Lots of buzz about Caleb Hannan’s amazing piece about “Dr. V,” Essay Anne Vanderbilt, an inventor of an ultratechno golf club. Excerpt:
But it wasn’t just the science behind Dr. V’s putter that intrigued McCord. It was the scientist, too. For starters, she was a woman in the male-dominated golf industry. She also cut a striking figure, standing 6-foot-3 with a shock of red hair. What’s more, she was a Vanderbilt, some link in the long line descending from Cornelius, the original Commodore. All of this would have been more than enough to capture McCord’s attention, but what he found most remarkable about Dr. V was where she had been before she started making putters. She told him she had spent most of her career as a private contractor for the Department of Defense, working on projects so secretive — including the stealth bomber — that her name wasn’t listed on government records. “Isn’t that about as clandestine as you can get?” McCord asked me.
He had his own peculiar way of verifying this information. McCord said he was on friendly terms with a few retired four-star generals. He told me that they not only knew of Dr. V, but also that one had even called her “one of us.” Dan Quayle was also an acquaintance. Unable to help himself, McCord once put the former vice-president on the phone with Dr. V and watched as they chatted about old Pentagon projects. McCord clearly enjoyed showing off his discovery, this exotic new addition to the world of golf. But he wouldn’t have stuck his neck out for Dr. V, whom he just called “Doc,” if he didn’t also believe in her product. Yar hadn’t made McCord a paid sponsor, but it didn’t matter — the Oracle was so good that he used it anyway. “It’s the only one I’ll have in my bag now,” he told me. It was why he had set up the meeting between Dr. V and the company whose products he was paid to endorse, TaylorMade. “I just wanted to make sure they saw her first,” he said.
Good grief! What a character. But it gets even odder, as Dr. V behaves ever more cagily. Finally:
The story of Dr. V and her putter was getting stranger by the second. An aeronautical physicist with a sun allergy builds the world’s greatest putter by rejecting conventional wisdom, then watches as deep-pocketed competitors try to steal her secrets and shut her out of the market. Just the explanation for the hole in the putter itself was outlandish. Dr. V had somehow found a way to turn an injury aid into a superior product. The strangest fact of all: The putter worked! Why else would Baddeley or McCord use it if they weren’t being paid? Clearly, there was only one thing left for me to do.
You really do have to read the whole thing. It turns out more bizarre than you could possibly have imagined. And it ends very badly for Dr. V, who killed herself when she knew that her whole story would be published, and her real story told against her will.
Question for the room: Is Caleb Hannan morally responsible for Dr. V’s suicide? There’s no doubt that she would be alive today if he hadn’t begun writing the piece about her. But there’s also no doubt that Dr. V was happy to cooperate with the piece as long as she could control what was going to be written. She knew that the author was a golf nut and a fanboy of her invention. She also loved passing herself off as a mysterious genius. Trouble was, she couldn’t control the story, and once the reporter started digging, he found that the mysterious Dr. V was not at all who she said she was — and that her deceptions had victims.
I think Hannan can’t be blamed for this mentally ill person’s suicide. He didn’t set out to take her down. He set out to write an admiring story about a reclusive genius who invented a new golf tool that stood to greatly improve the game. He had no idea, could not possibly have had any idea, where this story was going. When he found out her ultimate secret, how could he have kept it? She was happy to lie constantly when it suited her, and to steal, and to threaten, but when the journalist unraveled all her lies, she killed herself. And this is the journalist’s fault?
It’s always tragic when someone commits suicide. But I find it hard to understand how it’s would have been more moral for Hannan to have spiked his entire story because Dr. V didn’t want him to publish. Gawker, of course, is up in arms about it because it determines the morality of any issue involving sexual minorities by asking, “Is it good for the LGBTs?” Gawker has no problem outing gays it doesn’t like. Read the Hannan story, though; the moral complexities in this story are not easy to sort out.
If I were Caleb Hannan, would I feel bad today about being the catalyst for Dr. V’s suicide? Yes, of course. But a catalyst is not the same thing as a cause. I would have felt even worse as a journalist if I had yielded to Dr. V’s weird intimidation attempts, and declined to publish a valid story about an extremely unusual person who duped experts and everybody else, and who lied and cheated people, simply because I thought she was unstable. (Dr. V never threatened to kill herself to Hannan.) There is no doubt that Caleb Hannan is morally involved in Dr. V’s death. But the person who killed Dr. V was Dr. V, and she did it because she was about to be exposed as a liar and manipulator.
Overall, if I were Caleb Hannan, I would wish that I had never started investigating this story. He went into it expecting to celebrate the work of this mysterious golf wizard. He did not expect to learn what he learned. Still, you can’t un-know what you know. If you think he should not have published this piece, explain why. If you think publishing it was justified, how come?