Was the CIA secretly recruiting gay men in the 1950s?

Photo by David Sinclair on Unsplash

In the book Oblivion, which delves into the Richard Cox disappearance, the authors have suggested that (spoiler alert!) Richard Cox may have been gay or bisexual and that the CIA recruited him in 1950 for that reason. We’ve already discussed how Ronald Tammen’s 1953 disappearance draws a number of parallels to Cox’s disappearance, and I’ve also provided evidence that helps support the theory that Tammen may have been gay. So it begs the question: Was the CIA furtively recruiting gay men in the early 1950s, for whatever reason, and if so, were Tammen and Cox two of their more visible recruits representing the great state of Ohio?

Before I proceed with today’s post I need to state this caveat as clearly as possible: I can’t fathom the totality of the CIA’s operations back in the height of the Cold War. If the agency had an interest in hiring members of the gay or lesbian community for intelligence work, it has done an excellent job of keeping that detail a secret, in addition to its underlying reasons for doing so. What I’m presenting here is one scenario that has received a small amount of publicity. However, in no way do I intend to imply that, if Tammen or Cox were gay and recruited by the CIA, they would have been utilized in this way. I’m only asking if the CIA was hiring gay individuals when no one else in the federal government was doing so and presenting some supporting evidence.

With that caveat firmly in mind, let’s talk about spies and sex and the use of sex by spies for the sole purpose of sexy spying. Anyone who’s seen a James Bond film can understand how sex can be used as a tactical weapon in the world of espionage. Sexpionage, as some call it, works like this: someone on an organization’s payroll sets up a steamy little “honey trap” to entice an opposing target to swap his or her government’s secrets for sex. Or a late-night tryst might provide an opportunity for a spy to rifle through a high-level diplomat’s suitcase after drugging his daiquiri. Or there’s also the potential for blackmail. Sex makes a person vulnerable and if there’s one thing that people in the intelligence biz absolutely love 💕, it’s intelligence sources who are vulnerable. 

As you can imagine, the sex lives of spies is a subject that the CIA doesn’t care to talk about. As this December 9, 2010, article from Slate states, “The Central Intelligence Agency doesn’t comment on whether its agents use their sexuality to obtain information, but current and former intelligence officials say it does happen occasionally.” (That quoted sentence used to link to an article from the April 17, 2007, issue of Harper’s Magazine, called “Sex and the CIA,” to back up its latter claim. Alas, if you click on it, you’ll see that the link no longer works, and the article is also nowhere to be found on the Harper’s website. Welcome to the world of intelligence research! Here’s a link to a portion of the original article—for now, at least.)

“Few national secrets have been more carefully guarded, but the CIA has provided kings, presidents, potentates and magistrates with female companionship,” wrote famed journalist Jack Anderson in his syndicated column in June 1976. “On a lower level, girls have been made available to defectors and the CIA’s own agents.”

According to the Anderson article, the CIA’s “sex shop” was run by its Office of Security. Sometimes the diplomat was in the know about the CIA’s role in that evening’s fix-up, however, other times, the agency made its arrangements more clandestinely, for the purpose of spying.

Wrote Anderson, “…the agency has used prostitutes to lure foreign diplomats into love traps where their sexual antics were filmed through one-way mirrors. The film was later used to blackmail the foreigners into becoming informants.”

If the CIA was employing women to pursue intelligence sources who were straight, wouldn’t they also employ men to target those who happened to be gay? The CIA often claimed that the Soviets wouldn’t hesitate to use the latter tactic on us, particularly for its blackmail potential, and, as a result, they supposedly felt that people who were gay or lesbian would be a risk to national security. (By the way, this logic only seems to make sense if the person were closeted and afraid of being outed.) But, if the Soviets were doing it, wouldn’t we have used the tactic too? Doesn’t the CIA generally consider turnabout to be fair play? (Asking for a friend…)

On the other hand, as you may recall, Executive Order 10450 was signed by President Eisenhower on April 27, 1953, thus introducing a policy against hiring federal civil servants who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. What’s more, the Lavender Scare began even earlier than that, in the late 1940s, and by 1950, the government’s zeal for discriminating against people who were gay or lesbian picked up steam courtesy of the despicable Senator Joseph McCarthy. But since when does the CIA follow what everyone else is doing? I would think that, if the cloak and dagger crowd believed it was in their best interest to recruit gay operatives, then that’s what they’d do.

The public record doesn’t support this theory, however. Here’s what’s on record regarding the federal hiring policy of LGBT individuals, both in general and at the CIA specifically:

  • In the 1960s, gay rights organizations such as the Mattachine Society of Washington, cofounded by renowned activist Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols, began filing lawsuits to challenge the across-the-board firings of gay and lesbian federal employees simply because of their sexual orientation.

  • In 1969, the federal Civil Service Commission (CSC) lost a court case in which a NASA employee named Clifford Norton sued CSC chair John Macy for having been terminated after he was arrested for a gay liaison in D.C.’s Lafayette Square during non-working hours. The court ruled that “the Civil Service Commission has neither the expertise nor the requisite anointment to make or enforce absolute moral judgments …,” and, consequently, it had no right to fire someone for being gay or lesbian, though it took four more years before changes were fully implemented government-wide. While the ruling applied to some federal agencies, it didn’t apply to all of them. According to the 2015 book Hoover’s War on Gays, by Douglas M. Charles, “For agencies outside CSC coverage, political appointees, or those engaged in national security work, however—such as the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), and military—antigay employment discrimination continued unabated.” 

To sum things up: the CIA had a policy against the hiring of members of the LGBT community until the mid-1990s; the culture began to evolve after that, albeit slowly; and then around 2011 or 2012, their doors were flung wide open and they were actively recruiting. This doesn’t exactly mesh with the running thesis I’m investigating, but that’s their story and they’re sticking with it.

Fact-checking Oblivion: Was Richard Cox gay?

In the spring of 2014, I drove to Mansfield, Ohio, Richard Cox’s hometown, in hopes of meeting with one of Cox’s sisters to discuss the similarities between his and Tammen’s cases. Although Cox’s sister wasn’t available for a sit-down, she put me in touch with a family friend, whose overriding objective was to shoot down the book’s premise. For an uncomfortable 20 minutes or so, the man insisted to me that the book was “garbage,” “trash,” and that there was no evidence to back up its claims that Cox was gay and was recruited by the CIA. “There isn’t a shred of truth to it,” he said.

I’m not going to say here whether or not I think Richard Cox was gay. I didn’t know Richard Cox. The family friend, who also didn’t know Cox, was adamant that he wasn’t. I’m just going to share several FBI documents that may have led some people to infer that Richard Cox might have been gay or bisexual or, at the very least, experimenting. A lot has been redacted, and I’ve been unsuccessful in getting the whited-out details released, but I think you can get the gist of things from the surrounding verbiage. 

The documents I’m about to share have to do with an incident that took place in April 1948 in New York City between Cox and a former soldier identified as Victor Wolf, from Detroit. The two met at Tony Pastor’s, a gay-friendly bar in Greenwich Village. Later that night, Cox visited Wolf’s room at the Hotel Dixie on 42nd Street and stayed the night. (Judging by this website, the hotel’s boasting of “700 rooms, each with bath and radio” leads me to think that we’re not talking spacious suites here.) 

The following passage was part of a report from the FBI’s New York office in a document dated May 26, 1950. This redaction-free synopsis (from this point on, referred to as “item A”) helps us validate key details in subsequent passages.

The next three passages were included in a document dated July 13, 1951 created by the Detroit office of the FBI.

Background: Sometime in late June or early July 1951, the FBI interviewed Wolf’s landlords, Mr. and Mrs. A. R. Keith, of Detroit. Despite the redactions, we know they’re talking about Wolf because the address (1798 Field) is the same as that included in item A. One wonders what the Keiths had discovered about Wolf and his roommate that led them to immediately ask them to move out of their home. In the second paragraph, two informants from Detroit said that both BLANK and BLANK are known BLANKETY BLANKS. I’m sure that the first two blanks are referring to Wolf and his roommate. As for what they were “known” to be, one can only wonder about that as well.

Background: Included below is a three-page statement dated July 7, 1951, and signed by Victor Wolf concerning his interactions with Richard Cox. Again, despite the redactions, we know that it’s Wolf’s statement, thanks to item A, which describes the timeframe and locations of their liaison in New York. The third paragraph of page one says that Cox, Wolf, and “another soldier” had met up at Tony Pastor’s bar, which Wolf describes as “having a reputation of being BLANK.” Later that night, Cox showed up at Wolf’s hotel room and Wolf told him he could spend the night with Wolf and BLANK. Wolf was later awakened by something—a whole paragraph’s worth of BLANKING—that, to this day, the FBI deems too confidential or of such a delicate nature that it needs to protect the public from such details, 70 years after-the-fact. 

As for next steps, the author of the FBI memo had suggested that the following lead needed to be checked out by the New York office regarding the “Subject,” Richard Cox. 

Evidence that the CIA was recruiting gay men

If you were to contact the CIA (and I have) and ask them if they used to recruit gay men in the 1950s (and I did), they would likely tell you that they wouldn’t be addressing that question (and they didn’t). However, I’ve found several small clues over the years that deem it at least plausible that the CIA was knowingly hiring gay men back then, for whatever reason, regardless of what the agency’s official stance was at the time.

Clue #1: The CIA was modeled after Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, which had been employing gay spies for decades.

If you’re remotely interested in the world of espionage, you’ll know that one of the most notorious spies during the Cold War was Kim Philby, a handsome and sophisticated Cambridge-educated man who charmed a lot of people, including the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton. Angleton had studied under Philby. He developed his intelligence chops under him in London when Philby was with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, and Angleton was with the fledgling CIA. The trouble was, Philby also happened to be spying for the Soviets for many years and Angleton had handed him a lot of state secrets and contacts when Philby was serving in Washington as a liaison between MI6 and the CIA and FBI. Philby eventually defected to the Soviet Union, as did fellow KGB spies Guy Burgess, who was openly gay, and Don Maclean, who was bisexual. Phillip Knightley, an esteemed journalist who had interviewed Philby at length for his definitive book, contends in this 1997 piece that Britain has had a long history of gay spies and, moreover, that spying is a natural fit for someone who is gay. In addition, Jefferson Morely, who wrote an acclaimed recent biography on Angleton, has hypothesized that the relationship between Angleton and Philby may have been a lot closer than just that of mentor and mentee.

Clue #2: Jack Anderson said so (sort of).

I’ve already cited the 1976 news article by Jack Anderson that brought to light several sex operations overseen by the CIA. An article that he’d published a year earlier had gone into greater detail concerning the CIA’s love nests that were being used for blackmail purposes on the East and West Coasts. In the last paragraph, Anderson said this:

“To stage the shows, both male and female prostitutes with a variety of sexual skills were used. The CIA possibly got the idea from the Russians, who have long used sex blackmail to entrap Westerners into spying for them.”

Although Anderson doesn’t mention anything about the entrapped being gay, the fact that male prostitutes were used tells me that that’s what he was referring to, since most foreign diplomats would have been male.

Clue #3: Former CIA employee Victor Marchetti said so.

Victor Marchetti, who passed away this past October, was a former Soviet-military specialist and executive assistant to the deputy director of the CIA. Over time, he had become disillusioned with the agency’s actions and one of its most outspoken critics. He’s most famous for coauthoring a 1974 nonfiction book with John D. Marks, formerly of the State Department, titled The C.I.A. and the Cult of Intelligence, which entangled him in a drawn-out legal battle with his former employer.

In a September 1982 Reuters article, Marchetti is quoted in the following snippet:

“Soviet intelligence agents routinely cruise gay bars seeking candidates for blackmail who could be coopted as spies, a spokesman for the CIA, another agency which is concerned about possible espionage, said.

“Former CIA official Victor Marchetti said in a separate interview that the United States employed similar techniques not only against Communists but in order to extract information from officials of allied governments who were ‘closet’ homosexuals.

“The CIA declined to comment on Mr. Marchetti’s statement.”

Clue #4: Allen Dulles was told by his mistress of OSS’s need to penetrate an underground gay network during WWII.

In her book, Autobiography of a Spyauthor Mary Bancroft shared an experience she had while she was the mistress of spy master and future CIA Director Allen Dulles during WWII. Dulles was with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner to the CIA, in Zurich, and had been using Bancroft to obtain information from various sources. While in this role, she felt it her duty to inform Dulles, who was ten years older than she and utterly naïve about the subject, about an underground gay network among the “Foreign Offices of England, Switzerland, Greece, and our own State Department and through which information traveled even more rapidly than by the channels of the Catholic Church and various Jewish organizations.” She recalled how “a colleague of my generation had told me how essential it was for us to tap this homosexual underground by having, as he put it, ‘Washington send us a guy with a pretty behind.’” Bancroft doesn’t say if Washington responded after she conveyed this request to Dulles, however, if people in intelligence were aware of the benefits of gay operatives in the 1940s, I can’t imagine what would have changed their minds by the 1950s.

Clue #5: Former CIA Director Roscoe Hillenkoetter admitted as much to Congress.

On July 14, 1950, Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, then-director of Central Intelligence, testified before Congress regarding his views of whether a person who was gay was considered to be a risk to national security. His answer was a resounding yes, and he emphasized that a gay employee needed to be “weeded out of government employment wherever he is found.” His final sentence is a doozy: “The failure to do this can only result in placing a dagger in the hands of our enemies and their intelligence services, and the point of that dagger would lie at the heart of our national security.” 

However strong that statement was, and however homophobic his views are throughout the rest of his statement, he actually does a 180 in a couple places and shares that it wouldn’t be so bad after all, and may actually be beneficial, to have a gay person on his intelligence squad. On page 25 of his typed comments, he says this: “…while this agency will never employ a homosexual on its rolls, it might conceivably be necessary, and in the past has actually been valuable, to use known homosexuals as agents in the field.” (bold added)

In addition, on pages 35 and 36, he says: “In one case in which were were [sic] interested abroad in the early months of this year, we found what I believe to represent a Soviet intelligence operation, and we believe that our task will be made considerably easier by the appearance in the area of a known homosexual who we think will be extremely helpful in this particular case.” (bold added)

[You can read his full statement here. But be prepared: it’s, um, a wee bit vile.] 

Granted, the above evidence isn’t much to go on, but, at the very least, it doesn’t rule out the argument that the CIA may have recruited gay men back in Tammen’s and Cox’s day for some purpose that it deemed useful to our country’s service, despite its official policy. I’ll close with these two thoughts:

Executive Order 10450 was signed eight days after Tammen disappeared, at which time, it would have likely been extremely difficult for a person who was gay to obtain a security clearance. Could the CIA have recruited Ron the week prior to get his name on the books before the E.O. went into effect?

Also, some have wondered why the CIA would have had any interest in recruiting a student from quaint little Miami University in rural southwest Ohio, be he gay or straight. Didn’t they have a hefty supply of Ivy Leaguers to choose from on the East Coast? But those doubters probably aren’t aware that the first director of Central Intelligence was a Miami graduate. His name was Sidney W. Souers, and he was born in Dayton. Just saying.

************

Care to weigh in? I’ve set up a poll on a new page on this website.

Your Thanksgiving dinner icebreaker: Was Ronald Tammen gay?

turkey
Image credit: https://clipartxtras.com

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! As families and friends gather round the Thanksgiving table, maintaining the peace by avoiding whatever elephant happens to be occupying the room in which you’re seated, I’d like to acknowledge a topic I’ve been tiptoeing around since I started this blog. It’s a question that has been raised every so often online, but with little back-up information, other than the fact that Ronald Tammen was a good-looking guy who didn’t date much. That question is: Was Ronald Tammen gay? (For those of you who are wondering why I would choose this topic for today, I guess you could say that I’m thankful that we now live in a time when we can talk openly on this subject without having people get all judgy and weird. So…let’s go there, and please pass the wine.)

But first, I feel the need to out myself, of sorts. I’m the proud sister of a 58-year-old gay man. In fact, at this very moment, he and I are together once again for our annual celebration of turkey and his stupendous “stuffin’ muffins.” (What’s so stupendous about them? He adds artichoke hearts to Stove Top stuffing and bakes them in a muffin tin to create single-sized portions with uniformly crispy tops. You’re welcome, Good Man readers!) So, I know a little bit about this topic from a close-up perspective. More on that in a few.

Another thing you should know: I count myself among the nature (versus nurture) crowd regarding a person’s sexual orientation, which means that I believe that biology plays a major role. Recent studies suggest that epigenetics may be involved, meaning that it’s not just our genes that are responsible—there’s probably no “gay gene” per se—but some other biological X factor—scientists call it an epi-mark—that can be inherited or acquired in utero. An epi-mark won’t alter a developing human’s DNA sequence but may switch a gene or genes on or off in such a way that influences his or her sexual orientation. Also, it’s been shown that a mother’s immune response can influence sexual orientation in some males based on their fraternal birth order. I mean, if animals in the wild engage in same-sex relationships (and they do), why not people? There’s no shame. No blame. It’s all in how a person is wired. Cool? Cool.

And third: To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without people who are L, G, B, T, or Q. My life is richer and more vibrant thanks to my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual friends, family, and associates. I’ll just leave it at that.

Now that you have a better sense of where I’m coming from, let’s dive into some of my evidence and musings regarding Ronald Tammen’s sex life.

The girls Ronald Tammen dated

Ronald Tammen was no player, to be sure, but he was known to date girls on occasion. We’re already acquainted with Grace, the friend he took to the Maple Heights High School prom, when he was a senior and she was a sophomore. Having had the privilege to get to know Grace as I have makes me admire Ron even more than I did at the outset of my research. She’s a warm, kind, beautiful, salt-of-the-earth sort of person, and his association with her gives his character added depth and dimension.

After Ron was in college, there were supposedly two other girls whom he was said to have dated on a relatively regular basis. One girl was named Joan and I learned about her through the Miami University Archives. I heard about the other girl from Frank Smith, Butler County’s former cold case detective. Unfortunately, I can only refer to her as “the girl from Indiana University.”

Let’s start with Joan, who pronounced her name Joanne—spoken like Woodward, spelled like Crawford. I learned this from her brother when I was trying to track her down in 2010 after reviewing the documents in Miami’s archives. A Western Union telegram from Carl Knox to Joan asks if she’s heard from or seen Ron and to let him know if she has. The telegram, dated April 27, 1953, carries this address:

1624 Vine Street

Denver, Colorado

(At Children’s Hospital, Denver).

In his notes, Carl Knox had written this about Joan: “Last year had a girl friend; left school after one semester (maybe).” (That was true. On the same day that I called Joan’s brother, I called Miami’s Registrar’s Office, and they confirmed that she indeed had dropped out after the fall semester of her freshman year.) Knox then wrote her name and where she was from, misspelling the town of Fairborn, Ohio. He added: “Since last fall she has moved out west. She broke off with Him.” Additional background information includes the name of an older sister as well as their father, who was an engineering inspector. In the 1952 Recensio, Joan is listed as being a member of Sigma Kappa, which was a sorority on Miami’s campus at that time, though it isn’t anymore.

In an April 1956 Cleveland Plain Dealer article, Murray Seeger reported that “Tammen had broken off with his girl friend in the fall, and she went to Denver for nurses’ training. He has never contacted her, Dean Knox said.” That’s a little misleading, since it was the fall of 1951-52, not the fall of 1952-53, in which they’d broken up, and, according to Dean Knox, it was she who’d done the breaking. The last sentence leads me to conclude that Joan had followed up with Dean Knox to tell him that she indeed hadn’t heard from Ron after he went missing.

So, to sum up the little we know: Ron dated Joan in the fall of his freshman year. She broke things off with him (I’ll go with Dean Knox’s version over Murray Seeger’s), for whatever reason, and then moved to Denver to start nursing school at the Children’s Hospital. That seems pretty clear cut, but, as with everything else in this case, there are discrepancies. First, the address of 1624 Vine Street isn’t associated with the Children’s Hospital but a home in Denver that, I would later learn, was owned in 1953 by a woman in her 50s named Lillian Dunn. Also, I learned from a representative of Children’s Hospital Colorado that the nursing program had been discontinued in 1953, “but it did offer a place for students from other schools to train either in a diploma program or an associate degree program.” Another Children’s Hospital source said that they have no student records on Joan. When I asked if their records might be incomplete because too much time had passed, the reference librarian responded, “I do think the school of nursing register is reliable.”

I was never able to connect with Joan, who passed away in 2011. Likewise, attempts at contacting other family members have been unsuccessful. I’d love to know what happened in Denver. I’d also be interested in hearing more about her relationship with Ron and why she broke things off with him. If I ever hear anything on that front, I’ll let you know. But I think it bears repeating that the one girl whom Carl Knox identified as a girlfriend had left Miami more than one year before Ron disappeared. That alone tells us how little he dated.

I know even less about the girl from Indiana University. When Frank Smith first told me about her in 2010, he mentioned that she and Ron had dated during the summer of 1952, and that she supposedly ended the relationship with him. He also said this: “She was supposed to be pregnant, and that was the reason for the blood test here. But that didn’t go anywhere either.”

Smith declined to give me her name in 2010. However, after he retired in 2012, I obtained all of his files from the Tammen case (or so I was told by the Butler County Sheriff’s Department) and discovered that there was no mention of a girl from Indiana there. I emailed him and asked him about his records on her and other potentially missing documents—even going so far as to send him a copy of the entire stack of materials to see if he felt there was anything missing. Unfortunately, he responded that it looked as if everything was there. I wondered if she might have been someone from high school whom he dated during the summer, but, so far, I haven’t been able to turn up anyone among his Maple Heights friends who went to IU.

But the question about the blood test and a possible pregnancy is interesting. I’d wondered the same thing about Joan. Back then, if a girl became pregnant—if she were “in trouble,” so to speak—she might relocate somewhere to ride out a pregnancy until the baby was born and then perhaps put the child up for adoption. Could that have been the real reason Joan moved to Denver?

I really don’t think so. As you’ll recall in the post on Ron’s blood type test, a paternity test wouldn’t have been conducted until a child was at least six months of age. If we count backwards, we find that a prospective child would have to have been conceived  immediately after Ron graduated from high school, in the August of 1951, which doesn’t match the timeline for when he was seeing Joan (fall of 1951-52) or the girl from Indiana University (summer of 1952).

The good news is that, if Ronald Tammen did father a child, whether before or after he disappeared, and that person is still walking among us, we may still be able to find him or her if they took one of the DNA tests that are now commercially available. Ron’s sister Marcia has submitted her DNA to the two main commercial entities who conduct genealogical testing, and, although no one has turned up to date, she will be alerted if someone does (if the person agrees to be listed as a match, that is). Also, if the person should wind up in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database because of a crime he or she committed or as an unidentified body, we’ll find him or her that way too, since Marcia’s DNA is on file there as well (after she was tested to see if the dead body in Georgia was Ron). So I think our bases are now covered as much as possible in this department.

There’s one last girl I’m aware of whom Ronald Tammen asked out, though that date never came to be. We’ll discuss her a little later in this post.

Was Ron gay?

Let’s discuss for a moment what it would have been like to be gay in 1953. First, sodomy was illegal in every state, and you risked being imprisoned if you were caught. In addition, these were the days of the Lavender Scare, when the federal government had determined that, for national security purposes, it needed to invade people’s bedrooms and obtain a full accounting of what took place between two consenting adults behind closed doors. In October 1949, the Department of Defense had issued a memorandum stating: “Homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to serve in any branch of the Armed Services in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces be made mandatory.” (See Rand Corporation’s Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy,Chapter 1, page 6.) Consequently, servicemen and women who were identified as being gay or lesbian were commonly issued what was known as a “blue discharge,” a humiliating blotch on a person’s record that left them without veterans’ benefits and usually any hope of finding meaningful employment. To be identified was to be outed and to be outed was to be labeled as such for the rest of their lives—not just in the military but by anyone who requested their records, including prospective employers.

On April 27, 1953, what was being practiced in the military was extended to civilian federal workers when President Eisenhower signed an executive order authorizing the federal government to fire anyone who was gay or lesbian. That’s right—the infamous Executive Order 10450 that stripped an estimated 10,000 American citizens of their government jobs for being gay or lesbian was signed a week after Ron disappeared. The take-home message was clear: to be outed in 1953 would have been cataclysmic. It was the single piece of information that could ruin someone forever.

I can imagine how bad it was in the 1950s because, even in the 1960s and ‘70s, when my brother was coming of age, things were really bad. He couldn’t hide his “differentness” very well—he was much too small and sensitive in comparison to other boys his age, and the pain they inflicted on him, both mentally and physically, for that supposed infraction was indelible. Even some of his teachers were brutal. Thankfully, things are infinitely better now, and he has been living an awesome life in New York City with his partner of 23 years.

There’s no direct evidence that I can point to that proves that Ronald Tammen was gay. No love interest, partner, or one-night hook-up has ever come forward, and the male friends whom I’ve interviewed have said that he never hit on them. (Incidentally, whenever I ask Ron’s former friends—male or female—if they ever had the feeling Ron might have been gay, not one has responded derisively. A typical response is “Well, no, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t. We just didn’t think about it back then.” Is it just me, or have octogenarians gotten way cooler than they used to be?) Likewise, no document has surfaced that alleges any “perverted,” “sexually deviant,” “degenerate,” or “immoral” behavior on Ron’s part, the unbelievably offensive language they used back then when referring to people who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

A gay man in the 1950s did everything in his power not to leave a trail, and for good reason. Yet subtle behaviors—some calculated, others impromptu—could possibly be interpreted as a sign that a person might be gay. Here are several of the possible signs Ron left, beginning with a few you already know:

Ron didn’t date many girls.

As we’ve already discussed, Ron was no ladies’ man in high school or in college, even though he was, by all accounts, a total catch. Younger brother Robert doesn’t remember Ron ever bringing a girl home. In 1954, Mrs. Tammen was quoted as saying that Ron didn’t have a girlfriend but “simply played the field.” Ron’s older brother John also couldn’t name a girlfriend in Ron’s past, though he didn’t think it was at all strange. Ron didn’t date much, he said, since he needed to put himself through college, and he didn’t want to ruin his academic career over a girl. There would be plenty of time for women later. John told me that he—John—was living proof of what not to do, which was to throw away a scholarship to Princeton because he was head over heels in love with a girl named Joyce. This infuriated Ron.

In the Miami University Archives is a letter written to John that basically reads him the riot act over how foolish he was being to give up so much for love. Though the letter indicates on a couple of its pages that it was “Ron Tammen’s last English paper,” a member of the Tammen family feels strongly that the letter was, in fact, written by mother Marjorie. The date at the top of the letter is also confusing, since Ron was still in high school in April 1951. Regardless of the letter’s origin, it’s pretty clear how vexed Ron and the rest of the family felt about John’s choices. Here’s one telling paragraph, with typos and misspellings corrected:

“Whether you realize it or not, John, or will admit it, you are not the first person who has been separated from someone of whom you are fond. Death has severed associations that have survived for years; army inductions separate engaged couples and even disrupt families with children; and then there are those who love and are not loved in return. No matter how deep the sorrow, each person has a task to perform and he does his best to adapt himself to a separation, bereavement, or temporary parting. The world has never been won or lost by love, but by the individual who has been able to make his compromise with life. I have known people close to me who have had disappointments of magnitude [sic] but who have been able to turn them to an advantage. We mourn for a few days, but when we lose one we care for, we go about our days not forgetting but doing what is expected of us. After all, we have to live with ourselves and it is up to us to try to make a decent job of it.” [Read the original letter here.]

When Ron did date, he wasn’t all roving hands and raging hormones, at least from one girl’s perspective. Grace, Ron’s date to the 1951 Maple Heights High School prom, considered Ron to be the ultimate gentleman. Their relationship was vastly more friendly than physical. When I asked her if she and Ron had ever made out in a car, she said they probably had, though it wasn’t memorable. She added:

“In the next couple of years, I came to find out what aggressive was. He was not aggressive. He was nice. He was comfortable. He was my friend. And, you know, there’s not any adjective that I could find to describe him that wasn’t a good thing.”

Ron didn’t sleep in his bed the night before he disappeared.

Thanks to Richard Titus and his dead fish, it appeared that Ron hadn’t slept in his bed on the Saturday night before he disappeared and possibly both Friday and Saturday nights. If he was with another person or persons—a likely prospect—no one had come forward after he’d disappeared. Why not? Wouldn’t he, she, or they have wanted to give the authorities whatever information might help them find Ron? To not do so could mean that whomever Ron was with may have had too much to lose by coming forward, especially if his or her identity would cause an uproar. Whereas a college coed would have raised eyebrows back then, I’m sure the cops would have kept her name out of the papers in return for whatever information she might be able to provide. But if it were a man? That would have been the most scandalous possibility one could imagine.

According to Craig Loftin, an expert on gay culture in the 1950s and ‘60s, and a lecturer on American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, “…Going forward to the police with info would not only likely land you in jail, but it would also likely result in a massive police crackdown against whatever fragile gay social networks existed in that area. For gay people in the 1950s, dealing with the police was a nightmare.”

Ron was seen reading the Bible shortly before he disappeared.

After Ron returned from spring break, shortly before he disappeared, he was spotted reading the Bible five or six times. When I asked Chuck Findlay about that passage in Dean Knox’s notes, he was flummoxed. He’d never seen Ron reading a Bible. Didn’t even recall their ever having one in the room.

Ron was known to attend church, but reading the Bible on one’s own time is different—more personal, more devout than what a typical college guy would likely do. The fact that Bible reading was even mentioned in Dean Knox’s notes seems to indicate that this behavior was considered out of the ordinary for Ron.

“I don’t think he was, quote, any kind of reborn Christian or any of that stuff,” John told me when I asked him if he remembered Ron as being religious. “He just didn’t go in for that at all.”

What personal crisis might have driven a young man who normally didn’t read a Bible to consult one five or six times within a short period? It could simply mean that he was tapping into his spiritual side. But it also reminds me of something I used to do as a kid when I was faced with a life dilemma and I wanted a divine answer pronto. I’d close my eyes, crack open a Bible, and drop my index finger onto a random verse, hoping it would apply. (It didn’t.) It seems to me that Ron was trying to find an answer to a question that could only come from a supreme being—a being who could help him address his own personal dilemma. And from what I’ve read, there was no greater personal dilemma than being gay in 1953 America.

There were rumors.

If Ronald Tammen was gay, he was able to fool nearly everyone around him. However, I know of at least a couple people who heard or sensed something about Ron that led them to wonder if he might be gay. Someone’s 1950s version of gaydar had been tripped.

According to Frank Smith, a woman who’d worked in the laundry in Fisher Hall had caught a certain vibe during her interactions with Ron, which she told Smith about decades later.

“She actually called us and said she was a young woman and she was doing the laundry up there and she remembered Tammen very well,” he told me in 2010.

“She said he was always ‘yes, maam, no maam,’ very polite, very good looking. He had everything. And then she laid something on us that was sort of, she said, ‘but I think that he was bisexual.’ And I said ‘what do you mean by that?’ And she said, ‘well, just the way that he carried himself at times, his demeanor. I really believe that there were some homosexual tendencies there.’”

Unfortunately, Smith wouldn’t provide the woman’s name to me in 2010 when he was still on the case, and, as with the girl from Indiana University, there were no notes about their conversation in the file I obtained after he retired. Now, after his retirement, he isn’t able to recall her name. Trust me, I’ve tried everything to locate her with no success.

One other person with whom I spoke also mentioned to me that there may have been some buzzing about Ron among the residents of Fisher Hall.

This person lived in Ron’s corridor, and was one of the freshman students that Ron counseled. He didn’t know Ron very well—no one really did, he told me. When I told him about the woman who used to work in the laundry, however, it sparked a memory.

“You know that’s an interesting conversation,” he said. “It seems to me that there was some conversation about that in the dormitory.”

“Oh really? After he disappeared?”  I asked.

“No, I think even while he was there.  And, you know, most of us would just put it off and say, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ You know? But now that you mention it, I think there was a little conversation going around the dormitory.”

I’ve followed up with as many former residents of Fisher Hall as I can locate—on all three floors—and haven’t found anyone else to confirm the rumor. However, Craig Loftin had this to say on the matter: “The fact that someone assumed he was gay at the time is significant.”

Ron used to carry cigarettes with him even though he didn’t smoke.

Ronald Tammen had a curious habit. Even though he didn’t smoke, he used to carry cigarettes around with him all the time. Robert had told me about this during our first sit-down in 2012. When I asked Marcia about it later, she said that she remembered it too and thought Ron mainly did it as a way of making friends.

Of course, smoking was viewed differently back then. It was a sign of budding adulthood, an emblem of sophistication and sociability. But it seems strange to me that a cash-conscious young man such as Tammen would throw away his hard-earned money on something like cigarettes, which he didn’t even smoke. Even though they were only 25 cents a pack in 1950, that translates to roughly $2.50 today—nothing to scoff at if he was buying them frequently. Besides, were Tammen’s friends often in the position of needing to bum a cigarette? Why did Ron consider this a necessary expenditure?

It was when I read a passage from Craig Loftin’s book Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America that I thought I’d landed on the answer. In researching his book, Loftin had pored over letters that had been mailed to the editors of ONE Magazinethe first periodical in the United States to provide an authentic perspective of gay culture in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Gay cruising in densely traveled spaces was highly ritualized and generally imperceptible to nonparticipants,” Loftin wrote. “Men used eye contact, body language, or small talk, such as asking for a cigarette or the time, to connect with each other; one person would then follow the other to a more private place.”

It made a lot more sense to me that Ron might have carried a pack of cigarettes as a way to meet other guys. During an email exchange, I raised the question with Loftin, who offered some additional perspective:

“I would say that a gay man in the 1950s would certainly be more likely to carry cigarettes around for ‘making friends,’ but I’ve heard of this in non-gay contexts as well—so many people smoked back then that having a pack to give others wasn’t completely unusual. But for gay men, the exchange of a cigarette provided a very useful opportunity to gauge potential sexual interest from the other person. Gay men cruising for sex partners in the 1950s had to be very careful. You didn’t want to try to pick up the wrong person (especially an undercover vice cop)…During the cigarette exchange and lighting, there is the matter of voice and vocal inflections (which can signify gayness), eye contact (the key to gay cruising—a sustained friendly stare was usually enough to signify interest), and, most compellingly, physical contact during the actual lighting (think old Bette Davis movies here). Within a few seconds, sexual interest (or disinterest) could be made very clear.”

John Tammen provided an alternative explanation for the cigarettes, however. According to John, their father had encouraged his sons to smoke to help them be successful in society. I’m sure Mr. Tammen changed his outlook in the ensuing decades, but during those early years, he viewed smoking as a way for his sons to climb the social ladder. John was repulsed by smoking and his father used to scold him for it. Maybe Ron reasoned that keeping a pack of cigarettes on hand would prove useful as a workaround on a couple issues. First, the cigarettes would help appease his father even though Ron had no intention of smoking them, and second—and, again, I really don’t know—perhaps they provided a way for him to meet guys in the way that Loftin described. As long as he was doing what was expected of him by his father, who’s to say that his motives had to be the same?

Ron asked a girl who was practically a relative to a dance nine months away.

Speaking of John Tammen, we need to come back to Ron’s feelings about John’s relationship with Joyce, and their decision to get married in July 1952. According to John, Ron was so livid with him when he married Joyce that he cut off all ties with him. He’d be John’s best man, Ron told him. But once the wedding was over, so was their relationship.

“He was very disappointed that I had allowed myself to flunk, literally, flunk out of Princeton, and he did promise to go ahead and be my best man at our wedding,” John explained. “He carried through on his promise, but he also said, ‘Hey, that’s it. We’re through. My hands are washed of everything from now on. I don’t want to talk to either one of you,’ and he was a man of his word. We didn’t talk after that at all.”

John and Joyce were divorced in 1974, but Joyce’s story backs up John’s—the couple hadn’t seen Ron since their wedding day on July 29, 1952. However, Joyce had something new to add.

“There was [to be] a big dance down there on the campus, and he asked my sister to go to this dance,” Joyce told me. “But of course she never went because he disappeared.“

That’s right. Ron had cut off his brother and brand new sister-in-law from all communication but saw fit to ask Joyce’s sister to a dance.

In February 2017, I tracked down Joyce’s sister, who, because of a severe hearing loss, agreed to a phone conversation with her daughter serving as go-between. The woman said that she had known Ron, though not very well, and, indeed, he had asked her to a dance that was scheduled for the spring in which he’d disappeared. They never dated, she said, rarely spoke even.

“Does she remember when he asked her to the dance?” I asked her daughter. “How far in advance did he ask her?”

“During the summer,” her daughter reported back. I’d heard her mother say this loud and clear in the background as well. Whereas other details were a little iffy after so many years, on that fine point she was sure. He asked her during the summer of 1952.

Why would Ron ask the younger sister of an extended family member with whom he was supposedly incommunicado? And why so far in advance? Not only were they not dating, they were barely even friends, and he was doing nothing to upgrade their status in the interim. The dance Ron had on his mind for all those months was likely the Interfraternity Ball. Attended by members of all of the fraternities on campus and their guests, the ball was the culmination of Greek Week, and, for the second year in a row, featured Count Basie and his orchestra. As fate would have it, the dance was held the Saturday after Ron disappeared.

Based on his looks alone, Ron probably could have taken anyone he wanted to the dance. In fact, I’ve spoken with several acquaintances who would have gladly accompanied him. In my mind, to go to a dance with his brother’s sister-in-law would likely have seemed safe to Ron—almost like going with a cousin.

 Connecting a few dots

Again, I have no direct proof whether or not Ronald Tammen was gay. However, if he were gay, it would help explain a few details that have been left dangling for a while on this blog site. First, the fact that Ronald Tammen disappeared at all is a clue to the mystery. In an article on the Richard Cox disappearance that appeared in the April 14, 1952, issue of LIFE magazine, authors Herbert Brean and Luther Conant discussed the relatively few reasons that a typical adult might have for running away at that time. Men mainly leave for “business difficulties or domestic problems (money or sex),” they said, while the reason for a woman leaving is “usually an emotional problem involving husband or lover.” (Yeah, we women can do some nutty things on account of our womanly emotions and all.) More significantly, they also wrote that “homosexuality underlies far more vanishments than is suspected by a loving wife or husband.” There are no statistics available regarding how many gay people ran away from their lives back in the 1950s, however, it’s generally presumed that many did, often moving to large, more culturally diverse cities, where they could get lost in the crowd.

If Ron were gay, that also might have been a reason for him to seek help from the hypnosis experts in Miami’s psychology department. In those days, hypnosis was sometimes sought out as a possible treatment for homosexuality, a term that was defined broadly as a mental disorder and, more narrowly, as a sociopathic personality disturbance in the 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-I) of the American Psychiatric Association. Perhaps Ron wanted to “fix” this so-called disorder which he otherwise had no control over.

In addition, although he was carrying a “B” average, Tammen’s transcripts reveal that he had been dropping his required courses to such a degree that he was no longer carrying a full load. This likely put him in jeopardy of losing his deferment from military service. If Ron happened to be gay, being drafted would have created a full-blown crisis for him. As mentioned earlier, the military was weeding out gay men and lesbians at an unparalleled rate, and their methods for identifying individuals whom they suspected were both systematic and sneaky. If Ron were gay and outed by the military, his long-held dream of finding his place in society would have been destroyed. There was no place in American society at that time for someone who was gay.

Finally, the possibility that Ron was gay also helps answer the perplexing question of why he might have voluntarily left his family forever, without ever contacting them. If Ron were gay, he might have thought he was doing the people he loved most a favor. Perhaps he reasoned that they’d be better off thinking him dead than as a gay man in 1950s America.

****************

I realize there’s a lot to ponder here. I also realize that not everyone is going to agree with my point of view, in whole or in part. Due to the sensitivity of this topic, let’s discuss it on another day, after I’ve established a few guidelines for comments. In the meantime, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone! I’m thankful to have you as part of the Good Man community.

If you’d like to read more on the topic of what it was like to be gay during the Cold War years, here are several resources that I highly recommend:

Books:

The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, by David K. Johnson

Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America, by Craig M. Loftin

Letters to One, by Craig M. Loftin

News Articles:

“The Air Force expelled her in 1955 for being a lesbian. Now, at 90, she’s getting an honorable discharge.” (Washington Post, 1/18/2018)

Archival Documents:

“These People Are Frightened to Death”: Congressional Investigations and the Lavender Scare” (National Archives, Summer 2016)

Documentaries:

Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays (Yahoo News, 6/18/2015)

The Lavender Scare (2018; coming to DVD and VOD in Spring 2019)

What would an introvert do?

lilly-rum-303215
Photo credit: Lilly Rum at Unsplash

The better acquainted I become with Ronald Tammen and the person he was, the more inclined I am to doubt that he would have been thrilled about his crammed schedule on the Sunday of his disappearance. Why do I think this? Having spent my entire life as an introvert, I think I’ve become pretty adept at spotting one, and, deep down, I can’t help but believe that Ronald Tammen was an introvert too.

Ronald Tammen seemed to spend a lot of time on his own. The vast majority of people I’ve spoken with couldn’t associate him with a best friend or group of friends, which would make him particularly private. Yes, he was a joiner of organizations. Yes, he was busy. But those activities had an end purpose—to build up his résumé or to bulk up his bank account. Adjectives I’ve heard to describe him include serious, studious, and polite. Does that sound like someone who was the life of every party?

Introverts are listeners. We’re planners. We need time alone to recharge. Days with wide-open blocks of time are what we crave; days packed with people, meetings, and spur-of-the-moment demands drain us to the core. Ronald Tammen and I aren’t identical—he was far more entrepreneurial—but I think it’s a safe bet that when Ronald Tammen woke up that morning, knowing all the obligations that lay before him along with the impromptu interactions that would soon be carving into his Sunday, he would have let out a sigh. But Ronald Tammen was also irrepressibly responsible. He got out of bed and set his momentous day into motion.

Here’s a key takeaway about introverts: we make promises to ourselves all the time. If faced with a morning of meetings, we might treat ourselves to some reading or a walk at lunch. If we spend a day with swarms of people, that evening will be devoted to me time. These are the sorts of compensation techniques that help us succeed in life. If Ron Tammen did all of the things that people are claiming he did that Sunday, when did he finally wind down? Did he decide at the end of a long, hard day that now would be an excellent opportunity to upend his life, leaving his car, string bass, and everyone he knew behind? No reasonable introvert would do that. An introvert would at least wait until the next day, after a night’s rest. I’ll go out on a limb here: I don’t think Ronald Tammen knew when he got out of bed that morning that he would soon be walking away from his life. In one crucial moment, the young man who loved to plan may have left the planning to someone else.

8:30, 10:30…does it really matter?

Carl Knox note--jpg
A page from Dean Carl Knox’s notes describing what Charles Findlay had discovered when he walked into their room (see red arrow): “Sunday 10:30 Light on — Door Open, but [Ron] never returned.”

Does it even matter whether Ronald Tammen disappeared two hours later than what we’d all been led to believe? Who cares if it was 8:30 or 10:30 p.m.? We still don’t know what happened to Tammen.

It matters because of what it might mean regarding how Ron went AWOL. Did he walk out of his room voluntarily or was he ushered out by force? One knock against the “foul play” theory with regards to an 8:30 departure time was that, with Ron sticking so close to his room for most of the evening, there would have been little opportunity for someone to catch him off guard and whisk him away. First he was studying with Dick Titus down the hall, then he was supposedly reading in his room, and next he was walking downstairs to pick up some sheets as well as reportedly talking on the phone with his brother Richard. While it’s possible for someone to nab him under those circumstances, it doesn’t seem ideal. My guess is that if he disappeared at around 8:30 p.m., he likely walked out of his room on his own.

If, however, Ron was at song practice, a planned occurrence that occupied a designated block of time, someone would have had nearly two hours in which to prepare for an encounter of some sort. According to a Fisher Hall resident whose room faced Ron and Chuck’s room, Ron frequently left the door to their room open, even if he left the building.

“The only time he closed the door was when he went to bed,” the person told me. “Otherwise, it was open at all times, even when he was studying or out.”

What’s more, there was a fire escape outside their window. If someone knowledgeable about Ron’s schedule and habits wished to ambush him (for whatever reason), that person could have entered through the door or window, stepped into the closet, pillowcase in hand (remember the pillowcase that never made its way onto the pillow?), and waited until Ron returned to his room.

Of course, 10:30 was also the time at which Findlay returned to the room, according to Dean Knox’s notes (see red arrow in image), which means that, whether it was precision planning, uncanny luck, or both, someone would have pulled off a fantastic feat just in the nick of time. Or perhaps someone was hiding outside in the shadows of Fisher Hall at 10:30 p.m. awaiting Ron’s return and he never made it back inside. The latter scenario makes it more difficult to explain why Ron’s wallet and keys were left in the room, but perhaps he’d emptied his pockets before heading to song practice. Either way, whether it happened indoors or outdoors, if Ron had disappeared after 10:30 p.m., it seems more likely that someone else had been involved.

There’s a third option, one recently suggested to me by a reader, that combines a voluntary exit with a forced departure. Suppose Ron walked outside on his own to meet someone—maybe at 10:30 p.m. after song practice, but it could have happened at 8:30 too. Ron might have been leery of the person, so much so that he decided to leave most of his personal effects behind. He might have even brought along the pillowcase to carry something back from a transaction. At some point, the person (or persons) could have thrown Ron into the back of a car and driven him somewhere, perhaps Seven Mile. This is a possibility too, which (sadly) means that the potential discovery of two additional hours doesn’t rule out very much—not without more information.

Perhaps the true implication of whether Ron left at 8:30 or 10:30 is this: for some odd reason, university and law enforcement officials never told reporters about their discussions with Paul. (It still isn’t clear who, in addition to Carl Knox, had interviewed Paul. Although Paul first described him as a member of the police force in Oxford, he later said that he wasn’t entirely sure what operation he was affiliated with since the man was out of uniform.) Investigators publicly discussed other leads that had gone nowhere—a lady in Cincinnati, for example, who’d thought that she’d rented an apartment to someone who looked like Tammen or motorists who’d reported picking up hitchhikers who resembled him—but they never disclosed Paul’s claim that Ron had been to song practice that night. The case was so lacking in clues that, even if investigators had possessed ironclad evidence that ruled out Paul’s story (which, by the way, I haven’t seen any indication of), you’d think that they would have at least mentioned to reporters that they’d chased down that lead but that it, too, was a bust. So the secrecy—the secrecy about song practice—may be what matters most.

Addendum — What about the fraternity pin?

As an addendum to today’s post, it’s interesting how a new discovery can affect how you look at old clues. Just as I was adding the above image to this page, I reread the words Dean Knox had penciled in at the top: “Car Keys in Desk with Fraternity Pin.” It struck me: were the Delts required to wear their fraternity pins to all functions, including song practice? If so, and if we are to believe Paul’s story, then it would appear that Ron did make it back to his room before he disappeared. I asked Paul if he remembered having to wear his pin to all fraternity functions, to which he said, “The House encouraged guys to wear their pin but I don’t recall a fine for not wearing it.” Looks as though I may need to get my hands on the 1953 Delta Tau Delta bylaws.