The Forgotten Confederate Jew
How history lost Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century
Even if they could make peace with his politics, contemporary liberals still couldn’t claim Benjamin as gay ground-breaker with full assurance because the historical record is too sparse. When a biographer approached Benjamin in the final year of his life, hoping to read his papers and interview him, he replied, “I have no materials available for your purpose. … I have never kept a diary or retained a copy of a letter written by me … for I have read so many American biographies which reflected only the passions and prejudices of their writers, that I do not want to leave behind me letters and documents to be used in such a work about myself.” Before his death, Benjamin destroyed even the few papers he had. (Whatever the facts of Benjamin’s personal life, the title of first gay senator would still likely belong to William King of Alabama, who went to Washington decades before Benjamin and served as a kind of First Gentleman to bachelor president James Buchanan.)
Acknowledging the likelihood that Benjamin was gay makes the pathological privacy that puzzled his chroniclers much more understandable. Reading those biographies today, one experiences the strange sensation that historians are presenting him as an almost farcically stereotypical gay man and yet wear such impervious heteronormative blinders that they themselves know not what they write. At the turn of the last century, one biographer, Pierce Butler, painted Benjamin as a fastidious wedding planner, noting that his letter recounting his daughter’s Parisian nuptials is “almost feminine in its attention to detail.” A 1960s biographer reprints “the dapper Jew’s” queeny rant over the powdered-wig getup he was made to don as a London barrister—and yet insistently paints Benjamin as a hen-pecked, jilted spouse, who reluctantly lived with his little sister, Peninah (“Penny”), rather than his beloved wife at his Belle Chasse mansion. Even as late as the 1980s, a biographer’s dish that Benjamin was “a favorite of all government wives in the Richmond capital” seems to assume his popularity was that of a rake not a hag-magnet.
Only in the 2001 reprint of a 1943 biography does historian William C. Davis finally acknowledge in his introduction “cloaked suggestions that he [Benjamin] was a homosexual.” This distinct possibility colors not only Benjamin’s enduring marriage to an unfaithful woman on another continent but also his mystery-shrouded dismissal from Yale for “ungentlemanly conduct.” In a larger sense, it colors Benjamin’s scrupulous privacy and his descent into historical obscurity itself.
Whatever his reasons, by destroying his papers, Benjamin ensured not just his personal privacy but his historical marginalization. For all his prominence, he is largely absent from Civil War history books because he left nothing for historians to work from. By contrast, such books are dominated by minor personages like Mary Chestnut, the wife of a military aide to Jefferson Davis, and George Templeton Strong, a New York lawyer, not because they enjoyed anything rivaling Benjamin’s importance but solely because they were such committed and eloquent diarists.
During the 2010 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in New Orleans, four men, a rabbi among them, dropped by Temptations one afternoon and requested a tour.
“The Jewish aspect, that was their interest,” Denise Chatellier, the blonde, middle-aged manager told me, in her office marked “Satan Place.” As word spread through the convention, dozens of attendees slipped out of dull conference sessions to take in the Benjamin residence. “All of a sudden, I was giving all these tours,” Chatellier said. “They were the ones who opened my eyes up to appreciate the whole history of the place.” At the convention, meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used Benjamin’s signature rhetorical tactic to tar his young Jewish hecklers as anti-Semitic dupes for suggesting that a unique history of suffering should make Jews particularly sensitive to human rights.
On the floor of Temptations, such heady concerns felt remote. As Lockhart’s successor on the pole spun around in a pink teddy, patrons downed enough liquor to blot out whatever would happen in this house a few hours from now, let alone a few centuries ago. Lockhart had told me that the upper floors of the home are inhabited by a ghostly woman in a white dress, whose presence can be felt moving through the darkened hallways and empty lap-dance rooms. She agreed it would have to be Ninette, Benjamin’s Parisian-raised daughter, still searching for her absentee father, a man lost to history not least because he doesn’t want to be found.
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