Winning from behind
Shawn Hubler on following–and transcending–the competition
“One of the least appealing jobs in journalism,” says Shawn Hubler of the L.A. Times’ San Francisco bureau, “is ‘following’ a story that has broken elsewhere. But for correspondents in bureaus, where the hometown paper nearly always has both the larger staff and the home-court advantage, ‘follows’ are a daily fact of life. The best you can hope for is the chance to fill gaps that the initial story left unfilled.
Shawn recently did that and more with a story about aviation legend Chuck Yeager. Yeager, memorialized by actor Sam Sheppard in the movie “The Right Stuff,” had remarried later in life and was being sued by his children, who claimed Dad’s new bride was exerting undue influence.
Fortunately for Shawn, the story she wound up following had only been reported from one side. Read some of her piece, and then we’ll let her fill you in on her experience:
FAR FROM HEAVEN
By Shawn Hubler
July 2, 2004
NEVADA CITY, Calif.–Four years ago, shortly after his 77th birthday, Chuck Yeager went for his usual walk. The man who broke the sound barrier had been widowed for 10 years, lived next door to his daughter and was all but deaf in one ear. Still, when a much younger woman materialized on the path and struck up a conversation, he says, he got the message.
Twenty-four hours later, they were dating. Within a month, she had moved in. It happened so fast, Yeager’s children would later say, that they couldn’t help wondering about the then-41-year-old girlfriend, an out-of-towner named Victoria Scott D’Angelo who claimed to have had careers in show business and investment banking, yet appeared to be unemployed and transient.
Discreetly, Yeager’s daughter Susan looked into her background. What she found — lawsuits, restraining orders, claims of harassment and misrepresentation, an alleged physical attack on an elderly woman — so troubled her that she confronted the couple.
D’Angelo denied everything, then blamed her accusers, then claimed to have changed her ways, according to Yeager’s children. Within months, acquaintances and business associates of Yeager contend, D’Angelo began telling them that Susan Yeager, who managed her father’s finances, was stealing from him. By the following year, the retired brigadier general had fired his accountant, his estate planning lawyer, his longtime personal secretary — and his daughter. Last year, in a ceremony to which his children and friends weren’t invited, Yeager wed D’Angelo.
SHAWN HAS SKILLFULLY ENCIRCLED THE BACKGROUND IN FOUR PARAGRAPHS. SHE MAKES SURE YOU NOTICE THIS BY USING THE WORD “NOW” TO BEGIN THE NEXT GRAF, WHICH SUMS UP WHERE THE CASE NOW STANDS. WITHIN THE SAME GRAF SHE MAKES SURE TO SUMMARIZE THE COMPETING WORLD VIEWS OF THE PRINCIPALS.
Now, in a private legal proceeding scheduled to begin today, a court-appointed referee here will harvest the fruit of the now 81-year-old Yeager’s romance — a tangle of bitter lawsuits that officially center on two pieces of property, $113,000, a tractor, some lithographs and the rights to Yeager’s life story. The children, though, say it’s really about the woman who, as one son, Don Yeager, put it, “has pretty much succeeded in killing our family.”
Not so, she counters.
“They’re just trying to make a circus sideshow and use me as a decoy,” said the new Mrs. Yeager, who, with her husband, contends that the case is just about whether Yeager’s children broke the law in their zeal to thwart his new love. “They don’t really care about their father,” she said. “They just care about having his money for themselves.”
A PAUSE FOR SOME GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE.
It is, in some respects, a common family trauma — aging father falls for a woman younger than his grown kids. In this case, however, the conflict comes juxtaposed against Yeager’s heroic reputation: the flying ace who in 1947 made history in a Bell X-1 rocket aircraft named for his first wife, Glennis. The man’s man from West Virginia who, as Tom Wolfe so memorably put it, epitomized “The Right Stuff.”
NOW SHAWN GOES DEEPER INTO THE MOST DELICIOUS ASPECT OF THE STORY-THE NEW WIFE.
It also comes with his new wife’s back story.
“I never had any problems with anybody in the 47 years I’ve been alive until I invited her into my house,” said Nansea McDermott, a single mother in the San Fernando Valley who briefly leased Victoria Yeager, then Victoria D’Angelo, a room in 1997 and “had to call the police every day.”
“She was like that movie ‘The Bad Seed,’ ” said Michele Leavitt, a Winnetka homemaker whose now-deceased mother, then a 77-year-old with bone cancer, also rented a room in her home to D’Angelo, only to end up seeking a restraining order against her. “Horrible. Awful. And to have this happen to someone who’s like an American hero. It’s so sad.”
“Oh, yes, it’s ‘too bad’ — that’s always the last paragraph of these letters I get from people since all this started,” said Yeager as his wife nodded at their kitchen table here in Gold Country. This was on a recent Saturday and he was slightly flushed, having just spent half an hour, at her behest, changing the locks on the ranch house his daughter built for him in 1997.
“I don’t give a rat’s fanny what the kids think of me and what I do,” Yeager continued, his jaw set. “They’re not going to control my life.”
LET’S LET SHAWN TELL US THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY:
It was a story I read all the way to the end, as they say, when it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in February 2004. The story had all sorts of angles – Yeager was a celebrity, the remarriage touched on societal hot buttons such as elder abuse, blended families and aging. Morover, the fact that it could be pegged to a lawsuit meant that much of the case would be documented in a public record, and thus obtainable with a minimum of prurience and intrusiveness. (And by the way, regardless of what people say about reporters, no one enjoys being intrusive, journalists included – gossip is as demoralizing on the job as it is in life.)
Strangely, though, the Chronicle story only quoted Chuck and Victoria Yeager, and made no attempt to verify claims that she had had a checkered past in Los Angeles. His children and their lawyer, the story said, had declined to comment – not so unusual in lawsuits – but made little more than a few allusions to her life in Los Angeles before she met Yeager. A subsequent item in People magazine had essentially the same material – interviews with the couple, a polite no-comment from the kids, no digging whatsoever to check out allegations that the wife was a charlatan.
The timing and the incompleteness of these stories gave me my follow. Features on pending court cases can pretty much run any time before the opening arguments, but most papers like to peg them either to the filing of the case or the start of the hearing. The first stories took the earlier peg, leaving me the latter – and plenty of time, which, as it turned out, I would need. My first calls to the Yeager children and their lawyer left the clear impression that they still weren’t talking. But Victoria Yeager returned my call within hours of my first conversation with her lawyer, and spoke to me at length over the phone before scheduling a face-to-face interview with her and her husband at their home.
A trip to Nevada County (3 hours from San Francisco) to look at the court file yielded a huge trove of public information, including a list of dozens of Los Angeles cases that had involved Yeager’s new wife. Clearly, she was the key to this story. All I needed to do was dig.
And the more I dug, the clearer two things became: 1) Yeager’s new wife was highly litigious and 2) I could not afford to make a single mistake if I didn’t want to get myself and the paper sued or, at the least, maligned. It was paramount that I offer as accurate and fair a summary as possible of both sides, and that I document absolutely everything so that I couldn’t be lied about later on.
First, I started a timeline. This was very helpful later when I began to write. I started with Victoria Yeager’s childhood, listing as I went all the people I would need to speak to to get an accurate picture of her. Then I called the Los Angeles Superior Court and got a full list of cases that had involved her, which turned out to be more extensive than what the Nevada County court records showed. I also checked the Nevada County database for suits she had been involved in there, which yielded still more leads.
I pulled as many court cases as I could get my hands on, which wasn’t easy since I was in San Francisco and the archives were 400 miles away in L.A. Some reporters would simply hop on a plane and fly down for a week or so, and I would have too, except that I have two small children, a husband whose work requires constant travel and no overnight child care that can be relied upon for more than a night at a time. (This is one reason why I became a feature rather than a news writer during these years of child-rearing.)
So, unable to travel, I improvised. You can, too. Using the list of court cases I’d gotten from the court file in Nevada County, plus the list of cases I’d gotten from the public information officer at the LA Superior Court clerk’s office, I started calling around to the pertinent LA County courthouses to confirm where each case was filed. The clerks were very helpful, even over the phone, and in several cases, they pulled the files for me on a promise that someone from the paper would be over soon to make copies. My next step was more difficult – actually finding someone at the paper willing to do that chore.
The Times is a huge paper, but I was told no copy kids or editorial assistants could be spared to go to the courthouse to make copies. My editor got the same brushoff – as a feature section, Calendar was a lower priority for such matters than other parts of the paper. Smaller papers, of course, have no editorial assistants or copy kids at all. So how did we handle this obstacle? We improvised. A friend on the reporting staff made one set of copies; my editor made two more; my husband, who happened to be in Los Angeles on business, made a trip to the bowels of the San Fernando Valley to retrieve a third set.
Each document was a trove. I called the principles in each suit, or, in those where the plaintiff was dead, I called their children. Each had a story to tell. I had our library pull a list of family contacts for Victoria Yeager, figuring that the best way to balance unkind comments about her would be to interview those who were closest to her, but her family members spoke even more harshly about her than the people she sued. Interviews with people she’d claimed to have done deals with in the show business industry made it clear that virtually every statement she made would have to be checked out, since virtually everything she said seemed to be disputed by someone.
Moreover, as the facts of her life and character came into relief on the timeline, it was becoming clearer that I’d really need to press for an interview with Yeager’s kids. I did, and I got lucky – it turned out they regretted having stayed quiet with the other reporters, and were impressed at how much I already knew about their case. With their lawyer as a go-between, I was able to arrange a phone interview with Don Yeager that filled in many of the blanks on their side – and created new angles to be verified.
I put their side of the story into the timeline, too, and finally began to write. And as I read over the facts in order and context, the situation became readily apparent, and so did the psychological motivations of the various players. Here was Yeager’s habit of deferring to women; there was the suspicion and escalating outrage of his daughter and secretary; there, clearest of all, were the lies and distortions of his new wife, along with her clear need to somehow feel important.
More than almost any story I’ve ever written, this was one that could tell itself, in all its complexity, through documented actions, rather than quoted accusations. I started with the couple’s meeting, then flashed back to show the family’s history, the wife’s history, the trajectory of the two coming together, and finally a snapshot of the relationship in real time juxtaposed against the contentions of both sides.
The hardest part, once it was written and submitted to The Times’ lawyer, Karlene Goller, was cutting it to a newspaper-appropriate length.
One note: When the writing was done, I fact-checked. I checked every document and called the lawyers on both sides to make sure their arguments were accurately summarized. I try to do this as often as possible on every story, especially those involving people who don’t deal regularly with reporters – I believe people genuinely yearn to be known, which is why they speak to reporters, but this yearning also makes them feel robbed, in a way, when their views or remarks are misstated in the public record, or placed in a context they didn’t mean.
The downside of this kind of fact-checking is that dishonest people may try to spin you on deadline or persuade you that they didn’t say what they said. The latter likelihood is why God made tape recorders. The former prompted Yeager’s wife to send out an email to a number of his friends, claiming that The Times was planning a hit piece on an American icon, less than a week before publication. About a dozen friends of his called me at home, begging me to spike the feature.
Though I was mildly irritated – this was, after all, a story that had already run in a regional and a national publication, and one that Yeager’s wife had liked when it only carried her side – more information is always better than less. I realized this was my chance to ferret out someone with something nice to say about Victoria Yeager. Unfortunately, it turned out that none of the callers knew her very well – they’d all been led to believe it was Chuck Yeager’s reputation that was in jeopardy, and they had called in his behalf. Still, the barrage yielded one good, balancing quote about his relationship with her (from a fellow pilot who did philanthropy with him), and gave me the chance to be extra-thorough in checking my facts.
Finally, the story was published, with no calls (so far) for retractions or threats of lawsuits. A day later, however, I got an e-mail from Victoria Yeager essentially accusing me of having been paid by Yeager’s children. Her allegation, for the record, is false.
NOW BACK TO THE STORY. AS WE PICK IT UP, SHAWN IS INTRODUCING THE YEAGER KIDS, AND BEGINS TO TAKE US THROUGH THE STORY CHRONOLOGICALLY.
“How did it come to this? That’s a real good question,” Don Yeager said by phone from his Colorado home. “My dad has never been in a lawsuit in his life, nor have any of us kids.” The son, a 58-year-old Vietnam combat veteran who runs a vacation lodge near Powderhorn, Colo., is the eldest of Chuck and Glennis Yeager’s four offspring. Michael Yeager, 57, retired to Springfield, Ore., after a 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force. Sharon Yeager Flick, 55, raises horses in Fallon, Nev. Susan Yeager, now 54, managed her father’s business affairs until the falling-out prompted her to move from the ranch they shared, and where he still lives. She moved to Hawaii in 2003.
“My mom pretty much raised us; my dad was out flying or fighting wars most of the time, but when he was home, he was a great father,” said Don. “We were like the all-American family.” By all accounts, though, Glennis was the linchpin, managing the clan — and its finances — from the lean military years through the prosperity that arose after Wolfe’s history of the space program, “The Right Stuff,” turned Yeager into a pop culture icon.
“Glennis used to laugh and tell me that she controlled everything, that he didn’t even know what he was worth,” recalled Leo Janos, who co-wrote “Yeager,” the famed pilot’s bestselling 1985 autobiography. According to court records, Glennis managed their estate plan, minimizing taxes by making regular cash gifts to their children and grandchildren. She saw to it that Yeager’s book royalties went straight to their children and that his speaking fees, endorsements and other assets were shared via Yeager Inc., a family-owned corporation. When Glennis became ill in 1986 with ovarian cancer, it was she who trained Susan to assume her financial duties.
Then, on Dec. 22, 1990, Glennis Yeager died.
The loss, Chuck Yeager said, was swift and painful, though initially little changed in his life. What had been handled by his wife was now handled by his daughter. His calendar remained filled with hunting trips and speaking engagements. When he finally left the home where he’d retired with Glennis, it was to move to the ranch he had developed with Susan.
“He’d come over to my house to do the mail at 8:30 in the morning at the kitchen table,” said his former secretary, Cindy Siegfried. “Then he’d leave and call in at noon for messages, then head out on his walk, then check in again at 4 in the afternoon.
“Everything was just the same for years, just so predictable. And then all hell broke loose.”
THIS IS WHERE SHAWN BRINGS D’ANGELO INTO THE STORY, A GRACEFUL TRANSITIONAL USE OF THE QUOTE IN THE PREVIOUS GRAF.
Victoria Scptt D’Angelo had been in and out of Nevada County for two years when she met Yeager, and in and out of California for nearly two decades. Her father is a Philadelphia lawyer, as are two of her three brothers. Her late mother was a social worker who gained brief notoriety for persuading former First Lady Betty Ford to go public with her alcoholism. “Tori,” as Victoria was nicknamed, graduated from the University of Virginia in 1980 with a drama degree.
In 1984, she landed a bit part as a female police officer with Harrison Ford in “Witness.” There was a part in “Blades — Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Putt,” a low-budget horror film about a possessed lawn mower. And in a February deposition regarding the Yeager case, she said she appeared in a Jay Leno comedy special, having known him from an acting class they took together. Leno says he doesn’t remember her.
Her show business career not taking off, D’Angelo returned to school for a master’s degree in business administration, taking a job in 1985 with Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh, she said. In her deposition, she added that she has not held a full-time job since, and she quit after four months in a dispute over client billings. A spokesman at Mellon said the institution has no record of her employment, or of the lawsuit she says she subsequently filed against them.
Her brother, David D’Angelo, who she said represented her, said he was “not in a position to say anything” about his sister. Other immediate family members also refused to comment. Dale Casey D’Angelo, her father’s ex-wife, said in a phone interview that Victoria had a long history of conflict with her family. In her deposition, Victoria Yeager said she hadn’t spoken to her father or brothers for more than three years.
Eventually, she moved to California, where she would sneak into Hollywood parties in the hope of making industry contacts. This, she said, was how she met the late NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff and ended up in a dispute over an idea she sold to him for $25,000.
When the idea — about a party crasher who witnesses a murder — was turned into a novel in 1998 and she wasn’t acknowledged, she went to the press, though her legal claim had ended with her payment. Tartikoff had died the previous year, leaving a grief-stricken wife and a child who was recovering from severe injuries sustained in a car crash. In a Times story that ran at the time, D’Angelo expressed disbelief at the lack of sympathy she was getting from his lawyers.
She said disillusionment finally led her to drop the matter. “What’s sad is they think the threatening letter is what put me off, when what really just put me off is their lack of integrity,” she said. “And who’s going to bother to sue?”
She would, as it turned out — if not in that instance then in many others. Court records in Los Angeles, Ventura and Nevada counties show more than 30 court cases filed by and against her over the last decade. They range from a small claims suit in which she sued the phone company for static on the line to a personal injury case in which she sued the city of Beverly Hills after falling off a chair in the Police Department.
Her most heated battles, however, involved a series of strikingly similar evictions that date to at least 1995, when she failed to pay rent on an apartment in Santa Monica. That dispute dragged on for months before both she and the landlord won restraining orders (she claimed he harassed her, he claimed she repeatedly threatened his dog’s life). Eventually, she obeyed a court order to move out but records show at least three more such orders in the next three years.
In each case, she rented spare bedrooms from private homeowners who shortly thereafter asked her to move, citing unsettling or bizarre behavior. In each case, she refused to leave until the landlord sought a court order, then denied the allegations and, in all but one instance, attacked the landlord’s character in public court papers.
McDermott, the single mother in Calabasas, for instance, said in court documents that after she asked D’Angelo to stop trying to discipline McDermott’s 12-year-old son or move out, D’Angelo retaliated by harassing her, taping her conversations and telling lies about her and her child to McDermott’s doctors, relatives, neighbors and creditors. When McDermott went to court to request a restraining order, court files show, D’Angelo wrote a 19-page letter to the judge denying the accusations and portraying McDermott as an alcoholic, a drug addict, a bad credit risk and a “psychotic.”
By then, McDermott and her child had moved, asking the judge not to give D’Angelo their new address; at D’Angelo’s request, the subsequent restraining order was again mutual. Another two landladies in Venice, who sold their home out from under D’Angelo after an alleged physical altercation, were similarly disparaged by her in court documents as being “married to an alcoholic” and having “had two to three abortions by [the age of] 21.”
Leavitt said that in her elderly mother’s case, attacks preceded the court case. In 1998, when Lorraine B. DePuy rented a room in her Woodland Hills home to Tori D’Angelo, Leavitt said, D’Angelo “started this psychological campaign, saying all these strange things to my mother about how [DePuy] was all alone in the world and her children didn’t love her — which wasn’t true, we have a very strong, loving family — but it was to the point that my mom just called me, sobbing, one day.”
Leavitt said when she drove to her mother’s home and evicted the tenant, “Tori just turned from this sweet Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, and said, ‘You just try to get me out.’ ” Three days later, according to police reports and the late DePuy’s sworn declaration, D’Angelo shoved the elderly woman against a wall, threatened her with a kitchen chair and kicked her hard in the stomach. DePuy was granted a permanent injunction and D’Angelo was forced out. In an interview, Victoria Yeager denied ever physically attacking anyone and downplayed the court orders.
“A restraining order is just a way for a landlord to get a tenant out,” she said. “And what’s so funny about these restraining orders is that, you look at people like me — and on paper you can say whatever you want — but I had a policeman say, ‘You’re different from them, you settle things with words and they settle things with fists.’ Somebody raises a hand, I’m out the door. Because I can break easily.”
She said it was 1998, shortly after the evictions and the Tartikoff dispute, when she first visited Nevada County on a day trip with an old friend. On a whim, she said, they visited a local woman with whom she had once served as a juror for six days. The woman, she said, was in her 70s and had just had a stroke, and was so grateful for company that she invited D’Angelo to stay with her for a year and “help with rehab.” But she stayed only three months, she said, adding that she couldn’t remember her host’s last name.
She then moved in with Daniel Bertsch, a local disc jockey whom she had by then begun dating, she said, but left within another three months. In court documents, Bertsch, a single father with two small children, said that when he asked her to leave, she refused and became so belligerent that he feared for his family’s safety. Several times, he said, he called the local sheriff’s department to have her removed from his home, though she would always leave before they arrived. His co-workers at KVMR radio said the harassment went on for so long that Bertsch eventually left the station. “She was unrelenting,” said Brian Terhorst, the general manager. “She was making phone calls and being disruptive, and he had young kids. We’re live, and if he was on the air, she knew where he was.”
Not so, says Victoria Yeager.
“When he said I harassed him I was elsewhere,” she said. “And I have all sorts of alibis.”
NOW, THAT TOOK A LOT OF SPACE, BUT YOU NEEDED IT TO UNDERSTAND WHO D’ANGELO IS, SO THAT WHEN SHE AND YEAGER MET, YOU’D UNDERSTAND HOW THEY WOULD AFFECT EACH OTHER. THE NEXT SECTION OF THE STORY LET YEAGER DESCRIBE THEIR MEETING WITH A QUOTE:
“I was comin’ down the trail, and she was goin’ up,” Chuck Yeager recalled, smiling. “And she said, ‘What’re you doin’ on my trail?’ Well, I said, ‘Number one, it’s not yours, and number two’ — anyway, we started talkin’. I was just back from Australia and she was just back from South Africa, I think it was, or New Zealand. You know, she’s traveled all over the world.”
Yeager spoke while walking uphill from his garden, having spent the morning tending tomatoes. His wife entered their green-and-white ranch house several feet ahead. Tall, slim and wearing no makeup, she was dressed in khaki pants and an oversized shirt with a logo for the Gen. Chuck Yeager Foundation, one of several entities they founded together after Yeager’s break with his children.
What drew him to her?
(FOR MY MONEY, THE NEXT GRAF CONTAINS THE BEST QUOTE OF 2004.)
“Oh, horny. Any other questions?” he laughed.
“We went around for, oh, I don’t know, a year and a half. Then I just said, ‘Let’s get married.’ She said OK. We drove up to Incline Village, walked into the courthouse, exactly 28 minutes later walked out married and $105 poorer. Everybody [says], ‘How come you didn’t invite us to your wedding?’ Well, number one, it’s none of their … business. And number two, that’s just the way it was.”
Victoria Yeager said she was on the verge of optioning a book for a television movie when she met her husband. “I walked away from a sure $25,000, although they were doing away with the spirituality of the project anyway, when I met Chuck,” she said. “It was called ‘The Prophetess’ by Barbara Wood — a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ with spirituality — and I’d sold it to CBS, but a third party was reneging.”
(Wood’s agent and the network executives who heard her pitch all had a somewhat different recollection, saying her proposal went nowhere because she didn’t hold the film rights to the book and yet was demanding a six-figure fee and an executive producer credit. The author herself said she had never heard of the deal or of D’Angelo.)
Victoria Yeager said she didn’t know who Chuck Yeager was when she met him and had to look him up afterward on the Internet. This, too, is disputed. In a deposition, a longtime acquaintance of Yeager said Victoria had openly boasted that she had orchestrated their meeting. Another witness is expected to testify that Victoria posed as a Los Angeles Times reporter at a Nevada County air show in 1999 to gather information on him.
Indeed, almost every aspect of the Yeagers’ love story has lately been questioned, with one exception — his feelings for her.
“Whatever he’s got going with her, I’ve never seen him happier,” said Dan Brattain, an Oregon pilot who has known Yeager for 13 years.
“He follows her around like a lovesick puppy,” agreed Yeager’s son Don. “That’s what’s saddest. He really loves her and she just uses and uses him.”
Yeager says it’s his children who have taken advantage. With his wife next to him, he echoed a charge she made repeatedly in separate interviews and that his children dispute angrily — that they “don’t really work,” and “live off their father’s income.”
“What it boils down to is that when I started runnin’ around with Victoria, what they saw was that I would probably get married and Victoria would inherit my estate,” he said. By the time he met her, he says, he had disbursed so much of his wealth that “the children were spoilt with money.” He estimated that his estate now “is worth maybe $400,000 or $500,000, which isn’t a helluva lot compared to the four or five million the kids have already gotten out of royalties and movie rights and things like that.”
“Ten to 20,” Victoria Yeager interjected.
“Ten to 20 million,” she said more loudly, and then: “ten to 20.”
“I don’t know,” Yeager murmured, his brow furrowing. “If so, that’s the top.” In fact, according to court documents filed by his lawyer, Yeager channeled between $65,000 and $100,000 a year in dividends and gifts to each of his grown children, on average, in the dozen or so years between his wife’s death and his second marriage. In 2001, however, Yeager says he informed his children that he wanted to dissolve Yeager Inc. and start a new corporation that would channel future income to his girlfriend.
“The kids didn’t live near,” he said, though later he acknowledged that Susan, at the time, was next door and Don had offered to build him a summer place at his lodge. “They had their own families. I had to solve a problem that would exist as I became older, that nobody was going to take care of me.”
After making some calls to a friend in Los Angeles, Yeager said, he decided he didn’t care about his girlfriend’s past.
“Victoria’s been on her own most of her life,” he said as she sat next to him, her eyes downcast. “And there’s a helluva lot of predators out there that love to prey on exactly what you’re seeing sitting here. Well, when that happens, it’s unfortunate but the majority of gals’ll set back and take it. Victoria doesn’t. She fights back and I admire her for it.”
Don says he and his siblings told their father that they had no intention of abandoning him in his old age but would abide by any decision he made. Their only request, the son said, was that he not take away gifts already given, such as the rights to his autobiography, which various producers have talked about making into a movie.
“We were fine with it,” he said. “We’re not after his money. We just have a birthright. My last name is Yeager. I was raised as Chuck Yeager’s son. If they want to go do their thing and Dad never wants to think of us again, it’s a tragedy but it’s his prerogative. But I’ll be damned if I’ll give back what he’s already given us.”
Yeager and his new wife say in court filings that when he asserted himself, the children “embarked upon a program whereby they sought to take complete control of Gen. Yeager’s assets.” First, they say, Susan used her power as co-trustee to diminish his available cash, channeling money into less liquid investments and making the usual gift distributions without his knowledge.
Then, after the ill will escalated to the point that he suggested she move, Chuck and Victoria say, Susan had the trust buy her out of her home in a way that netted her $624,000 and amounted to illegal self-dealing. “A trustee isn’t supposed to make a profit, it’s that simple,” said Yeager’s attorney, David A. Riegels. In her deposition, Susan denied any malfeasance, saying her actions throughout were above-board.
The children contend matters degenerated as Victoria began openly attacking their reputations, and Yeager moved to take back assets that he had already given to the family.
Copies of e-mails filed in the court record and depositions from Yeager’s associates indicate that, prior to the suit, Victoria was charging in both casual conversations and in business dealings that the children had stolen millions. Meanwhile, court records show, the couple had begun making inquiries about the rights, not to his autobiography, but to his life story, and whether it might be legally construed as a separate asset. Yeager said he also had told his children that he wanted Yeager Inc. to return a tractor he’d earned as a speaking fee from the John Deere Corp., some lithographs and $113,000 he had earned signing model airplanes for the Danbury Mint.
Shortly thereafter, he said, his children voted him from the board of his own family corporation and moved the $113,000 into a bank account he couldn’t access. Yeager then deeded to Victoria half of a condominium that Susan had taken in partial payment for her ranch house, clouding the title. An attempt at mediation fell apart.
When Susan went to court last year to quiet the condominium title, Yeager and Victoria fired back with a cross-complaint charging that Susan had breached her fiduciary duty, escalating matters into the feud that will be heard today. Neither side believes much will be settled by the judge’s ruling.
“As one of Chuck’s friends has said, I could be the woman with the broom, but that’s what Chuck wants,” said Victoria Yeager.
“This isn’t about money — this is about what happens when you get an evil person sticking hand grenades into your family,” Don Yeager acknowledged. “But when this is all over, we’ll be out a father. And they’ll walk out of the courtroom hand in hand.”
Recommended reading: The morning after John Kerry’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, the New York Times op-ed page published an essay on political speeches by Anna Deavere Smith, an actress and playwright who directs the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University. The piece was stunning for its clarity, perception and integration of acting and writing and race and rhythm. When you mix subjects that rarely seem to touch each other, you create a special power that readers feel. Here ’tis:
SHOW AND TELL
By Anna Deavere Smith
BOSTON — Between going panel to panel, speech to speech, party to party at the Democratic National Convention this week, I called Kenneth Feld, chief executive of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “What are your criteria for a terrific act?” I asked. “How do you make ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ “? His answer: You get the audience to ask, “How did you do that?” He offered another, crucial element for creating a riveting show; to deliver the unexpected. This year I am tied, gavel to gavel, to the convention and have come to see the show up close, live and in person.
Unlike the circus, the convention hall has no welcoming barker saying “Step right up!” or “This way, folks.” The Fleet Center is barricaded. It’s a little like a fun house. The floors are not insulated, so you hear the pounding of thousands of footsteps moving fast. Wires are exposed along the walls. Hallways seem temporary. Escalators suddenly won’t go up, stairwell doors lock, guards gaze off into space as we ask how to get upstairs. But all of these obstructions melt in the importance of watching the show.
Four years ago, I would have pooh-poohed the notion of politics as theatrical. If theater is anything, it is life made urgent. We don’t waste words, gestures or time on stage. But politicians can learn from us and we can learn technique from them. In this election year, none of us can waste a moment. The theater could afford to be more political and politics needs to be a lot more theatrical.
When Bill Clinton spoke, and dropped the first “Send me” in reference to John Kerry’s decision to go to Vietnam, I was less interested in the comparison between Mr. Kerry and President Bush than in Mr. Clinton’s laying of the groundwork to set the audience on fire with those words. And he did. Yet as I left the FleetCenter (there were barkers shouting instructions on how to get out), my mind was twirling with the words, “How did he do that?”
Jack O’Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, gave me a clue when I asked if there was any classical actor in America who could have done what Mr. Clinton did that night. “No,” he said. “He is Shavian.
“There is a line from Bill Clinton that extends back through the work of Stoppard and then Shaw and then Shakespeare. One of the things we don’t do is ‘ideate,’ which is how Shakespeare’s characters speak. They don’t go from moment to moment on a rosary, bead to bead. They get the entire idea and then they exhale it.” Got it.
We 20th and 21st century American actors are smitten with the natural, invested in intimacy. We are not trained to grab the hearts and minds of our audience, just the hearts. And speaking of grabbing hearts and minds, we found a new model in Barack Obama. “You think to yourself, ‘Oh, we will all be measured from here on by this. Obama is Brando in ‘Streetcar,’ ” Mr. O’Brien said to me with finality. Mr. Brando did change acting forever with his performance of Stanley, because he was mind, body and heart in a way we hadn’t seen before.
Will Mr. Obama change black political oratory? His speech did not, for example, elicit the traditional call and response we associate with powerful black speech. The speech instead evoked speechlessness. “That guy’s amazing,” said the blond model sitting next to me in the hall. Mr. Obama comes out of a mixed tradition, and I’m not talking about his racial mix. He is mixing traditions of communication. As he himself explained to me: “I tap into the tradition that a lot of African-Americans tap into and that’s the church. It’s the church blended with a smattering of Hawaii and Indonesia and maybe Kansas, and I’ve learned a lot of the most important things in life from literature. I’ve been a professor of law. I’m accustomed to making an argument. When I am effective, it’s coming from my gut.”
If Mr. Clinton goes from Stoppard to Shaw to Shakespeare, does Mr. Obama go from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Langston Hughes, to preachers, to slavery? No, wait. It’s not that simple. Mr. Clinton takes a road that stops off at the black church. Mr. Obama stops off in a literary tradition that we do not immediately associate with black oratory. Is this what Dr. King’s dream was all about? Was it about more than schools and laws? Was it about irresistible fusions, irresistible mixed oratories? Was it about all of us talking to one another and as one another?
Put Mr. Obama’s oratory aside for a moment. What about his magnetism? I asked Tom Freston, the former MTV chief who is now co-president of Viacom: “What makes a real rock star? How do they do that?” He told me, “They have to have a unique attitude, they have to put a twist on a well-worn theme.” Got it.
Mr. Obama’s twist is a twist on the theme of a real, profound desire to get close to the audience, to reach out and seem to be right next to them. It’s so real and so deep that it cannot be taught. In 1996, everyone bemoaned how politics was being turned over to the handlers, the dress designers and the speech coaches. But don’t worry about the handlers in this case. You cannot teach the Clinton-Obama twist.
To what end is the Clinton-Obama twist? Here lies the crux of the matter, and inside the crux we find John Edwards. The most melodic and therefore memorable moment in Senator Edwards’s speech was not just what we came away with, his line that “hope is on the way.” It was the moment when he said, with all his melodies meeting his words: “There will always be heartache and struggle. We can’t make it go away.”
I found it reassuring that the heartache and struggle was seen. It was not denied. Here we find empathy. Perhaps the best of politics and the best of theater seek to reveal the darkness and the light of the human condition, and the worst of both seek power. Hope lives in the politician’s promise of tomorrow, and in the clown’s expectation that eventually truth will out the tyrant. Thank goodness, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards differentiated between blind optimism and hope.This trio prepared a perfect stage upon which Senator Kerry can strut until November.
I think we are moving from one tradition to another. At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, I was in the Union Oyster House. It is an old place with wood and tile, festooned in red, white and blue. Three white men in front were giving a briefing. They were very confident, wielding numbers, polls on the right, polls on the left.
When Charlie Cook, a respected political analyst, was asked about young voters, he dismissed them by saying they weren’t worth the time. He divided potential voters into two categories: those who still use cinderblocks and boards to build furniture and those who buy real furniture. The surer bets, Mr. Cook explained, are the ones who buy furniture. Everyone laughed. By all accounts, Mr. Cook knows his numbers, and knows his trends. But he may underestimate the young voters’ potential.
Jessica Tully, a producer at Uma Productions, thinks the election is going to take place on the dance floor. She wants to take hip-hop to the swing states. Sean Combs is at the convention. So is André 3000 of OutKast. They are young and they can afford furniture.
It could be very expensive to stay in old models of the past, old models of who the voters are, where we can spend time and where we can’t. Yet I wouldn’t mind going back to listen to the speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist who captivated the crowds at the 1964 convention, and others who know how to mobilize people who have cinderblock furniture or cardboard homes. I want to know about the old days in order to be a part of building the future. I want to know “How did they do that?” Then. And “How can we?” Now.