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Perhaps the only event that has arrived with as much regularity as an election in George Gorton’s life is a new love. He has a proclivity for powerful women, and a self-professed inability to stop loving anyone he’s ever loved.
He’s been married three times, has found himself in numerous serious relationships and conversations with him have a way of frequently ending up on the topic of his loves. And despite all of the breakups in such an eventful love life, his hot pink cell phone is full of numbers belonging to women from the various eras of his life. Numbers he calls, regularly.
“It’s foolish to think one person’s right,” he says, explaining how he’s managed to remain on good terms with so many exes. “It just is.”
He met many of the loves of his life through his other love, politics. And they were often on the way to high places.
Before Watergate, he worked on a New York senate campaign for a conservative Republican named Jim Buckley. A college senior named Cathy Bertini was president of her university’s College Republicans club, and was working for the moderate Republican in the race, Charles Goodell.
One afternoon, she got a phone call from someone named George Gorton. She figured he was working on the same campaign. “I’m in Albany and I have to see you,” he said. She said she was sorry but she was too busy to see him. He persisted, convincing her to meet him in the campus cafeteria. He walked in, looking “very attractive,” the only one in the room wearing a jacket and tie, and began to make small talk with Bertini.
“What’s so important?” Bertini finally asked him.
“Nothing, I just had to see you,” he said.
“Well, what’s your job with the campaign?” she pressed.
He was working for the opponent’s campaign, he said, and had heard all about her and was intrigued. He’d set the meeting up just to meet her.
“If truth be told, during the election, he would come up to organize against me, and then we’d go out on a date,” Bertini said, 38 years later. “He was cavorting with the enemy.”
Bertini moved up through politics herself, eventually heading the United Nation’s World Food Programme for 10 years, then becoming a U.N. undersecretary general. She now teaches at Syracuse University and is a senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
He met his first wife, Anneliis Koiv — “Sammy” to her friends — when he returned to San Diego after Watergate. She’d caught his eye one day as she worked in Maureen O’Connor’s office. O’Connor was a San Diego councilwoman at that time who would become mayor.
Gorton called Koiv later that afternoon to say he’d seen her in the office and wanted to ask her out.
“Come pick me up,” she told him.
Only when Gorton arrived, he wasn’t the guy Koiv thought had called her. She’d been expecting another man who’d visited the office that day. Nonetheless, they eventually married.
Their marriage strained under the pressure of Koiv’s travel schedule. When not campaigning for O’Connor, she was a Pan Am airline flight attendant based in New York. Her shifts took her away from San Diego frequently for more than 10 days on turnaround flights to Saigon and Tehran.
The distance was a struggle for Gorton, who nearly always kept at least one woman by his side. The marriage ended.
Soon he met and began dating Susan Golding on the campaign trail for Pete Wilson’s unsuccessful bid for governor in 1978. He remembers the moment well: “She had olive skin, and a great figure. I went up and introduced myself to her.”
They dated for about four years, bonding over a shared curiosity toward just about everything in the world, Golding says. But their relationship dissolved about the same time Golding was appointed to a vacant City Council seat with Gorton’s help.
Gorton said Golding was sensitive to the perception that he, her boyfriend, was responsible for getting her the post, and he remembers her skittishness about him being too often seen in her office or out at events across the city.
“She knew I was a liability. It made me unhappy,” he says.
Golding says the end of their romance was a natural dissolution — one that left room for maintaining a close professional relationship for future campaigns.
Whatever the reason for the end of the relationship, Golding remains fond of her old love. “If I got a call that George Gorton was in trouble somewhere in the world I would drop everything and go there,” Golding says. “And I think he would say the same thing about me.”
After the romance with Golding dissolved, Gorton met his second wife, Terry Barlin Gorton, in 1983.
“Not only was he one of cutest guys I had ever seen but he was also one of the most immediately provocative — he’s such a deep person,” Barlin Gorton says, remembering their meeting at Golden Hall on election night. They traveled the world, and Barlin Gorton remembers her first inkling that Gorton’s spirituality would blossom.
“I saw him just leave his workaday world behind,” she says of watching him observe a cat and a monkey interact on a beach in Thailand. “I saw him just be able to say — boom — ‘I’m in the present moment,’ and to be lighthearted and pleasant about it.”
Though the couple divorced, Barlin Gorton stayed a key part of Gorton’s life as she raised their son. And she was the first to notice his slumping walk, a precursor to his Parkinson’s diagnosis. That he seems to have healed considerably doesn’t surprise her.
“At the end of the day, that’s George’s skill,” Barlin Gorton says. “He can tap into the well of extraordinary and apply it to business, to spiritual development, to his health.”
Coming face-to-face with his own mortality steered him into a relationship with Kiki Holzen, who became his third wife. The two celebrated three weddings: one in Mexico, one at the courthouse in San Diego and a mock wedding at Burning Man.
If work was Gorton’s mistress, as a friend asserts, it counts as one more lover in a life that’s seen as many long-term relationships as it has campaigns. Three wives and so many serious girlfriends. “Serial monogamy,” he calls it. Despite the end of his marriage with Holzen after four years, the two remain close, still camping together in Gorton’s motor home.
So close, in fact, that Holzen says she wishes they were still married. “I regret divorcing him, you know?” she says. “I wouldn’t have signed the papers if I could do it over again.”
Gorton says now he thinks about settling down, exploring what could be a relationship to last the rest of his life. His son Steven Moore thinks Gorton would prefer to be married than not married.
Longtime friend David Malcolm says Gorton was always out, somewhere in the world, searching for truth and happiness. And that might not have been what his wives wanted.
“I think the people that he’s married are too conventional,” he says. “I think most women would always want their man to be seeking happiness and truth in them.”