Becoming Zoey Tur

As the most famous helicopter news pilot in American history, Bob Tur prided himself on being the ultimate alpha male. Except all along, he knew he wasn’t

In 1967, when Bobby Tur was about to turn seven, his mother asked him which kids he wanted to invite to his birthday party and what music he wanted on the hi-fi. The second question was easy. A year before, his parents had taken him to see the movie Georgy Girl. During the opening credits, he fell in love with the title song, which plays while a young and frumpy Lynn Redgrave peers into shop windows, gets a perm, then washes it out in a bathroom sink and emerges even more a misfit than before. “It’s a song about transitioning,” Zoey told me, and that’s a fair interpretation. The lyrics are about loneliness, putting on an act, and the concealment of one’s true self: There’s another Georgy deep inside / Bring out all the love you hide and / Oh what a change there’d be / The world would see / A new Georgy Girl.

Bobby played with Tonka trucks but also liked girls’ clothes, hopscotch, and braiding hair. Zoey remembered him lying in bed and asking where these strange feelings and desires came from. It seemed impossible to square how he felt with who he physically was. When his mother bought a new refrigerator, Bobby saw the cardboard box it came in and imagined a solution. “It could have been a time machine or a spaceship,” Zoey said. “I chose it to be a device that turned boys into girls.” When he invited friends to step inside it, the girls were willing, but the boys weren’t.

Around this time the abuse began. The family had just moved to a new home in Brentwood when Bobby’s father, a downtown garment factory owner, returned from work. “I said, ‘Dad, you’re home,’ ” Zoey said. “He threw a set of keys at me and broke my nose.” They went to the hospital—one of many trips. His father was soon beating Bobby regularly. The brutality was another reason to reject his father’s masculine world. “I wanted to be like my mom,” Zoey recalled. “I wanted nothing to do with my dad—as a role model, as a person, his clothing. I just didn’t identify with him in any way.”

Bobby couldn’t talk about the beatings, just like he couldn’t talk about the crushes he had on boys. By nine, he had shut down emotionally. Then came adolescence. He loathed his facial hair. Taking a shower after gym class was unbearable. He would have recurring fantasies in which he was a woman, having sex with a man. And then he’d see a girl, and despite his disgust and shame about what puberty was doing to his body, he would get turned on. “I thought girls were hot and beautiful,” Zoey remembered. “I felt it sexually, but my romantic thoughts would also go to boys. That’s what’s so bizarre.”

When Bobby was 17, his father came home, gasping for breath, and staggered into the living room. Bobby had recently earned his certificate as an emergency medical technician. (Over the years the emergency room, with its nurses and EMTs, had become a place of comfort.) He told his father he was having a heart attack. His father said he didn’t know what he was talking about. Bobby told him he’d be dead in three minutes.

Bobby asked his younger brother, Steven, to watch their dad while he went to the kitchen to let their mother know what was going on. Her one-word answer: “Good.” He headed for the bathroom and found Steven standing outside, locked out. Together they busted the door down and found their father naked in the tub, in cardiac arrest. Bobby administered CPR. “I had prayed for his death,” Zoey remembered, “but when it came down to it, I didn’t let him die. The son of a bitch survived.” He was, though, confined to the critical care unit for a month. That’s where Bobby met Robin, the unit’s 23-year-old inhalation therapist. She was so nice, Zoey recalled. She had a couple of horses, and soon she and Bobby were riding together in Malibu, and then they were riding in the nude, and then Bobby was no longer a virgin. “She was great, and she was wild,” Zoey told me. “It was the best sex I’ve ever had in my life.”

After hearing this story, I admitted that I found it puzzling. How could a young man who so strongly identified as female find sexual pleasure as a heterosexual male? The question exasperated Zoey. “You’re assuming because I’m not my authentic self that I can’t possibly have the intensity and feelings that a person comfortable in their own body would have,” Zoey said. “That is a black-and-white way of looking at it.” Growing up with gender dysphoria, she explained, meant never feeling entirely male or female but more like a hybrid.

Bobby was in his room when his father, back home from the hospital, stormed in and started hitting him. Zoey recalled him yelling, “How dare you save my life? Don’t you ever save my life again!” Bobby moved out that day. The boy traumatized by violence, the Georgy Girl who had lived deep inside him—he would leave those two behind. “I pretty much blocked out all my memories,” Zoey said. “I was like, ‘Just forget it.’ ”

When news broke, Tur was often there first. In 1992, he hovered above Florence and Normandie avenues and captured the beauting of Reginald Denny (left); in 1994, he followed O.J, Simpson's Ford Bronco
When news broke, Tur was often there first. In 1992, he hovered above Florence and Normandie avenues and captured the beauting of Reginald Denny (left); in 1994, he followed O.J, Simpson’s Ford Bronco

Marika Gerrard got her first glimpse of Bob Tur in the summer of 1978, probably through the ticket window at Westwood’s Bruin Theatre, where she worked. At 18, Bob was slender and handsome; he wore bell-bottoms and a 35mm camera around his neck. When he began hanging out at the movie palace, Marika, who was five years older, thought he had a crush on one of the candy girls. Then he asked her out on Halloween.

Their date began with Marika’s first flying lesson. Next, following Bob’s police scanner, they drove to a fire in Santa Monica and to a murder scene on skid row. Bob had been living on his own for a year, selling freelance photos to wire services and local TV stations. Marika had dropped out of UCLA’s graduate philosophy program and was living with her parents in Beverly Hills. She liked looking at Los Angeles as it appeared through Bob’s lens: rougher, grittier, and more tragic and thrilling than anything she had imagined. “I was very lost at the time,” she said, “and Bob has a way of pulling you into what he is doing.”

They were soon living together. Bob figured that videotaped coverage was the fastest way to grow Los Angeles News Service, his one-man business. The going rate for a professional camcorder at the time was $50,000. To raise the money, he became a private investigator and bounty hunter. One evening Marika helped him subdue a fugitive murder suspect outside the Jordan Downs housing project, shining a police-grade flashlight into his eyes while Bob pointed a gun to his head and handcuffed him.

Bob wanted to get hitched almost from the start. Marika wasn’t in a hurry. Their sex life was fine. It was Bob’s anger that gave her pause. She knew he had been beaten as a child, but his flashes of temper scared her. They didn’t marry until she was pregnant with their daughter, Katy, in late 1983. By that time Marika had become Bob’s camerawoman. They reported out of a Piper turbo plane Bob had bought on credit. Two years later they bought their first helicopter—a $139,000 Bell 206 JetRanger—and Marika gave birth to their son, Jamie. They landed a contract with news radio station KFWB and later switched to KNX; soon they were also reporting for KCOP. Bob’s mother, Judy, did their company’s billing and took care of Katy and Jamie while Bob and Marika spent thousands of hours in the sky.

As Marika remembers it, Bob’s outbursts were at their most intense during lulls in the excitement. When the world was collapsing below them—that was when they clicked, when he could make her feel secure. Even while rioters were shooting at their helicopter at Florence and Normandie, Marika never worried. “You cannot be with a safer person than Bob in an emergency,” she said. Marika, meanwhile, was protecting Bob against a threat she knew nothing about. “She was my foundation,” Zoey says now about her ex-wife. “She was like everything to me. And as long as she was there, I was able to keep the dysphoric stuff somewhat under control.” In their son’s eyes, they were both invincible. “As a kid, I kind of saw my mom and dad as superheroes,” said Jamie, who is in medical school. “I really didn’t think anything could hurt them.”

After a parting of the ways with KCOP, they were picked up by KCBS-TV, where Bob was the first news pilot to broadcast O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco on the air. The ensuing slow-speed police chase probably garnered the Turs’ largest audience ever. But it also signaled a shift for the local TV-news market, which was entering a period defined by lurid celebrity-driven farce. Bob’s brand of helicopter journalism became an extravagance.

In 1995, Bob was at Knott’s Berry Farm, celebrating Katy’s 12th birthday, when he suffered a heart attack. At the hospital doctors diagnosed a 90 percent blockage. He underwent an angioplasty. In the summer of 1997 KCBS terminated his contract after hiring his crew to work on the cheap. Surprisingly both Zoey and Marika talk about the relief they felt when they were pushed out of daily helicopter news journalism for good. “It was one of the happiest times of my life,” Marika told me, “because I got to see the kids all the time. I really didn’t get to when we were working.” Zoey says Bob was also excited to be spending more time with Katy and Jamie.

Soon enough Bob and Marika were miserable. The family finances—never great—were nearing collapse. They gave up health insurance; they struggled to come up with the rent for their house in Pacific Palisades. Marika sank into depression. When they were working, she had believed that the stress of the job was taking a toll on their marriage. Now she realized the job had been the only thing keeping them together.

During Bob’s 15 years in the sky, he had been able to channel his pain and rage over the smothering of his female self into the kind of aggressiveness that wins scoops and awards. What happened, I asked Zoey one day, when Bob was suddenly on the ground, without adrenaline, without purpose, and that pain and anger had nowhere to go? “Your life,” she said, “unravels.”

When Katy had been a child at summer camp, her father used to pick her up in his helicopter. “It seemed like they were always doing cool things,” she said of her parents. “They knew more about L.A. and the world than the rest of my friends’ parents did.” Then the excitement and acclaim seemed to disappear overnight. Katy spoke to me from New York, where she was a national correspondent for NBC News. “As a 14-year-old kid,” she said, “I was trying to figure out why my parents went from these trailblazing cowboys to these people who sat around the house all day, spending money they didn’t have.”

After the KCBS ouster, Katy asked her father several times why he didn’t want to work any longer. He had no answer—at least not one he could share. If Bob’s kids or wife had pressed him, Zoey says now, he would have been honest about gender dysphoria. But there were so many more apparent reasons for his anguish. “I think it’s no secret my dad had anger and depression issues all his life,” Katy recalled, “and after the CBS stuff and the mom stuff and the heart stuff, it got worse.”

In 2003, at a Christmas party in the Hollywood Hills, Bob fell into conversation with a gastroenterologist. The man began flirting with him and didn’t believe Bob when he insisted he wasn’t gay. Bob brought the doctor over to Marika, who confirmed that Bob was married, but as to whether he was gay? Well, that was another matter. If you’re interested in dating him, Marika told the doctor, here’s his phone number. “I was hoping someone would take him off my hands,” she said, “and I thought Bob would be happier this way.” Bob and the doctor did see each other for a time, long enough for Bob to realize he didn’t want to be intimate with a man as a man. In 2007, he and Marika divorced, and Bob dated several women, including actress-writer Carrie Fisher.

Nearly a decade after he left local news, he began flying again and steadily working. He hosted a short-lived MSNBC show about car chases called Why They Run and was filming a documentary on the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict when a Katyusha rocket exploded. Putting down his camera, he crawled into an overturned truck, where he performed a tracheotomy on a wounded Israeli soldier and saved his life. After the Deepwater Horizon debacle, he piloted a helicopter for BP and devised a system to recover stray oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Of the stories Zoey told me about these wilderness years, the most improbable had to be Bob’s experience at the Burning Man festival, Labor Day 2006. Wandering through bustling encampments in the Nevada desert, he ran into a trans woman, middle-aged and naked. “Her surgery was not that good,” Zoey remarked one day over pizza, but at the time it blew Bob’s mind. He was 46, and until that moment, she related, he hadn’t thought that surgical transitioning was possible. “It was in the realm of science fiction.”

During the previous 15 years, the transgender movement had come of age. “The 1990s were when the term ‘transgender’ took on its current meaning as part of a broader queer moment,” says Susan Stryker, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Arizona and the author of Transgender History. “You could see an uptick in attention to trans issues in the context of the AIDS crisis and new styles of gay and lesbian identity, and through a more in-your-face politics.” As Zoey explained it, Bob had remained as unaware of such advances as he was of L.A.’s trans community, which was hardly underground.

Medicine had been Bob’s passion since high school. He could draw a detailed illustration of the human heart from memory and understood more about breakthroughs in cardiac surgery than many doctors did. As a news pilot, Bob had always been an exhaustive researcher. Now, as we picked at the last few slices of a large mushroom pie, I wondered aloud how Bob had remained so unaware of the surgical, social, and cultural strides the transgender movement had been making.

Zoey’s answer was circuitous. She told me about the September 1991 issue of Playboy, which Bob had read at the age of 31. It featured Caroline “Tula” Cossey, fully nude and as sultry an example of female sexuality as any bunny in the magazine. Caroline had once been named Barry, according to the accompanying article, “The Transformation of Tula,” and after transgender surgery had achieved success as a model and actress.

We drove back to Zoey’s apartment, and she settled on her leather living room couch, MacBook on her lap, occupying herself with a meandering Google search for Tula. Again I asked how Bob could remain so blinkered to the fact that male-to-female transition had become more than possible—especially when faced with the splendid physical proof that was Tula? Instead of answering, Zoey got on eBay. “I’m buying that Playboy,” she said. “I’m buying it right now.” She cursed the seller’s high shipping costs and canceled her order. I asked a third time. “Are you hot in here?” she asked. “I can turn on the air-conditioning.”

You had to know it was possible to transition successfully in 1991, I continued. “I had to know?” she replied. Finally, after a long pause, Zoey said, “I had kids. A wife. A stupid poodle. I was on television.” Did I have any idea how it was to be famous, widely admired as a man’s man, and then announce to the world you were becoming a woman? Only two people, she told me, could possibly know how that feels. “There’s me,” she said, “and there’s Bruce.”

In the past few years Bruce Jenner, the onetime Olympic champion and Kardashian-connected reality-TV star, has had his Adam’s apple surgically removed, undergone facial feminization procedures, painted his fingernails and tinted his hair, and appeared in public wearing Spanx and a sports bra. Gossip Web sites and supermarket tabloids have surmised that he is transitioning, while those close to him have publicly dismissed the notion as absurd. When Zoey made this observation, in October of last year, Jenner had not commented about it. Nevertheless, her identification with the track-and-field legend goes to the core of her own struggle. “Being so successful at a young age,” Zoey said, “you become Bruce Jenner, and then to be anything other than Bruce Jenner is not acceptable. You paint yourself into a corner.”

“That is a prison,” Zoey continued. “People think, ‘Why can’t he just come out? We don’t care.’ Bullshit. People do care. Because the moment you ring the bell, you can’t unring it. You’re looked at differently and you’re treated differently. You go from being the world’s greatest athlete to being a tranny. You go from being Bob Tur—the supermacho helicopter pilot who was bigger than life, this James Bond character—to…transgender.”