Uniquely Nasty: The blockbuster novel that haunted gay Washington

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
ADVISE AND CONSENT, Burgess Meredith, Paul Stevens, Henry Fonda, 1962

ADVISE AND CONSENT, Burgess Meredith, Paul Stevens, Henry Fonda, 1962

From the moment it first hit bookstores 56 years ago, “Advise and Consent” was hailed as the ultimate Washington novel. Written by a veteran reporter, Allen Drury, it told the gripping story of a bitter Senate confirmation battle that takes a shockingly foul turn: A widely respected young senator is blackmailed over a homosexual affair in his past, prompting him to kill himself in his office.

The book spent 102 weeks on the best-seller list. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was later made into a major Hollywood movie. It also haunted a generation of gays in politics. Former Congressman Barney Frank says the scandalous portrayal of homosexuality in “Advise and Consent” was one of the reasons he stayed in the closet for years.

But for all the literary and cultural impact that “Advise and Consent” had, few knew that Drury drew his narrative on a real life event: the blackmail of Sen. Lester Hunt, a Democrat from Wyoming, who shot himself in his Senate office on June 19, 1954.

[ Watch: Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government's War on Gays ]

Hunt wasn’t gay. But his son, Lester “Buddy” Hunt Jr., had been arrested the year before for soliciting gay sex in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House — the result of a law enforcement “sting” aimed at ensnaring gays in the nation’s capital.

Now, in a new Yahoo News documentary, “Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays,” the younger Hunt, now 87 years old, speaks out on camera for the first time and tells what really happened to his father.

As Hunt Jr. reveals in “Uniquely Nasty,” two U.S. senators, Styles Bridges of New Hampshire and Herman Welker of Idaho, allies of communist hunter Joe McCarthy, blackmailed his father, threatening to flood the state of Wyoming with 25, 000 pamphlets about his son’s arrest for gay sex if the senator didn’t give up his seat before the 1954 elections.

“They were going to canvass every house … in every town that they could and tell them what was going in the Hunt family,” Hunt Jr. says in the documentary. “They were a--holes. Bastards. You just don’t engage in that kind of political activity.”

What happened to Sen. Hunt “just passes all bounds of decency,” says former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, who knew Hunt and also appears in the film. “This is absolutely beyond the pale of politics. It’s a couple of sons of bitches doing evil things like out of ‘Macbeth.’”

At the time, one journalist, Washington columnist Drew Pearson, wrote of Hunt’s blackmail. But his account was adamantly denied at the time, and the events that led to Hunt’s death were covered up for decades.

But now — with new details from Hunt Jr. (a retired community organizer and grandfather living in Chicago) and groundbreaking research by Wyoming historian Rodger McDaniel (author of “Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt”), the truth about one of the Senate’s darkest hours is finally being told.

It is an ugly story that, through the fictional pages of “Advise and Consent,” cast a pall over gays in Washington for years to come.