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May 21, 2013

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

Roy Meachum

My Washington apartment on P Street N.W., in what was the residence of the tsar's 19th century ambassador, cost $57 a month.


For that "princely" amount I enjoyed two rooms with working fireplaces, and an enclosed porch that overlooked the scraggily garden that no one cared for. I lived in the spacious parlors the various Romanov delegates entertained. There was no bathroom on my floor; showers and toilet were shared with the tenants who lived above and below.


Early in my P Street life, I figured out that my upstairs neighbor was gay, although I heard no callers or any traipsing up the steps. Several months later I came to the same tentative conclusion about the man in the basement apartment. Only later did I understand why the rental agent inquired anxiously if I were bringing a woman to live in the house.


Despite the New Deal infusion of intellectuals and journalists, the neighborhood was still primarily working class blacks and Irish, infused by numerous gays. They lived generally inconspicuously; the World War I race riots scarcely recalled. On the streets they were usually indiscernible, staying in their closets; at college I heard of wild parties. Their numbers provided a sense of cover and protection; after all, everybody “knew” they were there. Then came the Lincoln’s Day Republican dinner at Wheeling, West Virginia, the following February.


The keynote speaker, Wisconsin's Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, brandished aloft a paper which supposedly contained names of 220 "known" communists on State Department payrolls. He refused all media inquiries for details. The senator branded homosexuals an equal danger, as “Reds.” Their sexual orientation made them subject to blackmail and therefore national security risks. He barely outlined the differences; the hunt for gays and Reds as serious threats to the nation were heated up, a by-product of the Cold War.


My first encounter with a homosexual happened on a New Orleans street where blue eyes and blond hair set me apart. An aging Italian pushcart vendor tried to get me to take candy; he called me “beautiful” several times. But he might not have been gay. A man gave me a ride from the New Orleans Athletic Club offering a hair shampoo, which I declined politely. I quickly developed the smarts that kids in big cities learned as part of their survival. I had no doubts about the man’s sexual orientation.


There were at least a half dozen homosexuals working for Armed Forces Network American(AFN) Frankfurt; the numbers fluctuated during my years in the castle. A corporal and a young German engineer were the only ones arrested for what was a serious crime in the Army; they were reportedly caught in the act in the gazebo that overlooked the river. They did not advertise their sexual preferences; others did. Their parties took place in the house attached to the radio station's transmitter, I was told.


On Monday, May 6, 1957, seven years and almost three months after his Wheeling Lincoln Day bombshell, I “buried” Joe McCarthy. The junior senator from Wisconsin’s Thursday death dominated the weekend local and national news; but not for me. In the Eisenhower presidency, even nature seemed to take a rest on the Sabbath. I had little time for distractions from my reporter’s busy chores, made busier still by the absence of very little newsworthy happening on my shift. It was a typical spring Sunday at the time.


Considering the occasion and so many hostile, anti-Washington Post eyes around, I dressed carefully.


[Editor’s Note: Mr. Meachum has written additional material on this subject. Those columns will appear on subsequent Tuesdays.]



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