Sunday, July 27, 2014

137. Roy Cohn, Attack-Dog Lawyer and AIDS Denier, plus Outing

      I first heard of him when, studying in France in 1953, it was reported that two twenty somethings, members of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s staff, had been sent to Europe to investigate waste and mismanagement in U.S. Army bases, embassies, and offices of the U.S. Information Service, and see if there was any – heaven forfend! -- Communist or left-leaning literature available there.  This was, after all, the early days of the Cold War, and the rabidly anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin stretched his sinister shadow as far as Western Europe.  The two peripatetic staff members were Roy Cohn and David Schine, though at the time their names barely impinged on my psyche.  Their 18-day whirlwind tour, highly publicized, earned them the label “junketeering gumshoes” from a disgruntled U.S. employee in Germany whom they accused of having once signed a Communist Party petition, a charge that later cost him his job.

     But this was mere prelude.  I returned that year to the U.S. and began graduate studies in French at Columbia, which brought me to New York.  By the summer of 1954 I was busy writing my master’s thesis, but not so preoccupied that I didn’t find time every evening to join a thong of students in the campus TV room watching the Army-McCarthy hearings.  The hearings had been provoked by Roy Cohn’s excessive demands on the Army to give special privileges to his friend David Schine, who had been drafted into the Army but, in Cohn’s opinion, merited nightly passes while in basic training, exemption from onerous kitchen duties, and respect such as few draftees ever received.  So oppressive had Cohn’s interference become, climaxed by a threat to “wreck the Army,” that Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens brought formal charges against McCarthy and Cohn.  Extensive Senate hearings followed, and it was the daily evening summary of those hearings that I and twenty million others watched obsessively.

     The hearings revealed to us and the public at large the heavyset McCarthy’s obnoxious manner, and Roy Cohn’s heavy-lidded eyes, deep tan, and knowing grin, and above all his aggressiveness; they were not people you would care to meet.  Climaxing the hearings was Army counsel Joseph Welch’s passionate response, when McCarthy questioned the loyalty of one of Welch’s aides: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you left no sense of decency?” -- a query that provoked applause from the gallery.  Indeed, it was a turning point in McCarthy’s career; from then on his support steadily eroded.  In December 1954 he was formally censured by the Senate on a number of grounds.

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McCarthy (left) and Cohn at the hearings.

     Among the students watching the hearings, and not just the gay contingent, it was commonly assumed that Cohn and Schine were lovers; how else could you explain Cohn’s fanatical insistence on special favors for his friend?  And how else explain certain innuendoes that spectators elsewhere may not have caught, as for instance when McCarthy asked Welch for a definition of “pixie,” a word that Welch had used casually in a question, and Welch replied that a pixie was a close relative of a fairy.  Or when Senator Flanders, Republican of Vermont, sauntered into the hearings one day to suggest that the relationships of those involved should be further explored. 

     The going Washington rumor of the time about McCarthy, as I knew indirectly from an uncle who was a PR man there, was that the senator had a babe stashed away in a hotel.  And since McCarthy had an abundance of enemies, savvy Washingtonians wondered why no one had leaked this to the press.  The explanation: everybody else probably had a babe stashed away also, and didn’t want to open that particular can of worms.  But there were other rumors, too, as I told the cousin who had passed this on to me: McCarthy, still a bachelor in his early forties, was gay.  But in 1953 he married a researcher in his office and four years later they adopted a baby girl.  His homosexuality was never established, but what also went unreported was his alcoholism, which contributed to his death in 1957.

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Cohn in 1964.  Did he ever smile?  Certainly not
in a courtroom.
     The hearings made Roy Cohn famous, but who was he?  He was born in 1927 in New York City to a nonobservant Jewish family, his father a judge with considerable political clout in the Democratic Party.  Raised in a Park Avenue apartment, he proved to be a bright student, attending local schools and then Columbia Law School, and was admitted to the bar as soon as he reached the age of 21.  Appointed to the staff of the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, he impressed others as precocious, brilliant, and arrogant, qualities that would characterize his whole career.  He was soon making a name for himself prosecuting subversives, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951, and was transferred to Washington to serve as special assistant to the Attorney General.  In 1953 he went to work for Senator McCarthy, and got his friend David Schine, the son of a multimillionaire real estate mogul, a job as consultant; their 18-day junket to Europe soon followed.

     Cohn’s work with McCarthy ended in 1954, but his career had barely begun.  Returning to New York, he joined the New York law firm Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, brought it numerous high-paying clients, and moved into the East Side townhouse that housed the firm’s offices, which made for a minimal commute.  His professional and private life were so intermixed that his colleagues were not surprised to see his doting mother wandering about the office, as she often did.  An only child, he was close to her and, following his father’s death in 1959, moved into her seven-room Park Avenue apartment.  After she died in 1969 he moved into a 33-room townhouse at 39 East 68th Street (presumably the same one already housing his law firm’s offices), though he also had a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, and in the summer went to Provincetown.

     Combative by nature, he became known for his aggressive courtroom technique, intimidating prosecutors, flustering witnesses, and impressing jurors with his photographic memory, so that he rarely referred to notes.  “My scare value is high,” he once boasted.  “My area is controversy.  My tough front is my biggest asset.  I don’t write polite letters.  I don’t like to plea-bargain.  I like to fight.”  No, not a fellow you’d care to know, but maybe just the attorney you need, if you’re involved in serious litigation and have a lot to lose.  Esquire magazine called him “a legal executioner”; the National Law Journal, an “assault specialist.”  His clients over the years included a juicy mix: real estate mogul Donald Trump; Mafia bosses Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti; the owners of the popular New York nightclub Studio 54; the New York Yankees; Cardinal Spellman; and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

     Short and light of weight, he was almost fragile in appearance (an impression well masked by his aggressive demeanor), with thinning hair and blue eyes often bloodshot from his late hours at fashionable discotheques. Socially active, he gave lavish parties where the guests included many celebrities.  All his life he had a penchant for the rich and powerful, and given his legal ability and political connections, they had a penchant for him.  Among his friends were President Ronald Reagan, Norman Mailer, Bianca Jagger, Barbara Walters, Rupert Murdock, William F. Buckley, Jr., William Safire, and numerous Democratic and Republican politicians at every level, from the obscure nether depths to the shining heights.  Who, indeed, didn’t he know?

Logo of the IRS, his nemesis.
     Not that he was free of troubles.  To keep his income tax to a minimum, he had his law firm pay him a modest salary of a mere $100,000 a year, while giving him all kinds of perks that wouldn’t be taxed: a rent-free apartment, partial payment of the rent on his Greenwich, Connecticut, home; a chauffeured Rolls Royce and other limousines; and his bills at chic restaurants – perks said to total a million dollars a year.  From 1973 on he paid no income tax at all.  But the IRS, no doubt mindful of his sumptuous life style, audited his tax returns for over twenty years and collected more than $300,000 in back taxes, a mere fraction of what he finally owed them. Their pursuit of him would continue even after his death.

     Cohn’s courtroom tactics were condemned by many in his profession, and three times – in 1964, 1969, and 1971 -- he was tried in federal courts on charges ranging from conspiracy to bribery to fraud, but was acquitted each time.  In 1976 a federal court determined that he had entered the hospital room of a dying client and, by misrepresenting the nature of the document, got him to sign a codicil to his will that would have made Cohn one of the man’s executors.  Cohn’s reaction to these incidents?  A smear: the authorities were out to “get” him.  And get him they finally did: on June 23, 1986, when he didn’t have long to live, he was disbarred by the unanimous decision of a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients’ funds, lying on a bar application, and the 1976 matter of pressuring a client to amend his will.

     Cohn always claimed that his friendship with Schine involved nothing sexual, and some biographers have come to that conclusion.  But by the 1980s he was obviously in poor health.  A friend once asked him, “Roy, you don’t have AIDS, do you?”  To which Cohn replied, “Oh God, no!  If I had AIDS, I would have thrown myself out the window of the hospital.  I have liver cancer.  There would be no reason to stick around and live if I had AIDS.”  And that was his story to the end: liver cancer, not AIDS.

     But Roy Cohn was gay and he did have AIDS.  In 1984 a routine visit to his doctor had discovered malignant growths on his body.  His young lover Peter Fraser later said that Cohn cried only a tear or two and then dealt with the situation practically and began writing his memoir longhand on yellow legal pads.  Peter and a law partner of Cohn’s were the only ones who knew for sure that Cohn had AIDS, and for as long as he could, Cohn tried to live normally, which for him involved lunching, partying, water skiing, traveling, and of course doing deals in politics and business.  On December 31, 1985, he gave his traditional New Year’s Eve party in the second-floor foyer of his townhouse; among the hundred guests were Carmine DeSapio and Andy Warhol (a fascinating juxtaposition; see posts #135 and #108).  Cohn received them in a white dinner jacket and red bow tie with sequins, said he looked forward to seeing them all again next year.

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President and Mrs. Reagan, 1981.
     Being Cohn’s lover, however clandestinely, was fraught with adventure.  Raised on a farm in New Zealand, Peter Fraser had left there at age nineteen with only a pack on his back to see the world.  Blond and attractive with a sinewy body, he met Cohn at a party in Mexico and was immediately swept up into Cohn’s opulent life style: lavish parties with celebrity guests, visits to the rich and powerful, trips hither and yon to the most fashionable places; he never rode the New York subway until Cohn died.  Once Peter went to the White House as Cohn’s “office manager,” the same label used for his predecessors.  “Why don’t you come meet a friend of mine?” Cohn suggested.  As Cohn led him across the crowded room, Peter scuffed his shoe and the sole came off,  so he dragged his foot on the floor so he “wouldn’t go flop-flop.”  Then Cohn said, “I want you to meet the President and Mrs. Reagan.”  Peter reported that Reagan was very warm, probably thinking that this poor boy dragging his foot was handicapped. 

     On another occasion a New York socialite hosting a luncheon introduced Peter, to his astonishment, as Sir Peter Fraser.  The next day a society columnist mentioned, among the luncheon guests, Peter Fraser, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.  But when Americans, remembering the Army-McCarthy hearings, asked him how he could be associated with a man who did those awful things back in the 1950s, Peter, who was in his twenties, could reply honestly, “I don't know about any of that.”

     While almost nothing is known of Cardinal Spellman’s final days and death (post #136), Roy Cohn’s ending is well documented.  When diagnosed with AIDS, Cohn thought he had six months to live, but it turned out to be two years.  He was taking shots of Interferon, which sapped his energy and disoriented him; becoming aware of this, he panicked and then became depressed, since he had always prided himself on his intellect.  Troubled breathing and short-term memory loss followed, and he tried the experimental drug AZT, which many thought did more harm than good.  Rumors circulated about Roy Cohn’s having AIDS, about his dying.  

     The dementia intensified.  “The six senators who were here this afternoon,” he told Peter, “I’m going to talk to them, and you are all going to be sorry.”  Or he would accuse Peter of trying to kill him, and only after much persuasion became convinced that Peter was his friend.  When he got back from a stay in a hospital, telegrams came wishing him well, one of them from President Reagan.  Looking gaunt and wasted, he was interviewed by Mike Wallace on TV, denied being homosexual or having AIDS.  He flirted with the idea of suicide, tried one night to get his bottles of sleeping pills open, couldn’t cope with the childproof bottles, finally at Peter's insistence went back to bed. 

     When he invited other boyfriends to come for a last visit, Peter raged with jealousy. 

     “What’s he coming in for?” he would ask.

     “I’m dying, goddamit!” Cohn would shout.  “It may be the last time I see him.”

     “You said that the last four times!”

     When the New York State Bar Association began disbarment proceedings against him, he would go to the proceedings in his red convertible Cadillac, top down, and swagger into the closed hearing room.  But in June 1986, when a reporter phoned with the news that he had at last been disbarred, he announced, “I couldn’t care less,” then went to his room and cried, and wouldn’t eat unless Peter forced him.  His once fiercely resonant voice, the terror of witnesses, became a whisper, then fell silent.  He died in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on August 2, 1986, at age 59; Peter was there, holding his hand.  The hospital announcement made it clear that he died not of cancer but AIDS.  In his coffin he wore a tie bearing President Reagan’s name, though the Reagans did not come to the memorial service held in October.  He was buried in Queens.  Though he left his property to Peter and a longtime law partner, the IRS froze his assets; he still owed them millions.

     Roy Cohn had many friends, many enemies.  The gay community condemned him for not telling the world he had AIDS and using his contacts to raise money to fight the disease.  In Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1991) he is portrayed as a closeted, power-hungry hypocrite who to preserve his reputation denies that he has AIDS, and as he is dying of it is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution for espionage he had helped bring about.  Personally, having never faced him in a courtroom, I could overlook a lot, but I can’t forgive him using his lawyerly wiles for years to avoid paying income tax; this I find reprehensible. 

     Asked by a friend if he ever resented Cohn, Peter Fraser declared with tears in his eyes, “He was wonderful to me.”  I confess I am rather taken with Peter.  It was the most unlikely of circumstances, that a kid off a farm in New Zealand should become the lover of one of the most controversial – and many would say obnoxious – figures in twentieth-century American politics, and that he would be whirled off to Provincetown or Palm Beach or Monte Carlo, meet the President of the United States, and when the bad days came, stick through to the end. 

     But what then became of him?  A cousin of Cohn’s tells how Peter gave him a last look at the townhouse, now in need of repair.  On the fourth floor Cohn’s office was locked tight.  “The firm wants to keep me out,” Peter explained.  “They think I’m going to steal things.”  The firm was letting a friend stay in Cohn’s third-floor bedroom.  “I don’t even know who he is,” said Peter with disgust.  The Rolls Royce that Cohn had been chauffeured in was for sale; Peter was about to move all his belongings out.  After that I lose track of him.  Presumably he dropped back into the obscurity that Cohn had plucked him out of years before.  I wish him well.


File:A pink triangle against a black backdrop with the words 'Silence=Death' representing an advertisement for The Silence = Death Project used by permission by ACT-UP, The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Wellcome L0052822.jpg     The story of Roy Cohn, like that of Cardinal Spellman (post #136), raises the question of outing.  Outing, a term first used in the 1980s, is the act of revealing the sexual orientation of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered person without their consent.  After the Stonewall riots of 1969, champions of gay liberation began shouting, “Out of the closets, into the streets!”  Encouraged by a growing social tolerance, more and more homosexuals began voluntarily revealing their sexual inclination, but many others held back. 

     In February 1989 several gay activists, angered by Senator Mark Hatfield’s support of antigay legislation proposed by Senator Jesse Helms, declared that Hatfield was gay; in spite of this, Hatfield won reelection in 1990.  Then in March 1990 gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile outed the recently deceased Malcolm Forbes, publisher of Forbes magzine; his column “Gossip Watch” in the gay publication OutWeek became famous – or infamous – for outing the rich and famous, and Signorile was either hailed as heroic or decried as revolting and infantile.  Obviously, right from the start outing had both supporters and detractors.

    In 2004 gay activist Michael Rogers launched a blog to out closeted gay politicians who actively opposed gay rights.  He began by outing Edward Schrock, a Republican congressman from Virginia, claiming that Schrock used a phone sex service to meet other men for sex.  Schrock didn’t deny the charge and did not seek reelection.  Rogers’s motivation: to punish Schrock for his hypocrisy in opposing gay marriage by voting for the Marriage Protection Act and signing as a cosponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment. 

     In 2006 Rogers reported sexual liaisons between Idaho Senator Larry Craig and unnamed individuals in Union Station, Washington, D.C.  Craig denied the report, but nine months later Craig was arrested in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport for allegedly soliciting an undercover police agent for sex in a men’s restroom. Craig’s explanation that he simply had a “wide stance” was played for all it was worth by late-night TV comedians, and later he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and paid a fine.  His attorneys then filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea, but the motion was denied.  After that he served out his term but did not run for reelection.

      Rogers has outed others as well, but the pattern is obvious and doesn’t bear repetition.  The practice has been both praised and blamed in homosexual as well as heterosexual circles.  Is outing ever justified, and if so, when?  My personal take:  The right to privacy should protect us all, except in very special circumstances.  But if a public figure, especially a politician, is conspicuously active in antigay causes, as for instance supporting antigay legislation, then I think, with care, that outing is justified.  But otherwise, outing a living person is reprehensible.  Why some people choose to remain closeted in this more tolerant age may seem baffling to others, but personally I consider it their privilege. 

     What's the matter with Kansas?:  The Republican governor of Kansas lowered taxes, promising that a boom would follow and everything would be hotsy-totsy.  The result: no boom, no hotsy-totsy.  State revenues have declined, making it hard to provide basic services, and the state's credit rating has been lowered, so that borrowing money will cost more.  I suggest less ideology, more common sense.

     Our dear governor:  Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, came into office vowing to clean up the state government in Albany, which is notoriously corrupt.  He appointed a commission to investigate, but then disbanded it.  Now it turns out that, while the commission was functioning, he squelched any initiative that might have touched his office, his cronies and associates.  That settles it for me.  I'll never vote for him again.  He mouths reform but squelches it.  Just another political hack.

     Coming soon:  Gentrification: Good or Bad?  Does the West Village miss the Women’s House of Detention, crumbling piers, the Mineshaft, and the Toilet?  What price low rents?  In the offing: Norman Mailer, literary bad boy.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


Sunday, July 20, 2014

136. Francis J. Spellman, the Controversial Cardinal

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Cuddly and cherubic?  Appearances
     He was born to an Irish American family in Massachusetts in 1889, as a child served as an altar boy, graduated from Fordham in 1911, decided to study for the priesthood, and was sent to pursue those studies in Rome.  Ordained in 1916, he returned to the U.S. and did pastoral work in Massachusetts, but was unable to become a military chaplain during World War I because he failed to meet the height requirement.  Other posts followed, including U.S. attaché of the Vatican Secretariat of State in 1925.  He was in Rome from 1925 to1931, where he made useful contacts in the Curia, and in 1927, during a trip to Germany, he began a lifelong friendship with Eugenio Pacelli, then the papal nuncio to Germany.  Named Auxiliary Bishop of Boston in 1932, he had strained relations with his superior, Archbishop O’Connell of Boston, but did further pastoral work in Massachusetts, and in 1936 helped arrange a visit by Pacelli, now the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State, to these shores, where he countered the influence of the Detroit-based Father Coughlin, whose popular nightly radio broadcasts were harshly critical of President Roosevelt.  But the real reason for the visit was to meet secretly with the President and discuss establishing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Holy See; Spellman was present at the meeting, though no formal diplomatic ties resulted at this time.  It should be clear by now that Francis J. Spellman had a genius for making the right connections almost from the start of his career.

     In 1939 Pope Pius XI died, to be succeeded by Pacelli as Pius XII.  One of the new Pope’s first actions was to make Spellman Archbishop of New York and vicar of the U.S. armed forces, just in time for World War II.  The new Archbishop moved into the archiepiscopal residence, a handsome neo-Gothic structure at 452 Madison Avenue, at the corner of 51st Street, adjacent to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where he would reside for the rest of his life amid oak paneling, thick red carpets, ornate furniture, priceless antiques, and a quiet almost unheard of in busy midtown Manhattan.

     Spellman was soon exerting great influence in religious and political matters 
Francis J.Spellman.jpgand hosting prominent figures of the day like Joseph P. Kennedy, the Wall Street speculator turned Securities and Exchange Commission chairman turned Ambassador to Great Britain (and, incidentally, another Massachusetts-based Irish Catholic), and financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch.  Clearly, he had a genius for relating to the rich and powerful.  Once the U.S. entered the war, His Eminence supported the war effort vigorously.  In 1943 President Roosevelt sent him as his agent to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, where the peripatetic Archbishop covered 16 countries in 4 months, rivaling the whirlwind tours of American tourists of the postwar era; he met with Franco in Spain, the Pope in Rome, and Churchill in London, and on his return to the U.S. helped arrange to have Rome declared an open city and thus spared further bombing.  Roosevelt’s death in 1945 diminished his influence in higher circles, but after the war Pius XII made him a cardinal in 1946, just in time for the Cold War.  As always, Spellman’s timing – or was it just dumb luck? – was flawless.  And he was impressive to behold in his scarlet cardinal’s robes.
     In the years that followed – the years when I first became aware of him – Cardinal Spellman showed that, much as he loved the red of the cardinal’s  robe, he loved the red, white, and blue just as much.  “A true American can neither be a Communist  nor a Communist condoner,” he declared.  “The first loyalty of every American is vigilantly to weed out and counteract Communism and convert American Communists to Americanism.”  Needless to say, he was a fervent supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who without offering hard evidence had the public believing that there were Communists in every nook and cranny of the government, and that -- as I heard the Wisconsin senator say once on television, ever so convincingly – the world was going up in flames.  The politics of fear, always effective.

     In 1949, when the gravediggers of Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Queens, went on strike for a pay raise, he called them Communists, labeled their action an immoral strike against the innocent dead, recruited seminarians as strikebreakers to dig graves, and set them a vigorous example in that worthy activity.  In that same year he locked horns with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, when in her newspaper column “My Day” she opposed federal funding to parochial schools.  He accused her of anti-Catholicism and “discrimination unworthy of an American mother,” though in time he met with her and made peace.  But peace was not his prime concern; he was too busy denouncing immoral Hollywood films and, in time, comedian Lenny Bruce, who had often satirized the Cardinal. 

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Arrested in 1961, one of his many arrests.
     The irreverent comedian, who was no stranger to obscenity, sometimes imagined Christ and Moses returning to earth to observe people in East Harlem crammed 25 to a room, and then notice the Cardinal’s ring, worth ten thousand dollars.  Or the two visitors would enter Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, followed by lepers whose flesh was falling on the polished floors, causing His Eminence to phone Rome in a panic and tell the Pope to put the holy duo up, since he was up to his ass here in crutches and wheelchairs.  Admittedly, Bruce was breaching the limits allowed to comedy in America; jibes at religion were risky, and out-and-out obscenity taboo.  No wonder the Archbishop encouraged the D.A., another Irish Catholic, to charge Bruce with obscenity.  Bruce was convicted after a controversial and widely publicized six-month trial in 1964 and sentenced to four months in a workhouse, but was set free on bail pending an appeal.  He died of an overdose in 1966 before the appeal had been decided, and in 2003 received a posthumous pardon, the first in New York State, from Governor George Pataki.

     The Cardinal that I knew from photos at the time showed a portly, spectacled, jowly prelate whom some thought cherubic and humble (I would have said a cuddly, well-fed little porker), a man with a ready smile but perhaps not too bright.  But behind this façade was a shrewd, almost ruthless player on the world stage who had no qualms about fighting, and fighting hard, to get what he wanted.  A longtime Jesuit friend and his official biographer described him as “fearless, tireless, and shrewd, but at the same time humble, whimsical, sentimental, incredibly thoughtful, supremely loyal, and, above all, a real priest.”  A complex individual, then, a seeker and wielder of power whom others playing the same game had to take into account and respect.  But also  a tireless worker, a skillful administrator, a shrewd negotiator of real estate deals, and an excellent fund-raiser – in short, a first-rate businessman.  And a poet and novelist, his novel The Foundling coming out in 1951.  But not one to admit error or to give up an opinion, no matter now outdated or unpopular; prudence was unknown to him.

     A participant in the 1958 papal conclave that elected Pope John XXIII, Spellman, though a conservative, was in some ways progressive, insisting on a declaration on religious liberty, yet in the long run he was critical of the new Pope’s liberal and reformist leanings.  “He’s no Pope,” he reportedly said.  “He should be selling bananas.”  In the following year, during a visit to Central America, he disobeyed the Pope’s instructions by appearing in public with Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the right-wing dictator of Nicaragua, of whom President Roosevelt had once allegedly remarked, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”  (There is some doubt as to which Latin American dictator he was referring to.)

     In the 1960s the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the eruption of antiwar protests on college campuses across the country, brought new opportunities for the zealously patriotic Cardinal and his critics.  So outspoken was His Eminence’s support of the war that protesters labeled it “Spelly’s War.”  He spent the Christmas of 1965 with the troops in South Vietnam, said Mass in Saigon, sprinkled holy water on B-52 bombers and blessed them just before they departed on a mission, and described the war as “Christ’s war” and a “war for civilization.”  This did not go over too well with the Vatican, since Pope Paul VI had urged negotiations and an end to the war; sources made it clear that the Archbishop spoke only for himself, not for the Pope or the Church.  Back home, where humorous buttons were now all the rage, one saying  DRAFT  CARDINAL  SPELLMAN  was popular, and in January 1967 war protesters disrupted a Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

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University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1965.

     In 1966, when Pope Paul initiated a policy whereby bishops would retire at age 75, Spellman, then 77, offered to resign, but the Pope asked him to remain at his post.  He died in December 1967, of what has not been disclosed.  His funeral was attended by President Lyndon Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, New York State Senators Robert Kennedy and Jacob Javits, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Mayor John Lindsay, and others, and he was buried in the crypt under the main altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, alongside other deceased archbishops and cardinals.  No question, he went out in style.  His 28-year tenure as Archbishop is the longest to date in the history of the Archdiocese of New York.  A New York City high school bears his name.

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Cardinal Spellman's coat of arms.
Sequere deum = Follow God.


     And now we come to the crucial question: Was Cardinal Spellman gay?  Rumors then and now have abounded.  A friend informs me that in the standees line at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s gay jokes about “Franny” Spellman were rampant, especially among standees with a Catholic upbringing, though all the ones he remembered are too bawdy to bear repeating here.  I’m always skeptical about such stories, until conclusive evidence appears.  Some elements of the gay community commonly assert with conviction that this or that world leader or celebrity is or was screamingly gay, without offering any such evidence.  Long ago a dapper Brooks Brothers-clad East Sider who had been in the military in the Pacific during World War II assured me that reports of General Douglas MacArthur’s homosexual escapades had constantly surfaced and of course had been vigorously suppressed.  I didn’t believe him then and I don’t believe him now, since I know of no reliable confirmation of his story.  But the case of Cardinal Spellman isn’t that simple.

     One of Spellman’s biographers, John Cooney, whose work The American Pope: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Spellman appeared in 1984, mentioned four interviewees who stated that Spellman was indeed homosexual; Cooney offered no direct proof but was convinced that the allegations were true.  “I talked to many priests who worked for Spellman and they were incensed, dismayed, and angered by his conduct.”  Not surprisingly, Monsignor Eugene V. Clark, Spellman’s personal secretary for fifteen years, promptly labeled Cooney’s accusations “utterly ridiculous and preposterous,” adding that "if you had any idea of [Spellman's] New England background and his Catholicism, you would know it was a foolish charge."  (Interestingly enough, Clark, an arch-conservative who was notoriously anti-gay in his pronouncements, had to resign as rector of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 2005 when, at age 79, he was named as the “other man” in a divorce case.)

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David Shankbone
     Reinforcing Cooney’s claim is gay author and journalist Michelangelo Signorile’s online article “Cardinal Spellman’s Dark Legacy” (2002), which labels Spellman “one of the most notorious, powerful, and sexually voracious homosexuals in the American Catholic Church’s history.”  According to him, the closeted Cardinal was known as “Franny” to assorted Broadway chorus boys and others, but the Church pressured Cooney’s publisher, Times Books, to reduce the four pages on the Cardinal’s sexuality to a single paragraph that only mentioned “rumors.”  Signorile also asserts that Spellman was involved in a relationship with a dancer in the Broadway revue One Touch of Venus, whose original production ran from 1943 to 1945; Spellman would have his limousine pick up the dancer several nights a week and bring him to the archiepiscopal residence.  And if a portly prelate might seem lacking in sex appeal to a frisky chorus boy, his status as the Cardinal Archbishop of New York probably enhanced his image considerably.  All of which prompts a titillating nocturnal fantasy: the young man exiting the limousine discreetly and slipping into the neo-Gothic mansion, with its ornate furnishings and uniformed servants, for a most clandestine tryst.  When he asked Spellman how he could get away with it, His Eminence allegedly answered, “Who would believe that?”  It should be noted that Signorile has made a name for himself by “outing” public figures whom he claims are closeted homosexuals, a practice that is highly controversial and will be discussed in the next post.

     Further complicating the picture is Curt Gentry’s biography J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991), which alleges that Hoover’s files had “numerous allegations that Spellman was a very active homosexual” (p. 347).  Still, these are only allegations.  Surprisingly, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI’s declassified file on Spellman is available online and I have looked at it.  Unsurprisingly, what are probably the most informative and juicy parts are blacked out.  So what do we learn?  Here is a sample from the 1940s:

·    A letter of June 16, 1942 to Hoover (signature deleted) giving him the names of all those attending a luncheon at the Archbishop’s residence on June 11, 1942, with all those names blacked out.

·      A letter of June 21, 1942, to Hoover from Spellman’s office (signature deleted) saying that the sender is glad he enjoyed the luncheon, and that the Archbishop has confirmed his standing invitation to Hoover to lunch at the Archbishop’s residence whenever he is in New York.
·      A letter of November 30, 1942, from Spellman to Hoover congratulating him on “your twenty-five years of devoted, patriotic, successful service to the country in the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” and Hoover’s appreciative reply on December 10, 1942.

·      A letter to Hoover from Rome (signature deleted) of February 7, 1946, noting that Spellman will arrive in Rome on February 14 to be consecrated a cardinal by Pope Pius XII.  The writer believes it will be of interest to the Bureau to know that there is speculation in Vatican circles and the Roman public at large regarding Spellman’s perhaps being appointed Papal Secretary of State, a position giving the recipient a better than average chance of being elected Pope.  Feeding the speculation is the fact that Pius XII is said to be tubercular and in poor health generally.  [Spellman was indeed offered the position but turned it down.]

     So what have we learned?  About homosexuality, nothing; if there are any files mentioning it, they must still be classified.  The letters show Spellman and Hoover exchanging cordialities, and His Eminence and others keeping the Director well informed about Spellman’s activities and a possible significant appointment.  Spellman was careful to maintain friendly ties with Hoover, and Hoover was keeping track of Spellman’s career.   Which shows how powerful people deal with one another, and that in itself is hardly surprising or shocking.  

     But does this exchange of cordialities mask another game?  If Hoover reportedly had a file on President Kennedy's sexual escapades and was quite willing to use it as blackmail to get what he wanted from the Kennedys, he would surely have had a similar file on His Eminence's escapades, if such there were.  If so, this unclassified file shows the Archbishop making nice with J. Edgar for the best of reasons: to flatter him and lessen the chance of any embarrassing revelations from that quarter.  In 1972, when Hoover at last relinquished his position and power through death, many a public figure must have clandestinely sighed with relief.

     Certainly it is in the Church’s interest to squelch, whenever possible, even rumors or allegations about His Eminence’s sexual proclivities.  After all, what would happen if the charges turned out to be true?  Would the Cardinal Spellman High School have to be rechristened?  Would His Eminence’s remains have to be disinterred from under the main altar of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and if so, where should they go?  Messy, messy, messy.  But if he made a full confession on his deathbed, probably it wouldn’t be necessary.  Who among us has not sinned?  Still, messy in the extreme.

     So what do I conclude?  Was Cardinal Spellman gay?  Possibly.  Monsignor Clark's argument citing Spellman's New England background and Catholicism doesn't impress me, since I have known, and known of, gay men raised in a very traditional Catholic environment who, but for their sexuality, would have been classic conservatives in life style, politics, and religion, and who sometimes, with great anguish but without success, tried to be so anyway.

     Is Spellman's homosexuality absolutely certain?  No.  Is it probable?  I haven’t quite decided.  What would nudge me toward “probable”?  If one or several ninety-year-old ex-chorus boys surfaced and announced, “Yes, I had sex with His Eminence back in the 1940s,” that might do the trick.  In the meantime I’ll only say, Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  But given the specificity of the charges, the more I ponder, the more I edge toward “probable.”  Yes, he probably was.  

      So what is one to make of all this?  I don't share the opinion of Michelangelo Signorile, who labels Spellman "the epitome of the self-loathing, closeted, evil queen," for no known facts substantiate the statement.  We have no glimpse into the inner workings of the archbishop's mind.  Perhaps his sex life was high drama or even tragedy, perhaps it was comedy laced with farce, perhaps it was something in between; we will probably never know.

     Contact with the rich and famous, luncheons with J. Edgar, a confident of three presidents, a strike-breaking gravedigger, a white-hot patriot who went against papal pacifism to bless departing bombers, and posthumously the subject of a passionate controversy – what a career!  They don’t come like that very often. 

     A Spellman quote:  “There are three ages of man – youth, age, and ‘you’re looking wonderful.’ ”  So he did have a sense of humor.

     Coming soon:  Roy Cohn, attack-dog lawyer and AIDS denier.  Also: Is outing a closeted homosexual ever justified?  Followed a week later by: Gentrification: Good or Bad?  With a look at the many lamented lost Golden Years of Greenwich Village, and featuring such vanished amenities as the Women’s House of Detention, crumbling piers the scene of wild doings, and The Toilet.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder