Dan Savage has helped redefine what it means to be a family in the 21st Century. And given his ancestors, it’s no surprise why. Dan’s family history traces to the 1920s Chicago mob scene, a South Asian autocracy, and to a New York City apartment filled with men trying to save a community. We’ll tell these stories and introduce Dan to a surprise relative.
Twice Removed is produced by Meg Driscoll, Ngofeen Mputubwele, Audrey Quinn, and Kimmie Regler. Our senior producer is Eric Mennel. Editing by Jorge Just and Alex Blumberg. Original music and mixing by Haley Shaw. Research and Genealogy help from J. Mark Lowe, Krista Reynen, Eowyn Langolf, Erika Howton and the folks at Geni. Additional music by R-A-C, Tyler Strickland and Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Christopher Manning, Gene Trimble, Monica Garcia, Senator Dick Durbin (also a cousin of Dan’s), Riz Rollins, Amina Steinfels, Charles Manning and Richard Godbeer. Twice Removed is a production of Gimlet Media.
I’m AJ Jacobs. And this is Twice Removed. The show that proves we are, in fact, one big family.
Right now there are two people here with me, in separate studios. What they do not realize… is… they’re family. They’re related. One of these people… our mystery relative… will be hidden away until the end of the show. But the other…. is right here with me, in the studio… our guest!
Someone I couldn’t be more excited about … a man who has redefined what it means to be family in the 21st Century… which I know are big words, but I mean ‘em. Go ahead and introduce yourself
Dan: My name is Dan Savage, and I am an Irish, catholic, middle-aged gay dude from the North side of Chicago who lucked into a stupid syndicated sex advice column that turned into books and talking-headery and I haven’t had to really work a day of my life since my uh mid-20s.
And you are also… you’re an activist — you started the It Gets Better Project, to help support gay teens around the world.
Dan: That’s right.
So, Dan. Here’s how Twice Removed works. We’ve spent the last several months doing research, talking to distant relatives and historians… finding people who are related to you.
Dan: Whether they like it or not
AJ: A lot of them are dead so they can’t.
Dan: Well that’s convenient
Exactly. Now, Here… Here’s a chart, and on the far left side, that’s you, that’s Dan Savage, right there… And on the far right side, is your mystery relative… so, you can see their name is covered up….
Because it’s a mystery. And in between the two of you are forty-one family members, all connected by blood or marriage.
We’re going to make our way straight through this chain of relatives, one relative to the next… to the next, to the next… all the way to number forty one… that’s your mystery relative.
Along the way, we’re gonna stop at four of the most interesting people… and we’ll tell their stories.
Among them… a cousin who challenged an authoritarian regime. And a pair of relatives caught up in a presidential sex scandal.
AJ: Yeah, things get spicy
Dan: A current one or a past one?
AJ: I, uh, I will reveal that in due time.
Now… the very last person on this branch? Person number 41? That’s your mystery relative, who is in the next room over, listening in right now. You have any guesses who it might be?
Dan: Uh, No, none.
I’ve got the mystery relative in my headphones, so just one second, Dan, we’ll get back to ya… Hey mystery relative, I’m talking to you now. Dan cannot hear you, the rest of us can. How are you feeling? Anything you’d like to say? Remember, Dan cannot hear you… just me and the rest of the world…
Mystery Relative: Hi. I’m alright, how are you doing?
AJ: I’m doing okay. Are you OK? Are you nervous, you comfortable?
Mystery Relative: Yup. Everything’s fine. (laughs)
AJ: They giving you snacks over there?
Mystery Relative: Um. I’ve got water.
AJ: (to dan) He’s doing ok. He’s got water.
OK, we’ll talk you later. Don’t go away!
Now at the end of the hour, we’ll bring the mystery guest … into the studio for a family reunion unlike any other: two people coming face-to-face with all the ways they’re connected. Hopefully you two will be filled with delight… though it could be abject horror. You never know. It’s family.
OK, Dan Before we hear about your distant family, I want to start with the family you live with now. Your husband Terry and your son, DJ.
AJ: Can you tell me about how you met Terry?
Dan: (laughs) Well, you know, I talk at a lot of colleges and often some gay kid will get up and say that he wants what I have, he wants marriage, and family, and children, and a dog. And wants everything that I have. But he can’t find it because he hates the bar scene and doesn’t drink or do drugs and doesn’t hook up. Then he’ll ask, how did I get it? How did I get the husband and the kid and a white pickett fence? And I’ll look at him and say, well I was at a gay bar, and I was drunk and I met this guy who was really high, and we had a one-night stand. We totally hooked up. So you may want to revisit your strategy around finding a husband.
AJ: Well speaking of that, tell me how it all went down. Did you approach Terry?
Dan: Terry was on the dance floor and looking amazing, ‘cause he looks amazing. At this bar, Rebar in Seattle. And I was standing at coat check because I do not dance. And I kept pointing him out to this drag queen, named Ginger Vytus, who worked the coat check. And I kept pointing him out and kept saying “look at the guy, he’s so beautiful, oh my god he’s so beautiful.” And he walked over to the coat check to get something out of his coat, ecstasy, and Ginger nudged me and in a loud enough voice for Terry to hear said, “you’ve been telling me all night how hot he is, why don’t you tell him?” And if she hadn’t said that, I never would have spoken to him. He went off to dance with his friends, came up and talked to me, we had a beer, ended up making out in a bathroom of the bar. He came back to my place, we had a one-night stand. And in the morning he jumped in the shower and I literally had to go get his wallet out of his pants pocket to look at his driver’s license because I couldn’t remember his name.
[Laughs] So Dan, you’ve written quite a bit about your family in your books. You wrote about your mom. About your grandma. And seems to me you are a bit nostalgic. You you like this family history stuff.
Dan: I do and I like having things around me that remind me of of my history. I have my great grandparents hymnals and they’re just sitting on the our shelf, in our house, kind of prominently. I see them there every once in a while and I think about my great grandparents. And I have the dining room furniture that was in my grandparents apartment when I was growing up, and belonged to my great grandparents. There the it’s the dining room set from my grandfather’s childhood home. It’s not very glamorous. It’s like working class, Southside Chicago German furniture – and it’s big and heavy. But if I had a different dining room table it wouldn’t be the dining room table that my grandfather sat at with on Christmas eve with his parents, and that my mom sat at with her parents, that I sat at with my parents, and that my son has sat at at with his parents. How would you throw that table away?
AJ: Right. When you think of family, what what’s the definition for you?
Dan: Your people. The uh the people you came from and grew up around and were surrounded by. Genes and genetics gather people around you for good or ill. But then there’s a choice that goes into assembling family when you’re an adult. Armistead Maupin who wrote the Tales Of The City books, talks about there’s your biological family and then there’s your logical family. Hopefully there’s a lot of overlap there. It’s wonderful when someone’s biological family is also their logical family. But for a lot of people that’s not true and for a lot of queer people that’s particularly not the case. I’m lucky that my biological family is also a part of my logical family.
Well, Dan, today we’re going to explore that biological family of yours… and maybe even try to find some logic in it. These are your people, Dan. they share more in common with you than just a distant ancestor… Because like you, they push the boundaries. They break the rules.
So. Are you ready?
Dan: I’m nervous and excited
That is great. That’s the exact combination of emotions we want. Nervous and excited.
So. Our first stop today is taking us just a few generations back. So, take a look at the family map. And if we start with the ‘you are here’ circle –that’s you, that’s Dan Savage.
Dan: I see that
And we hop back past your mom, past your grandpa, and we land on your great grandfather — Walter Schneider. And he’s one of your first relatives to be born here in the United States.
I want to show you something to start off, Dan. Take a look at this article I have right here… it’s from the October 28th… 1865 edition of the New York Times. The headline: “Marine Intelligence.” And it’s a list of boats… Boats that arrived in New York the day before… And about a quarter of the way down the list… is a boat from Bremen, Germany. The SS Johann Kepler. And that… is your family’s first appearance in American mainstream media.
Dan: Oh My god.
Your great, great, great grandparents and their children spent 52 days at sea on that boat. They’d left this little farming village in Southern Germany called Gernsheim and they’re hoping for a different kind of life.
Now those kids who came over, they had kids of their own as people do. And at least two of them did find a very different kind of life… deep in the criminal underworld — running with some of the most notorious characters in 1920s Chicago.
Dan: Oh My god.
(Laughs) So that’s our first story today Dan… three steps away on our long branch of relatives here… your great grandfather Walter Schneider and his brother George. Walter and George… brothers in crime.
This is an article from the Chicago Tribune, back in 1902. It’s a list of new businesses incorporated in the city the previous day. And on that list… There’s a business called… The Corker Club. It’s a saloon and cigar shop. One of its owners… George F. Schneider. That’s Your great grandfather Walter’s brother. The two of them, they ran the joint together.
But that’s just the start of it, Dan. You see… just a few years later… Chicago Police listed this saloon as literally one of the shadiest places in the city — that’s the word they used — “shady.” There were fights. There was alleged arson. Even attempted murder.
And juiciest of all… we discovered that the Corker Club was at the center of one of the largest illegal gambling syndicates in the United States.
Dan: I’m so proud
AJ: (Laughs) We thought you would be.
Trimble: There was roulette, pharaoh, dice and poker games.
This is Gene Trimble. Gene was a professional gambler for 20 years, later in life he got into history and became an expert on places like the Corker Club.
With games like poker and roulette, the Corker was sort of your classic underground gambling joint. But… there was a main attraction… horse racing.
For a club like Corker… horse races meant big money. Take just one race on any given day…
Trimble: The big payoff might have been three or four or five hundred which was huge in those days compared to today. But they would hold 70% off the top for themselves.
AJ: 70%, that’s a pretty good business!
So they were good capitalists your great grandparents. But there was a catch.
Trimble: Schneider owned it. Every week they’d pay off the gang for protection, you know what I mean?
So that protection money was going to a guy named Mont Tennes… And Dan, this is where your family’s story intersects with Chicago’s notorious criminal underground.
Mont Tennes was an underworld kingpin. He cornered the market on illegal gambling in Chicago… He was known for bombing his rival’s stores to put them out of business. So he was hardcore.
Now we know all this because in 1911, the federal government opens an investigation into Tennes’s wire service. Fourteen different people are named as part of his syndicate, including one of your family members. George Schneider.
Dan: (Laughs) Oh my god, that’s hilarious. My grandfather, Ed Schneider was a good Catholic, a member of the Knights of Columbus – I couldn’t have imagined that his father was involved in organized crime. That flabbergasts me because they were so…. proper.
That just in one generation removed, somehow the criminal connections and any sort of grit was wiped away.
Now, the federal investigation ultimately did not shut down Tennes’ wire service or the Corker Club. So the club continued to operate, well into the 1920s.
Now, we wanted to get a first hand look at the Corker Club.
So we flew to Chicago to see what we could find
PLANE: Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Chicago, where the local time is 638….
AJ: I love your face..i, uh, i, uh I love that you (laughs)
Dan: I love that you guys don’t just dig around in archives a little bit and go on Ancestry.com – you guys got on airplanes and went places
AJ: we’re hardcore here at Twice removed, that’s right
We enlisted the help of this guy…
Jolet: Alright. You guys want to take the interstate or you want to roll down south Street?
His name is Brian Jolet. He’s a historian who specializes in prohibition. He’s built a map of underground joints that popped up in Chicago in the 20s… Little distilleries in the backs of homes…. secret trading posts… tons of little dots cover this map…
Jolet: All these addresses are places I’ve located in in court records or newspapers…
Jolet was kind enough to take us to the location of your great-grandfather’s saloon.
So we passed by the site of the old Comiskey Park… we passed by one of the first clubs where blacks and whites mingled together freely in the city… We were just a few blocks from the saloon… I could almost smell the whiskey in the air… And then…
AJ: This is it! [PAUSE] This is the historic corner where Dan’s great-grandpa had a saloon. And it is… A huge [PAUSE] disappointment.
Dan: haha. What did you find there?
AJ: Anticlimax beyond anticlimax. Just kidding it’s great. It’s a uh empty lot. And it’s uh, I’m sure there’s… Hey Look! That looks like an empty beer can. A natty ice brand of beer… so it all comes full circle.
So, as you heard when we went to visit, nothing left of the Corker Club. Totally demolished a few years ago. But, Gene Trimble, the professional gambler… he was able to salvage a little something. You see, Gene, like you, Dan, he’s a bit of collector. And his specialty is old poker chips from saloons and defunct casinos.
And one day, a few years ago, Gene’s friend came across a set of these sleek, 1920s looking chips with two Cs on them. Red and white. He’d never seen these before.
Trimble: So these things come on ebay and the guy selling them has no clue what they are. Calls them old poker chips.
And so Gene goes through the archive of the company that makes these chips…
Trimble: Well, I pull the record and there it is, it says Corker Club right on the record.
Trimble: Is he there, the grandson?
AJ: No we’re taping this now and we’re going to play it for him when he comes in.
Trimble: I want his address. I wanna send him one of those corker club chips. I thought he’d like to have one.
Dan: I would die…. I would die to have one of those chips
Well we did not give him your address, but he did send it to us… And we actually, in my back pocket I have for you… a bona-fide gambling chip from the Corker Club — the joint operated by your great grandpa and his brother.
Dan: Oh my god… It looks like the first draft of the Chicago Cubs logo or the Chicago Bears logo. Oh my God it’s amazing… I’m gonna cry oh my god– this is like– I’m all about things. I think objects have… not quite souls, but objects have this permanence. You know we talk about things like they’re the ephemera in our lives when we’re the ephemera in theirs. That this is still here, Walter and George are gone, Ed Schneider’s gone, my mother’s gone, anybody with any connection to actually using this at the time that the club was in operation, they’re all gone. And this is somehow still here. I have a photograph of my great grandparents in my dining room, uh, uh, Walter Schneider and his wife, and uh, I’m gonna put this right beside it. I’m gonna cry, oh my god, you guys, I didn’t. I like rushed here from work, not expecting to uh, get suckerpunched. Anyway, thank you.
AJ: Of course.
Dan: we could end here and I would be ecstatic and happy but you also have a human being that you’re giving me today? That’s above and beyond the call!
AJ: Yah. You need a minute? You ok?
Dan: Go ahead. I’m gonna need like 30 minutes.
So. You’ve got this Corker club chip now. And I’m wondering what’s an item that you would like to leave behind of yours to your great grandkids?
Dan: Omg I have no idea. Um. I have this affection for odd things and orphan objects that no one else would love one of my prized possessions is a dental bridge that I found in East Berlin after a protest against the communist government and I found them on the paving stones in a little pool of blood and uh I picked it up and put it in my pocket and took it back to west berlin with me that day after the demonstrations and I have it in my desk as a reminder of sometimes you gotta fight, sometimes you gotta go into the streets and take a risk and its tremendously emotionally significant to me like whoever was out there and got cracked in the face and had their bridge knocked out… And i’m definitely gonna leave that behind.
Well it’s interesting you bring up the idea that sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in, because that’s very relevant to our next story. Which is about a cousin who stands up to an authoritarian regime, with a detergent bottle. [DAN LAUGH] But first… a quick break.
Dan: I’m going to text a picture of this to my brother right now. He’s going to shit himself.
Welcome back to Twice Removed, the show that proves we are, in fact, one big family.
We’re continuing on our path through Dan Savage’s family tree. We’re on our way through a chain of 41 people, related through blood, through marriage… and it’s all leading us to Dan’s mystery relative. Any clues who it might be yet, Dan?
Dan: Martha Stewart?
AJ: Could be. Alright I don’t want to ruin anything..
AJ: You saw all the security outside right?
Dan: I did. I wondered what that line of cadillacs was for.
And mystery relative, let me just check in with you. You ok? They treating you good?
Mystery Relative: Oh wonderfully, and um this is quite hilarious actually. (Laughs)
AJ: He says it’s quite hilarious actually (laughs) he likes the anticipation… OK, we’ll get back to you, stay tight.
Mystery Relative: We’re here…
OK, so, let’s get back to our family tree and see if we can get a little closer to bringing you two together.
Now, we just heard about Walter Schneider, the saloon owner. He was four steps up the chain from where it starts with you. Now If you follow along on our chain, Dan, we’re going one-two-three steps away from Walter now, two generations down to the 1960s. That’s when our next relative was growing up… just a few miles from you, Dan. She’s your 1st cousin once removed… your grandma and her mom were sisters. So, pretty close. Her name is Jane Steinfels Hussein.
Now, before the break, Dan, you were talking about that dental bridge that you found in Berlin — about how sometimes you have to fight for what you believe… I think it’s safe to say… Jane would agree.
Jane: Sometimes I feel there are some things I will not accept and that there is some shit I will not eat and I have to get out on the street and and say that and even if my being on the street is not going to change this, it’s important for my own self respect that I make this statement that I, I am not going along with this voluntarily.
Dan: She’s definitely a relative of mine.
AJ: (Laughs) There is some stuff you will not eat.
Dan: That is right, that is an expression that I use all the time.
AJ: I love it.
Alright so Jane has spent her entire life working for social justice. As a kid, she marched to help integrate schools in Chicago. In college, she marched against the Vietnam war and in support of the Civil Rights movement. She even went — this is my favorite — she went to protest on her wedding day. And she was still wearing her dress, and she had the bouquet and everything. So she’s hardcore.
We want to focus on just one of Jane’s protests… It was a particularly dangerous protest… And it was on the other side of the world.
When Jane was in college, she fell in love with and married a grad student named Faheem Hussain. Faheem passed away a few years ago, so you’re not going to hear from him in this story.
But Faheem, he was a gregarious guy. Big laugh. Big beard. And he was from Pakistan. Islamabad. And, after school, he wanted to move back home. Jane was a few months pregnant, but she was feeling disenchanted with life in the US… so she figured… why not try Pakistan? So, in 1968, she got on a plane.
Jane: Of course it was a big adjustment to to learn the language. To learn how to shop. To learn how to cook. I had no idea what it would be like raising a child in Pakistan. I hadn’t the faintest idea.
Moving to a new country with new customs and a new language… that can be really isolating. Most of Jane’s family was back in Chicago. So she and Faheem improvised. They built up their own little logical family… people who shared their ideas. People like this guy.
Pervez: I wanted to go and make revolution in Pakistan.
This is Pervez Hoodbhoy. He’s a professor of physics and sociology in Pakistan.
Pervez: I was uh convinced that this was an extremely unjust society that I had been brought up in. And so I wanted now to change everything.
Pervez and Faheem worked together at Islamabad University. They were peas in a pod… 1960s intellectuals, just out of grad school. They were all activists… socialists, really.
Together, they were hoping to change Pakistan. Pervez volunteered as a teacher and a paramedic in a small village… Jane organized demonstrations for women’s rights. That was one thing she was really passionate about.
Pervez: Jane was an amazing person. She was very firm. Knew exactly what needed to be done. Over time she became essentially the leader of the group that uh we worked in.
But then 1978 rolls around … Jane and Faheem now have a second child… a daughter. And there’s a government coup. A new dictator comes into power. His name is Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. He institutes martial law, shuts down the country’s major newspaper. And he begins to target activists like your cousin Jane. Homes are raided. People disappear. One member of Jane’s group, a guy named Nayyar, remembers just how scary that time was.
Nayyar: All of us were afraid. You know, when when these friends were arrested, I was with them at the police station all day and all night. And in this time, my wife cleaned the house and burned all the material that could incriminate me. She literally burned it all. Very very very clever of her.
For people like Jane, and Pervez, and Nayyar… whose whole way of life was about fighting government oppression… Rather than be silenced, this is the moment they double down.
They found out an official from the U.S. Department of State was coming to tour Islamabad. And the group thought he was the perfect target for their message. They could write pro-democracy, anti-imperialist slogans on the walls throughout the city.
Jane: We knew pretty much the route he would be on.
Pervez: It had to be done very fast before anybody got any inkling because now Islamabad was becoming more and more policed. Even if it was midnight you would have um spies and they’d be following every car.
And so Pervez invented an ingenious little device to help them cover more ground…
Pervez: It was a detergent bottle. At the end of which was a shaving brush. So that when you squeezed the detergent bottle, out would come the paint.
Nayyar: But the thing was that we were clever. We had used oil with it, mobile oil.
Jane: With the motor oil, you could whitewash the slogan and the slogan would still come through. It wasn’t so easy to get rid of.
Jane: So we were papering the whole city with this, and we waited until just before dawn to go to the police headquarters. I was at the wheel of the van, and we all had whistles, so that if somebody would approach – someone would whistle, and everybody would be able to jump in the van and, and get away.
And an escape plan was extra important. Because as the political stakes were getting higher, so were the personal ones… it wasn’t just cans of paint and posters in the back of that car…
Jane: My daughter was sound asleep on the seat in the back…. And I did sit there thinking you know, is this responsible parenthood? Having my little daughter innocently sleeping in the back of this van when the punishment for spreading hatred against the armed forces can be death.
Now, ultimately… the plan worked just like they hoped. They got home safe. But Jane, Pervez, and Nayyar had taken a huge risk. And it caught the attention of authorities.
Secret police started following their every move, and arresting people they knew. Some of their friends were tortured. To the point that one of them gave up Pervez as the inventor of the graffiti device… so Pervez had to stay out of the country for a while.
Eventually, Jane moved back to the United States.
And those who stuck around, like Nayyar, they did see revolutionary ideas take over Pakistan… just not the revolutionary ideas they’d been hoping for. They’d been fighting for progress… and from their point of view, the country actually slid backwards…
Nayyar: The sad thing is, the society has gone completely the other way than what we thought it should be. The new young people have very different political ideas. They are more attracted to terrorism. They are more attracted to religious fundamentalism. And all that we did has completely gone in vain. We didn’t do enough. We should have done more.
Jane sees it differently. To her, the effects of their work, they may not be obvious, but they reverberate through.
Jane: when I went back to Pakistan in the spring of 1991 -there was an old man – a cobbler, sitting on a handcart with his leather and his tools. And he started yelling at us and he started shouting [“Amriki samarage, morda baad!”?] Which means “Death to American imperialism!” He started getting more and more excited and screaming more and more loudly, and we got really worried. And then he laughed (pause) and he said, “I remember YOU. You’re the girl who spoke at the demonstration against the invasion of Cambodia.” So that old man 20 years later, remembered me and remembered my speech.
Jane: It made me feel very good that, you know you protest or you write something and it seems like a flash in the pan. But sometimes people do remember. And, and then you feel that, that it does have some worth.
So that’s your 1st cousin, once removed.
Dan: Who has a potty mouth like me and likes to give speeches sometimes, which I have done. I have been arrested in the U.S. Capitol. I have marched on the White House. I have handcuffed myself to the doors of a, a Department of Corrections in Wisconsin. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone to a protest where the risk was as extreme as the risk that Jane, uh, was running, and I admire that, tremendously.
Dan: You know, somebody’s got to stand up. Somebody’s got to say something, an and you know not everybody is in a position where they can and so those who can really ought to.
Alright… Dan our next story is all about family… and what makes someone part of a family. Is it genetics? Is it marriage? Is it public opinion?
Dan: Wow where is this going? (Laughs)
We have to travel a little further out on the branches of your family tree for this one… we’re going to go one step over to Jane’s sister and husband in law, and then 7 generations back to the 1700s, jog through a couple of marriages, some births, and finally get back to the 1890s… To your next relative, a remarkable woman named Nan Britton.
Our producer Eric Mennel has been looking into her story.
Eric: Hello, Dan.
So I’m going to put you on the spot: who’s your favorite US president?
Dan: I really have tremendous admiration particularly in the waning days of the Obama administration for Barack Obama. I think he’s a much better president than we deserved.
I was kind of counting on you saying Warren G. Harding.
Dan: (Laugh) No no, not Warren G Harding. Unfortunately.
Well… that’s who my story’s about so we’ll have to settle, if that’s okay.
Dan: Warren G Harding’s my second favorite.
(Laughs) Okay well just as sort of a refresher, Warren Harding was a republican Senator from a small town in Ohio. And in 1920 he was elected president. His campaign theme was returning America to normalcy. We had just come out of World War One, and he was determined to get the country back on track.
But, two years into his presidency, Warren Harding suffered a brain hemorrhage and died.
And history does not remember Warren Harding fondly. His administration was implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal – sort of this textbook bribery for government contracts scandal. And many of his associates were very corrupt — they took bribes from bootleggers and such.
Dan: Probably even my grandfather (laughs)
Eric: Very possibly
But nowadays, Warren G. Harding is frequently listed as one of the worst presidents in American history.
But you gotta figure, uh, having a President in the family is still a big deal. Even if he isn’t Mount Rushmore material.
So I called up someone who would know…
Eric: Hi, is this Peter?
Eric: Hey Peter, it’s Eric. How are you doing?
Peter: Hi Derek. Wait a minute, my dog is starting to make a horrible sound. Why don’t you go outside and leave me alone, huh?
This is Peter Harding — grand nephew of Warren G. Harding. His grandfather was Warren’s brother. And since Warren and his wife never had any kids of their own, that makes Peter one of the president’s closest living relatives. Which wasn’t always to his benefit.
Peter: When I took history in the 9th grade, and we got to teapot dome scandal, my arch rival, Bob Heffner, coming up to me after history class and going teapot dome! Teapot dome! And I thought this is embarrassing.
Eric: [laughter] I’m sorry to laugh at your…
Peter: No no, it’s funny in a way.
Eric: It’s a funny thing to pick on someone about. Their grandfather’s political scandal
Peter: I know! But it was not a super positive thing to be related to harding because he was part of scandalous republican administration.
Now Dan what Peter didn’t realize was just how scandalous this whole thing was. The real dirt was hidden away … on his father’s bookshelf.
Peter: He had this library down in the basement. And it was kind of his little Man Cave. And among the books that he had in his man cave was The President’s Daughter.
Peter: And I asked him what that was. And he said oh that’s a, you know that’s a whole bunch of lies. And uh and there’s no truth to this book. And I said, well then why do we have it? And he said we need to know what the opposition was saying. And it made me very curious
Peter: So I remember in junior high school one time going down and taking the book out and looking at it, and pulling it out, opening it up, reading a few lines of it and then feeling like I really shouldn’t be doing this and putting it back. This was serious business with Warren G. Harding and my dad. I knew that that was somehow sacred to him and that I just dare not go too close to it or I might get into trouble.
So Peter put the book away. It sat on the shelf until his father died… it got packed into a box. Moved from house to house… Pushed around a couple of basement floors… Until 50 years later the book found its way back into the hands of one Peter Harding. And this time… he couldn’t help himself.
Peter: So I found the book, and i thought, you know what, I’m going to read the damn thing now because my dad is gone and everybody is gone that would care about it, and I’m curious.
Nan: I was born in Claridon, Ohio, a very small village about ten miles east of Marion…
That’s the first line of The President’s Daughter, written by Nan Britton. That’s your distant relative, Dan. Um, the book is a memoir. It’s about a love affair with President Warren G Harding and it started in a Manhattan hotel when she was 22 years old and the then Senator, Harding, was in his fifties.
Nan: We had scarcely closed the door behind us when we shared our first kiss… I shall never, never forget how Mr. Harding kept saying, after each kiss, “God!… God, Nan!” … And as I kissed him back, I thought that he surpassed even my gladdest dreams of him.
Shortly after Harding became president, Britton went to visit him, in the White House…
Nan: He greeted me cordially… Mr. Harding said to me that people seemed to have eyes in the sides of their heads down there… he introduced me to the one space where he thought we might share kisses in safety… a small closet… evidently a place for hats and coats. We repaired there many times in the course of my visits to the White House, and in the darkness of a space not more than five feet square… the President of the United States and his adoring sweetheart made love.
Peter: And when you read the book it’s a journal of a of a young woman’s experience. I got it right away that nobody could make up that kind of shit. She was telling the truth. I got it from reading the book.
Now the more he read, the more it bugged Peter that his family had tried to keep Nan Britton hidden. To him, Nan Britton was family. And he wanted to find out more.
So he started making some phone calls, and he heard about a possible grandchild of Nan’s… last name was Bleasing… out in Oregon.
Peter: I just called him up on the phone and left a message and said I was Peter Harding I was related to President harding and that I wanted to make contact with their family
Jim: So I grabbed the number right away and I called him and, he said it was Peter Harding, I’ve been trying to find you. I said I been trying to find you forever.
This is Jim Bleasing. He’s Nan Britton’s grandson.
Jim: Some people call me handsome but I go by Jim. (laughs)
When Handsome was growing up, he knew all about this book. Because it wasn’t a secret around his household. His grandmother, Nan, talked about Warren Harding all the time.
Jim: Oh she was in love with him. She was so in love with him. That’s all she talked about was him. Even when he was gone even when we were grown up, she would get the biggest smile on her face whenever she talked about him. She loved him to death, I mean she loved him til the day she died.
Now, the President’s Daughter shot to the top of the bestsellers list. But it did ruffle a lot of feathers. There were even censors who tried in vain to stop it from being printed.
Jim: I remember her saying she’d walk in the stores and They’d keep it behind the counter, they didn’t want people to see it. Come on. There’s nothing in that book bad. Did you see anything in there that was bad?
Eric: There was nothing that racy.
Jim: No, not at all. I mean it’s like we were watching deep throat. The way they talked about it.
Eric: If there are 50 shades of gray, 2 or 3 shades of gray.
Jim: If even that. I know, it’s nothing.
It wasn’t just the sex scenes that were scandalous. It was Nan Britton’s claim… right there in the book’s title… that President Warren G. Harding had gotten her pregnant. That she had delivered the child. And that the child was now in the world, without a father. Her name was Elizabeth. And she was Jim Blaesing’s mom. Which means… Handsome Jim, is Warren G. Harding’s Grandson.
Normally, being related to a President comes with all sorts of side benefits. People respect you a little more… you have a go-to topic for your college admissions essay… you get considered for jobs you probably don’t deserve…. But when you’re relationship to the president isn’t recognized… when the world wants to look the other way… the attention you get is very different.
Take the 1960 Presidential election. On one side of the country you have Peter Harding, a student at Yale. On the other coast, Jim Blaesing is still in grade school. Here’s Peter.
Peter: When I was a freshman at yale I got a call from a dean at Yale and he said somebody at the New Haven, whatever it is, courier the paper there wants to talk to you and I thought, what on earth about? And i went to this meeting at the paper with two other people. And one was Robert Taft, who was in the class ahead of me and the other was a relative Rutherford B Hayes, it was like 3 boys related to presidents, and they asked us who was going to win the election. So Yale was very aware I was in a presidential family and used it.
Meanwhile Jim Bleasing was in California. And, because of the election, the press was looking for some old dirt to dig up on the Republican party. By then, Nan Britton had become the go-to for that sort of thing.
Jim: I came home school with a bunch of my buddies. And the front yard was covered with TV cameras and the front door of my house was just cracked open a little bit. And my mom had her face right in the middle of it and saying I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to talk. And guys were running up to me and offering me money for a picture of my mom and everything. And they were calling her names on the outside of the TV and I’d hear them talking – and you know, at that age, they talk about your mom you’re going to knock them down. And so, I ended up taking, a couple of my buddies took me around to the back door. And that went on for weeks, and we’d get calls on the phone and I knew what was going on. My dad would pick up the phone, hello, hello, and then he’d sit and listne for a moment and then slam the phone down. This is why we have no pictures of my mom. Is that, whenever the camera comes out at a family function she disappears. Because she was hiding from the camera all the time and always hiding from people, you know.
Dan: That’s so sad..
Eric: yeah it sounds like it was a lot harder on Jim’s mom then it was on Jim’s grandma
So after so many years Jim and Peter decided that the best way to put the controversy to bed was a DNA test.
DNA can tell two people if they share a common ancestor… and how far back that is, roughly. So Jim and Peter spit in some tubes and sent them off to get tested. And they waited. 1 week. 2 weeks. Eventually, the results came back.
It was a 99% certainty for second cousins. After almost 90 years, Nan Britton’s story could no longer be denied. Which made Jim and his family the closest living relatives to the president.
This was a big deal. And it called for an old-fashioned family reunion. The Bleasings and the Hardings. They came together in a park. And Jim had a great time.
Jim: All of these guys – we got along with them like we’d known them all our life. I mean, we connected with them so well. This whole family. My mom would have had sisters brothers, everything, you know what I mean? Cousins, I mean you know. And, It’s like come on she lost out on all of that. She lost out on, like Peter says, she lost out on everything. The schooling, the family to go to from you know place to place. And everything you know.
Because the world refused to accept her, Nan did miss out on a lot. But she had her believers too. Jim wanted to prove that to me when I went out to visit him.
Jim: She would send me stuff all the time. To keep.
Jim goes to a closet near his kitchen.
Jim: So I’m gonna hit you with one thing right off the bat.
And he pulls out a box with a bunch of photos and papers in it. There’s a big yellow envelope, filled with bubble wrap. He unfolds the bubble wrap and he pulls out a little piece of fabric.
Jim: See this piece material.
Eric: It’s a piece of cloth with flowers on it.
Jim: You know what this is? 200 years old, Martha Washington’s wedding dress.
Eric: No it’s not. Whaaat? No way.
Jim: Yep. Martha Freaking Washington’s wedding dress.
Eric: That’s amazing.
Jim: Look at the back, look at the quality of the material. It’s still… Look at what kind of shape it’s in.
Jim: So you need to read the letter. I’m not lying to you. I’m going to let you read the letter.
Eric: Yeah yeah, I’m going to admit, I’m skeptical. But I wanna, but I wanna, to be convinced.
Jim: This is Martha Washington’s wedding dress. When I opened this, my hand was shaking. This is Martha freakin’ Washington’s wedding dress.This is unbelievable, here’s the envelope, and when you read this letter you are going to shit.
Eric: I am prepared to shit.
Jim: Ok, well get ready cause you will…and I, this is, yeah hold on a second this isn’t it. I’m a little concerned right now. The letter is gone.
Eric: Oh no.
Jim: wow, I’m freaking out right now…
The letter says that the fabric was a gift. It came from a millionaire who had read Britton’s book and was convinced by her claims. Jim had sent the fabric to be appraised, and when it came back, the original letter was missing.
Jim: I’m telling you, that is Martha Washington’s piece of dress.
For me, it’s easy to see why Jim is concerned. You know, he’s got a digital copy of the letter, but, with this kind of stuff, it’s all about authenticity. For the better part of a century, his life, his mother’s life, his grandmother’s life have all been called into question by historians… even today they’re not really featured in the main Harding museum in Ohio at all. I mean they’ll answer questions if you have them, but it’s certainly not a focal point of the museum.
Dan: That’s hugely disrespectful. And it’s grounded in prejudices and stigma around infidelity and children born out of wedlock. Embrace this family history in the same way that the Jefferson family association has embraced the descendants of Sally Hemings…
Eric: Right, and I did call the harding home and they said that they’re planning an expansion by 2020, and as part of that they hope to feature some more information about Nan and The President’s Daughter.
All right, Dan. We have one more stop before we get to your mystery relative.
By the way, hey, Mystery Relative — are you alright? You getting antsy? …
Mystery Relative: No, not yet.
AJ: Not yet, okay, we only have one more, and remember these are your relatives too.
Mystery Relative: Apparently (laughs)
AJ: Okay, he’s having a good time.
Now, Dan, looking at this map of your family, if we start from Nan Britton right here… We go back 7 generations into the past, … We zip forward in time… seven births, one marriage later…. We get to 1942, the birth of a guy named Paul. Paul is no longer with us, but his three nieces are. Their names are Doreen, Corinne and Jina.
And when they talk about their uncle Paul, there’s one word they always use.
Doreen: Uncle paul was very very private.
Jina: I think he was very private
Corinne: He just wasn’t Mr. Expressive. He was…very private.
Paul grew up in Oregon… He was the youngest of five kids… He was a star on his high school football team… served in Vietnam as a green beret… and when he got out of the military, he moved to New York and got a job in finance. So, we’re talking An all-american guy with a traditional, buttoned up job.
At least that’s how Paul seemed from across the country, to his three young nieces back in Oregon. But then they started visiting Uncle Paul. In 1979, Corinne… the middle niece… She visited New York with a friend and discovered that Uncle Paul had gotten a little more… casual.
Corinne: When we went out it was in the summer and he would wear levis uh cowboy boots um muscle t-shirt with a Hawaiian shirt over the top of it unbuttoned.
One night, Corrine asked Paul if he’d take her and her friend out to a club… Studio 54. He agreed, and around midnight they walk over and get in line.
Corinne: They had the big red rope. You had lots of people around big line. And we were dressed like we were 18 years old from Portland, Oregon in our little wooden sandals and, uh you know long skirts and vests. And and people are you know extreme like the woman dressed as a cat on her hands and knees with a leash being walked around by someone. And everything else. Things I hadn’t seen.
Corinne: You know, I hate to say maybe he lived 2 different lives, but he just kept that part of his life private. He had, a big family that wasn’t his family.
Jina: He almost lived two worlds. Two very separate worlds.
This is Jina, the youngest of the three sisters. By the time she visited Uncle Paul, he had come out as gay to his family. But Paul was still a mystery in a lot of ways.
When Jina was in New York, Paul would hold these big meetings. They looked serious.
Jina: Well, all I remember is wow my uncle Paul had a lot of gorgeous men coming into his apartment! I knew it wasn’t tupperware or anything, but had no idea what the meeting was about.
Lawrence: Right away they were calling it the gay cancer.
This is Dr Lawrence Mass, he wrote what’s considered to be the first feature article on the disease that would become known as AIDS.
Lawrence: There was this deafening silence out there. The alarm was building, people were dying, nobody knew what was happening, and it wasn’t really being covered anywhere adequately. So Paul realized the seriousness and agreed to call people together.
So Dan, those meetings Jina remembered… they were the first meetings of the very first volunteer-run AIDS organization in the country.
Dan: That would become Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Exactly. And your relative, Paul…. Paul Popham, was the founding president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
For Paul… social activism was a real departure. He’d always been this private person. Here are Paul’s nieces Jina and Doreen again.
Jina: He just thought I can’t be silent and you know, all these people are getting sick and dying around us and we need to do something and I think he felt like not enough was being done.
Doreen: then AIDS comes along and just throws this huge major life-changing thing for him, to have to start being, you know, interactive, being out there, being verbal, being vocal.
Paul led the Gay Mens Health Crisis and raised tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS research… They started a hotline, they provided counseling, and legal support for people who were positive… The organization is still active today.
Paul himself was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. [start testimony tape underneath] The next year he testified before congress…
Congressman: Mr. Popham will you please proceed… The microphones incidentally are not particularly sensitive. So if you bring them very close to your mouth I think that we’ll here you better.
Paul: I think I come to this we a unique experience of having been involved in AIDS since the very beginning.
At a hearing about developing drugs to combat AIDS. The room is filled with dozens of congress people… doctors, pharmaceutical reps… And there’s Paul. He’s thin, his suit hangs loose … The disease has taken its toll on him. In front of him is a handwritten placard. It says Mr. Popham.
Paul: … So today we still feel that the government is not acting in the best interests of the country from a public health point of view….
Jina: I’m proud of what he did.
This is his youngest niece, Jina again.
Jina: I don’t know that I ever told him that I was really proud of him coming out even though that was not easy for him and to talk about what was going on and, and just trying to educate people. I think that’s pretty amazing when you’re private and not comfortable with that.
Paul: Thank you.
Congressman: Thank you very much Mr. Popham.
Paul passed away a year later… at age 45… but, his legacy lives on…
Dan: I’m staggered to know that I have any connection to the group that met in that room which included Larry Kramer, um, and and other heroes of the movement to save the lives of so many millions of not just gay men, but millions of men and women all over the planet. Uh, I – I’m a little speechless.
AJ: Do you remember when you first heard about … How old were you in the the mid 80’s when you first heard about the AIDS crisis, Gay Men’s Health Crisis?
Dan: I’m 52 years old, and I came out, started coming out to a couple of friends and then family when I was still in high school, which is rare for a gay man in my generation. Most gay men my age were still coming out in or after college, uh, so I was in gay bars in 1980, 1981, I was in gay bars, I had gay friends. I had boyfriends. When people began to talk about gay cancer and then GRID and then AIDS and you know, I was standing there as the water rose, or the blood rose, until it covered, uh, you know until people were struggling to uh, to breathe and so many people uh died. You know the deal that the culture made with gay people forever, was we will tolerate your existence as long as you are invisible. As long as you aren’t public. As long as we don’t have to know you exist, or acknowledge your existence. Certainly not acknowledge your pain, not acknowledge your loves, not acknowledge your families. So many men were suddenly sick and dying and realizing in that moment that the deal that had been offered to us, “We will tolerate your existence if you are invisible,” was not worth the price that that, that we had to pay socially, or emotionally, and in a health crisis, medically. And men like Paul and other men like him who had navigated their lives by these rules suddenly began tearing those rules up and coming out and speaking out and you know, I’m fifty-two years old and legally married and HIV negative uh still, and navigated dating, and love and sex all through the 80’s and 90’s, because of, because because of people like Paul.
Dan: Everyone in the room I have counted as a hero of mine and I’m just a little uh, honored to feel that there is some family connection, however distant it might be. Like looking at that chart, it’s pretty far away, um. Yeah, but you can see the connection between him, Nan Britton and Jane and me and people tearing up the deals that they had been given, uh as crappy as they were and telling the truth in public uh as difficult as that might be.
So, Dan! We have made it… We have traveled through your family tree, past 41 relatives, but we are back in the present. And we are ready to meet your mystery relative. Are you ready?
Dan: I, I hope I don’t cry some more, I feel like such a weepy slop today.
Dan: People who just read me who think I’m tough as nails and mean and funny are gonna be very disappointed when they hear how easily I dissolve into tears.
(Laughs) Well we cannot guarantee one way or the other, whether it will cause tears of joy or uh, something else, but we are ready. We are going to bring him in. Right after these words from our sponsors.
Alright, everybody! Welcome back to Twice Removed. We have spent this episode exploring the family of Dan Savage. We have traveled through space, through time, we’ve gone to prohibition-era Chicago, tothe coat closets of the white house. We’ve met relatives who stood up to imperialism and who marched on behalf of gay rights. And now… here we are. We are ready to meet your mystery relative. Dan… are you ready?
Dan: I am as ready as I’ll ever be.
From Paul Popham we go up our chain three generations… there are eight marriages, couple of births, and that brings us to our mystery relative… Mystery relative… come on in!
Mystery Relative: Sorry I’m not Martha Stewart! (Laughs.)
Dan: Well thank God we never got it on, it would have been incest!
Mystery relative: Hi
Dan: You are not who I expected. I just busted your headphones.
AJ: now mystery relative, since our listeners cannot see you, can you go ahead and introduce yourself?
Mystery relative: I’m Eugene. I’m Ginger Vytus.
Listeners will remember from the beginning of the show… you were the drag queen who introduced Dan to his now husband Terry at the bar.
Dan: Ginger Vytus and I go back twenty –
Eugene: twenty three years.
Dan: You’re the reason I’m married to Terry twenty two years later.
Eugene: Uh, well. I guess. (laughs)
Dan: Which, isn’t always a great thing. Sometimes I curse your name but mostly I bless your name. Um, you’re the reason I’m the parent of the kid that i’m the parent of. And we have, how?
Eugene: I don’t know, I’m really curious actually. I don’t know anymore than you do.
You are just 41 steps away, so practically brothers. Now, I think you guys knew each other before that night in the bar, right? You did theater together — so Eugene can you describe the shirt you’re wearing.
Eugene: My shirt is uh, it says Greek active, queer theater for queer people. We did theater together. Queer recontextualization of classic theater. And then we drank afterwards.
Dan: Greek active. Queer theater for queer people, the other slogan that our company had was my life is drama, make me laugh.
Dan: Because we were sick and dying, and there was so much grim stuff going on in our lives, and we needed the release and the joy of comedy and, and drag. And to transcend the horrors of the HIV AIDS epidemic was really one of the missions of of Greek Active. We were suffering and we weren’t going to do AIDS dramas because we were living AIDS dramas at the time.
Eugene: For me, it was just about being out. About being visible, it was about the fact that, I mean Ru Paul had a song that was played at the night clubs it was a big deal.
Dan: It was part of the collapse of the old deal
Dan: It was part of the collapse of you can exist as long as you’re invisible
Dan: And Greek Active and the club scene and drag and all of that was a part of not just being visible but being unavoidable. Being unmistakable. And being out in a way that you weren’t just saying you know, let me exist openly and publicly without killing or harassing me but
Dan: I going to, I’m going to exist in sparkles and I’m going to exist in a way where-
Eugene: And I’m going to walk up to you and talk to you. (laughs)
Dan: If I’m walking on the street, you’re not only going to see a gay person, it’s all you’re going to see. There could be a building on fire and a car crash but I am what you are going to see. I am going to draw the eye.
AJ: Alright. So. For posterity sake, for the record, uh, I’m gonna read to you how you two are officially related. Settle in because it’s it’s …
Dan: We are going to be here for a minute …
Eugene: No, my mother is going to love this, that her name is on this chart.
AJ: Okay, so Eugene, you are Dan’s first cousin once removed’s wife’s first cousin four times removed’s husband’s second great nephew’s wife’s first cousin’s once removed’s wife, first cousin’s once wife’s… great nephew.
AJ: (laughs) It’s so close, right.
Dan: Okay, repeat that Eugene.
Eugene: We are family.
Dan: Yeah, we are family.
Dan: In more ways than we knew.
Eugene: That’s right. (laughs)
AJ: There you go.