have it, but I didn't bring it today.

LATIF: 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.

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: It's a nice letter. It's White House stationary, White House envelope. It's basically, Ford telling my uncle that you know 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.

ROBERT: Well, there's this other chapter where your uncle says, says to the president, I guess, writes the president…

LATIF: Well so yeah we found—we found a letter in the Gerald Ford library, it's from your uncle to the president…

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: Wow. 

LATIF: That, yeah…

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: I did not, I did not know about that letter.

LATIF: 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…

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: Wait, wait, wait, wait. You said it was what? It was when?

LATIF: September 30th, 1975. So that would be a couple days after he got the letter from Ford.

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: This was—so obviously, obviously—he got—my grandmother must have hung up on him... 

LATIF: Right.

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: And then he wrote the letter. 

LATIF: Yeah, yeah, it sounds like... 

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: Cause, cause, he couldn't…

LATIF: Yeah, yeah…

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: That's really interesting. What’s the letter say?

LATIF: 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 will be gratefully appreciated. Respectfully, Oliver W. Sipple."

GEORGE SIPPLE JR.: Wow...That's sad...Sadder to think that nothing came of it...You know?

LATIF: Yeah.

ROBERT: Yeah.

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF: 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 that Oliver sent that letter, back to Ford, he and his lawyer filed a $15 million lawsuit against the press.

JAD: Really? Saying what?

LATIF: That the newspapers, when they publicized that he was gay without his consent, they violated his privacy.

JOEY PLASTER: Okay, walking out of Civic Center BART, onto Civic Center in San Francisco.

LATIF: It's just, it’s 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.

JAD: You found them? 

LATIF: We found them.

JAD: Where'd you find them?

JOEY PLASTER: Uh, so the clerk's office is I guess not surprisingly right off City Hall.

LATIF: They were at this court in San Francisco, and so we recruited this guy, this researcher, a historian of the you know gay movement in San Francisco, uh, great name, Joey Plaster, and he…

Clerk: Okay, so I'm going to need your ID…

JOEY PLASTER: Okay.

LATIF: 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.

JOEY PLASTER: And is that everything?

Clerk: This is everything.

JOEY PLASTER: That's everything, okay.

DAN MORAIN: So the issue, you know it’s a very fundamental issue for those of us in journalism…

LATIF: And to help us make sense of the arguments lurking in those pages…

DAN MORAIN: What is privacy and what is invasion of privacy?

LATIF: We talked to Dan Morain.

DAN MORAIN: Editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.

LATIF: He actually first heard about this case in journalism school and also wrote about Oliver Sipple way back in the 1980s. So, anyway.

JOEY PLASTER: Okay, so here’s the first page of the file.

DAN MORAIN: The lawsuit was against the Chronicle.

JOEY PLASTER: The case is Oliver W. Sipple, Plaintiff v. Chronicle Publishing Company.

DAN MORAIN: It was against the LA Times.

LATIF: The Des Moines Register, the Chicago Sun Times, the Denver Post, the Indianapolis Star, and the San Antonio Express.

JAD: Wow.

JOEY PLASTER: Okay, let’s see, so this is the deposition of Oliver W. Sipple. Let's see…

LATIF: So one of the arguments that the lawyers for the newspapers were making is that Oliver’s sexuality was not actually private.  

JOEY PLASTER: Lawyer: Were there any people that you knew in San Francisco in say, September 1975 who knew that you were homosexual? Sipple: Yes. Lawyer: Approximately how many people? Sipple: I have no idea. Lawyer: More than 10? Sipple: Yes. Lawyer: More than 50? Sipple: Yes. Lawyer: More than 100? Sipple: Yes.

LATIF: 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 like in the hundreds.

JOEY PLASTER: 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.

LATIF: And they make the argument, the newspapers' lawyers that hey, this was already somewhat public a fact.

DAN MORAIN: But his personal business was his personal business.

JOEY PLASTER: "I have never attempted to obtain publicity for the fact that I am gay or predominantly homosexual in my sexual orientation."

DAN MORAIN: He was a private citizen.

JOEY PLASTER: "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.

LATIF: 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.

DAN MORAIN: 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.

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF: And to journalists, when you're in the public eye you become something else entirely. You become a public figure.

[NEWS CLIP: Yesterday in San Francisco a shot fired…]

LATIF: When that happened to Oliver…

DAN MORAIN: He lost his right to privacy.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Daryl Lembke: Oh, I'll make one more try on the gay thing. Uh…]

LATIF: And the newspapers argued, when it came to Oliver's sexuality…

DAN MORAIN: It was news at the time.

JOEY PLASTER: "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…"

[NEWS CLIP: On March 6th, Sergeant Leonard Matlovich disclosed that he was a homosexual…]

LATIF: 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. 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Reporter: Would you like to meet him?]

LATIF: 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…

JOEY PLASTER: The suggestion that the president's expression of gratitude to Sipple might have been affected by rumors of Sipple's activities in the gay 

LATIF: That was news. 

[NEWS CLIP: News secretary Nessen was asked if that was the reason president Ford has not yet personally thanked him.]

JOEY PLASTER: Second…

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: The lies, the innuendos…]

JOEY PLASTER: Sipple's public display of heroism in saving the life of the president of the United States...

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Harvey Milk: Distortions, all gay people are child molesters…]

JOEY PLASTER:...presented an image

DAN MORAIN: That gay people are like everybody else. That they're heroes.

JOEY PLASTER: An image certainly contrary to the stereotype of persons associated with the gay community as weak and unheroic figures.

LATIF: 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.

JAD: Did they make that explicitly? I mean, sort of putting it in terms of the public benefit outweighs the private privacy…

LATIF: Yeah.

JAD: Hm.

LATIF: So Oliver's case, 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.

JAD: I mean, if you think about it, it is weird that a journalist can just take a person's most private details and then, if it feels relevant...like if they can make that argument, they can just put it out there. 

ROBERT: It is the job—like if we were to go silent because somebody says, don’t say that about me, then...and the government backs him up…

JAD: But 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.

ROBERT: It's really hard…

DANIEL LUZER: I mean, I was thinking about this like even sort of on the train coming over here.

LATIF: Again, Daniel Luzer.

DANIEL LUZER: 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 like the fact that the story, the fact that the private details of his life are politically relevant means that it's not an invasion of privacy. You know it doesn't mean that it isn't rude or that it doesn't hurt. It means that it's an appropriate story to you know, to publish.

LATIF: But I do think like, why should the journalists be the only ones to decide what is newsworthy? It’s not like why is it that then journalists...you just pick up a notepad and a pencil and, all the sudden, you have so much more power to say what's sayable than anybody else.

DANIEL LUZER: 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, I don’t know I mean it's like yeah sure, 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.

TRACIE HUNT: So is Oliver just like this…

LATIF:This is producer Tracie Hunte, who was in on the interview.

TRACIE: Somebody whose life is basically kind of sacrificed to the altar of the first amendment in like this sad way?

DANIEL LUZER: Yes. Yeah.

JAD: Yeah, it feels like he was sacrificed from all sides, actually.

LATIF: 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, 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.

JAD: And so what ends up happening to him in the end?

LATIF: Well 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, till—till 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. And 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 sort of, he had so few people I guess at the end and because there weren't a lot news articles about him and because a lot of people from the gay community from 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 that he did with this guy named Wayne Friday. He was friend of Oliver's... 

DANIEL LUZER: 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.

LATIF: Wayne died last year, but Daniel still had the transcript of their conversation about Oliver Sipple's last days. And so…

GORDON PINSENT: If you guys need time to absorb or just think about for a sec, that's fine with me. 

LATIF: We found an actor, the very gifted Gordon Pinsent, and we had him read it for us. 

GORDON PINSENT: Okay, let me have a go. [As Wayne Friday] 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 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 his 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.

[MUSIC IN]

GORDON PINSENT: [As Wayne Friday] 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]

GORDON PINSENT: [As Wayne Friday] 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? And 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, 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 been 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.

[MUSIC IN]

GORDON PINSENT: [As Wayne Friday] 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, it was very small. The casket wasn't opened. The funeral was just, I mean—there were more media there than anything else. I've seen him buy drinks for more 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.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Oliver Sipple: I believe in human life and I think 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...that 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.]

JAD: This story was reported by Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunt. It was produced by Matt Kielty and Annie McEwen with Latif and Tracie. 

ROBERT: Special thanks to Bruce T. H. Burke, to Stacy Davis at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library, to the GLBT Historical Society, Stephanie Arias at teh Huntington Library, James Kramen who's Gordon Pinsent's agent, and as long as we're on the subject of Gordon, the actor you heard just ending the piece, wow.

JAD: Yeah, wow. 

ROBERT: Just wow.

JAD: Yeah, thank you to Gordon. 

ROBERT: Special thanks also to Allen Jones, Danny Meyer and Floyd Abrams. Thank you all.

JAD: 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.

ROBERT: Who did a little of the legal research inside this story—tried to—because we had to really probe fairly deeply to get the legal files. Thank you, Jamie, for doing that…

JAD: And for everything…

ROBERT: ...for everything

JAD: For guiding so many of our stories and our whole team for the last few years. Jamie, we will really miss you.

ROBERT: Yes, we even do, at this very moment, miss you.

JAD: Alright, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Thanks for listening.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: To play the message press 2…

DANIEL LUZER: Uh good afternoon this is Daniel Luzer. I guess this messages for Latif I'm calling in…

JOEY PLASTER: Hi, This is Joey Plaster in New Haven, Connecticut to um…

DAN MORAIN: Hi this is Dan Moraine from the Sacramento Bee to um record the credits...okay.

JOEY PLASTER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler.

DANIEL LUZER: So starting now...Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Rachel Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte... 

DAN MORAIN: Tracie Hunt, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack, and Molly Webster. With help from Amanda Aronczyk, Shima Oliaee, Nijar Farrell, Phoebe Wang and Katie Ferguson. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris. If there are any problems with that, please let me know and I'd be happy to record it again. But I think that should work fine with—you know—edits and stuff. Thanks a lot look forward to hearing, hearing the piece, bye.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: End of message.]

 

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