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 Magazine, she 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 at 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, were they 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 Nation, that gave vent to all his aristocratic prejudices, including a nasty dollop of anti-Semitism.
As unpleasant as it was, the Vidal-Decter feud gets to the heart of Decter’s own importance as a historical figure, something that has been obscured by the mealymouthed obituaries she’s received in the establishment press. The New York Times obituary didn’t even bother to mention “Boys on the Beach.” The Washington Post obituary devoted a paragraph to the essay but didn’t quote from it, withholding from readers any sense of how vile her opinions on LGBTQ people were.
Decter was a crucial figure in the history of the American right because she married a secular social conservatism (rooted in the revisionist Freudianism of the mid-20th century) with support for militarism and big business capitalism. This synthesis allowed people from her background—Cold War liberals—to ally themselves with the other factions on the right.
To date, Decter’s massive contributions to neoconservatism have not been acknowledged by most histories of the right—and not just because of the enormous shadow of her husband. The one historian who has done justice to Decter is Ronnie Grinberg, of the University of Oklahoma. In this piece, I rely heavily on Grinberg’s excellent forthcoming book Write Like a Man: The New York Intellectuals and Jewish Masculinity, 1930-1980.
The role social conservatism played in the formation of neoconservatism has been neglected because historians have preferred a story of Cold War liberals shifting to the right in reaction to the Black Power movement, resurgent post-1967 Zionism, and American military defeats in Vietnam. All of those were factors, but the core cohort of neoconservatives (Podhoretz, Decter, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Hilton Kramer) were also social reactionaries who were antipathetic to gay rights and feminism. And Decter, more than any of these, forged the neoconservative consensus on social issues.
Grinberg quotes a 1993 speech at the Heritage Foundation where Decter called for “family values” as meaning “among other things no condoms and no introduction to homosexuality and no teaching about anal sex.”
The narrative that’s told of neoconservatism is of a shift from the left to the right or from liberalism to the right. But on social issues, Decter never shifted. She was committed to social conservatism all her life, at least on an ideological level. That suggests that social conservatism was the real bedrock value for the neoconservatives, the one thing they remained true to. In an era when Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood are about to be extinguished and the GOP has embraced culture war politics, it’s hard to overstate Decter’s legacy. (She was personally ambivalent about abortion but certainly willing to ally with anti-choice political forces.)
Decter was an odd person to be a voice of right-wing traditional family values, since she was a very successful career woman, and easy-going about sexual morality in her private life. (Memoirs and histories of the period make clear that Podhoretz engaged in his share of extramarital tomcatting in the 1960s, including hitting on presidential widow Jackie Kennedy.) As Decter notes in her memoir, “I was not only divorced when I had two young children, I happen also to be the approving mother of the divorces of each of my children, and thus can hardly constitute a model for what they call the ‘traditional’ family.”
All in all, it was a remarkable life. She was born as Midge Rosenthal in 1927 in St. Paul, Minn., and was treated as, in her words, “a kind of honorary son” by her family because she was always ambitious and not willing to conform to the expectations of being an obedient daughter and wife.
After dropping out of college, she married Moshe Decter in 1948. They had two daughters before divorcing in 1954. To support her husband, she started working in 1948 as a secretary for Commentary, where she made a name for herself not just on the staff but also as a writer. In 1956 she married another Commentary writer, Podhoretz. With him, she had two more children, a son and a daughter.
Although she took time off when her children were young, she never stopped writing and became a much-loved editor at Harper’s and Basic Books. She got the Harper’s job because Podhoretz recommended her to his friend Willie Morris, the editor. In her 1972 book, The New Chastity, Decter reflects that marriage benefits women because it “automatically confers upon her membership in [her husband’s] social class or—what may be more precisely to the point—his social milieu.”
A success in New York literary society, she never felt the need for feminism. Indeed, feminism became the main target of her major books The Liberated Woman and Other Americans (1970), The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation (1972), and Liberal Parents, Radical Children (1975). In these books, she deployed the standard popularized Freudianism to dismiss the claims of feminists (and, later, gay rights). People who wanted liberation were immature, she insisted; they couldn’t accept the compromises that are a part of adulthood. They were stuck in a perpetual boyhood or girlhood.
This militant gender-norming went hand in hand with militarism. If America were going to be strong and stand up against communists and Islamic terrorists, it needed men who were real men and women who were real women.
These themes came together in her ridiculous book Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait (2003). In that book, she celebrates the “manliness” of Donald Rumsfeld, at one point swooning, “He works standing up at a tall writing table, as if energy, or perhaps determination, might begin to leak away from too much sitting down.”
But if Rumsfeld represents what it means to be a man, perhaps the gay “boys on the beach” that Decter dismissed for being “girlish” had the right idea after all.