Keep up a nearly 30-year correspondence with anyone and you'll get to know a lot about them. But for investigative journalist and Palo Alto-based author Geri Spieler, who traded letters for 28 years with would-be presidential assassin Sara Jane Moore, she also discovered the ways in which Moore was unknowable, by her own design — as well as the things she couldn't hide about herself.
Their epistolary relationship could also lead to a book about Moore, as Spieler said Moore repeatedly pointed out to her. For many years, Spieler had no intention of writing that book, she said in an interview with this publication. But when Spieler eventually changed her mind and did write a book about Moore, the result, "Housewife Assassin: The Woman Who Tried to Kill President Ford," delved deeply into Moore's unique, wide-ranging backstory, from suburban motherhood to the fringes of 1970s Bay Area counterculture.
Researching and writing "Housewife Assassin" would lead Spieler to interviews with a wide variety of people: Moore's family (estranged by her choice), classmates at her high school reunion, FBI agents involved with Moore's case, as well as former President Gerald Ford himself.
However, all of this turned out not to be the story that the almost-assassin apparently aimed to tell about herself, according to Spieler, who said that once she began researching Moore's life in earnest, Moore angrily cut off all contact, telling Spieler that she expected to have control over which sources she spoke to.
What Moore did not dispute was that on Sept. 22, 1975, she shot at President Gerald Ford in front of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Her shot narrowly missed the president — just how narrowly, by a mere 6 inches, becomes a minor point in "Housewife Assassin." She was arrested and tried, ultimately pled guilty and received a life sentence in prison, though she was paroled in 2007 at the age of 77.
Moore was active in a number of prisoner's rights movements, as documented in "Housewife Assassin." She first wrote to Spieler from prison in the mid-'70s, in response to a piece Spieler had written about women prisoners at a California jail not having the same access to law books as their male counterparts. Soon, Moore asked her to come for a visit.
"And I thought, well, you know, I'm gonna go meet her because I'm really curious about this woman who is a mother and a doctor's wife living in Black Hawk Country Club in Danville. She takes out a gun and shoots (at) the president. She could have been any one of us here. She was your neighbor. "
At their first meeting, Spieler recalled Moore receiving her graciously, as if she was a socialite presiding over afternoon tea, a jarring contrast to the prison's industrial environment.
"She walks up to me, and she says, 'Geri, thank you for coming. It's so lovely.'" said Spieler, imitating Moore's sweet, cordial tone, "I (thought), 'you tried to kill the president. No wonder nobody saw you coming.'"
Spieler continued their correspondence, and she and Moore sometimes also spoke on the phone. Feeling sympathy for Moore's youngest son, who was a small child when she was incarcerated, Spieler ensured that he received Christmas gifts.
"I kept in touch but I wasn't her friend. But she was fascinating. Her backstory: In 18 months, she went from the doctor's wife to an assassin. What happened? I had to know," Spieler said.
In 2003, she decided to find out, putting her investigative skills to work on a book about Moore after the burst of the dot-com bubble ended her time helming the Electronic Commerce News, a technology journal she had founded about a decade prior.
"Housewife Assassin," first published in 2009 as "Taking Aim at the President" has been republished in 2023 with a new title. The book tracks Moore's life from her childhood in 1930s West Virginia through a series of marriages, her increasingly erratic days as a mother to three small children, whom she would leave to her parents to raise, to eventually, her attempts to build a new life in the Bay Area, first in upscale suburban Danville as a doctor's wife, and later as an FBI-appointed infiltrator of leftist revolutionary groups — and then a true believer in their causes. In the book, Spieler shares a detailed history of the counterculture movement, its many groups, their key players and their interconnectedness in 1970s San Francisco.
The major throughline among all Moore's seemingly unpredictable inconsistencies is how she would ultimately repeat the same behavior, abandoning relationships and stepping into new identities that might seem the complete opposite of a life she was living previously.
Moore's inconsistent behavior as an FBI informant in its counterintelligence measures against left-leaning groups, and her eventual attempts to act as a double agent on behalf of those same groups, begs the question as to whether the FBI underestimated her. Spieler said she didn't think so.
"(The FBI) liked her because she didn't stand out and people didn't find her a threat. She's very, very smart. They had measured her IQ at 140. She married several times, even after she got out of prison. That's how charming she is. I mean, who would want to marry somebody who tried to kill the president?" Spieler said.
The book captures Moore's ability to charm and ingratiate herself with a wide cast of characters, but Spieler's detached tone also conveys a sense of Moore's calculating ways in every relationship.
Not until almost the close of the book does the author's own relationship with Moore become part of the story, with glimpses of Spieler's own frustrating interactions with Moore. In addition to buying gifts for Moore's son, she would also eventually store, at her own expense, Moore's art collection, a good deed which Spieler may have come to regret, judging from one the book's two afterwords.
"Housewife Assassin" has been optioned for a film, Spieler said, was recently recognized with an award for nonfiction from BookFest online literary community.
For more information, visit gerispieler.com.