Beginning with the tragic story of Sumner Welles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s brilliant diplomatic advisor and the man at the center of “the greatest national scandal since the existence of the United States,” James Kirchick illuminates how homosexuality shaped each successive presidential administration through the end of the twentieth century.
... a sprawling and enthralling history of how the gay subculture in Washington, D.C., long in shadow, emerged into the klieg lights. But it’s also a whodunit to rival anything by Agatha Christie ... These must have been harrowing existences, but their retelling makes for very good and suspenseful, if occasionally ponderous, reading ... Sifting methodically through F.B.I. files, correspondence, interview transcripts and press clippings — you can almost hear the old microfiche sheets ticking by — Kirchick holds the most dedicated persecutors, some of whom were themselves in the closet, to scathing account ... There’s vital material in each section, and even the trivia seems resonant ... 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...It’s also a Baedeker of important places (map included) ... 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.
... engrossing, important ... an 800-page tour de force, certainly the most comprehensive history of gay Washington ever written. It’s also more than that. Tracing the strand of how the capital’s big shots treated gays across the decades, Kirchick provides a compelling account of how the bloodless, brutal Washington power game has always worked.
Kirchick chronicles these and other panics over gay influence, sometimes with a knowing wink ... has an encyclopedic quality, but focusses on a specific slice of U.S. history ... Kirchick is, in some respects, less interested in examining how the spectre of queerness haunted each Presidential Administration than he is in considering the extent to which queer cabals did, to a modest degree, exist ... the truth most clearly revealed by Kirchick’s focus on Washington is one that queer historians have emphasized for years: that change was prompted not by those in the halls of power but by activists working well outside of them ... The more typical story in Secret City is of the quietly queer politico who looks the other way when it comes to policies that devastated fellow queer people. These figures engender varying degrees of sympathy when they navigate the shadows and silences of the nineteen-forties and fifties, the era of Senator Walsh’s outing and Blick’s gay list. As the twentieth century progresses, such betrayals grow more damning ... So many of those whom Kirchick chronicles seem more compromised by their proximity to power than emboldened by it. That is also a part of the story of gay life in the United States, and Kirchick tells it well. Still, reading Secret City, one sometimes feels, perhaps inevitably, that queer history is elsewhere.