"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The 28-year-old traveler was tall, with rough hands, a chiseled jaw and unforgettable, deep-set, melancholy eyes. He arrived in town, his worldly possessions in two battered suitcases, and inquired at a general store about buying some bedding. But the price was far beyond his budget. The strikingly handsome 23-year-old merchant took pity on the man and invited him into his own bed, free of charge, which happened to be just upstairs. The traveler inspected the bed and, looking into the merchant’s sparkling blue eyes, agreed on the spot. For the next four years the two men shared that bed along with their most private fears and desires.
If this sounds like the opening of a homoerotic dime-store novel whose subsequent scenes feature fiery loins and ecstatic eruptions, hold your panting. The year is 1837, the place Springfield, Ill., and the leading men none other than our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, and his lifelong friend Joshua Speed.
It is a story that historians have told and retold, puzzled over and reinterpreted, dismissed and decorated. Some describe Lincoln’s acceptance of Joshua Speed’s generous offer as terse and matter-of-fact; others as beaming and emotional. What none of them questions is that Lincoln and Speed’s years of living together cemented a friendship unparalleled in its intimacy and tenderness in Lincoln’s life. So far, all major historians have stopped short of intimating that Lincoln was ever involved in a romantic affair with a man — in fact, they explicitly discourage such interpretations.
But Larry Kramer, the 62-year-old gay rights hell-raiser, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (“Women in Love”) and Pulitzer-nominated playwright (“The Normal Heart”), wants to change all that. In February, at a gay and lesbian conference in Madison, Wis., he read a portion of his unfinished book, “The American People” — which, in the course of describing the history of gays in early America, avers that Lincoln and Speed were not merely bedfellows but lovers.
“There’s no question in my mind he was a gay man and a totally gay man,” Kramer declares. “It wasn’t just a period, but something that went on his whole life.”
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Sally Hemings, questions about Speed and Lincoln’s relationship have circulated for years. In “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years” (1926), Carl Sandburg wrote that their relationship had “a streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets,” which some have taken as a veiled reference to homosexuality. In 1995, just after Bob Dole rejected campaign contributions from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, Log Cabin member W. Scott Thompson was quoted in the New York Times as saying that gays should feel welcome in the party, “given that the founder was gay.” Novelist Paul Russell, author of “The Gay 100,” a ranking of the world’s most important gay figures, also investigated the rumors but chose not to include Lincoln, feeling that the case was not strong enough, though he did include questionable figures like Shakespeare and Madonna. In an interview that will appear in a forthcoming anthology called “Sexual Writings by Gore Vidal,” Gore Vidal told Kramer some years ago that during the research for the historical novel “Lincoln,” Vidal too began to suspect that Lincoln was gay.
Like most of Lincoln’s early private life, the story of his friendship with Speed is a murky one — although not nearly as murky as Lincoln’s early liaisons with women. After four years of living in intimate quarters, Speed announced plans to sell the store and return to his home in Kentucky, where his family owned a large plantation. Lincoln, who was notoriously awkward and shy around women, was at the time engaged to a vivacious, if temperamental, society girl named Mary Todd, but as the date of Speed’s departure and the marriage approached, Lincoln cracked. He wanted to break the engagement by letter, but at Speed’s entreaty, he went to Mary Todd and told her face to face he did not love her. Some argue that Lincoln had fallen in love with another woman. Soon after, Speed departed, leaving Lincoln mired in depression and guilt.
Seven months later Lincoln traveled to Speed’s home in Kentucky, where he spent a month being nursed back to health. After that the two men corresponded affectionately for decades, chronicling their most personal internal conflicts — including their abject fear of marriage, which they ominously refer to in their correspondence (always emphasized) as forebodings. Speed was the first to approach the altar successfully, an ordeal that Lincoln coached him through with tender but not altogether convincing letters of encouragement. It seemed that Speed was on the verge of a premarital meltdown similar to Lincoln’s. “If you went through the ceremony calmly, or even with sufficient composure not to excite alarm in anyone present, you are safe, beyond question,” Lincoln wrote just after the date of Speed’s betrothal, “and in two or three months, to say the most, will be the happiest of men.” Subsequent clandestine letters inquired whether Speed really was “happier or, if you think the term preferable, less miserable.” Both men eventually married and had children; they remained close until they had a falling-out in 1855 over the issue of slavery.
A shared bed, tortured secret letters and a fear of women — what more proof could scholars want?
Real evidence, they say. First, the shared bed is meaningless, most argue, since in the 19th century American frontiersmen often slept two and three to a bed for purely economic reasons. “It was very common for men to share the same bed in the 1800s — especially in taverns,” says Gene Griessman, author of “The Words Lincoln Lived By” (Simon & Schuster, 1997). “We know that Lincoln had a long, affectionate friendship with Speed. He deeply loved the man, but to go beyond that fact is to go beyond any evidence I have seen.”
“It sounds like this might be a case of taking a 19th century event and giving it a 20th century context,” says Douglas Wilson, author of “Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln” and co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. Wilson adds that this trend of seeing the past in terms of the present — what historians call “presentism” — has seen a recent revival, with the controversy over Jefferson’s alleged relationship with Sally Hemings and the “outing” of Walt Whitman.
Other scholars believe that such cozy sleeping arrangements did reflect a distinct emotional landscape for men, but didn’t necessarily lead to hot homo lovemaking. “There was a lot of male homoerotic desire in the middle of the 19th century,” says UC-Berkeley political scientist Michael Rogin. “There may be evidence of male-male desire, but that’s not gay. If ‘gay’ is going to mean anything it’s got to mean orgasms with other men. There’s got to be some sense of transgression and forbiddenness.”
In an era obsessed with the fine points of identity nomenclature, exactly what constitutes mid-19th-
Kramer has little patience for such theoretical hairsplitting. “I do not think that people were different starting with the Garden of Eden,” he says. “Why do we imagine that people were these naive asexual beings before the 20th century? Lincoln had a lot of sex.”
Kramer doesn’t pretend to be a Lincoln scholar or even an objective researcher. (“I have read all the biographies, and they are full of shit,” he spits, and derides Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald as “some dried old heterosexual prune at Harvard.”) He’s an unabashed gay rabble-rouser, beating the bushes of history to find gay heroes. But if he really does have the new primary sources he claims to, even the staunchest defenders of Lincoln’s heterosexuality may be forced to reconsider. Kramer claims to have a trump card, a smoking gun: a hitherto unknown Joshua Speed diary, as well as a stash of letters in which Speed writes explicitly about his love affair with Lincoln. The secret pages, which were discovered hidden beneath the floorboards of the old store where the two men lived, now are said to reside in a private collection in Davenport, Iowa.
No sooner has Kramer mentioned the discovery and location of the papers than he grumbles, “That’s already more than I wish I had said.” Kramer is ambivalent about airing the entire subject. Even the reading, he explains, was a spur-of-the-moment stopgap measure to save him the trouble of writing another speech for a second appearance at the conference. “I didn’t know there were any reporters there,” he says, “and I didn’t let anyone tape it.”
Although Kramer refuses to share any portions of these documents, the Capital Times in Madison reported some of the juicier quotes from the reading: “He often kisses me when I tease him, often to shut me up. He would grab me up by his long arms and hug and hug,” Speed reportedly wrote. Addressing his dear friend as “Linc,” Speed allegedly described the young politician as a man who couldn’t get enough hugging and kissing: “Yes, our Abe is like a school girl.” Kramer also attested that Speed recounted conversations in which the two men wondered whether other men, too, had relationships like theirs.
Whether these quotes prove that Lincoln was gay is debatable — although, of course, Kramer may possess others that are more explicit. But he goes further: He not only claims that honest, rail-splitting, nation-uniting Abe was a proto-bossy bottom, but that there existed a whole 19th century gay frontier subculture. For example, he says there was an underground travel agency that arranged for small groups of man-loving men to travel into the wilderness for nature appreciation and other earthy pleasures. Both Lincoln and Speed, Kramer says, frequented these camping trips while living in Springfield. In one circular, which Kramer shared by phone, a man named “Dapper Dan from Kansas” invited “fellow travelers” on a “holiday journey” to sleep outdoors. The passage he read was certainly suggestive but hardly explicit.
Repeating a claim long circulated in the gay community, if not in Hamilton scholarship, Kramer also claims that Alexander Hamilton was “essentially a cock-tease.”
All these assertions, however, pale in the face of Kramer’s most outrageous theory: that Lincoln’s murder may have been a kind of gay-bashing, resulting from a kinky sexual set-up. “There’s some evidence that shows that Speed presented Booth to Lincoln as a ‘present’ and the young Booth, who was a gorgeous man, was virulently homophobic, like the men who killed Matthew Shepard,” he says. “If the murder turns out to have had a homosexual underpinning, that’s going to freak everybody out.”
Seemingly outlandish claims like these — along with the fact that Kramer is not by any conventional definition a scholar — obviously raise questions about his historical judgment and probity. Isn’t Kramer just a propagandist, laboring mightily to turn the 1800s into 18th and Castro?
Interestingly, however, Lincoln scholars have largely held their fire even when confronted with Kramer’s more extreme claims. “That’s pretty wild,” says Douglas Wilson of the Lincoln-Booth theory. “If Lincoln and Booth had ever met, I would have thought we would have known more about it. But all ideas are welcome; you learn more when people argue.”
Arguments coming from Larry Kramer tend to have a special vehemence. Long a lightning rod for controversy both within and without the gay community, Kramer knows how to play his cards for all they’re worth — although playing them close to his chest is not his strong suit. After founding ACT-UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, two staggeringly influential organizations within the gay community, Kramer assailed the Reagan administration, the medical establishment and heterosexuals in general (whom he referred to as “they”) with razor pen and acid tongue. Just as often, he attacked his own community; his conflicts with factions of the two organizations he founded erupted into public spectacles of ire and recrimination. No setting was too sacrosanct for Kramer to tell his angry truths — as evidenced by a eulogy he once gave in which he accused the gathering of mourners (including himself) of murdering the deceased with their complacency and passivity.
Compared to those days of high dudgeon and real crisis, it seems odd that Kramer is so anxious about his scholarly crusade to out a dead president. Why won’t he share his evidence? His explanations vary from wanting to protect the poor folks of Davenport from a mob of Lincoln lunatics to simply wanting to finish his monster-
It’s possible that Kramer was led to some of his evidence by a more respectable scholar, C.A. Tripp, the elderly author of the groundbreaking “The Homosexual Matrix.” Kramer admits that he hopes a forthcoming book by Tripp comes out before his own. Tripp’s book also plans to drag Lincoln out of the closet, but according to Kramer, it will do so with a good deal more scholarly muscle and nuance. Kramer says Tripp has evidence that Lincoln had not just one, but numerous homoerotic relationships throughout his life. Unlike Kramer, however, he does not construe these ongoing sexual encounters as self-consciously homosexual. Speaking by phone from his home in New Jersey, Tripp refuses to “drop any pearls” before his book is finished. “It’s too far away,” he says, “about two years.”
When told that Kramer had expressed enthusiasm about Tripp’s findings, Tripp snarls good-naturedly: “Of course he did. Kramer’s a propagandist. And that’s all I have to say.” He does acknowledge, however, that his research was based on “absolutely new” primary sources that no other historian has seen.
All this talk of new primary sources makes the Lincoln history establishment curious despite their skepticism.
“It’s possible there is something else, but I would be very surprised,” says Michael Burlingame, author of the “Inner World of Abraham Lincoln” and history professor at Connecticut College. “If there’s a Joshua Speed diary, then I’m eager to see it.” Indeed, Burlingame is one volume into a three-volume account of Lincoln’s life; presumably such findings might guide his current project in new directions.
Burlingame is familiar with Tripp’s work and despite his “enormous respect for the man,” he disagrees with his ideas about Lincoln’s sexual orientation. “Speed and Lincoln were close emotionally but their letters have no discernable romantic overtones,” he says. “Besides, there is too much evidence that Lincoln was strongly attracted to women.” By way of example he cites the fact that Lincoln was a “proto-feminist,” fell “head over heels in love with 18-year-old Matilda Edwards” and loved a beautiful young woman named Ann Rutledge.
Such evidence, however, can be interpreted several ways. Heterosexual men have never had a corner on the market for feminist-friendly attitudes — in fact, one might argue that proto-homosexual men might better sympathize with the plights of proto-feminist women. Moreover, some historians reject the tale of his love for Matilda Edwards as a paranoid fantasy that Mary Todd Lincoln concocted to explain why Lincoln abandoned her at the altar. In “Lincoln,” David Herbert Donald suggests that there was “no real justification” to think that Lincoln had fallen in love with her and that Edwards had expressly denied that he ever “even stooped to pay [her] a compliment.” In turn, Douglas Wilson calls Donald’s refusal to deal with the Edwards evidence “just hopeless.”
Historians also posit wildly different scenarios regarding the doomed Ann Rutledge. All evidence comes from third-hand accounts that held that Lincoln became acquainted with her while she was still engaged to another man. Soon afterwards, she fell ill; Lincoln sat by her bedside for the last two days of her life. Some contend the two were on their way to being engaged, others that Lincoln might have befriended her simply because she was already spoken for. Others say her death left him a devastated man who, at least from a romantic perspective, never recovered. Yet as Kramer is quick to point out, not a single letter exists between Rutledge and Lincoln, and in the thousand pages of Lincoln’s personal correspondence, he never once mentions her name.
Finally, in chronicling the proof of Lincoln’s heterosexual romances, historians are split in their interpretation of his marriage to the volatile, possibly insane, drug-addled Mary Todd Lincoln. By all accounts the couple had a difficult, turbulent relationship, but over the course of 10 years they managed to bear four children. Some historians paint theirs as a difficult but loving bond; others as the quintessential marriage from hell. Douglas Wilson gives credence to stories that Lincoln visited prostitutes during his marriage and later believed himself to have contracted syphilis. David Herbert Donald, in contrast, paints Lincoln as a faithful, if not exactly doting, husband.
All of these heterosexist interpretations get Kramer foaming at the mouth. “Why is their version so much more believable than mine? So much of the history that is shoveled into the world is bullshit — we really have to invent our own.”
Do such overt desires for a specific outcome make it impossible for Kramer to separate fact from wishful thinking? That was the charge leveled against those who initially argued that Walt Whitman was a 19th century homosexual. At first this idea was derided as far-fetched propaganda, but it is now largely accepted (although academics continue to debate whether it is legitimate to call Whitman “gay”).
But does it really matter if Lincoln was gay? What difference does it make if the man who reunited the country, ended slavery, wrote some of the most majestic speeches in the English language and died a martyr’s death desired — or actually had sex with — other men? According to Illinois state historian Tom Schwarz, it doesn’t make any difference: “It’s only important if he made conscious decisions based on his sexuality which then influenced his political behavior, public policy or his decisions on slavery. If not, its importance readily diminishes.”
Schwarz’s politic words, however, don’t take into account the enormous symbolic significance that will attend any reevaluation of the sexual orientation of America’s most beloved figure. Imagine if the Hemings-Jefferson love affair had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt (which, as scientists continue to remind us, still hasn’t happened) in the Jim Crow 1950s, when certain states still prosecuted miscegenation? Bigots would have had one less legendary leg to stand on. Similarly, if the man on our $5 bill was proven to be gay, right-wing politicians who invoke Lincoln in one breath and denounce the homosexual menace in the next would be forced to reexamine the deeper meaning of the phrase “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” Certainly, for queer theorists and gay scholars, the ability to claim the man who was arguably America’s greatest president as their own would arm gay battalions with a powerful new rhetorical weapon.
“Greatest” is the operative word here. When Kramer first announced at the Madison meeting that he was setting out to get gays their “first gay president,” he could have made his job easier by looking to Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan. The only bachelor to take office, Buchanan spent 15 years living with Sen. William King. The contemporary press ridiculed the men’s relationship mercilessly, and Andrew Jackson once called King “Miss Nancy.” The problem, of course, is that James Buchanan is not the guy to stake a modern civil rights movement on. Passive and ineffectual, he slowly but surely led the country into a bloody civil war. Despite the fact that it was “obvious” that Buchanan was gay, Paul Russell says he chose not to include him in “The Gay 100″ — he just wasn’t anything to be proud of.
One equally controversial gay figure did make it into the book: none other than the fire-breathing Larry Kramer. In fact, he’s the highest-ranked of all living people on the list. “A lot of people wouldn’t agree with that,” Kramer mutters when informed of this fact.
In similar fashion, many of Lincoln’s contemporary enemies would have seen the deification of the rough-hewn, socially awkward president as the worst kind of historical revisionism. But as Kramer knows, from a political perspective, revisionist history is the only kind of history that counts.
Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.More Carol Lloyd.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)