On Friday, November 18, 1978, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk (1930-1978) sat down and pressed play on a tape recorder. The reason for the recording was that Milk wanted his words played in the event of his assassination. As a gay politician in the political spotlight in San Francisco, Milk knew that made him a target for rivals and others who disapproved of homosexuals. Less than two weeks later, he was shot and killed on November 27 along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (1929-1978) by former District 8 City Supervisor Dan White (1946-1985). After shooting Milk and Moscone, White left City Hall, called his wife Mary Ann who accompanied him to a police station where he turned himself in. To San Franciscans, it must have seemed as if all hell was breaking loose. On November 18, news reports from Guyana had alerted the world to the massacre at Jonestown, Guyana where Jim Jones (1931-1978) and the People’s Temple Church had settled after leaving the United States. More than 900 people died in the mass suicide and murder. Jones escaped the poisoning and instead died from a gunshot wound to the head. The double murders at City Hall sent the city into turmoil and White’s arrest left his former colleagues stunned. White was ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter on May 21, 1979 and the verdict set off pandemonium in the city which became known as the White Night Riots. To many, the crime did not make any sense, both White and Milk were beloved by their constituents and highly popular. But beneath the surface, tensions were simmering in the cut-throat world of politics and as author Mike Weiss reveals here, there were hidden passions behind the double assassination.
Some readers may be familiar with the assassinations and may have lived in San Francisco during the time in which the events took place. The book is written in such an engaging style that even readers who know nothing about any of the figures will be able to follow the story without issue. In fact, Weiss provides a recap of the lives of Moscone, Milk and White before jumping into the crazy atmosphere of politics in San Francisco. What I noted as I read is that the book is really three stories in one that merge towards the end as the tragic finale plays out. Personally, I was previously familiar with the story, having read Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street and Milk’s An Archive of Hope. And my friends will tell you that Milk is one of my favorite films and Sean Penn absolutely nailed his role as the slain politician. In January 2018, I visited San Francisco and was fortunate to visit the Castro. My girlfriend at the time did not know much about Milk having grown up in another country, but I quickly filled her in and had her watch the film before we departed from New York. Today, what used to be Castro Camera is now the Human Rights Campaign office. But upstairs, is a cut out of Harvey looking down over the street he called home for some of the years he lived in San Francisco. At the time of his death, he had been living in a different location as shown on his swearing in card which is included in the book. Although I knew a significant amount of information about Milk’s story, the book was eye-opening and is filled with seemingly endless bits of information. The author takes us deep behind the scenes so that we can learn what really had been taking place between the politicians at City Hall.
White is undoubtedly the central character in the story for obvious reasons. And while Weiss does shift the focus at times to either Milk or Moscone, we always come back to White as he breaks into politics, a world he was wholly unprepared for. After parting ways with Goldie Judge and connecting with Ray Sloan, White sharpens his appearance but his success in gaining a seat on the Board of Supervisors could not help his personal issues which are explored by the author in ways that I have not seen before. In the film, Josh Brolin delivers a good performance, but the script left much out regarding White’s past. It did capture the essence of his character which is unraveled here. And what we learn, is that the world in which Dan White lived was quite dark.
Moscone is the book’s protagonist but what we learn about the persona life of the mayor is sure to surprise some. There were many things that I did not know about Moscone and in the movie, his character is given limited screen time. Victor Garber was convincing as Moscone but his laid back and composed appearance stands in contrast to the larger-than-life Moscone that we learn of in the book. The mayor in this story is anything but laid back and his antics are sure to repulse more conservative readers. However, Moscone knew how to use the system and his shrewdness as a politician is clear. But I can only wonder how he escaped scandal for as long as he did. Weiss spills a lot of the dirt and it will leave you shaking your head. Despite his personal shortcomings, Moscone knew how to appeal to those whose votes he needed the most and we can only speculate as to where he would have gone next after serving as mayor.
Harvey is the book’s star in the sense that as opposed to White and Moscone, Milk comes across with vastly different energy. But like the other two, his personal life was a mixed bag, and the film showed this the way things were. Diego Luna brilliantly brings Jack Lira back to life on the silver screen and paired perfectly with Penn. But, as we see in the film, Milk had other lovers who had taken their own lives. And in contrast to how it is portrayed in the film, Milk was far more familiar with San Francisco than I had realized. Any book about Milk will undoubtedly discuss the concept of homosexuality. Weiss does not overly focus on the matter and does a great job of keeping the subject relevant without the book having the feel as if it has bias one way or the other. In fact, as I read through the book, the story was so engaging that Milk’s orientation became a complete afterthought. The suspense in the book is kept on high and I assure you that once you start reading you will be hard pressed to put the book down. It really is that good.
As the story moves forward, it becomes clear that the three main figures are on a collision course through destiny. Weiss provides a daily summary of the week leading up to the murders, beginning roughly after the events at Jonestown. By the time the assassinations take place, the metaphorical three-way dance the three were engaged in becomes vividly clear. Milk is the link between Moscone and White but all three have their own agendas and ambitions putting them in inevitable conflict with each other. The day of the murders is discussed from start to finish and includes details left out by filmmakers, in particular the role of Denise Apcar, White’s assistant at the time of his resignation. The supervisor would famously change his mind about resignation and ask for his former job back, sparking a heated discussion with Moscone a week before the murders. And as White commits the violent murders, chaos erupts at City Hall with police converging on the building from all angles in search of White. The President of the Board of Supervisors, Dianne Feinstein, suddenly finds herself thrust into the mayor’s seat and her importance in the story cannot be understated. Today, she is still going strong as a member of the United States Senate. Following White’s surrender, he is interviewed, booked and officially charged with murder. But this is just the beginning and trial that ensued, which is summarized exceptionally well by the author will leave you staring in disbelief.
Today, we know which verdict the jury reached but at the time the trial, most people knew White would be convicted but no one was sure on which charge it would be. In the courtroom, prosecutor Thomas F. Norman (1930-2009) and defense lawyers Doug Schmidt engage in a fierce battle while White’s fate hangs in the air. The author summarizes each showing their personalities and skills as legal professionals. But what is more important, is that Weiss shows how and why the jury reached its verdict. This includes the missteps by the prosecution and and the brilliance in the defense already hindered by White’s own statements to the San Francisco Police. A complex game of chess is on display as each side seeks to outmaneuver the other. In the end, White escaped first degree murder, but by then he was already a broken man. Following his conviction and transfer to Soledad State Prison, we learn more about his post-conviction life through the author and the reality he faced upon release in 1984. And White’s final days are also revisited, providing a haunting closure to an incredible book.
If you are in search of a book that fully explains the murders of Milk and Moscone, you cannot go wrong with this beautifully written account by Weiss. And if you have never watched it, I strongly recommend Rob Epstein’s award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk which I am sure you will find to be a solid film about his life. I enjoyed the documentary myself but loved reading this just a little more. Highly recommneded.
ISBN-10 : 0982565054
ISBN-13 : 978-0982565056