Aug. 4, 1960: Members of a Nixon club replace a sign that was stolen from Richard M. Nixon’s boyhood home in Yorba Linda, which brings us back to a story posted in 2009.
Times reporter Art Ryon covered the dedication of Nixon’s birthplace in a Jan. 10, 1959, story with the stunning news: "He was born in a hospital," smiled Mrs. Frank A. Nixon, his mother, who looked pert and sweet and proud in a gray suit and pillbox hat. "But we lived here until Richard was 7."
As far as I can tell, this account only appeared in The Times. Neither the Examiner nor the UPI wire service interviewed Nixon’s mother in reporting the dedication and neither said anything about him being born in a hospital. The Mirror and the Herald-Express, both afternoon papers, did not cover the event.
The Times story touched off denials by Nixon and his mother, and was refuted in Bela Kornitzer’s biography “The Real Nixon.” (Kornitzer, a Hungarian refugee in deep sympathy with Nixon’s anti-communist beliefs, was given access to the family in preparing his flattering 1960 biography and openly stated that he would avoid anything controversial about his subject.)
Kornitzer says: “On Jan. 9, 1959, Nixon’s 46th birthday, when the township of Yorba Linda dedicated a bronze plaque commemorating the vice president’s birthplace at 1806 Yorba Linda Blvd., a nationwide furor was caused by a reporter who asserted that the vice president had actually been born in a Yorba Linda hospital and not in the parental home. The family and Yorba Lindans became irate at the distortion: Richard was born in the home of his parents.”
The day after Ryon’s account was published, The Times backtracked by saying “The report, evidently in error, appeared in yesterday morning's Times. It said Nixon was born in a hospital. ‘He was not,’ corrected Mrs. Frank A. Nixon, the vice president's mother, who was there. ‘He was born in the front bedroom of that very house.’ ”
The Times Washington bureau also wrote a small story reaffirming Nixon’s account that he was born in the home. Nothing further was written in The Times and apparently the matter was considered closed.
All very odd. So I decided to do a little digging.
Nixon was proud of his humble origins, famously beginning his autobiography “I was born in the house my father built.” For that matter, being born at home in Nixon’s era (1913) was nothing unusual and not only in more rural places like Yorba Linda. My own father was born at home in 1916, even though the family was living in urban Detroit.
I assumed that Nixon’s birth certificate would clear up the mystery, but interestingly enough, he didn’t get one until he was 29. (It’s on the jump). To settle matters, Kornitzer interviewed Henrietta Shockney, the nurse who delivered Nixon, and published a photo of the card she filled out when he was born. (Note: Nixon weighed 11 pounds. A serious baby.)
The Ryon incident is remarkably curious for several reasons. First, The Times was a staunch Nixon supporter, not only on the editorial page but in its news coverage. It’s difficult to imagine how such a statement could get into a pro-Nixon paper without being challenged by at least one if not several people in the editing process.
Ryon, who died in 1966 at the age of 51, isn’t around to take questions or the whole matter could be cleared up quickly. At this point in his career, in addition to reporting, Ryon wrote a lighthearted column, “Ham on Ryon.” One might wonder whether he decided to play a poorly conceived joke. I queried the late Eric Malnic on whether Ryon was a reliable reporter and Malnic’s reply was: “If he wrote it, it happened.”
So we are left to wonder. Did Ryon fabricate a story? He was a reliable newsman and a Times veteran. It’s doubtful that he would have jeopardized his career by making up an account that was sure to be swiftly denied. Was Nixon’s mother pulling his leg? Everyone seems to portray her positively but I’m not sure she was known for playing practical jokes. I wish I had a better answer, but for now the story remains a puzzling footnote to history.
Richard Nixon’s birth certificate, issued in March 1942, when he was 29.
1960: Bela Kornitzer publishes a souvenir of Nixon’s birth.
Jan. 11, 1959: Nixon was born at home.
Jan. 14, 1959: Nixon was born at home.