Was Abraham Lincoln gay?
Late in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” when Honest Abe (as played by Daniel Day-Lewis) is wrestling with the decision to press ahead on getting the 13th Amendment passed, he pays a late-night visit to the sleeping quarters of John Hay, a young aide (played by Joseph Cross). There’s much affectionate thigh-patting and hair-tousling, and the scene of Hay asking if Lincoln would like any “company” that night, which got us to wondering: Was that scene meant as a subtle nod the wide-ranging theories about Lincoln’s personal life?
“You mean was he gay?” screenwriter Tony Kushner offers back with a grin. “I think there’s a great deal of reason in the historical record to wonder. There’s absolutely nothing definitive,” he says.
“Given the number of people in Lincoln’s very empyrean realm who were probably or definitely bisexual at least — Michelangelo, Shakespeare, et cetera — I’d say there might be some theory that one could generate that people who really are dealing in that realm aren’t as limited by categories as the rest of us. And I think there is some evidence. I mean, Carl Sandburg said it in 1930. There are spots of lavender in Lincoln’s early life, is the way he put it.”
Sally Field, for her part, is rather particular of Mr. Lincoln, probably because she spent so long playing his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
“I say no he wasn’t.,” she says with a laugh.
On a more serious note, she explains that back then, “men were so much more open with their affection for each other. Their letters to each other were, you know, ‘My darling, I miss you.’ They were extraordinary. ‘I long to be in your presence.’ And in today’s homophobic world, you immediately go to that’s where they are. Whether that’s where they were or whether they dabbled, who knew?”
As far as Kushner — who won a Pulitzer Prize for the AIDS drama “Angels in America” — is concerned, this film isn’t trying to say one way or the other.
“I think that it’s a mistake for historians to err on either side,” Kushner explains. “I don’t think we should jump into certainty where there is no certainty, but I also think historians should not say, as some have, he absolutely wasn’t gay or bisexual. We don’t know, and we will never know unless somebody discovers something lying around. So the question is for me, as Sally just said so eloquently at the Human Rights Campaign dinner, so what? Who cares who he wanted to sleep with? He was Abraham Lincoln, a great president.”
One thing is for sure though, and that’s that during the heated political action of the movie, Lincoln certainly wasn’t getting frisky with anyone, male or female.
“In 1865 I feel comfortable in saying in January he wasn’t getting laid by anybody,” Kushner says. “He was very busy the whole time.”
Sure, but what about the scene in question? Even if the movie doesn’t want to say definitively one way or the other if Lincoln was gay, was that late-night confab meant to be a nod to the theories about the sexuality of the 16th president? Yes, Kushner later confides to Metro.
“You’re exactly right,” he says.