From philandering spouses to one lying United States president, Hal Lipset took thousands of cases as a private detective and earned a national reputation as a pioneer of electronic surveillance. Ironically, he was both an inventor of eavesdropping gadgets and an advocate for public regulation of these devices.
Lipset was born in Newark in 1919 and attended the University of Pennsylvania before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley. He joined the U.S. Army in 1941, serving in the military police and earning a Bronze Star in combat. He learned the investigator’s trade during his enlistment.
After the war, Lipset and his wife, Lynn, moved to San Francisco and opened a private detective office, Lipset Service, in 1947. They attempted to bring professionalism and order to a disreputable industry. Lipset began collaborating with the city’s leading law firms on pre-trial investigations. He also developed a relationship with an electronics expert, Ralph Bersche, who showed him how to apply the emerging transistor technology of the 1950s to eavesdropping on behalf of his clients.
Whether he was wired up with a tape recorder or listening in to a microphone imbedded in a bar of soap, Lipset depended on miniature listening devices to obtain information and discredit his client’s opponents in court. Lipset, who had encountered many examples of wiretapping by police as a private investigator, was wary of its impact on privacy rights and contributed to a book by a former Philadelphia prosecutor, Sam Dash, in 1959 to criticize the practice.
As both an expert wiretapper and a leading critic of its abuse, Lipset was called before a Senate committee to testify in 1968. In his most famous act of gumshoe virtuosity, he shocked the panel and public opinion by demonstrating how to create a bug in a martini olive. Although the technology was impracticable—the antenna in the toothpick had highly limited range and the microphone in the “pimiento” of the olive would fail if exposed to liquid—it became a focal point for debate on the future of privacy regulation. That year, a federal law was passed banning all wiretapping and recordings without a court order. The exception, which suited Lipset’s investigatory needs, arose if one party to the conversation had consented (see 18 U.S.C. § 2511(2)(d)). Soon after, however, states including California banned private recordings unless both parties agreed.
Lipset worked with many high-profile clients, including Angela Davis and Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple, and his colorful career was director Francis Ford Coppola's inspiration for the character of Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman in the 1974 film The Conversation. He was even called in to investigate the President. In 1973, Lipset’s colleague Sam Dash was the Senate Watergate Committee’s counsel and he hired Lipset to be his chief investigator. The Nixon administration learned about Lipset’s past conviction for a minor eavesdropping offense, however, and Dash forced Lipset to resign.
Robert Thomas, Jr., Hal Lipset, Private Detective With a Difference, Dies at 78, NY Times, Dec. 12, 1997.
Michael Taylor, Dean of Detectives Dies in S.F., San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 9, 1997.
Patricia Holt, The Good Detective: True Cases from the Confidential Files of Hal Lipset, America’s Most Controversial Private Eye (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1994).
Alex Markels, Timeline: Wiretaps' Use and Abuse, NPR News, Dec. 20, 2005.