"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
If I had one wish, how would I use it? Would I wish I had never taken him up on his offers to fly me around the world? Would I wish I had never had a relationship with a married man? Would I simply wish I had never met Herman Cain? Seven months after the whole spectacle went down, Herman Cain has continued his career as a political eccentric — writing books, landing speaking engagements and hosting his own Web TV network. Meanwhile, I have been called a whore, a liar and a home wrecker. No one will employ me. In the seven months since I stood in front of reporters, cameras and the American public and told them about our affair, this is the question I have most often asked myself: What do I regret the most?
It all began one evening in 1996, when I was working the information booth at a black tie function in my hometown of Louisville, Ky. I first noticed Herman as he walked through the lobby toward the escalator. He stared at me, and I couldn’t help but stare back: His look was so intense. I turned away, but when I looked back a few seconds later, he had not moved his eyes. He was riding the escalator with his body still turned toward me. He was dripping with confidence and arrogance. He had this incredible grin on his face, as if he already knew how the evening was going to turn out.
It was only later that evening, when I took a table near the back and began eating dinner after my hosting duties had finished, that I looked at the program on the table. As I flipped through it, there was the guy who undressed me in the lobby. I couldn’t believe it: He was giving the keynote.
“That’s the speaker tonight?” I asked, leaning over casually to my girlfriend.
“Yes,” she said, laughing, “and I’m sure he’ll be very interested to meet you at the cocktail party after.”
At the time, I was a single mom who had just come out of a horrible marriage, and I was free for the first time in a while. Free to do whatever and see whomever I wanted. So I was intrigued by this man I knew nothing about. There was something inviting about him in a dark kind of way.
That night, we were all gathered at a cocktail party for VIPs. It was a small, intimate setting. As I stood there chatting with friends, a friend walked Herman over to where I was standing. I was so nervous. What do I say? How do I say it?
But he put me at ease. His smile was brighter than the sun itself. His charm filled the room. He asked if he could get me a drink, I agreed, and a few hours later I found myself walking him to his hotel room.
No, it’s not what you think — at least not yet. But it was whirlwind from the beginning. He told me he never felt this way before. Our connection was so strong, and he didn’t want tonight to be the last night for us. He pulled out his calendar and invited me to join him on a trip to West Palm Beach. He was traveling there within the next few weeks for a meeting and golf excursion with his board members. He told me he would take care of all the travel and expenses. He promised we’d have an amazing time together.
It was crazy. I barely knew this man. And he was married, too. But what can I say? He convinced me. There’s a reason Herman Cain commanded so much attention in his run for the presidency despite having so little actual experience. His wild combination of humor and unorthodox antics and risk-taking stunned me into going along with his impulsive plan. The man is seriously persuasive.
He kissed me passionately. A few days later, he called to tell me how thrilled he was that I’d be joining him. I couldn’t know then, but it was just the beginning – the beginning of many trips, many Fed Ex packages filled with cash, many visits, many dinners, many intimate nights, many phone calls and texts.
The thing is, I never once felt love for this person. For me, the relationship was more of an escape from my boring yet sometimes stressful life. It also allowed me to provide for my children while I was in and out of work. I’d been a successful businesswoman living in an exclusive neighborhood, but corporate America demanded too much of my soul. I can’t begin to tell you how many indecent proposals I got during my time there. How many married men were willing to cheat on their faithful and loyal wives. I saw it, I heard it, I lived it. Finally, I decided to leave it.
Over the years, Herman came in and out of my life. I married again, and stayed faithful to my husband, but when I split with him, Herman and I found one another again. It was an odd relationship, but it went on for a long time – 13 years, to be exact. During that time, many people knew of our relationship. More than I realized. But that didn’t matter until he decided to run for president of the United States.
Then, everything changed. Any time Herman was on the news or said something against women, gays, President Obama or poor people, I got a call or a text. My friends — at least, the ones I thought were my friends — were right on. They had every reason to dislike this person I’d shared intimate moments with. I was beginning to sicken of him myself – not just when I’d see him privately but when I’d see him on television. The thought of being with this man – of even being his friend — was getting tougher and tougher, but I felt I had no choice. I had to grin and bear it.
Financially, I was in trouble. After I left my corporate job, I wanted to do something meaningful, and I settled on health and fitness. My goal was to help men and women who didn’t feel so good about their bodies find more self-confidence. I got my certification as a spin instructor and started teaching classes in the inner city of Atlanta. I was finally doing something right! And it worked – for almost a year. I was so happy. But during that time I made a bad decision and hired someone to help me with my business, which didn’t work at all. In fact, this person nearly ruined me, and it was tough to recover. During this time Herman made sure I had money for rent, food, etc. My daughter was a sophomore in college and my son a senior in high school. I wasn’t going to let them down. I had to take care of my family. No matter what my personal feelings were toward Herman, I had to stay with him until I could do better on my own. But I hated how it made me feel. I knew this relationship had to end.
Then the first accusation of sexual harassment came. I never questioned the woman’s story. I knew he did it, and I felt so bad for her. But I was in survivor mode, still thinking only of myself: How do I continue dealing with this man? My stomach turned as I watched Herman at a press conference in late October, denying everything. Whenever he would phone me, he’d blow off the whole thing as if it were nothing. Unbelievable, I’d say to myself.
A few days later, my mom called. “Turn on the news!” she said. “Another woman has come out against Herman Cain!” She knew about our affair, and she was not a fan.
I flipped the channel, and there was Sharon Bialek and her lawyer Gloria Allred holding a press conference. I was stunned, even as my belief in them never wavered. My heart sank. I was so embarrassed I’d had anything to do with this man. That’s it, I thought. I’m going to put an end to this.
After that, things in my world began closing in very fast. I was getting random calls from the press asking if I knew Herman Cain and if I’d be willing to share any information regarding our relationship. “What the hell is going on?” I thought. “How did they get my number? Who said what?” I knew my relationship with Herman wasn’t the most private, but I never thought someone would leak about it to the press. I felt an uneasy pressure to come forward on our relationship before someone else did. There were only three people who knew the truth of my situation with him, and that was God, Herman Cain and I. By that point, it was pretty obvious Herman Cain wasn’t exactly an advocate for the truth, so the task fell to me.
I had my sister place a call to Dale Russell, a reporter with Fox 5 News in Atlanta. My attorney had warned me of the potential backlash when the interview went public. He said my life was going to change drastically and it was something I needed to brace myself for. Even though you’re telling the truth, he told me, people will judge you. It’s likely they won’t believe you. I told him I didn’t care. I just wanted to do what was right. The interview aired on Monday, Nov. 28, 2011 – but even his warnings didn’t prepare me for what came next.
My life turned upside down that day. Reporters were at my door, so many interviews, so many horrible things written, so many tears shed. My private life is no longer so private, my reputation has been ruined and my professional career has suffered, not to mention the embarrassment it caused my family.
I’ve been asked many times: If you had to do it all over again, would you? Absolutely. Going public with my relationship with Herman Cain not only freed me from an entanglement that was wrong but it also helped to rid the presidential race of a hypocrite like Herman Cain. At least that’s what I tell myself.
I finally left Atlanta and I’m currently living in D.C., hoping to move on and get my life back to normal. It’s been hard to watch Herman continue to have a voice while I struggle to find anyone to employ me. Of course, Herman has denied everything, and many people believe him. They call me terrible names. But I think there are more people who do believe me. Deep down, they know Herman Cain hasn’t been forthcoming about our relationship. It’s likely he will never tell the truth about what happened between us, and that’s something I struggle with daily and think about every night before I close my eyes. Then I think of the women and men who have reached out to me and said: Yes, we believe you! Some women have admitted to lying in bed with their married boyfriends while watching my interviews.
You see, this is something that happens every day. Is it right? No, but it exists. When will women stop taking all the blame when it comes to scandals such as this? When will we stop shaming people who fall short of their own ideals and admit that we all make mistakes? No one is perfect. I know I’m not. But I am a fighter with no regrets.
Well, I have one small regret, actually. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
(Editor’s note: Herman Cain did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ginger White was born in Louisville, KY, and has since traveled the world. She has two children and currently resides in Washington, DC.More Ginger White.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)