The woman’s existence is known; her name is not.
She would be in her mid-70s by now. That much can be guessed. The rest of it? Not with any certainty. Even her place of birth is not easily pinned down. Fort Wayne? Terre Haute? Somewhere else? For all that anybody knows, she’s led a life shrouded from the public eye.
Yet there were times when highly powerful people toyed with using her as a weapon, times when the mere insinuation of her existence could have put a long political career to rest and times when she was in danger of having her name splashed all over the country.
If anyone knew what life teetering between the limelight and shadows was like, it’d be her.
But the out-of-wedlock daughter fathered by former Democratic senator and presidential candidate George McGovern before he met his wife is not only not talking, few people even know who – or where – she is.
A forthcoming biography on McGovern – who died in 2012 – by a Southern Methodist University history professor promises to shed some details on a weekend camping tryst that led to the woman’s birth in 1941, according to a story from The Washington Post that began making waves around the Internet on Wednesday.
What the book won’t reveal, though, is the woman’s identity.
To some old-time locals and political historians, the woman provides a fascinating footnote to city lore as well as to the Watergate investigation surrounding President Richard Nixon, whose staffers pondered whether they should use what’s now dubbed "the Fort Wayne story" against McGovern.
Years before he became a decorated World War II pilot, before he met his wife, Eleanor, and long before he became a politician whose career spanned more than 30 years, George S. McGovern was an 18-year-old college freshman at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, the town in which he grew up.
In the new book, Thomas J. Knock claims McGovern confessed to him that he lost his virginity in December 1940 or January 1941 to the girlfriend of a friend during a camping trip to Lake Mitchell. Weeks later, Knock told The Washington Post, the girl realized she was pregnant.
"It was an utterly unplanned, frenzied episode," Knock told The Post. "It was his first time. It was over in a few minutes, and they regretted their impulse."
The son of a Methodist minister, McGovern was wracked with guilt, Knock told The Post. But during a time when having an out-of-wedlock child was more taboo than today, the woman McGovern had gotten pregnant left town and gave birth to the child in secret.
"She was remarkably calm and strong, decided within a week or so go to Indiana and stay with her older sister and brother-in-law," Knock told The Post. "She gave birth there."
The Washington Post story says this is the genesis of what became known as "the Fort Wayne story."
In essence, a 1972 White House memo written by a top Nixon aide looked to tie demonstrations against the president to McGovern. Released during the Senate’s Watergate hearings, the memo questioned "whether we should let out the Fort Wayne story now – that we ran a clean campaign compared to theirs of libel and slander such as against Rebozo, etc."
For years it was thought the city’s reference in the memo was to McGovern’s out-of-wedlock daughter. But in The Post’s story about Knock’s new book, the author is not quoted as saying the woman was born in Fort Wayne or lived here.
Still, rumors she did persisted long before the release of the memo.
Rumors floated in city in 1972
Ken Kurtz is retired. Kind of.
He still writes a blog and posts stories about Kentucky politics regularly. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, it’s hard for him to get out of the game completely. This week, he was asked about his time as news director at WANE-TV during the 1960s and ’70s and, more specifically, if he ever heard the rumor of McGovern’s out-of-wedlock daughter.
"It’s bothered me all these years we were not able to pursue it properly," Kurtz said.
McGovern came through Fort Wayne during his presidential campaign in 1972. Kurtz does not remember when it happened – possibly as McGovern was on his way out of town – but his newsroom was tipped off that the senator had an "illegitimate" daughter living in Fort Wayne.
By the time he caught wind of the rumor, though, McGovern was already headed toward Indianapolis. Kurtz thought for sure someone attending the senator’s news conference there would ask McGovern pointedly about the rumor.
Surprisingly, nobody did.
"He got out of Indiana without anyone asking about that," Kurtz said. "Nothing appeared in the Indy papers or the Fort Wayne papers, not on our stations, nothing. It just disappeared."
He also talked about how a revelation like that in 1972 would be the downfall of a campaign, whereas now celebrities and the famous have children outside of marriage often.
Kurtz couldn’t remember specifically where the rumor came from – his best guess was that the station owner was cozy with local Republican leaders, and they leaked the information – but he once again found himself reminiscing on 1972 when he opened his email inbox to The Washington Post story.
"We were going to ask him about it and the opportunity slipped through our fingers," he said.
One local reporter who kept at the story was William Ferguson of The News-Sentinel.
According to Associated Press stories from 1973, Ferguson tracked down the woman’s name and even came up with a birth certificate. At first, the Fort Wayne Department of Health, as it was then known, did not want to show Ferguson a copy of the birth certificate – until ordered to by a judge.
When Ferguson and lawyers for The News-Sentinel saw the father’s name absent from the certificate, they claimed the document had been tampered with and the name obliterated illegally, according to the Associated Press reports. They wanted to see the original document at the state Department of Health’s headquarters in Indianapolis.
That agency also balked at showing them the birth certificate.
In August 1973, Allen Circuit Judge pro tem F. John Rogers ordered the state Department of Health to show Ferguson and News-Sentinel lawyers the birth certificate. The state department fought that order, and after that it’s unclear what happened to the birth certificate or whether it was ever shown to Ferguson.
Today, Rogers is practicing law in Fort Wayne. The "pro tem" in the title from those Associated Press reports meant he was sitting in for the actual Allen Circuit judge and was not a judge himself, he said during an interview Wednesday.
"It was not unusual for a young lawyer to sit in on the day a judge was out," Rogers said.
As for the issue with the birth certificate, Rogers doesn’t remember it.
"Maybe they would’ve brought it to me," he said. "In those days, the lawyers might’ve said, ‘John, review this. And here’s the statute.’ If it seemed appropriate, I probably would’ve signed it."
Today, birth certificates are not public record. The only way they can be obtained is by the person on the birth certificate, the person’s family – siblings must be over 18 – or by a military recruiter, according to local and state health officials.
Since The Post story broke, nobody has come asking for the woman’s birth certificate, those officials said.
The other mention of a mysterious birth certificate in connection with an out-of-wedlock child and George McGovern comes from the famed duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who were working for the Washington Post in 1973.
"The Washington Post has confirmed the existence of such a birth certificate, and contacted the child’s mother, who also denied that McGovern was the father," according to Woodward and Bernstein’s story, which also claimed the certificate was in Fort Wayne.
That, however, does not jibe with other stories of McGovern’s daughter.
Birth certificate in Terre Haute?
Ted Van Dyk’s bio on Amazon.com says that for more than 35 years "he was a senior advisor to presidential candidates Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Ted Kennedy, Mondale, Hart and Tsongas." He has contributed essays to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Fortune and other national publications and he’s led two national think tanks.
In 2009, his memoir touched on his time in the McGovern camp, and specifically, a stop in Terre Haute during the 1972 campaign.
During that stop, the Terre Haute mayor called Van Dyke claiming a man with a Senate badge had come to the city’s record bureau and taken with him a copy of the birth certificate pertaining to McGovern’s out-of-wedlock child, according to the book "Heroes, Hacks and Fools."
"McGovern readily acknowledged that, as a teenage Army Air Force trainee during WWII, he had fathered a child in Terre Haute," Van Dyke wrote in his book. "His wife, Eleanor, did not know of it. Then, that evening, the headquarters switchboard operator told me he had received a call as follows: ‘We know about McGovern’s illegitimate child. The story will be in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat tomorrow morning.’ "
McGovern told his wife about the child and called the child’s mother in Portland, Oregon, Van Dyke wrote. It was at that point McGovern’s daughter, by then an adult, found out about her father’s identity, according to Van Dyke’s memoir.
The story that was supposedly going to run in the St. Louis newspaper never appeared.
Tom Lawrence, once a columnist for McGovern’s hometown newspaper, the Mitchell Daily Republic in South Dakota, now runs a website called Prairie Perspective. On a post dated Monday, he writes about knowing McGovern and backs up the former senator’s daughter being born in Terre Haute, not Fort Wayne.
Earlier this month, The Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, received documents from the FBI that showed that agency investigated McGovern after he was picked to be a part of President John F. Kennedy’s administration.
Through that 1960 investigation, agents learned he had fathered a child in the early 1940s prior to meeting his wife.
The agency told McGovern this during a meeting with the then-senator in 1975, according to the newspaper.
Eventually father, daughter meet
Though there were always whispers that her father’s opponents would use her to topple him if need be, the woman George McGovern fathered as a teenager never did end up being the weapon to bring about his downfall.
Instead, a vice presidential candidate that left his ticket early and a bungled campaign led to one of the most lopsided elections in the nation’s history.
McGovern continued on as a senator until he was voted out of office in 1980, and then served as a U.S. ambassador for the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture during the administration of President Bill Clinton.
It might never be known what the woman thought of her father.
The new book that will detail his life claims the woman’s mother kept the senator away for a while so that he could not intrude on the girl’s life. But the two eventually met with McGovern bringing presents, according to the book’s author in the interview with The Post.
"In a way, it’s a sad story, but in the moment … I think the way he rationalized it was that it worked out all right for all concerned," Knock, the book’s author, told the newspaper.
Whether that’s the woman’s view, very few will likely ever know.
As of now, her life has not been open for public consumption. Instead it’s been tucked away in the shadows, far from the limelight and far from an open book.