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    John Maynard Keynes: ‘Dismal Science’ and ‘Gay Romance’

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    When the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle described economics as “the dismal science,” he never meant an economist could not be a bit of a Jack the Lad. Case in point: John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the last hundred years. Not content with simply sitting in his room, developing economic policies that would change the world, he had loving relationships with some of the most respected men of his time, as well as anonymous encounters with many others.

    Keynes was not regarded as a handsome man, but only his friend Virginia Woolf could describe someone she considered physically unattractive with such poetic grace. He looked, she wrote, like “a gorged seal,” with a “double chin, ledge of red lip, little eyes, sensual, brutal, unimaginative.” Keynes actually agreed with her. “I have always suffered and I suppose always will from a most unalterable obsession that I am so physically repulsive that I’ve no business to hurl my body on anyone else’s.”

    John Maynard Keynes

    Not everyone agreed, of course, or cared. Until he married in 1925, Keynes enjoyed numerous ongoing relationships and scores of anonymous sexual partners, almost all of them men, which he dutifully catalogued for posterity. Among them are the sons of the socially and politically prominent as well as individuals from more mundane walks of life and occupations. As Shakespeare wrote in 1588, “Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye.”

    He met his first boyfriend, Alfred Dillwyn “Dilly” Knox (1884–1943), in 1901 at Eton, where both were students. “He is charming and he is affectionate,” he later wrote. Knox became a noted classics scholar and cryptologist. During World War II he worked at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking center, where he helped to crack the ciphers used by the Italian Navy and the German military intelligence service while Alan Turing was unscrambling the German naval enigma.

    Keynes became intimate with Daniel Macmillan (1886–1965) the next year. Their affair ended when Keynes left for Cambridge and Macmillan went off to Oxford, but they remained friends. Macmillan went on to be managing director of the publishing house co-founded by his father and named for his family, which published Keynes’ first influential monograph, Consequences of the Peace, in 1919. Macmillan’s brother Harold served as British Prime Minister from 1957 until 1963.

    At King’s College, Cambridge, Keynes joined the Apostles, a “secret” society founded in 1820, and shared intimacies with several of the members. He had affairs with Lytton Strachey (1880–1932), author of Eminent Victorians, published in 1918; James Strachey (1887–1967), future psychoanalyst, translator of Sigmund Freud, and brother of Lytton; and Arthur Hobhouse (1886–1965), who created the national parks system of England and Wales. The philosopher Bertrand Russell complained that Keynes and Strachey especially were making “homosexual infatuation” fashionable among the members, to no avail.

    After graduating from Cambridge, Keynes added to his list of eminent Edwardians whose intimacy he enjoyed. Among others there was Francis Burrell, whose father was Chief Secretary for Ireland when they met in 1910, and who became an antiquarian bookseller. Sidney Russell-Cooke (1892–1930) became a stockbroker; in 1922 he married the daughter of the captain of the Titanic. John Tresidder Sheppard (1881–1968) was later Provost of King’s College, Keynes’ alma mater. None of their romances was exclusive.

    Perhaps the great male love of Keynes’ life was the painter Duncan Grant (1885–1978). A cousin of the Stracheys, his affair with Lytton ended when he introduced him to Keynes around 1908. “Dear, dear Duncan I love your very much,” Keynes wrote him soon after they met. “If I could kiss you and hold your hand I should be perfectly happy.” Strachey was left perfectly unhappy.

    Keynes and Grant saw each other romantically off and on for many years, but they never had an exclusive relationship. Besides Strachey, both were intimate—at different times—with David (Bunny) Garnett (1892–1981), the son of Constance Garnett, a pioneering translator of Russian literature into English. Long after Garnett married Angelica Bell, Grant’s daughter with Vanessa Bell, in 1942, she was not amused to learn that her husband and her father had once been lovers.

    An equal opportunity enjoyer, Keynes never snobbishly confined himself to men of his own class. His lists of some hundred anonymous liaisons include temporary meaningful relationships with the “Stable boy of Park Lane,” the “Auburn haired of Marble Arch,” the “Lift boy of Vauxhall,” the “Soldier of the Baths,” the “Swede of the National Gallery,” the “young American near the British Museum,” the “beautiful young man in the P. Shed,” the “chemist’s boy of Paris,” and many others.

    The lists of Keynes’ intimacies shows that men in Edwardian England found each other in the same ways that they have met for centuries: not only through mutual friends, but also by exchanging friendly glances with strangers, asking for directions, or engaging in ambiguous, deniable conversation. They also connected at known cruising spots, which in London then included the statue of Achilles near Hyde Park Corner, an outstanding example of the nude male figure; and any of the city’s 25 public baths.

    Keynes’ world of overlapping lovers and anonymous inamorato ended in 1925, when he married Lydia Lopokova, a dancer with the great Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; Duncan Grant was best man. Homosexual for the first part of his life, he now was heterosexual for the last part. Their life together, by all accounts, was a happy one, bringing him, biographer Peter Clark wrote, “a new focus, a new emotional stability, and a sheer delight of which he never wearied.”

    Why do we care about whom Keynes or anyone else was enjoying a hundred or more years ago? Apart from some possible titillation on an otherwise dull afternoon, his list of lovers provides us deeper insight into the life and mind of an individual whose ideas changed the world. He refused to accept the sexual identity forced upon him by a society that condemned homosexuality, just as he refused to accept the outdated tenets of a profession that resisted new ideas. The result? An authentic life spent revolutionizing a “dismal science.”

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.

    Published on August 12, 2021