By Richard Morgan
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?