The Life and Times
The Life and Times
Abstract and Keywords
Shilts struggles to overcome obstacles from being an openly gay reporter as his job at KQED officially comes to an end. Jobless again with no prospects in view, Shilts falls into a hole of drinking and marijuana use. Going back to freelance writing jobs to survive, Shilts’s coverage of the assassination of Milk and Moscone draws the attention of New York City editors who ask him to write up a proposal for a biography of Milk. Shilts undertakes well-researched and positively reviewed book on Milk’s life. Shilts’s work on the Milk bio also takes in important aspects of the growing gay community in San Francisco. Shilts embraces a “new journalism” writing style he admires from novelist James Michener.
Keywords: gay journalist, Harvey Milk, political assassination, media coverage of Rev. Jim Jones, People’s Temple, Michael Denneny, Charles L. Ortleb, Christopher Street magazine, California magazine, New West magazine, St. Martin’s Press, Mayor of Castro Street, biography writing, Milk’s hope speech, gay mecca, Stonewall riots, James Michener, Hawaii, gay political activism, Dan White, White Night Riots, San Francisco Police Department, Elephant Walk Bar, 18th and Castro, gay expert
George Osterkamp, Shilts’s former TV boss, believes he greatly underestimated the challenges and pressures that Shilts faced as a gay reporter: “I think he faced more controversy than I was ever aware of at the time. He had to go back and deal with people in the gay community, many of whom had very strong opinions about how the movement should go, and they saw Randy as either an opportunity or an obstacle to where they thought the movement should go. I think that Randy had to walk a path that was strewn with more landmines than I ever realized.”1
One of Shilts’s fellow freelancers at KQED was Rita Williams, who went on to enjoy nearly four decades of work in local television news in the Bay Area, retiring from KTVU-TV in 2012. Williams, Shilts, and Phil Bronstein were the three freelance reporters contributing to KQED’s evening newscast. The set-up involved all three reporters pitching their story ideas to the show’s producers and hoping for a green light to proceed. Williams believes Shilts’s high energy and earnest interest in his stories translated well on television, particularly to a detail-hungry audience of PBS viewers. Williams said the competition required to get a story on the air was well suited to Shilts’s competitive nature. She described the Newsroom telecast as
an idea where all the reporters would come back into the studio with their stories at the end of the day, and we would have an hour-long time slot with no commercials, and then we would quiz each other on the air about our stories. It could be really brutal because we had some really big stalwarts in journalism in California as guests [on the studio panel] who would ask tough questions (p.73) about your story. You couldn’t just report what everybody said; we had to put more into it than that. You couldn’t just do a hack job like so many TV reporters try to do today; you really had to know your stuff and do sort of a minithesis every night on the air.2
The “competition” between Williams and Shilts was a friendly one, the two aspiring reporters quickly becoming friends both at and outside work. She acknowledged that Shilts would share story ideas with her if he already had a story that was going to air that particular day or week and he was too busy to get to another one. “I was new to the Bay Area, and I didn’t have as many sources at that time as Randy did,” Williams said.3 She also credits Shilts with helping her get over her naive attitudes by taking her to a gay bathhouse to see what it was all about and by pulling back the curtain on one of Harvey Milk’s most famous political schemes: Milk “accidentally” stepped in dog feces in Buena Vista Park at the news conference where he announced a new city ordinance requiring citizens to clean up after their dogs. A Milk aide had clandestinely placed the dog waste in the park prior to Milk’s news conference. “Hardly anyone disagrees that you gotta do something to get the dog stuff up off the ground and the sidewalks,” Shilts said. “Milk was doing something that was not involved with a gay issue but being a gay person and being out there showing that gay people, gosh, we’re just like everybody else and that we’re interested in more than the twenty minutes a day we might spend in having sex. … That was when [Milk] emerged as really the gay leader.” Milk had emerged as a powerful and effective leader of the gay movement, and Shilts clearly understood the drama of Milk’s life and demise. “It was like a play,” he said, “all building up to that tragic ending. The whole last year and a half of [Harvey’s] life [in 1977–78] is like a play, especially getting into the last six months where you build up the tension to the final act, and then you have your tragic resolution.”4
As an author and later again as a reporter, finding enough to write about was no problem for Shilts, particularly in the incredible year of 1978, which saw some of the nation’s biggest stories unfold in San Francisco. Covering the mass suicide led by Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple followers was not on Shilts’s beat. It didn’t stop him from trying, however, to sell a freelance story on the topic. He drafted an ultimately unpublished analysis of how the media had covered Jones and his followers in the lead-up to the incredible events in Guyana. His story had an acknowledged problem: except for two reporters, no active members of the San Francisco press corps wanted to talk on the record about Shilts’s thesis that the “lazy and easily intimidated media” in the city were quick to ignore early warning (p.74) signs from Jones and his followers (some of whom had fled the cult) or to take on the city’s liberal political establishment, which “had nothing to gain—and much to lose—by giving the People’s [sic] Temple a thorough going over.”5
Regardless of the big stories breaking in San Francisco, all journalism imposes a feast-or-famine lifestyle on its denizens. The up-and-down nature of Shilts’s career often showed up in his diary, which was sometimes filled with thoughtful and detailed examinations of what was happening in his life, followed by huge gaps. Shilts’s scrawled entries fill the journal pages with wide, fluid strokes of the pen in prolific bursts in the early and mid-1970s, after he graduated college, and again briefly in 1984 and 1986, when he began to confront and overcome his addiction to alcohol and marijuana. In a “looking-back” entry Shilts wrote, it’s clear he had read back through all the preceding entries: “Jesus, what a trip to read all these entries. It seems all I ever thought about was career and sex. Here I’ve got all these entries on 1976–77 and I never talk about Harvey Milk or all that idealism—just whether I’ll be a success or not.” Later entries switch to a more positive vein: “Now that I have achieved so much of that success, I have a hard time recalling the times when I was so driven. Was that really me? Sure it was. Then I wanted a job. Now I wait for a Pulitzer Prize. Then I wanted sex, now I wait for a life-long relationship.”6
Shilts’s work for KQED ended in 1980 with the demise of the Ford Foundation grant the station had tapped to fund the program. Shilts struggled not only with his inability to find work and his newfound reliance on the pittance paid by California’s unemployment insurance but also with a renewed affection for heavy drinking and daily marijuana use. The fear surrounding the loss of his job at KQED was aggravated by the fact that Shilts had previously ended his relationship with the Advocate—and had done so in a way that left him no option to return. “I was just so angry” at not being able to get a job, Shilts said. “Unfair is the word that always came up, and I just got drunk all the time. I just drank a lot.”7 In the midst of his drunk and drugged response to a collapsing journalism career, Shilts had to face up to an angry cadre of gay leaders who were aligned with Goodstein and the Advocate and were smarting from Shilts’s scathing critique of “The Advocate Experience” touted by the magazine’s publisher and published in a rival publication, the New West. Shilts was deep in a funk, writing, “It’s all going nowhere. Would it be any different if I were heterosexual? I’ll never know. Maybe it has a lot to do with the terms on which I barter with the world. Being open is a terribly non-conformist status. … I have been a non-conformist all my life and probably always will be. To a point. Yet, I want worldly success. Recognition is probably a better word. I need that recognition as a basic part of fulfilling my insatiable ego.”8
(p.75) Some clarity was coming into view. Shilts began to examine the recent past, which found him with a foot in both the print and broadcast worlds of journalism, seemingly caught between the lure of TV and the “instantaneous fame” it offered him within the gay community and the entire Bay Area and his desire to be a serious writer. “My entire gestalt has been taking me in another direction—into working hard to be a good writer,” he wrote. “It’s rewarding to see me improve, but the external rewards are slower in coming. So what—even a cover story in New West is gone in two weeks and the people will want something else—on and on—[you’re] only as good as your last two week story.”9 Whether he realized it or not, Shilts had tapped into a direction for his life and career that would reap tremendous rewards—all those he had dreamed about in the past from his days longing to leave Aurora.
Success would not come easy—editors of the San Francisco Chronicle had rejected an earlier idea to give Shilts an opinion column on the newspaper’s editorial page, and a columnist position at the rival San Francisco Examiner also failed to materialize (despite Harvey Milk lobbying the paper’s editors for the new position). Rolling Stone accepted and then rejected Shilts’s lengthy review of the Village People and their popularity in the gay community. In his personal life, “The Advocate Experience” article in New West had raised a lot of eyebrows and tempers, and several gay leaders directly addressed their anger to Shilts. “Many people are angry at me,” Shilts wrote in his journal during this time, adding,
I seem to have gotten a lot of their feedback, people who hate me. I can’t stand it when people dislike me—they make me feel like they’re right and I’m wrong. At the same time, however, they were acting like a bunch of fools at that [Advocate] seminar. I shouldn’t give a shit. It’s not like they ever liked me or respected me before. I need to get my confidence up. They are a bunch of fools and I shouldn’t let them get me down. I do need to do work on my obnoxiousness, however. … I have been too big for my britches, sounding off my big mouth too much, out of some vague insecurity I’m not even sure about. … I have to be more delicate with people from now on.10
Despite the onset of heavy drinking in 1980–81, Shilts said he remained hopeful he would find work. He continued to apply for both TV and newspaper jobs, though he wanted a newspaper job most. Edward Alwood reported that Shilts believed that since “gays had become headline news” via the 1978 Briggs Initiative and similar ballot initiatives elsewhere in the nation—not to mention the unspeakable violence that had cut down Milk and George Moscone—that a job for an ambitious gay reporter was surely in the wings. Dozens of query letters to (p.76) newspaper editors and TV news directors in San Francisco, then Los Angeles, then New York, and then even Washington, DC, media resulted in nothing. Shilts lamented to Alwood, “Nobody believed I was qualified to cover anything except gay stuff. Of course, it was assumed that since I was a homosexual, that’s the only thing I know how to cover. At the same time they didn’t believe I was qualified to cover gay stuff either, because of course I would be shamelessly biased.”11
Shilts told Alwood that a news director at one TV station told him she couldn’t hire a gay person because ratings would fall—audiences didn’t want to see gay people on TV. An April 1980 rejection letter from KRON-TV (at that time the NBC affiliate in San Francisco) was typical: “Dear Randy: Thanks for sending the letter and tapes. I’m sorry to report that I just don’t have a job for you. I am, therefore, returning the tapes.”12 Since the TV well apparently had run dry, Shilts went back to what he knew best: freelancing for both the Village Voice and California Magazine. Eventually, the Oakland CBS affiliate, KTVU, hired Shilts to do freelance reporting on the gay community, but his work at KTVU ended within weeks after he did an interview with a local publication, Boulevards Magazine, which named him one of its Top 10 most eligible gay bachelors in the Bay Area. “The news director [at KTVU] saw that and freaked out and told my best friend at the station that the interview was a disaster for my career,” Shilts said. “The news director felt it was one thing to be gay, but you shouldn’t talk about what you wanted in an ideal boyfriend.”13 His short stint at KTVU did get him some critical notice: he won a local Emmy Award nomination for his story about children of Holocaust survivors.
As the weeks and months dragged on and full-time job opportunities remained elusive, Shilts cobbled together state unemployment checks and widely dispersed freelance assignments to keep his head above water. One of those freelance stories was a long essay on the assassination of Milk and Moscone at the close of 1978. It was so well done that some of Milk’s supporters and friends in New York held on to it and used it as the basis for the idea of a biography of Milk and his extraordinary life. Michael Denneny and his friend Charles L. Ortleb sat around a West Village coffee shop in New York City in those days, struggling to process the realities of 1978, which had seen antigay political forces gain power in the same year that had seen the nation’s first openly gay elected official cut down by an assassin’s bullets. “Given the temper of the times, we feared that it was the beginning of a backlash that could wipe out the gay movement, much as had happened in Germany in the 1930s,” Denneny said. “We thought getting Harvey’s story into a book would at least preserve the memory. Randy was a natural candidate—probably (p.77) the only guy we knew on the West Coast who was in a position to undertake such a book.”14
Denneny, along with Sasha Alyson, who founded Alyson Publications in 1980 as the nation’s first book publisher committed to gay and lesbian topics, was a bit of a rarity in publishing circles; he was openly gay and advocated for getting more gay voices and more gay stories into print. He had met Shilts for the first time in 1976 when they both were guests at a dinner along with two other men who would become major figures in the gay liberation movement: Cleve Jones and Armistead Maupin. A graduate of the University of Chicago and exposed to its prestigious Committee on Social Thought, Denneny had some specific ideas about what books could and should do for the gay liberation movement. African American, Latino American, and female writers were already making progress, but gay voices in print remained rare—publishers were often convinced that no audience existed for gay writers beyond basic erotica. Originally an editor at Macmillan, where he said he was frequently advised to be “less out” about his sexuality, Denneny was a part-time editor for Christopher Street magazine, one of the first gay publications in New York City. Denneny saw a specific purpose for publishing gay books: gay people “saw ourselves through straight eyes. I never worried about educating straight people. All of us were self-hating. We needed to reformulate gay imaginations, re-imagine sex, and relationships. The way you do that is with books.”15
In approaching Shilts about the Milk bio, Denneny recalls, “Randy was poor and had to have a job to keep living, so we worked out a deal whereby we would pay an advance of $4,000 to $5,000 and have Randy write up a thirty-thousand-word essay on Harvey. I could use that essay as a proposal to try and get a book contract, which is, in fact, what happened.” Denneny said that Shilts’s treatment of Milk’s story was “very impressive,” and Christopher Street magazine published it in March 1979. Translating the Milk essay into a book, however, was “an uphill fight,” Denneny said. Denneny personally handled the presentation and “pitch” of the Milk biography to the editorial boards at St. Martin’s Press, where he worked at the time, and found a lackluster response. Most of the concern about a Milk biography centered on the idea that he was too local or too regional of a character to inspire any interest outside of California and that topics about gay politicians would lack widespread appeal among readers. Denneny persisted: “In those days we used to have sales conferences twice a year where you go to an auditorium and the whole sales force would gather, with all the editors, and this would be two or three hundred people. You would present the new list of books and describe (p.78) each one. Every other editor absolutely refused to present the Milk book, so I ended up presenting it at the sales meeting.”16
After lengthy arguments and a little strong-arming by Denneny and some of his bosses, the idea of a Milk biography received the green light. The approval came with a paltry $12,000 advance payment for Shilts—barely enough to cover his travel and other expenses in the long months of research and writing ahead. Denneny said, “I think it sold somewhere between nine and twelve thousand copies in cloth, and we put Randy out on a sort of abbreviated book tour,” including readings before gay liberation organizations, one or two of which, surprisingly, had never heard of Milk, despite their active role in the still-developing gay rights movement and his New York roots.17
In prepping the Milk bio, Shilts laid claim to his overall analysis as having been “profoundly shaped by my five years of reporting in San Francisco as both a television correspondant [sic] and a freelance writer. During that time, I knew Harvey Milk and covered the panoply of other figures in this book.” Because Shilts had extraordinary access to Milk’s papers, belongings, and a long list of friends and supporters who had uplifted him for years, the foreshadowing Milk provided of his own pending death was captured brilliantly by Shilts. “Harvey had always told them it would end this way, with bullets in the brain,” Shilts wrote, “but only when they see the black rubber body bag, covered with a crisp, pleated sheet, being rolled to the waiting ambulance does Harvey’s prophecy become the palpable reality that makes for bad dreams and bold headlines.” In fact, Milk tape-recorded himself discussing the idea of his assassination. Eerily, on the tape Milk declared, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”18
Equally dramatic was the tremendous outpouring of grief that followed Milk’s death, with Shilts estimating as many as forty thousand marchers walking silently from the Castro to City Hall: “In three-piece suits, black leather jackets, blue jeans, and neatly pressed dresses, they gather under the cloudy autumn sky to remember the gangly ward politician with the funny name, the thick black hair, the corny jokes and the New York accent.” Shilts analyzed the reality of the attention paid to Milk by this group: “The emphasis surprises few in the largely homosexual crowd. The mayor had given them leadership, but Harvey Milk—the nation’s first openly gay city official—had given them a dream.”19
In search of meaning for the inexplicable violence that had taken Milk just as he had reached the mountaintop, Shilts wrote: “In death, Harvey Milk’s dream started casting a shadow far larger than anything he could have fashioned in life; such is the nature of mortals and martyrs, dreams and their shadows. Castro Street had become Harvey’s hometown and he had worked to make it a hometown for (p.79) tens of thousands of homosexuals from around the world. ‘The mayor of Castro Street,’ that was Harvey’s unofficial title. And now the mayor of San Francisco and the mayor of Castro Street lie dead. What is left is the dream and its lengthening shadow.”20 Although Shilts began Milk’s story where it had ended, in a pool of blood on the floor of a City Hall office, Shilts spent considerable time setting up the context in which Milk was an early leader for homosexuals. The historic perspective became even more important in subsequent years. Rewritten history or papered-over memories often missed the fact that to be “out of the closet” in the era and manner of Milk was nothing short of an extraordinary and revolutionary act. In a tale that mirrored that of Shilts himself, he wrote about Milk understanding very early the difference that dwelled deep within his heart and mind. It may not have had a name, but as time passed, Milk, like many others, began to understand what it meant to be homosexual. Shilts noted, “Some noticed something different” about Milk even as a boy. “Not peculiar or odd, just different. Harvey Milk would strain, sweat and wrestle to keep the difference a secret only a few could know. On the rare occasions when the cover did slip, he would realize the size of the stakes. They were high enough to keep him sweating and straining for many years, like so many others.”21
Shilts retold the story of a frightening experience in Milk’s young life as he began to discover other men who carried his same secret. A “rousting” or “roundup” of gay men from a popular meeting spot in New York City’s Central Park snagged Milk one sunny Sunday afternoon in 1947. Luckily, the cops on the beat just warned the young men about hanging out together and necking under the sun in the meadows and undergrowth of the park. “Anger had no place among homosexuals of those years, only fear,” Shilts wrote. “Not only fear of the police, but fear of himself and of his secrets being revealed by an afternoon’s routine police action. Harvey was lucky. … [The] police often didn’t bother to lock up their quarry. Just put a little fear of God in them.”22 Shilts also captured one truism for a young homosexual like Milk in New York City in that era: “Harvey was one of the lucky ones of his generation. At least he had lovers, knew other gay men, and could pursue sex and romance. These alternatives were available only to gays who lived in a handful of major American cities. Most homosexuals simply lived without. But even the lucky ones like Harvey paid the price of vigilance for their liberty. The constant fear of the loose phrase, the wrong pronoun, the chance moment, the misspoken word that might give it all away.”23 Eventually shedding an interesting professional mix of schoolteacher, stockbroker, and Broadway producer in New York for the pursuits of a small businessman in San Francisco, Milk arrived in the city in 1972, before its label as the gay mecca. Like New York (p.80) and other major cities in the United States, San Francisco had its unspoken and quietly operating “underworld” gay society—a society that existed alongside a drug culture and a flourishing prostitution commerce—but the closet door was about to blow open. Initially a hippie and part of the growing counterculture (partly because San Francisco was a place where a closeted gay man could exist in relative safety and invisibility), Milk was like many who spun off the antiwar and counterculture movement in order to explore other avenues of civil rights injustice such as women’s rights and eventually gay rights. By the mid-1970s San Francisco was well on its way to becoming the hoped-for gay mecca, and Milk was front and center in all the action through his shoestring business operation, Castro Camera. Shilts wrote about an “explosion” in the gay rights movement in the months and years following the 1969 raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City, an event noted for the fact that homosexuals used to being pushed around by graft-driven cops finally fought back:
The gay movement experienced an explosion unprecedented since the first days of gay liberation fronts following the Stonewall riots. Gays who had come to San Francisco just to disco amid the hot pectorals of humpy men became politicized and fell into new organizations with names like Save Our Human Rights and Coalition for Human Rights. No longer was the gay movement the realm of offbeat liberation fairies. … [It became] a necessary response to a clear and present danger. These young gays might have taken their locker-room beatings at home, because they knew they could always go to San Francisco one day, but once in San Francisco, there was no place else to turn.24
Shilts’s words make clear that he was probably writing as much about Milk and San Francisco as he was about himself.
The early gay era in San Francisco had a clearly sexual element, Shilts noted: “Promiscuity was practically an article of faith among the new gays of Castro Street, stemming from both the free-love hippie days and the adoption of aggressive male images.” Gay men like Milk and his growing cadre of friends understood that “something vital was indeed growing in the Castro. Something clearly was happening. In 1975 and 1976, however, it was just hard to tell what that something was. All that was clear was that wave after wave of gay men were descending on Castro Street. … They were people from all backgrounds who had come to Castro Street to be gay, and they had a lot to sort out.”25
Milk had to sort out how to keep his struggling Castro Camera store at 575 Castro Street open amid a growing list of bureaucratic rules from City Hall. A (p.81) local teacher and customer asking to borrow a slide projector for a classroom presentation because school funds were so scarce that the school didn’t own a projector inspired Milk’s political aspirations. The teacher’s dilemma in having to beg a local business for basic supplies irked Milk both as a former schoolteacher himself and as a citizen of the city. Soon after, he jumped into local politics, moving beyond his preliminary efforts, which included forming a Castro Street business and community association. At first, Milk found a welcome from the city’s liberal Democrats, who wanted to mine the growing gay community for campaign cash and votes. They weren’t necessarily interested, however, in nominating gay men or lesbian women as candidates for public office. Shilts noted that Milk had other ideas: “‘It’s not enough to have friends represent us, no matter how good friends they might be,’ he told a statewide caucus of gay Democrats. ‘If we remain invisible, we will be in limbo, people with no brothers, no sisters, no parents, no positions of respectability. The anger and frustration some of us feel because we are misunderstood—friends cannot feel that anger and frustration. They can sense it in us, but they cannot feel it. … It’s time we have many legislators who are gay, proud of that and do not remain in the closet.’”26
Although his 1977 election to a newly formed district seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is what most people remember, Shilts noted that Milk had one earlier political success by being named by Mayor Moscone to the city’s Board of Permit Appeals a year earlier. Shilts wrote about the symbolism of Milk’s appointment, which came with the addition of a black woman and a Filipino man to a board that held powerful sway over the development and direction of the city.27
Shilts accurately analyzed that Milk had a lot to learn about politics. Milk could be “hyperactive,” Shilts wrote, and “instead of boyish … [some saw] a spoiled child, demanding nearly superhuman efforts from his employees, friends, and campaign workers. He ran off at the mouth with long trains of hyperbole. His temper flared easily—especially at his lover Scott [Smith]—and he seemed inordinately preoccupied with minutiae.” Milk was also a man of many dimensions, Shilts posited. “If Harvey Milk shouted too loudly at Scott and his closest friends, he could also purr softly into the ear of any reporter who happened by—and usually come out of it with some good press,” he wrote. “Milk demanded too much of those around him, but his demands of others paled in comparison to what he demanded of himself.”28
Denneny led the publicity efforts at St. Martin’s Press to drum up interest in the book about Milk, including issuing positive advance reviews. In a March 1982 interview about the book with the Los Angeles Times, Shilts breathlessly took in (p.82) the attention the book offered him. The Times offered, “Shilts has written and is promoting … one of the first avowedly gay nonfiction books to be accepted—embraced even—by the mainstream press and public.”29 But from there the Times story moved decidedly on the story of Shilts himself rather than on his work about Milk’s life, detailing Shilts’s coming-out journey, his commitment to being an openly gay reporter, and his long struggle for acceptance—and employment—in journalism. “From the outside, it looks like a solid rise,” Shilts said of his résumé. “But do you know how much I’ve been through? Do you have any idea?” Shilts settled into the rarefied role as journalist and author by noting that many others had said they wanted to write a biography of either Milk or Moscone, but only he had actually done so. Shilts’s bravado was on full display as he told the Times reporter, “A straight journalist could have written this book, yes, but only if they had overcome their own biases about writing what is essentially a gay book. In a way, it’s ‘Randy Shilts’s Greatest Hits.’ I mean, I was there, I covered it.” He said he accepted the casual title afforded him as “the gay reporter” but was quick to sound a defense he would return to often: “I am not a propagandist. My existence is a political stand.”30
For its take on the book, Publishers Weekly wrote, “In brash street prose, the passions and purposes of Harvey Milk are celebrated throughout these pages. … [N]ot a moment of the drama and suspense of the shooting, the tension of the trial or the shock of the murderer’s near-acquittal is sacrificed. … [Shilts] succeeds in bringing [Milk] to life, loping, shabby, romantic, and driven by the foreboding of his own violent death.” The Library Journal offered, “Journalist Shilts’s spare prose weaves a compelling story that transcends biography to serve as a metaphor for the history of this country’s gay movement.” Kirkus Reviews said Shilts’s work was “first rate” and had appropriately balanced the story of Milk’s private and public lives—the result being “honest and illuminating without being lurid” and presenting the hero of the story, Harvey Milk, “as a character that can transcend gay audiences and appeal to all readers.”31
Author James Kinsella thought Shilts was particularly well suited to write the Milk story. Shilts had told Milk’s story before in the pages of the Advocate, and Kinsella concluded that Shilts had “woven together … a highly readable account of the life and times of Harvey Milk. Far from glorifying the man, which became a popular pastime after his death, Shilts’s book described him as a political animal in the center of social upheaval. The work was received enthusiastically nationwide.”32
One particularly blistering negative review, however, published in the morning edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, barely contained the reviewer’s contempt (p.83) for the very subject of homosexuals. “Nothing exceeds like success,” reviewer Michael H. Price wrote. Shilts’s book, which documented the “gay upheaval … and activism with which Harvey Milk propelled his community into the middleclass mainstream,” was told by a narrator, Shilts, “who does not know when to shut up.” Price laughed at Shilts’s claim that the story reads only as a gay journalist could tell it and said the result “was less a work of historical scholarship than a celebration of the gay movement from an inside-out perspective.” The review was brutal but represented the reviewer’s apparent loathing of anything gay. Calling the book a “hodgepodge of valid information and overwrought emotionalism, top heavy with trivia and self-indulgence,” the reviewer stated that it existed simply as an affirmation that “gay is OK” (apparently an affirmation Price objected to), missing the point that Milk’s life was about advancing the lives of gay people and not one of seeking special privileges.33
Shilts dedicated the book to his parents, Bud and Norma Shilts, and praised Harvey Milk’s ex-lover Scott Smith for sharing volumes of information about Milk’s life. Shilts also mentioned his St. Martin’s editor, Michael Denneny; his friends Dan Yoder, Steve Newman, Ann Neuenschwander, and Tom Lang; and his brother Gary Shilts.
After the book was published and during its short publicity tour, Shilts told Randy Alfred, host of KSAN Radio’s The Gay Life (a weekly radio news program), that he took ten months to write Milk’s story after conducting 140 separate interviews and went broke in the process. He prepared for The Mayor of Castro Street (as he would again later for And the Band Played On) by reading as many of James Michener’s books as he could get his hands on. Shilts admired Michener’s style in Hawaii, the 1959 best seller that artfully demonstrated Michener’s episodic, narrative style, which mixes history and anthropology with fictional devices, including internal thoughts and reconstructed dialogue between central figures.34 “I read Hawaii by James Michener, and that gave me the concept of doing books where you take people and have them represent sort of different forces in history and different social groups,” Shilts said.35 It was a style that won both praise and scorn, the latter of which raised questions about how Shilts could actually know what particular actors in his story were thinking or saying at any specific moment in time when he had not been an eyewitness or an “earwitness”—a vast departure from what many journalists would normally be comfortable doing. Nevertheless, Shilts believed that his “reporter’s-eye view” of Milk’s life and death and the resulting actions in San Francisco and beyond made for a fascinating story, appropriately told “through a reporter’s point of view, which aren’t bad eyes, which isn’t a bad way to look at this story.”36 In his introduction to the work, Shilts asserted, (p.84) “Because I’m an acknowledged gay journalist, I’ve also had access to interviews and anecdotes which generally elude other reporters” (read: straight reporters).37
Shilts’s unapologetic amity for Milk shows through, even with unflattering references to Milk and his private life on full display and even though the Milk story ends on a tragic, violent note. A further example is found in Shilts’s praise of Milk as a natural legendary figure for gay people but also as an extremely naive political operative. “When you look at what [Harvey] did, he registered voters, he walked and canvassed precincts, he built his economic clout,” Shilts said. “Well, that’s as old-fashioned American as you can get and he didn’t expect to be gunned down by a colleague whom he should be debating.” Shilts included in his research of Milk’s life the fact that the groundbreaking San Francisco pol always sought to keep reporters as part of a friendly relationship. Shilts said, “I always thought that Harvey loved me, but in doing the research for the book, I found out that he sort of thought of me as this very obnoxious, unpredictable guy. But I always thought that Harvey liked me a lot, but it was just that he was following his number one rule: always be nice to reporters.”38
Shilts made a special effort to acknowledge that lesbians were not a central part of the Milk story (“Harvey did not have much contact with lesbians either socially or politically”), foreshadowing a criticism of both Milk and eventually Shilts himself that gay women were noticeably absent from his words. Shilts seemed to understand clearly at this early stage of his career that criticism comes with praise—that when you publish your words for others to read, the good comes with the bad. He noted that The Mayor of Castro Street “will not please idealogues [sic] looking for a political tract. Conversely, some might complain that it is sympathetic to the gay point of view, because no traces of moral outrage against homosexuality are to be found on these pages.” He said, “I suspect others might fret that this book is indiscrete in its discussion of private topics not normally raised in the journalistic forum.” Again, his 1982 words preview the coming criticism that would bombard Shilts with his second book. “I can only answer that I tried to tell the truth and, if not objective, [to] at least be fair; history is not served when reporters prize trepidation and propriety over the robust journalistic duty to tell the whole story.”39
Foreshadowing was a key element of Shilts’s account of Milk’s life, using the often-cited audiotape that Milk recorded for posterity in the event of his death by assassination. Shilts also found the parallels in Milk’s life mirrored in the gay liberation movement. “Milk was tired of waiting on ‘liberal friends’ to make political advancement possible,” Shilts wrote. “Harvey had a very simple prescription. Gay (p.85) candidates for public offices were the best tool for advancing the gay movement, he reasoned.” Milk’s demand to participate in and not just support the progressive agenda left “entrenched gay leaders” angry and alienated. No longer would the gay movement gain its power simply by trusting friendly liberals: “Milk insisted that his campaign could train a new corps of activists. ‘A committed novice from the streets was worth a dozen old-timers,’ Milk said.”40
The story, however, could not be limited to just Milk’s part of it. Shilts took time to set up the history of the gay liberation movement in San Francisco and the sometimes sad, self-destructive, and even deadly experience of early gays in the city. Coincidentally, Shilts pinpoints 1975 (the year he moved permanently to San Francisco and not the earlier date, when Milk arrived) as the turning point for the city and the gay community.
The Castro District faced some of its most harrowing days during the “White Night” riots, which erupted in San Francisco on May 21, 1979, following the conviction of former San Francisco supervisor Dan White on lesser included charges in the assassinations of Milk and Moscone. Assigned to cover the riots, which were driven by more than twenty thousand gay and lesbian protestors, who marched from the Castro to the San Francisco City Hall in protest, Shilts tackled a tough assignment reporting the details of the riot. He later acted as a news analyst, reviewing the actions of the San Francisco Police Department, the gay community, and Mayor Dianne Feinstein on the KQED set as the “gay expert.” This period in Shilts’s career, retold later on the pages of the Milk biography, revealed an important time when Shilts had to address the sometimes-thin line between objective journalist and entrenched member of the gay community. Shilts had been there amid the angry response to White’s near acquittal and talked personally with patrons of the Elephant Walk Bar, a popular gay bar at the corner of 18th and Castro Streets, who withstood a barrage from angry police acting in retaliation. The bar, famous for being the original locale for drag disco superstar Sylvester and the Weather Girls, was ground zero for violence following the White trial. Witness reports indicated that a band of rogue San Francisco police officers, angry about the earlier fracas at City Hall, descended upon the Elephant Walk Bar, smashing bottles and glasses to the floor, pushing patrons into the street, and busting the heads of those who resisted. The next morning Shilts talked to bar patrons and a bartender, each of them describing a surprising and unprovoked attack by the police. Unedited KQED tape digitized for a northern California television news archive at San Francisco State University recorded Shilts asking one man, “Can you describe what happened in twenty-five words or less?” and asking others, “Do (p.86) you think this represents an anger that goes beyond the particulars of what happened [in the White case] in court yesterday?” Shilts revealed his struggle with objectivity by asking several people a variation on the question, “Some people say this will hurt us politically, that there will be a backlash against us. What do you think?” His insertion of the word “us” into his questions revealed that while he was reporting on the events of the gay community, he simply could not completely remove himself from occupying those events on some personal level. His perhaps growing animus toward his fellow gays was also apparently present, with Shilts asking one man, “Are there any leaders in the gay community right now?” Shilts concluded that the violent pushback from a heretofore mostly cooperative gay community meant that “a lot more than glass was shattered last night in the Castro. A lot of myths about the gay community also got shattered.”41
The violent riot at San Francisco’s City Hall made headlines across the nation and resulted in injuries to dozens of people. Doors and windows to City Hall were smashed, and ten San Francisco police cars sustained damage. After the dust settled from the White Night riots, Shilts proudly voiced an “I told you so moment,” saying, “I remember being at the City Hall the day after the riot, and I was at the press conference with [Mayor] Dianne Feinstein. Everybody was saying how surprised they were that it happened. Well, I was saying, ‘Hey, I’m just a dumb reporter, and I could tell you I knew there was going to be a riot. Why didn’t you guys know it?’”42
Shilts struggled always, as did many gays, to maintain any sense of objectivity when discussing the arrest and prosecution of White for the murders of Milk and Moscone, openly suggesting in his stories and his commentary on them that a conspiracy was in play to help White escape full responsibility for his violent acts. While praising the San Francisco Police Department’s professionalism overall, Shilts said, “None of that professionalism is involved in the Dan White confession.” Going further in a radio interview with Randy Alfred on KSAN, Shilts took special note of the fact that the homicide detectives who interviewed White after he turned himself in for the two murders avoided key questions that would have been useful in building a case for murder against their former police colleague. Shilts told Alfred and his audience: “And then you go from there to a prosecutor who went out of his way not to introduce any kind of information [regarding intent]. … You had to work at ignoring the kinds of things that were ignored by the prosecution. It was not, it could not have solely been done out of ignorance. Maybe I’m saying too much already, but there is something really, really wrong in [the Dan White case], and this city will not be cleansed of that trial and all that (p.87) it represented until it gets a real thorough examination.”43 Fellow gay journalist David Israels of the Bay Area Guardian recalls that Shilts dealt with the stories of the Milk and Moscone murders and the subsequent White Night riots as breaking news. Israels, who still today calls White “an outright murderer,” said,
Randy [Shilts] was far more interested in what the meaning or repercussions of the verdict was in the wake of the assassinations and trial. On those issues I think he was a reporter. He could act professionally, and he was fair and balanced, as most reporters [are] who claim that they are objective. But there really is no such thing as objectivity. … The very act of reporting creates an effect on the thing you are reporting about; there are some things you put in and some things that you leave out. You have to construct a story, a narrative. You are expected to be fair and to be balanced. I think that’s certainly how Randy presented himself, and he was very insistent on that.44
Israels said that Shilts talked to him on occasion about the pressure he felt from gay leaders to write articles that were more favorable, or at least more helpful, to gay civil rights causes. Israels thinks, at least partially, that Shilts enjoyed “stirring things up” with people on either side of an issue: “Randy sometimes took delight in doing things that were annoying to those who wanted to be politically correct.” He thinks Shilts knew that “sometimes he could report more critically on the community than people wanted him to, and the criticisms came, and he enjoyed some of those because they seem to testify to his, for want of a better term, his objectivity or professionalism.”45
White’s lenient sentence, seven years for the conviction of voluntary manslaughter rather than the original charge of murder for the slayings of Milk and Moscone, meant he could be back in the community after a short prison sentence of just over five years. In January 1984 Shilts was cast in an interesting role both as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle covering the implications of White’s pending release and as a source for other reporters writing about what White’s release might mean to the gay community. Shilts wrote a lengthy story on White’s pending release that was picked up and carried in newspapers across California and the country. In it he quoted a variety of sources, including Mayor Feinstein, California governor George Deukmejian, San Francisco city supervisors, and Milk’s friend Bill Kraus, a former Milk aide.46
Shilts reported that “Off White” signs had popped up in the Castro District once news broke that White was to be released on parole to his home in San Francisco and concluded that “as brutal as the crime was, most San Franciscans (p.88) agree that it would have passed into the city’s memory if it had not been for White’s trial,” emphasizing that “a parade of psychiatrists told the largely white, working class Catholic jury” that White acted out of a diminished capacity and the infamous “Twinkie” defense, in which White’s attorneys made the claim that their client’s judgment was impaired by restless days of eating Twinkies and other junk food prior to the shootings. Shilts didn’t hold back on the prosecution of the case, referring to their case as “bumbling.” In a traditional show of balance, Shilts reported that White still had supporters in his “working-class native San Franciscans” neighborhood. They continued to affirm White’s earlier assessment that the city was being overrun by what White had termed were “social incorrigibles and deviates.”47
For its pick-up of the Shilts story about White’s pending prison release, United Press International reduced its quotable sources down to Shilts, referred to as “a widely-known writer on San Francisco’s homosexuals.” UPI turned Shilts’s news account of posters with the words “Off White” appearing in the Castro District into first-person eyewitness reports from Shilts (rather than his story sources) and quoted him: “I think there are isolated individuals who are angry enough and crazy enough to hunt him down and kill him. There are people out there who want him dead.”48 California prison officials eventually agreed that White’s release should be to Los Angeles rather than San Francisco. He served one year of his probation there before returning to San Francisco, where his life continued to spiral downward. White committed suicide in the garage of his family’s home via carbon monoxide poisoning on October 21, 1985.
Shilts understood that the Milk-Moscone-White story had been high drama, matching almost anything commonly found in fiction. “People sometimes say to me, ‘Have you ever thought about writing fiction?’ and I always say, ‘I could not be as imaginative as the world is. What you get, you couldn’t make up.’” Shilts believed, though, that part of getting the story in such imaginative and amazing detail was analogous to being a good reporter: “Always asking extra questions—always, because there are two ways you can be a journalist. You can ask enough to get enough information for a story, or try to do more than enough because it is always the little connections that come out in side comments.”49
That die-hard commitment to drawing out detail would serve Shilts well as he moved on to the largest—and most complex—story of his career, the coming AIDS pandemic.
(1.) George Osterkamp, telephone interview, February 15, 2013.
(2.) Rita Williams, telephone interview, June 6, 2012.
(4.) Randy Alfred, host/producer, The Gay Life, February 28, 1982, KSAN-AM Radio, San Francisco, www.glbthistory.org/gaybackmachine/randyalfred.html (accessed September 2, 2011).
(5.) Randy Shilts, typewritten manuscript, “The Other Story,” December 1978, Hormel Center.
(6.) Randy Shilts, diary entry, April 6, 1986, Hormel Center.
(7.) Randy Shilts, interview by Eric Marcus, March 1989.
(8.) Randy Shilts, diary entry, March 31, 1978, Hormel Center.
(9.) Randy Shilts, diary entry, April 19, 1978, Hormel Center.
(10.) Randy Shilts, diary entry, June 9, 1978, Hormel Center.
(11.) Edward Alwood, Straight News: Gays, Lesbians and the News Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 176.
(12.) Rejection letter, KRON-TV, April 1980, Hormel Center.
(13.) Shilts, interview.
(14.) Michael Denneny, telephone interview, August 11, 2016.
(15.) M. Meenan, “A Rare and Worthy Life: Michael Denneny Looks Back on a Life Dedicated to Important Books,” Gay City News, June 24–30, 2004.
(16.) Michael Denneny, personal communication, November 23, 2011.
(18.) Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), xiv, xv.
(29.) E. Mehren, “Gay Author in Straight Mainstream,” Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1982.
(31.) St. Martin’s Press undated news release, “Advance Critical Acclaim for The Mayor of Castro Street” by Randy Shilts, Hormel Center.
(32.) James Kinsella, Covering the Plague: AIDS and the American Media (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 162–64.
(33.) Michael H. Price, “Let Us Be Gay in the Bay Area,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 18, 1982.
(35.) Garry Wills, “Randy Shilts: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, September 30, 1993.
(41.) Randy Shilts reporting on the White Night riots, May 22, 1979, KQED-TV unedited tape, San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University.
(44.) David Israels, telephone interview, October 8, 2012.
(46.) Randy Shilts, “Tense, Torn City Braces for White’s Release,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 5, 1984, A1.
(48.) James Clifford, “White’s Release Scheduled for Today,” DeKalb (IL) Daily Chronicle, January 6, 1984, 5.