‘Secret City,’ an Epic Narrative History of the Closet in the Capital - The New York Times

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James Kirchick’s new book tallies the cost of homophobia on lives and careers in Washington, D.C., from the days of F.D.R. to the Clinton presidency.

Alexandra Jacobs

May 22, 2022Updated 1:07 p.m. ET

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SECRET CITY
The Hidden History of Gay Washington
By James Kirchick
826 pages. Henry Holt. $38.

“Secret City,” by James Kirchick, is a sprawling and enthralling history of how the gay subculture in Washington, D.C., long in shadow, emerged into the klieg lights. But it’s also a whodunit to rival anything by Agatha Christie. How did so many promising men in government wind up dead before their time, by such variously violent means?

John C. Montgomery, a Princeton graduate and the Finnish desk chief at the State Department: hanged in the nude by his bathrobe belt from a third-floor banister. Roger D. “Denny” Hansen, champion swimmer at Yale, Rhodes scholar, National Security Council appointee and professor: asphyxiated in a friend’s garage. Lester C. Hunt, Army Reserve major and a governor of Wyoming turned senator: shot in the head while on a leather swivel chair in his office. Louis J. Teboe, affable accounting clerk at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs: stabbed in an alleyway with a stiletto knife. And that’s just by Page 226 of a book that stretches to over 800. We’ve yet to reach the tuxedoed lobbyist overdosing at the Ritz to the tune of “A Little Night Music.”

Excepting Teboe, who was lured and attacked by malevolent teenagers intending to rob him, the above cases were all suicides. But Kirchick reveals copious blood on the hands of the powerful, who for decades regarded alternative desires or any association with them as a “contagious sexual aberrancy,” and cause for immediate banishment from mainstream society — a Lavender Menace inextricably linked with the Red one. (Hunt’s fatal shame proved the power of association: His son, Buddy, had been charged once with solicitation at age 25.)

And yet the very skills gay people had to develop to survive — studiousness, compartmentalization, discretion, itinerancy — made them uniquely skilled, Kirchick points out, to sensitive tasks like espionage or high-level advising. For a long time, everyone in D.C. seemed to be looking over his shoulder, seeking signals, codes and clues — a “slight mince”; a “jelly hand shake”; a “limp wrist” or just overzealous grooming. These must have been harrowing existences, but their retelling makes for very good and suspenseful, if occasionally ponderous, reading.

Sifting methodically through F.B.I. files, correspondence, interview transcripts and press clippings — you can almost hear the old microfiche rolls ticking by — Kirchick holds the most dedicated persecutors, some of whom were themselves in the closet, to scathing account.

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Credit...Paul Morigi

“Even at the height of the Cold War, it was safer to be a Communist than a homosexual,” he writes. “A Communist could break with the party. A homosexual was forever tainted.” Later, as tolerance grew (thanks in part to the efforts of the Mattachine Society, the gay rights organization whose evolution is traced here), some confirmed bachelors took the important seat once occupied by Perle Mesta, the city’s famed “hostess with the mostess.” But even then their acceptance was often transactional, contingent and fleeting; their complete potential unrealized. Kirchick rightly mourns “the possibilities thwarted.”

“Secret City” is organized by presidencies, from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s to Bill Clinton’s. There’s vital material in each section, and even the trivia seems resonant. How many journalists know, for example, that the phrase “no comment” was credited by Winston Churchill to Sumner Welles, F.D.R.’s onetime under secretary of state, who was drummed out of public service for trying to buy oral sex from two Pullman porters? (A lesser sin: He received a gift of delphinium seeds in the diplomatic pouch, a container for official business papers whose very name evokes the romance of an analog era.) Who remembers that long before Will Smith slapped his way to Oscar headlines, Sen. Joe McCarthy did the same to the political gossip columnist Drew Pearson in the coat room after dinner at a ladies’ club?

Kirchick’s chapters on the Kennedy and Reagan years are disproportionately dynamic. These were charismatic, popular leaders in prosperous times, whose ties to Hollywood made them both objects of glamour and subject to innuendo. (“Look at that ass,” Tennessee Williams commented to Gore Vidal as Kennedy, who himself led a double life of rampant infidelity, sauntered past during a Palm Beach visit. “You can’t cruise our next president,” Vidal chided jokingly, as he relates in his memoir, “Palimpsest.”)

Kennedy’s and Reagan’s first ladies were both tightly encircled by gay courtiers, though loyalty in both directions could easily waver. Kirchick writes of Nancy Reagan: “Her own persona is inescapably, irrepressibly gay, embodied by the retinue that designed, dressed, escorted, entertained, flattered, housed, humored, pampered, styled and titillated her.”

The grimness of AIDS, though, was simply incompatible with the administration’s message that it was morning again in America. One of the starker documents in “Secret City” is a draft of the president’s statement when his prominent friend Rock Hudson died of the disease, the word “profoundly” scribbled out before “saddened,” along with the line “we will miss him greatly.” Kirchick also reproduces in full a long, poignant letter from Bob Waldron, loyal aide to Lyndon B. Johnson, to the friend who betrayed his confidences about his sexuality and ruined his career.

“Secret City” is a luxurious, slow-rolling Cadillac of a book, not to be mastered in one sitting. It would be best read at the violet hour with a snifter of brandy in a wood-paneled library, one of those with a rolling ladder to bring down some of the faded midcentury best-sellers resurfaced in these pages, like Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” — the narrative perks up considerably whenever this contentious, urbane writer arrives on the premises — “Washington Confidential,” by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer (1951), with its fabled “Garden of Pansies”; and “Advise and Consent,” by Allen Drury (1959), which won a Pulitzer and was made into a movie by Otto Preminger.

It’s also a Baedeker of important places (map included): the rollicking Chicken Hut bar where Teboe met his murderers; the “Fruit Loop” of the Dupont Circle pickup scene that developed in the 1960s; the Cinema Follies, the pornographic theater where nine men died in a 1977 fire; the “gay corner” of the Congressional Cemetery; and, more hopefully, the Lambda Rising bookstore.

This is overwhelmingly a gallery of the white male gaytriarchy, with lesbians and people of color mostly on the sidelines. And Kirchick seems to run out of gas toward the end, as the gay situation improves. Though he addressed the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act in a triumphalist essay for The Atlantic in 2019 that drew ire from some on the left, there’s only the briefest mention of it here; nothing about the presidential candidacy and subsequent cabinet appointment of Pete Buttigieg; little about the rise of the L.G.B.T.Q. rainbow. But as an epic of a dark age, complex and shaded, “Secret City” is rewarding in the extreme.

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