It was just after noon Oct. 18 when Gerri Jordan walked into the bedroom of her Gilbert home and found her ex-girlfriend and business partner, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, on the floor, curled into a fetal position with a plastic bag taped around her head.
“When I found her... I thought ‘Why now? Why now are you doing this,” Jordan said, her eyes welling.
Jordan, 67, had dated Vanderbilt, 60, for about five years but had become by this time just friends and business partners. Jordan knew Vanderbilt had struggled with depression, but said she didn’t seem particularly down; they had just been “plugging along.”
The two had started a business to sell a golf club Vanderbilt had designed — the Yar Golf putter, which they billed as a revolution in the science of the game. While their big break remained elusive, the putter had been mentioned on TV by a prominent golf announcer, and a reporter from a national sports and pop culture website was doing a story.
But Vanderbilt had grown nervous about the story. She feared the reporter was focusing on intensely personal elements of her past that he had discovered, despite her request that he write only about “the science, not the scientist.”
The reporter, seeking to verify Vanderbilt’s credentials as a scientist and aerospace designer, couldn’t corroborate them. Eventually he learned part of the reason why: Vanderbilt was born Stephen Krol in 1953. She transitioned to living as a woman, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, 50 years later.
To this day, it is unknown whether she fabricated her credentials or whether they simply could not be verified.
The story, published on ESPN’s Grantland.com Jan. 15, three months after Vanderbilt’s death, laid out her apparent lack of scientific credentials.
But it also detailed the reporter’s discovery of Vanderbilt’s gender transition. The story triggered a storm of criticism from transgender advocates and some journalists about how the reporter handled the revelation — and whether it should have been published at all.
Jordan spoke with The Republic about the effect the reporting had on Vanderbilt and her.
She blames the reporting of the story for “90 percent” of the timing of Vanderbilt’s suicide — but not for the suicide itself. Vanderbilt had attempted to take her own life in 2007 and in 2008, Jordan said, and she lived believing that her friend might try again.
“I don’t hold any grudge, really, since she’s tried it before,” Jordan said as her eyes filled with tears that did not spill over. “So how can I say it’s all his fault, when it’s not really all his fault?”
She paused for a long breath, “I mean, eventually she would have anyway. ... It just so happened to be the timing with the article.”
A complicated past
On March 31, Denver-based freelancer Caleb Hannan began reporting the story on the putter made by Gilbert-based Yar Golf.
Launched in 2009, the Oracle GX1 putter is square, with tiny wings on the sides and a hole in the center, which lets the golfer pick up the ball without bending over. Yar Golf said the GX1 offered a way of putting that was contrary in concept and design to other clubs on the market. The club, they said, was designed to be more responsive to the golfer’s movement and less resistant to the body’s twist.
The club had a small following of professionals and amateurs and had 16 dealers and representatives, mostly in Arizona, recommending it to clients and placing it in pro shops. Yar Golf’s biggest publicity came in May 2012 when CBS tournament announcer Gary McCord singled out tour pro Aaron Baddeley‘s GX1 as “one of the greatest putters in the world” during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship.
McCord went on about the putter so much, his fellow announcers teased that he was filming an infomercial.
Custom club maker Gary Balliet hosted seminars and fit customers for clubs with Yar Golf through his business, Arizona Custom Golf Clubs. The Glendale man is effusive about Vanderbilt, and her putter.
“She was brilliant, always there, very helpful. If I would ask her to fit a person for a putter, she would always be there to lend a hand,” Balliet said.
He loves the putter, saying using it didn’t require much, if any, technique because it had a sweet spot that was almost two inches square.
“Normally, that’s the size of a pin needle,” he said. “I really did believe in her and the product. She was an amazing lady.”
Over the years, Vanderbilt told people she had worked on the Stealth Bomber as a private contractor for the Department of Defense, that she had earned an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and that she had attended MIT to become a physicist.
As he reported, Hannan later wrote, he tried but could not verify those credentials. He never found an explanation.
But he did find her recent work history. Vanderbilt worked in Gilbert’s fleet management division in 2006, but she was fired and later filed a discrimination lawsuit against the town in 2007.
A complicated identity
Deborah Storey worked as a post-operative patient-care assistant for the Valley plastic surgeon who did Vanderbilt’s surgery, and had been friends with her since.
During recovery, Vanderbilt talked about wanting a fresh start with everything, Storey said. She didn’t want to integrate into her new life her past as a mechanic, as a husband to two women and as a father to two boys and a girl who still lived in Pennsylvania. She later told Jordan her family had died in a tragic accident.
“Many of our patients minimize their past, but they blend it into their new lives,” Storey said. “Essay kind of wanted to deny it. She was an exception there.”
Storey says she doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, the truth about Vanderbilt’s credentials. She said she felt uncomfortable with Vanderbilt denying her past, but she still praises her for going through the “spiritual, emotional and personal work” to “live authentically.”
Storey said Vanderbilt knew she was a woman in all ways but physically by the time she was 9 years old.
“I have the utmost respect,” Storey said. “I miss her very much.”
When Jordan and Vanderbilt met and started dating in 2006, Vanderbilt described herself using the word intersex. Intersex means a person is born with sex chromosomes, external genitalia or an internal reproductive system that is not standard for either male or female. It is not a medical term.
“She would never even say that to me, that she was a trans person,” said Jordan. “She would say she was intersex, and that’s different. To her, that was different. What she did (with surgery) was make herself who she really was.
“I mean, she was a stunning, beautiful woman. She dressed very feminine. Very provocative, sometimes...she always was so proud.”
The story develops
By May, Vanderbilt and Jordan believed Hannan was going to publish a story exposing her unverifiable MIT, Stealth Bomber and Wharton School resume, as well as details about her transition.
In early June, Vanderbilt was so nervous about being outed that she called at least one close friend — McCord, the CBS announcer — so he wouldn’t be surprised.
“I don’t know how many other people she had that conversation with,” Jordan said.
In that same month, Jordan said, Vanderbilt resigned as CEO of Yar Golf because of Hannan’s inquiries.
“She believed the story would die if she was no longer involved with the company,” Jordan said.
Vanderbilt was part of a population of Americans who have complicated, and sometimes dangerous and violence-filled lives:
- 97 percent of trans-identifying respondents to a 2012 study by the Washington D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality said they had been harassed because of their gender identity.
- 26 percent had been fired because of their gender identity, according to the study.
- 41 percent of trans-identifying respondents to a 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported attempting suicide. That compares to 1.6 percent of the general population.
- 57 percent have experienced significant family rejection.
- 19 percent have been homeless.
Journalists who don’t frequently write about issues of gender identity can find the subject particularly complex and nuanced. To minimize discriminatory language and behavior and to foster clarity, journalism organizations have developed ethics and language guidelines on how to report on and write about those along the gender identity spectrum.
Such manuals instruct writers not to use terms like “sex change” to describe gender reassignment surgery. And they include issues to be aware of, such as the consequences of “outing” a person, and under what circumstances writing about sexual orientation or gender identification is appropriate.
In the case of the story Hannan was reporting — a profile about a new putter design from a small golf company — it’s unlikely that the gender identity of its inventor, a private citizen whose face never appeared in videos or photos promoting the product, would be relevant, even if her gender transition made it difficult to verify her past, journalism ethicist Kelly McBride said.
McBride, who is with the Poynter Institute journalism think tank at the University of South Florida, said Hannan should have told Vanderbilt that he could talk to his editors about her request to leave her personal life out of the story but couldn’t guarantee it.
Or, he could have tried to make it a condition of the publication of the story, said McBride.
But in an early email to Vanderbilt provided by Jordan, Hannan wrote: “I’m happy to keep my conversation with you to the science, not the scientist. When can you talk?”
McBride said reporters shouldn’t make promises they may not be able to keep.
“I often talk to reporters, and do mediation as an ethicist, and the problem with a source often starts with the initial conversation with that source,” she said.
The story is published
Early last week, Jordan went to her doctor’s office for a routine checkup and said that she’d been feeling anxious and depressed. She told her doctor how she’d found Vanderbilt’s body.
Her doctor said Jordan was likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and offered to connect her with a therapist. But Jordan said she would be fine.
“It was a tragic loss. But I’ll get through it on my own,” she remembered saying.
Days later, Grantland published Hannan’s story, which referred to Vanderbilt as Dr. V, a name she used in the golf world.
That morning, Hannan tweeted a link to the story with the comment: “Not sure what to say other than this is the strangest story I’ve ever worked on.”
A few hours later, Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons, who has 2.45 million followers on Twitter, posted: “Some lunch reading for you East Coasters: Dr V’s Magic Putter by @calebhannan.”
At first, some in the media praised the story. Editors and reporters from Forbes, the Village Voice, Longform and Grantland shared it on social media.
Thursday, Jordan got a call from a friend telling her to look up the story.
She said it felt strange to see her and Vanderbilt’s lives so exposed. But nothing in the story was untrue except that Vanderbilt was 6 feet 1, not 6 feet 3.
But Friday and Saturday, and on into Sunday, journalists and transgender advocates filled social media with criticism and think-pieces on what went wrong and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
On Friday, Gawker reporter Adrian Chen tweeted a link to his 19,859 followers with this comment: “This story is unnervingly silent on whether the reporter’s investigation contributed to the subject’s suicide.”
On Saturday, James Ball, a special-projects editor at the Guardian’s U.S. newsroom tweeted: “Cannot conceive for a second why Grantland published that awful piece on ‘Dr V’.” He followed with: “The most chilling phrase ‘Before I told him about her past’- the reporter went around outing a woman as trans to her associates. Appalling.”
On Saturday, Max Linsky, editor of Longform, one of the first places to promote the story, sent this tweet: “Been thinking/talking a lot about Caleb’s story. Embarrassed by my initial reaction, which lacked empathy. I saw some but missed too much.”
On Sunday, Saeed Jones of BuzzFeed wrote the essay, “Transgender People Are Paying The Price For The Media’s Willful Ignorance.”
In it, he listed recent moments of the media’s transgender-related insensitivity from the last two years and added: “Recently, my editor-in-chief — arguing that I should try to be be a bit more understanding of people who don’t really ‘get it’ — said, ‘Saeed, you’re three years ahead of most people when it comes to thinking about transgender issues.’ But I’m not ahead. I’m late. We are all so late.”
On Sunday, ESPN issued a statement expressing condolences and vowing to continue their internal conversation.
On Monday, Grantland editor Simmons published a long apology and explanation, “I am apologizing on our behalf right now. My condolences to Dr. V’s friends and family for any pain our mistakes may have caused.
“To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.
“More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened.
“So for anyone asking the question “How could you guys run that?,” please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did. We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough.”
Grantland published it alongside an essay by Christina Kahrl, a publicly transgender-identifying sports reporter and board member of GLAAD, once known as Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
“(Grantland) really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information — as she very clearly did not — and left it at that.”
Hannan responded to an Arizona Republic request for comment Tuesday. In a telephone conversation, he said he couldn’t go on the record because he was working on a fuller response to be published when he is ready. But he wanted to know what Jordan had to say.
On Wednesday, ESPN’s vice president of communications Josh Krulewitz responded to an email requesting additional comment from Simmons. Krulewitz said Simmons respectfully declined. Simmons had said everything he wanted to in Monday’s letter.
‘She was a genius’
Today, Jordan is running Yar Golf. Since the story, interest in the putter has picked up.
Jordan is also figuring out how to live without the woman she describes as kind and devoted, who helped her recover from two hip surgeries by taking her in.
Jordan said Vanderbilt would’ve been more upset about the story outing her than by the discussion of her credentials. Jordan said she doesn’t know if Vanderbilt’s credentials are real.
“I didn’t question anything. I didn’t question her credentials from MIT and Wharton School of Business. I thought someone who could design a putter like that, and with that knowledge, where did she learn that? She was educated; she was a genius.
“It’s a mystery to me, too. If she didn’t have that education, where did she?” Her voice trailed off. “I mean, she could do electrical work, she could do circuits in houses, she could do plumbing work and, especially, work on cars.
“The truth to me is she created a product, a putter, that’s just revolutionary in the golf world ... She put her heart into it. She worked very hard and gave it her all until the very end, until she couldn’t give any more.”
Vanderbilt lived most of her life in a man’s body and learned to function in the world as such. This led to professional conflict, according to Hannan’s story and Jordan’s own recollections.
In Hannan’s story, Vanderbilt was described as so confrontational at her fleet maintenance job in Gilbert that she was fired. She was forced to drop her lawsuit when she wouldn’t admit publicly to having lived under another name.
Jordan said Vanderbilt was bold and aggressive when negotiating, and she sometimes “pushed a little too far.”
She mentioned a time Vanderbilt bid on a job, “The whole time she was speaking with these guys, she was speaking with them as if she was a man, not as if she was a woman (talking) to a man. Her demeanor is not how a woman would talk, and she didn’t get the contract.
“She had no idea what it was like to be in business as a woman.”
A complicated family
After her death, Vanderbilt’s three children came from Pennsylvania to sort through her belongings and to pick up her ashes. Her daughter had remained in touch with Vanderbilt, but her sons had not.
Storey, the medical assistant and longtime friend, was with Jordan and the children at the funeral home and remembers it this way:
“When the boys walked in, they said ‘We’re here to see our mother.’ And they cried, two big, burly adult men.
“But they had never really accepted her, never learned about the condition, never educated themselves about it. But when she died, they asked for their mother. It took her death for them to get it.”