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Gargantuan, gross, and cynical, the patrician boss Boies Penrose descended from aristocracy to dominate Pennsylvania Republican politics for thirty years
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
Talcott Williams, a Philadelphia journalist, recalled that in November, 1919, he had sat with Penrose in the latter’s Senate committee room. ”‘Senator,’” Williams asked, ”‘what is going to be the great keynote of the Republican party in the next presidential election. The tariff?’ [Penrose] said, ‘No. I wish it was the tariff, but the tariff is beginning to seem like a back number.’ There was a truthful utterance that I never expected to hear from Pennsylvania. I said, ‘Well, I suppose you will take off the surtaxes on those big incomes.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I have sympathy with wealthy men.’ I said, ‘Penrose, you ought to have sympathy with wealthy men. You have touched them often enough.’ [Laughter.] And smiling blandly upon me, he said, ‘Talcott, don’t be ribald. You are not writing an editorial.’ I said, ‘Well, what is going to be the keynote?’ He replied, looking the Roman senator, as he turned to me with those wide open eyes which all of us are familiar with when an idea had taken hold of him and he was going to drive it home. He said, ‘Americanism.’ I said, ‘Senator, you are the man I have been looking for. What is Americanism?’ He sank back into his chair in his committee room and he said, ‘Dam’f I know, but I tell you Talcott, it is going to be a damn good word with which to carry an election.’”
So it was. Warren G. Harding, representing Americanism and normalcy, was Penrose’s find. Penrose immediately saw that, in the age of photogravure, Harding’s good looks, together with his conformism and his public relations experience would make him an excellent candidate. One day in early 1919 Penrose asked Harding to come over to his suite in the Willard Hotel. He addressed him point-blank: “Harding, how would you like to be President?” Harding liked the idea. Penrose and his ally Joseph P. Grundy, the chief of the powerful Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, then began pushing Harding forward. Grundy presented Harding at an important dinner of the PMA. Harding made a speech emphasizing his homey Ohio background, including his membership in the local brass band. Penrose was too sick to attend. His secretary came back to Spruce Street to report on the speech. “He should have talked more about the tariff and not so much about playing the cymbals in the Marion Brass Band,” Penrose said. The legend, according to which Penrose engineered Harding’s nomination, is untrue. Grundy was the field marshal in Chicago; Penrose’s doctors had forbidden him to travel, but he kept in touch by telephone (his bill for the convention month of July, 1920, was seven thousand dollars). Between Harding’s nomination and the election, Penrose had but one piece of advice to the party: “Keep Warren at home”—the kind of sage advice which, had Penrose lived to the age of Methuselah, he undoubtedly would have offered to Gerald Ford.
By the age of fifty Big Grizzly had become a monster of a man. His enormous body was dominated by a mountain of a belly. His lips bit down in a face that was frozen dark with severity and contempt. He had come to resemble Field Marshal Ludendorff in mufti. He was at the peak of his political power; but he was as lonely as ever, saturnine and sardonic. “Boies,” Quay once was supposed to have told him, “the people of Pennsylvania are going to demand more of you.” “More what?” demanded Penrose. Perhaps his cynicism was not merely the result of political experience. To stand for being an aristocrat in a democratic world was so futile as to be ridiculous; but then, in the world of democratic politics, there was the futility of limited aspirations. He was choked with boredom. And now the mysterious symbiosis of mind and body asserted itself. He grew progressively ill with cancer, though it took a long time for this fact to be known. In 1919 he collapsed. His convalescence took a long time. On March 4, 1921, Harding came to the capital for his inauguration. By that time Penrose had to be moved around in a wheelchair. Woodrow Wilson, half-paralyzed, arrived at the reviewing stand. Penrose’s secretary went up to the Secret Servicemen, offering Penrose’s wheelchair to the stricken ex-President. Wilson, whose hatreds burned even more fiercely in sickness than in health, refused it.
And now Penrose’s face had changed. It showed the ravages of the fatal disease. He had lost half his weight. His face had become impressive, almost beautiful again; his eyes were no longer beady but big and luminous. He became almost childish in his desire for approbation; there appeared in his conversation traces of kindness, even sentimentality. His Negro valet William Underwood, “Old Bill,” was a lay preacher. One day he pushed Penrose’s wheelchair toward the sun. “See here, William,” said Penrose. “See here. I don’t want any of your damned lies. How do I look? Am I getting any better? The truth now.” “Senator,” said William, crying, “I tell the truth. You ain’t got long. Amen.” “All right, William. Pray for me too.” He died at sixty-one on the last day of 1921 in the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, as he was waiting for the visit of his doctor. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, tried to stand up, fell back dead.