AUSTIN, Texas – More than a half-century after his politically tinged arrest and 31 years after his death, Walter Jenkins, a former longtime top aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, is getting two new looks.
A New Jersey historian and a Los Angeles filmmaker are working on separate projects on Jenkins, whose 1964 arrest on “morals charges” in a YMCA bathroom in Washington, D.C., scandalized the political world weeks prior to a presidential election in an era when a gay man’s place was in the closet.
Filmmaker Tim Kirkman says he’s looking for producers for his film project, “Mr. Fix-It.”
”What interested me as a gay man, a gay American, is I have been an activist since my 20s for the last 20 years and I consider as we progress, as LGBT rights move forward, that, as in other minorities’ history, our history gets revisited and rewritten to reflect a more accurate and honest assessment of what actually happened in our past,” Kirkman said. “That we get to write some of our history.”
And he’s interested in Jenkins’ story – told in part in the Broadway play and HBO movie “All The Way” – as it typifies an era in which “the only ways gay men could express themselves sexually were behind closed doors in public meeting spaces.”
”In that way,” Kirkman said, “Walter was a gay Everyman, married with children and had a secret life that at time could have destroyed him and could have ruined his life. And, in fact, it did for a time.”
Jenkins moved back to Austin, eventually separated from his wife, went into business and died in Austin in 1985 at age 67.
Kirkman said the script is about two marriages, the Jenkins and the Johnsons. Both Johnsons supported Jenkins in his time of trouble, but only Lady Bird expressed it publicly. LBJ was boxed in by the political reality of the day.
The recording of an October 1964 phone call between the Johnsons captures their differing views on what to do.
LBJ feared the GOP would try to show that Jenkins was a security risk.
Lady Bird Johnson called her husband and said they should offer Jenkins a job.
“If we don’t express some support to him I think that we will lose the entire love and devotion of all the people who have been with us or so drain them,” Lady Bird told LBJ, who pushed back.
“The average farmer just can’t understand (our) knowing it and approving it or condoning it,” he said, adding that he backed private support for Jenkins by “giving him anything and everything we have.”
But he opposed Lady Bird’s suggestion to give Jenkins a job at the family-owned Austin TV station.
“I don’t think you’d have a (Federal Communications Commission) license five minutes for the station being operated by someone like that,” he said.
Moments later, Lady Bird said “I’d almost rather offer to do it and let the license go down the drain.”
”Well,” LBJ replied, “that doesn’t do anybody any good, does it? Offer him something else, running the ranch.”
Lady Bird summed up her intentions with this: “You’re a brave, good guy and if you read where I’ve said some things in Walter’s support they'll be along the line that I’ve just said to you.”
What she had said was: “I’m going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband. It can only be a small period of nervous breakdown.”
The 10-minute phone call summed up where this nation was back then.
“Society created the crime that Walter was arrested for,” Kirkman said. “Walter absolutely committed the crime, but we created that. Society made it impossible for Walter and thousands and thousands of people before him to be honest with themselves and be true with themselves. Walter became a symbol in many ways for everything that was wrong about how we were thinking about sexuality, about shame, about affection, about loyalty.”
On the East Coast, Timothy Stewart-Winter, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark, says he is researching Jenkins “from a cultural standpoint.” Like Kirkman, Stewart-Winter has worked on gay topics, including his current book “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics.”
”What I’m interested in is what the moment can tell us about American culture, looking forward and backward from it,” Stewart-Winter said.
“I’m not interested in sort of a salacious take or rehashing the kind of gory details. But I’m curious. Did people in Austin talk about this? Were they aware of the scandal?” he said.
Stewart-Winters is working toward a book or a series of articles about Jenkins.
And, like Kirkman, he has talked with Beth Bromberg, the oldest of Jenkins’ six children, including a son named Lyndon. Now 69 and living in Dallas, the former Austin Realtor takes a very frank approach about her late father.
“My dad was a gay man in a Catholic marriage with lots of children,” she said.
Though she hasn’t instigated any of it, she’s pleased there’s research being done about him.
“He sort of disappeared into history,” Bromberg said. “I think largely because of the arrest and the scandal and what it was in 1964.”
At the time, she was a college student. And it wasn’t until about 10 years later she learned Jenkins also had been arrested on a similar charge in 1959.
“One has to assume if he was arrested in ‘59 and in ‘64 he might have gone there every week. He might have gone there every month. I don’t know and I don’t care. One would assume it was his go-to place. I think most gay men had someplace they went,” she said.
Bromberg has a gay stepson and is glad he lives in a world starkly different than 1964.
“I think most kids in their upper teens and 20s are sex-blind today, I guess that is the correct word, almost. I know they’re color blind, thankfully,” she said.
And we all benefit from the fact that presidents – Democrats and Republicans – don’t have to limit themselves to picking staffers only of a certain sexual orientation.
Jenkins’ arrest came five years prior to the Stonewall riots in Manhattan that are a landmark moment in the gay rights movement. Nearly a half-century after Stonewall, an American president recently dedicated the Stonewall National Monument in Manhattan in its honor.
“I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country,” President Barack Obama said June 24, “the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us, that we are stronger together, that out of many, we are one.”
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: kherman(at)statesman.com.