Originally published in 1993.
Jeb and Dash offers an unrivaled look at the life and
thoughts of a gay man living in the Washington, D.C., of the 1920s,
putting us much in the debt of the surviving niece who edited his
Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945 (Ina
Russell, ed., 1993) is an important and stunning book. It is fact,
the diary of a gay man in Washington, D.C., two-thirds of it set in
the 1920s. But it often reads like a novel thanks to the skillful
editing of Ina Russell.
The work is enjoyable on two levels. One is simply as a superbly
told story. The other is in capturing our history, a window to our
scantily documented past. The truism that history is written by the
victors explains the rarity of our written record, for gays and
lesbians have seldom been victors in the eyes of society. So then,
Jeb and Dash assumes an importance simply because of its
singularity, its voice amidst an ocean of silence.
One has become so accustomed to the idea that the gay and
lesbian world began with Stonewall that it comes as a shock to read
entries, thoughts and observations written perhaps even before our
parents were born, which sound freshly contemporary.
The fact is that there were gays and lesbians long before
Stonewall. And they had developed patterns of association, a sense
of community, even a common sense of oppression. What they had not
developed was a systemic way of linking those small groups
together, communicating, or creating a historic record of their
existence. And so for us they ceased to exist. But now with this
diary, we can reclaim some sense of the past and recognize the long
traditions upon which our community is based.
It is perhaps one of the great ironies that the catalyst for
reclamation of gay history is a straight woman. Ina Russell
inherited the diaries from her uncle in 1965, all fifty years of
them. They stack taller than her.
She skimmed a few primarily to confirm her belief that he was
gay, and looking for things about the family. Once Jeb moved out on
his own that meant the traditional Sunday journey back for dinner
and the faithful journal entry that night. She says that perhaps
she wasn't ready then, didn't have the "maturity" then to edit the
diaries, and besides, there was no way they would possibly have
"In the late eighties you could tell, I don't know if everybody
could tell but I could tell that gay issues were going to be very
up front, that I really had a good shot at getting them published,"
said Russell. So she began the task.
Fifty years of diaries, with each day devoutly entered save for
when struck by the direst of illness. Each beginning with the
weather, and breakfast, and ... Clearly the raw material needed
"I wanted to do a love story. He was a one man man," said
Russell. "He was a romantic. He slept with a lot of people but that
C.C. Dasham - Dash - was the center of Jeb Alexander's life and
the book. He was an obsession for Jeb from first glance, to their
six month affair a few years later, and for decades more until
Jeb's last breath. Reading the diary I sometimes wanted to reach
into the pages, grab him by the ever present lapels and shake,
bellowing, "get a life, get over him and go on."
"Boy gets boy, boy loses boy, boy sulks forever," is the way
Russell put it. She found it both frustrating and charming. But
that was part of the reason she decided to end the book in 1945;
after all, sulking as a literary device can only go so far.
She changed names to offer some cover for possible survivors and
family, and made minimal use of composite characters to make the
story line easier to follow. But the voice of Jeb Alexander sings
through. Russell says she "surprised, not quite so much surprised
as gratified that they (the diaries) were sometimes wonderfully
lyrical and well written. I was afraid that they might not be."
Jeb and Dash is packed with the names of places which at least
some of the gay set frequented. A little digging turned up
continuities that remind us how small our community is, even across
It is a recognition of continuity: Cruising Lafayette Square
(which faded only long after Stonewall) and Dupont Circle; the
persistence of panhandlers and bums; and watering holes where the
friends of Dorothy gathered.
Hammond's in Georgetown was a regular haunt for Jeb. The owner
retired in the late 1940's and the place became the Georgetown
Grill, a gay bar which survived into the 1980's, until that owner
decided to retire. We had lost sight of the fact that the place had
a gay clientele even before it was known as the Grill.
Krazy Kat in 1920 was a "Bohemian joint in an old stable up near
Thomas Circle ... (where) artists, musicians, atheists, professors"
gathered. Miraculously the structure still stands, five blocks from
the White House, as a gay bar called the Green Lantern.
Jeb was typical of many gay men in first repressing his
sexuality, then embracing it in stages. His pattern seems so
contemporary - discovering a cruising area, his first brief affair
and inevitable broken heart, eventually working into a pattern of
friendships, a sense of community, and greater self-acceptance.
These first excerpts are taken from a few weeks in 1920, the
summer of his twentieth year. They are filled with the melodramatic
hyperbole that only a highly romantic youth could have penned.
Wednesday, 25 August: I have at last found a friend, a lovable,
handsome fellow, a realization of the friend I have dreamed of
during all those lonely nights while I walked alone through the
streets. Above all, our friendship is mutual. It has burst into
full blossom like a glowing, beautiful flower. It happened like
this: I went to Lafayette Square and found a seat in the deep shade
of the big beech. It is the best bench in the park. A youth sat
down beside me, a youth in a green suit with a blue dotted tie. He
has beautiful eyes and sensuous lips. He wants to become a
diplomat, but is devoted to music. Earlier tonight he had been
singing at the Episcopalian Church, and is taking vocal lessons.
His name is Randall Hare.
We strolled down to the Ellipse, where we sat affectionately
together on a dim bench. Later we came to rest in the moon-misted
lawns near the (Washington) Monument. With an excess of nervous
caution I gazed about, watching for some prowling figure. "We are
safe," Randall whispered. And he was right. Nothing disturbed us
and we lay in each other's arms, my love and I, while the moon
beamed from a spacious sky and the cool night breezes rustled our
hair. The black trees stood like sentinels against the silvery
grass. Afterwards we lay close together and gazed at the stars
above, becoming fast friends, exchanging confidences. Ah,
happiness! As [Oscar] Wilde said, Youth! Youth! There is absolutely
nothing in the world but youth!
Sunday, 5 September: During the ride back (on the streetcar)
Randall had his hand lying on mine, and a girl across the aisle
made an audible remark about it to her companions. But Randall in
his melodious voice said, "We should worry," and kept his hand on
mine. He said, "Be glad she noticed, so she won't be shocked the
next time she sees it." He said there was not reason boys should
not be demonstrative toward one another, as girls and Frenchmen
Sunday, 12 September: On this day I realized complete
disillusionment. My "friendship" with Randall Hare was a
fabrication! Friendship indeed! We went to Washington Cathedral. As
we left the beautiful open air service and strolled together across
the lawns, we had an unpleasant exchange with some rudeness on his
part. I became somewhat stammering. Randall said scornfully, "What
have you been believing? Did you think that when I wasn't with you
I was singing!" I replied, "I did think that, and I feel deceived."
He leaned back looking disgusted. "If I wanted a clinging vine I'd
find - a woman." End of my friendship with him! I shall never find
real friendship, never!
Randall Hare is one thread running through the diaries. Jeb is
alternately attracted to and repelled by Randall who always seems
so sure of himself and able to get it. He embodies the compromises
many gay men made until very recently. In his youth he is a
perennial in Jeb's accounts of cruising, then marries a woman for
cover and has children, and continues to indulge in his voracious
appetite for men, including the enduring object of Jeb's desire,
Over the course of years we meet a limited cast of characters.
Isador is the most flamboyant, a proud, true queen who paid the
price, as this entry shows.
Sunday, 7 January 1927: A cloudless day. Patches of snow on the
walks. Isador arrived in a cab to pick up his belongings that had
been packed by those magnificent Christians of the Young Men's
Christian Association. I watched the scene from inside the lobby
door. The packages and bags had been placed outside. Brindle, the
malignant desk clerk, stood on the sidewalk with his arms crossed.
The cab pulled up and Isador emerged, wearing a brown suit with a
tan handkerchief tucked in his pocket, and a tan felt hat. Brindle
pursed his lips as Isador, attempting a futile jocular
conversation, began to load his possessions into the back seat of
the car. He got in front with the driver and as they pulled away,
his eyes met mine through the glass of the door and he waved
vigorously, calling, "Thank you, Jeb dearest." Brindle turned
around. My heart sank when I saw the expression on that reptilian
Brindle wiped his feet on the mat. "I didn't realize that Mr.
Pearson was a friend of yours." I replied, "He is a classmate in my
art history class at George Washington University. We share school
books." "Can't you share with someone less unnatural?" My voice
shook, but I told that reprehensible beast, "I consider it a valid
economy to be sharing books with Mr. Pearson."
Waiting for the elevator took an eternity. I found myself
imagining that I was helping Isador put this packages in the cab,
until the details became so vivid that it almost seemed that in
fact I had helped him. And after all, there is no benefit in having
two of us evicted from the Y. It is bad enough for something so
humiliating to happen to one.
Hans appears to have been briefly a lover of Jeb and later a
friend. He is involved with the theater in Washington. At the
depths of the depression and unable to find work, he returns to his
native Germany to disappear in the Nazi crackdown on
There is Nicky, once the lover of a successful older man, who
attempted suicide when he was named in divorce proceedings by the
man's wife. He is later drafted and lost in action off the coast of
New Guinea in the Second World War.
There are tiny peeks at parties in apartments and private homes
where the most vibrant gay social life flourished. But Jeb was more
a recluse who seldom allowed himself to be dragged onto the faster
"If only Isador had written a diary," laments Russell, "we would
have a much broader picture of gay life in D.C. ... I can tell,
though I don't get to look at it much, that there was a much
rowdier, bawdier subculture, more freewheeling than this particular
little look at it." She says that Isador was much too busy having
fun and so didn't write a diary.
Jeb's story is a quieter one, more of the daily routine of life
than of the weekend flings. And in this day - no, eon - of AIDS,
the closing paragraph of the diary is bittersweet, both sobering
and consoling, a commentary we do well to remember.
It reminds us that neither loneliness nor heartbreak is new, nor
is our persecution, nor our capacity to form communities, and
survive. Above all, it is a testament to our endurance. Memory is
often our only defense, our only celebration of those we have held
dear. So bear witness, treasure your past and speak it, for that is
what keeps it alive.
Monday, 31 December 1945: (I) walked in the rain to Crescent and
got a seat at the bar. Houndstooth blustered in, bundled against
the rain. We talked and had a good time. So many boys in the bar
tonight, back from the war. Without saying anything to Houndstooth,
I drank a silent toast to the memory of dear Hans, who has simply
disappeared, and to sweet Nicky, who will never come back because
he is a skeleton at the bottom of the Pacific. It hurts to think
about them. When the clock behind the bar struck midnight I banged
a salt shaker against my glass to make noise, and together old
Houndstooth and I sang "Auld Lang Syne."
Permission to excerpt was generously granted by the editor