... thereon must he lean to rise again. In Senator Larry Craig's case, that would be a bathroom stall partition. It's easy to make Craig the butt of too many jokes, it's true. But what the hell? It's fun and he's a hypocrite. After reading Scott McLemee's piece on Laud Humphreys, author of the (it just doesn't stop, does it?) seminal study of homosexual cruising habits, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, I'm less inclined to make such cracks (sorry).
In his piece, Scott writes:
But this pioneering role had its costs. Some gay activists told Humphreys that they found Tearoom Trade embarrassing. He was under suspicion of being a straight researcher “slumming” in the underworld. During a heated exchange at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1974, he was denounced as an example of those mainstream scholars “urging others to make great sacrifices,” as one participant in the discussion put it, while “their own lives are untainted by the behavior that they so courageously defend (in others).”
To this, Humphreys responded: “I want to be perfectly honest with you and I want you to know that I am gay. I have done my research and written [Tearoom Trade] as a gay person, closeted, trying to come out of that closet, dealing with my own personal pain.”
In an exchange over this drop-dead response over at Crooked Timber, Scott asks: "Joel—I’d hoped that someone who was at the ASA session would describe it in the comments section. So far that hasn’t happened. Can you imagine what the effect would have been in 1974?"
Well, sadly, I can...
In an otherwise throw-away line among some paragraphs about Norman Podhoretz and their Columbia days, Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters once wrote:
I knew Podhoretz as someone who attended a class with me, not as a friend or even an acquaintance. The course we took together was in twentieth-century fiction, taught by Harrison Steeves. Since the lures of life in New York often left me less than prepared for the morning's discussion, I sat in the back of the room. Podhoretz sat in the front and was always prepared. He was constantly waving his hand, constantly talking, constantly trying to impress the professor.
The problem was that Podhoretz was a Jew from Brooklyn and Steeves was a snobbish old WASP with little patience for the upwardly mobile. However brilliant Podhoretz might be, Steeves would not give him the recognition he so avidly sought. Steeves bestowed his regard, instead, on one Donald Maher, a reserved young man with the right accent.
It's true that Donald Maher was revered as an undergraduate, graduate student, and then lecturer at Columbia. His college room-mate, Jason Epstein, once told me he was the most brilliant man he'd ever met. He won the Cutting Fellowship. He hung around with Clement Greenberg and Justin O'Brien and many of the other highbrows at Columbia in the post-war years.
But far from being the sort of model WASP implied by Peters, he had a reason to be reserved: he was a gay, Irish-Catholic orphan from Utica. Despite his great promise, he would only publish a single essay--one he didn't even write himself: it was a translation of an essay by Jean Prevost on Mauriac.
He died of complications from alcoholism on July 25, 1968, at the age of 47.
I know all this because Donald was my great uncle and in my family he was a sort of higher-order legend. His younger brother (my grandfather) was a legend all by (and annoyingly, sometimes to) himself, having been a Commander in the Navy and a PhD at Harvard. Although my grandfather had long since given up on God when I came to know him, he positively worshiped Donald. I had thought, once, about writing a novel, or even a kind of memoir, about Donald... but after doing a very small number of interviews with those who knew him at Columbia and afterwards, I realized that the story was just too sad--and cruel. I remember thinking, as I sat with my grandfather on his death bed, "Should I tell him?" "No," I'd answer myself, "there are cruel truths that should themselves be buried--at least as long as they can still burn the living."
Donald's drawing for his nephews, diagramming a late-night mugging he received while walking home from a party to his apartment on Riverside Drive: God, in his Mighty Fortress, looks on, unmoved.