Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch - review by Piers Brendon

Piers Brendon

Vice & Viceroys

Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians


Little, Brown 320pp £25 order from our bookshop

William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp (1872–1938), was a cabinet minister, a Knight of the Garter and lord steward of the Royal Household. Married to Lettice Grosvenor, sister of Bendor, Duke of Westminster, he was a devoted family man, siring seven children. He was also flagrantly homosexual, having a particular fondness for footmen and grooms with shapely buttocks, over which he would run his hands during job interviews. He scarcely bothered to hide his proclivities. Visiting the public steam baths at the Elephant and Castle, Hugh Walpole saw ‘Ld Beauchamp in the act with a boy’.

All might have been well had not the vicious Bendor decided to expose his ‘bugger-in-law’. He bullied Lettice into instituting divorce proceedings even though she didn’t really know what homosexuality was, telling friends that ‘Beauchamp was a bugler’. And he hired detectives to compile a damning dossier on the errant peer. This he presented to George V, who allegedly remarked, ‘I thought men like that shot themselves.’ Anxious to avoid a scandal, the king persuaded the duke not to prosecute Beauchamp, provided that he resigned his offices and went to live abroad. In exile he attained literary immortality, becoming the model for Lord Marchmain in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

As this vignette from Michael Bloch’s Closet Queens suggests, his book is entertaining, elegant and well informed. It is also thoroughly wrong-headed – and here I must declare an interest. Before publication Bloch asked me to comment on his treatment of three of the 20th-century politicians in his gay galère, Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Alan Lennox-Boyd and Sir Winston Churchill. The first two, though both married, were unquestionably clandestine homosexuals, and I found Bloch’s account of them perceptive and attractively written, though not strikingly original. But I gave a firm thumbs down to the essay in which he suggests that Churchill had homosexual tendencies, saying that his mode of argument would put critics in mind of Ronald Knox’s use of creative acrostics to prove that Queen Victoria was the author of In Memoriam.

In general Bloch disagreed with me, as he was perfectly entitled to do. By the same token, I reiterate my objections to his innuendos. Bloch claims that Churchill ‘might have aroused suspicions of homosexuality’ because he had ‘a passion for silk underwear’; actually it was an aversion to scratchy material next to his sensitive skin. Bloch says that he was rude to women and a ‘misogynist’; in fact he liked rich, dashing, clever, important women such as Maxine Elliott and Daisy Fellowes, and he was rude to both males and females who did not count, notably servants. Bloch makes much of his ‘intimate friendship’ with T E Lawrence, but it was not that intimate and he overegged it in order to associate himself with Lawrence’s glamour and fame.

As for the insinuation that Churchill’s ‘romantic feelings’ for his son Randolph had anything in common with Lord Esher’s incestuous passion for his own son Maurice, whom he nicknamed ‘Molly’, it is simply preposterous. Churchill’s love for Randolph (whom he sometimes did not like) was purely paternal and dynastic. Nor is there anything in the suggestion that Churchill’s support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis owed something to his good looks; as Clementine said, her husband was the last true believer in the divine right of kings. He was equally romantic about his wife, while adopting a robustly aristocratic attitude towards sodomy. He remarked on the arrest for indecency of the Foreign Office minister Ian Harvey in St James’s Park during freezing weather, ‘Makes you proud to be British.’

There are plenty of genuine sodomites in Bloch’s collection, some of whom gave the practice a bad name. At a Fabian summer school in 1908, Hugh Dalton advanced on the young James Strachey ‘waving an immense steaming penis in his face and chuckling softly’. Loulou Harcourt, notorious for molesting the children of friends, employed a similar technique, once presenting the thirteen-year-old Edward James with ‘a large and hideous erection’; when the news got out, in 1922, Harcourt committed suicide. At one of Channon’s discreet sex parties a guardsman expired from his exertions and Chips had to have his corpse smuggled out of the house and dumped in a park. Tom Driberg was, so to speak, a water-closet queen and his insatiable appetite for fellatio often got him into trouble, though he became expert at bribing the police. Like him, Lord Boothby was supplied with handsome youths by the gangster Kray twins, though Boothby also had a long affair with Dorothy Macmillan, who reminded him of a caddie he had once seduced on the golf links at St Andrews. Jeremy Thorpe, whose biography Bloch has written to great acclaim, was lucky to be acquitted of conspiring to murder his ex-lover Norman Scott.

However, there is little or nothing to show that many of Bloch’s closet queens were really gay at all. He covers himself by stating that his survey embraces not only homosexual and bisexual politicians (lesbians are omitted) but also those who were ‘sexually ambiguous’. Yet since sexuality is a spectrum this could include anybody. Bloch chooses to include Lords Curzon and Milner, both of whom, as he acknowledges, were enthusiastic heterosexuals. As viceroy of India, Curzon was, moreover, an outspoken enemy of ‘unnatural vice’ among the maharajahs. But Bloch finds his love of dressing up and interior decoration suggestive, and he maintains that there was an epicene quality about Curzon’s touchiness and petulance – weaknesses to which all are prone.

Similarly he states that there is ‘something inescapably homosexual’ about a love of lords, whereas, of course, the straight are equally disposed to snobbery. And when it seems that his subjects had no physical relationships with other men, as in the case of Philip
Sassoon and ‘Slippery’ Sam Hoare, Bloch tends to maintain that they were ‘homosexual in outlook’. This is speculative at best: plausible perhaps where Rosebery, Kitchener, Balfour and Edward Heath were concerned; doubtful in relation to Edwin Montagu, Leslie Hore-Belisha, George Lloyd, Edward Boyle and others. It’s true that closet queens were secretive and evidence is hard to find. Bloch often depends on ‘oral testimony’ (by which he means verbal testimony): he is, for example, ‘reliably informed’ that Selwyn Lloyd was actively gay. But on a subject permeated by rumour and gossip, how reliable can such information be? Bloch assumes that Compton Mackenzie was homosexual when discussing his novel Thin Ice, which was based on the career of George Lloyd. However, he does not quote Noël Coward: ‘as usual with books on homosexuality written by heterosexuals, not quite right. That dreadful, unconscious superiority.’

Bloch invites his readers to draw their own conclusions from his studies. But he does assert that feasting with panthers promoted distinct political skills: quick wits, acting ability, a talent for intrigue and subterfuge, and a capacity for taking risks. Naturally he doesn’t want to go back to the bad old days, and explains the intensity of homophobia in late Victorian England as a response to the Cleveland Street brothel scandal and the Wilde trial. On a deeper level, though, which he does not explore, it was probably attributable to anxieties about the incipient decline of the British Empire, the survival of which was thought to depend on the breeding of a healthy master race. It’s significant that the persecution of homosexuals which occurred between the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 and the implementation of the Wolfenden Report in 1967 coincided with the popularity of the supposedly hygienic practice of circumcision. The transition from queer-bashing to gay pride can be traced in the fate of the foreskin.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter