Harry Whyte, who was born in Edinburgh in 1907, has chiefly one claim to fame: in May 1934, when employed by the Moscow Daily News, he wrote to Joseph Stalin to enquire whether it was possible to be both a homosexual and a Communist Party Member. What prompted Whyte’s appeal to Stalin was the decision to re-criminalise homosexual acts by the Soviet state the previous year. Whyte was a homosexual and a fervent communist, having been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain prior to his relocation to Moscow. Undoubtedly his commitment to the political cause prompted this move by the polyglot Whyte (he could speak Russian and French fluently and demonstrated a working knowledge of German, and Spanish).
When I read about Whyte in Dan Healey’s Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia I developed a strong curiosity about this man and how and why he had ended up in the Soviet Union and perhaps, for me, more importantly, what became of him. This curiosity set in motion a series of events which culminated in making contact with some of his surviving relatives, who were extremely helpful in furnishing me with some slivers of information about their enigmatic relative. To them he was something of a mystery; they owned no photographs of Uncle Harry and any information about his life was picked up from rushed conversations at family events.
According to those conversations he had been a spy; travelling Eastern Europe under the direction of the British secret services. His cloak and dagger work had ended, dramatically, in Turkey at the wrong end of a pistol. But were these stories accurate?
Whyte had been raised in Edinburgh, the son of Brechin-born foreman housepainter William and his wife Harriet. However, within a few years William Whyte’s financial position had improved and young Harry was sent to George Heriot’s, the independent school, in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Something must have occurred within the life of young Harry as he adopted a strong political ideology which remained reasonable steadfast throughout his adult life. Whyte’s political awakening aroused the interest of the British security service who maintained an active file on him until the mid-1950s.
Prior to Whyte’s departure for the Soviet Union he had lived in Chelsea, and in 1931 had applied to become a member of the Communist Party. Shortly after this he left for the Soviet Union to take up a position with the Moscow Daily News. From the moment he arrived in Moscow, the British security services were monitoring his activities, with the assistance of American ‘residents’ in the city. Whyte’s stay in Moscow was relatively short; his departure hastened by his admirable yet foolhardy engagement with Stalin who found Whyte’s enquiry distasteful, famously scribbling on the letter ‘To the Archives!’. Whyte’s Russian partner had been arrested as part of a clampdown on homosexual activities in the city early 1934, and Whyte’s uncertainties over the fate of his lover had undoubtedly played a part in his decision to appeal to Stalin.
But whatever became of Harry?
According to the British security services Whyte was expelled from the Communist Party for ‘moral misdemeanours’ and after leaving the Soviet Union was involved with the Spanish Medical Aid Committee as a publicity officer. In 1938 he moved to Rabat, Morocco, where he worked for Reuters – occasionally socialising with Michael Childers Davidson – however, his ‘discreditable behaviour’ (said by some to refer to spying, by others his homosexuality) led to his expulsion, and he landed in Glasgow via Gibraltar in July 1941. The Foreign Office, that same year, had issued a circular stating that Whyte should not be ‘given facilities to travel to any British territory other than the United Kingdom…’. Thud! went any suggestions that he was a covert British operative.
In the years immediately following the war, Whyte maintained his link with communism, writing for the Socialist Review, with his articles criticising the pay of the armed forces, and appealing for an international military body. By the late 1940s, Whyte was living in London, and in May 1947 suffered relatively serious injuries when he was ‘badly knocked about in a fight with someone who broke into his house’ – whether or not this was the result of a fist-fight with a burglar, or a ill-advised entanglement with some ‘rough trade’ is open to debate. His beating was so severe that he almost lost the sight in one eye.
In 1950 Whyte was on his travels again, this time to Turkey, where he continued his part-time relationship with Reuters, writing on a diverse range of news stories from Turkish foreign policy and the Middle East to the ‘young democracy’ movement. In 1953 his association with Reuters came to an end. But the previously peripatetic Whyte seemed to have found some form of contentment in Ankara, where he remained, working for a diverse range of Western media agencies.
MI5’s final report on Whyte stated that, ‘he is said to drink heavily, to be a homosexual and not at all an engaging character’. Having seen some of his communications with American communists, the latter description does seem to fit. He appears to have been a capricious sort, eager to engage in an argument, and operating with something of a chip on his shoulder. Yet, despite these flaws of character I kind of admired him; his dedication to his political leanings and his willingness to put his safety under threat for the sake of his principles, and his loves. Intriguingly, the last anyone remembers having heard about Harry was in the mid-1960s, at a family wedding, where stories abounded – perhaps apocryphal – that Harry had met with that sticky end in Turkey. Tracing his movements, his actions and his story is something I have been working on for a while now and hopefully I’ll be in a position to tell Harry’s story soon. Harry was undoubtedly a courageous man to appeal to Stalin, but he appeared to be a restless soul, ever travelling, ever seeking some degree of security and contentment, and ultimately it would appear, never finding this.
There but for the grace of God, as they say.
Copyright © Jeff Meek 2014
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