The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk
By Mike Weiss
Vince Emery Productions Copyright © 2010 Mike Weiss
All rights reserved.
George Moscone: Native Son
THE SAN FRANCISCO IN WHICH GEORGE MOSCONE came of age was a town emptied of its men by World War II. There were, of course, the soldiers and sailors swarming through the self-contained and stable little city that in no time flat had become a port of embarkation for the Pacific theater, but though they whooped over the hills in their jeeps, whistling at the California girls, making the black marketeers rich, and keeping the practitioners of the world's weariest trade on the streets day and night, the boys in uniform were merely passing through.
George was a San Francisco guy, George and his best pal Cappy Lavin, riding the streetcars from one end of town to the other in search of the ultimate schoolyard basketball game. Anywhere they went they were at home; neighborhoods spilled one into the next, from Cow Hollow to Crocker Amazon the town was a compendium of villages. In this provincial cosmopolis everybody knew everybody else and where to find them.
The city had a unity and a sense of human scale set against the expansive vista of the bay and the ocean and the great suspension bridges, still new enough to be novel. For Cappy life at that time had a bittersweet feeling, a fabulous glow doomed to fade as the city and its boys encountered the business of the world. But that was only a dimly sensed apprehension as Cappy and George bounced through the city on their rubber soles, two thin, handsome rascals with all the moves. George's hair was always cut short, he thought that made him look like Cary Grant.
Ever since "Faultless Physique" McCoppin had been elected San Francisco mayor in 1867 the Irish had controlled City Hall, the professions, the police and fire departments, and had condescended to the Italians, who were by and large the city's merchants. So George always told his Italian barber to keep it short, that way he would look less Italian. Thirty years later Mayor George Moscone would present the key to his city to the same barber and when the button-down ids at the newspapers and his anal-retentive political enemies disapproved, George would smile his public smile, all teeth and smarmy sincerity, and say: "A man's got to take care of his barber."
Everywhere George and Cappy roamed they came to another hill and at its crest caught a glimpse between tall buildings of an open panorama of the fresh, salty water; blue under the midday sun, green in the dim light of dawn, a burnished copper at twilight, gray as the battleships under the winter fog. Cappy was so acutely self-conscious, almost visionary. It was he who would say of the water, "It's so close you could wrap it up, wrap it in your handkerchief and put it in your pocket."
"Wet your fuckin' pants, Cap," George would answer. But he got it, they both knew that; the attractive, compelling pony, the natural performer, George Moscone didn't miss much. At fifteen they had a freedom bestowed on them by time and place and circumstance. They were rogue princes of their city.
Who could say just where this feeling came from? Probably it had something to do with their both being the only sons of mothers alone, both of them bathed in womanly affection, both with few restraints at home or in the safe, familiar streets of San Francisco. George had been born during Thanksgiving week in 1929, the first and only child of Lena Marguerite Monge, whom everybody called Lee, and her husband, George Joseph Moscone, a milk wagon driver who was so devilishly good-looking it was said he was a dead ringer for Errol Flynn. The elder George Moscone's teenage bride was the daughter of a San Joaquin Valley winemaker; she was warm and pretty and full of life. By the time little George was eight his parents' marriage had reached the drowning point: his father delivered the milk but preferred the grape. Lee had swallowed too many bad-tempered hangovers and empty pay envelopes; she divorced her husband and after that it was just George and Lee, moving from apartment to apartment while she tried to find a job during the Great Depression.
Once, after the divorce, when George's father had a job as a guard at San Quentin, he took his son to see the electric chair at the fortress-like prison. His father described an execution, described it in such gory detail that for all the rest of his life George Moscone always opposed the taking of a life by the state. That first humanitarian impulse was his father's legacy. The elder George Moscone eventually died in a state hospital where he had been committed for treatment. And he also passed on what surely was an unintended legacy: his son would become a man who had been raised and shaped by his pretty, flirtatious, kindly mother. Young George was fiercely jealous of Lee's attention, he even threatened to move out and never see her again when she was thinking of remarrying. All his life George Moscone would be a man who appreciated women.
The moves came on basketball courts and in the back seats of borrowed automobiles and in the thoughtful, fast-paced give and take with Cappy. It was in George Moscone's nature to get away with things that nobody else could. School was duck soup for him. No less than the pals he made so easily and the girls who adored him, teachers were drawn by his theatrical emotions — big gestures and balloon feelings and hands that were always in motion, always touching. He was vain and some of the money he picked up working at odd jobs always went for clothes. George was the first guy in his crowd to have the new shirts with the collar pins, which were coming back into vogue, and buck shoes. His head was cocked on a long swan neck, there was a magnetism in his scamp eyes.
By the time he entered college from Jesuit-run St. Ignatius High School on a basketball scholarship, the war was over and San Francisco was waking up to its own transformation, which was as profound if not as dramatic as the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Nearly two hundred thousand new residents of a rainbow of hues and polyglot dialects had doubled the population, making vast demands upon the goodwill of the city and its housing, transportation, sanitation, and schools. But the war had been won and it seemed a time of hope and faith. At dawn on Easter 1949, fifty thousand people went up Mount Davidson to worship at the stone cross which was the highest point in the city of St. Francis.
At Hastings College of the Law, George found a vocation, if not a calling. His study of the law taught him that he had the persuasive power to talk anybody into or out of just about anything. He was hanging out with a crowd of young lawyers, politicians and cops in the cafes of North Beach, a neighborhood of sunny hilltops chockablock with delicatessens, bakeries, bars and clubs, a neighborhood where papas strolled out after dinner to smoke a cigar and drink espresso and argue the issues of the day with their paisans. George's North Beach crowd of young blades included Johnny Burton — "Shakey," they called him — who was tending bar at Bimbo's. And Willie Brown, a law school sidekick. Willie was a black guy out of Texas who, poor as he was, dressed sharper and talked faster than any man had a right to. They all knew they were better and smarter than the ordinary run and they planned to make it big in the world.
Way back in grade school, or so George told the story, he had seen Gina Bondanza in pigtails and a green gingham dress and he had been out to capture her ever since. The ambitious law student had a summer job as a playground director and he strutted around his bailiwick with a proud grin, his slim, dark, round-eyed girl on his arm.
The day of the wedding at St. Vincent's, George and Cappy were side by side at two urinals, wearing tails, and Gina was already in the church in her white gown, when Cappy decided that he had an obligation.
He turned to his friend. "You can still not do it," he said.
Gina never appreciated the gesture of male solidarity, no matter how many times George told the story over the years.
"But don'tcha see, Gina, for chrissake," George would say, tilting back in a kitchen chair, holding his cigarette like Cary Grant but trying to sound like Marlon Brando. "Don'tcha see? Just walk away, that's what a best man should do."
By the time George had passed the bar exam and gone to work in a small law firm where he was being paid $300 a month, Jenifer had been born. When he called people to give them the news he said, "Gina and I just became a real family."
After work George would head for North Beach as often as he did for home. The crowd gathered in the evenings at Bimbo's, or Mike's Pool Hall, or Enrico's, a sidewalk cafe that served as North Beach's neutral turf, the place where the hard cases and club owners and lawyers and cops and swells and poets all gathered on the outdoor patio to consider whatever needed consideration. Margo St. James fell in quite naturally with the gang at Enrico's.
Margo was the daughter of a Washington dairy farmer who had read a newspaper article about the beat generation and with as little delay as possible boarded a train for San Francisco. She was fresh faced and frisky and before long her pad around the corner on Grant Avenue was known as St. James Infirmary, where bruised or hungry spirits could repair. A lot of guys passed through. One night in 1959 Margo was at home listening to La Boheme, trying to improve her mind, and keeping company with another girl whose story was that she was on the lam from a drugstore holdup in Seattle when some scrawny little guy showed up at their door. He and the other girl had just bedded down when he produced a badge and signalled his compatriots, who were waiting nearby at Louis Friscia's Fresha Fish. Led by a vice cop named Joe Ryan, the constabulary thundered up the stairs to be confronted by a farmer's daughter who was loudly protesting that she gave it away for free. Margo's conviction was, after a time, thrown out on appeal, but her skirmish with the law decided her on becoming an attorney herself. She enrolled in law school but ran out of money and began to turn tricks after all. Eventually she gained an international reputation as the founder of a loose woman's organization, COYOTE. Eventually, too, George's association with Margo St. James and what she represented became part of what was held against him by guys like Joe Ryan, who seventeen years later would work in the campaign of a young man promising to return decency to the city of San Francisco, a young man named Dan White.
All across the land in 1961 and 1962 handsome young lawyers and businessmen were following Jack Kennedy by throwing back their heads, jabbing their fingers at cheering crowds, and exhorting them to find a better way. It was the Burton brothers, John and Phil, who steered George into politics. John was grateful to George, who had successfully represented him on a charge of bookmaking. John's older brother Phil was a state assemblyman. An imposing figure with a sagging face, quizzical bushy Irish eyebrows, and open shirt collars, Phil Burton breathed brimstone and fire; crossing him was said to be a very big mistake. His kid brother called Phil "God" when he wasn't within earshot. Phil Burton was beginning to build a liberal political organization that he said would someday take the city away from the entrenched Irish machine, and he was looking for somebody to run as a sacrificial lamb for an Assembly seat against a Republican who was conceded to be a shoo-in. When Phil asked John if any of his lawyer buddies wanted to work for a couple of months with no pay in order to get his ass kicked but in the process make some friends, John Burton suggested George Moscone.
That led to a meeting between George and John at a Mexican restaurant.
"Yeah," George said, "I'd be interested. But what's involved? I mean, what would I have to do?"
"Christ, how would I know?" said John, who someday would be a congressman himself. "I'll ask God and get back to you."
That first campaign in 1960 was a catch-as-catch can affair. What George knew about politics wouldn't have filled a gnocchi. So he did what came naturally, went out into the city to meet as many people as he could. When he turned those Italian eyes on a potential voter he had a quality of attentiveness that was at once a source of his power and a servant of his ambition. Women sensed his sensuality, were fascinated by the little downward puckers at the corners of his mouth, and decided that he would make a fine assemblyman. Men shook the hand of a guy who was everybody's pal, a manly man always quick to laugh at a joke or remember a good time, and thought that it wouldn't hurt to have somebody regular representing the city up there in Sacramento.
He was a pure actor, not that he conned a role so much as he followed his instincts. In the springtime of Camelot, George had the right church, the right spirit, and even the right teeth, prominent when he smiled like the President's, with narrow gaps between them. He was animated by the game of politics. But nobody expected him to win. George lost, but he ran stronger in the district than any Democrat in memory. That made him a player.
In 1963 he ran again, this time for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. And he won. By then Gina Moscone had begun to wish that politics wasn't her husband's passion. She was proud of his victory but she was a private soul, content to be a wife, a mother — their second daughter, Rebecca, had been born — and a homemaker. In private Gina was witty, in public tongue-tied. The more embroiled George became in politics, the less time he had for her and the kids. Not that he didn't dote on Gina and the kids — before long Chris and Jon had been added to the family — it was just that he seemed to need the adrenaline hit of running and winning, of being recognized on the streets and of knowing that San Francisco really was his town. In his heart George was a good husband and father. But he didn't have the time and patience for it, and he knew he could rely on Gina while he scamped around town glowing in the favorable light cast by the adoration of strangers.
By day Fillmore Street was like any other bustling avenue, moving to the pace of commerce. By six every evening, though, it was as if the shift had changed. The retailers and the pawnbrokers and the secondhand clothes merchants rolled up their awnings and locked their doors and went home. Fillmore Street pulsated in the night.
Down at the corner of Ellis Street a kid named Flip Wilson snapped his rags over gleaming, pointy-toed shoes in tones of high yellow and crimson you didn't find on bankers' feet, setting a rhythm for the street and cracking jokes that would someday put his name in lights. On the air the delectable smells of fried chicken and barbecue drifted into nostrils along with the sweetness of sweet potato pie, apple and peach cobbler and the aroma of marijuana. There was music swinging out of the open doors of the Plantation Club and after hours the legends of the jazz world, through with their downtown gigs, jammed at Jack's on Sutter Street. Happy faces nodded in passing and stopped to talk, the tap tap tap of shoe leather seemed a kind of dance. If you knew the town and wanted a good time you just directed your feet to either side of Fillmore Street. Girls whose work it was to make you feel good stood in doorways with poses that were implicit promises.
It was a good place to be and a good place to walk and every night Rotea Gilford and Wendell Tyree walked Fillmore Street all the way from Broadway to Haight, such a long beat that there were nights when the two young black cops from Northern Station never completed it. Things came up to divert them.
On this particular night they saw a whore and her trick heading into the New Yorker Hotel, and because it was their job to enforce the laws against pleasure for hire, no matter how they felt about it themselves, they followed, waiting outside the room until the sounds from the bed told them it was time. They forced their way into the room and declared that both the whore and her trick were under arrest. It was their own policy, not the police department's, to arrest Johns.
The woman took it in her stride. It was a bitch, but her pimp would have her back on the street by morning. The trick, a white man, was mortified, but Gilford and Tyree were accustomed to that, too. This one didn't bluster and threaten, though, and he didn't offer a bribe. Instead he got back into his clothes and said, "Look, man, I guess I better tell you. I'm George Moscone." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Double Play by Mike Weiss. Copyright © 2010 Mike Weiss. Excerpted by permission of Vince Emery Productions.
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