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How World War II Led to Washington’s First Outing

A wild tale of Nazi spies, a Brooklyn brothel and the private life of a senator.

The Washington Post

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David Ignatius Walsh in the 1920s

David Ignatius Walsh in the early 1920s. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Judged solely by its exterior, 329 Pacific St. was just another Brooklyn townhouse. Located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the three-story brick building was rented by a 55-year-old, Swedish-born naturalized citizen named Gustave Beekman.

A florist by profession known as “George” to his associates, Beekman had a lucrative side hustle. He was not technically a pimp, but the Pacific Street home functioned as something akin to a social club for men seeking sex with other men, where private rooms were available to rent by the hour. Downstairs, Beekman supplied his diverse clientele — many of whom went by feminine aliases, known to one another as, say, “Miss Newport” or “Miss Mitzie” — with copious amounts of liquor and generous spreads of roast turkeys and hams. Upstairs could be found the “sin chamber,” whose carnal activities were playfully hinted at by a “Caution: Men at Work” construction sign affixed to its door. Should money be exchanged inside, it was none of Beekman’s business.

Before America declared war against Germany and Japan in December 1941, Beekman occasionally landed in trouble with law enforcement; he’d already been convicted of operating “disorderly” houses. But by February 1942, with the nation’s citizenry on high alert to report any form of suspicious activity to the authorities, the large numbers of sailors seen entering and exiting Beekman’s home at strange hours attracted the attention of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Establishing themselves across the street in a room on the fifth floor of Holy Family Hospital, a team of officers initiated round-the-clock surveillance of the house, taking down the license plate numbers of every car that deposited or collected a man at its front steps.

On March 14, 1942, after six weeks of observation, a combined force of plainclothes police officers and Navy intelligence agents raided the building, ripping up floorboards in search of hidden compartments and arresting Beekman along with several sailors and guests. Soon, a shocking — but also questionable — accusation would scandalize the Eastern Seaboard, cast a pall over the U.S. Senate and leave a legendary political career in tatters.

The first hint that the activities at 329 Pacific St. might reverberate beyond a Brooklyn courtroom appeared in the April 22 edition of the Lyons Den, the eponymous daily column penned by Leonard Lyons of the New York Post. “When the notorious Beekman case is prosecuted in Brooklyn’s County Court next week, it will involve one of the highest ranking legislators in the country,” Lyons revealed. For a columnist whose beat consisted mainly of gossip gleaned from the tables at Sardi’s, the Algonquin and other celebrity-heavy spots around the Great White Way, it was a rare political item, and one that, initially, no other reporter bothered to pursue.

Two days later, Post general counsel Morris Ernst included a tantalizing mention of the Beekman case in the weekly roundup of political intelligence — dubbed “tidbits” — that he sent to his friend, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The president, a world-class connoisseur and purveyor of gossip, devoured Ernst’s dispatches, and that week’s installment of “tidbits” contained an especially delectable morsel. “Senator Walsh’s name is going to appear, in secret probation officer reports, in connection with a scandalous criminal case in Brooklyn,” Ernst wrote. “Unless you know about the matter, or unless you are having someone else follow it up for you, I suggest that you might want me to keep in daily touch with the situation. A shocking story will develop which may be of great help to you.”

When FDR first heard that Sen. David Ignatius Walsh of Massachusetts had been implicated in this scandal, he could not have been entirely surprised. According to his biographer, Dorothy G. Wayman, Walsh, who was the first Democratic senator from Massachusetts since the Civil War, enjoyed women as “nonromantic companions,” and his unmarried status had long made him the subject of rumor. After he became the first Catholic governor of Massachusetts in 1914, one of Walsh’s constituents informed him that a bachelor was “unthinkable” in the state’s highest office because “the influence of a good woman” was a prerequisite. “Madam,” Walsh earnestly replied, “I have been under the influence of six women all my life — my mother and five sisters.” A 1929 Time magazine profile noted Walsh’s “dandified” dress of “silk shirts in bright colors” and reported, “Ironic comments are sometimes heard on the contrast between his political representation and his social activities.”

Walsh’s closest companion was the butler he took home with him from a visit to the Philippines. According to William “Fishbait” Miller, who served as House doorkeeper from 1949 to 1953 and again from 1955 until 1974, a wisecrack credited to a Boston department store owner echoed for many years within the halls of Congress: While a man could trust David Walsh to take his daughter sailing across the ocean on a yacht, he would be ill-advised to let him cross the Charles River with his son in a canoe.

The other salient fact about Walsh — as least as far as FDR was concerned — was that he was one of the Senate’s leading noninterventionists, a bothersome circumstance that his being a member of the president’s political party only exacerbated. In August 1941, while the Senate debated FDR’s request to extend the term of duty for draftees under the Selective Service Act, Walsh used his powerful perch as chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee to condemn the law as having been adopted under “false pretenses,” part of a devious effort by the president “to lead us day by day into the war.” Though Walsh, like most noninterventionists, abandoned his opposition to war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was, in the words of Attorney General Francis Biddle, “not sympathetic with” the president, “to put it mildly.”

While the campaign to slander FDR’s intraparty antagonist started to unfold, the president was trying to protect one of his closest advisers from the same charge. In 1940, Undersecretary of State — and Roosevelt family friend — Sumner Welles had drunkenly propositioned several Pullman porters on the presidential train. A pair of isolationist senators — Democrat Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and Henrik Shipstead of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party — got word of the incident and tried to persuade Eleanor Josephine Medill “Cissy” Patterson, publisher of the conservative Washington Times-Herald, to expose it. A vociferous opponent of the New Deal, Patterson regularly published vitriolic front-page editorials excoriating the Roosevelt administration. But the story about the undersecretary and the African American train porters was simply too prurient to print. The sexual habits of influential men, even gay ones whose peccadilloes transgressed the racial barrier, were off-limits. In the meantime, Roosevelt was also resisting pressure from his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, and former ambassador to the Soviet Union and France William C. Bullitt — both of whom despised Welles — to fire his friend.

One could not have concocted a more appetizing scandal for a populist tabloid newspaper supportive of FDR’s interventionist foreign policies than that allegedly involving Sen. David Walsh.

While FDR felt no compunction defending Welles, he evinced less sympathy for Walsh, whose chairmanship of a committee dealing with military issues made him particularly vulnerable to allegations that he could be subjected to blackmail. In the armed forces, the honorable course of action for a man found guilty of homosexuality was to shoot himself in the head, FDR supposedly told Democratic Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley in reference to Walsh, according to Ted Morgan’s 1985 biography of FDR. (“Somebody might see Walsh and tell him that his name has been mentioned and he has been adequately and fully described,” Ernst wrote to FDR on April 29. “This tactic may lead to Walsh resigning or shooting himself.”) After learning that Walsh was about to be exposed, the president sent a giddy response to Ernst. “Keep up the tidbits,” he wrote. “They give me a real relaxation from the high ether of naval and military strategy.”

Three days later, Ernst informed the FBI that Beekman “had identified a picture of Senator David I. Walsh of Massachusetts as that of an individual who had frequented” his house. Beekman made several other claims. Walsh, he said, was escorted to Pacific Street by a man who used the alias “Madame Fox,” and had conversed there with a German who claimed “Hitler was his god.” Another German, Beekman said, who went by the name of Eric, had also visited the house.

No longer was this a matter of a U.S. senator frolicking at a male bordello: The security of the nation was now at risk. At least, according to the media outlet that would break the story.

The country’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper, the New York Post had an illustrious history. At the outset of the Roosevelt administration in 1933, J. David Stern, the crusading liberal publisher of the Philadelphia Record, purchased the Republican-supporting Post at the behest of FDR, who encouraged Stern to transform it into a champion of his policies. Six years later, Stern sold the Post to Dorothy Schiff, granddaughter of the German-born financier Jacob Schiff, who sought to deepen the paper’s New Deal bona fides by broadening its readership beyond upper-middle-class liberal professionals to the city’s diverse masses. Schiff possessed two qualities advantageous to this mission: self-described “average taste” and an enthusiasm for the president that went beyond the political. “Everything about his body — except his legs — was so strong,” Schiff remembered of the man with whom she once claimed to have carried on an affair from 1936 to 1943 (an assertion she later retracted).

Just two weeks before Leonard Lyons published his blind item predicting major political fallout from the arrest of Gustave Beekman, Schiff became the first female newspaper publisher in the history of New York City. The Post was lagging far behind its rivals in circulation, and Schiff had an ambitious agenda. Declaring, “We must popularize the paper,” she converted the Post from broadsheet to tabloid format, making it easier for working-class straphangers to read it on the subway.

One could not have concocted a more appetizing scandal for a populist tabloid newspaper supportive of Roosevelt’s interventionist foreign policies than that allegedly involving David Walsh. By launching a moralistic crusade against the isolationist senator, the Post could not only discredit one of the president’s most nettlesome critics. It could also sell a massive number of newspapers. Homosexuality, prostitution, blackmail, espionage, Nazis and a U.S. senator — the Walsh scandal had it all.

On May 1, 1942, the Post splashed the sort of blunt, attention-grabbing headline for which it would soon become notorious across its newly redesigned front page: “LINK SENATOR TO SPY NEST.” “A U.S. Senator was identified today as a frequenter of a ‘house of degradation’ in Brooklyn which was used by Nazi spies to obtain military information,” the Post reported, identifying the culprit only as “Senator X.” A large photograph of the unnamed lawmaker’s face, obscured by a white silhouette, accompanied the article. “This is starting to look like pre-collapse France,” Ernst merrily reported in that day’s “tidbits” to FDR.

Elaborating on the claims he had made to prosecutors days before, Beekman told the FBI that in September 1940, a man named George Wilbur Fox, a.k.a. “Madame Fox,” had brought a “Mr. Walsh” to a house Beekman was running at the time on Warren Street in Brooklyn. This “Mr. Walsh” visited four times over the following three months and came to the Pacific Street house eight times. Presented with photographs of 12 men, one of whom was Walsh, Beekman identified the senator as the man in question. When asked about statements he had made in his original affidavit concerning supposed espionage activities, however, Beekman, according to the agents who interviewed him, “was unable to furnish any definite information that such activities were, in fact, being carried on by these homosexuals.”

Meanwhile in Washington, the Senate cloakroom hummed with nervous agitation concerning the identity of “Senator X.” For almost a week, the Post titillated readers with a steady stream of details about the doings at 329 Pacific St., all the while withholding the name of the legislator in question. Finally, on May 6, the paper declared on its front page: “SENATOR X NAMED as DAVID I. WALSH Chairman of Senate’s Naval Affairs Committee.” Walsh’s only consolation was that, buried deep within a story identifying him as the treasonous patron of a male brothel frequented by Nazi spies, American sailors described him, as the New York Post summarized it, as a “very nice man.”

There was no term for it then, but this disclosure by the Post constituted the first “outing” in American politics. Given the once widespread societal contempt for homosexuality, one might assume that gay political scandals date back to the country’s founding. But their starting point stems from convergence of two sociopolitical forces: the modern awareness of homosexuality as an identity category and the rise of the American national security state.

It’s no coincidence that the exposure of David Walsh occurred several months into the Second World War, when the federal government began to shoulder the responsibilities of a global superpower. A culture of secrecy descended over the nation’s capital, and with it, an apprehension concerning the guardians of the nation’s secrets. About nobody was this apprehension greater than those who possessed, within themselves, the most damning secret of all.

As America instituted a vast system for collecting sensitive information, homosexuality came to be imbued with existential dangers. America’s global preeminence transformed what had been considered a private vice into a public obsession. And in the hands of journalists and politicians, the accusation of “sexual deviance” became one of the most powerful weapons in the vast arsenal of American political skulduggery.

Notably, the word “homosexual” did not appear at all in the New York Post’s coverage of the goings-on at the house on Pacific Street, nor in any contemporaneous media accounts. Hardly any outlet other than the Post even mentioned Walsh by name. Such ambiguity was characteristic of American public discourse at the time, as the term “homosexual” was rarely used outside the medical profession. Still, the media found ways of conveying just what sort of men could be found at 329 Pacific St. “The fact that he has remained a bachelor has often caused comment,” the Post observed of Walsh. The Brooklyn Eagle quoted a prosecutor who described Beekman’s home as “a place of degradation operated exclusively for men,” among them “certain men of some prominence” who entered under “feminine names.”

Not every journalist covering the story was so indirect. Shortly after Adolf Hitler ascended to the German chancellery in 1933, pro-FDR syndicated columnist Walter Winchell had written that the leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was “a homo-sexualist, or as we Broadway vulgarians say — an out and out fairy.” Now, nearly a decade later, with America at war against Nazi Germany and the police raid of an alleged Nazi-homosexual brothel in New York, Winchell felt vindicated. “The ad libbers are having fun with the yarn about Brooklyn’s spy nest,” the columnist and former vaudevillian crowed, “also known as the swastika swishery.”

By linking homosexuality with Nazism, Winchell drew on a popular stereotype. Given the harsh repression that the Nazis meted out to gay men — arresting an estimated hundred thousand and sending 5,000 to 15,000 to concentration camps, where a majority were murdered, over the course of their 12-year reign — the notion that fascism was particularly attractive to homosexuals was counterintuitive, to say the least. Yet it was an idea taken quite seriously within the upper ranks of the U.S. government.

The origins of this belief predate the Third Reich and can be traced back to the Männerbund, the nationalist men’s associations founded by veterans of the First World War. Inspired by the intensely emotional bonds they forged fighting in the trenches, a group of these men, according to the historian Robert Beachy, sought “to assimilate homoeroticism to a nationalist, anti-democratic politics.” The most infamous figure to emerge from this scene was Ernst Röhm. A co-founder of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the right-wing paramilitary known as the “Brownshirts,” Röhm was unapologetic about his same-sex attraction. In 1933, a massively influential Soviet propaganda booklet accused Röhm of manipulating an impressionable young gay prostitute into burning down the Reichstag, hastening the Nazi rise to power. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, in his acclaimed memoir of interwar Central Europe, “The World of Yesterday,” refers portentously to “secret organizations” that were “strongly under homosexual influence” as having conspired against the ill-fated Weimar Republic.

There existed “extensive homosexuality among the upper Gestapo,” John Franklin Carter, a former journalist who operated his own one-man intelligence bureau within the White House, wrote the president in a June 1941 memo, reporting on the observations of a General Motors representative recently returned from a trip to Germany. Among the dozen Gestapo officials whom the GM man had met, “all gave him the impression of homo-sexual leanings … [I]n one instance a young officer showed him with great pride a silver ring inscribed inside with the words ‘To My Darling Wilhelm from his Himmler.’ ”

Two influential wartime studies commissioned by the federal government and published in 1943 speculated at length as to the connections between homosexuality and Nazism. “Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler,” by the Harvard psychologist Henry Murray, noted the “large feminine component in Hitler’s physical constitution,” “his initial identification with his mother,” his “attraction to Röhm and other domineering homosexuals,” and his “nightmares which, as described by several informants, are very suggestive of homosexual panic.” “The Mind of Adolf Hitler,” prepared by Harvard psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer, purported to substantiate the allegation that, while living in Vienna, the future German leader stayed at a gay brothel. The report goes on to speculate about whether Hitler’s Dolchstosslegende, or “stab-in-the-back” myth blaming Germany’s World War I loss on Jews and socialists, was a sign of latent homosexuality that “finds expression in imagery about being attacked from behind.”


David I. Walsh (fifth from left) attends the swearing-in ceremony for James V. Forrestal as Secretary of the Navy, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

“It is a diabolical lie, absolutely without foundation,” Sen. David Walsh declared in response to the allegations. “I have never in my life been to such a place.” Despite the lack of solid evidence that Walsh had passed along any secrets to Nazi agents, the mere accusation that he had visited 329 Pacific St. at the same time as “one of the most dangerous Nazi spies in this country,” the Post averred, was sufficient grounds for his permanent “banishment from public office.” Over the next five days, the Post published no fewer than four editorials demanding the Senate open an investigation into Walsh.

FBI investigators, meanwhile, zeroed in on another theory: that the whole imbroglio was a case of mistaken identity. One of the witnesses who testified against Beekman had described having met a man at 329 Pacific St. who matched Walsh’s profile, known to him only as “Doc.” Presumably by tracing the license plate numbers of the cars that had parked outside the building, the FBI located a Dr. Harry Stone of Connecticut, who not only matched the physical description offered by the witness but, in an interview with the bureau, acknowledged that he had patronized Pacific Street under the name of “Doc.”

Three days later, following a punishing interrogation, Beekman relented and said that he had confused David Walsh with Harry Stone. With this admission in hand, the FBI promptly delivered to the president and Majority Leader Barkley a report exonerating Walsh.

Yet, before Barkley could even publicize the report, Beekman recanted his recantation. In yet another affidavit, containing what the Nation magazine termed “unprintable details,” Beekman said that the statement he had given to the FBI absolving Walsh was delivered under duress. Beekman, his lawyer declared, had been “browbeaten, persecuted, and questioned” into falsely claiming that he had mistaken the senator for another man.

On May 20, the same day that the Post published this retraction, 84 senators, including Walsh, gathered in the Senate chamber to discuss what Time dubbed “one of the worst scandals that ever affected a member of the Senate.” Following the opening prayer, Walsh quietly left the hall while Barkley, 25-page FBI report in hand, called for a point of personal privilege. Beekman, the majority leader thundered, had been convicted of “an offense too loathsome to mention in the Senate or in any group of ladies and gentlemen.” The man accusing their colleague, in other words, was gay and should be discredited on that fact alone. The FBI’s exculpation of Walsh contained details that were “disgusting and unprintable,” Barkley continued, material that “should not be in the [congressional] record.” As for Harry Stone, Barkley scoffed, he resembled the senator from Massachusetts no more “than I look like Haile Selassie.”

Thus did it transpire that, as Time observed, “one of the strangest incidents in the history of the U.S. press came to general public knowledge: a major scandal had broken and, for a fortnight, only one paper had published anything about it.” If propriety had prevented journalists and politicians from stating explicitly what crime Alben Barkley had called “too loathsome to mention,” no longer could they ignore the saga of David Walsh.

Reactions fell largely along ideological lines. Isolationist Sen. Bennett Clark, a Missouri Democrat, denounced “the old hussy who runs the New York Post” and alleged that Morris Ernst “brought the story to Washington and went to the White House with it in an attempt to interest the highest authority in Washington in an effort to smear” Walsh. Republican Sen. Gerald Nye of North Dakota, another FDR critic, spoke darkly of a “secret society” engaged “in an undertaking to gather such information as would permit the smearing of individual members of the Senate.” The most virulent attack came from the pages of the right-wing Chicago Tribune, owned by the former Army officer (and cousin of fellow Roosevelt hater Cissy Patterson) Robert “Colonel” McCormick. In a front-page story beneath the banner headline “Blast Plot to Ruin Senator,” the paper detailed “one of the most despicable attempts at character assassination that could be conceived.”

On the other side of the divide, the New Republic — tiptoeing around the veracity of the accusations — editorialized, “Whether or not the charge be true,” Walsh “would deserve defeat … because of his record in the Senate and as chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee,” namely, his “obstruction in the war effort.” And stubbornly sticking to its position was the paper that had started the whole mess. In an open letter to Attorney General Biddle, New York Post editor Ted Thackrey denounced the FBI for exonerating Walsh. The bureau, “long the pride of our Democracy,” he wrote, “has under your direction been used as though it were the counterpart of the secret police of Communist Russia or Nazi Germany.”

In the hands of journalists and politicians, the accusation of “sexual deviance” became one of the most powerful weapons in the vast arsenal of American political skulduggery.

Behind the scenes, however, Dorothy Schiff was growing nervous. That summer, she hired a private investigator, Daniel A. Doran, to conduct an independent inquiry into Beekman, Walsh and the Post investigation thereof. Over several months, Doran and his team of gumshoes fanned out across New York City, Connecticut and Massachusetts, interviewing dozens of people and compiling their findings into an exhaustive 150-page report.

As to the question of whether Walsh was gay, Doran collected a great deal of hearsay but no proof. An official with the Coordinating Committee for Democratic Action, a pro-FDR group, recommended “reliable people” who could attest to Walsh’s “meanderings in Boston.” A customer of Walsh’s tailor shop in New York said that the employees there “all knew of Mr. Walsh’s homosexual predilections,” yet when an investigator paid a visit, the proprietor “froze” and “refused to even discuss” the matter. A reporter based in the D.C. bureau of the New York Times claimed that a colleague from the New York Herald Tribune had been the subject of “improper advances” from Walsh while traveling with the senator on the presidential train in 1940. But none of this constituted evidence for what the paper had claimed.

Ultimately, Doran and his team did not have to travel any farther than the office of the Senate sergeant-at-arms to resolve the central question. Walsh’s attendance record — “very regular,” arriving at the start of every session, staying until close and answering every roll call vote — revealed that he could not have been in Brooklyn at the times alleged. The case of Senator X, Doran concluded, had been characterized by “plausible rumors or stories which by repetition had almost achieved the status of facts.” While the Post might have “had reason to believe that Senator Walsh was a visitor to Beekman’s place” at the time of its original reporting, “not a single item of legal evidence has been obtained to corroborate Mr. Beekman’s statements as to the visits of Senator Walsh.”

The Post, in other words, had committed an act of gross journalistic malpractice, one it never bothered to correct. Though Walsh did not speak publicly about the ordeal beyond his initial denial, “personally,” he confided to a friend, as relayed by Walsh’s biographer, it was “a tragic Gethsemane.” Running for reelection in 1946, he lost to Republican Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Walsh died the following year a broken man; he never publicly commented about his sexuality.

Eight decades later, his case offers a stark example of how the politics of homosexuality differed in an earlier era. Liberals who, by contemporary standards, might have been expected to defend the privacy rights of an oppressed minority group, had led the charge to expose and ruin one of its members. Morris Ernst, in addition to working for the New York Post, served as a general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union — yet it was Ernst and his progressive allies who tried to destroy Walsh, while the reactionary publisher of the Chicago Tribune and conservative isolationist senators defended him. Homosexuality was so far removed from the traditional left-right political spectrum as to exist in a completely different universe.

Meanwhile, according to at least one columnist, the saga of Senator X wasn’t just Washington’s first outing; it would almost certainly be the last. Asserting that there had been “no parallel in the history of the Senate for the low-level viciousness of the attack” upon Walsh, George Rothwell Brown of the San Francisco Examiner confidently issued what may be, in retrospect, one of the least accurate predictions in American political history: that the use of this particular “smear as a political weapon has been dealt a death blow from which it is hardly likely it can be brought back to life.”

James Kirchick is a columnist for Tablet magazine and a writer at large for Air Mail. This article is adapted from his book “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington,” published last month by Henry Holt and Co.

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published June 15, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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