Secret City, James Kirchick’s new history of gay Washington, says more than it means to.
Whittaker Chambers testifies against Alger Hiss in 1948. (Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images)
Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, James Kirchick, Henry Holt and Company, 816 pages.
If there’s one thing that spies and homosexuals have in common, it’s a core dishonesty that serves so great a purpose as to become a central facet of a man’s identity: This is a basic premise of James Kirchick’s Secret City, a tirelessly researched and breathlessly prosecuted history of the underground gay community in 20th-century Washington, D.C. If I didn’t know what Kirchick was up to, I might mistake the man for a homophobe—and a rather vicious one, at that.
Secret City opens with a brief historical overview of American sodomy, beginning with the poor Rev. Francis Higginson’s stumbling upon men engaged in “dishonorable passions”—a “wickedness not to bee named”—aboard the Talbot en route to New England in 1629. The history continues with laws prescribing punishment for “the abominable and detestable crime against nature, not to be named among Christians.”
“Perverts, inverts, deviants, degenerates, queers, fairies, fruits, dykes, faggots—gay men and lesbians,” Kirchick writes, “these Americans were morally damned, medically pathologized, their very being legally proscribed.” The irony-laden employment of old-school gay-bashing continues through much of Secret City, its openly gay author making regular use of words like “crime”, “sin”, and “perversion”—tongue ostensibly in cheek.
Secret City is, by and large, an engaging book, appropriately colorful, peppered with absurd lines like “Hovering like a naughty sultan at the center of this debauched Mediterranean milieu was Ambassador Cárdenas.” It is meticulously documented and painstakingly detailed. The book is clearly the fruit of extensive labor, with the result that Kirchick tells his story just a little bit too well.
Take, for example, Sumner Welles, the precocious State Department official whose scandalous saga in the FDR years frames the early chapters of Kirchick’s account. Welles’s offense was to drunkenly proposition not just one but (in quick succession as each rebuffed his advances) an entire crew of African-American railway porters on the presidential train en route to Washington, D.C., after the funeral of a senator. The New York-born aristocrat had offered each man compensation for the trouble, though all declined.
It is hard to read Welles as a persecuted victim. The man’s behavior really was debauched. By the end of the affair, he was offering the poor workmen $100 (a little over $2,000 today) for the favor of oral sex. Without any consent (rather the opposite) he began to undress one of the porters as soon as he entered the compartment.
Any such man is obviously unfit for government service, and ought to be chased out of polite society. In casting Sumner Welles as the original hero of D.C. homosexuals, Kirchick gives up the game.
The same could be said of most of the contents of Secret City. The men turning tricks and cruising in public parks under cover of darkness are not the star-crossed romantic heroes Kirchick would make them out to be; they’re men turning tricks and cruising in public parks. The vice squad cops who lock them up for it are not vindictive agents of a reactionary moral regime; they’re officers of public order, doing the bare minimum. When Kirchick scoffs at D.C. police raids on dens of prostitution and other such criminality as premised on “trumped-up charges,” he seems either not to know or not to care that he’s writing about dens of prostitution. When the AIDS epidemic rears its head, uncomfortable questions are left unasked and unanswered.
But there is another kind of character in Secret City, beside the bona fide deviants and men of questionable character whose legacies Kirchick excavates and reframes. (Even Ernst Röhm, a “scar-faced, barrel-chested, man-loving bully…übermasculine and predatory,” makes a cameo appearance.) These are men who seem to share the disordered inclinations of Secret City’s dramatis personae, but refuse to capitulate to them.
Among these is David Ignatius Walsh, the Irish-Catholic Massachusetts politician smeared by the New York Post as “Senator X” in a gay brothel scandal with a Nazi spy twist in 1942. It is true that Walsh was a lifelong bachelor with a penchant for colorful clothing; it may well be true that he experienced attraction to men. But it is also true that David Walsh was a devout Catholic and a man of heroic character who, if he did bear that cross, would have struggled with it immensely. Though the evidence eventually cleared him completely of the “Senator X” accusations, Walsh remained wounded and burdened by the ordeal, which he called not just “a diabolical lie” but “a tragic Gethsemane.”
Kirchick seems completely unable, even unwilling, to consider the chasm between his worldview and Walsh’s—not to mention the horror Walsh would surely feel at his inclusion in this volume.
This failure of moral imagination becomes more clear when Kirchick gets to Whittaker Chambers, a major player in Secret City. Shining light on a largely forgotten aspect of Chambers’s infamous battle with Alger Hiss, Kirchick investigates the Hiss camp’s consistent suggestions that Chambers was a spurned homosexual simply seeking revenge against Hiss for some supposed rejection.
Chambers, as it turns out, had been a homosexual at one point. In 1949, anticipating the attacks from Hiss’s defense team, the ex-spy admitted to the FBI “certain facts which should be told only to a priest”: that for half a decade in the 1930s he had engaged in sex with men. (Kirchick again seems incapable of grasping that the mention of a priest is actually sincere.)
But, Chambers continued:
Ten years or more ago, with God’s help, I absolutely conquered it. This does not mean that I am completely immune to such stimuli. It does mean that my self control is complete and that for years I have lived a blameless and devoted life as husband and father.
Kirchick draws an analogy between communists and gays in the Red Scare era, a variation on the opening theme. Though counterproductive to Kirchick’s purposes, it does contain an important element of truth: Just as Chambers looked back on his communist misdeeds as a shameful episode demanding of contrition, so too did he consider his (largely overlapping) homosexual period. As the scribe of Secret City details the clandestine nature of each, the nighttime meetings and necessary lies, the reckless dangers and moral compromises, one cannot help but wonder whether he’s altogether aware of the implications.
Twice Kirchick quotes Chambers’s declaration that “the ‘only’ concern of ‘the man who must make the witness’…is ‘that out of his patient exposure of crime and sin, first and most mercilessly in himself, might rise the liberating truth for others.’”
For that, though accidentally, Secret City is an invaluable work.
about the author
Declan Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative. He was previously an editorial intern at National Review and has been a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine.