The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN couldn't accommodate another living creature of any size or category. The place was packed to the rafters, and this wasn't a figure of speech, for many people were actually perilously perched on them.
Ear drums were split by the noise. Cowbells, sirens, horns, iron clappers, baseball bats, dishpans, and noisemaking instruments conceived by Satan himself had been gathered from all forty-eight States and the possessions for one maniacal purpose -- to make noise.
Outside it was hot. Inside the heat was intolerable. People fainted. Tempers were short. Nerves were frayed. Thousands milled around, bumping, jostling, cussing at one another, parading, jeering, cajoling, gently beseeching, belligerently threatening.
I had never seen anything like this. It was a controlled riot, if such a thing could be. It was American democracy in full flower. It was the 1924 Democratic National Convention.
It was hard to believe that in this bedlam two men were to be nominated for President and Vice-President of the United States. Underneath all the pandemonium the bitterest struggle in modern American politics was taking place. The forces of William Gibbs McAdoo and those of Alfred Emanuel Smith were locked in a contest which has rarely been equaled at any time in this land of free political choice.
Some who came anticipated a battle. They did not expect a war. Some expected it to be hard-fought within the usual rules. They did not reckon on the claw and hammer, and no rules. The wisest had thought the convention might last three or four days. It was now in its tenth day with no sign of an end, either peaceful or bloody. And all through the July days and nights the weather had varied, if at all, only a few degrees from one day to another. Always the thermometer was within a margin of its mercurial ceiling.
I should have deplored all this. As a citizen of the country, I did. As a newspaperman, I didn't. As an individual, I was frankly delighted --for I had a special stake in the endurance of the convention and its eventual compromise. On what happened depended whether I had made perhaps the biggest scoop of my career or whether I was just another political prophet who had called the wrong turn.
My story goes back to a poker game better than ten
years before. It was an unusual poker game, not played for the usual pot. I was then a police reporter, working around the old Police Headquarters on Champlain Avenue.
Ed Moore was a Youngstown, Ohio, lawyer. He had a small practice, but a good one. His clients paid him well. They were mostly from the thriving steel mills of that city by the Mahoning River, and occasionally they got in trouble. Sometimes that trouble happened in Cleveland, and when it brought Ed Moore to town, he liked to stop in and play a game of poker with the police reporters. He had quite a reputation for the game, and it was reputed that he played for substantial money -- but not with us. He knew our limitations, and the stake was always some bizarre thing that struck Ed's fancy. But on one particular night his idea was a little more practical.
"Suppose we play for a good story," Ed proposed. "If I win, I get a break from you sometime on something I do when I come up from Youngstown. All right?"
"All right, so far as it goes," I said. "But suppose you lose, then what happens?"
"Why, you get an exclusive story from me someday. All right?"
"All right," I said.
We shook hands on it.
The cockroaches, with which the reporters' room at the old station was infested, crawled all over the table while we played. We were accustomed to them, but they bothered Ed. He kept sweeping them away with a folded paper.
I had never cared particularly for poker. It was purely a game of convenience for me at the station. I played occasionally to pass the time with the police officers who stopped in at our room.
Ed won at poker most of the time. He loved the game and played with a flair, but this time he lost.
"All right," he said. "I'll pay you off someday with a good story, I promise."
The years slipped by. I kept in touch with Ed Moore from time to time, as I ceased to be a police reporter, and took on the assignment of writing politics. Ed became quite a political figure in Ohio, and, after a while, on the national scene as well. His influence was steadily broadening.
He acquired sufficient stature to be credited in 1920 with having almost single-handedly put over the Democratic presidential nomination at San Francisco for his fellow-Ohioan, James M. Cox, one-time governor of the Buckeye State. That was the time, also, that a handsome young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was nominated as the vice- presidential running mate for Cox.
So Ed Moore had become over the years one of the country's most formidable political strategists, and I was yet to collect the bet I had won from him in the old cockroach-infested police station.
With the convention coming up, I got in touch with Ed, about the middle of 1923. I knew if anybody could bring me up to date on behind-the-scenes maneuvers for the big battle ahead, it would be Ed Moore.
I called him on the phone.
"You happen to be coming up this way any time during the next month?" I asked him.
This was in August. The convention was still almost a year away, but in our business we work a long time ahead. Many a headline in a newspaper, even though it lasts perhaps for a single edition and then may be forgotten by the reader, is the result of long, tedious, meticulous work. Many sources have to be developed. Many friends have to be made. Much information has to be pieced together.
"Yes," Ed said, "I'm coming up tomorrow, in fact."
"Another client in a jam?" I asked.
"Yes, but I don't meet them in Police Court any more, Louie," said Ed. "I usually meet them in a bank, or in the civil courts."
We arranged to meet.
We talked for a long time. As I suspected, Ed Moore knew the whole background of the coming struggle between McAdoo and Smith.
"It's going to be a bloody one," he said. "This is going to be the worst knock-down-drag-out fight the country has ever seen. What's going to make it even worse is the undertone of religious conflict that will run through it. You going?"
I was. It would be the first national political convention I had ever seen.
"You sure are picking the right one for your first," Ed said. "I'll keep you posted. I promise. I may have that story for you, the one you won in that poker game. This might just be the time I can pay off."
The months passed. The middle of June came, and
the convention was only two weeks off when Ed Moore called me from Washington.
"You going to be in Cleveland Saturday?" he asked.
I said yes.
"Meet me at the Hollenden Hotel," he said.
I met him there, and he gave me a detailed fill-in of the McAdoo-Smith behind- the-scenes fight, and who was leading each side.
"Now," he said. "I want you to call me one week from today. I think at that time I'll be in a position to tell you what's going to happen."
I didn't have to call him. He came up from Youngstown.
"Another client?" I asked.
"No, Louie," he said, "this time I came up for only one purpose and that's to pay off an old poker debt to a newspaperman." He then told me that neither McAdoo nor Smith would be nominated.
"Who will it be?" I asked.
"I know, and I know for sure, but I have to exact one condition from you before I tell you," he said.
"All right, Ed, what's the condition?" I asked.
"The condition," Ed said, "is that under no circumstances will you tell a soul as long as I live. I won't tell you, and furthermore I can't tell you, unless you promise on your honor to respect that condition."
I promised, and we shook on it.
Ed Moore was a rather small, well-packed, but not overly fat man, with a good sense of humor and an infectious personality -- but he was in grim earnest about my promise.
"Louie, I'm going to give this to you," he said. "No other newspaperman will be getting this information from anybody else. I will stake everything on its being right. This is the way it's going to happen. But, remember, nobody is ever to know while I'm alive where you got it."
Again I agreed. Fate has now released me from that promise.
Ed Moore then told me that John W. Davis of Virginia would be the compromise nominee of the Madison Square convention. He said the convention would go much longer than most people expected, because the bitterness between the McAdoo and Smith forces -- and also between the two men themselves -- was so intense that intercession would be utterly impossible for quite a time.
"How will it actually come, then?" I asked Ed.
"Louie, that's all I can tell you now -- just flatly and positively, and you can bet your life on it, John W. Davis will be it. The rest of it you'll have to attend the convention to find out."
I went back to the office and wrote my story. It forecast without any qualification that John W. Davis of Virginia would be the presidential nominee of the Democratic convention.
A hundred questions were thrown at me at the office. I stood by my guns, but I would not tell my source.
"It is the best source possible," I said, "and I'll stake my job on it."
The Press put an eight-column bannerline on the
story, as uncompromisingly flat as my story. When I saw it in print I broke out in a cold perspiration. No political writer was ever further out on a limb. If I was right, everything would be good. If wrong, I would make the paper look ridiculous -- and myself as a political analyst even more so.
Three days later we packed up and went to the convention.
For months Marion had looked forward to going to the convention with me, but now she was getting more than even she had bargained for. She was having a good time of it, however. The heat seemed to bother her less than it did anybody else in the pine-benched press box packed with newspaper and magazine writers from all over the world.
The convention went on. Day after day the McAdoo and Smith forces battled for supremacy. The convention had opened on a bitter note. It went forward with increasing animosity. Every strategy failed. The deadlock was fixed, and neither side would budge.
In the long waits while convention strategists were trying, in restrooms and hallways and all sorts of meeting places, to swing the balance toward one side or the other, or to effect some compromise, the crowd kept up its characteristic din and hooting and cowbell ringing. The noise made our heads ache.
One thing that made Madison Square Garden endurable for us during those days was the fact that Marion was fortunately seated between two of America's most celebrated gentlemen. One was William Allen White, the famous homespun and courageous editor
from Emporia, Kansas, a friend of ours. The other was Will Rogers, whom we now met for the first time in person, but whom we had many times seen spinning his lariat and making fun at audiences. Marion had the time of her life talking with these two mischievous celebrities, who did their best to distract me from my concentration upon my running account of the convention.
I had one serious conversation with William Allen White during those days. It was between ballots. The crowd had groaned when leather-lunged Governor Brandon of Alabama shouted out, as he had from the beginning of the convention, "Alabama casts twenty-four votes for Underwood," putting his whole emphasis on "UNDERWOOD!" This was, each time, the signal that the deadlock was still on.
Bill White had visited us in Cleveland some time before the Democratic National Convention. He knew how much we loved our home city.
"You kids still crazy about Cleveland?" he asked.
"More so than ever, Bill," I said.
"It's funny how a town or a city grows on you," he said. "Lots of people make the mistake of leaving a city once it has grown on them. They're never happy afterward. A lot of that's going on in America today. Even more of it will happen. You were born in Cleveland, weren't you, Louie?"
I told him I was.
"Any hankering to leave?" he asked.
"Not a bit," I said.
"My guess is you'll be invited to leave one of these
days," he said. "Somebody'll come along with a better offer. What'll you do then?"
"I don't know, Bill, for sure," I said. "But it would take an awful lot to pull me away."
He turned to Marion.
"Don't let this fellow leave Cleveland," he said, and added, "It's wonderful to make a career in the town where you were born. You get to know everybody. And everybody gets to know you. It's good to see folks you know grow up, have their families, make good. Even when you see some of them, unfortunately, fall by the wayside, oftener than not you can do something for them. You see some fellow who was poor at his school work get to be a big one in a bank or some business, and when he gets a little uppity socially you can bring him down a peg or two -- or, if somebody pulls the aristocratic front you know he's just putting it on because his Pop was a peddler."
Suddenly changing his tone, he asked, "What was your Dad, Louie, before he started to write?"
"A carpenter, Bill," I said.
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Louie," he said. He put his arms around both of us and added, "You don't have to leave the family hearth to have all the pleasure that the world can furnish -- it's right there in the family, and under that one roof."
As convention ballot multiplied into convention ballot, I sat on the pine-board bench, uncertain and apprehensive. Sometimes I would perspire heavily -- and not from the heat. I even got a chill or two from the same sudden thought -- the thought that perhaps Ed
Moore might have been wrong, honestly wrong, but wrong nevertheless, and that, as a consequence, having put my faith in him so unreservedly, I would be wrong.
The convention went brutally forward. The bitterness did not subside, and the noise seemed, if possible, to increase. The demonstrations became more frequent. Recriminations abounded. Men, otherwise friends, did not speak. Fist fights were not uncommon.
Then, one day whispers started. At first, they could scarcely be heard. Nobody gave them credence. Such reports had been kicked around before throughout the long convention.
This one, however, grew in volume, and belief, as the day went along.
"It's Davis," the whisper became louder and more insistent.
Newton D. Baker came out of his hotel. I had known him, of course, as Mayor of Cleveland, and he had been Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of War -- the sole surviving valiant crusader for the Wilsonian concept of world peace.
"Mr. Baker, have you heard the Davis report?" I asked him.
"Yes, Louie, I have," he replied.
"Does it look good?" I asked.
"Better than any so far," Mr. Baker said. And then he added, "I can tell you who really knows."
I waited for him to identify that source.
He hesitated. Finally, Mr. Baker said, "Hunt up Ed Moore, and he can tell you all about it."
I thought I saw a twinkle in his eye, and for a fleeting
instant, I wondered whether Mr. Baker knew that Ed Moore had given me my original tip.
I went out to hunt up Ed Moore, and found him at the convention hall literally surrounded by delegates, convention bigwigs, and newspapermen. No chance to get to him now, I concluded. At that moment he looked over in my direction, and, with a finger, beckoned me to come over to a corner.
"It's happening right now, Louie," Ed said. "It'll be done before the day is over. I guess that pays me off," he said, with a gay smile, and lost himself quickly in the crowd.
Back home The Press took a picture of the front page that had carried my John W. Davis forecast, and put a caption on it: THE BIG SCOOP.
I clipped it out, and sent it to Ed Moore in a letter marked, "Strictly Confidential," with a penciled note across it:
"This belongs to you. Can I now tell how I got it?"
Ed didn't write to me. He called me by telephone the minute he received my note with the attached clipping.
"Louie, you made a solemn promise to me," he said, "and you must never, under any circumstances, tell where you got that story. Never," he sternly admonished, "so long as I live."
I promised again, as I had several times before, to observe faithfully our understanding.
And so, for many years, I never told how a kid police reporter's poker bet with an occasional Youngstown legal visitor paid off into one of the biggest political stories of the time. Ed Moore is dead, so here and now,
in this book, I reverently pay my respects to an almighty good friend -- a man who knew something very important was going to happen a long time before other people knew, and, to pay off his longstanding bet, let me in on it.
I never knew how Ed Moore happened to know. That story died with Ed Moore -- and I don't think he ever told that one to another soul.
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