The considerably closeted Swede Dag Hammarskjöld was a real Renaissance man: a world-class expert of economics, linguistics, literature, and history; an Olympic athlete in gymnastics, skiing, and mountaineering; a poet, and a bit of a theologian.
Hammarskjöld has been credited with having coined the term “planned economy”. In 1952, receiving 57 votes out of 60, Hammarskjöld was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations for a five year term and was reelected in 1957, greatly extending the influence of the UN as well as the prestige of the position of the Secretary-General.
Despite holding a position of public prominence as Secretary-General of the UN from 1953 until his death in 1961, Hammarskjöld managed to keep even the most minor details of his personal life secret from the world. His lovely memoir Markings, published after his death, was translated to English by openly gay poet W.H. Auden. It stays away from any mention of his private life, but it is considered a spiritual classic and it shocked his friends, who had no idea of the spiritual side of this enigmatic man.
Because of his era and his place in the world, Hammarskjöld was unable to accept his gayness. He lived an unhappy, frustrated personal life, enduring thinly veiled slurs from political figures and the international media.
Here is the way I like to imagine it: when we went together to see the original production of West Side Story at The Winter Garden Theatre, he insisted that we arrive separately and not speak before the show or at intermission, but Hammarskjöld did put his hand on my knee while the leads sang Tonight. After the thrilling performance, we chatted for a moment, but he declined an invitation to party with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and he left the theatre, heading east on 42nd Street, towards the UN Building, while humming the song America from the score. I was left frustrated, forlorn and blue-balled. That didn’t happen, of course, but I like to think it might have.
Although he couldn’t resolve his own internal conflicts, Hammarskjöld was masterful at settling external conflicts as he efficiently worked to diplomatically solve disputes in Palestine, Vietnam, Egypt, and The Congo.
One of Hammarskjöld’s greatest moments was refusing to give in to the Soviet’s pressure to resign as Secretary-General. Hammarskjöld:
“It is very easy to bow to the wish of a big power. It is another matter to resist it. If it is the wish of those nations who see the organization their best protection in the present world, I shall do so again.”
He was on his way to broker a cease fire after UN Peacekeeping Forces were killed in one those endless civil wars in Africa when his plane carrying other diplomats crashed in what we now call Zambia. The case was never solved. Conspiracy theories still abound: he was killed because he was gay; he was murdered by the CIA; the plane was shot down by British Colonial forces desperate to save the fortunes made from the mineral wealth in Central Africa. His death by assassination puts him in the company of such figures of the 1960’s as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, with the same dark forces responsible for all the demises.
The man JFK called “the greatest statesman of our century” may have been a revolutionary in a business suit. By the end of the Markings, the pages are almost all poetry. Auden wrote:
“It makes me very happy to see that, in the last three years of his life, he took to writing poems, for it is proof to me that he had at last acquired a serenity of mind for which he had long prayed. When a man can occupy himself with counting syllables, either he has not yet attempted any spiritual climb, or he is over the hump.”
Hammarskjöld discovered the Japanese Haiku in 1959 and he composed dozens of them. Many are obliquely gay themed:
In a gray twilight
His sensuality awoke
In the Stone Age night
A church spire, erect on the plain
Like a phallus
The boy in the forest
Throws off this best Sunday suit
And plays naked
He lowered his eyes
Lest he should see the body
To lust after it
Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld was born on this day, July 29, in 1905. He was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961. Many structures, parks and streets around the world are named in his memory including The Dag Hammarskjöld Library at United Nations Headquarters, a NYC park Hammarskjold Plaza, and the double, triple or quad Hammarskjöld, a figure skating move.