More than anyone else in Los Angeles, it was Cannick who owned the Buck story. It was mainly thanks to Cannick that anyone knew Gemmel Moore’s name. She followed Gierach’s lead: Her first post on Buck included a link to his original article, and she echoed his description of Buck as a Democratic donor. Right-wing media showed an appetite, and Cannick, knowing she was abetting a political machine whose goals she did not share, but wanting to pressure the D.A.’s office, began appearing on Fox News to talk about the case. The anchors exaggerated Cannick’s story, casting Buck as a man of huge importance. Steve Doocy, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Dana Perino and Laura Ingraham spun a story of a “megadonor” sexual deviant who was shielded by blue-city hypocrites. “He was protected,” Ingraham said.
It was a clean, cold narrative. But it wasn’t true.
Ed Buck was not a megadonor. Among California Democrats, he was marginal — and that was being generous. Nationally, he was a nobody. The photographs with Clinton and Ted Lieu, which illustrated countless television spots, were the kind that anyone can get by waiting in line at an event — “even a free event,” as the campaign manager for one of the state’s top-ranking members of Congress told me. Rather than a man of influence, they showed a man who wanted to seem influential. Thousands of Americans whose names you wouldn’t recognize were bigger political donors than Ed Buck — though Buck, from his gray, rent-stabilized apartment on North Laurel Avenue, took pains to make it look otherwise.
West Hollywood is an insulated place. It’s not a neighborhood of Los Angeles. It is a city the size of a neighborhood — population 37,000 — that reaches west from La Brea Avenue to the Beverly Hills border at Doheny Drive. The population rises to 100,000 on weekends, because of the nightclubs. Incorporated in 1984, it was the “first gay city” in America, as the papers called it, not just because it was tolerant but because the City Council was majority openly gay, which was indeed a first. When the council convened, it focused on the issue that had persuaded most residents to vote “yes” on separating from Los Angeles: rent-control laws and better protections for tenants. Los Angeles was a city dominated by real estate power, with laws favorable to landlords. West Hollywood was a city of renters who had always been vulnerable to landlords’ caprices: gay men and lesbians but also Russian Jewish immigrants and retirees on fixed incomes.
Buck came there by way of Phoenix, but he was born in Ohio. In his late teens, he modeled clothing for European fashion rags. In his 30s, he was the face of a campaign to remove the anti-gay governor of Arizona, Evan Mecham, from office. Buck was a regular at Phoenix gay bars — the Sportsman’s Lounge, Casa de Roma — and raised money for AIDS education. In the late 1980s, Buck bought a company in Phoenix that sold driver’s-license data to auto insurers, made a few improvements and flipped it. He claimed he made over a million dollars in profit on the deal. Suddenly flush, he bought a hilltop house in an area that was then called Squaw Peak, furnished it with neon lights and almost nothing else and threw parties that choked the cul-de-sac with cars. It wasn’t much to look at, but the house’s view gave it value; when I visited this summer, you could see for miles from the backyard. The current owner, who works in Phoenix real estate, estimated it would have been worth about $250,000 in 1989. He bought it from Buck for $440,000 in 1999.
It was 1991 when he moved to West Hollywood, the twilight of the worst years of H.I.V. Reagan was gone. In the gay bars, the free condoms came in packages labeled with a double entendre: “For the Man in You.” Buck got into bodybuilding and enhanced his muscles with steroids. He told a friend in Phoenix he was paying $250 a month in rent. He said he was “retired” — at age 37. Whatever profit he had made from the business deal and the house, Buck told friends he invested in the market. If you put $300,000 in an S&P-tracking index fund in 1985, you’d have $3.8 million in 2017 before taxes. Darden told me Buck’s net worth was “Well under $2 million.” In any event, Buck lived on the cheap. By the time of his arrest, his rent-stabilized apartment on North Laurel Avenue cost just $1,031.17 a month; average rent for a West Hollywood two-bedroom was around $4,000. Donations, not real estate, seem to have been his indulgence, a way of buying himself a sheen. Everything else, he lowballed: Apartment 17 was “the grayest, drabbest place you’d ever seen,” as a friend described it, with a table, couch, tool kit with drugs and sex toys and large mirrors on the wall. He drove a 16-year-old Acura.
In the 2000s, Buck made himself known among West Hollywood liberals as one of those retired people who throw themselves into causes. When the West Hollywood City Council convened for its twice-monthly meetings, Buck would come prepared with a monologue about social justice. He’d say, for example, that the sheriff’s weekly police blotter was a “half-truth” because it overreported property crimes and underreported crimes against people. “Missing seems to be the report of a gay man assaulted, the drag queen robbed at gunpoint. Or the woman victimized.” As the city gentrified — the term “WeHo” got popular in the late ’90s — Buck talked about evictions. “Those of us who remain live with a constant threat that we may be next.”