This salacious scene is central to the story-line of William Wright’s latest book, “Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals.” But just as Wright’s characters don drag, his book takes on a masquerade of sorts. At times, it is fiction dressed as fact.
To be sure, Wright ensconced himself in the bowels of Pusey Library for many months while researching the book—in which he paints a portrait of a Harvard campus gripped by homophobic hysteria. In 1920, a secret tribunal under the aegis of then-University President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, expelled eight students and one philosophy Ph.D. candidate—and expunged one purportedly gay alum’s name from University records. One of the expelled students committed suicide. Another killed himself 10 years later.
Wright has contributed mightily to our knowledge of this dark episode in Harvard history. And, to some extent, he warns us before his forays into fiction. In an author’s note, Wright forthrightly discloses that “with the dialogue in chapters 3 and 7, some liberties have been taken.” He continues, reassuringly, that “in all important aspects, however, the information in these scenes is based on known facts.”
But Wright lets his imagination run wild even outside the confines of the two chapters his note explicitly mentions.
Chapter 3 presents a partially fictionalized encounter between two Harvard boys circa 1919 that culminates in a “night of lovemaking.” (To Wright’s credit, a few details of the dalliance are derived from the court records.) Chapter 7, meanwhile, is a vignette of a racy soiree in Roberts’ room. But even in chapter 4, the meaty rendering of the tribunal’s proceedings, Wright continues to play fast and loose with the facts.
For instance, at one point, he writes: “When Roberts arrived in the interrogation room, he sat down and crossed his legs casually, showing off highly polished English shoes that glistened in the dim light.” But in an interview with The Crimson this past Tuesday, Wright acknowledged that he took artistic license with his description of Roberts’ footwear—and with other occasional scene-setting details as well.
This is unfortunate. Wright’s subject matter is so powerful and his prose is so elegant that “Harvard’s Secret Court” would rivet its readers even without Wright’s inexplicable outbursts of fiction.
On May 13, 1920, Cyril B. Wilcox, a Harvard sophomore on the verge of flunking out, gassed himself to death at his family’s home in Fall River, Mass. Over the next few days, G. Lester Wilcox ’14 found two letters addressed to his younger brother revealing that Cyril was involved in Harvard’s homosexual scene. Lester tracked down Cyril’s former lover, roughed him up, and extracted the names of several gay students.
After Lester Wilcox tipped off administrators, Lowell secretly convened a panel of three deans, a professor, and a prominent alum. This self-described “court” interrogated suspected homosexuals within the student body and the surrounding community.
While the court disbanded after just a few weeks, Harvard’s campaign against these gay and “gay-friendly” students continued for decades. One of the students, Joseph E. Lumbard ’22, who was never implicated in any overtly homosexual acts and was reinstated to the College after a year-long suspension, went on to become a prominent New York City lawyer. In 1953, as then-President Eisenhower considered Lumbard for a federal appointment, the FBI contacted the Harvard registrar to inquire about Lumbard’s unexplained one-year suspension. The registrar informed the FBI about Lumbard’s “association” with Roberts’ circle. Nonetheless, Eisenhower appointed Lumbard as a U.S. attorney.
Before granting The Crimson access to the court’s records in 2002, Harvard officials redacted the names of the court’s witnesses and victims. Over a six-month span, Crimson researchers (led by Amit R. Paley ’04, who would later become the paper’s president and is now a reporter for the Washington Post) successfully identified the court’s victims by combing through newspaper records, death certificates, and Harvard archives. That fall, University President Lawrence H. Summers issued a statement apologizing to the families of the now-deceased expellees.
All of that came out—in painstaking detail—when FM published its “Secret Court” cover story in November 2002. Wright’s new book, though, adds two notable insights into this episode:
First, the book sheds light on Lowell’s own complicated attitude toward homosexuality. Wright never suggests that Lowell himself was anything but straight-as-an-arrow. “It’s very facile and easy to say that these homophobes are closet homosexuals, because that’s what all the pop psychology says,” Wright told an audience of about a dozen at the Coop on Tuesday. But Wright argues that Lowell felt embarrassed that his own poet-sister, Amy, was a cigar-smoking lesbian who took long, chauffeured drives in her luxury car with a female companion. “There may be a connection between [President Lowell’s] forbearance and tolerance toward a gay sister he loved and his implacable cruelty toward homosexual boys he did not know,” Wright hypothesizes.
Second, through a series of interviews with members of the Wilcox family, Wright adds significant new insights into the character of Lester, the grief-stricken mill manager whose quest to avenge his younger brother’s death sparked Harvard’s Gay Scare. “[A]n entity as extreme as a gay-purging tribunal needed exceptional energy and passion to propel it into existence,” Wright tells us. “That energy came from Lester Wilcox.”
Wright takes his readers on a roller-coaster ride through Wilcox’s twisted psyche. A former cocaine addict, Wilcox would become an abusive father and husband—and he spent the last 27 years of his life in a mental hospital suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. “[H]is inchoate madness may have energized his antigay campaign,” Wright speculates.
CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
Paley’s name is conspicuously absent from Wright’s acknowledgments and his bibliography (although Wright does credit The Crimson several times in his book’s text.) “I felt flummoxed by the fact that [Paley] wouldn’t talk to me,” Wright said at the Coop Tuesday night. “He made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with the book.”
Not true, says Paley. “In the months right after my article on the Secret Court was published, I probably received about 50 interview requests from people interested in doing newspaper articles, magazines pieces, movies, television shows, books and plays about the story,” Paley wrote in an e-mail Wednesday night. “I tried to write back to many of them, but was unable to agree to interviews with everyone immediately.”
“Had Wright contacted me in the past year or two, I would have gladly talked to him, just as I have recently talked to others interested in writing about the story. But I have not received any call from Wright in the past two years.”
Also at the Coop, Wright publicly speculated that a Harvard University Library employee may have tipped The Crimson off to the existence of the secret court files. “I have some suspicions,” Wright said.
According to Paley, Wright’s speculations are entirely off-base. “There is no truth to Wright’s theory that an employee at the Archives tipped me off to the existence of the files,” Paley wrote in an e-mail. “As reported in The Crimson, The New York Times and even Wright’s book, I came across a reference to the Secret Court accidentally while I was researching a different topic.”
But, Paley added: “I am glad if Wright’s book makes more people aware of this once secret episode of Harvard history.”
ENOUGH TO MAKE A READER ‘SQUIRM’
Given the compelling nature of Wright’s subject, it is doubly disappointing that the author sullies his work by crossing the line from fact into fiction. In an interview, Wright said that his occasional fictionalization “doesn’t corrupt the material in any way I see.” And ultimately, our knowledge of this historical episode does not diminish because we read that Kenneth B. Day, Class of 1922, “squirmed uncomfortably” as he sat before the court—even though he might have sat still.
But Wright’s fictionalizations leave at least this reader squirming.
At the Coop Tuesday night, when a Crimson photographer asked Wright to pose for a picture with a gavel in hand, Wright balked—noting, fairly, that a photo of that sort would make him appear “judgmental.” He added, “I try to keep an even journalistic keel on the whole thing.”
But when Wright decided to insert a fictionalized passage into his narrative, he had to judge whether he was “corrupting” the material. Of course, historians and journalists necessarily filter the facts through the sieve of their own judgment. But Wright’s fictionalizations add an added layer of subjectivity which—considering the strength of Wright’s underlying research—proves to be entirely superfluous.
Unavoidably, these minor transgressions will force readers to approach “Harvard’s Secret Court” with skepticism—to question which details are fact and which are the product of Wright’s prodigious imagination. Are we any the worse off for reading that Roberts’ “highly polished English shoes…glistened in the dim light”—when, in fact, they might not have been highly polished (nor English, for that matter)? No. But as Wright blurs fact and fiction, the glisten of his highly polished prose grows ever-so-slightly dimmer.
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at email@example.com.
William Wright: Out of the Background
William Wright was—in his own words—“desperate for a book idea.” It was more than three years since the publication of his last book, “Born That Way: Genes, Behavior, Personality.” “If an editor approached me with an idea, it would have to be pretty lousy for me to say ‘no,’” Wright says.
Indeed, the idea that St. Martin’s pitched to Wright was anything but lousy. The nation’s oldest university had driven some of its own students to suicide—and then pulled off a nearly successful cover-up.
St. Martin’s is a publishing house with strong Harvard ties—it prints the student-run travel guide “Let’s Go” as well as The Crimson’s own books on the college admissions process. The publisher played the role of matchmaker and set Wright up with the “secret court” story, first published in Fifteen Minutes, the Crimson’s weekend magazine.
In Wright, the publisher found a battle-hardened veteran of the magazine world with 11 books already under his belt.
In the early 1960s, Wright, recently graduated from a famous New Haven, Conn. safety school, worked as an editor at Holiday Magazine, whose list of contributors included Truman Capote. Wright once rewrote a story on time zones under the byline of Ian Fleming after the submission of the 007 creator didn’t stack up to Holiday’s standards.
Wright left Holiday in 1965 to manage a theater festival in Spoleto, Italy. He then served briefly as editor of Chicago magazine in the early 1970s—though, by his own account, he was quickly pushed out of the job as retaliation for printing an item that mocked Mayor Richard Daley’s poor grammar. Since then, Wright has turned to the world of books, co-authoring two autobiographies of Luciano Pavarotti.
Why did the publishing house reach out to Wright after the secret court came to light in 2002? “I don’t think it could be the gay thing,” the openly homosexual Wright says. “I think a lot of gay activists would think I wasn’t angry enough in this book,” he adds.
“I think I’m a journalist first, and a gay person second. I’ve always had this feeling that I should stay in the background in my books as much as possible.”
—Daniel J. Hemel