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.