Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw
CHAPTER FIVE: The Terrible Thirties: 1930-1935
The terrible thirties were a time of real misery for everyone. The euphoria of the twenties had been so high that people had lost their sense of balance. Speculative frenzy and get-rich-quick ambition distorted their vision, and they forgot the old adage that what goes up must come down. They should have been warned when the Florida land boom of the early twenties collapsed with a crash after overnight fortunes had been made in the sale of options on vacant lots, often sight unseen. The speculation in Cleveland continued long after that, and when the bubble burst in the thirties, the downward spin was sickening. The community went into a depressive spell that took it as far below normal as its manic spell had taken it above normal.
The first inkling of bigger troubles to come was the collapse of the Standard Bank in 1931. It had originally been organized as the Engineers National Bank by the principal railroad union. Around the time when Senator LaFollette was organizing his Progressive party, the railroad brotherhoods were flying high, and had so much available in surplus funds that they decided to challenge the Establishment on its own ground. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was considered a conservative union, but it, too, was pixilated by the Florida boom, and bought a large tract of land at Venice,
Florida, which it developed into well-planned lots with paved streets and sewers, and prepared for Utopia, when the engineers would retire there and live in a model community. The bank had put up money for this.
The other Cleveland bank executives naturally took a dim view of this rebel, but it continued to attract depositors. Yet its operators believed it would thrive even more if it dissociated its name and management from the union connection, so it was reorganized as the Standard Bank, this time with a state charter. Its loan policy became more free-wheeling. When the terrible thirties arrived, and borrowers could not pay up, word got around town swiftly that the Standard was in trouble. Depositors began to pull out, and soon after the second big stock market crash in 1930, the bank closed, and assessed its stockholders. Its president was later convicted of fraud.
While the Standard Bank did not have a large percentage of the community's deposits, compared to the big three, Cleveland Trust, Union Trust, and Guardian Trust, its collapse made their depositors itchy. Rumors of trouble began to fly daily, to such an extent that Harris Creech, president of Cleveland Trust, had to go into the lobby of the main office and make a speech to several hundred people waiting to withdraw savings to assure them their money was safe and they could have it all; spectacularly, he brought in bagsful of cash to show them. This stopped the run, but it did not wholly reassure the community, for all over the state, small banks were closing. The panic had started in the smaller cities of the surrounding states, had spread to Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York, and was getting no better fast. The principal trouble was lack of liquidity. When mortgages on real estate came due, banks refused to renew without large premiums. The borrowers could not pay, the whole structure tightened up, and small depositors often could not get their cash out; and by the time Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, the crisis was nationwide. One of his first acts was to close all banks, then permit some of them to reopen with permission of the treasury.
The period when the banks closed paralyzed the entire country, not only Cleveland, for several weeks. Anyone who had even a small amount of cash was lucky. Travelers were stranded; they could not get money for their travelers checks. Merchants would not accept checks to pay bills. Employees at the Plain Dealer for several weeks considered their employers marvelous because they paid in cash, rather than checks. (This feeling of gratitude did not last long. A few weeks later, the paper cut all salaries 25 percent. It was the second wage cut in six months; the first was for 15 percent.) This same pattern was followed by employers generally. Persons who had not been laid off had their pay severely slashed. The only consolation was that prices for food and clothing had actually dropped. It was possible to get a decent dinner at a restaurant for seventy-five cents, and a suit for thirty-five dollars. Anyone with five dollars in cash was considered rich. Some of the oldest and best blue-chip stocks on the New York Stock Exchange were selling at from two dollars to five dollars a share, but few ordinary people had money to buy them. They needed their meager cash for household expenses.
The Cleveland Trust Company and Central National Bank were allowed to reopen in March 1933, but the Union and Guardian, which had large deposits, were ordered to remain closed, and put in charge of liquidators, who spent the next ten years sorting out the assets. Ultimately, the Union paid off at 100 percent, and the Guardian at 85 percent, but meanwhile millions in deposits were frozen, and dozens of companies as well as individuals were up against it. The anticipated results were not long in coming. A committee from the Ohio Senate began investigations and hearings, at which it was disclosed that heavy borrowings by the Van Sweringens had siphoned off great chunks of funds. The county prosecutor got into the act and the grand jury indicted several officials of banks and savings and loan companies. The president of the Guardian Bank was convicted. So were some executives of savings and loans and mortgage companies. Real estate companies that had sold hundreds of lots on land contracts, in the wide open spaces of Parma, University Heights, Euclid and Madison, had
long since gone into receivership. One of the few businesses that was thriving was that of lawyers, who took over liquidations, trusteeships, receiverships, or acted as attorneys for receivers.
Delinquent taxes, particularly the special assessments against vacant lots for sewer and water lines installed long before any building took place, rose to fantastic heights. It was years before these were paid off, and the legislature passed a law to permit local governments to borrow temporarily against the possibility of their ultimate payment.
No one was untouched. Either he had lost his job or had his wages cut. He couldn't get his money out of the bank, or borrow on his frozen deposits. He borrowed on his insurance, if he had any. He couldn't sell his house or the vacant lot he had invested in, for no one else had any cash either. If he was lucky, he dragged along from week to week or lived with better-fixed relatives. If he was unlucky, he went on relief, and eventually wound up raking leaves in make-work projects.
The morale of Ben Sapp, the ordinary citizen, was at its lowest state, not only because of his own predicament, but because public officials had so often turned corrupt. Prohibition had eroded the moral fiber of the entire nation. Bootlegging and racketeering had become billion-dollar businesses. Speakeasies were heavily patronized and paid off the police for protection, as the bootleggers and gambling joint operators did. Justices of the peace in Ohio, who were in theory judicial or law enforcement officers, were engaged in a legal racket of their own; they hired squads of goons to raid the homes of ignorant foreigners, seize homemade liquor, and haul them across town to kangaroo courts where the justices imposed heavy fines, out of which they paid the raiders.
A Cleveland councilman, William E. Potter, who had been suspected of blackmailing racketeers, was found murdered, and the mystery has never been really solved. The newspaper coverage of the Potter murder was lurid and for a while seemed to divert the public from their money troubles, but that was only temporary.
The Cleveland newspapers, all three of them, were in a state
of turmoil, too, and what happened then had far-reaching results twenty to twenty-five years later.
The News, even before hard times cut advertising revenue, had not been able to cope with the increasingly aggressive Press, and was ready to fold, or sell to out-of-towners, when the Plain Dealer came to its rescue in 1934. (Hearst and big newsprint companies had made offers.) The PD formed a holding company, The Forest City Publishing Company, to take over both the News and Plain Dealer. Dan Hanna, Jr. was given a minority interest in preferred stock, but had no power of decision. This was intended as a fire-alarm rescue, but it turned out to be a twenty-five year headache. The only immediate change in top management was the appointment of Earle Martin as editor. But Martin produced no miracles; his most memorable accomplishment was to design a new type format. It had no effect on the drooping circulation of the News, and the PD continued to pick up the deficit.
The Plain Dealer was also having an upheaval in the business office. George M. Rogers, general manager since 1920, became ill and spent less and less time at the office. John S. McCarrens, a former executive at the May Company, who had joined the PD as business manager before the crash, had to take over Rogers's duties as well as his own, including the negotiations to rescue the News. Inevitably a showdown came and McCarrens was made general manager, and Rogers faded out.
McCarrens was a tight man with a nickel. He was a silent type whose favorite philosophical observation was "most people talk too much." His orientation was entirely on the business side, and he understood little of the editorial department's operations. He was, however, the top man in the corporate structure, outranking Paul Bellamy, who was still listed as managing editor and did not receive the full rank of editor-in-chief until several years after Hopwood's death. This and the continual need for economy, cramped Paul's style; the business office was more of a governing force than it had been under Hopwood and Rogers.
The Press was having trouble with loss of revenue, too, but its business manager was a shrewd, capable man named John G. Meilink. He and McCarrens developed a close personal relationship. They were both hard bargainers, both active Catholic laymen, and even looked somewhat alike physically _ short, stocky, broad-shouldered, forceful. They knew the economics of publishing, and they also knew how to make a deal. In one they made, the Press clearly got the better of it, and it hung like a millstone around the Plain Dealer's neck for thirty years.
The Plain Dealer had acquired ownership of radio station WHK shortly after it took over the News. The PD could have used WHK to its advantage, broadcasting local news as the big dailies in New York and Chicago were starting to do. But the PD refrained. The reason was that Meilink and McCarrens had a gentleman's agreement: if the PD would not use its radio to promote the paper, the Press, through the Scripps-Howard chain, would guarantee an adequate supply of newsprint at a discount, for both the Plain Dealer and News. The Press had no radio station of its own. It was a secret agreement, clearly in restraint of trade, and one that the justice department today would have forbidden. However it was ironclad then, and all the editorial employees of the Plain Dealer and News were forbidden to appear on any radio programs (or later on TV, either). The Press employees likewise could not appear on other radio stations. The embargo was complete, and it gave great competitive advantage to the Press, because radio was becoming a big national force just then.
Some of the better-known editorial employees (who wrote columns) complained mightily, because they had seen an opportunity to pick up extra income from radio, which would have helped in the depression. But they were told firmly no. They knew there was a mysterious agreement between the papers not to use radio, but did not know of the newsprint angle. This agreement was the first of a long line of colossal mistakes made by Plain Dealer management. (More about this in later chapters.)
The Press was improving rapidly during the thirties, now that Editor Seltzer had achieved the permanent tenure his predecessors had lacked. Despite the formation of the first chapter of the Newspaper Guild, Seltzer's rapport with his staff was excellent. In fact, he had them believing he favored formation of the Guild and would have joined it himself, were he still a reporter.
The rivalry between Seltzer and Bellamy endured for twenty-five years, and had much to do with the politics and development (or lack of it) of the community of Greater Cleveland in the fifties and sixties.
Paul Bellamy, who succeeded his good friend and mentor, Hopwood, as editor of the Plain Dealer 23 March 1928, was one of the all-time greats of American journalism. He remained as editor twenty-five years.
Bellamy was born into writing. His father, Edward Bellamy, was author of the prophetic book, Looking Backward, which accurately predicted the wonders of science in the next generation. His grandfather was a Protestant minister, so Paul had an early education in the Bible as well as Shakespeare, and habitually made biblical allusions in his otherwise earthy conversation. He went to Harvard after graduating from the Chicopee Falls (Massachusetts) high school, and his first newspaper job was on the Springfield Union. He went west to the Plain Dealer in 1907. His rise there was phenomenal, for he was made city editor at twenty-five.
From the beginning, Bellamy had not only the respect of his staff but also its affection. They knew him for an imaginative, hard-working, brilliant man who could do anything better than the staff, but he managed to be fair and maintain his sense of humor while driving them. The staff called him Uncle Paul. He was an earthy man, whose language could be picturesquely sulphurous. He also had a fabulous capacity for eating, drinking, and conviviality.
When World War I broke out, he enlisted as a private, was sent to Officers Training Camp and ended up as a first lieutenant. When the war ended, old friend Hopwood offered him a wider
horizon, now that Hopwood was number one in editorial operation. He kept Paul in reserve as special writer, operating out of the front office, until the big reorganization of 1920 permitted Hopwood to name Bellamy as managing editor.
Hopwood and Bellamy made a great team, and it was understood that Paul would succeed to the top job in due time (but no one expected it so soon). Hopwood had already interested Bellamy in the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which he had helped found, and Paul had made a memorable speech about integrity of the press at the ASNE convention in 1924.
Because of the hours he had to work, 3:00 P.M. until midnight, Bellamy's social friends were mostly other Plain Dealer men, with whom he played tennis (badly) and went fishing or hiking (enthusiastically). His closest buddy was Carl D. Friebolin, the witty writer of the City Club's Anvil Revues. Friebolin, the son of a Lutheran minister, found much in common with Bellamy's religious upbringing; and neither of them cared a hoot about organized religion. Bellamy appraised most of the political hotshots through Friebolin's eyes, and vice versa. They were jointly active in the City Club and each had served as its president. Bellamy liked nothing better than to spend weekends at Friebolin's country place at Vermilion, sitting up all night talking.
Bellamy became the top editor at an unfortunate time. Within two years after he took over, the stock market crashed, the depression began, and banks began to fail. Governor George White, a Democrat elected in 1930, was a confidante of both Friebolin and Bellamy, and in the extremely touchy days of 1931-32, when things were really getting desperate, White used to phone Paul almost every afternoon to tell him privately what was happening to Ohio banks. It was a time for extreme care in editing, and cool heads. The Cleveland newspapers stopped publishing quotations on bank stocks. Rumors ran like wildfire as small banks began to buckle in central Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan under the strain of unredeemed mortgages and unsecured commercial paper.
During one of these daily crises, Paul, after a phone confab with Governor White, called all his news executives together to see if anyone could come up with a workable idea to keep the economy from going over Niagara Falls. He went around the room, asking each man to pop off. As is usual in every big newspaper office, there were twelve different opinions, ranging from far left to far right and shading in-between. Bellamy was getting plenty of opinion but little workable advice. Finally he rose, blew a big gust from his cigar, and swore mightily. "Jesus Christ!" he exploded. "What wouldn't I give for a good yesman!" Bellamy really didn't mean that. He actively encouraged dissent from his staff. Contrary opinion was one thing he deeply cherished, and what's more published. He knew that newspaper guys were by nature ferociously independent, and the way to get the most out of them was to let them spout off.
The Plain Dealer had historically supported Democrats for president, but divided its endorsements pretty evenly in local and state elections. In 1940 Bellamy could not stomach a third term for Roosevelt and backed Wendell Willkie, the Republican. But before and during the war, the PD was one of FDR's strongest supporters, and after the war, was equally strong for President Truman's Marshall plan. Bellamy was always sturdily patriotic and warmly congratulated all his staff who went into military service. He envied them when they went overseas.
In the middle of the war, July 1943, a sudden tragedy moved Bellamy into the number one spot in the Plain Dealer executive suite. McCarrens, who had been general manager for ten years, was murdered in his office by a demented man, Herbert Kobrak, who then killed himself. Sterling Graham, who had been advertising manager, was appointed general manager, but it was tacitly understood that Bellamy was to be chief executive officer on all big policy matters. For the next ten years, he remained at this apex. Graham dealt with business office problems, and I. F. Freiberger of the Cleveland Trust Company, the key man of the various Holden family trusts,
became board chairman and preeminent in the larger financial decisions.
Bellamy long before that had moved into national prominence, as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He remained active and particularly enjoyed attending its conventions with three cronies, all of whom had also been presidents of ASNE -- Grove Patterson of the Toledo Blade (who had been a Plain Dealer reporter at the same time as Paul), Marvin Creager of the Milwaukee Journal, and Donald Sterling of the Portland Journal. They called themselves the Four Horsemen and were very convivial.
Another event took place in 1943 that distressed Bellamy acutely. The PD editorial employees voted to join the Newspaper Guild. The Guild had lost in two previous votes. This time, since so many regulars had joined the military and subs had taken their places, the subs, figuring their tenure was less secure, voted to join the union, which the Press and News had had to deal with for ten years. So now the PD had to negotiate a salary schedule and working conditions. Uncle Paul considered this a personal affront. He had long regarded the editorial staff as his family, and he could not understand how men he knew had personal affection for him could do this to him. But times were changing and the younger men and war-exempts felt less close to the boss. Paul insisted on negotiating personally with the Guild, although all the other unions negotiated with a labor relations specialist who represented all three papers. He disliked having employees of the Press and News sitting in on contract talks for the Plain Dealer, but he could not avoid it now. In later years after the war, when the contracts really had to be slugged out, they took a tremendous amount of his time. It was only in the last couple of years before Paul was retired that Graham insisted that lawyers, rather than Bellamy and W. G. Vorpe, the Sunday editor, negotiate with the Guild. (The Guild in the very beginning got the forty-hour, five-day week, with time and a half for overtime, written into the contract.)
Bellamy was one of the most brilliant conversationalists
anywhere. He was forever quoting the Bible, Shakespeare, and the principal Greek and Roman philosophers, and his choice of language was phenomenally accurate, whether he was talking or writing. Unfortunately, after he became an executive he seldom wrote again, but he could do it brilliantly and forcefully when occasion demanded. His stories about his trip through devasted Germany after the war, and later a round-the-world trip, were classic jobs of colorful reporting. Not only was his language lively, but it was often blue, picturesquely sulphurous, and pertinently obscene. No one was ever at a loss about what he meant.
One of his most famous remarks came when he and a group of other top editors were observing the test of an army jet plane at Eglin Field in the late days of World War II. The jets were still top secret and hadn't yet been in combat; most people didn't know anything about their development. Paul was standing in a group that included Ogden Reid of the New York Herald Tribune and Arthur H. Sulzberger, Sr., of the New York Times, when the fast plane sped down the runway, leaving a trail of flame as it took off. Bellamy leaned over toward Reid. "Ogden," he said. "If you had as much fire as that shooting out of your ass, the Herald Tribune would be a better paper."
Paul spent many years on the Associated Press board of directors, and took a dim view of it when Judge Learned Hand of New York ruled that the AP had to furnish its services to radio stations as well as newspapers. He was a close friend and adviser of Kent Cooper, for many years the AP general manager.
He ran the show himself at the PD and ran it excellently but he did not delegate much responsibility. He was seldom away for long periods. Even when he did get away on vacation, a sort of Egyptian curse seemed to follow him, and drag him back to work. Three times when he was in Florida or the Bahamas, sudden death or some other crisis caused him to hurry back to Cleveland. One was the sudden death of Ben P. Bole, the Holden son-in-law who had been president of the Forest City Publishing Company. Another was when his oldest son,
John, a lawyer, who had been suffering from polio but was supposed to be recovering in an iron lung, died suddenly. Another time World War II broke out, while he was on a honeymoon in Nassau with his lively, gregarious second wife, Pat (Mrs. Mary Mitchell Henry), and they had to hustle back to the American mainland on a fishing boat. The only time he got away for protracted periods were on his round-the-world flight and postwar trip to Germany.
This continual attention to duty, plus the strains of wartime, eventually eroded Bellamy's phenomenally rugged constitution, and just before the war's end, he began to decline physically. It wasn't obvious right away, though he had once collapsed in a restaurant. It seemed later that he may have suffered some small strokes, which caused a character change as well as physical disability. Yet he steadfastly refused to admit there was anything wrong with him. It was a ghastly irony that the place where he was hit hardest was in his speech. The man with the brilliant wit and extensive vocabulary found that he couldn't get his words out when he tried. It was as if invisible wires were holding his tongue; when the words did come out, they were often muddled and hard to understand. He also began to have trouble getting his feet and legs untracked, to start to walk forward, and often stumbled and fell headlong. But it did not seem to embarrass Paul. He was serene and uncomplaining, as if nothing had happened. Pat drove him to work and he didn't miss a day.
Bellamy had different ideas from Seltzer as to how an editor should best promote his paper. Bellamy's door was always open to any and all, to those with panaceas, to candidates and officeholders of all political persuasions. He gave advice freely and it was sought by national, state, and local officials. He dominated editorial policy, but he refrained from going out to speak to small groups locally, or getting involved as an officeholder in local civic affairs. Seltzer's opposing theory was that he should circulate among the local groups, make speeches to them, and hold office in such organizations as the welfare federation and convention bureau.
The Plain Dealer at this period held a considerable circu-
ration lead over the Press, and had a Sunday paper, too, which the Press didn't. Bellamy gave the impression that he was trying to ignore Seltzer's activities as a gadfly around town, and using the paper's influence editorially to change and improve things, rather than by making personal appearances. He was ten years older than Seltzer, had gone to Harvard, was widely read. Seltzer left school after the eighth grade, went to work as a newspaper office boy soon after, and whenever he wrote anything it was in short, simple sentences.
Bellamy felt that his evenings belonged to him and he enjoyed spending them with Friebolin, William F. McDermott, the PD's dramatic critic and columnist, and other intellectuals and bon vivants. He enjoyed the theater, visits to New York and Washington and travel in Europe. Seltzer spent his evenings talking to PTA meetings, sokols, turnvereins, and church groups. He concentrated on Cleveland.
Bellamy felt he had enough to do to maintain the editorial quality of the paper during the stringencies of the early thirties; and after the Plain Dealer took over the ownership of the News and radio station WHK, he was needed to advise on their operations, too. After McCarrens was murdered in 1943, he felt the additional burden of helping to make important decisions for the business office.
The Press was making big circulation gains during this period, and Seltzer himself was becoming more and more an important factor in Cleveland politics. Yet Bellamy at no time deviated from his long-term formula. He encouraged independent opinion among his staff and continued his open-door policy (some of his subordinates thought the door was too far open to crackpots, ax-grinders and nonjournalists who persuaded him to publish articles that were suspect as to accuracy). Yet he remained fully in charge until 1953, when he was retired and made editor emeritus. Though he continued to come to the office after that, he was not asked for advice. He died suddenly 12 April 1956, while eating dinner at home. His son, Peter, who had worked for the News, went to the Plain Dealer after the News was sold and became entertainment
editor. He also had two other children, Richard, a Cleveland public relations man, and Mrs. Joan May of Connecticut, by his first wife, Marguerite Stark.
Bellamy was not only a great editor, a brilliant mind, and a powerful influence on Cleveland, but a compassionate, patient, warm human being, capable of great affection who, as he often said, "suffered fools gladly."
National prohibition ended in early 1933, and for a short while the unexpected access to good liquor that would not blind you took the mind of the citizens off the bank closings, the welfare mess, and the low state of politics. Within a few months, the state of Ohio set up state liquor stores to sell legitimate hootch by the bottle, and began to license restaurants and bars to sell it by the drink. The system still exists today. The principal difference between today and the pre-prohibition era is this: in 1919, the interiors of bars were shut off from the street by swinging doors, they served free lunch, women were not admitted to them, and liquor was sold by private stores. Today doors of bars open on the street, there is no free lunch, and women are regular customers, both at bars, cocktail lounges, and state stores.
In late 1933, the Ray Miller mayoralty fizzled ingloriously to an end, and Harry L. Davis won the election, toward which he had been pointing for six years. Davis had been elected mayor three times before, was elected governor once (1920) and defeated once (1924). He had an uncanny sense of political timing, of knowing when the auspices for success were good, and he made the most of it.
Davis was an excellent example of how a handsome face and figure and a warm handshake often lead to high public office. He had a winning platform personality and a streak of gray across the front of his hair, and these carried him far. He flourished thirty to forty years before today's era of TV, but he would have done just as well on TV, for he looked good and talked well. He went a long way on a record that showed more success during campaigns than after he took office.
Davis was not a prophet with a cause, as were Tom Johnson,
Peter Witt, and Newton Baker. Johnson and Witt beat the drums for single tax, against giant corporations, and for municipal ownership of traction lines and light plants. Baker beat the drum for the League of Nations. Davis was the political quarterback, the opportunist, who profited by the mistakes of the opposition, who knew when to pass and when to run. His objective was to get elected, and enjoy the power of office, not to reform the world.
In some ways, Davis can be compared to his fellow handsome Ohioan, Warren G. Harding, who rose to become United States Senator, then president, by being in the right place at the right time. Davis began young in politics and hung around a long time, and plenty of people remembered him favorably.
As governor, Davis recommended a reform, the streamlining of the state government, and the legislature, overwhelmingly Republican, passed it. This consolidated various departments under the governor as an appointed cabinet, and gave absolute responsibility to the governor, rather than multimember boards and commissions. Political science professors applauded it, but the Democrats, then the "outs," denounced it as a "ripper bill"; however, they did not tear it apart later when they came to power. The structure still exists, after fifty years.
Davis spent his young manhood in the southeast steel mill area called Newburgh, a place heavily settled by Welsh immigrants. He got into politics first by winning the job of city treasurer. He ran for mayor in 1915 against Witt at exactly the right time, and Witt beat himself. Then, after Davis was in of" fice, the U nited States entered the war, and he merely had to wave the flag to win reelection in 1917 and 1919. In eact campaign, Davis became more and more skillful as a speake~ and crowd pleaser.
Davis correctly sensed there would be a Republican landslide in 1920, and it took him in as governor. He saw another landslide coming in 1924, and was right, but this time Democrat Donahey beat him, despite it. He went into the insurance business, and bided his time, figuring he could come back to
public office in Cleveland. It took a while, however. His first effort, to dump the manager plan and proportional representation, was defeated by a coalition of Maschke, Gongwer, preachers, and newspapers. A second attempt failed in 1928, and a third, in which he joined with Witt's disciples, was also beaten by City Manager Hopkins and the papers. But he hung on, figuring that he'd come back eventually, after Hopkins was ousted. By 1933, his patience had paid off, his time to recoup arrived and he was back in again as mayor. He became county chairman as well, since Maschke had resigned.
As Maschke had anticipated, Davis took complete charge of all patronage, put his own cronies in, and thumbed his nose at the newspapers. But he was in hot water all the time. The city could not raise enough money to meet payrolls, and Davis had to issue scrip and submit deficiency levies to have any cash on hand. He had as little luck in finding funds for poor relief as Morgan and Miller had. The police department was shot through with favoritism and Detective Captain Emmett Potts ran the show rather than Chief George J. Matowitz, who was a figurehead held over from Morgan's regime. Gambling joints and bookie spots, obviously protected, sprang up by the dozen. The hotter the heat from the newspapers, the less Mayor Davis stayed in town. He took long mysterious trips.
The clincher came when his safety director, Martin J. Lavelle, who had been a police captain, was present at a wild drinking party on a boat in Lake Erie, during which a girl fell overboard and was drowned. Lavelle failed to report the death and it was not discovered by the newspapers until several day later.
When Davis ran for reelection in 1935, he had to be on the defensive. He seemed to have lost his old platform magic. The newspapers blasted him; the Maschke Republicans, whom Davis had fired, supported Harold Burton; and there was obviously no answer to the sad condition of the city finances, the political police department, and the mayor's frequent absences. Davis's two years became a classic example of boo-
dling and incompetence. It set a new low in maladministration. It was even worse than his previous three terms and it was nearly thirty years before the city saw an administration that turned out to be as much of a disaster -- that of Carl B. Stokes, who became mayor in 1967. Davis got what he wanted. He had come back, but he couldn't hang on.
In the primary, Harold H. Burton, who had been a state representative, then Hopkins's and Dan Morgan's law director, had the strong backing of the American Legion (of which he was the former county commander), business groups, the newspapers, and the disgruntled Maschke Republicans, whom Davis had thrown out. Maschke himself came out of retirement to take a hand again, and this time he had a candidate who was a new face, had the image of an independent and a fine record in public office. Davis ran third in the primary, and that was the end of him politically.
Now the stage was set for a totally different type of mayor, a long succession of men who had political labels but were independent enough to rate strong newspaper support, who paid more attention to editors than to party chairmen. The election of Burton, the first of such mayors, seemed to perk up the spirits of the town in the thirties.
There was plenty of cleaning up that needed to be done. While the new Burton regime cleared the stench out of city hall, the school board, which for years had been rated as one of the best and most nonpolitical in the country, had turned political. Candidates with euphonious Irish names and little education ran for it, and beat the men and women who for years had been simply urged to run as a civic duty by a citizens committee headed by Carl Friebolin. For a while these latecomers achieved a four to three majority of the board, but the persistence and pestiferousness of one man finally routed them, and kept the quality of the school system high as long as he was on the board. That man was Alfred A. Benesch.
Al Benesch was one of the young lawyers drawn to the gung-ho idealism of Mayor Tom Johnson in the early 1900s; encouraged by Johnson, he ran for the city council. He was
defeated twice, but temporary defeat never bothered Benesch at any age, and in 1911, he was elected councilman-at-large. The next year, Mayor Baker appointed him safety director.
Benesch immediately hit the headlines by issuing orders to the police to close the city's famous redlight district on Hamilton Avenue. A great uproar naturally resulted. Madams, backed by letters from leading citizens, called on Benesch and pleaded with him to let them continue in business. The councilman who represented the area screamed that Benesch had closed "all the places of indoor amusement." Benesch stood firm, Mayor Baker backed him, the whorehouses closed, and the pussycats went into apartments as call girls.
Benesch would probably have remained at city hall had Witt been elected in 1915, but after Pete lost, Benesch returned to private law practice. That, however, did not prevent him from keeping a sharp eye on government and writing letters to the editor to complain. Finally, after ten years, he could stand it no longer and ran for the Cleveland School Board. He was elected, reelected and reelected and in the end served thirty-seven years, longer than any other man in the city's history.
There was never a dull moment as long as Benesch was on the school board. He was a man of strong opinions who welcomed controversy. He had no sooner taken his seat than he got into direct conflict with his old boss, Newton Baker. Benesch, urged by Witt, believed compulsory military training was out of place in public schools. Baker, who had only recently been secretary of war, disagreed, and the two debated publicly. Benesch persuaded the board to drop military training and in forty-five years it has not been reinstated.
He was an advocate of pay-as-you-go financing, using tax levies instead of bonds. When the depression hit, the schools were thus in better position to weather the storm than cities and counties. The teachers were paid in money, not the scrip that city and county employees were getting. But the depression brought Benesch a different kind of trouble -- the demagogs on the school board, men with hardly a clew as to the management of public education.
For many years, unlike many big cities, Cleveland had kept the schools out of partisan politics. Once the slate was chosen, the newspapers invariably backed it, the party chairmen did likewise and there was seldom even token opposition. In the thirties, though the board members received no salary, political spoilsmen began to covet the custodial jobs under the business office, and unqualified candidates broke the slate despite the newspapers. The new members brought religious bitterness into the board meetings for the first time. A majority of Catholics were elected, and their opponents immediately charged that the church, which had its own parochial schools, was now trying to dominate the tax-supported public schools. Benesch deplored bringing in the religious issue. He felt he had been elected as a good citizen, rather than a Jew; the orthodox Jews also had their parochial schools, too. He fought the majority bloc hard.
The majority consisted of men by the name of Martin, O'Donnell, Miller, and Bradley. Thoms J. Martin was a union business agent, Johnny O'Donnell a salesman type. Miller was Ray C. Miller, whose name was the same as the mayor's except for the middle initial. Ed Bradley, the most sensible of the lot, was a businessman with some experience in law.
The majority bloc knew little about education but plenty about politics. It was the heyday of the ignoramus' and the board meetings became unconsciously hilarious because of the constant misuse of English by the majority. This galled Benesch particularly, for he was a man of culture, a Harvard graduate, and admirer of the superintendent, Charles H. Lake, who was also a well-rounded man. The majority did not dare fire Lake, for fear of real public uproar, but they went after the jobs of custodians and got their own man in as business manager. Benesch's allies on the minority were Mrs. Mary B. Martin, the first black member, wife of a well-respected lawyer, and Mrs. Norma Wulff, a nonstop talker and doer, who had been active in PTA and women's clubs. The combination managed to yell foul so loudly that the majority bloc did not do as much damage as expected.
Tom Martin, the union boss, tossed off malapropisms with regularity. His pronunciation of multisyllabic words was priceless. He referred to wholesale slaughter as a "masacree," and innuendo always came out as "indendo." He accused his opponents of "evasing" the issue and "pervericating." He thought teachers should be "digilent" and certain courses were "innecessary." One of his pet words was "derbis." Once he said, "We ought to tear down all the old buildings, put a torch to the derbis, and build buildings."
O'Donnell also had a habit of getting his syntax mixed up and committing regular bloopers. Once when Benesch, who loved to needle him, asked him about a problem relating to juveniles, O'Donnell said, "Mr. Benesch, you don't know how much I've contributed to juvenile delinquency." Alvin (Bud) Silverman, our schools reporter, used to keep a running file of these malapropisms.
Benesch during this period was also active in another public office. He had accepted appointment by Governor Martin L. Davey as Ohio director of commerce. He didn't know Davey well and seemed out of place amid the Davey cronies. Friends wondered why he took the job. "I guess Davey wanted a Jew in his cabinet," he said. Benesch contended that Davey, though a complete egotist, was personally honest, and "like Harding, unsavory friends let him down."
After Davey was finally defeated in a primary, Al resumed private law practice again, until World War II, when he was put in charge of rent control administration in Cleveland. During all this period he remained on the school board. When the Irish majority bloc was finally unhorsed, Benesch was elected president and held that office many years. He was a strong advocate of foreign language classes in the public schools, and a close friend of Dr. Emile B. deSauze, who raised that department to such a high level that it achieved national recognition. Benesch, when he first went on the board, had fought for the restoration of the teaching of German, which had been suspended during World War I in a hysterical wave of anti-German feeling.
Benesch had an incurable addiction to writing letters to the editor. Hardly a week went by without two or three letters from him. They were always pithy, and usually controversial. Envious readers even thought he was on the newspaper staff. He wrote always in longhand and on the spur of the moment, usually before breakfast. It was his way of letting off steam, a real compulsion.
His wife, Helen, a quiet, cultured woman of great charm (and a gourmet Hungarian cook), took a dim view of his letter writing and tried to prevail on him to stop. "But I didn't get anywhere," she said. "He kept right on. He had to get it out of his system."
Benesch did not hesitate to tackle prominent men when he thought they were wrong. One of his more famous exchanges of correspondence was with President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, who had proposed a ten-percent quota of Jewish students at Harvard. Benesch sent him a fiery letter of opposition. He was always opposed to any form of discrimination. In the end, former President Charles W. Eliot sided with Benesch, and so did a majority of the Harvard overseers. Lowell was forced to withdraw his quota plan.
Benesch detested all forms of racial and religious prejudice, and took a strong position in favor of more Negro teachers and better-educated teachers of both races, as the strong tide of black migration from the south began to engulf the city in his final years on the board. Today the Cleveland school population is 75 percent black.
Benesch was a regular luncher at the City Club, and ever willing to take part in argument, which was always on the menu. One day a contentious conservative, who took a dim view of racial integration, fired the familiar question at Benesch: "Would you want your daughter to marry a Negro?" The urbane, unflappable Benesch replied, quietly, "Well, I don't have a daughter, but if I did, I wouldn't want her to marry any Gentile."
Benesch was a physical miracle. A bantam in size, like Baker and Friebolin, he seemed indestructible as he went through his
eighties. He had had serious health problems in middle age and at one time was given up for gone by his doctors. David Dietz, science editor of the Scripps-Howard papers, was in New York once when Benesch was there after a serious operation, and met Dr. Jerome Gross, who had been attending Benesch. He said he'd like to visit Benesch in the hospital. "You better go right away," said Dr. Gross. "He's not likely to be around long." That was forty years ago. Dr. Gross is now dead, but Al was still going strong in his nineties. He survived five major operations, had only a portion of his stomach left, and was careful about his diet. He believed that not smoking or drinking helped prolong his life. He once smoked cigars and a pipe but gave them up. He never drank alcoholic liquor. "Not for moral or religious reasons," he said. "I just don't like the taste of it." Though a member of the Oakwood Club for years, he never played golf, either. "As Pete Witt said, golf is for the useless rich," he observed.
Benesch took a dim view of campus dissenters who wanted to destroy and take over colleges by force. He also scorned influential and affluent Negroes "who won't take sides." He deplored the fact that the man who makes the biggest noise gets the most attention in public life, "not the quiet man with the soundest rationale." He remained officially a Democrat through his long life, but he believed the government had pauperized people, making it too easy to get along without working, and "there is a tremendous dependence on the federal government, which is not good."
Al would probably have remained on the school board had not his wife died in 1962. He then went to live with his niece and nephew, Dr. and Mrs. George Rose, in Shaker Heights; living in Shaker disqualified him for the Cleveland board. A few years later when the Roses moved back to the part of Shaker that is in the Cleveland school district, "Uncle Fred" felt better. He might run again, he said, if he felt the urge.
Al Benesch and Carl Friebolin were two of the most invigorating, stimulating men in Cleveland history. Benesch died at ninety-four in 1974, after a long illness.
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