[Out, February 2010]
BONUS: See the man himself
By Richard Morgan
Stewart Howe could have taken his secret to his grave; instead, he packed it up into three well-organized cardboard boxes and added them to his vast stash of public records at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his beloved alma mater.
This was not just a matter of pomp or ego or vanity. Born in October 1905, Howe was an early and ardent apostle for the fraternity. By the time he graduated in 1928, he had helped to found Phi Eta Sigma, a freshman honor society, and was a member of Sigma Delta Chi, a professional fraternity for journalists, the Skull and Crescent fraternity, and Kappa Sigma, a social fraternity. He got around.
And after graduation, he hardly left brotherhood behind, creating several organizations that modernized the fraternity system: the Fraternity Management Company, College Fraternity Magazines Associated, and the Stewart Howe Alumni Service, which is still in existence today. Going from house to house, town to town, he helped fraternities with their fundraising, newsletters, alumni records, and estate planning -- his efforts largely created a framework for the web of Greek houses that own and manage about $3 billion in student housing. But as Nicholas Syrett, a historian at the University of Northern Colorado, would discover upon first opening Howe’s boxes in the summer of 2006, Howe was offering more than speeches and handshakes: He was subverting the system, using it as a procurement agency for his sexual appetite and masterminding one of the earliest, most extensive, most sophisticated gay networks in the country.
The boxes contained letters -- thousands -- from dozens of men in dozens of cities, all written to Howe from 1936 until his death in 1973 -- his trophies. “This wasn’t just New York and Miami and Los Angeles and San Francisco the way we might think of gay communities at this time,” says Syrett. “This was Omaha, Milwaukee, Des Moines, tiny towns in Indiana, Missouri, lake houses across Iowa. One of the letters calls Kansas City ‘aflame’ with gay life. This is a history we have never known before.”
Mostly, these were ordinary men leading Brokeback-style double lives: married insurance agents, bookworms, lonely drifters. But many were the clean-cut, all-American, ambitious sort who joined fraternities in the first place. Members of the Association of National Advertisers, the Junior Chamber, the International Accountants Society, the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks. There are letters from Harvard, Princeton, Yale Law School, the University of Michigan, Purdue University. One man was a judge at the Miss Iowa contest on the Fourth of July in 1947. Another was a bassoonist in the Wisconsin Federal Symphony Orchestra. Another was a typing champion. And there were scores and scores of soldiers. One note is written on letterhead that reads OPERATION CROSSROADS (ATOMIC BOMB TEST), BIKINI ATOLL, MARSHALL ISLANDS.
There were wild Hollywood parties too. One letter, from 1943, reads, “Have added several stray acquaintances lately -- I won’t go into details -- except to mention one, straight from Hollywood, who sponsored a couple of amusing evenings last week in a suite at the St. Francis, where I was able to study, at first hand, the kind of life which these fabulous creatures lead. They seem to be conscious of only two things, sex and money, and their attainment of either involves the same basic principle of ‘take it away from the one who has too much.’ It was quite an experience!” Another, a “big brawl” in 1950, reads, “It is going to be a honey of a party. We’ve got every name in Hollywood coming, and as always, there will be others who creep in. Such people as the Louis B. Mayers, the Selznicks, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Stanwyck, Pickford, Clifton Webb, the Bill Holdens, etc. In short, the works. Am looking forward to it.”
The orgies at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, the Valentine’s Day hookups, the hungry sex in the woods (“The full impact of the woods didn’t strike me until I was almost home -- my face will be crimson tomorrow”), the getaways to the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal, the Fire Island trysts, and the romp in Cuba with the purser who looked just like a Latino Cary Grant -- that happened too. But the splashy flashes came as they do in Midwestern storms: brief crackles of lightning amid all the simmering, grumbling, swelling thunder that went with an age of McCarthyism and suburban nuclear-family conformists.
Men adored Howe. He was so wonderfully average -- in height, weight, voice, manner. And boyish, cherubic almost to the point of porcelain. Like any vaudevillian, he knew how to breeze through towns and leave them wanting more. He wrote thank-you notes after sex. Even for the unbending straight guys in the mix, Howe would embrace his “Platonism” and suggest they read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or take in a theater show or get tickets to see the pianist Vladimir Horowitz. With some, he would buy them dress shirts. And they would send him neckties (although none more expensive than 30 cents).
He once picked up a young, illiterate hitchhiker, Cecil Starling, who was wandering the country after his mother died. Starling had been picking and canning fruit, doing odd jobs, so Howe helped him out by writing a letter of recommendation to a friend in Ohio. That was Howe’s modus operandi: to win over the devotion of pretty young vulnerable insecure men -- sometimes to capitalize on that, sexually, but often just to bask in their idolatry of him. Howe was writing to his friend because Starling had recently written from Twin Falls, Idaho, with only $3 in hand, asking for $5.
There was always love, even if it flirted with love-hate. “You do something out-of-the-way to me,” a longtime close friend, Albert Galloway, wrote in April 1941. “Like Tim to Scrooge, I soften. It’s the contrast between big-business Howe -- banging his heels down and striding resolutely into office, bar, and lobby -- and little-boy Stew, not half so overpowering and a damned sight more affecting.” Another friend put it more directly in February 1942: “You’re a b____ , but I love you for it.”
There was a sense for Howe, shared among his closest friends, that they were serving as a kind of saving grace in the lives of their sexual conquests. A friend gossips about a mutual buddy’s latest boy toy: “I think the boy is Jewish or a Pole; this probably gives Jim the feeling that he is caring for a refugee of some sort. It’s very amusing.” Howe, Syrett notes in his recent book The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, “represented a particularly palatable version of homosexuality to young men who might have been concerned that embracing their homosexual inclinations would mean abandoning the parts of their lives that they held dear and that helped them to define themselves as normal American men.”
Reached at her home in Chicago, Howe’s niece Elizabeth, 59, recalls, “I never saw him not in a suit. Blue suits, gray suits, striped ties -- that was about it.” She remembers him as awkward. “He’d stand with his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels, and he’d ask me and my sister, Jean, things like ‘So, what are your hobbies?’ ” she says. “Even as a child, I knew he was uncomfortable. He was removed. He was there because he was expected; this was his family. He always did what he thought was the right thing, all the right things, go through all the right motions.” She remembers him pulling up in his steel-blue Buick and giving her thoughtful but odd gifts: the Encyclopedia Britannica or a six-bowl set of antique Delft china. Once, he tried hosting Thanksgiving dinner himself: a formal affair at Chicago’s famed Drake Hotel, with all the familial whimsy of a hospital-corners bed tucked in tight by maids. He derided Elizabeth’s beloved Beatles as “shaggy.” Without a wife or children, Howe sidestepped the cultural revolution of suburbia and extended his 1930s model of manhood well into the Nixon era -- all the while loosening his collar (and his belt) only for a select few.
Part of what’s remarkable here is how candid Howe and his pen pals are with each other (in only one letter, the command destroy! is scrawled along the bottom, even though the note is rather vanilla). One friend writes a self-admitted drunken letter. Another sends a kind of 1946 version of a booty text: a telegram that contains nothing other than the name Norm Saksvige along with an address. They call what they do “prowling” and “gallivanting.” And they often share a military fetish -- so much so that many of them either join the military after college or pick up enlisted soldiers or ROTCs (Howe picked up two at once and whisked them to the Met). “Well, Stew, I must do some boning on these texts. I wish it were on human flesh instead,” Howard Heath wrote from his Army bed in March 1942. “Wish you could peek in on the gorgeous array of baskets surrounding me as I lie on my bunk…”
In all their alienation, Howe was a kind of national guidance counselor for these college kids. A letter where Chuck Flanders, a Duke student, is weighing a transfer to Tulane University lays out Howe’s importance: “You don’t know what a life you gave me by coming down last week-end. It’s so nice to know that someone like you gives a damn for someone like me. You don’t know how much our friendship means to me Stewart. I wouldn’t want anything to come between it for the world.” One wrote that the State Department should consider installing Howe as “Ambassador of Basic Relations and Good Neighborly Feelings.”
Playing with the kind of overwrought emotion so rife in college students could have its hazards. “Isn’t it hell, Stew, to be romance to the wealthy and unsophisticated?” wrote a colleague who led a similar man-in-every-frat-house life. “He fumbled around a lot,” says Syrett. “It was a fumbling time. When he fell, he fell hard. You have to realize he’s not, in modern language, a ‘player.’ It’s not one fuck and then it’s over. He stays. He lingers. He writes to them. And they write back.”
Some saw it as creepy, though. The lingering. Like David Wooderson, Matthew McConaughey’s iconic character from Dazed and Confused. Handsome and even charming, sure. But a little too pervy. A little too horny. A little too predatory. What kind of 30-something or 40-something or 50-something devotes his life to college men?
His friends also derided the “rah rah shit” of Howe’s “God-damned alumni-teasing business” and “grab-as-you-can social life.” Lawrence Reedy, one of his closest friends and the former newsletter editor for the national Sigma Nu office, wrote in a January 1946 letter to Howe: “Is your ‘frat’ business still a flourishing enterprise? Somehow, I can’t face a return to that brand of B.S. -- it’s almost as bad as the Navy.”
But Howe was so much of a flagrant racist that, when one of his friends suggests a trip to Trinidad, he warned Howe to tone down his bigotry. Howe was also a cheapskate who loathed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. His was not the kind of giddy gaiety you might associate with Walt Whitman, Cole Porter, or Oscar Wilde -- or even Allen Ginsberg or Harvey Milk.
It is a routine circumstance in academic circles that some historian somewhere will lay claim to some ancient hero as gay. Abraham Lincoln, Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci. So when he learned of Stewart Howe, Shane Windmeyer wasn’t surprised at all. Windmeyer, who came out in rural Kansas, is now the executive director of Campus Pride, the nation’s only national nonprofit organization for gay college students. “I’ve always believed -- and, c’mon, you know statistically it just has to be true -- that every single fraternity in our country, all of them had at least one gay guy as a founder.”
Those theories can be complicated by the fact that, according to Campus Pride, more gay fraternity members are out (83%) than gay fraternity alumni (25%), so it can be tempting to label many of those not-out alumni as closeted. “Because, really,” Syrett notes, “what is fraternity life -- hazing together, bunking together, showering together, wrestling, and horsing around -- other than a kind of ironic homosexuality?” In that way, Howe is a kind of missing link between these estranged cousins, the gays and the Greeks.
Syrett, who is gay himself, sighs. “Look,” he goes on, “historians -- and mostly, in these cases, these are historians who are themselves gay -- like to say that gays have always been everywhere, out and proud and changing everything for the better. Historically, that’s pretty bullshit. But at least in the 20th century, it holds some water. Still, most gay men were simply not activists.”
Similarly, fraternities like to tout their reach. According to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, the umbrella group of nearly all Greek organizations in the country and their 9 million members, 48% of U.S. presidents have been fraternity brothers, 42% of all U.S. senators, 40% of all Supreme Court justices and 30% of all Fortune 500 executives. It was tough, then, to be a college-educated gay man in the early 20th century without being a fraternity brother -- or at least considering it.
“But Howe and his boys, these are not the heroes of gay liberation,” Syrett continues. “In a lot of ways, these are the Uncle Toms, the Booker T. Washingtons, the gays we don’t like to talk about because they don’t fit into that brilliant history of progress, celebration, and triumph.” Howe was a Revolutionary Road kind of gay man. But Syrett sees value there. “If it’s messier than we want it to be, that’s all the more interesting and all the more important.”
When he hears the news of Howe’s secret, Peter Smithhisler, executive vice president of the National Interfraternity Council, is quiet for a few moments before exclaiming: “Wow. That must’ve been gutsy for them in those days. I can’t hardly believe it. More [power] to them.”
By 1961, Howe had found a steady love in his life: a Portuguese coworker named Tony Ferreira (although they often had an open relationship when either was out of town). They lived a plain life in a plain house in a plain neighborhood of New York City, on East 37th Street. But they remained playful with each other. “See what your absences are driving me to?” joked Ferreira in a letter that described having happy-hour cocktails with a female neighbor. “Imagine…WOMEN and liquor.” In another, detailing a trip to L&L, a strip club in Iowa, Ferreira wrote, “Horrors! Loved every minute of it” (he fell asleep on a barstool). He signed that note “yours in celibacy, T.”
At that time, Howe was head of his own Chicago-based public relations firm; owned a printing business across the street from the University of Missouri; organized the business logistics for the entire Greek social world at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., (where he was also the town’s USO chairman); and hopped from college to college fundraising or assisting high-ranking administrators (in one sample stint, he raised $33 million for New York University).
Howe died in 1973, the same year the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The stream of letters had long since become a trickle, mostly sent only from Ferreira. The last letter in the collection, from 1971, is junk mail from a your-name-on-a-plaque vanity business.
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