‘Secret City,’ an Epic Narrative History of the Closet in the Capital

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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