There is a period of time in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ life that has remained something of a mystery to the public for 50 years. When exactly did he come to Vermont? And where did he set roots before he settled in Burlington?
The 73-year-old senator with a Brooklyn accent is running for president, and his message of “truth” as supporters see it, has gained traction. His popularity has surprised everyone, even his devotees in Vermont.
As Sanders’ campaign gains steam, the national media has turned the spotlight on his personal life. Until now, Sanders has kept his private life very private, and reporters in Vermont tend to take a hands-off approach to the personal lives of political candidates.
In Sanders’ case, a Republican opposition research project about his early life in Vermont backfired during his 1996 campaign for Congress. The research, which was given to reporters, resulted in stories about … opposition research, not about where Sanders was and what he was doing during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s when he was coming of age.
As national reporters scrutinize Sanders’ fitness as a candidate for president, that genteel respect for privacy that’s uniquely New England has gone by the wayside. The national press is analyzing every word the senator wrote as a young man and exhuming details of his personal and professional decisions.
One period of his life, the years from 1964 to 1971, however, has been left unexplained. In media profiles of the senator, Sanders is transported from graduation at the University of Chicago to his idealistic foray into politics with the Liberty Union party.
But what brought Bernie Sanders to Vermont, and made him the candidate he is now, wasn’t the hope of finding a home in politics. It was simply to find a home that happened to be about as different as one could imagine from the place he grew up: Brooklyn.
Sanders dreamed of owning a piece of land, and he shared that vision with his brother Larry, sources have said. But by the late 1960s his brother, who is eight years his senior, had moved to England, where he’s lived ever since.
Sanders didn’t let the dream die, though. Shortly after he graduated on June 13, 1964, with a B.A. from the University of Chicago in political science, he moved to Vermont.
News reports have pegged his move to Vermont to much later in the 1960s, and the locations cited are either Burlington, as the New York Times reported recently, or Middlesex, which is tied to the purchase of a piece of land with his then-wife Deborah as Mother Jones reported in May.
Both accounts are incorrect.
As is a story from the National Journal that reports Sanders lived in New York City immediately after graduation.
Though Sanders’ early days in Vermont have been portrayed as that of a revolutionary, his actual life in the late 1960s and early 1970s was like that of any 20-something.
Sanders came to Vermont with Deborah Messing, his college sweetheart, in 1964. Recently married, they bought 85 acres in central Vermont that August for $2,500. It’s been called the sugar shack in the press, and a love shack by locals in the town of Middlesex, but the small structure on Shady Rill Road wasn’t by any means a permanent residence. It had running water and no electricity. Messing and Sanders left Vermont and traveled through Europe, just as the war in Vietnam was escalating. About 18 months later, in 1966, they divorced.
Deborah married Bob Messing in 1967, and together they bought out Sanders’ share of the Middlesex property in 1968. The two had a daughter five years later.
Most biographical sketches of Sanders list his son Levi (for the record, pronounced LEH-vee) as a product of his first marriage. After Levi was born in 1969, so the story goes, the couple parted ways, and Sanders found a place for himself in the Liberty Union party, where he took “revolutionary” stances bucking the status quo.
Messing says the story that he came to Vermont “with his first wife, had a kid and moved to Stannard,” as cited by Wikipedia, is also incorrect. “I never moved to Stannard,” Messing says.
Messing said that version of the story is oft-repeated, and has perpetuated a major error: That she, Messing, is the mother of Levi Sanders. In fact, the mother of Sanders’ only biological son is Susan Glaeser. (She is listed on Levi’s birth certificate as both Susan Campbell Mott and Susan Sanders, which was also the name attributed to her in a local newspaper’s birth announcements.)
Sanders moved to Stannard with his girlfriend, Susan Mott, in 1968, and his son was born in March 1969. They lived together in the tiny Northeast Kingdom town until 1971 when Mott and Sanders split up. Sanders moved to Burlington, and Mott later married Hendrik Glaeser, a fellow Stannard resident.
Neither Messing or Glaeser has been previously identified in news reports.
In an interview with VTDigger, Messing, 70, who is retired and volunteers with 350 Vermont, a local climate change organization, talked about her move to Vermont with Sanders, who introduced her to the state she’s called home for decades. She declined to comment about her personal relationship with the senator.
“I consider him a friend, and support his efforts for the presidential candidacy,” she said from her home in Montpelier.
After Sanders became mayor in 1981, she saw a news story that mistakenly pegged his first wife as Levi’s mother.
“I noticed that after the mayoral certification,” she said, when she saw a profile on him in the paper. “I wondered about it. It is just really weird,” she said. “And irrelevant. Then suddenly it’s important when you’re running for president.”
She wasn’t named in the story, and Messing never publicly brought the error to light.
“It was just that it was not a big deal,” she said. “And I assumed it was somebody’s mistake and it had just fallen through the cracks.”
VTDigger asked Bernie Sanders’ campaign office for a comment about why Sanders didn’t correct the record at some point over the past 35 years. The campaign did not respond to the request before publication of this story.
Susan Glaeser, who now lives in Burlington, declined to comment except to say she didn’t “really know him anymore.”
When pressed further about who he might have spent time with or what kind of a person he was, she said: “I don’t know, I don’t keep track of him. I don’t know.”
Hendrik Glaeser, who owns a sign-making shop in the South End, said, “We like to keep the family stuff private” when asked about his wife’s relationship with the senator.
Martha Abbott, a founder of the Liberty Union party and longtime political ally, recalls that Sanders was devoted to Levi. He had partial custody of his son, and as a single father he struggled to make ends meet — he wrote freelance articles for publications and was for a time unemployed.
“He was very committed to being a parent,” Abbott said. “And he scraped together the money to take care of him.”
Sanders was very employable at the time, she says, but for a few years “he was trying out different things.”
“He wanted to do more writing, and I think he wanted to be there for Levi and spend time with him, and there were some choices involved,” Abbott said.