The Styles Bridges Highway flows through some of the most beautiful country in New England, along peaceful river beds, verdant notches, and dazzling mountain vistas. Tourists probably don’t realize that the road is named for a legendary New Hampshire politician, Senator Styles Bridges, who served from 1937 until his death in 1961. A major power broker in his day, Bridges helped to define the state’s rock-ribbed conservatism. At one time, his sleek profile was as familiar to Granite State voters as the Old Man of the Mountain, past which runs the Styles Bridges Highway.
But the Nov. 12 issue of The New Yorker contained an uncomfortable wake-up call: Alex Ross, the magazine’s classical-music critic, wrote an essay on changing attitudes toward homosexuality that included this passage: “In an episode loosely dramatized in the novel and movie ‘Advise and Consent,’ Senator Lester Hunt, of Wyoming, killed himself after Styles Bridges, a senator from New Hampshire, threatened to expose Hunt’s son as a homosexual. Bridges still has a highway named after him.”
In fact, the incident to which Ross refers is both more complicated and more chilling, though the precise dimensions of Bridges’s role haven’t been established. On that basis alone, New Hampshire transportation officials might reasonably ignore Ross’s implicit challenge to reassess the name of the highway. But they shouldn’t. Exploring Bridges’s role in Hunt’s suicide — one of the grimmer episodes in the McCarthy “witch hunt” era in American politics — would be a useful historical exercise.
Many states honor people who, in their time, took positions that are offensive today. There were Founding Fathers who owned slaves; there were famed scientists who believed in eugenics. Today’s advent of gay marriage would have shocked most politicians of the mid-20th century. But Bridges isn’t accused of harboring distasteful and now-outmoded views; he’s accused of political treachery and personal cruelty. An honest attempt to address the charges would teach more to current generations than simply placing a name on a highway. It would expose the dangers of extreme partisanship, the shame felt by those marked with social stigma, and the ordinary human emotions that strike politicians who come under personal attack. It would also be a warning to today’s partisans, to hold back their rancor.
The saga began on June 3, 1953, when Lester Hunt Jr., son of a Democratic senator from Wyoming, was arrested in Washington’s Lafayette Park and accused of soliciting an undercover police officer. At the time, the younger Hunt was president of the student body at Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. Since it was a first offense, police declined to prosecute.
Soon after the arrest, however, an official in the police Morals Division, Roy Blick, apparently was contacted by Bridges, then the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and another GOP senator, Herman Welker of Idaho, who was a close ally of Joseph McCarthy. Bridges and Welker, according to a 1954 column by the influential D.C. journalist Drew Pearson, threatened Blick’s job if he failed to pursue the case. Soon after, there was a trial. Hunt Jr. was found guilty and paid a $100 fine.
The story ran in the conservative Washington Times-Herald, but not in any of 36 papers in Wyoming, where Hunt was a candidate for reelection. “If the opposition brings this up in the Senate race, I shall withdraw,” Hunt is said to have told Drew Pearson. After facing threats that Republicans would do just that, Hunt, a mild-mannered former dentist, agreed to terminate his candidacy. Soon afterward, he shot himself in his Senate office.
After Pearson, in his column, accused Bridges and Welker of applying “one of the lowest types of pressure this writer has seen in many years,” the two senators attempted to defend themselves by obtaining an affidavit from Roy Blick of the police Morals Division. But that carefully parsed document did more to raise suspicions about Bridges’s and Welker’s role than to refute them, according to University of Wyoming historian Rick Ewig, whose work has been cited by Bridges’s biographer as the definitive account. A cousin of Hunt’s said the senator himself named Bridges as his tormentor. Information about Hunt’s son’s case was found among Bridges’s papers at New England College, along with a letter in which Bridges declined to defend himself to Pearson.
Part of the horror of the McCarthy era was that in a culture of accusation, few could separate the wrongdoers from the wrongly implicated. As the tables turned, the accusers became the accused. Bridges’s role in Hunt’s death could have been exaggerated. Political threats can be easily misinterpreted. Is a handful of scuttlebutt enough to damage the legacy of a 24-year Senate career?
The views from the Styles Bridges Highway aren’t always clear. But even the Old Man of the Mountain, its fabled attraction, crumbled one day. Today’s travelers and school children need to understand that the past isn’t any more easily interpreted than the present. The politics of the ’50s were vicious, perhaps more so than today’s. Whether that’s a good enough excuse for Bridges is for his latter-day constituents in New Hampshire to decide.