Secret City Recounts the Gay History of D.C.
Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, by James Kirchick, Henry Holt and Co., 848 pages, $29.99
During J. Edgar Hoover’s 48 years as FBI director, people often gossiped about whether his bedroom tastes were as straight as his agents’ marksmanship, citing everything from his fondness for socializing in male groups to his close relationship with longtime deputy Clyde Tolson. Spreading such rumors might earn you a visit from the FBI itself: As James Kirchick relates in Secret City, the bureau made it a practice to “detect, hunt down, and intimidate private citizens who spoke ill of the director.”
Among the persons brought in for grilling sessions on this sensitive topic were the owners of a diner and a hair salon, an American visiting London, a prison inmate, and a woman who had gossiped about the director at a bridge party. In the last case, the party’s hostess told a nephew in the FBI what had happened, whereupon the agency’s Cleveland branch ordered the talkative partygoer—described in notes as an “old maid schoolteacher”—to report to its field office for questioning. The woman, whose unease at getting such a summons may well be imagined, apologized profusely for spreading the report, spelled out exactly where she had heard it herself (on a trip to Baltimore, from a group of young men at the next restaurant table), and promised to use the next bridge get-together to tell every attendee that her statement had been unfounded.
As a history of gay D.C., Secret City is itself full of high-grade gossip, and I mean that as a compliment. But Kirchick is up to serious business as well. He is not much concerned with the physical city, whose elegant avenues were laid out at President George Washington’s behest by the French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant (“a lifelong bachelor described as ‘sensitive in style and dress’ and as having an ‘artistic and fragile temperament'”). Kirchick’s focus is homosexuals’ relationship to high-level national politics, as defined by both actual and potential public scandal, and to the federal government, which in 1953 imposed a wide-ranging employment ban whose repercussions lasted for decades.
According to long-received wisdom in anti-gay circles, homosexuality tends to flourish in government work and especially in the effete and cosmopolitan precincts of the foreign service and the State Department, thanks to gays’ wily networking skills and mastery of social life.
Plausible? Well, Kirchick’s early chapters (he begins with President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration) are indeed heavy on scandals involving diplomats and other foreign service professionals. And not just American ones: Spain’s World War II–era embassy constituted “an endless bacchanal, albeit one meticulously designed to elicit valuable information for the fascist regime of Generalissimo Franco.”
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