Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2005

Warren Allen Smith

Stateside Gossip

by Warren Allen Smith

America’s White House, it now appears, has been home to two presidents who allegedly were not straight. James Buchanan (1791-1868), the only unmarried one, at times was derisively called “Miss Nancy” by some. He shared rooms with an associate, Alabama Senator William Rufus de Vane King, and, when they separated, wrote, “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.”

Elsewhere, he once went on record that, “I have seldom met an intelligent person whose views were not narrowed and distorted by religion.” In politically Puritan America, understandably, he remained a nominal Presbyterian.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), the founder of our majority party – the Republican, which is now headed by George W. Bush – shared a double bed for four years with 23-year-old Joshua Fry Speed. Many writers, including Larry Kramer and Gore Vidal, have long speculated about Lincoln’s sex life. This I reported in my Summer 1998 column.

Now, in 2005, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (Free Press), by sex researcher C. A. Tripp, contends that Lincoln had attachments to men from his youth to his presidency. Tripp, who once worked with Alfred Kinsey, has collected a mountain of material and alleges that Lincoln suffered from depression when, after four years together, Speed moved. Lincoln wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living.” Also, Tripp documents that a young Lincoln bed-shared with Billy Greene, who wrote that Lincoln’s “thighs were as perfect as a human being could be”. Another bed-sharer, Captain David Derickson, used Lincoln’s night shirt on occasions when Mrs Lincoln was not home. Tripp lays out an exhaustive amount of revealing details in his convincing work.

Tripp’s research is pseudo-scientific, say conservative critics, his conclusions based upon highly circumstantial evidence. In frontier times men often slept in the same bed, they counter, pointing out that the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington curled up together, exhausted, during the Battle of Monmouth – that was when the Frenchman helped us fight the British, who may or may not have been bed-sharers, or even German mercenaries.

One should not call Lincoln “gay”, a word not used until recently, and “homosexuality” didn’t find its way into print in English until 1892 or so. Thus, Lincoln’s sexual orientation is questionable. This leads one to wonder if the next exposé will be that scandalmongers were right about Washington, the childless “father of his country”, whose secret love was Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Suffice it to say that Lincoln at the very least may have been bisexual in his feelings, maybe even in practice.

Secretive and unconventional in many ways, Lincoln, despite pressures of the time, remained unchurched. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, close friend and biographer, wrote that Lincoln liked the writings of Thomas Paine and habitually denied the supernatural birth of Jesus. In one of his books, in fact, he had changed John 16:27 from “Ye have loved me, and have believed that I came from God” to “... from nature”, illustrating his deistic, not theistic, stance.

Three noted freethinkers have recently died: playwright Arthur Miller (straight, 89); architect Philip Johnson (gay, 98); and critic Susan Sontag (gay, 71).

My memories about Miller, with whom I worked on the original Broadway production of After the Fall, can be found online – as well as copies of our correspondence and my dishing the dirt about Marilyn Monroe (had a cute little mole betwixt her boobs). He refused to declare himself about his philosophic outlook, but I found him not to be a dues-paying humanist of any stripe. Rather, he was a humanities humanist, like so many freethinkers found in my Celebrities in Hell.

Philip Johnson, the American dean of architects, died in his Glass House, a cube with a compound that included an all-brick guesthouse that he built in New Canaan, Connecticut, and shared with David Whitney. Their neighbor for three decades, I never knew Johnson was gay, partly because he lived in town on weekends and I lived weekends in New York City. Although he received barbs about his Seagram Building, the AT&T Tower with a Chippendale top, and a Cathedral of Hope in Dallas for a gay congregation, he knew how to dish. His contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, he quipped, was “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century”.

During a house tour arranged by a garden club decades ago, Johnson asked me my occupation, and I replied that at the moment I was teaching Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian. Having majored in Greek at Harvard, he knew Russell’s work well, so I asked if he was a naturalist. He said something to the effect that the word had many meanings but that he was no supernaturalist. “And when are you going to build a house in New Canaan that a teacher can afford?” He laughed loudly.

Johnson told writers Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor, “My philosophical outlook dates from a time and a way of thinking that differs from the liberal, acceptable, politically correct line that we all subscribe to today. To me, Plato was the worst – living the good and the true and the beautiful. There’s no such thing as the good or the true or the beautiful. I’m a relativist. I’m a nihilist.” He disliked “spiritual” as a concept, saying of his celebrated gay church, “I love cathedrals, even though I’m not religious. ...

“I like the thought that what we are to do on this earth is embellish it for its greater beauty ... so that oncoming generations can look back to the shapes we leave here and get the same thrill that I get in looking back at theirs – at the Parthenon, at Chartres Cathedral.”

As for his having flirted in the 1930s with right-wing politics and Hitler-style fascism and anti-Semitism in Berlin, in later years he apologized publicly: “I have no excuse [for] such utter, unbelievable stupidity. I don’t know how you expiate guilt.” One Manhattan wag has speculated that he was never as interested in the philosophy of fascism as in the anatomy of young uniformed Nazi soldiers.

Obituaries for critic and intellectual Susan Sontag extensively covered her life, but few except for The Economist and New York’s Daily News mentioned that famed photographer Annie Leibovitz had been her companion for 20 years. The New York Times in its 4,000-word front-page story made no such mention, claiming later that neither Ms Leibovitz nor Ms Sontag’s son, David Rieff, would confirm any relationship. Meanwhile, no-one mentioned that Sontag once wrote, “Religion is probably, after sex, the second oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing away their minds.”

In a blow-by-blow account, New York journals have reported a local rabbi’s prickly problem with authorities. Not content with performing genital mutilation on a baby, he used the technique of stopping the bleeding by sucking its penis, thereby giving the kid herpes. It’s not clear if the rabbi, whose congregation knew about his favorable reputation for doing such, is protected under a religious cloak, or even if he was wearing one.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-06-05 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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