Bob Gray (1923-2014): “You Cannot Conceive”


I interviewed Washington “Power House” lobbyist Robert Keith Gray almost two years ago (when he was approaching 90) on-the-record for the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.  More than fifty years prior to the interview,  Bob Gray had served as Appointments Secretary and Secretary of the Cabinet for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  He very kindly fielded my questions as I took notes with his assent, over coffee in Washington.  I worked for Gray & Company at “The Power House” in the 1980s and respected him greatly then, and now in remembrance. (photo by George De Vincent,  from “Eighteen Acres Under Glass”, 1962) 



CF: Bob, I have been researching and writing about Arthur Vandenberg, Jr., son of  Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Michigan). Vandenberg, Jr. was gay. He was named Appointments Secretary by President Eisenhower in 1952 and fired in 1953—just before the inaugural.  (FBI Director) Hoover outed him to the President.

(CF shares with Bob Gray the letter from President Eisenhower terminating Vandenberg: “Dear Arthur, When Mamie and I go off to Washington this weekend, one of our great regrets will be that you are unable to be with us. I am very distressed about your health…I feel in some respects guilty. …Meanwhile, as I know you understand, we have to go ahead with our setup.” (Correspondence, President Dwight Eisenhower to Arthur Vandenberg, Jr., January 17, 1953.)

CF: Did you know Vandenberg Jr. ?

RKG: No, I did not. I did know his father.

CF: What do you think of Eisenhower’s letter firing him?

RKG: This letter make me nervous, itch and sweat on his behalf. When I read that, the awful pain to hide something like this! The sweeping totality (of the ban, Executive Order 10450) to not hire a single homosexual…it was a witch-hunt invitation to the entire country.

CF: You were appointed to the exact same job as Arthur Vandenberg, Jr. three years after his firing at the hands of Hoover. How did you miss his fate, fired for “health reasons”?

RKG: It took six weeks to get a clearance. I remember how relieved I was when the Naval Department said, “you got your security clearance. I tried to act as nonchalant as I could, even though my heart was pounding. I was still trying to make myself straight, dating women. If I had been in any way sexually active, I would have been outed. I was an open book, working twenty -hour days. That was fulfilling enough for me.

CF: What was it like to be gay in 1956 at the White House?

RKG: You cannot conceive what it was like. Eisenhower was a fair guy, but the law was the law.

CF: But what about J. Edgar Hoover?

RKG: There would be no reason anyone would know my story. I knew I was different, and I knew what I’d do if I were going to be accused. I told myself, “I’ll march right over to J. Edgar Hoover and tell him all about it. Of course, I didn’t know he was a homosexual then.”

CF: Help me understand Nebraska back in the day.

RKG: It is so very hard to appreciate how far we have come. The younger generation doesn’t realize this at all. In my hometown (Hastings, Nebraska, an old railroad town, population around 10,000 in the 1920s), there were two known queers. The two “town queers” is what people said.

RKG: When I was a kid, I knew all about the “Golden Spike”, the last spike driven into the rails of the transcontinental railroad. At my grandmother’s house there was a picture on the wall of the final spike ceremony, and I remember thinking in later years there were two thousand workmen who built that railroad, so one hundred of them were gay. Men who spent their whole lives thinking they were the only ones, thinking that they were one of nature’s mistakes, misfits.”

CF: Your memory combines one of the mythic American moments with imagined outcast men. So how do you feel now about President Eisenhower firing his family friend and political counsel Vandenberg?

RKG: Those letters show how kind and understanding a man Eisenhower was. He treated it (homosexuality) as a sickness which is what intelligent people did in his time. The letter to Vandenberg is very impressive and a nice thing he did –for his age, at that time—providing a cover– ‘health’. Most people would have said ‘these queers’. (Studying the letter): It is a very warm letter. He underscored the cover. Ike was a very decent guy. Obviously, he felt for him.

CF: At age ninety, what do you say to young people about the distance gays and lesbians have traveled?

RKG: It is so tough to take yourself as far back as that, to the “Golden Spike” days. Back then there were no outlets at all. There was no way to know if there was anyone else in the world.

CF: So, how did you find your way into the highest levels of Washington, working for President Eisenhower?

RKG: I should write a book, “how to look for a job”! That first month, I walked the pavement. I had been a poli-sci major, and had enough money to last thirty days. I was up all night writing letters! When I would talk to two people, those two would recommend me to four. Eventually, I got to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Navy for Manpower and got my first job. I also wrote a letter to Fred Seaton, publisher of my hometown newspaper, “The Hastings Tribune”. Seaton owned several Midwest newspapers, had been a Senator. (note: Seaton had been appointed to the seat vacated by the death of Nebraska’s notoriously anti-gay Senator Kenneth Wherry, a leader of anti-homosexual witch-hunts along with Senator Joseph McCarthy). “Seaton called me one morning. He had become Sherman Adam’s Deputy Chief of Staff. He asked, would I come for breakfast.

“Seaton told me that they were looking for someone to head-up “the patronage jobs”, at the White House. They were looking for a thirty-day part-time replacement. Three months later, I had become chief of staff to Sherman Adams. Adams was a tyrant. The rumor was “Sherman Adams eats babies for breakfast”. I was scared to death of him, and loved him.

CF: Looking back, do you think it is ironic that you, a gay man, had been chosen by Sherman Adams to essentially replace a gay man who had been fired for being homosexual, Arthur Vandenberg, Jr.? (Note: Vandenberg was fired in 1953 and replaced by Tom Stephens. Gray took over from Stephens.)

CF: Here is Adams again choosing someone with no family, able to put in twenty-hour days?

RKG: I don’t want to be known as the gay guy who worked at the White House! Being gay is a miniscule part of who I am, not my whole being; nor am I a standard-bearer. I was not hired because of it, nor was I hired because I was heterosexual.”

CF: So how did the gay issue play-out in later years, after you had left Eisenhower?

RKG: I remember the Campaign of 1964 when I was working for Barry Goldwater. LBJ’s closest staff aid Walter Jenkins was arrested at the YMCA and was hospitalized as having had a breakdown. They beat the story to death. The media couldn’t leave it alone; it was incessant. Finally, Johnson had enough, saying “we Democrats are too decent for this….we knew it was a sickness.”

CF: And by the Kennedy administration, you never heard from J. Edgar Hoover?

RKG: My first secretary at Hill & Knowlton was Marie Tolson, Clyde Tolson’s niece! (Note: Hoover’s companion, Clyde Tolson was Associate Director of the FBI from 1930-1972). Some years later, I remember getting a call from President Nixon’s personal assistant Rosemary Woods. She said that her brother Joe—worked for the FBI, had ten kids—“if you ever run across anything good for Joe….”. I didn’t do anything, but Hoover must have found out—you did not leave Hoover. There must have been a buzz about Joe looking for a new opportunity. Hoover called Rosemary’s brother, Joe Woods, and fired him. “You’re out of here”, Hoover said, according to Bob Gray.

© Charles Francis