Farewell to Midge Decter, the Bigot on the Beach

It was Midge Decter’s misfortune to, like Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley before her, become a target of the Olympian ire of Gore Vidal. Decter, who died at age 94 earlier this week, is rarely regarded as in the same league as these three men, although she was, at different points in her life, a close friend of both Mailer and Buckley. Indeed, as an editor at Harper’s Magazineshe helped midwife one of Mailer’s best books, The Armies of the Night (1967). And Vidal himself was a kind of friendly enemy to Decter in the 1960s, before becoming an outright enemy when they quarreled about gay rights.

Like many women, Decter often found herself overshadowed by the men in her life, particularly her notorious fame-seeking husband, Norman Podhoretz. The two shared a long marriage and a similar political journey from Cold War liberalism to neoconservatism (which in their old age they simply called conservatism). But Podhoretz always claimed the lion’s share of attention. The bibliography tells the tale: Podhoretz has written, to date, four volumes of autobiography, the first of which he wrote when he was 37 years old and titled Making It (1967). Decter has only one modest memoir, with the self-deprecating title An Old Wife’s Tale (2001). As an ardent anti-feminist, Decter fully approved the division of gender labor whereby the men are the arrogant bucks who fight to make it while the women are content to become doting old wives.

The most infamous example of Decter’s reactionary sexual politics was her homophobic essay “The Boys on the Beach,” published in Commentary (edited by Podhoretz) in September 1980. In that essay, Decter unfavorably contrasts the militant “homosexual rights movement” with what she portrays as the more genial (albeit, from her point of view, easily mockable) gay and lesbian community she knew at Fire Island Pines in Long Island.

“In the years that we all summered there, Fire Island Pines was, at rough count, sixty percent homosexual,” Decter recalls. Using her remarkable ability to conjure up statistical and sociological facts out of thin air, Decter proceeds, in Vidal’s words, to “not only come up with every known prejudice and superstition about same-sexers but also to make up some brand new ones.”

In her essay, Decter asks, “What indeed has happened to the homosexual community that I used to know—they who only a few short years ago were characterized by nothing so much as a sweet, vain, pouting, girlish attention to the youth and beauty of their bodies?” In a footnote, Decter notes, “There were also homosexual women in the Pines, but they were, or seemed to be, far fewer in number. Nor, except for a marked tendency to hang out in the company of large and ferocious dogs, they were instantly recognizable as the men were.”

This was too much for Vidal, not a man with a great deal of patience for obtuseness. He evoked a fantasy, saying that if he were a lesbian “and a pair of Podhoretzes came waddling toward me on the beach, copies of Leviticus and Freud in hand, I’d get in touch with the nearest Alsatian dealer pronto.” Vidal’s classic put-down appeared in The Nation on November 14, 1981. Alas, as he was wont to do, Vidal spoiled his victory by penning a sequel, also in The Nationthat gave a vent to all his Aristocratic prejudices, including a nasty dollop of anti-Semitism.

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