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Famous Secrets of Our Times

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Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, isn't the only famous secret-holder to come clean with the U.S. public. Other public figures have also sheltered secrets from the masses—or been sheltered from secrets themselves.

Consider Madeleine Albright, the Georgetown University professor who made history when President Bill Clinton nominated her as the first female secretary of state in 1997. Shortly after her confirmation, The Washington Post broke the story that Albright was a Jew whose parents had converted to Roman Catholicism around the time that they fled their native Czechoslovakia with their tiny daughter in 1939. Three of her grandparents and other relatives who remained behind perished in Nazi death camps.

When the Post story broke, Albright—who declined to be interviewed for this story—said that she had no knowledge of either her Jewish origins or the way her grandparents had died. The truth unearthed by the newspaper, she said, "has to be dealt with as a personal matter."

But Albright's ignorance came as no surprise to Evan Imber-Black, a family therapist and the author of The Secret Life of Families (Bantam, 1999). "Like so many children I've worked with in family therapy," says Imber-Black, "Madeleine Albright lived with a powerful paradox, absorbing the family 'rule' not to ask, to live in the present." The result, says Imber-Black: Albright became "a historian with personal blinders."

Other famous Americans have been the keepers of secrets themselves. While it's common knowledge today, few people at the time knew that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been crippled by polio at age 39 and couldn't even take a few struggling steps without Secret Service agents supporting him. Neither were Americans aware of the lengths to which Roosevelt went to avoid being seen or photographed in his wheelchair. So extravagant were his efforts that disability-rights activist and writer Hugh Gallagher, who himself had polio, titled his book on Roosevelt's disability FDR's Splendid Deception (AB Associates, 1998).

"He was a sophisticated enough politician to know that the country was not ready to elect a president in a wheelchair," says Michael Deland, the president of the National Organization on Disability, who helped lead a six-year fight to have a statue of Roosevelt in his chair added to the FDR Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Two years ago, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey held a highly unusual press conference. With his wife by his side, McGreevey announced that he was a homosexual, that he had had an extramarital affair with a man, and that he was resigning his office because of the affair's likely impact on his family and his ability to govern.

McGreevey had been under pressure from financial scandals that had plagued his administration, and critics said that his public confession simply offered him a convenient exit strategy.

But McGreevey said that he had reached his decision after a long struggle with his sexual identity. "One has to look deeply into the mirror of one's soul," he said, and acknowledge "one's unique truth in the world. . . And so my truth is that I am a gay American."

In other cases, political secret-keepers have had the beans spilled for them, despite their best efforts to the contrary. Back in 1996, the secret identity of "Anonymous," the author of Primary Colors (Random House, 1996), the thinly disguised, best-selling novel about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, was the question du jour in national political circles—until Joe Klein, an acerbic Newsweek columnist who had for months vehemently denied being the author, was exposed, like Albright, by The Washington Post.

His critics feasted on Klein's battered credibility—especially since Klein had taken Clinton to task repeatedly for the President's own less-than-forthright answers to tough questions. But the critical brickbats were hardly fatal. Klein made out handsomely from his bestseller and today pontificates from a prominent perch at Time magazine.

Other public secrets have endured far longer. Late in Game 3 of the 1925 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Senators, Pirates catcher Earl Smith drove the ball toward the right-center fence of Griffith Stadium in Washington. Speedy Senators outfielder Sam Rice made a backhand stab for the ball and then tumbled out of sight over the low-lying wall, into spectators' laps. When he emerged an excruciatingly long 10 seconds later, he was holding the ball. Smith was called out, and the Senators went on to win the game. For the next 40 years, when asked what happened behind the wall, Rice held the secret close, simply saying, "The umpire called him out."

When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1965, Rice announced that he had left a letter containing his account of what happened, to be unsealed after his death. Nine years later, Hall of Fame President Paul Kerr opened the letter at a press conference less than a month after Rice's passing. "I had a death grip on it," Rice had written. "At no time did I lose possession of the ball."

Most people have forgotten one fact that's not a secret: whether or not Rice really caught the ball, the Pirates went on to win the Series that year, in seven games.

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