not publicly acknowledged

Stories of secrets kept until death: Ed Koch’s homosexuality, Strom Thurmond’s fathering an interracial child. Neither publicly acknowledged during their lives.

On Koch, from Andrew Tobias’s piece “Good Mayor” on his blog Money and Other Subjects on 2/4/13:

… [on a dinner with EK] I assume “gay things” were discussed.  We likely thanked him for his 1978 executive order  outlawing job discrimination based on “sexual orientation or affectional preference.”  (In 1980, he would extend it to city contractors.)   But never in the context that he was gay.  Or that his affectional preference ran, very discreetly, to my friend and summer-house mate Dick Nathan.

It was a different time — “vote for Cuomo, not the homo” — and he was the Mayor.

… [on another dinner] He was telling me this story, as the introduction to our dinner, just to lay out the rules. Rule #1: “Don’t —- with Ed Koch.”  Unspoken Corollary:  So clear it was left unspoken.

It was perfectly understandable in the context of the time.  Today, with six openly LGBT congressfolk and one openly LGBT senator, with openly LGBT mayors of Houston, Paris, and Berlin, it would be different.  But when someone gets as dug into one way of presenting himself as Ed Koch had over so many decades (when asked directly, he would say, “it’s none of your business”), it seems to me unrealistic to require some late-in-life disclosure.

Where it gets problematic — to say the least — is in assessing what considerably more he might have done as the AIDS epidemic was beginning to ravage his City.  If you’ve seen or read The Normal Heart, or seen this year’s documentary Oscar-contender How To Survive A Plague, you get why some of the commentaries this weekend have been scathing.

But that should at the very least be leavened by my friend Charles Kaiser’s fond remembrance, here.  Ed Koch was in so many ways a great New Yorker.  Brilliant, funny, abrasive, hard-charging, trying to do the right thing as best he could.

On finance writer Andrew Tobias:

Tobias also wrote the autobiography The Best Little Boy in the World under the pen name “John Reid” in 1973. He used a pen name because he wasn’t comfortable yet with publicly disclosing his homosexuality to a broad audience. This book [which drew very mixed reviews] was later republished in 1998 under his real name to coincide with the sequel, The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up. (link)

Then to Thurmond. From the NYT obituary “Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Child of Famous but Secret Father, Dies at 87” by William Yardley on the 6th:

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who lived for decades with a stunning secret — that she was the interracial daughter of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a former segregationist who never acknowledged her publicly as his child — died Monday in a nursing home near Columbia, S.C. She was 87. Six months after her father died at age 100 as the longest-serving senator in history, Ms. Washington-Williams broke her silence.

“My father’s name was James Strom Thurmond,” she said at a news conference in a hotel ballroom in Columbia on Dec. 17, 2003.

She said she had remained silent out of respect for Mr. Thurmond, his career and the rest of his family. His death, and encouragement from her children, motivated her to speak out. She noted that there were similarities between her story and that of Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Thomas Jefferson bore children.

… Measuring her emotions, Ms. Washington-Williams explained that her mother was Carrie Butler, a teenage maid in the Thurmond household in Aiken, S.C., in the 1920s, when Mr. Thurmond, the son of a wealthy lawyer, was in his early 20s. She would go on to say in interviews that not until she was 13 and being raised by an aunt did she learn that Ms. Butler was her mother. Several years later, after her mother took her to meet him for the first time, she learned that her father was white.

“You,” he said to Ms. Butler, “have a lovely young daughter.”

After that meeting, Mr. Thurmond, who did not yet hold elected office, delivered $200 to his daughter, using go-betweens.

In 1948, the year Ms. Butler died at age 38, Mr. Thurmond, then the governor of South Carolina, ran for president on a segregationist platform.

“All the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,” he said at the time.

Washington-Williams apparently bore no ill will towards Thurmond and collaborated in keeping his secret until after he died. Different times, I suppose.


Leave a Reply