A Serious House

Lyndon Johnson had strong views about his showers. One unfortunate White House plumber was sent to the hospital due to a nervous breakdown after years of working to provide Johnson with a shower that met his exacting specifications regarding heat and water pressure. Thousands of dollars were spent on all this, yet Johnson still walked the halls at night to ensure that lights were turned off in every room so that no electricity was wasted in the president’s official residence.

Sex, Poetry, and the Great Beyond

Two years before he died, James Merrill (1926-1995) published his memoir, A Different Person in which he tells how the son Charles E. Merrill (co-founder of Merrill Lynch) and an increasingly religious mother became a cosmopolitan gay poet. It’s not a score-settling work, and Merrill is his usual light, witty self, but he is also unashamedly direct about the “polymorphous abundance” of the backstreets of Italy and Greece. “It was a truth universally acknowledged in those innocent decades from 1950 to 1980,” Merrill wrote, “that a stable homosexual couple would safely welcome the occasional extramarital fling.” And flings there were. While Merrill was in a long-term relationship with David Jackson, the two regularly slept with other men.