Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Walt Whitman & Peter Doyle

A Long-Term Romance
Irish-born Peter Doyle was a streetcar conductor when he met the great  poet-journalist-essayist Walt Whitman (see engraving at left) in an encounter that developed into a 27-year-long relationship. Whitman, who is considered the father of American free verse, was more than twice Doyle’s age when they met in 1865: Doyle was 21, Whitman 45. Whitman was the lone passenger on Doyle’s horse-drawn streetcar on a wintry day in Washington, DC, and Doyle later commented that the bearded Whitman, with a blanket about his shoulders, looked like “an old sea captain.”

“I thought I would go over and talk to him,” Doyle revealed in an interview after Whitman’s death. “Something in me made me do it. He used to say there was something in me that had the same effect on him. We were familiar at once. I put my hand on his knee, and from that time on we were the biggest sort of friends.”

Friends indeed. Whitman did not get off at his stop, but rode all the way back to the station of origin, where the couple celebrated their first meeting by spending the night together in a nearby Georgetown hotel. Doyle went on to inspire some of Whitman’s greatest works of verse. What made their relationship remarkable was its openness. Both their families and all of Whitman’s friends knew them as a couple, and they often engaged in public displays of affection. They were regularly seen together on the streets, in the bars and on streetcars in the nation’s capital and frequently hiked together along the tow paths of the Potomac River. During these drawn-out walks of five to ten miles, Whitman would express his elevated mood by whistling and singing, interspersed with recitations of poetry. Although he had moved from New York to Washington when he first heard his brother had been injured in the Civil War (he walked the entire distance), Whitman considered the ten years he spent in Washington, DC, the most important ones of his life. Doyle played a large part in that assessment.

Whitman wanted to create a home together with Doyle, but Doyle had to uphold his duties to live with and support his widowed mother and siblings. Nevertheless, they spent most nights together, either at a hotel or in Whitman’s rooming house. After his shift as a clerk in a government office, Whitman would board Doyle’s streetcar and ride out the rest of Peter’s route. Whitman often had clothes made for Peter, who needed every cent of his earnings to support his family. Charmingly, Whitman would often surprise Doyle with bouquets of flowers, much as a man would do when wooing a woman. Totally smitten, Whitman took to calling Doyle “Peter the Great.”

They were a study in contrasts. Doyle (at right in photo) was short and slim, Whitman tall and burly. Doyle had been a Rebel artilleryman during the Civil War, later working in Washington, DC, to support his mother and brothers. Whitman was a great Union patriot, with a brother who had been a Union soldier;  Whitman had frequently volunteered to tend to wounded soldiers in Washington’s army hospitals, and his written descriptions of many of the young wounded soldiers crossed the line to eroticism. All his life Whitman surrounded himself with handsome, strapping young men of the working class.

Whitman delighted in Doyle’s recitation of limericks. Although his family had left Ireland for the U.S. when Peter was just eight years old, Doyle continued to spout off limericks old and new in his charming Irish accent. Whitman’s most popular Abraham Lincoln poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”, was influenced by Doyle, who had been an eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. Doyle had come to America with his mother and brothers on a ship that nearly wrecked in a storm on Good Friday in 1852. Good Friday was coincidentally the day of Lincoln’s assassination, so in a nod to Doyle, Whitman memorialized Lincoln as a ship’s captain who died piloting his vessel through a storm to the safety of port. This poem is metered and rhymed, unlike most of Whitman’s output of free verse. In fact, the poem’s first draft was in free verse, so it’s probable that Whitman revised it to honor Doyle’s rhyming ditties.

Between 1879 and 1890, Whitman delivered an annual lecture called "The Death Of President Lincoln," heard by many people who didn't know his poetry. The lecture described the murder as vividly as if Whitman had witnessed the shooting. Of course Whitman based the details of his lecture, which greatly increased his celebrity, on Doyle’s eyewitness account.

Before Walt met Peter he published a series of homoerotic poems known as “Calamus” (named for a  phallic-shaped plant known as an aphrodisiac), which resulted in Whitman’s being fired from his job at the Department of the Interior. Three of these poems lamented Walt’s earlier failed relationship with Fred Vaughan, who had gone on to marry after his break with Whitman. Peter successfully petitioned Walt to delete these three poems from the 1867 edition of “Leaves Of Grass”.

Although Whitman was open in his affection with Doyle, he nevertheless used code to refer to Doyle in his private journals. “16.4" stood for Peter Doyle, since “P” is the sixteenth and “D” the fourth letter of the alphabet. As well, he later erased the last two letters if “him” and replaced them with “er”.

After Whitman’s first stroke in 1873, Peter nursed Whitman for months. Whitman repaid Doyle’s kindness by recommending Peter’s brother for a Treasury Department job. After a second stroke Whitman went to live with his brother in Camden, NJ. Doyle visited frequently, but as years passed their relationship was reduced to an impassioned exchange of letters. Walt hid a new relationship with Harry Stafford from Doyle until Stafford finally broke with Whitman and married a woman. Whitman gave 18-year-old Stafford a ring, which was returned and given back several times over the course of their stormy relationship. Stafford once wrote to Whitman about the ring, "You know when you put it on there was but one thing to part it from me, and that was death."

Peter moved to Philadelphia after his mother died in 1885, so they were able to see each other frequently by living in such close proximity. Whitman suffered a third stroke in 1889, and Doyle suddenly became absent from his life, leading Walt to think that Peter must have died. Doyle explained later that it was too difficult to navigate the scrutiny of Walt’s housekeeper and care givers to be able to be at Walt’s side, although Doyle was able to make a personal visit shortly before Whitman’s death from tuberculosis in 1892. Peter attended the wake and subsequent funeral, remaining a part of Whitman’s surviving circle of friends until his own death in 1907.Peter Doyle was buried in the Congressional Cemetery* at 1801 E St. SE on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

In 1897, decades worth of letters between Doyle and Whitman were published under the title Calamus, A Series Of Letters Written During The Years 1868-1880 by Walt Whitman To A Young Friend (Peter Doyle) by Boston publisher Laurens Maynard. From one of the reviews (1898) of this volume:

The publishing of the letters addressed by Whitman to Peter Doyle is justified by the fact that they throw all the light that is needed upon the poet's friendships with younger men, and upon that section of "Leaves of Grass" called "Calamus" in which he celebrates "the manly love of comrades." The sentiment in question, depending on a semi-physical attraction, is common among boys, young men of the working class, who can be considered as grown-up boys, and, as we are told by travelers, among savages. These letters show Whitman to have been one of the few in whom this feeling lives on into mature years; he seems to have been always attracted by, and attractive to, young men. The recipient of these letters was a young Confederate soldier, who, being paroled in Washington, became a car-conductor, and in that capacity first encountered Whitman, whose habit of conversing at every opportunity with men of that class is well known.

Subsequently, the reading of this book of letters between the two men was forbidden in the household of Peter’s sister, and Peter became a black sheep of the family after the volume’s publication. Doyle had indeed been brave in permitting their publication, given the public mores of the day.

Doyle spoke in an interview after Whitman’s death: “I have Walt's raglan here (goes to the closet and puts it on). I now and then put it on, lie down, think I am back in the old times. Then he is with me again. It's the only thing I kept amongst many old things. When I get it on and stretch out on the old sofa I am very well contented. It is like Aladdin's lamp. I do not ever for a minute lose the old man. He is always near by. When I am in trouble – in a crisis – I ask myself, ‘What would Walt have done under these circumstances?’, and whatever I decide Walt would have done, that I do.”

Well, there you have it.

In 1994 Martin Murray, founder of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman,  published Pete the Great: A Biography of Peter Doyle in 1994. Murray and his friend Morgan McDonald have led walking tours of the places in DC where Whitman lived and worked. The text of the Doyle biography can be found at:

*Congressional Cemetery is also the final resting place of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, whose headstone reads “They gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.” Nearby are the graves of J. Edgar Hoover and his ‘special friend’ Clyde Tolson – details of their relationship will go down in the annals of infamy.


  1. Whitman's relationship with Bill Duckett is also a fascinating story.

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