Did you know that the same stagecoaches that carried the first congressmen to Washington also brought the first prostitutes?
Answer Man didn’t. But then again, the source for this titillating, if historically questionable, scrap is not exactly trustworthy. It’s a racy book published in 1951 called “Washington Confidential.” Until recently, Answer Man had owned a copy — two, actually: the hardcover and the paperback — without ever actually reading it.
The paperback’s cover is entertaining enough in its own right. It’s a poisonous yellow with pulp artwork depicting scenes of incipient debauchery in sight of the Capitol dome. There’s a fedora-wearing man opening a (hotel room?) door for a blond femme fatale as two men lurk in the shadows, taking notes. Two comely women snuggle with a man in a bow tie as a politician drones on at a lectern. On the back cover, an auburn-haired cutie in a negligee nestles in the lap of a balding old guy while a stickup man points a gun at a victim.
Wow! Is that really what Washington was like in the 1950s, a cesspool of slime, crime and sleazy sex? If so, where’s Answer Man’s time machine?
Alas, according to a review in The Washington Post, no. The book’s authors “are trying to provide some of the year’s most sensational reading. What they wind up with is some of the sloppiest reporting ever put between two covers.”
The author of that review? A 29-year-old Post Metro reporter named Ben Bradlee.
“Washington Confidential” may have been an embarrassment, but it was also the nation’s best-selling nonfiction book the summer it was published, besting “A King’s Story” by the Duke of Windsor and “Kon-Tiki” by Thor Heyerdahl.
Authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer worked together at the New York Daily Mirror, a gossip-filled morning tabloid. After penning “Chicago Confidential” and “New York Confidential,” they claimed to have spent months in Washington, talking to cops and criminals, interviewing embassy cooks and chauffeurs, tromping through drug dens and clip joints.
Their conclusion: “We think we have X-rayed the dizziest — and this will amaze you, as it did us, the dirtiest — community in America.”
How dirty? According to them, some foreign diplomats didn’t think Washington’s loose women were attractive enough. “So the State Department has compiled a list of amiable New York models, willing to come to Washington to spend a night with a foreign dignitary,” they wrote. “They get $200 a night and expenses, from ‘contingent funds’ coming out of the pockets of the American taxpayers.”
The pair really had it in for the State Department. “This will be denied too,” they wrote, “but ranking members of the diplomatic corps who are narcotic addicts and who can’t get the stuff from other sources have it provided for them by the protocol boys at the State Department, who withdraw it from official government sources.”
Of course, those foreign diplomats were probably desperate for chemical stimulation, given how boring Washington’s social scene was. It had been killed, Lait and Mortimer wrote, by Eleanor Roosevelt.
“She choked the last breath out of social tradition with her Negro friends, her boondoggling, sweaty indigents, her professional Socialists, her dedicated slum-house guardians of gutter garbage, and her antics as the militant apostle of democracy and equality,” they wrote.
Yeah, the book’s pretty racist. And sexist. Not all of the 200,000 Government Girls working in D.C. were “physically repellant, nor do they behave generally like spinsters are supposed to. The deadly monotony of their routine tasks and their lonesome lives wears out their charm before it destroys their looks.”
The work of a G-girl, they wrote, “revolves between routine grind and physical frustration. She leaves her job at five. If she goes home, it is to her tiny room or apartment to heat her dinner out of tin cans and ponder whether to wash her panties or write letters home, or get drunk.”
The latter was easy enough. “Washington drinks more than any U.S. city,” they wrote. “Those who can’t get a bun on by closing time have no trouble locating an oasis after the curfew.”
What the book lacks in truth it makes up for with punchy, noirish prose. Gay men were “wandering semi-boys.” Georgetown was full of “Communists, ballet-dancers and economic planners. . . . The women wore flat-heeled shoes and batik blouses, and went in for New Thought.”
The book doesn’t exactly make sense — young Bradlee was on to something — but it sure is entertaining in places. Printed at the back is a guide that includes such useful information as where to hire dancers for a stag party, where to get a pregnancy test and where to board your cat. (It’s possible that last one is a euphemism for something else entirely.)
And there’s the occasional good advice: “Watch out for anyone you meet in a hotel who offers to get you a dame. Odds are you will end up in a barrel, running second in a badger-game.”
Nobody wants that.
Have a question about how Washington used to be? Or is now? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.