Walter Burr Gongwer from Philip W. Porter


from Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw

by Philip W. Porter
retired executive editor of the Plain Dealer

courtesy of Cleveland State University, Special Collections


Walter Burr Gongwer was an astute, brilliant, and charming man, totally unlike the image of him the newspapers conjured up, one who did a great deal for the city through the first-rate candidates he supported for public office. Burr was not depicted by the papers as quite the ogre Maschke was, though he was every bit as clever an operator. One reason he got off more lightly was that he was often on the same political side as the Press and Plain Dealer, which tended to be Democratic nationally. Another was that the men he supported or associated with were favorites of the papers — Newton Baker, Bill Hopkins, Carl Friebolin, and Governor James M. Cox. Such a pal of theirs couldn’t be all that bad.

Gongwer was a reporter for the Plain Dealer, and a good one, before he forsook journalism for politics. He covered city hall when Johnson was mayor, and became so fascinated with Johnson’s flair and genius that he quit the paper and became Johnson’s secretary. From then on, for forty years, he was never out of politics. He idolized Johnson and named his only child Dorothy Johnson (Mrs. W. Raymond Barney) after the famous mayor.

Burr, though extremely articulate in private conversation, never made public speeches, as Maschke did in his later years. He was more retiring than Maschke, not a bridge player nor a golfer, but fully as much of an intellectual, a great reader of history and philosophy and somewhat of a loner. One reason Gongwer never made speeches was that Baker was always available to speak for the party, and Baker was one of the finest extemporaneous orators who ever mounted a rostrum.

Burr was election board clerk at one time, and later customs collector. When he left federal office, he went into the general insurance business with his close friend, Pierce D. Metzger. There he was highly successful in writing surety bonds for public officials and contractors who won public contracts, and fire insurance on public buildings. This, like the political practice of law, is lucrative and Gongwer was well off when he died. There is nothing underhanded or illegal about this kind of insurance business. The law requires that such insurance be provided. It could be bought from any insurance company, but actually always goes to old political friends of the officials (and who is an older friend than the county chairman?). This has gone on for years, and still does.

Gongwer was brilliantly profane in his description of people, particularly those he disliked. He knew where all the bodies were buried, and who was trustworthy. He was a handsome man of middle height, with thick curly brown hair, who wore prince-nez and smoked the best Havana cigars. He stocked his cellar with the best liquors, and made certain before prohibition came in that he had plenty to last through the drought. He was not a heavy drinker; he simply was a connoisseur of good brandy, whisky, and imported liqueurs, as he was of good cigars. And of politicians, too.

Like Maschke, Burr could always be relied on to tell the truth to newsmen, and to keep his word when he pledged it. He was greatly admired and respected by all the reporters who dealt with him; the editorial position of their papers, and occasional sharp criticism, did not bother him. He heartily disliked the Press, which was his most constant critic, and he never referred to it by any name except “The Harlot.” (The Press never said anything kind about any political chairman. The word “boss” was always a dirty word.)

Gongwer’s number one problem as chief honcho of the Democrats was the Irish. During his tenure as leader, practically all the Cleveland Irish were Democrats (and still are).

Most of the other ethnic groups were habitual, congenital Democrats, too — the Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Slovenians, Italians, Germans, Hungarians, and so forth. They were larger in number but easier to direct than the Irish. Gongwer realized, however, that if his county and legislative ticket was to get anywhere in the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant suburbs, it had to be balanced, not entirely Irish. This was hard to do. Anyone with a familiar Irish name stood a good chance of beating the endorsed slate in the primary, and almost every biennium someone tried it.

Burr’s way of coping with the Irish was to produce a slate, which was well balanced among all the ethnic groups — and with Protestants and Jews, too — and get the executive committee to approve it long before the primary filings. There was no way he could keep the ambitious, fractious Irish from running, but this way he discouraged a few.

One of the Irish he had the most trouble with was Martin L. Sweeney, who got his start from being a high official in the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Sweeney was easily elected municipal judge, and when Congressman Charles A. Mooney died, won the nomination for congress, which automatically meant election, for it was a safe, one-sided district. Mooney was a regular, but Sweeney wasn’t, and he was a constant headache to Gongwer during Roosevelt’s first term. He joined with Father Charles Coughlin, the contentious radio priest from Detroit, in continually denouncing President Roosevelt, and warning against getting into war. He was on the same kick when he ran against Mayor Ray Miller in the 1933 primary; and the bad feeling this fight engendered was a big factor in Miller’s defeat by Harry L. Davis in November. Sweeney continued as a maverick for several years, until Michael A Feighan, then an up-and-coming state legislator, beat Sweeney in a primary, with the help of the Plain Dealer and Press, who were actively pro-Roosevelt and anti-Coughlin. Sweeney was never able to make a comeback.

Burr had none of the problems with blacks that the Democrats today are having. There were no black Democrats in the twenties, and their number did not increase substantially in Ohio until after World War II.

Gongwer’s far-sightedness was best illustrated by the way he encouraged women to get actively into politics after women’s suffrage became the national law. He did this through the brilliant organization of Mrs. Bernice S. Pyke, who had been a suffrage leader. Mrs. Pyke, a dynamic, handsome young woman with prematurely white hair, did so well among the ethnic groups, where women normally took a back seat, that she soon achieved a status in the organization second only to Gongwer.

Mrs. Pyke was one of the few women in politics who thought and acted like a man. She followed the Gongwer-Maschke pattern in leveling with reporters at all times, and her judgment on people was excellent. No Ohio woman before or since has developed such stature. When the movement to unhorse Gongwer developed later, it was directed as much against Mrs. Pyke as against Gongwer. Too many men were jealous of her power.

Gongwer was extremely wise in his choices of assistants for Miller and later Frank T. Cullitan when they were county prosecutors. Among the men who served as assistants in that office were Thomas A. Burke (later mayor), Frank J. Merrick (later safety director, common pleas and probate judge), Frank D. Celebrezze (later safety director and municipal judge), Neil T. McGill (later appellate judge), P. L. A. Leighley (later appellate judge), David Ralph Hertz (later traction commissioner), and Henry S. Brainard (later law director). All were exceptionally able public servants. His choices for other county offices were also excellent, and the performance of his men, with no public blemish, greatly assisted in keeping the Democrats continuously in office — men like County Commissioners John F. Curry, James A. Reynolds, and Joseph F. Gorman, Auditor John A. Zangerle, County Engineer John O. McWilliams, Coroner Samuel T. Gerber.

Gongwer differed from Maschke in one important respect — he was a great hater, all his life. He was not one to forgive and forget. He heartily disliked Witt, with whom he served under Tom Johnson; this was aggravated by Witt’s continual drumfire against Baker, whom Gongwer worshiped. He disliked Martin Sweeney and never forgave him. He disliked Cyrus Locher, whom Governor Donahey appointed senator. He disliked Donahey himself, whom he regarded as an ignoramus and a phony. Eventually he came to dislike Miller, whom he had supported warmly for prosecutor and mayor, and considered him an ingrate for accepting the county chairmanship in the control fight that finally unhorsed Gongwer.

Gongwer was not a gregarious man. He lunched, usually alone, at a private table on an upper floor of Fischer-Rohr’s restaurant every day for many years, and did not return to his office after lunch. In the evenings he enjoyed the solitude of his country place in Lyndhurst (now the site of part of the Acacia Country Club), where he could read and meditate on the cantankerousness of the human race, of which he had abundant evidence.

Cleveland was fortunate in the first third of this century to have had as bosses two such strong, honorable characters as Gongwer and Maschke. But it was fashionable then for newspapers to denounce all bosses on general principles.



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