Pitching from the Outside In

Back in December, a discussion on Twitter with Daniel J. Older made me start to think about the difficulties inherent in approaching mainstream publications from outside the typical, privileged journalistic career arc of elite college > unpaid internship > paid staff job > freelance (the arc my own career broadly followed). Pitching a story is tricky enough if you’re already in the game, and much, much harder if you’re doing it for the first time; harder still when there are divides of ethnicity, class, culture, history, and social experience between you and the editors you may be pitching to.

As an editor, I’m constantly frustrated by these divides and the ways in which our current system perpetuates them.* David Dennis, writing in the Guardian, sums the problem up succinctly:

Many … voices have been muted just because they simply can’t navigate the landscape of privilege that most modern journalism encourages.

The journalists who can tell my story – the story of urban or inner-city America – have taken a job in marketing while disseminating their opinions on blogs, which only small portion of the general public ever see. This is a loss to the art of journalism and its ability to tell the whole American story.

On Twitter, I proposed writing a guide to pitching from “the outside.” This is my attempt at that guide. Here, I’m going to try to lay out the basics of pitching, while also trying to address some of the particular hurdles facing writers of color, or writers from any community that historically hasn’t had access to a major-media voice. I’m not aware of all the hurdles that exist, of course, but my hope is that this post will continue as a dialogue in comments and elsewhere, on the web and off it.

How to Pitch

First of all, be fearless. I’d even say, “be entitled.” That is part of the hustle. Having a voice in the media is your birthright – proceed from that assumption. Twitter and blogging are great platforms, but you should also get in the habit of asking yourself whether what you’re writing on Twitter or your blog belongs on Slate or Gawker or the Atlantic.

If you don’t see stories about your community in a mainstream publication, pitch some. If you disagree with a point-of-view piece in a mainstream publication, or if a writer has only addressed part of a story, pitch a rebuttal or counterpoint. If a journalist has quoted from your Twitter without contacting you, get in touch with her editor and pitch your own piece expanding on the material that was quoted.**

Ironically, when major outlets publish pieces that co-opt, erase, or ignore your experience, it creates an opportunity for you to sell your own piece.

And of course: if what you want to write has nothing to do with any of this, go ahead. Pitch your passion. Pitch a story you are burning to write. If you are fascinated by something, whether it’s a reported story, an opinion piece, or memoir, chances are greater that editors and readers will be, too.

How do you get in touch with an editor? Simple. Most publications have an “about” page and if you click around you’ll usually get to a masthead listing all the editors with email addresses. If you’re not sure who to pitch to, call them up and ask (there is usually a phone number somewhere around the site, even if it’s just the subscription hotline – ask for the newsroom or and they will patch you through). There is also nothing wrong with physically walking into an publication’s office and asking to talk to an editor. I sold my first story that way and I’m currently editing someone who walked in at our magazine with a story.

If you’re pitching by email, you don’t have to be either formal or cute. Just go for it. Something like this:

Dear [editor’s name],
Last year, [so-and-so did this amazing thing] that [was either so amazing I don’ t have to tell you why it’s interesting, or was slightly less obviously amazing but nonetheless infuriated/captured the hearts of/caused widespread pandemonium among a segment of the populace]. Now, [there’s this new development that is even more amazing/is about to be more amazing], but [no one has written about it yet/no one has written about it yet the right way].  I’m in touch with [this principle player in the story]. Are you interested in having me write this for you? Here’s a link to some of my writing. (NOTE: do not use the words “my blog” here, even if it’s just a link to your blog).
[Your name and a good phone number to reach you]


Dear [editor’s name],
Currently, [there is a thing happening that is extremely interesting to anyone with a pulse,] but [no one has written about it yet/connected it with this other surprising thing]. I have already talked to [these five people] who are directly involved and I want to write about it. Are you interested?
[Your name and a good phone number to reach you]

or this one:

Dear [editor’s name],

Your publication ran a piece this week by [so-and-so] about [this phenomenon or event]. While well-written, the piece seemed unaware of [this illuminating historical/cultural  context I’m aware of]. I’d like to write the other half of this story for you. Interested? Here are my clips: [website where you have some writing up]

Looking forward to hearing from you,
[Your name and a good phone number to reach you]


 Dear [editor’s name],

Your piece about [that one thing] which ran yesterday quoted liberally from my [Twitter/Tumblr/blog]. But I have much more to say on the subject. I’d like to write a fuller piece, expanding on the quotes you used, but also addressing [this other timely point], all drawing on my experience from when [this related stuff happened to me]. Does this sound like something that you’d be interested in publishing?


[Your name and a good phone number to reach you]


Like that. If there is any kind of drama, human entrails, or body fluids in your story, make sure you mention it right quick.

This is where I am supposed to say that you should be familiar with the publication and know that this is the type of thing they cover, right? And to make sure your pitch letter is spellchecked and the name of the editor is spelled correctly, right?  But you knew that, already. So I won’t.

Remember: Journalism is the one profession that (in theory) has no bar against entry. There’s no license to be a journalist, no test you have to pass, no diploma you have to show. It helps to be a good writer, yeah. But really, there are only three things editors want: 1) Have a good idea. 2) Turn the draft in on time. 3) Don’t make shit up. That is it.

A Note on “Voice” and the Editing Process

I’ve been on both sides of the editing process, and it can be very harrowing to be edited, even for seasoned pros. There is a lot of ego involved, yours and theirs. I treat it like a survival situation: I make it a point always to have food on hand during editing sessions so that no one’s blood sugar dips too low. Ideally a good editor will make the story better. But editing is also when some problems can arise.

We talk a lot about “voice” at the magazine, as in: Is this the right “voice” for us? By which we mean, does it have the right combination of style, directness and flair.

Inevitably, this privileges particular dialects, vocabularies, and aesthetics over others.

This is an area where I don’t have a lot of expertise.  It’s true that many of the greatest American writers coopted that privileged “voice” and turned it to their own purposes: Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Dubois, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Junot Diaz, Ta-Nehisi Coates. (In my opinion, Frederick Douglass invented what would become the dominant style of modern American letters: straightforward, streamlined, understated. There is no Ernest Hemingway without Frederick Douglass.***) So it can be done; authentic, powerful stories can be told this way.

That said, editing for style is always a form of voice policing. For example, it is common practice for editors to completely rewrite stories by beginners or interns, to the point where the only thing left of the original is the reporting and the byline. Even if this does not happen, there are insidious ways in which editors can police your voice: “Your tone is too angry.” “No one will understand that term.” Meanwhile you’re in the difficult position of trying to stay true to your experience and protect your story while not pissing the editor off.

My best advice is to try to stay calm, stay strong, and pick your battles: “Ok, we can take out this phrase, even though I like it, but no one in this community would ever use this terminology here. It has to stay.” Ask editors to walk you through their changes.

If you really feel that you’re being bulldozed, you can always take the piece and walk away. More on that below.

Again, this is the area where I have the least expertise, and I would love to hear people’s thoughts and experiences.

Conflict, Control & Rejection

When I asked Daniel Older about what it’s like to pitch as a writer of color, he spoke of “the sense that you’re throwing a thing that matters into the void. A black hole.”

That void is real and all writers know it. But for a writer on the outside, it’s never clear if a rejection was for the usual reasons – the pitch didn’t land, the editor was busy, the stars weren’t in alignment – or if it had to do with your ethnicity or background. You may never know that for sure.

This sucks. All writers have to battle demons, but this particular demon is one that writers of color and writers in other marginalized communities particularly have to contend with. Its twin is the demon that tells you your piece got accepted because of your ethnicity or background. Persecution complex and imposter syndrome – both of them are the attendant demons of writers, and both of them are  poison. You already know this, of course, so you know that if you start thinking that way it will eat you alive.

Here’s the important thing: keep pitching. Like I said, this happens ALL the time. You’re going to have more misses than hits at first. Keep pitching. If an editor gives you feedback, take it in. Keep your eyes out for stories. And pitch again. Rejection is just the universe telling you you exist.

More troublesome is the moment when you realize that your point of view is so different from your editor’s that they just can’t comprehend your pitch. This also happens to everyone to some extent: “Just because he’s been in space,” an editor of mine once said, turning down a profile of an astronaut, “doesn’t make him special.” (THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. I never found out what had damaged this woman’s sense of news — or wonder — so badly.) Another white journalist I know had a story about drug addicts spiked by a heartless editor and was so pissed off that he wrote a novel about it.

But it will happen more frequently, and more damagingly, when you’re pitching from the outside, when there are socioeconomic/cultural/experiential gulfs between you and your editor. It sucks when you have a hot potato of a pitch and your editor doesn’t see it, but it’s worse when the rejection of a pitch is also a denial of your experience, knowledge, and worldview. “This isn’t a story our readers will relate to.” Ugh.

I asked Charles Ellison how he deals with this. “There are so many platforms that I just find another one and publish,” he said, recommending http://Medium.com as a fallback outlet. “Can’t get angry or upset about it. Just circumvent it.”

Again, you can always take your writing elsewhere if an editor is not receptive. Remember, too, that in today’s industry editors move from publication to publication relatively quickly. This can be good in that an editor on her way up will take you with her as a freelancer, but it also means that a magazine where you previously had a bad experience might be ready for your pitches again within a year or so, when the players have changed.

Don’t Work For Free

Suey Park recently wrote an essay about being solicited by the Huffington Post to work for them, for free. She told them to go fuck themselves, quite correctly. Of course, HuffPo is notorious for exploiting writers by having them work “for exposure,” but Park’s essay brilliantly dismantles the ways in which HuffPo specifically uses identity politics as a coercive tool to get young writers of color to work for free. This is despicable, frankly.

So let me just say: Writing is a hustle, and writing for free is a scam. When you work for free, you devalue your product and destroy the creative economy of money-for-writing that sustains journalism in general. It may seem like the only choice. It’s not. Hustle til you find someone who will pay you cash for your gifts.

Don’t work for free.

In Conclusion

As Older pointed out to me, it is not the responsibility of writers of color, or writers from any kind of “outside,” to solve the problem of diversity in mainstream media. That responsibility lies with journalism’s largely white gatekeepers. We need to stop seeing lack of diversity in newsrooms as an inconvenience and start seeing it as a crisis, and we need to find ways to build doors into our fortress. This is a lot more difficult than writing a “how to pitch” guide, but I hope to address this in a future post.

In the meantime, I hope I can continue to be a resource and that the discussion will continue. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.



*The situation at my own magazine is decribed  here in a piece we published a few years ago by Howard Bryant.

**I’m thinking here specifically of an incident in which the writer MIkki Kendall wrote a series of tweets detailing how R.Kelly preyed upon teenage girls at her high school. ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg then quoted the series of tweets and used them as the meat in her own article. There was a lot of anger that she did not get Kendall’s permission before doing so. While I am currently of the position that public tweets are public and should not need permission to be quoted, I AM baffled and pissed that as far as I know no one — not ThinkProgress, not the Guardian, not the Chicago Tribune — immediately offered Kendall a contract to write a piece of her own about her experiences. To paraphrase a feminist thinker of our times, if they liked it then they should have put a byline on it.

***To see what I mean, just take a sec and compare the sentences of Frederick Douglass in 1845 and Thoreau in 1854. These texts  are both memoir, but one of these guys is writing in the voice of the 19th Century, and one is writing in the voice of the 20th.

Dr. V: an edit after the fact.

There has been a lot of discussion about Caleb Hannan’s Grantland piece on the woman known as Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. Many people have said they felt it was necessary for Caleb to out Vanderbilt as trans in order to “explain” her lack of academic credentials in the story.

There are several problems with this argument.

1) Even assuming this were true, it seems too destructive a disclosure to be warranted by this story. There are many things that we as journalists have a policy not to disclose: the names of rape victims, for example. If Vanderbilt had cut ties to her family and changed her name after a horrific rape by a relative, that would “explain” why her past was a mystery, but the destructive power of disclosing that information would probably outweigh any compelling public good it could do.

Disclosing a subject’s transgender status, likewise, can be hugely destructive. As journalists we have to consider the damage our stories can do, and decide whether there is a compelling reason to publish anyway. That does not seem to have been done here.

If this was the only way to tell the story, the story should have been dropped.

We do not have to tell all the stories.

2) That said, the information about Vanderbilt’s trans status was irrelevant to the story at hand. It’s good that Hannan became curious when he discovered that there was no trace of a Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt before the 2000s. If he had discovered previous fraud charges under another name, for example, that would have been relevant to print. But after discovering Vanderbilt’s birth name, Hannan was unable to uncover any relevant information from her past, only a series of divorces, jobs, and unrelated lawsuits none of which have any bearing on her claim to be a scientist or add to what he has already discovered, which is that her credentials can’t be verified. 

Her gender is completely irrelevant to the story. Many have said that without the gender change, it’s impossible to understand why there’s no evidence of her existence before the 2000s. But that would not be a question readers would bring up on their own. As far as storytelling goes, once Hannan has written about her lack of verifiable academic credentials, his job is done.

There was a decent story here. It’s a story about an inventor who falsified scientific credentials to make her product more attractive, and about how the mere perception of a golf club as “scientific” can change a player’s game. This is not as salacious a story as the one that Hannan told, in which Vanderbilt’s transgender status is implied to be part and parcel of her deception (a story which is in itself a cliché and a damaging stereotype). This is a story that does not have genitals in it. Too bad. It’s the only story that could have been told without crossing some pretty bold ethical lines.

Below, I’ve done a quick edit of the story to reframe it. Most of it is intact, and where I’ve made cuts I’ve put notes in boldface, so you can easily scroll down to see what I’ve changed.


Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you’re battling insomnia and looking for tips on your short game.

It was well past midnight sometime last spring and I was still awake despite my best efforts. I hadn’t asked for those few extra hours of bleary consciousness, but I did try to do something useful with them.

I play golf. Sometimes poorly, sometimes less so. Like all golfers, I spend far too much time thinking of ways to play less poorly more often. That was the silver lining to my sleeplessness — it gave me more time to scour YouTube for tips on how to play better. And it was then, during one of those restless nights, that I first encountered Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, known to friends as Dr. V.

She didn’t appear in the video. [Cut: sentence describing how hard it is to find images of Vanderbilt, implying that she’s hiding something about her appearance.] Instead, I watched a clip of two men discussing the radical new idea she had brought to golf. Gary McCord did most of the talking. A tournament announcer for CBS with the mustache of a cartoon villain, McCord is one of the few golf figures recognizable to casual sports fans because he’s one of the few people who ever says anything interesting about the sport.

The video was shot in March of last year, when McCord was in California for an event on the Champions Tour, the 50-and-over circuit on which he occasionally plays. In it, he explained that he had helped Dr. V get access to the nearby putting green, where he said she was currently counseling a few players. She was an aeronautical physicist from MIT, he continued, and the woman who had “built that Yar putter with zero MOI.” The credentials were impressive, but the name “Yar” and the acronym were unfamiliar.

According to McCord, before building her putter Dr. V had gone back and reviewed all the patents associated with golf, eventually zeroing in on one filed in 1966 by Karsten Solheim. As the creator of Ping clubs, Solheim is the closest thing the game has to a lovable grandfather figure. He was an engineer at General Electric before becoming one of the world’s most famous club designers, and his greatest gift to the sport was his idea to shift the weight in a club’s face from the middle to its two poles. This innovation may sound simple, but at the time it was revolutionary enough to make Solheim one of the richest men in America and the inventor of one of the most copied club designs in history. In Dr. V’s estimation, however, Solheim was nothing but a hack. “The whole industry followed [that patent],” she told McCord. “You’re using pseudoscience from the ’50s in golf!”

As the video went on, McCord told the story of how he had arranged a meeting between Dr. V and an executive at TaylorMade, the most successful clubmaker in the world, whose products McCord also happened to endorse. The gist of that meeting: This previously unknown woman had marched up to one of the most powerful men in golf and told him that everything his company did was wrong. “She just hammered them on their designs,” McCord said. “Hammered them.”

I was only half-awake when I watched the clip, but even with a foggy brain I could grasp its significance. McCord is one of golf’s most candid talkers — his method of spiking the truth with a dash of humor famously cost him the chance to continue covering the Masters after the schoolmarms who run the tournament objected to his description of one green as so fast that it looked like it had been “bikini-waxed.” This respected figure was saying that this mysterious physicist had a valuable new idea. But the substance of that idea wasn’t yet clear — over time, I would come to find out that nothing about Dr. V was, and that discovery would eventually end in tragedy. That night, however, all I knew was that I wanted to know more.


No athletes rely on their equipment quite like golfers. Picking which sneakers to wear or what bat to swing are relatively simple choices compared with selecting 14 clubs. Variables like grip material, shaft strength, and club length further complicate the process, and that’s without even considering which ball to use. The market for selling this equipment is enormously competitive, and it reflects a reality that goes against the current perception of the game.

Since Tiger Woods joined the PGA Tour in 1996, broadcast golf has enjoyed a decade-and-a-half-long financial boom. That same year only nine players earned more than $1 million. By 2012, that number had ballooned to 100. But even as the money in televised golf has grown, participation has shrunk. The sport loses about 1 million players per year. That dwindling pool of paying customers has made the competition to sell them equipment ever more fierce.

Barney Adams, the founder of Adams Golf, the last truly successful independent club manufacturer, is unapologetically pessimistic about other small companies’ odds of survival. “We got lucky,” he says. “Our success was tied to one club.” Adams had been a custom club fitter constantly on the brink of bankruptcy until he built a club called Tight Lies. Adams’s creation was billed as a fairway wood, but many consider it to be the first hybrid, a half-iron half-wood that combined the best features of both. Adams exploited his finder’s advantage for as long as he could, but today every clubmaker has its own line of hybrids. In 2012, Adams Golf was sold to Adidas, which already owns TaylorMade.

Adams’s assessment of golf’s demographics and his conclusions about what they mean for the business are brutal. “Look at the average age of today’s golfer,” he says. “Half are over 40. How does that forecast into the future? If you look out 50 years, golf becomes squash.” The outlook is more grim, says Adams, for designers who make only putters. “In the history of the golf industry there’s never been an independent putter company that hasn’t gone broke,” he says. The only path to success involves being bought by a larger company. And to do that, Adams says, you need a story to sell. A story that can usually be reduced to five simple words: “Mad scientist invents great product.”


I wanted to know more about Dr. V, so I sent her an email and received one in return that confused the hell out of me. It was early April, and I was trying to set up an appointment to speak with her on the phone. First, however, she insisted that our discussion and any subsequent article about her putter focus on the science and not the scientist. The reason for this stipulation seemed dire.

“I have no issues as long as the following protocols are followed because of my association with classified documents,” she wrote. “Allow me to elucidate; I have the benefits under the freedom of information act the same privileges as federal judges, my anonymity is my security as well as my livelihood, since I do numerous active projects … If the aforementioned is agreeable to you, please respond to this communique at your convenience so we can schedule our lively nuncupative off the record collogue.”

The words caught my eye first. Communique! Nuncupative! Collogue! I hadn’t heard of any of them, and it wasn’t until I looked up their definitions that I understood what she was saying. Everything about her email suggested she might be a tough interview. So, instead of trying to get a straight answer out of Dr. V, I reached out to McCord. He’s the one who first told me how she came to build her putter.

Yar Golf — Dr. V’s company — had begun seven years ago, he said, at an Arizona country club where she was attending the wedding of a colleague’s daughter. In the ladies’ locker room she met Gerri Jordan, a retired Bank of America senior analyst, who had just come from the course. Jordan was slamming her putter against a locker when Dr. V walked over and asked how she could help. Jordan asked her what she knew about putting, and Dr. V answered honestly — nothing. What she did know, however, was physics. She told Jordan that if the goal was to roll the ball smoothly, then the tool she was using was wrong for the job. This encounter is what eventually led to the creation of Yar, whose name comes from a nautical term that roughly translates to “easy to maneuver.” McCord’s cameo in the story was still a few years in the making.

By the time he met Dr. V she had already built her putter. She called it the Oracle GX1 — “G” for Gerri, as in Jordan; “X” for NASA Hyper-X, the hypersonic flight research program. It looked different from any other putter on the market. It had a small face and a large circular cutout in the back, giving it the appearance of a steel-shafted cup holder. It was also built using a principle that ran contrary to what had come to be golf’s conventional wisdom when it came to putters.

McCord explained that MOI, the acronym that had baffled me a month earlier, was Dr. V’s primary focus. It stood for “moment of inertia,” a concept that was by scientific standards fairly easy to understand. McCord explained that moments of inertia are a body’s resistance to changes in its rotation. “The higher the MOI,” he said, “the more the body has to resist.” Golf manufacturers were making putters with higher and higher levels of MOI, and advertising that fact as a benefit — it was supposed to make the club more forgiving, so that if a player didn’t hit the ball right on the sweet spot the stroke would still be pure. But McCord said Dr. V thought the whole idea was crazy. “What she said to me was that what we’ve been doing with putters is not science,” he said. “We’re going the wrong way. Zero MOI, that’s where golf should be going.” And that’s precisely what Dr. V said she had achieved with the Oracle.

But it wasn’t just the science behind Dr. V’s putter that intrigued McCord. It was the scientist, too. For starters, she was a woman in the male-dominated golf industry. [I believe this sentence was meant to set up the “reveal” of Vanderbilt’s trans status later in the story. I left it in because it is accurate: Vanderbilt was a woman in a male-dominated industry. Period.] She also cut a striking figure, standing 6-foot-3 with a shock of red hair. What’s more, she was a Vanderbilt, some link in the long line descending from Cornelius, the original Commodore. All of this would have been more than enough to capture McCord’s attention, but what he found most remarkable about Dr. V was where she had been before she started making putters. She told him she had spent most of her career as a private contractor for the Department of Defense, working on projects so secretive — including the stealth bomber — that her name wasn’t listed on government records. “Isn’t that about as clandestine as you can get?” McCord asked me.

He had his own peculiar way of verifying this information. McCord said he was on friendly terms with a few retired four-star generals. He told me that they not only knew of Dr. V, but also that one had even called her “one of us.” Dan Quayle was also an acquaintance. Unable to help himself, McCord once put the former vice-president on the phone with Dr. V and watched as they chatted about old Pentagon projects. McCord clearly enjoyed showing off his discovery, this exotic new addition to the world of golf. But he wouldn’t have stuck his neck out for Dr. V, whom he just called “Doc,” if he didn’t also believe in her product. Yar hadn’t made McCord a paid sponsor, but it didn’t matter — the Oracle was so good that he used it anyway. “It’s the only one I’ll have in my bag now,” he told me. It was why he had set up the meeting between Dr. V and the company whose products he was paid to endorse, TaylorMade. “I just wanted to make sure they saw her first,” he said.

McCord also had an explanation for Dr. V’s strange vocabulary: This was just how scientists talked. He told me not to take it personally and not to be intimidated. Dr. V made fun of him and the “primitive information base” in golf all the time, he said. It was all in good fun! He even offered to arrange a phone call between us. “She will talk to you about the science and not the scientist,” he said after confirming with her that it was OK. Then he left me with a lighthearted warning: “Call Doc and hang on.”


Golf may be unlike other sports in the way its athletes rely on equipment, but it is very much like every other sport when it comes to the best way to sell that equipment: Put it in the hands of the pros. This is especially true for club designers who make putters. For them, the line between obscurity and fame is so thin a single weekend of golf can make it disappear.

By the time Karsten Solheim died in 2000, he was widely considered a genius. But before Julius Boros won the 1967 Phoenix Open with Ping’s Anser putter, Solheim was still working his day job at GE. Bobby Grace was an independent manufacturer with middling success until Nick Price won the 1994 PGA Championship with one of Grace’s mallet putters. In the eight weeks after Price’s win, Grace took orders for $6 million worth of clubs. It’s a similar story for Scotty Cameron, the biggest name in putters. Cameron and his wife had barely founded their golf company before Bernhard Langer won the 1993 Masters with one of Cameron’s blades. After Langer’s win, Cameron struck it rich.

Anyone who plays sports understands this phenomenon. We want to use the same clubs, shoes, balls, bats, and everything else as the pros because they’re the best, and we want to give ourselves every chance to play as well as them. It’s as much about confidence as it is quality equipment.

This isn’t just common sense — social scientists have actually studied how using “professional” gear affects amateurs’ performance. In 2011, researchers at the University of Virginia laid out a putting mat, a ball, and a putter, and invited 41 undergraduates to take part in an experiment. The students were asked to do two things: Take 10 test putts and then try to draw the hole to scale. Half were told nothing about the putter’s origins. The rest were told it once belonged to a PGA Tour player. You already know what happened next. The students who thought they were using a pro’s club sank more putts and drew the hole larger than the control group. The social scientists running the experiment must have known that what they were witnessing was pure superstition. How else to describe the process by which years of practice and skill can be transmitted from an expert to an amateur through the simple transfer of an object? But because they’re academics, they use a different term — positive contagion. It’s like the placebo effect for sports.

On May 4, 2012, McCord bestowed the blessing of positive contagion on Dr. V’s Oracle putter. While calling the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship, he singled out the club being used by golfer Aaron Baddeley. “Now, this is one of the greatest putters in the world,” he said. McCord then gave a quick sketch of Yar’s origins — Dr. V, rocket science, zero MOI. Even though Baddeley unhelpfully missed his putt, McCord was acting as Yar’s most vocal unpaid booster. He raved about the putter so much that his fellow announcers teased that he was filming an infomercial.

McCord never mentioned the name of the company that made the putter. And Baddeley, statistically one of the tour’s best putters, didn’t even play very well — he finished the tournament one over par, tied for 65th place. But none of that mattered to the golf fans who had listened to McCord’s plug. All they heard was one of the sport’s most trusted voices enthusiastically recommending a club being used by one of the world’s most skilled putters. The word was out. Within an hour, Dr. V told McCord, Yar’s website crashed after some 90,000 people rushed to see what all the fuss was about.


By the time I actually spoke with Dr. V, she had managed to add a few more quirks to her character. She had begun our correspondence by signing off emails with “Ciao.” Then she moved on to “Cheerio and Toodle Pip.” I didn’t know what to expect when she answered the phone in her Arizona lab. She told me she would “notify the switchboard personnel” to direct the call to her office, as if she were living in some bygone era. But when I finally called, the person on the other end of the line seemed normal. She asked about my dog, which was barking in the background. She complained about the lack of scientific expertise in club design — “There are no physicists in golf that I know of” — and she made things I knew to be hard sound simple. “A golf club is just a source of kinetic energy,” she said. “It just has to transfer it to a ball. It really is that easy.” All the big words she had used in her emails were replaced with smaller ones. She may have written like a mad scientist, but she spoke like someone who wanted to be understood. She also added a few new layers to her story.

Though she had insisted that she would only talk if the focus was on her putter and not herself, Dr. V willingly volunteered some background information. She had been born in Pennsylvania and later moved to Georgia. She had lived in Boston while attending MIT, and she had also spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., while working on top-secret projects. [Cut: sentences describing her voice and reclusiveness.]

Dr. V’s time in Washington also helped explain the inspiration behind her putter’s strange look. She said she had been a regular volunteer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, she discovered that golf had been used as therapy for some injured veterans. So to help those veterans on the course, the Oracle was designed to allow its user to retrieve the ball from the hole without bending down. That meant the resemblance to a cup holder wasn’t a tacky design choice but a triumph of ergonomics.

Dr. V also shared details of the chilly reception Yar had received from the rest of the golf industry. In six months there had been nine attempted break-ins at Yar’s office in Tempe, she said. Dr. V didn’t know who the burglars were, but she presumed someone was trying to steal her secrets. “A company would rather destroy Yar than buy us.” She had also seen firsthand how other golf companies reacted when tour pros they paid to use their clubs used Yar’s instead. Baddeley had used the Oracle for a few weeks, she said, and in that time had risen in the rankings of the PGA Tour’s best putters. But then, suddenly and without explanation, he stopped using it. Dr. V believed a competitor had convinced Baddeley to go back to one of its putters. McCord was less conspiratorial. He told me that Baddeley had complained that he couldn’t use the Oracle on certain greens. “Now, if that’s the real reason,” said McCord, his voice trailing off. “When you start talking golfers and you start talking contracts with club companies, I don’t know.”

The story of Dr. V and her putter was getting stranger by the second. An aeronautical physicist builds the world’s greatest putter by rejecting conventional wisdom, then watches as deep-pocketed competitors try to steal her secrets and shut her out of the market. Just the explanation for the hole in the putter itself was outlandish. Dr. V had somehow found a way to turn an injury aid into a superior product. The strangest fact of all: The putter worked! Why else would Baddeley or McCord use it if they weren’t being paid? Clearly, there was only one thing left for me to do.


A few weeks after my first talk with Dr. V, I received a package. Inside was an Oracle putter with my name engraved on the back of its face. Dr. V had spent an hour on the phone getting my specifications — the length of my fingers, the distance between my wrist and the ground, which of my eyes was dominant. She then spent another half-hour talking me through drills to show me how to use the club. The concept of zero MOI had remained abstract until the moment I first swung the Oracle. While other putters twisted when you pulled them back, Dr. V’s didn’t — a reflection, perhaps, of the stability needed to design wings for the stealth bomber, which she often said was her inspiration when building the putter. It seemed as if all I had to do was hold the club, pick a line, and hit the ball, then watch it roll smoothly in that direction. The club didn’t fight me.

I then went to a public course to try the Oracle on some actual greens. I didn’t make every putt — far from it. But I did seem to sink more than usual. And like McCord, the more I used the putter the more I became its unofficial pitchman. I began to look forward to the “oohs” and “ahhs” from strangers when they would first see me use the club to pick the ball out of the hole. I enjoyed telling the wild story behind the putter’s invention. It turned a normal round of golf into an act of seduction. And it was all because Dr. V’s club had me putting with a lot more confidence.

I was ready to proclaim her an unknown genius with an idea that could revolutionize golf. All that was left to do was make sure the stories about engineering accolades and top-secret defense projects were legit. It was, I thought, just a formality.

I started with Dr. V’s biggest accomplishment — her work on the stealth bomber. The Department of Defense could not confirm her employment without a Social Security number, and I figured that Dr. V wouldn’t want to share hers. So I contacted Aviation Week senior international defense editor Bill Sweetman, who had written a book on the plane. Sweetman said there was no way to confirm Dr. V’s work without forcing her into a compromising position, since stealth workers signed lifetime nondisclosure agreements. “It would not be surprising if she worked on the B-2,” he wrote in an email, “and that she would not want to talk about it if she did.”

He was certainly right about that. I emailed Dr. V to tell her how much I loved her putter. I also told her that an equation-heavy document she had sent me called “The Inertia Matrix,” which further explained how to use the Oracle, had looked too confusing for me to follow. Finally, I asked if she could help me confirm a few facts about her past life. When I heard back, the patient woman I had spoken to on the phone had been replaced by an angry, mocking scientist. She wrote:

As I clearly stated at the onset of your unsolicited probing, your focus must be on the benefits of the Science for the Golfer not the scientist, however, at this juncture you are in reversal of your word, as well as neophytic in your modus operandi of understanding the science of Yar. If you were observant or should I state; had the mental aptitude of ratiocination you would have gleaned or inquired about the advantages of the Inertia Matrix … If you are what you presented yourself to [Gary McCord], as a golf nut, then you should be in shock and awe that someone has given the golfing milieu a scientific breakthrough as revolutionary as the two-piece rubber core golf ball was a hundred years ago!!!

The email was a surprise. Dr. V’s initial requests for privacy had seemed reasonable. Now, however, they felt like an attempt to stop me from writing about her or the company she’d founded. But why?

It didn’t take long to uncover some serious discrepancies in her story. I contacted the registrar’s office at MIT. It had no record of anyone named Essay Anne Vanderbilt attending. The registrar at the University of Pennsylvania confirmed the same thing. Whatever Dr. V’s actual credentials, they didn’t include a business degree from Wharton, where she had supposedly gotten her MBA. [Cut: speculation as to whether Vanderbilt may have attended under a different name.]

The deeper I looked, the stranger things got. [Cut: that there was no trace of her before 2000.] I couldn’t find any record of her ever living in Boston. The same went for Washington, D.C. And when I contacted Walter Reed, I was told the hospital had no way to prove she had ever worked there.

I also found a lawsuit filed against the town of Gilbert, Arizona, in July 2007. The plaintiff’s name: Essay Vanderbilt, who had accused the town and three of its employees of sexual discrimination. The suit alleged that the previous year Vanderbilt was working as a “vehicle service writer” in Gilbert’s Fleet Management Division.

In other words, at the same time that Dr. V claimed to have been working on top-secret government projects in D.C., she was actually coordinating car repairs for a Phoenix suburb. [At this point in the story, Hannan has established that some or all of Vanderbilt’s biographical claims are false or unverifiable, particularly those which establish her as a scientist. Since those are the only credentials that have any bearing on her claims for her product, and this story is about a golf club, that’s enough for the story to be coherent.]

Vanderbilt didn’t win her case. And in 2011, a civil court in Maricopa County, Arizona, ordered her to pay nearly $800,000 to a commercial developer. That judgment may have been the reason why, later that year, Vanderbilt filed for bankruptcy, listing assets of less than $50,000 and liabilities of more than $1 million. [Cut: paragraph of speculation as to why parts of Vanderbilt’s biography might be unverifiable. At this point, I would want the reporter to ask Vanderbilt about these discrepancies and print her reply or non-reply.

Also cut: Interview with Leland Frische, who intimates to Hannan that Vanderbilt is transgender. Section detailing Vanderbilt’s early life, Hannon’s attempts at contacting her family, her romantic relationship with her business partner, and her suicide attempt.]


At this point I was still hoping everything I’d found was all a big misunderstanding. I wanted to believe in Dr. V. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?

It seemed that she had lied about the personal history and credentials that made the science behind her club seem legitimate. But the more I talked to people in the world of club design, the more I came to understand that many believed the physics behind the Oracle putter were solid, even if the “scientist” was not. I found Kelvin Miyahira, a golf instructor in Hawaii with no ties to Yar who nonetheless had become one of its biggest fans. Miyahira had used a high-speed camera to compare the Oracle with other, more popular putters. In slow-motion videos he posted to YouTube, he showed that when he used the Oracle, it was more stable and rolled the ball more smoothly and with less sidespin than any of the other clubs he tried.

The other question to consider was if any of the lies actually mattered. Yes, Dr. V had fabricated a résumé that helped sell the Oracle putter under false pretenses. But she was far from the first clubmaker to attach questionable scientific value to a piece of equipment just to make it more marketable. Sure, her lies were more audacious than the embellishments found in late-night infomercials. But her ultimate intent — to make a few bucks, or, maybe, to be known as a genius — remained the same. Whatever the answers, Gary McCord would not be able to help me find them. The man who had once been so willing to talk stopped responding to my emails. Finally, a spokesperson at CBS told me that McCord had “nothing more to add to the story.” That left Jordan and Dr. V.

I called them both, and realized that they had given me the same phone number. Dr. V had said the number was for her lab with the “switchboard personnel.” This time, though, no one answered and I heard the outgoing message. What sounded like a young girl’s voice filled the receiver: “Thank you for calling Essay Vanderbilt and family …” The next day I tried again. No answer still, but the recording had changed. Instead of a young girl, the voice was Jordan’s: “Hello, you’ve reached the offices of Yar Golf …”


I was under the belief that what had transpired at Yar was ultimately harmless until I heard from a mysterious “silent investor” whom both Jordan and Dr. V had alluded to in our previous talks. His name was Phil Kinney. He was a retiree from Pittsburgh and he said he wasn’t the only one who had put money into the company. He had invested $60,000 — money that he believed he’d never see again.

It wasn’t that Kinney didn’t love Yar’s putter or have high hopes for its future. He had loved it from the moment he met Dr. V at a convention four years ago. [Cut: sentence implying that Kinney was attracted to Vanderbilt.) He still loved the club enough to sell it to friends and clients, too. But he had also come to know the frustrations of working with Dr. V.

Kinney had heard his own share of incredible claims. Dr. V had told him that she was a $1,000-an-hour consultant. She said she was one of the original designers of Bluetooth technology. She even suggested that her status as a Vanderbilt provided access to some exclusive company who could help Yar’s business. Kinney said Dr. V told him she was good friends with the Hilton family, and that the relationship would pay off in the form of putters sold at their hotels. Kinney also recalled a trip he had taken to Arizona where, in Dr. V’s house, she had shown him a computer that she said mirrored the one in Phoenix’s airport traffic control tower.

For all her wild stories, though, what Dr. V was most, Kinney said, was a difficult person to deal with. “She would just explode. If you’re disagreeing with her while she had one of her headaches, you were in trouble.” And Kinney often disagreed with Dr. V. He tried to get her to change the design of the putter. She wouldn’t budge. He tried to get her to change Yar’s confusing website. She had the same reaction. He even tried to convince Dr. V to let well-known club designers like Bobby Grace, whom Kinney said wanted to invest, buy into the company. “She just told me, ‘We don’t need him.’” It seemed unlikely that Yar would ever deliver a return on Kinney’s investment.

[Cut: Hannan outing Vanderbilt to her investor and his reaction.] For all the hassle that came with his partnership with Dr. V, what had kept him going was the putter. That was what Kinney couldn’t understand. If Yar had simply been a scam, the story would have been much simpler. But the Oracle worked. And Dr. V seemed more interested in achieving fame as a club designer than in getting rich.

“She could have took my money and ran,” he said. “But she didn’t. She took it and built a great product.”


 [Here the original article ends with an increasingly distressing back-and-forth between Hannan and Vanderbilt, and then Vanderbilt’s suicide.

It’s unclear whether Vanderbilt’s communications with Hannan would have escalated the way they did if the piece was only going to expose her false resume, instead of also threatening to out her as transgender. It is also unclear how much these communications contributed to her suicide.

As an editor, I would have probably have spiked the story after her death, and not run it at all.

However, for the sake of showing how the story could have been formulated without outing her, in some kinder hypothetical world in which Vanderbilt had not chosen to end her life:

I would want to end by having the writer expand the following graf, which I moved down from an earlier section. Because the article is examining the provenance of a golf club sold as “scientifically” designed, I’d want Hannan to close out the story by writing more about how the club “stopped working” for him after he discovered that its inventor’s scientific credentials were bogus.]

Champions Tour player David Frost had once received an hour-long putting lesson from Dr. V and four days later had won a tournament by tying the lowest score ever recorded on that course. The information Dr. V had imparted to him was so valuable, Frost told me, that he wasn’t even willing to share it. Maybe if I’d had the same access, the Oracle would have remained as effective for me. But positive contagion, at least in my case, only seemed to work when I believed I was still infected. When I was under the impression that Dr. V was a brilliant engineer, my putting improved dramatically. As soon as I learned she had simply been a struggling mechanic, the magic was lost. Today, Dr. V’s Oracle is collecting dust in my garage.