From the Phoenix archives: Hugh Hefner

Originally published Aug 13 2010.

! wanted to ask Hugh Hefner what he whacks off to these days. I really did. But when I was actually talking with the 84-year-old centerfold tycoon, I couldn’t bring myself to. He’s just so sweetly old-fashioned. Hefner is the subject of a new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel, directed by Brigitte Berman. The film is not unhagiographic, but it’s still fascinating. I’d no idea Hef had got up to so much — hosting the first mixed-race variety show, organizing jazz festivals, fighting the Man. You start to believe, watching the documentary and then talking to the guy himself, that he really did read Playboy for the articles.

Like a lot of publications, you’re competing against the internet. What do you think about the state of porn on the internet right now?
You’re probably asking the wrong guy! I don’t watch porn on the internet.

Really? Never?

Do you own a computer?
I own an iPad. My girlfriend, Crystal Harris, gave me an iPad for my birthday. I like it. I haven’t gotten any further than twittering. It’s a nice way to interrelate with your fanbase.

So you’ve never actually consumed porn on the internet?

Are you curious?
Uhhhhh, I really am not that computer-sophisticated. I really haven’t, uh, everybody here at the office is computer-literate, you know, but the iPad and the twittering with fans is as far as I’ve gotten and that only started a few weeks ago.

On the internet, more and more porn is available to more and more people, and a lot of it is more kinky and more strange . . . Have you talked about this with anybody?

This is news to you?
The notion that somehow the porn is getting kinkier on the internet is certainly news.

Do you feel like that’s a trend in the porn world in general?
I have no sense of any trends — I don’t know anything about the porn world! Ha! You’re talking to the wrong guy! I don’t have anything to do with porn. I think that on some occasions people refer to Playboy as pornography, but that’s their problem. If Playboy is pornography, then there is nothing erotic anymore. Porn is the negative term for explicit sexuality, which is certainly not Playboy.

Ahh. You know, I have to tell you, I don’t think it’s a negative term anymore.
Oh, come on.

No, really. I use it without any pejorative implication.
I never heard anybody suggest that porn isn’t a negative term.

I’m 32 years old, and I really think I grew up without it having a negative connotation. It’s just easier to say than erotica.
Well, those are two labels for the same thing. I do think the language related to sexuality has been eroded dramatically since the 1980s. People started giving negative labels to erotic imagery, so that even pin-up pictures are now referred to as porn.

Well, even things that aren’t sexual are referred to as porn now.
Like what?

Well, I’ve heard advertising catalogs called “furniture porn,” or “computer porn.” It’s really a term for anything arousing desire.
That is an evolution semantically.

That’s kind of the dream of Playboy — to have all your needs, physical and intellectual, met in the same place.
Well, I think it goes beyond that. I think the truth of the matter is the magazine itself was intended conceptually as a lifestyle magazine that fueled and fed the physical, intellectual, emotional. That was what it was all about. But quite beyond that, I have lived a truly moral life. Far more moral than a great many people that you read about every day who cheated on their wives and live a life of hypocrisy. My life is an open book with illustrations. Who I am is very clear, and I have always treated friends and lovers with great love and respect. It is one of the reasons why I am loved by, and still respected by, the vast majority of the women, the wives and lovers, from more than half a century.

Does it bother you that people might perceive you as immoral?
It depends on who the people are! Ha! When the religious right had problems with me, I completely understood them, because they have a completely different perception of the world than I do. But when a number of liberals got caught up in the anti-sexual element of the women’s movement, that did bother me. I understand the reason for it, because that’s who we are as Americans; we are very Puritan people and have very mixed emotional feelings about sexuality. Remember, the Puritans came over here to escape from religious persecution, they came from England, and promptly turned around and started persecuting the people they didn’t agree with. That’s where the Scarlet Letter came from and the stocks and dunking boards . . . and so it’s natural that there would be a Puritan strain within the Women’s Movement. I mean, the suffrage movement came along hand in hand, historically, with the prohibitionist movement. Women got the vote and we got prohibition at the same time, in 1920. I understand it, because I am a direct descendant of William Bradford, who was the first Plymouth Colony governor.

In the film, there are these images of you as a young man — how old were you when you started Playboy?

Good lord, you were just a kid! There are these pictures of you with this look on your face, like you can’t quite believe what you’re getting away with. Did it feel like that at the time?
I think what you read in my face was not the notion that I could get away with anything, but that I was the luckiest cat on the block! It was a dream come true beyond anything I could imagine. I started the magazine on absolutely, absolutely no money.

The film details how you got a nude shot of Marilyn Monroe for the first issue. But what I want to know is, how did you get Ray Bradbury?
Well throughout the first year, most of what we were publishing was reprint material. Fahrenheit 451 had appeared in book form, and I was the kid who thought it deserved to be serialized in a magazine. I don’t think it was very well known.

How did you get a hold of it?
I was a reader. I read a lot of science fiction, I was a big fan of plot-driven stories. A lot of the people — you may not remember this series called The Twilight Zone

Hey, come on! Of course I know it! It scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a kid!
Well, a lot of the Twilight Zone writers also wrote for Playboy.

Would you have said you were a science fiction fan?
Well yeah, I subscribed to a magazine called Weird Tales. . . when I was a kid I drew comic books and created a magazine called Shudder, because I was a fan of monster movies and mysteries, etc. Much of what I did in starting Playboy, I had really been in rehearsal for since childhood. I created my first penny newspaper when I was nine years old, I started a school paper that lasted about 20 years in sixth grade, and created comic books and wrote stories, so I was in rehearsal right up to the time I launched Playboy.

Were you a geek?
Well, the term didn’t exist then. . . .

Were you a “poindexter”?
Well, difficult to say . . . I did all right with the ladies, though not nearly as well as I did after I launched Playboy.

I read an interview with you where you said you got together with a girl you had a crush on in high school, like, every year?
The girl I had a crush on, named Betty Conklin, lives in California, so she comes to visit on major holidays and etc.

Were you in touch all those years?
We remain in touch. I’ve remained in touch with her and some of the other small circle of classmates from high school.

So did she know you had a crush on her at the time?
She knew. She picked another boy. Picked another boy, and that was the first time, in my 16th summer, it was that fall after that rejection that I really reinvented myself and started referring to myself as “Hef.” Changed my wardrobe, learned the jitterbug, and became a very cool cat.

That must have been one hell of a rejection.
Well, I became, as a result of it, a class leader, and I created in high school a small version of what I did later on with Playboy. When I launched Playboy, it was inspired in a very real way by the fact that I was in an unhappy marriage, and I went to a high school alumni show that my best buddy from high school and I wrote and hosted. And it was that experience that reminded me of all the dreams put away, and that’s what really motivated me to start Playboy.

I think I just stumbled upon your secret origins, here. You got rejected by Betty Conklin —

She picked another boy —

And you became Batman, basically.

The closer you get to my life the more awesome it becomes! Not only am I Batman, I even used to have the black plane! [The Big Bunny, Hef’s private jet.]

The parallels are startling.

So did you know you were creating a new persona, or did you just want to get a little hipper?
Well, I knew I was reinventing myself. A lot of people do that in one way or another, but this was a little more dramatic. And even more dramatic with Playboy. I started Playboy in 1953, but it was in 1959 and ’60, in the space of four or five months, that I reinvented myself and became Mister Playboy. We had just celebrated our fifth anniversary for the magazine with a memorable jazz festival in Chicago, and then that fall I started hosting a syndicated television show called Playboy’s Penthouse. Within the space of three or four months, I started hosting that television show, I bought the first Playboy Mansion in Chicago, and I opened the first Playboy Club. And by the end of the year I was world-famous.

Have you ever felt nervous or self-conscious about this kind of stuff?
I suppose. Nothing comes to mind.

What do you want to do now? Are there projects you still want to do?
We’re kind of at a celebratory time that’s really the peak of it all! The documentary is certainly a part of it. I’m looking back on a life well lived with great satisfaction, celebrating that life, the brand is hot again . . . so a lot of good things are coming together.

So you’re feeling pretty good.
I’m feeling very, very good. Well, this has been an enjoyable conversation. I’m going to go look for some “porn!”

Be careful all right? It’s a strange internet out there.
I will.


From the Phoenix archives: Killing with Kindness


This originally ran Nov 5, 2012 in the Boston Phoenix.


I think my opinions about doctor-assisted suicide crystallized the night Mike — my wheelchair-using, ventilator-breathing then-boyfriend — choked on pineapple juice, passed out, and died.

He was dead for several minutes, on a steel table in the ER, before the doctor shocked the pulse back into his heart and dropped him into an induced coma, but it still wasn’t clear whether he would make it. As I stood by his bedside, shaking, one of the nurses touched me on the shoulder.

“Maybe it’s better this way,” she murmured.

I’ll never forget that moment. We’d been watching a movie together a few hours before. We had plans to go clubbing. Maybe it’s better this way?

I’m not a violent person, but I wanted to punch that lady in the face.

When I started going out with Mike, I thought that prejudice against people with disabilities was something we’d left behind along with Jim Crow and sodomy laws. I was shocked, again and again, to find that I was wrong. So wrong. Everyone I met had ideas about what it must be like to date Mike — that we never went out, that we couldn’t have sex, that I must have to take care of him all the time — that were so false as to be laughable. We did laugh at that stuff. We had to. But for every person who came up to us to congratulate Mike on his “bravery” in taking a trip to the mall, there was someone who actually thought he’d be better off dead.

Some of those people were doctors.

Not the young doctor who fought like a demon to restart his heart in the ER. But there were others: well-meaning doctors who saw Mike, and people like him, as pitiable — as “bad outcomes.” In fact, that’s the norm: study after study has shown that doctors, as a group, consistently underestimate the quality of life of their disabled patients. Those prejudices — unquestioned and unacknowledged — can have disastrous results.

I don’t know anyone born with a serious disability whose doctors didn’t tell their parents that they would never be able to live independently. A doctor at Mass General, who treats children with muscular dystrophy, told me about colleagues who had counseled their patients against using the ventilators that would prolong their lives by decades. Those doctors weren’t trying to do harm. They simply saw their patients’ lives as not worth living.

As disability activist Carol Gill writes: “Many of us have been harmed significantly by medical professionals who knew little about our lives, who thought incurable functional impairments were the worst things that could happen to a person, and who were confident they knew best.”

All this, then, is why I’ll be voting against referendum Question 2, the Death with Dignity Act, on November 6.

The language of the bill sounds reasonable: it would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication, upon request, to patients with terminal diseases. But it wouldn’t actually have much benefit for the dying, who already have the same access to self-administered suicide as anyone else. Instead, it could present doctors with an option to offer the patients they think they can’t help: the bill’s definition of “terminal disease” is so vague as to encompass disabilities like Mike’s, and it has no requirement that a person seeking the fatal dose see a counselor or be screened for depression.

So why would a person with a disability ask for a suicide pill? My ex never would. Disabled from birth, Mike has been fighting for his rights since he was in grade school. He’s a badass with 60 tattoos, and he’s not ready to die any time soon. ETA: He survived that health crisis and is still a badass today, nearly ten years later.

But for the late-disabled, it’s different. People diagnosed with a progressive disease — MS, ALS, and other such dire acronyms — still carry the same prejudices they’ve held all their able-bodied lives. Often, they don’t know anyone living a full, enjoyable life with disabilities, don’t know such lives are possible. So if a doctor offers them an exit, they’re all too likely to take it.

It’s happened. One of the earliest right-to-die cases, in 1989, was that of David Rivlin, a spinal-cord-injury survivor. Isolated in a nursing home, cut off from meaningful work, unable to live independently on the meager assistance the state offered at the time, he demanded to die. “I don’t want to live an empty life lying helplessly in a nursing home for another 30 years,” he told a reporter.

No one offered him an alternative. “The nondisabled people around him assumed that when a person with such a disability said he would rather be dead, he was acting rationally,” disability activist Paul K. Longmore wrote a few years after Rivlin’s death. Neither Rivlin, nor other people with disabilities seeking “death with dignity,” realized that they could have been fighting for the support to live, rather than the right to die. Longmore observed, “The only real aid the system offered any of them . . . was assistance in ending their lives.”

It’s not 1989 anymore. The disabled in Massachusetts have more access, and more agency, than those in almost any other state, and activists fought hard to make it that way. Disabled Bostonians are filmmakers, tattoo artists, psychologists, writers. They ride the T. They own houses and businesses. And like Mike and me, they fall in love.

But not everyone knows that those things are an option. And with Romney — a man who sees adequate health care as a privilege, not a right — on the same ballot as Question 2, all that progress is scarily close to rolling back. Now is the worst time to perpetuate the myth that death is better than disability.

Vote no on Question 2.


George Washington’s Teeth: “Sleepy Hollow” and the Monsters of History

(Note: This post is in partially response to Orlando Jones’ call for discussion of Sleepy Hollow and how it treats issues of American racial history.)

I have two rules about television. The first rule is: Life Is Too Short To Watch TV Shows Where Aliens Speak English But Can’t Use Contractions. The second rule is: Life Is Too Short To Watch TV Shows Where It’s Just White People Standing Around Talking To Each Other. Achromatic casting annoys me for much the same reason too-formal alien English does: It’s hokey. It reminds me that I’ve agreed to watch a story that unfolds in a fake reality. It makes me overly aware I’m participating in a contrivance.

That’s why I was so happy to see Sleepy Hollow appear on my screen this fall. When Orlando Jones’s Captain Irving introduced himself to Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills in the pilot, I about fell over. A show with two black characters who weren’t blood relatives? Who – HOMG – didn’t even know each other? Sign me up!

Of the main characters, in fact, only two are white, and one of those two is (or was?) dead, so most scenes show either a single white dude surrounded by people of color, or just people of color. This is something I don’t think I’ve seen on a genre show before; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show with such a chromatic cast that wasn’t either an all-black sitcom or an earnest PBS drama about Race In America. Sleepy Hollow isn’t about race. Abbie doesn’t exist in order to demonstrate something about the Plight of the Black Woman. She’s just black, the same way she’s smart, or short, or a good shot, or an orphan.



If Sleepy Hollow is about anything, it’s about America. Its primary subject is the origin myths of the United States – the Matter of America, as the King Arthur myth is the Matter of Britain.* And America is about race. The founding paradox of this nation are the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” penned by a man who owned his own children. And our history has been a long, difficult contortion to deny or reconcile that paradox. It’s unclear if the show’s writers think of themselves as having a mandate to address this paradox of race in American history. The writing on the show, in general, and its handling of race, in particular, has been wildly uneven.** Damaging inaccuracies and stereotypes abound – as has been elsewhere noted – and the show’s tone sometimes seems to contradict itself wildly even within a single episode.*** But whether or not there is a consensus in the Sleepy Hollow writers’ room about overtly addressing race, the matter is unavoidable, given the show’s subject matter and its diverse cast.

The show is facing a dilemma similar to that faced by the showrunners of Doctor Who when they introduced Martha Jones, the first black main character in the 50-year history of the show. The Doctor travels in time and space, fighting monsters; yet he never seems to lift a finger against the particular monsters of the British Empire – colonialism, racism, and oppression. The addition of a black woman should have forced the show to confront those omissions. Instead, the showrunners went out of their way to whitewash the racism of the times through which Martha Jones traveled. Elizabethan England? Integrated! Depression America? Colorblind! Kindred, this was not. When Martha departed the show, it lapsed with palpable relief back to an all-white main cast.

So far, Sleepy Hollow is not quite as retrograde as Doctor Who. They’ve made a few gestures toward addressing the monsters in American racial history: In the pilot episode, Crane is less surprised that Abbie is a police lieutenant than that she’s emancipated; In “The Midnight Ride,” Abbie and Irving educate Crane about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (though this scene has also been rightly critiqued by P. Djeli Clark for “also revealing [the show’s] limits“). And in the otherwise problematic episode “For the Triumph of Evil,” Crane shows real horror when he learns about the Native American genocide – a beat another show might not have included.

But these gestures have been mostly superficial. In a show dedicated to the premise that the American Revolution was a Good Thing not just because it established a representational democracy with term limits, but because it was allied with God to prevent the Christian Apocalypse, there are going to be some much more uncomfortable collisions with historical reality. Take for example the finale episode, in which Ich utters a throwaway line about George Washington’s teeth.

“Nice teeth,” he comments. “Gold, Ivory, and lead. They were the envy off all in colony. I’m not sure Martha appreciated them.” Is this a detail someone on the writing team turned up in their research? If so, it seems ignorant of something many fans knew, and tweeted in response to the line: Besides wearing false teeth, George Washington had his slaves’ teeth drawn to be implanted into his own mouth.****

This is a grotesquerie right up there with Nazi lampshades, but it’s a part of our heritage as Americans; as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently in an essay about the murder of Jordan Davis: “I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge.

Sleepy Hollow’s audience contains a large number of vocal, mediasavvy black fans, who  know their history. The show is not going to be able to get away with painting Washington merely as a Founding Father, the hero of the nation, Crane’s personal idol and a soldier of the Lord.

I hope that the writers embrace this ambiguity as an opportunity. So far, the show’s moral universe has been, well, black and white:  the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad.  But shows like Supernatural – clearly a model for Sleepy Hollow – have delved far beyond Manichaen morality as they developed. Sleepy Hollow could, and should, do the same. Any show that depends on end-times prophecy for its main plot beats will eventually have to leave that behind. Prophecy is boring, frankly. Mulder and Scully never knew who the good guys were or what the right action was; Abbie and Ichabod would be a lot more interesting trying to figure out their own path than just dutifully clipping plot coupons out of Washington’s bible.

There’s a lot of opportunity for drama in moral ambiguity, too, and a much richer landscape to be explored once the show starts to take the painful paradoxes of American history – what Coates would call our full heritage – more fully into account. Why are all the keepers of Sleepy Hollows’ secrets – Masons, witches, priests – white? Black people have been in the town all these years (one of Abbie’s ancestors, we learn, was Crane’s contemporary). What have they been doing this whole time? What about Native Americans like Seamus Duncan – how did they parse the very Christian, European spiritual warfare playing out on their turf in the 1790s, and what have they handed down over the past 200 years?

However the writers choose to handle it, they’ve taken on a difficult task and they better be up for the job – because ignorance is not an option here. Monster-of-the-week is not going to cut it when the real monsters are woven into the very fabric of the show’s source material; they’re going to be there, breathing down your back, until you turn to face them.


*The myths of America’s founding have recently been under some serious stress. On the one side, the religious right – lead by David Barton and his mendacious WallBuilders,Inc – is busily rewriting history to present Founding Fathers who were born-again, divinely inspired and devoted to building a theocratic Christian state (and, in the case of Washington, bulletproof). On the other side, Azie Dungey’s “Ask a Slave” webshow pushes back, using comedy to unmask the depth of the founders’ hypocrisy.

**One week Ichabod’s witch-wife Katrina is a devout, penniless Quaker in a plain apron; the next week she’s a society lady in a bejeweled dress no Quaker would be caught dead in. Which is it, guys?

***Case in point: “For the Triumph of Evil,” in which the writers invent a “Native American” myth out of whole cloth (gross), ascribe it to a real tribe without, it seems, consulting the real-life members of that tribe (super gross), and send Abbie and Ichy searching for a “shaman” to heal them (I can’t even). But when you’re finished barfing over that, you get the pleasant surprise of the shaman they come up with, the perfectly-named Seamus Duncan of GeroniMotors, a used-car salesman who is not here for your lazy racist stereotypes. Seamus even gives Abbie & Ichy the side-eye for implying that someone of Native descent must automatically be some kind of woo-woo medicine man – ok, he does work a little magic on the side, but he wishes people would stop assuming shit about him like that.

Still, it’s really hard to tell what this episode is trying to do – whether it’s unthinkingly perpetuating appropriation of Native cultures, or trying to call out and subvert those appropriations. Seamus (tragically) did not become a regular, which doesn’t bode well for the future treatment of Native Americans. Without a Native recurring or main character, the show is free to handwave that history and keep it in the background. It does not have that luxury, however, with regard to African American history and slavery.

**** He is said to have paid them for their teeth – less than a third the market rate. This does not make it better.

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 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.

A prayer for the living

The Washington Post headline was not subtle: “Hospice firms draining billions from Medicare.” In the story, reporters Peter Whoriskey and Dan Keating laid out their findings: that the more and more, hospice patients are no longer sufferers on the brink of death, but persons with disabilities in need of long-term care. Because hospice programs require a doctor’s certification that a patient has less than six months to live, many patients spend years skipping in and out of hospice: no sooner are they discharged than a doctor re-certifies them as dying and they are re-enrolled.

Whoriskey and Keating present this situation as a scandal. Hospice firms, they say, are no longer angels of mercy allowing the gravely ill to “die in their own homes.” Instead, they roam the streets looking for chronically-disabled people to enroll in their programs on the false premise that their conditions are terminal, in order to rack up major profits at Medicare’s expense.

In framing the issue this way, however, the Post is missing an important part of the story.

People with chronic, but not immediately terminal conditions enroll in hospice because it’s a loophole enabling them to receive care they desperately need. While hospice programs are funded by Medicare, they provide many services that Medicare will not pay for a la carte.

In the last years of my grandmother’s life, my mother arranged for her to be enrolled and re-enrolled in hospice, in exactly the manner described in the Post article. At first I found this disturbing, but I quickly saw the real benefit in her life. Medicare would not cover weekly visiting nurses to check on my frail 93-year-old grandmother, but it covered hospice, and hospice would provide that service. Medicare did not cover some of the equipment and daily-living care that my grandmother needed; hospice did. My grandmother received better care from hospice than she could have received directly from Medicare, and that care did — yes — prolong her life by precious months, for which I will always be grateful.

So many people at all ages, young and old alike, who live with disabilities and chronic illnesses find that they have to fight to receive adequate care and compensation from the state. Most people with disabilities are underserved; Medicare and Medicaid policy require them to be poor, isolated, and unemployed in order to receive the benefits that, ironically, might otherwise enable them to work, socialize, and save for the future. Often, even the benefits they do receive are not enough to keep them healthy and mobile.

The Post article paints in a sinister light the activities of hospice outreach specialists — a term the article places in scare quotes. They “solicit doctors and hospitals,” “make connections at nursing homes,” and even show up at “health fairs at senior centers,” Whoriskey and Keating write. Horrors! “For families struggling to take care of a loved one,” they add, “[hospice outreach workers] offer the promise of extra help.”

The article refers to this as “recruiting” more lucrative, non-terminal patients. But the passage I have just quoted also contatins the assumption that the family is the only proper caretaker of people with long-term disabilities. The idea that it might be worthwhile to provide services that allow a “patient” to remain independent apparently does not cross the Post’s mind.

“How do you solicit patients?” the article quotes one hospice “marketer” as saying. “You see somebody sitting on the front porch in a wheelchair and you hit the breaks.”

This is presented as a hard sell from a profit-minded industry. I see a zealous outreach to a gigantically underserved population — people whose very lack of resources often keeps them housebound and isolated.

The Post is observing a real phenomenon: a movement which originally sought only to give “comfort” and palliative care to the dying is evolving to fill a gap in care for the non-dying. But it makes a mistake in framing this story as a story of fraud. The real story is the gap itself, the shortfalls in our societal safety net, and the reasons why so many chronically ill and disabled adults are forced to have themselves certified “dying” to receive the care they need to live.


There are two other points I want to make about this. First is an article the Post published on a day later: “Shelters Fill as Rent Aid Disappears.” This story describes exactly the same phenomenon as described in the hospice story — underserved people turning to a another service, one intended to be temporary, in order to receive the long-term help they need. But here the villain of the piece is not the city’s shelters but Mayor Bloomberg, who canceled the rent-subsidy program. This story could just as easily have been headlined “Shelters Drain Millions from City.” It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose.

Second, and more importantly: Massachusetts recently defeated a “Death with Dignity” euthanasia bill, though an identical bill, I’m told, has recently been resubmitted. During the 2012 debate on the matter, pro-euthanasia advocates pooh-poohed the idea that, given the opportunity and in the belief that they were helping their patients, doctors might certify as “dying” patients who had merely chronic conditions. That would never, ever happen, they argued. The euthanasia option would only ever be offered to patients who really, truly only had a certain number of months to live.

So I’d like to point out that in the case of hospice, doctors who believe that hospice services will help their patients with chronic conditions have certified them as having only six months to live. That has happened. Is, if one is to believe the Post, a wide-spread phenomenon.

In the case of hospice, the service doctors are hoping to gain for their patients with disabilities amounts to services helping them to live. But if those same doctors believed that their patients’ lives were not worth living — and studies have shown that doctors tend to underestimate the quality of life of patients with disabilities — there is no evidence that they would not bend the rules in exactly the same way to help them die.







Marathon Day

Paralyzed, the pundits are saying. A city terrorized, brought to a halt. An overreaction.

Don’t believe it.

On Friday, the city of Boston was waiting. Crouching, like a tiger in tall grass. We were two million souls focused on a single target: a crazed and wounded boy, desperate and dangerous, hiding somewhere in Watertown, gone to ground. To flush him out, the city held still.

There’s a difference between paralysis and stillness. Stillness is deliberate. It was a tool – a tactical move. The police did not order us to stay in our houses – they requested it, and we complied, not because we were terrorized and not because we were sheep to the police state, but because we knew that in doing so, we left the police and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the only pieces out on the board. We wanted him captured. For us, staying indoors on Friday was no different from staying in during a winter storm so that the snowplows could clear the streets. We were giving the professionals room to work.

Because at its heart, Boston believes in expertise, and in order. Sure, we may be a liberal bastion of fornicators – as the world now knows, Boston is a city that keeps its dildos on top of the fridge – but we are also a city of professionals, and we believe in letting them get shit done.

You could see it in the response of the hospitals after the bombing on Monday, the stream of doctors and hospital workers reporting for duty, triaging the wounded, working together to make sure that no one emergency room was overwhelmed by casualties.

And you could hear it in the calm, patient voices of the police, crackling over the scanner Thursday night. More than seven different police agencies had to coordinate in the dark, densely residential streets of Watertown, and they did it without panic or fractiousness. When the LAPD was hunting Christopher Dorner, they put innocent people in the hospital. Our law enforcement officers – as much as we usually enjoy abusing them as racist buffoons – showed themselves in this crisis to be canny, patient, and disciplined. They did not engage in racial profiling. They didn’t abuse the people they were there to protect.

While yahoos in other parts of the country imagined that Bostonians must long to take to the streets with guns to hunt our fugitive down, in reality, we would much rather let our competent police force do it. And they did.

They successfully captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive – without a single civilian injury.

And it’s important, too, that Tsarnaev was taken alive. Many, many people in the city were praying for Tsarnaev’s life on Friday. We wanted justice and answers, not revenge, not a corpse. We want to hear why he did this obscene thing to us, to people we loved, on a day so many of us think of as the best day of the year.

The reason we love Marathon Day is because it gives us a chance to cheer for something simple and pure and good. We stand at the sidelines and cheer the names that the runners have taped to their shirts or written on their arms; we enter into a partnership between the ones who are running for no reason but to run, and the ones who are cheering for no reason but to love.

On Friday, when the words we were waiting for came – “conscious, alive, and captured” – the city burst out of doors. People lined the streets in Watertown, cheering and clapping the police as they rolled out of the neighborhood. On Beacon Street, a stream of whooping kids poured along the Marathon route, high-fiving strangers. It was the Marathon again. We were cheering for something very simple, something good.


This is what civilization looks like. Boston strong.