Caleb Hannan writes for the ESPN-owned digital magazine Grantland. While watching an infomercial about a new putter last year he decided to do a story on the club’s inventor, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, also known as Dr. V.
In doing his research for the article, he encountered difficulty verifying some of the “facts” about Dr. V’s past. Vanderbilt was purportedly one of “the” Vanderbilt’s, an associate of the Hiltons, a physicist specializing in aeronautics who was educated at MIT and had worked on the stealth bomber, and a graduate of Wharton School of Business. Hannan could find no evidence to corroborate any of that. So he kept digging and eventually published a 7700 word article on the invention of the Yar putter and its inventor. He couldn’t even find a photo of Vanderbilt on the web. The infomercial apparently was done instead by CBS golf analyst Gary McCord and Steve Elkington.
But he refused to be deterred. McCord told the story of how an unknown woman approached an executive at TaylorMade who explained to him how everything involved in their design was wrong.
She just hammered them on their designs. Hammered them.
Hannan tried to contact Vanderbilt. But she insisted that her anonymity needed to be secure. She said it was because of her association with classified documents, which turned out probably not to be true…but she still demanded her anonymity before she would agree to an off-the record discussion.
Hannan wouldn’t do that, so approached McCord instead. McCord said that Vanderbilt told retired Bank of America analyst Gerri Jordan about the physics of rolling a ball smoothly about seven years prior and together they built the Oracle GX1 putter, which purportedly had a zero moment of inertia.
McCord said that he had “verified” her via a general he knew…and that she was also a friend of Dan Quayle and that he, McCord, had actually witnessed a phone call between Quayle and Dr. V.
She will talk to you about the science and not the scientist.
Hannan wrote that he used the Yar putter and had some success with it. But he refused to end his story with that.
He tried to confirm her employment by the Department of Defense and was informed that it would be impossible for him to do that without violating secrecy issues. He got a document from Vanderbilt entitled “The Inertia Matrix” but had insufficient mathematical background to understand it. When he asked her if he could try to confirm some facts about her past life, she balked. She was angry that he would try to violate her confidence.
Hannan contacted MIT and the University of Pennsylvania to see if she had received degrees from them. He was told nobody with that name had done so. Even Hannan said that was not conclusive because she might have been using a different name at the time.
Hannan said he kept looking and could find no trace of her existence prior to 2000. Then he found evidence of a lawsuit filed against the town of Gilbert, AZ alleging some of its employees committed sexual discrimination. Vanderbilt at the time had apparently been working for Gilbert coordinating car repairs. Then she was sued in 2011 for $800,000 by a commercial developer and lost. That same year she filed for bankruptcy.
Then he was contacted by a Leland Frische who worked for the city of Gilbert. Frische said she had applied for the job of manager of Gilbert’s Fleet Management Division but had lost out on that job, that she didn’t get along with the person who was hired, and that she was eventually fired.
After she sued Gilbert, first Gilbert’s lawyers and then a judge tried to force her to reveal any past name she may have had. Her refusal caused dismissal of the lawsuit.
Have you ever seen her in person? What I really hope for you is that you could meet her someday.
Hannan then noted that every time Frische said “she” and “her” he could hear the air quotes.
Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?
I cannot confirm or deny anything on that. But let me ask you a question. How far have you looked into her background?
At that point in his article, Hannan discloses that Vanderbilt was a transsexual woman…and that she had attempted suicide in 2008.
Hannan also disclosed that he had outed Vanderbilt to one of her investors.
The last time I heard from Dr. V she warned me that I was about to commit a hate crime. But before that, I received a voice mail from Jordan.
Jordan and Vanderbilt proposed a deal, which Hannan rejected because it would require him to not disclose details of Vanderbilt’s past.
Jordan was later contacted by Vanderbilt’s former brother-in-law, who informed Hannan of Vanderbilt’s suicide on October 18.
Hannan finishes his hit piece by calling it a eulogy.
Bill Simmons, editor of Grantland, then wrote a piece admitting that publishing Hannan’s story was a mistake.
Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.
That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up. Had we asked someone, they probably would have told us the following things …
1. The high suicide rate of the transgender community.
2. It should have been made clear that Hannan never threatened to out Vanderbilt.
3. It should have been made clear that there was never any internal discussion about outing her.
4. Special care should have been taken with regard to pronoun usage.
5. The phrase” chill down my spine” Hannan uses after learning Vanderbilt was transsexual should not have been included.
6. Hannan should have outed Vanderbilt to nobody.
7. Hannan should have taken more care, not less, upon learning that VAnderbilt was transsexual.
ESPN writer and transsexual woman Christina Kahrl wrote a companion piece.
But I’m also angry because of the more fundamental problem that this story perpetuates. We’re talking about a piece aimed at golf readers. So we’re talking about a mostly white, mostly older, mostly male audience that wound up reading a story that reinforced several negative stereotypes about trans people. For an audience that doesn’t usually know and may never know anyone who’s trans and may get few opportunities to ever learn any differently, that’s confirmation bias of the worst sort. I may not have made you care about people like CeCe McDonald or Islan Nettles or even Essay Anne Vanderbilt here, but better to fail in the attempt than to reinforce ignorance and contempt bred through the thoughtless trivialization of their lives and challenges.