In 1987, a book carrying the title And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic reached retail stores. Few of the people involved in the book’s acquisition, production and marketing harbored hope that it would sell briskly. Not all that many potential readers even understood the meaning of the AIDS acronym. The full name of the disease did not roll off the tongue, as the cliché goes. Go ahead, say it three times fast: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Those who did understand the workings of the newly identified virus knew that the subject matter was depressing, dark and vaguely dirty—pretty much unmentionable in polite society, where reading salons exist.
Randy Shilts, the author, did not worry much about those perceptions. Born in 1951, he had earned respect in the newsroom after obtaining a job there during 1982 in spite of—maybe in some sense because of—being openly homosexual. “Gay rights” was certainly part of the lexicon in 1987, but not well accepted within the civil rights realm. Shilts had published one book previously, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. Milk was a San Francisco businessman, an openly homosexual man who entered local politics. In 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone succumbed to bullets fired in City Hall from the gun of Dan White, an anti-gay local politician. Shilts’ biography of Milk showed his skills as a journalist working in depth. But most strong first books are not harbingers of later bestsellers. Shilts’ second book, fortunately, defied the usual trajectory.
An accident of timing helped. On October 2, 1985, American actor Rock Hudson died. AIDS was implicated. Rock Hudson, iconic movie he-man … gay? Could it be?
Oh yes. As Shilts would write, until that celebrity death AIDS “had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs. But suddenly…when a movie star was diagnosed with the disease…the AIDS epidemic became palpable and the threat loomed everywhere.”
Shilts’ book demonstrated that by the time of Hudson’s death, the chance to contain AIDS had passed. The virus had spread across the United States, unstoppable. Shilts estimated that before Hudson’s death, 12,000 other men and women had succumbed to AIDS within the 50 states, with hundreds of thousands more infected and doomed. Around the globe, especially in nations with public health systems far less developed than in the United States, even an estimate was difficult to determine, though the number seemed huge. In fact, the substance of Shilts’ chronological narrative opens on Christmas Eve, 1976, not anywhere in the United States but rather in Kinshasa, Zaire, on the African continent.
Why review And the Band Played On in the middle of 2011? Part of the reason is admittedly artificial, a journalistic tradition that probably ought to be diminished—the tradition of publishing something on an anniversary. The anniversary in play here is the 60th anniversary of Shilts’ birth this week. Born in Davenport, Iowa, he grew up in Aurora, Illinois, with five brothers in a politically conservative, blue-collar family. He chose journalism as his emphasis at the University of Oregon. As far as I can discern, he proclaimed himself publicly as a gay man at age 20. He overcame prejudice in the workplace to do well as a journalist. Shilts died 17 years ago, another AIDS-related demise.
The other part of the reason is not at all artificial: And the Band Played On is painstakingly reported, skillfully structured, compellingly written, and, as it turned out, massively influential. It’s an important book 24 years after publication. It will remain important for many more years because the deadly AIDS—unstylishly and oversimply dubbed “gay cancer”—is not going away.
Although I knew almost nothing about AIDS before reading the book, I gravitated toward it. Not because of the subject matter, but because in 1987 (and still today), I devote a significant portion of my professional life to tracking, reading and writing about investigative books. I marveled that the author could keep my attention for more than 600 pages with a seemingly unimaginative (but actually brilliantly conceived) quasi-chronological narrative encompassing 56 significant characters plus dozens more with essentially walk-on parts. I marveled at how Shilts could discover and convey government agency infighting so skillfully, despite having to pepper the text with acronyms such as FDA, NIH, NCI, NIAID, HHS, PHS, CDC, etc.,—and those constituted only the key acronyms from the U.S. government.
At the time St. Martin’s Press published the book, besides subsisting as a nonfiction author myself, I served as executive director of a group called Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). The thousands of dues-paying member journalists listened to my recommendations about books to read, to study. I told them about And the Band Played On, hoping IRE members would study Shilts’ book for both its form and its substance.
Given rampant homophobia across the United States and the rest of the world, I was surprised at positive reviews in publications like The American Spectator, with its self-proclaimed right-wing-leaning conservative outlook. Reviewer Michael Fumento, a science writer would could have fairly viewed himself as a competitor of Shilts, commented that Shilts, apparently the nation’s first full-time AIDS reporter, “names names, slams reputations, and yet poignantly testifies to those few who fought desperately to get the band’s attention and those who died horribly while it continued to play.”
The heroes and heroines of Shilts’ narrative, far less numerous than the villains, consisted mostly of research scientists in the United States and Europe. Conveying their highly technical research in lay terms constituted a challenge that Shilts conquered with aplomb. Other heroes and heroines were slightly less complicated to depict—a relatively small proportion of physicians, nurses, public health officials, politicians, leaders within the ranks of gays, and those dying from AIDS.
Shilts had begun cultivating some of those sources as far back as 1976, while employed at a news magazine aimed at a gay audience. He interviewed more than 900 people on the way to completing And the Band Played On. He also studied documents galore—hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of pages—pre-Internet, pre-Google, shoe-leather reporting. Thank goodness Shilts started and completed the task.
Toward the end of the book, Shilts is able to show Ronald Reagan, president of the United States, finally recognizing the AIDS epidemic in a public address. The date: May 31, 1987. Then Shilts delivers the kicker, in a memorable paragraph: “By the time President Reagan delivered his first speech on the epidemic of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease; 20,849 had died.” The conventional wisdom suggests that later Reagan regretted his long silence about AIDS. I harbor my doubts about that conventional wisdom. Even if it’s true, the President of the most influential nation on earth still did less to increase AIDS awareness than Shilts did.
I cannot know if your posthumous birthday was a happy one, Randy Shilts. Whatever the mood, I honor your birth, your great book, and your career.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter in Columbia, Missouri. He is the author of eight nonfiction books.