Usually, when a noteworthy person dies, someone tells us -- a family member, a friend, a colleague, the mortuary acting on behalf of the family. In the case of Marc Christian, who earned notoriety in the 1980s after he sued former lover Rock Hudson for not telling him he had AIDS, all we had was an unconfirmed report published on a Village Voice blog. I was skeptical because a report of his death several years ago turned out to be a hoax. I wrote a blog item about the difficulties of tracking down Christian, and the clues started floating in.
I had noted that Christian's full name could be Marc Christian MacGinnis. Several readers pointed me to the Social Security Death Index. Sure enough, it had a record of the June 2 death of a Marc Christian MacGinnis, who was 56 years old. Based on 1985 news reports that gave Christian's age as 31, he would be 55 or 56 this year. But that wasn't enough upon which to base a news article. How could I be sure that these weren't two different people? I didn't have Marc Christian's birth date to compare to MacGinnis'.
I also had mentioned that the Village Voice offered the name of Susan Dahl as Christian's sister. A number of readers pointed me to the California Birth Index and the California Marriage Index, which showed a Susan MacGinnis whose mother's maiden name was Christian and whose married name was Dahl. A real estate record linked Dahl and Marc MacGinnis to shared property in Orange County, where Marc Christian had grown up. These were intriguing links that, as one genealogy buff who e-mailed me said, strongly suggested Marc Christian and Marc Christian MacGinnis were the same person. But no one could say with 100% certainty that they were.
Another lead was that Christian lived in a house on Knoll Drive in the Hollywood Hills. I then heard from a reader who said he had met Christian walking his dog in the neighborhood, and another who said he had attended an estate sale at the house and met Susan Dahl there. A property record gave phone numbers for Dahl, but when I tried them they didn't work.
Distracted by other assignments, I had forgotten that I had the name of the sales agent on the Knoll Drive house until I saw a comment from another reader, Robert Young, who said he had been a prospective buyer.
"You should reach out to the Realtor ... Tom Otero," Young wrote.
Friday morning, I called Otero, explained what I was doing and asked if he could help me contact Christian's sister. A few minutes later, my phone rang: It was Susan Dahl.
Thank you, Tom Otero and Robert Young!
Dahl said she almost didn't call me. She told me her brother hadn't wanted any "hoopla" over his death. But she liked my name, explaining that she had a friend with the same name as mine. So she dialed my number.
After I reported here that I had spoken to Dahl, a reader named Jerry asked a question: How I could be sure she was legit?
Jerry, are you trying to keep me up at night?
Seriously, though, he asks a good question. Reporters need facts, but we also are always operating on a certain degree of faith. We can ask questions to help establish the credibility of a source, but we can't run background checks on everyone we speak to. In this case, Dahl had enough details that jibed with what I already knew to convince me that she really was Marc Christian's sister. I also subsequently spoke to three of her brother's friends, who provided further corroboration.
Only one mystery remains: What about the phony report of his death several years ago? Dahl had no answer. I guess I'll never know.
-- Elaine Woo
Photo: Marc Christian in 1989. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times