Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle
In 1865, Walt Whitman was 45 and making a name for himself as one of America’s finest wordsmiths. Irish-born Peter Doyle, meanwhile, was just 21 and worked as a streetcar conductor on the streets of Washington DC. But, while they may have been poles apart, when their paths crossed, there was an immediate spark. So much so, in fact, that Whitman didn’t get off at his stop but carried on riding the streetcar so he could spend more time with Doyle. The pair even spent that first night together in a Georgetown hotel.
While Whitman might have enjoyed numerous relationships with boys and men during his colorful life, his connection with Doyle was altogether more intense. For a full eight years, after they first met, the pair were inseparable, walking the streets of the capital and spending the nights in the city’s hotels. Though for understandable reasons, Whitman declined to make the relationship public, or even acknowledge his homosexual tendencies, his contemporaries had little doubt of the lifestyle he secretly led. Oscar Wilde was reportedly among those who, having met Whitman in America in 1882, believed the great poet to be gay.
For Whitman and Doyle, the age difference eventually began taking its toll. After Whitman suffered a stroke, Doyle helped nurse him back to health. After a second stroke, however, Whitman left Washington to live with his brother in New Jersey. Despite regular, often steamy letters, the relationship slowly came to an end.
Doyle did manage to see Whitman before the writer’s death and their partnership has been preserved for posterity through his homoerotic verses and the letters the pair exchanged over the years. In his own writings, Whitman would describe the decade he spent in Washington DC as the happiest years of his life, almost certainly due to this being the time he spent with Doyle, the love of his life.