SAN FRANCISCO AND ASHLAND, ORE: “On the day Harvey Milk became a martyr, George Moscone was the main target,” writes Josh Getlin in an essay published in the Los Angeles Times on the 30th anniversary of the assassination of George R. Moscone and Harvey Milk. As Moscone’s deputy press secretary and speechwriter, Getlin was a witness of those fateful events that would rock the Bay Area in the 1970s.
“No one who lived through that morning at City Hall would be surprised that people remain fascinated by the story years later,” Getlin continues. “But how these murders have been remembered is surprising, and saddening, to those of us who saw the story unfold behind the scenes. The mayor who was at the center of events on Nov. 27, 1978 — and whose leadership helped make San Francisco the model of diversity and inclusion it is today—has been largely forgotten.”
For more than three decades, the searing events of that dark morning have been told frequently enough. Milk, the supervisor who represented the Castro district (and nearby neighborhoods) and was San Francisco’s first openly gay leader, became a national saint for gay liberation in the 1970s. His storied life has inspired books, an opera, a documentary film, numerous plays and a feature film starring Sean Penn.
Dan White, the former cop, former firefighter and disgruntled politician who was charged with first-degree murder, is the subject of an ensemble play, Execution of Justice, by Emily Mann, which is taken from court transcripts of White’s trial.
By contrast, Moscone — the primary target of the assassination and the popular mayor whom many local historians and witnesses of that era argue gave gay rights a larger platform in San Francisco politics — has not been similarly remembered. A definitive biography of Moscone’s life has not yet been written.
Ghost Light is the first play that resurrects Moscone as an iconic historical figure, albeit filtered through a deeply personal and artistic lens. Written by Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone, Ghost Light premiered this past June at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a co-production with Berkeley Rep. Staged by Jonathan Moscone, the late George Moscone’s son, the play is currently performing at OSF through November 5. Before Ghost Light, Taccone had written only one other play: a solo piece for actress Rita Moreno. But after years spent midwifing others’ work, Taccone wanted to return to writing (he was a poet before he matured as a stage director). Jonathan Moscone had approached OSF with a proposal to collaborate with another theatre artist to create a play that would grapple with the iconic figure of his father, George Moscone. Jonathan first thought of his friend Taccone.
Neither man was certain how exactly they would embark on the project. Both felt strongly that they did not want to write a biographical play or a documentary drama, but wanted to create a dream play that would touch on George Moscone’s political and personal history. Through interviewing Jonathan about his relationship to his father, Taccone took control of the direction of the play’s narrative and became its sole author. “I obviously was taking Jon’s voluminous and fascinating personal experience and transmuting it through my own life experiences and my relationship with my dad,” Taccone says. “If the play works, it’s a play about fathers and sons in the larger sense of the word.”
An early champion of gay rights
Part of the reason Harvey Milk has eclipsed George Moscone was that the gay-rights movement of the 1970s hungered for an openly gay man to be elected to a serious political office in the U.S., and the charismatic and courageous Milk stepped up to the plate, despite threats of death and violence. Because of the shame, social stigma, criminality and career suicide that has historically attended homosexuality, coming out of the closet carries with it a power that transcends it being merely a private affair or an individual rite of passage. At the same time, staying inside the closet has the power to shape the core of an individual’s life. Both of these forces “has made homosexuality into a significant personal, social and political drama in twentieth-century America,” as Steven Seidman writes in Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life.
The events that followed the assassinations were similarly dramatic. White was tried a few months later and was found guilty not of murder but only of voluntary manslaughter. A peaceful march to protest that verdict turned into a riot, and the mob attacked City Hall. In 1984, White was paroled and became a free man again. He never expressed remorse at the deaths of Moscone and Milk. The San Francisco Weekly called him “perhaps the most hated man in San Francisco’s history.” Less than two years after his release, Dan White committed suicide.
A straight man with a wife and four kids, George R. Moscone did not fit the profile for iconic gay mythmaking. As Jon says in Ghost Light, “My father has been languishing for over 30 years as an asterisk in the life of Harvey Milk.” A former majority leader in the state Senate and a beloved mayor, Moscone understood the give-and-take of City Hall politics and therefore represented the establishment. A San Francisco-born former St. Ignatius High School basketball star, Moscone was very much a son of the city—and part of its fabric. A liberal, Moscone came from working-class roots; his father was a prison guard and his mother a homemaker. The Moscone Center, San Francisco’s largest convention center and exhibition hall, and Moscone Recreation Center are both named after him.
Although less well-known nationally than Milk, Moscone is revered and mourned in San Francisco as a martyr of the gay-rights movement. In a profound way, history is only now catching up to Moscone and his legacy. Milk may have enjoyed the glamour of being the first up-front gay elected official, but he had been in office less than a year, and the supervisors had passed only two of his ordinances. One was on gay rights. The other required dog owners to clean up after their pets.
By contrast, Moscone won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1963, a seat in the California State Senate in 1966, was elected by the California Democratic Party to serve as a majority leader soon after his election to the State Senate and became mayor of San Francisco in 1976.
He was a pivotal figure in the city’s history. As a supervisor, he was popularly known for his defense of the poor, racial minorities and small business owners. As a senator, Moscone backed the California Clean Air Act, championed a school-lunch program for California schools and supported a proposition for coastal zone conservation. As mayor, Moscone prevented the San Francisco Giants, a professional baseball team, from moving to Toronto.
Moreover, Corey Busch, Moscone’s press secretary, has noted that Milk had lost twice in runs for elected office. It was Moscone who opened the door for Milk by naming him to the city’s Board of Permit Appeals, a politically visible commission. After that appointment, Milk became embraced by the mainstream politicians and media.
Because he was a heterosexual, Moscone was considered ahead of his time as an early proponent of gay rights. Along with his friend and ally in the California State Assembly, Willie Brown, Moscone passed a bill repealing California’s sodomy law in 1976. Moscone also led a successful fight against Proposition 6 that would have barred gays from teaching in California schools. As Jon notes in the play, “What’s amazing is that the first public figure to fully champion gay rights in this city was—ta da—George Moscone.”
A broad, inclusive embrace
Moscone’s support of gay rights was part of a broader advocacy in behalf of low-income people and immigrants. At the time, many whites dwelled in San Francisco’s conservative neighborhoods. With gays and lesbians flocking to the city—and thousands of immigrant Latinos and Asians suddenly populating areas populated by Irish, Italians, Germans and Russians—Moscone bucked a culture in the 1960s and 1970s that demonized newcomers. According to San Francisco historians, paranoia and recrimination were prevalent at the time, especially among the rank-and-file police officers, who were unhappy about a lawsuit brought by minorities claiming discriminatory hiring practices by the police force.
In a 1998 San Francisco Chronicle article, Left Coast City author Richard Edward DeLeon wrote, “Moscone was the first truly progressive mayor of San Francisco. . . . He demonstrated that there was this new grassroots coalition of previously excluded groups. Moscone came into a culture particularly hostile to the massive demographic flows changing the city. You have to measure his accomplishments against the opposition arrayed against him—the resistance from the longtime old guard.”
Moscone’s embrace of diversity solidified his base among San Franciscans from all sectors of racial, ethnic and marginalized life, who had sought greater participation in the city’s political and civic life. When he was elected mayor two years before his death, he was the first to appoint large numbers of women, gays, lesbians and racial minorities to city commissions and advisory boards. He changed the face of city service.
In a recent tribute, Jonathan Moscone said that his father was “an agent of eternal change.” Felled at age 49, George Moscone had already left a mark on San Francisco that could never be erased. As Rudy Nothenberg, who served as deputy mayor under Moscone and his successor Dianne Feinstein, said in a San Francisco Chronicle interview, “I think the legacy of inclusiveness, which I believe was the hallmark of George’s approach to politics, remains and will never change. It is a political reality only a fool would ignore.”
The political scientist DeLeon agrees. Asked if he were to inscribe on a tablet what he believes the mayor left behind, he would write, “George Moscone included the excluded.” Whatever Moscone’s personal failings, whatever his political mistakes, however bright or dim his cultural iconography might be, Moscone was perhaps the only one who could have instituted the kind of changes he made, changes that irrevocably altered his beloved city. —RG
Emily Mann. Execution of Justice (play)
Richard Edward DeLeon. Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975–1991
Randy Shilts. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk
Gus Van Sant. Milk (2008 film)
Mike Weiss. Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk
- ‘Ghost’ captures George Moscone’s progressive role (sfgate.com)
- ‘Ghost’ captures George Moscone’s progressive role (sfgate.com)
- A Son Confronts Moscone’s ‘Ghost’ On Stage (npr.org)
- New FBI Files Uncover Harvey Milk’s Financial Scandal And Dan White’s Assassination Plot (queerty.com)
- 5 plays at Oregon Shakespeare Festival: a critic’s take (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- How getting beaten by cops helped Paul Krassner learn mindfulness (boingboing.net)
- Ed Lee to run for San Francisco mayor (latimesblogs.latimes.com)