50 Shades of Keynes – the dark secrets of the twentieth century’s most influential economist

Johannes Lenhard 4 March 2013

John Maynard Keynes is widely recognised as one of the most influential economists of the 20th century. Arguing that aggregate demand determined the overall level of economic activity, and that inadequate aggregate demand could provoke prolonged periods of high unemployment, Keynes advocated the use of monetary measures to mitigate the adverse effects of economic downturns. His thinking has revolutionised both the academic study of economics and its practical application across the world.

Keynes’ lively academic career is, however, only half the story. The mathematical genius also possessed a, perhaps more than healthy, appetite for sex. Indeed, when Oscar Wilde went to prison in 1895 convicted of ‘gross indecency’, John Maynard Keynes was just twelve years old. Despite the extensive age gap, however, Keynes was to have more in common with Wilde than just his Oxbridge education as both men participated in, what was at the time illegal, homosexual acts.

Keynes was an obsessively methodical man; even as a child he counted the number of front steps of every house on his street, and, later on in life, kept a running record of his golf scores. Unable to shake such an ingrained character trait, Keynes even counted and tabulated his sex life. I went to King’s College to find out more, and rummaging through the archives, I was exposed to the diligent records of the promiscuous activities of this talented man.

Between 1906 and 1915, Keynes consistently enjoyed the company of about fifteen constantly changing sexual partners and additionally engaged in over a hundred anonymous sex acts. In the first diary, Keynes lists those – regular or notable – playmates, including the writer Lytton Strachey, the artist Duncan Grant, as well as the King’s Provost, J.T. Sheppard. Complementing these rather prominent pals, who he met during private seances among the ‘Apostles’, Keynes also enjoyed the company of more anonymous lovers such as the “Jew boy”, a “young American near the British museum” and “the clergyman”. Even in times of sexual famine, Keynes was scrupulously honest, not too proud to admit to a severe dearth that ran from 1903 to 1905.

However, it is perhaps the second diary which makes for more interesting reading. Written in a code, which no one yet has been prurient enough to crack, Keynes lays down a record of the number of times he performed particular acts, which are referred to by the letters ‘A’, ‘W’ and ‘C’.

Asked what ‘A’ might stand for most of us would presume ‘anal’, and as the contemporary legal term for anal intercourse was ‘per anum’, this logic appears sounds. However the remaining two acronyms, ‘W’ and ‘C’, provoke greater debate.

Why, if ‘W’ is taken to mean ‘wanking’ or masturbation, was performed by far the least often? Indeed, it was ‘C’ that was the act most frequently enjoyed, happening 17 times from May to August of 1908, 28 times(!) from August to November of that year, and 20 times from February to May of 1909.

This acronym perhaps most obviously suggests ‘copulation’. But, if we delve into the lexicon of Polari we discover a greater number of possibilities. Polari, put simply, was a secret language mainly used by gay men and lesbians in UK cities, with established gay subcultures – such as London – in the first seventy or so years of the 20th century. Studying the common terms of this method of communication, he initial ‘C’ could well be taken to stand for ‘cruising’ or even ‘cottaging’ – looking for sex in a public bathroom.

Whatever this code denotes, however, it is clear that just as he took his professional and academic responsibilities, which included stock-market speculations and political consulting, rather seriously, Keynes believed that his love affairs and sexual encounters were worth proper documentation and contemplation.

I do not doubt that you crave more details, more homosexual affairs and more dramatic indecencies, as our appetite for such trite gossip continues to be insatiable. However, Keynes’ personal documents expose much more than what would today constitute a veritable wet-dream for the Daily Mail. There are shades of grey between the black and white of the licentious aficionado and inspired economist.

Indeed, rather than being a monolithic sex-addict, Keynes was deeply sentimental, almost lyrical, as his letters to Lytton Strachey – the British writer and founding member of the Bloomsbury group – show. Exchanging not only intellectualities, but, most importantly, poetic experiments and emotional thoughts, his inclination for philosophy, aesthetics and love comes to the fore.

So, in April 1905, Keynes is enchanted by a new ‘Apostle’ named Arthur Lee Hobhouse. He writes to Strachey: “I am more madly in love with him than ever and we have sailed into smooth waters”.

In July 1908, he more confusingly falls in love with Strachey himself, troubling the various relationships in the circle of friends: “Do you know what you think and feel about us? Please don’t be unsympathetic and don’t, if you can help it, hate me.” Strachey is inclined to react positively – under a shroud of mist, however: “I do sympathise and don’t hate you and that if you were here I should probably kiss you”. He writes about love, about his bewilderments, his longings – not simply on a bodily level.

There is an even more moralist, fundamentally humanist side to Keynes’ personal documents that brings him, again, very close to Wilde. The latter fought for a single idea – equali1ty. He had stood up and suffered for two years, for the notion of a ‘mighty universal whole’. Already in his student writings of 1900, and even more so after his discovery of Moore’s ‘Principia Ethica’ in 1903, Keynes followed a similar ideal. An expression of which is Keynes’s sexual non-preference.

Both the perpetrator of what would have, at the time, been considered sexually deviant acts and the dependent husband of Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, John Maynard Keynes was, like all of us, a complex character with capricious desires.

His desk was the fertile breeding ground of both drafts of ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’ and lists and letters recording the desires of his heart and loins for posterity.

Johannes Lenhard