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December 12, 1997

Hal Lipset, 78, Famous Sleuth


Hal Lipset, a storied San Francisco sleuth who helped elevate, or rather reduce, electronic surveillance to a miniature art, died on Monday at a San Francisco hospital. He was 78 and was best known as the man who put a bug in a martini olive.

Friends said the cause was heart failure during treatment for an aneurysm.

Despite a half century in which he regularly broke into hotel rooms to catch errant spouses and cheerfully represented the most disreputable clients, Lipset was widely credited with transforming the once seedy gumshoe calling into a respected profession.

But then Lipset was a detective with a difference, a private eye who shunned the hard-boiled Sam Spade image, except for occasional effect, and took as his fictional role model Perry Mason's right-hand man, Paul Drake.

At a time when private detectives were regarded as little more than lawyers' errand boys, Lipset was soon working in virtual partnership with San Francisco's leading lawyers.

Along the way he became a San Francisco legend, partly because he ran his business from his 25-room mansion in Pacific Heights and partly because he was a mainstay in Herb Caen's column in The San Francisco Chronicle, a position he cemented when he chased a pair of jewel thieves across Europe, sending daily dispatches on his progress to Caen and a breathless San Francisco until he caught up with them in the Canary Islands.

Lipset, who trained many detectives who eventually set up their own agencies, was known for recruiting intellectual operatives, among them a former philosophy professor and Patricia Holt, now The Chronicle's book editor, who wrote his 1995 biography, "The Bug in the Martini Olive."

A native of Newark who briefly attended the University of California at Berkeley, Lipset received his training as an Army investigator in Europe in World War II, then settled in San Francisco, where he and his wife, Lynn, opened an agency in 1947.

Lipset used a wire recorder from the beginning, but it was the introduction of transistors in the 1950s that gave him the vision that would make him famous.

Working closely with an electronics expert, Ralph Bersche, Lipset let his imagination run wild, once winning over a skeptical prospective client by playing a recording of a conversation they had had while sitting naked in a steam room. (The suspicious client had neglected to inspect his bar of soap.)

For all such eye-catching applications, Lipset did much of his best work fully dressed, using a holstered recorder to pick up damaging statements made by a rival witness. When the witness would lie in court about the conversation, and lawyers would challenge veracity, the recording would establish the truth.

Aware of widespread invasions of privacy by law enforcement and others, he campaigned for reasonable restrictions and worked closely with Sam Dash, a former Philadelphia prosecutor, on his 1959 book, "The Eavesdroppers."

The book laid the groundwork for reform, but Dash said that it was Lipset's riveting demonstration of a bugged martini glass before a Senate subcommittee in 1968 that focused public opinion on the issue.

Never mind that the tiny transmitter inside a fake olive with a microphone instead of pimento and a toothpick as an antenna had a severely limited range, that it would not work at all if there were actual gin and vermouth in the glass and that it was built purely for show.

The olive became the symbol of how easy transmitters were to conceal. A 1968 federal law banned all wiretapping and recordings without a court order unless at least one party to the conversation had consented. But much to Dash's horror, and chagrin, California, and later other states, banned private recordings unless all participants consent.

As the Senate Watergate Committee's counsel, Dash hired Lipset as chief investigator in 1973, but when the Nixon White House leaked the fact that Lipset had been convicted of a minor eavesdropping offense, Dash, who had been aware of the incident, let him resign.

Dash, who was once accused of using Lipset to offer a $10,000 bribe to a union dissident who had offered information while Dash was representing a Philadelphia teamsters' union local, still shudders at what might have happened if the police had searched the detective.

The secret recording Lipset made of his conversation with the dissident put the lie to the charge.

Lipset, whose wife died in 1964, is survived by two sons, Louis of San Francisco and Lawrence of Mendocino, Calif., and one grandchild.

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