Washington has long been a disproportionately gay city—a mecca for clever, ambitious young men who want to escape their hometowns’ prying eyes, who yearn for the company of other clever, ambitious young men, and who, having no families to support, can afford to work long hours as political staffers for modest pay. But it’s also a city that, from FDR to Bill Clinton—the period covered by James Kirchick’s fascinating new book, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington—was, as Kirchick puts it, “haunted” by “the specter of homosexuality.” Same-sex attraction, linked during World War II with Nazism and during the Cold War with Communism, could end a political career faster than any crime or heterodoxy.

If you wanted to survive, then, you needed to know how to manage two parallel lives at once. You needed stealth. You need to be an expert dissembler. If you slipped up—and even, sometimes, if you didn’t—you could face accusation, betrayal, scandal, ruin, and the contempt of people who considered you the lowest of the low. And every so often, you might be an object of surprising compassion and understanding. Take the case of Sumner Welles. In 1943, when diplomat William Bullitt told FDR that Welles, his undersecretary of state (and coiner of the phrase “no comment”), had been hitting on Pullman porters, FDR was livid—not at Welles but at Bullitt, whom he called “un-Christian” for his cruel gossip. Aware that if he didn’t act, the Pullman story would get out and wreak havoc, FDR requested Welles’s resignation, but only with great reluctance. A few years later, Harry Truman’s secretary of state, the sainted George C. Marshall, would handle a similar situation very differently. Informed about an employee’s  homosexuality, he briskly ordered: “Fire the bastard.”

This is a book rich in ironies. Some of the people who brought down gays in Washington were gay themselves; some of those who ruined one gay person’s career went on to save another’s. FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, who firmly supported the ban on gays in government, lived with another woman in what was then known as a “Boston marriage.” Arthur H. Vandenberg Jr., who played a key role in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election, was on track to be Ike’s appointments secretary but had to back off when the FBI uncovered his homosexuality. He saw the post go to one Robert Gray—who, coincidentally, was also gay. (The Johnson White House had its own version of this tale: LBJ wanted to give Hill staffer Bob Waldron, who was for him “something very close to a substitute son,” a job in the West Wing, but a background check put the kibosh on that, too.)

For many, the most infamous chapter of mid-20th-century American history was the “Red Scare,” now largely identified with Senator Joseph McCarthy and his two closeted gay aides, Roy Cohn and David Schine. If Kirchick’s book has one major impact, it should be that it replaces the “Red Scare” (and Hollywood Blacklist) with the “Lavender Scare,” which began at the same time (around 1950) but “lasted far longer and claim[ed] as many if not more victims”—victims punished not for being Reds but for being gay. As it happens, the White House aide who played a key role in codifying this “full-scale purge” was Robert Cutler, who was gay. Among the several public  servants whom the Lavender Scare drove to suicide was Senator Lester Hunt (D-Wy.), who killed himself after the 1953 arrest of his 25-year-old son for soliciting an undercover vice cop.

As Kirchick points out, the Communists brought down by the Red Scare had many defenders. Not so the victims of the Lavender Scare. The novelist Allen Drury was one exception. His bestselling Advise and Consent (1959) features a senator, Brigham Anderson, who, in a deliberate echo of the Hunt tragedy, responds to a rumor about his homosexual past by killing himself. Drury’s novel not only offered one of American literature’s first sympathetic depictions of a gay character; in Kirchick’s words, it also “condemned the unfairness of a city that deemed homosexuality a greater sin than communism.”

To be sure, some government bodies—notably the State Department—were always rather less exercised about homosexuality than others. While the FBI (whose founder, of course, was for decades the focus of gay rumors) hired “blue-collar, Catholic, ‘white ethnic’ men from the outer boroughs of New York City and the Midwest” who weren’t exactly gay-friendly, the CIA, stacked with upper-class WASP preppies, was another matter. Among Kirchick’s subjects is Thomas Dooley, who, after being expelled from the Navy for his homosexuality, joined the CIA and ended up a “folk hero” for “his role in the evacuation of Catholic refugees from North Vietnam.”

In this book, two presidents’ attitudes toward homosexuality stand out. First, John F. Kennedy “was remarkably relaxed among gay men.” Not only were he and Jackie “the first presidential couple to socialize openly with gays”; his best buddy, Lem Billings, a virtual member of the Kennedy clan and a White House fixture during Camelot, had confessed his homosexuality to JFK back when they were at Choate. (To be sure, this friendship didn’t keep JFK from jokingly referring to James Baldwin as “Martin Luther Queen,” and it didn’t inspire any legal reforms.) At the other end of the spectrum was Richard Nixon, who had a “fascination” with gays. For him, the State Department was a gaggle of “impossible fags.” “Nothing could grab Nixon’s attention faster than [an] allegation [of homosexuality],” White House counsel John Ehrlichman would later recall. Indeed, after Ehrlichman and chief of staff Bob Haldeman were accused, absurdly, of engaging in depraved matutinal “trysts” at (of all places) the Watergate Hotel, Nixon allowed them to be grilled by the FBI. Meanwhile, his famous Oval Office tapes preserved unintentionally funny exchanges about the undesirable rise in gay visibility and acceptance. Nixon to Ehrlichman: “Sure, Aristotle was a homo, we all know that. So was Socrates.” And so, unbeknownst to Nixon, was Raymond Price, his chief speechwriter and a First Family intimate.

As Kirchick acknowledges, it was Ronald Reagan who had “the gayest…presidential administration yet.” Nancy Reagan, who surrounded herself with gay fashion designers, hairdressers, walkers, and assorted courtiers, could spend hours at a time on the phone with Truman Capote or Merv Griffin. During Reagan’s tenure, interior designer Ted Graber and his partner “became the first same-sex couple to stay overnight at the White House”; W. Scott Thompson, reappointed by the Gipper to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1988, was “the first openly gay person to hold a Senate-confirmed position.” (When Thompson told Reagan he was gay, the president joked “that so were ‘half of my friends and all of Nancy’s.’”) Yet because of his electoral dependence on the evangelical right, Reagan publicly kept gays at arm’s length, famously waiting a long time to mention AIDS and toning down his official statement on the death of Rock Hudson.

If this book has a hero, it’s Frank Kameny (1925–2011), a mild-mannered Harvard-trained astronomer who, fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay, became the most stubborn of activists. Kirchick calls him “the first citizen to challenge the federal government over its discrimination against homosexuals, a deed made more noteworthy by his decision to attach his name to the case rather than post it to the docket pseudonymously.” In 1961, Kameny founded the Mattachine Society, which sought, as he wrote in its statement of purpose, “to secure for homosexuals the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as proclaimed for all men by the Declaration of Independence, and to secure for homosexuals the basic rights and liberties established by the word and the spirit of the Constitution of the United States.” At a ceremony held 52 years after Kameny’s firing, John Berry, the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management, issued a formal apology to Frank, who “cheerfully accepted.”

There’s much more in Secret City. Tales include the Moscow honey-potting of the powerful—and secretly gay—D.C. columnist Joseph Alsop and the colorful career of openly gay Carmel Offie, who, starting out as the right-hand man of none other than William Bullitt, moved on to the CIA (where he “helped convince founding CIA director Allen Dulles to establish Radio Free Europe”) and finally (after being felled by the Lavender Scare) to a boutique spy bureau under labor veteran Jay Lovestone. Then there’s Oliver Sipple, who saved an ungrateful President Ford from a would-be assassin only to see his family life destroyed by media headlines about his homosexuality. As it turns out, even Pierre L’Enfant—who designed the very streets, squares, and parks in which generations of gay Washingtonians would cruise one another—was “a lifelong bachelor described as ‘sensitive in style and dress’ and as having an ‘artistic and fragile temperament.’” In Secret City, James Kirchick has written a delicious page-turner that’s also an important and masterly work of American history.

Photo: Nicolas Raymond

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