Sumner Welles with FDR in Warm Springs, Georgia, in Nov. 1933, where Welles had gone to brief the president on the Cuban situation. This is a posed photograph intended to mislead the public. Roosevelt, of course, could not drive a car.
You would think that being a public figure he would have avoided sex in public places. You would think that being a middle-age man, not a teenager, he would have avoided sex in public places. You would think that I was alluding to Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, but I am not.
At 6'5" tall, he would have stood out anywhere. In Cuba, where the average male height in 1933 was closer to 5'5" than 6'5", he was a virtual colossus. To make the contrast even more striking, he always wore a black woolen suit in a semi-tropical country where white linen suits were de rigour for men who wore them. He seemed to embody in his person the country which he in fact represented diplomatically — imperial, ominous and a bully.
His name was Sumner Welles, recognized by The New York Times in 1998 as "among the half-dozen most influential career diplomats of this century." He was also the last American pro-consul in Cuba and the most important foreign diplomat in in our country's history.
Welles had known FDR since he was a boy, and as a 12-year old had been a page at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's wedding. He followed in Roosevelt's footsteps to Groton and Harvard and FDR sponsored his entry into the foreign service. In 1933, FDR sent Welles to Cuba to stop a revolution. He didn't succeed. Despite his efforts at mediation, Gerardo Machado was overthrown. His next mission was to insure that the revolution would not do what, well, Fidel Castro's revolution did in Cuba 25 years later — renounce its debts and confiscate U.S. properties. In this he was successful principally because the Cubans themselves wanted no such thing. They were quite satisfied when the provisional government lowered electric rates.
Welles did not think they would stop there, which was probably the logical conclusion when the new provisional president Ramón Grau de San Martín refused to swear fealty to the Cuban Constitution because it contained the Platt Amendment, which gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuba at its pleasure. Welles' diplomacy was punctuated by the U.S. fleet within sight of Havana. But the Cubans rightly sized up Welles and his boss and didn't blink but continued progressive reforms that weakened U.S. influence on the island without challenging it outright. In less than a year, Roosevelt would proclaim the "Good Neighbor Policy" and the Platt Amendment would be abrogated, though the U.S. retained Guantánamo naval base.
His mission to Cuba having been considered a success, Welles was appointed Assistant Secretary and then Under-Secretary of State and was considered the likely successor to Secretary Cordell Hull, then in his 80s. No doubt had Welles, who was half his age, been appointed to succeed him, he would still have been a major player 20 years later in the Kennedy administration and might have offered useful advice on how to deal with Castro. But Welles' star had long dimmed by then, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that it had been put out.
It happened on the presidential train as it was returning to Washington, D.C. from the funeral of House Speaker William Bankhead, in Jaspar, Alabama, where FDR and Bankhead's actress daughter Tallulah drew a crowd of 65,000 to the tiny rural church. It was summer and the temperature must have been 120 degrees or more in the train. Everybody was pretty much stewed either from the heat or efforts to combat it with mint juleps and sterner stuff. The president, vice-president Wallace and the cabinet went to bed early. Welles was up till 4:00 in the morning drinking and was the last to retire to his sleeping compartment, which was between the president's and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins'.
Before calling it a night, Welles asked a porter to bring him coffee (porters at that time were all black men or boys). Welles then requested something else with his coffee. He propositioned the porter and offered him money if he would bugger him. The man politely declined and fled in terror. Declining a white man's request then could have gotten any black man lynched in the south. The porter's solution to this dilemma was to send the youngest porter, a 13-year-old boy, with the coffee. Surely he supposed, in his world-class naïveté, that this would stop Welles' advances. It did not. The boy ran off and yet another porter was sent with the coffee. And still another and another, with similar results. If just one of them had remembered, in his shock, to put the coffee down; but they obviously held unto the pot as some kind of protection. Finally, word got to the President of the Railroad, who was on board, and he in turn contacted the chief of the president's Secret Service detail, named Whitehead, who enlisted yet another porter to entrap Welles, ordering him to leave the compartment door open so that he and his deputy could catch Welles in fragranti. But Welles saw Whitehead lurking in the corridor and slammed his door shut. He had, of course, slammed the door on his life and career.
No police report was filed. None of the dozens of reporters on the president's train filed the story. Welles was even allowed to stay on the job till Secretary Hull learned the truth and threatened to resign himself unless Welles did. Roosevelt, who said he didn't blame a man for what he did when he was drunk, was forced to request Welles' resignation. Welles' career was over at 50.
Sumner Welles became a bigger alcoholic and his long-suffering wife finally left him. Welles hired a French bisexual butler to replace her, who finished the ruin of him that had begun on the presidential train. In 1948, Welles attempted, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide by jumping into a frozen creek on his 500-acre Washington estate. He was too tall and the creek was too shallow. Although he didn't drown, he almost froze to death. In 1956, he was outed by Confidential magazine, which that same year almost exposed Rock Hudson as well. Liquor, which had precipitated his ruin, finished him off at age 68 in 1961.
No Cuban historian ever mentioned Mister Welles' strange fate. Perhaps they felt pity for him or thought it all just too monstrous to believe much less confine to paper.
Here's the article from Confidential Magazine, which relates the story of another train incident, from 1937: