Oct 25, 2013

Spring 1980: I Meet Ronald Reagan's Boyfriend

Ronald Reagan
During the spring of 1980, my sophomore year at Augustana, my boyfriend Fred the ministerial student took me to Des Moines, Iowa, where he had friends among the closeted gay religious community.  We stayed with a middle-aged Episcopal priest and his 16-year old boyfriend -- that's a tale in itself.

But the highlight of our trip was meeting Oscar (not his real name), who lived in a tiny apartment crammed with books and photos and memorabilia.  He had worked as a set designer on Broadway for 40 years, and he knew everyone and had slept with almost everyone: Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Tennessee Williams, Dom Deluise, James Coco -- and Ronald Reagan!

In the spring of 1980, Reagan was running for President on the "Hate the gays" platform.  He would serve two terms as the most hated president in gay America, a pawn of the Religious Right who refused to meet with gay activists and refused to mention AIDS.

But in 1936, "Dutch" Reagan was a 25-year old sports announcer on WHO Radio in Des Moines, when Oscar, a student at Drake University, got a job there as a production assistant.

"He was my first!" Oscar said, his eyes glazing at the memory.  "Oh, but it wasn't just physical...we were in love -- and we didn't care who knew it! We drove his lemon-yellow convertible through the streets, and sometimes at stop signs we would kiss, just to scare people.

We would drive past the cruising spots, where everybody was skulking around,  and yell 'Yoo, hoo, boys!'

After his shift was over, we went to a little nightclub called Cy's Moonlight Inn.  After midnight it was all gay, mostly college boys, and did it get wild!  Dutch used to 'accidentally' pour beer on a cute guy, just so he would have to take his shirt off!'

Our love affair ended in the spring of 1937, when Dutch got a contract to go to Hollywood, and a year later I took the plunge and moved to New York."

"Do you have any photos of you together?"  I asked.  "Or old letters?"

"No, but you can have a photo of me -- wasn't I a hottie back then?  Nobody would keep inCooperstowninating evidence.   You could get arrested for being gay back then!  You could lose your job, lose your family, lose everything."

"Wait -- what about the story of you kissing openly, in public?"

Oscar ignored me.  "That talk about Dutch hating gays is just talk.  He has to put on a anti-gay facade to get votes, but in private, he knows who his friends are."

Lately there has been some re-evaluation of Reagan's stance on gay people.  He was adamantly opposed to the homophobic Briggs Amendment, he invited a gay couple to spend the night in the White House, and, according to his daughter Patti, he would have supported gay marriage.

Could there be any truth to Oscar's tale of dating the future president?

1931 Yellow Nash Convertible
Oscar is not mentioned in any of the biographies of the President, but then, they are quite skimpy about his four years in Des Moines. He was indeed working at WHO radio in 1936, he had a $600 Nash Convertible -- I don't know the color -- and he was a regular at Cy's Moonlight Inn, a speakeasy at 73rd and University (the records don't say that it was a gay club.)

The story checks out.  Oscar certainly knew Dutch Reagan, and maybe they were friends.  But lovers?

I'm still not convinced.

But why would he lie about a relationship with someone so detested?

Oscar came to visit me in West Hollywood a few years later.