‘Philomena’ 71st Golden Globes and the True Story of Michael Hess

Michael Hess, adopted to America, visited Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland three times looking for his birth mother. via Philomena Lee
Michael Hess, adopted to America, visited Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland three times looking for his birth mother. via Philomena Lee

In the early-to-mid 1980s, if you were a gay man in Washington working in politics, chances are you ended up on L Street near Capitol Hill, at a bar called Lost & Found.

The slightly down-at-the-heels-looking bar, which attracted a lot of Hill staffers, few of them fully out of the closet back at the office, featured occasional drag shows and a crowded dance floor, and had the distinctive architectural feature of no windows looking out onto the street, giving patrons a level of protection, a cocoon of safety from unwary passers-by. There was an outdoor area where people could drink and look at the stars, but even that was shielded from public view.

It was here that you might find Michael Hess, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee during the Reagan and Bush administrations, and something of a regular (at least during his early days in Washington). You might have also spotted him around town D.J.-ing, something he did at local clubs and at a radio station at George Washington University, where he was known for his eclectic taste, which ran from Grace Jones to the Grateful Dead.

Hess, who grew up in the Midwest, was raised in a Catholic family and graduated from Notre Dame and the George Washington law school. He slowly came to grips with his sexuality as he moved into adulthood, dating a series of men and then settling into a decade-plus relationship with Steve Dahllof, who worked in public relations for the Food Marketing Institute, then the National Restaurant Association. The couple lived during the week in an apartment at the Wyoming, a grand old prewar building on Columbia Road. On weekends, they would head for their farmhouse in West Virginia, which was stocked with three dogs they had gotten through the Humane Society.

But like many other gay men of that era, Hess contracted AIDS. He died, at the age of 43, in 1995.

Now, 19 years after his death, Hess’s life is at the center of  ” Philomena” a film starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan that is based on the real-life story of an elderly Irishwoman’s search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier and was desperate to find.

That son was Michael Hess, or Anthony Lee, as he was known to his teenage unwed mother, Philomena Lee.

In the film, Michael (played by Sean Mahon) is seen in home movies and in photographs of him with President Reagan, and in flashbacks as a toddler at a convent in Roscrea, Ireland, called Sean Ross Abbey, where his mother had been sent by her family when she became pregnant by a boy she had a fling with.

The most wrenching scene in the film is when she spots her young son being taken away from the convent by the American couple who adopt him, almost as an afterthought, to be a companion to the young girl they had originally come to claim. (Plot spoilers abound in this post.)

Throughout the film, Hess remains something of an enigma to the audience, which is why his real-life story may seem so tantalizing to viewers. Yes, there are those artfully staged flashbacks, but Hess is always “a little out of reach” to quote Coogan, who plays the journalist who helps Philomena track him down and who was a co-writer of the screenplay.

This was apparently intentional. If you are going to make a movie based on a true story, and if that story centers on a woman’s search to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption, it makes a certain amount of sense not to flesh him out too much.

“We didn’t want to become overly involved in the life of Anthony Lee or Michael Hess,” Coogan said. “What appealed to me was the search for the son and the tragedy of not being able to see him grow up. That’s how Philomena experienced it; it was just out of reach, just beyond her.”

But who exactly was Michael Hess?

Like the elusive character in the film, he seemed somewhat unknowable even to those he considered friends, some of whom didn’t even know he was adopted or from Ireland.

“Even though I knew him for quite a few years, I did not know this story,” said Bob Witeck, a friend and colleague in local political circles. “When I saw the movie, I was thunderstruck.”

But perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, said E. Mark Braden, a lawyer who worked with Hess for several years at the committee, the guy never exactly wore his heart on his sleeve.

Judi Dench, well she gives one very good performance and she is up for a Golden Globe.


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