Gay History: The WWII Nazi Spy Gay Sex Scandal That Rocked the Senate

In 1942, the exposure of a Brooklyn townhouse where wealthy men had sex with members of the armed services led to an anti-gay witch-hunt and heated political scandal.

n the early part of the 20th century, brothels were commonplace in many neighborhoods in New York City, but in 1942 an inconspicuous two-story redbrick town house at 329 Pacific Street—a run-down block near the border between Brooklyn Heights and downtown Brooklyn—would become the most famous “house of assignation” in the entire country.

The proprietor, a fifty-five-year-old, “moon-faced” Swedish immigrant, Gustave Beekman, specialized in providing wealthy men with members of the armed services.

He had previously run a similar house a few blocks closer to the water at 235 Warren Street, but had relocated after being busted in a police raid in November 1940. At that time, he was charged with running a disorderly house, fined, and quickly released.

However, when the police raided his establishment on Pacific Street on the evening of March 14, 1942 (accompanied by members of the Office of Naval Intelligence), they would uncover a scandal that would rock the nation, consume newspaper headlines for months, and get hotly debated on the floor of the US Senate.

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they would invent one. It would be Walter Winchell, then the gossip columnist for the New York Daily Mirror, who would give this strange episode in Brooklyn history its enduring name: “The Swastika Swishery.”

This was one of the stories I’d heard about early in my research for my new book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, but I never suspected that I would uncover new information that would answer many of the lingering questions about this so-called scandal.

The initial story, which was primarily reported in the New York Post, went something like this: Beekman ran a “house of degradation” where German spies hired American servicemen to pump them over pillow talk for information about troop movements.

From there, the story quickly spiraled. Not only were there spies at Beekman’s house, a notorious “Senator X,” who was well known as a closeted gay man and opposed America’s entry into World War II, was also a regular habitué of Beekman’s. By early May, Beekman wasn’t just accused of hosting any old spy; rather, he was catering to “one of Hitler’s chief espionage agents in this country.”

For all of April and May, papers kept readers riveted with headlines such as “Service Men Lured to ‘Den’ Called Spy Nest,” “Senator Linked to Spy Nest Which Lured Service Men,” “Den Keeper Withholds Source of Cash,” and “Leibowitz Pushes Spy Ring Probe: Tells Convicted Morals Offender to Talk or Get 20-Year Term.”

News bulletins eagerly broadcast every new tidbit of information in the case, including the four separate (and contradictory) official statements Beekman gave to the police and the FBI.

The senator in question was soon revealed as David Ignatius Walsh, a Catholic “confirmed bachelor” from Boston, who—although liberal on many social issues—was a strong isolationist, believing America had no place in the affairs of Europe.

Time magazine called his connection with the Beekman case “one of the worst scandals that ever affected a member of the Senate.” When the Senate majority leader opened discussion of the issue on the Senate floor, he called the FBI’s report on the case “disgusting and unprintable” and refused to have it entered into the Senate’s official record.

“To this day, numerous authors have speculated about what actually happened at Beekman’s house in the middle of World War II, with most concluding that it was ultimately unknowable

Another isolationist senator from Missouri called Dorothy Schiff, the publisher of the New York Post, an “old hussy” and demanded an investigation on the charge that she was part of a secret cabal that was trying to gin up public sentiment in favor of the war by making antiwar politicians look bad.

To this day, numerous authors have speculated about what actually happened at Beekman’s house in the middle of World War II, with most concluding that it was ultimately unknowable.

However, Dorothy Schiff was so concerned that Senator Walsh might sue the Post over its reporting that she secretly commissioned a team of six private investigators and attorneys, led by Daniel A. Doran, to discover the truth.

Their report, which took five months to prepare, ran over 150 pages and included everything from interviews with the major players in the case (including Beekman and all of his lawyers), to a detailed analysis of Senator Walsh’s travel schedule for the times he was supposedly in Brooklyn.

For years, this report has been publicly available, along with the rest of Dorothy Schiff’s papers, at the New York Public Library, but no historians seem to have referenced it. As far as I know, I am the first to read its findings.

Local police had had Beekman under watch at least as far back as January 1942, having noticed an unusual number of sailors and soldiers coming and going from his building. In the two years since they had last busted Beekman, the war had begun, and no one wanted to arrest a bunch of men who might be needed in Europe or to impugn the morality of the military in general.

The police had no plans to raid his house until they were contacted by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), which had secretly set up a spy post on the fourth floor of a nearby hospital, from which they were recording the license plate numbers of everyone who entered the building.

The ONI wasn’t interested in Beekman; rather, it was trailing William Elberfeld, a German national whom it believed to be a spy for Hitler. Together, the police and the ONI raided the establishment, arresting not just Beekman, but some of his clients (including noted composer Virgil Thomson), and some of the men who worked there.

The prosecution seemed convinced that Beekman couldn’t be making much money from running a house of male prostitution, and so he had to have some other source of income—perhaps from Elberfeld or another spy”

One of the sex workers arrested was a Brooklyn merchant mariner named Charles Zuber, who was also one of Beekman’s lovers.

The assistant district attorney (ADA) on the case, eager, perhaps, to make a name for himself, questioned Zuber at length about any particularly wealthy clients. The prosecution seemed convinced that Beekman couldn’t be making much money from running a house of male prostitution, and so he had to have some other source of income—perhaps from Elberfeld or another spy.

Zuber furnished the ADA with the name “Walsh,” saying he believed the man to be a doctor. The ADA, aware of the long-standing rumors that Senator David Walsh was gay, jumped to the conclusion that these two men were one and the same. He offered Zuber a deal: if he flipped on Beekman and testified against him on sodomy charges, Zuber would get off scot-free.

The ADA then passed the information about Walsh on to the judge in the case. When Beekman was found guilty on charges of sodomy, largely thanks to Zuber’s testimony, the judge told Beekman that if he came clean about the extent of the spy ring, he would be lenient; otherwise, Beekman was facing a twenty-year sentence.

He seemed willing to say whatever was necessary to avoid going to prison, which for a fifty-five-year-old gay man whom the nation now believed to be a Nazi sympathizer might well have been a death sentence”

According to the lead investigator hired by Dorothy Schiff, Beekman was “ingratiating, well-mannered, well spoken and plausible.” He was also terrified and rather loose with the truth. He seemed willing to say whatever was necessary to avoid going to prison, which for a 55-year-old gay man whom the nation now believed to be a Nazi sympathizer might well have been a death sentence.

Elberfeld had been a regular at Beekman’s place, but he also ran a rival brothel in Manhattan and had no need to go to Brooklyn if he wanted to question sailors. Moreover, Beekman had banned him from his house around Thanksgiving of 1941, when Elberfeld told Beekman that Sweden was next on Hitler’s list, and that after it was invaded, Beekman wouldn’t be so “uppity-uppity.”

The police literally tore apart both Beekman’s home and Elberfeld’s apartment and found nothing except a shortwave radio at Elberfeld’s, which was technically contraband when owned by a foreign national.

Elberfeld was placed on indefinite detention on Ellis Island—where he would remain for the rest of the war—but no charges were ever brought against him, and the police and the ONI no longer seemed interested in him at all. Instead, they leaned on Beekman to identify Walsh, once grilling him for over seven hours until he collapsed.

A few of the men arrested in the initial raid were also asked about Walsh, with some saying he was there, others saying he wasn’t, and a few saying they had no idea.

With no evidence other than a series of contradictory statements on whether Walsh had ever been at Beekman’s home, there was no case. Yet the government still believed that Beekman was hiding some source of income, which the judge seemed to believe would have linked Walsh to the story.

When Beekman refused to name his (nonexistent) financial backers, he received a twenty-year sentence to Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison in Ossining, New York.

By making a detailed analysis of Walsh’s travel schedule, investigator Doran conclusively proved that Walsh could not have been at Beekman’s establishment on any of the dates he was supposed to have been present.

“No one seemed interested in using that evidence to exonerate Beekman, who would serve out the entirety of his twenty-year sentence before emerging from prison (where he was called ‘Mother Beekman’) and disappearing from public records entirely

Moreover, Doran tracked down a Connecticut doctor, Harry Stone, a regular at Beekman’s who bore a distinct resemblance to Senator Walsh. By presenting photos of Walsh and Stone to various witnesses (including Beekman), Doran concluded that Stone was almost definitely the man mistaken for Walsh.

Yet no one seemed interested in using that evidence to exonerate Beekman, who would serve out the entirety of his twenty-year sentence before emerging from prison (where he was called “Mother Beekman”) and disappearing from public records entirely.

As for Walsh, although his fellow Senate members congratulated him on his aplomb during the entire affair, the airing of his gay laundry (plus, no doubt, his opposition to the war) seemed to sour voters on him. He was ousted from the Senate in 1946 and died the next year.

After months of wild accusations, sting operations, and endless denunciations to the press, all the government got was the pointless destruction of the lives of two gay men and a witch hunt that sent innumerable others into hiding.

Today, the quiet red-brick building still sits at 329 Pacific Street as a private residence, with no trace of its infamous past showing in its innocuous façade.

This is an edited extract from Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer (St Martin’s Press).


Source: https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-swastika-swishery-the-wwii-nazi-spy-gay-sex-scandal-that-rocked-the-senate

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