The rise and fall of Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the British Liberal party in one of its more successful periods, is, in retrospect, an excruciating story of what the closet can do. Thorpe died this morning, prompting a flurry of obits and commentary, but also casting a long, dark view back to what life was really like if you were a gay man in public service not so very long ago.
In many ways, Thorpe deserves little sympathy, compared with the plight of other gay men of his era. He was a true aristocrat whose second wife was the Queen’s cousin and whose illustrious ancestry stretched to the rein of Edward II, when Speaker Thorpe of the parliament was eventually beheaded by a mob. He went to Eton, wore dashing Edwardian clothes in the era of swinging London, and had a sharp wit, a big conscience, and debating prowess. He led a double life, and, critically, had the class credentials to keep it double.
But he made one obvious mistake in having an affair with a young male model, Norman Scott, who was not entirely stable. And after Scott went public about the affair, Thorpe decided he had to contain the threat to his public career. He denied everything, but when intimate letters emerged of the affair – Thorpe called Scott “Bunnies” in rather British fashion – Thorpe had to resign as leader of his party.
Then it all got really surreal.
A man who had been in jail for shooting Norman Scott’s dog – yes, his dog – on the moors of Southwestern England confessed upon being released that he had actually been hired by friends of Thorpe to kill Scott, but he had lost his nerve and shot the dog instead. The evidence was tilted overwhelming toward the prosecution, which took twenty days to make the case, while the defense could only muster one day of arguments in response. Nonetheless, the upper-class judge all but instructed the jury to find the old Etonian Thorpe innocent, which they duly did – and which prompted the eternal sketch by Peter Cook about the biased judge, as recounted above.
Thorpe almost certainly conspired to murder someone. His career was over – and never recovered – for that very good reason. But it’s hard not to look back and see this case as part and parcel of the long reign of terror against gay people that lasted until well past the date, 1967, when gay sex was legalized in the UK.
Thorpe was an undeniably gifted man – an early campaigner against apartheid, a champion of human rights, a skilled parliamentarian – but came undone because his country could not accept him as he was. A double-life is, in fact, a life half-lived – especially a double life that requires a human being to repress and deny the love that alone makes human experience bearable. For those with far fewer resources than Thorpe, this meant often criminal arrests, social ostracism, lies, deceit, pain and shame that gutted soul after soul and life after life. Thorpe was the elegant tip of this unforgiving iceberg. And one can only hope that the occasion of his death does not only mean we should feel some retrospective compassion for the tangled, strangulating knot of his existence – but also for the countless human beings, unknown to history, whose personal tragedies were far deeper and less alloyed.
In an interview on the subject, in 2009, Thorpe, then struggling with the Parkinsons that killed him, had said:
If it happened now, I think the public would be kinder.
Wiser, I hope, too.