The Daily Agenda for Sunday, December 16

Jim Burroway

December 16th, 2012

Miami Mayor Abe Aronovitz

TODAY IN HISTORY:
Miami Officials Testify Before Senate Committee About Anti-Gay Crackdown: 1954. It has been quite a year for Miami’s long-running witchhunt in that city (see Aug 3Aug 11Aug 12Aug 13 (twice that day), Aug 14Aug 26Aug 31Sep 1Sep 2Sep 7Sep 15Sep 19Oct 6Oct 20, and Nov 12), and Miami’s Mayor Abe Aronovitz got one more shot in before the year was out. He and several other Miami officials testified before the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee about the “alarming” rise in young people running afoul of the law. Several problems were discussed: a growing crime rate, the lack of resources in the county sheriff’s office, runaways appearing in Miami from other parts of the country, and, of course, homosexuals.

Daniel Sullivan, chairman of the Greater Miami Crime Commission, complained to the subcommittee that there had been a “tremendous increase” in the number of “perverts” making the Miami area their “headquarters.” He cited recent estimates of the number of homosexuals there at 8,000 (out of about 500,000 for all of Dade County). Sullivan blamed the “increase” on the number of bars and nightclubs that cater to gay people.

Miami Mayor Abe Aronovitz chimed in, criticizing Police Chief Walter Headly’s preferred policy of allow gay bars to operate in certain areas, saying that this was, in effect, an open invitation “to homosexuals from all over the nation.” But Chief Headly countered that while he had obeyed the mayor’s orders to break up such gatherings (see Sept 2), but he believed that all that he had actually accomplished was to “scatter” the problem elsewhere in the area rather than actually getting rid of the “perverts.” Aronovitz saw it differently, telling the committee that the crackdown “temporarily improved” the situation, but said, “the federal government should spend money to help local governments battle the problem.”

TODAY’S BIRTHDAY:
Noël Coward: 1899. He first appeared on the stage at the age of eleven, and his stage work as a teenager — along with his (possibly romantic) relationship with the painter Philip Streatfeild — opened the doors for the precocious son of a house maid to London’s high society, and his embrace of that society cemented his image for the rest of his life. “I am determined to travel through life first class,” he often remarked. Coward went on to write fifty plays, over a hundred songs, and a dozen musical theater works. He never acknowledged his homosexuality, but given his body of work he hardly had to. His 1924 hit play, The Vortex, offered a daring portrayal of a nymphomaniac society woman and her drug-addicted son. The play shocked London sensibilities with its portrayal of drugs and hints of gay life in high society, but that shock leaned more toward titillation than outrage. Coward spent the rest of his life walking that balance.

Ever the fervent anti-Fascist, Coward enlisted with British Intelligence in 1938. For his first assignment in Paris he was given the cover story of working in the British Propaganda office, where he famously critiqued the quality of its work. “If the policy of His Majesty’s Government is to bore the Germans to death I don’t think we have time,” he said. His next assignment was to go to America and use his wit and celebrity status to sway popular opinion to support the British. He also used that tour to gauge public sentiment and political leaders’ opinions about the war and report those findings back to Bletchley Park. Coward’s next assignment was to travel the world to entertain the troops, another assignment which provided perfect cover:

“I was the perfect silly ass,” (Coward) said. “Nobody … considered I had a sensible thought in my head, and they would say all kinds of things that I’d pass along.”

It was a senior diplomat named Robert Vansittart, routinely dismissed in the Foreign Office as an anti-Nazi Cassandra, who in late 1937 or 1938 spotted how to use Coward’s flamboyance, intelligence and flawless memory to help tend an unofficial, off-the-books anti-Nazi intelligence network he had set up across Europe. Vansittart dispatched Coward on tour in such un-Cowardy places as Warsaw, Moscow and Helsinki, where he sang songs, gauged Nazi influence among star-struck V.I.P.’s and (very likely) contacted sources on the ground. If he fooled the V.I.P.’s, Coward failed to fool the Nazis. He was soon on the Gestapo’s list of people to be “liquidated” when Britain fell.

King George VI had recommended Coward for a knighthood during the war, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill vetoed it. Coward was too “flamboyant” for Churchill’s tastes. After the war, Coward continued to find success in Britain and America. He also fell in love with actor Graham Payn and they remained together for the next thirty years. The two became tax exiles and moved first to Bermuda, then Jamaica. He never did acknowledge his sexuality, believing that any direct discussion of sex was tasteless. Besides, he said, “There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don’t know.” He was finally knighted in 1969. That year, Time wrote of him, “Coward’s greatest single gift has not been writing or composing, not acting or directing, but projecting a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.” He died in 1973, in the company of his partner Graham. His diaries and letters were published posthumously.

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