On 12 June 1949, a 19-year-old secretary named Ruth Steinhagen checked into a room in Chicago’s Edgewater Hotel. She had with her a small valise, a few hundred dollars in cash and a .22 rifle that she had purchased for $21.
Staying in the same hotel was Eddie Waitkus,a former Chicago Cubs pitcher who had recently been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Two years earlier, when Waitkus was still No. 36 for the Cubs, Steinhagen had fallen in love with him. Soon the love had blossomed into a full-blown obsession.
Steinhagen slept with Waitkus’ picture under her pillow. She wrote countless letters to him. She left an empty chair at the dinner table in the hope that Waitkus would show up. He never did.
Steinhagen even became obsessed with the number 36, buying every record she could get her hands on that was produced in that year.
At 5 p.m. Steinhagen sent a note to Waitkus’ room. “I have something of great importance to tell you,” it read. A few moments later, Waitkus showed up at her door.
“Sit down,” Steinhagen said, “I have a surprise for you.”
She returned moments later with her rifle and leveled it at Waitkus’ chest.
“For two years now you’ve been bothering me,” Steinhagen said, “and now you’re going to die.” Waitkus started to reply, but before he could say anything, Steinhagen pulled the trigger.
It is difficult to say exactly what took place on that night. Sinatra’s performance was no different than it had been before. Yet soon he was receiving some 5,000 fan letters per week. Two-thousand Sinatra fan clubs sprang up around the country. And the nature of the fan had been permanently altered.
Before shooting John Lennon outside the Dakota, Mark Chapman – a classic example of a love/hate obsessive – had merged his identity with Lennon’s. When Chapman checked into a New York motel before going to complete his “mission,” he signed Lennon’s name instead of his own.
“I always had the feeling that I was different from everybody else, that one day I’d grow up to be famous. From the age of eight, I always wanted to be someone very important – either a dictator or a Beatle.”
So spoke John Hinckley, whose weekly psychiatric sessions at Washington’s St Elizabeth’s hospital have revealed an almost picture-perfect study of the obsessive fan.
As a teenager, Hinckley would spend hours alone in his room, practicing his guitar and dreaming of becoming a rock star. Later, he would travel to both Nashville and Los Angeles in pursuit of breaking into the music business, although he never made it farther than the secretary’s desk. It was here that Hinckley, feeling depressed after one such rejection, wandered into the Egyptian theatre and saw the film “Taxi Driver.”
Almost immediately, he identified with the film’s protagonist, Travis Bickle. “I am like Travis,” he wrote in his diary. “I am a loner. I am unhappy. I have no girlfriend. I look around me and I see how horrible things are.”
Hinckley saw the film 15 times. He even bought the soundtrack, which he played over and over. He mimicked Travis’ behavior. He invented a girlfriend, a “writer” named Lynn, and wrote to his parents about her. He also purchased a .38 pistol, and – as Bickle had done – would sit in his room alone, aiming it at the TV set.
But Hinckley’s real obsession was with Jodie Foster, who played a teenage prostitute in the film. Hinckley became convinced that he was meant to rescue Foster. Shortly before his attempt to assassinate the president, Hinckley slipped a note under the door of Foster’s dorm at Yale. It read: “Just wait. I will rescue you soon. Please co-operate. JWH.”
In a long article in Esquire, Foster wrote of her life in the aftermath of the shooting, as well as of the actor’s role in instigating such events.
“We are not only manipulating a lens,” she wrote, “we’re manipulating 20,30 million people. We manipulate them with every careless gesture and gleaming smile. That is art. That is mass media. A man can buy a poster, pin it on his locker and imagine the most minute details about the slinky starlet. He will know her through and through. He’ll possess her external reality. So of course Hinckley knew me.”
Of Hinckley, Foster said, “I’m sorry for the people who confuse love and obsession. Obsession is longing for something that doesn’t exist. Hinckley’s greatest crime was confusing love and obsession. The trivialization of love is something I will never forgive him.”
Gavin de Becker flips off the TV and takes another sip from his orange juice, then paces the room for a few moments. “That particular case,” de Becker says, “has been in and out of jail numerous times since that incident. He is back on the streets now. That is the problem. There is really no legal precedent for incarcerating these people.”
“The difficulty,” says de Becker, who has been showing a visitor a video clip of an incident that took place shortly after Wood’s death, “is that the mental health people say – ‘not our problem’ and the police say the same thing. So guys like this slip through the cracks in the system. The result is we have got lots of bad people out there – hostage takers, mass murderers, public figure attackers, Tylenol poisoners and, of course, your Hinckleys and Chapmans.”
Although he often sounds like a budding psychologist, de Becker is actually the world’s leading threat assessor. It is the term he prefers to describe his work, coined to dissociate him from the world of bodyguards – people whom de Becker curtly dismisses as being known for their “lack of intelligence and forethought.”
At 19, de Becker traveled the globe as chief of security for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Today his client list reads like a who’s who in Hollywood.
Later, de Becker was elected to serve on President Reagan’s National Institute of Justice Advisory Board. Now, with the aid of a grant from the Department of Justice, de Becker – along with a team of psychiatrists and sociologists – is engaged in as special project created specifically to study public figure attackers.
“It’s incredibly fascinating work,” he says. “It is also an extremely serious issue. There are lots of crazies out there. Seems like after Hinckley and Chapman they call came out of the closet.”
To be continued …
Editor’s note: Gavin de Becker is author of two No. 1 best-selling books, “The Gift of Fear,” which describes how people can use “common sense” techniques to know if they are in a dangerous situation. The book attainted a No. 1 position on the New York Times best-sellers list and remained there for numerous months.
De Becker followed up his first book by “Protecting the Gift,” which also reached the No. 1 position on the New York Times best-sellers list.