Book Review: Ikes’s Mystery Man: The Secret Lives of Robert Cutler by Peter Shinkle, Review by Jenean McBrearty

Ikes’s Mystery Man: The Secret Lives of Robert Cutler, Peter Shinkle, Steerfoth Press, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2018. Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred print and on-line journals. Her how-to book, Writing Beyond the Self; How to Write Creative Non-fiction that Gets Published was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color. She lives in Kentucky and writes full time ⸺when she’s not watching classic movies and eating chocolate .

For a glimpse of what it was like to be gay in a high government position during the post World War II era, Shinkle’s book is top notch. There was a “Red Scare” and there was a good reason for it —America’s atomic bottle Genie had been shared with her clear and present enemy, the Soviet Union. And, although Peter Shinkle laments that his great Uncle “Bobby” Cutler lived in a closet, he acknowledges there was a reason for the “Purple Scare” too. Homosexuality did pose a blackmail risk if discovered, and Bobby Cutler, like his four brothers, hated Communism as did all red-blooded American vets of WWII.

However, from what Shinkle says about Cutler’s various duties as behind-the-scenes advisor to candidate and eventually President Eisenhower, Ike must have known Bobby was gay —he and Mamie were close personal friends with Cutler —and obviously didn’t care. Bobby wasn’t militant, flamboyant or promiscuous. Nor did he appear to be self-hating because he didn’t speak out against the more merciless methods of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and HUAC’s Eugene McCarthy.

Whether red, purple, or just principled, thousands of government employees resigned rather than submit to the government’s elimination processes. Arthur Vandenburg Jr., for example, Ike’s personal secretary during his election campaign, declined an administrative position because a friend of his, George Clayton Irwin, had been arrested in the gay cruising hangout called Lafayette Square and was discharged from the Navy. It was later learned that Irwin was living with Vandenburg.

As for Ike’s personal position on gays, he is quoted as saying: “It is my opinion that broad gauged policy, representative of the Personnel Department of the Army should be governed by the mores of our society regarding the problem. As is true with the Negro problem, we may have to point the way.”

The reference is to Truman’s desegregation of the military when many Americans disapproved of desegregation generally. For Ike, who experienced manpower shortages in both North Africa and the Battle of the Bulge, the acceptance of homosexuality was simply a pragmatic consideration. On the other hand, although Shinkle does not mention it, Ike had seen the pink-star victims of Nazi aggression during the liberation of the camps; there’s nothing like seeing the targets of unnecessary cruelty up close and personal to make people realize just how far power structures will go to root out that which it despises.

If nothing else, Shinkle’s book introduces us to the people, mostly men, and the relationships that defined a post WWII political environment that was forced to confront the new bi-polar power structure wherein atomic bombs gave way to nuclear missiles capable of world destruction. For those interested in how gay issues figured into the political equation, the book is a fascinating preview of the sexual revolution that followed Ike’s presidency. Ike didn’t care about Cutler’s homosexuality, yet, Shinkle lets us know he should have. The irony is that Cutler’s gayness matters more to his great-nephew than it did to Cutler at the time; it’s the focus of Shinkle’s book even if it wasn’t the focus of Cutler’s life. It was another era, and Cutler’s role in reshaping the Cold-war world came first.