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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
The history of politics is a history of words. “Boss” is as American as “Santa Claus,” both words being Dutch in origin. “Boss,” wrote the English captain Thomas Hamilton, was a peculiar Americanism, a substitute for “master.” Hamilton’s book, Men and Manners in America , was published in 1831, roughly coincident with the rise of machine politics in the United States. It was during the 1830’s, too, that “big” became a favorite Americanism, an adjective suggesting quality as well as quantity; power and prestige, not merely size. Yet it was not until after the Civil War, when the era of the big bosses was opening, that “boss” and “bossism” acquired a political significance. Most bosses ruled the swelling cities; a few perfected their machinery in order to run an entire state. Most were Democrats; a few were Republicans. Many exercised a politically disputable, yet practically unchallengeable power over their local legislatures; a few were able to extend their power over their party in the United States Senate. Most had risen from the lower middle class; a few descended into politics from the upper classes. Most believed that power followed money; some believed money followed power. A few, having acquired power, wanted simply to hold on to it instead of parlaying it into something else—very different from the power brokers of today. Among these Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania stood out. Intellectually as well as physically, he was the biggest boss of his day.
His public life was an exaggerated representation of his times. He was born November 1,1860, five days before Lincoln was elected President; when he died, Wilson already had one foot in the grave. He was handsome and healthy in his youth; later he grew bloated and corpulent, like the Republic. Like the big engines, the big bankers, the gold watch chains, the national heavies, the solid citizens, Penrose looked, and in many ways was, a period piece. In other ways he was not. An exaggerated representation is not necessarily a caricature; and Penrose cared little for his image. He was loath to pay tribute to virtue. This, in an age marked by gross hypocrisy, was one of the more remarkable features of his character.
Childhood photographs of Boies Penrose show an extraordinarily beautiful child. Except for his clothes, and except for the inevitable atmosphere which such images breathe, there is nothing very Victorian about him. He has a Regency face, almost porcelain in its fineness: a remarkable forehead, clear strong eyes, a slightly pouting lower lip, an expression that is disdainful rather than contemptuous, rather English, and very different from his later senatorial countenance, which had something Germanic about it and not only because of his enormous bulk.
He was born an Anglo-American aristocrat. This word has been misused in recent times, promiscuously attributed to families who, no matter how successful and rich, are but one generation removed from the middle class. The founder of the family in America, Bartholomew Penrose, came from a Cornish family of a certain distinction. His son Thomas became a rich shipowner in colonial Philadelphia. His son married the daughter of a most prominent Philadelphia family; his grandson married the granddaughter of a younger son of the Duke of Norfolk. The grandson of this grandson was Boies’s father, Dr. Richard Alexander Pullerton Penrose, who married Sarah Hannah Boies—among whose ancestors were two graduates of the first Harvard College class in 1642; the secretary to Lord Baltimore; and the Earl of Charteris.
The portraits of Boies’s father show a patrician, dignified, kind physician. His wife was lovely, learned, and strong. They were a handsome, intelligent, successful couple, yet they chose to withdraw from the greater world. Everything about their lives suggests a curious and melancholy reticence, an odd mixture of shyness and pride, a withdrawal into a kind of interior life, as if this were the only decent way to live at the time of the booming blossoming of the American democracy. They lived at 1331 Spruce Street, in a comfortable house of small dimensions, few ornaments, and no pretensions. In the 1860’s this house stood on the edge of the fashionable portion of the eighth ward of Philadelphia, most of the prominent and rich families having moved farther west, across Broad Street. The Penroses did not participate in this social migration. In spite of her great beauty and intelligence and family connections, Dr. Penrose’s young wife showed little interest in society. She bore him seven sons within ten years.
Her two oldest sons, Boies and Charles Bingham, were tutored at home. They graduated from Episcopal Academy with equally high marks. Although fifteen months apart in age, they entered Harvard University together. Here the parallel ends. While his brother advanced from honor to honor, Boies Penrose was on the verge of being expelled at the outset of his senior year. His parents were disturbed. Letters passed between Spruce Street and Cambridge. He learned that his mother was dying, and his purposeful character asserted itself. He rallied and graduated with honors, only to return from Boston to a house halfempty. His mother had died.
Between 1881, when Penrose returned from Harvard, and 1884, when he chose to enter politics, the city of Philadelphia underwent a political revolution: a complete turn of the wheel. Prominent citizens had roused themselves in the cause of reform. A Committee of One Hundred raised the banner against the corrupt Gas Ring which ruled City Hall. In 1881 they succeeded in electing a reform mayor and a reformist receiver of taxes. They did not succeed in reforming either the habits of the municipal bureaucracy or the voting habits of the electorate. In 1883 the voters rejected the reform controller; the next year, they turned the amiable reform mayor out of office. The machine was back in power. There were a few new faces among the leaders. The wheel had gone full circle: the Ring remained at the hub.
Boies Penrose was both witness and participant in these events. He saw the Gas Ring for what it was: artless and corrupt, shameless and vulgar. He was reading law in a firm whose senior partners were champions in the struggle for municipal regeneration, as was the senior partner of the firm Penrose would join when he was admitted to the bar. In the municipal election of February, 1884, the young Penrose stepped up to the battlements. He stood at the polling places, tall—six feet four—and defiant, sporting a large reform badge on his overcoat; he held a no less impressive copy of the Voters’ Register in his hand. The toughs of the ward leaders growled and snapped around him, but to no avail. There were no tricks at the polls that day. In a ward which had been one of the safest for the machine, its candidate lost three to one. Everyone saw that this was due mostly to Penrose. He had intimidated the intimidators. He was the civic hero of the day.
It was a turning point in his life. The proper people of Philadelphia were impressed. So were the politicians and the ward leaders. There occurred now a marriage of convenience. Penrose was interested in politics; the politicians were interested in Penrose. The ward leaders did not merely take to him; they took to him on his terms. He wanted to be chosen for the state legislature; they nominated and elected him. On a raw January day in 1885 Penrose took the train to Harrisburg. His political career was launched.
Many people later suggested that this turning point had coincided with a transformation of his character. Penrose chose a career in politics at a time when Lord Bryce was asking “Why the Best Men Do Not Go into Politics.” Yet the young patrician did not go in as a reformer; he became voracious, cynical, and impenitent. Penrose threw himself into the muddy pool of politics, the theory goes, because he liked low company. This may be too simple an explanation. Within the family there was a precedent. His grandfather, whose career he studied and admired, had been a politician. Charles Bingham Penrose, with his noble brow and his breathtakingly beautiful wife, had enjoyed the rude sounds and smells of the political arena. First state senator, then president of the Pennsylvania Senate, he had been instrumental in electing Simon Cameron, one of the most ruthless and corrupt politicians of the era, to the United States Senate in 1857; he was a close friend of Thaddeus Stevens; he was one of the founders of the Republican party in Philadelphia. He was largely indifferent to those proper Philadelphians who disapproved of him. He may have had a taste for low company; he certainly had an appetite for power.
His grandson Boies, too, believed in power; he thought in terms of it, as was evident from his earliest political writings. The contrast between the young patrician and the corrupt politician may be intellectually and logically attractive; but it will not stand. As a twenty-year-old Harvard student, Penrose had delivered an oration on “Martin Van Buren as a Politician.” This terse, opinionated, and clear paper dealt with the origins of bossism; it also contained, in a nutshell, the lifelong political philosophy of Boies Penrose.
“Martin Van Buren,” Penrose began, “was the first and the greatest of American politicians; of that class of statesmen who owe their success not so much to their opinions or characters, as to their skill in managing the machinery of party. … He marks the transition in American politics from statesmen like Adams and Webster to the great political bosses and managers of today.…Adams was the last statesman of the old school who was to occupy the White House, Van Buren was the first politician president.” This was “the inevitable outcome” of the development of the country. “The voters of the United States were no longer the same voters who had founded the Constitution. In the rivalries of parties, the mechanical arts of electioneering were soon reduced to a system.… Political opinions, in fact, were a secondary consideration. All the statesmanship that the times required was the artful adaptation of general propositions to the existing temper and opinions of the masses.
“We can now understand the contempt which the practical politician bestows too often upon the civil service reformer.…” The preaching “by a certain class of political amateurs” amounts to little; it is often “peculiarly unjust. By management and not by statesmanship are questions generally decided in the Legislatures.…When management is all that is essential have we a right to be disappointed if Van Buren is not Webster?”
All of Penrose’s political career was consistent with this conclusion.
The acuity of his mind was extraordinary. In spite of (or perhaps because of) his considerable learning, Penrose developed an early disdain for the presentations of the Harvard professorate. He was a vigorous youth, with powerful appetites, physical as well as mental. His father, who had an exaggerated conviction about the virtues of dieting, became ever more withdrawn. The young Boies went out, night after night, to oyster houses and steakhouses where he would sit, solitary and saturnine, downing large quantities of food and drink. During the day he was that most proper of Philadelphians, a young lawyer in a city celebrated for its legal aristocracy. Yet he soon became bored with the conventionality of the law. “My offices,” he recalled later, “were always full. On one side of the waiting room the politicians gathered. Across the other side were my clients. After a few months I decided to choose between them and I chose the least stupid and the more honest.” He chose the politicians.
Penrose wrote two short treatises during his early twenties, with enough stuff in them to establish him as an American political historian of considerable rank. They reflect, again, the consistency of his political ideas. His history of the city government of Philadelphia remains to this day the most brilliant and concise summary of the topic. He wrote it together with his then law partner Edward P. Allinson; but it carries overbearing marks of Penrose’s own style:
“We shall, in these pages, avoid the puerile error of complaining of the wickedness and corruption of professional politicians. It is very common to speak of that class as something outside of and apart from the ordinary citizen. … The politician, professional or otherwise, follows the stamp of his age; he is just what his age or environment demands or permits, neither better nor worse. The rules of his morality may differ from those of the clergyman or the merchant, but it weighs about as many ounces to the pound, and we are inclined to think that, from his intimate acquaintance with human nature, he gives better weight.”
Penrose and Allinson published another masterful exposition, Ground Rents in Philadelphia , which examined the opportunities in Philadelphia for all kinds of people to own their homes. The number of citizens living in their own, separate houses was greater in Philadelphia than in any other great city in the world. Boies Penrose, who began his political career as Karl Marx died, recognized early one of the basic failures of the Marxist assumption: the failure to see that the so-called working classes, instead of being the most revolutionary and radical, were in reality the most conservative and property-minded elements of industrialized society, of the mass democratic state.
This was the last of Penrose’s literary efforts. In the family history he wrote for the Harvard Class Record in 1881, he had called the early Penrose family “commercial rather than literary.” The career he had chosen was neither commercial nor literary. Other people in politics, including certain proper Bostonians, could combine politics with literature. Penrose would not.
Two years after that frozen January day in 1885 when Penrose had taken the train to Harrisburg, he was elected state senator. Four years later, at the age of twentynine, he presided over the Pennsylvania Senate. Six years after that, in 1897, he was elected to the United States Senate, where he remained, growing ever more powerful, for twenty-four years; his was a political career that was spectacular at its outset, and solid for its duration, an impressive combination.
There was a curious duality about this career. In one sense it was not very different from that of the other political bosses of his period. While he governed the legislative process in a magisterial manner, his name was not connected with much important legislation. He reigned over his party in the Senate with the sleepy eyes of a grand vizier who had seen everything. Yet when legislation came before him, he spent hours examining it, making sure that it contained not even the smallest of legal loopholes. He shared none of that obsession with money that was typical of other bosses, and not only because he had inherited enough of it to keep him comfortable. Penrose presided over large secret financial transactions, involving the party machine, but none of his enemies could ever accuse him of having taken money for himself. This impressed the politicians around him. They cared for money. Penrose cared for power. This alone ensured their cooperation. When he found that politicians of his party, frenzied for loot, had gone overboard and were thrashing in deep water, Penrose said: “They’re damned fools, not criminals.” Yet he, who did not suffer fools gladly, went to considerable lengths to eet them out of trouble.
In the manipulation of votes, Penrose was less cavalier and less scrupulous; yet even here his enemies could not pin him down with evidences of fraud. Penrose proceeded from the assumption that proper and assiduous management would ensure that American voters would select that which was accustomed and patriotic. One day he was watching a military parade march along Broad Street in Philadelphia. A companion, carried away with enthusiasm, said something about the admirable nature of this spectacle. The spectacle, Penrose said, that excited his unbounded admiration and deepest emotion “is a well-drilled body of voters marching in perfect and obedient order to the polls.” Yet he was more than a master of getting out the vote. He also understood the importance of manipulating public opinion. In 1895 he and his ally, Pennsylvania Republican boss Matthew Stanley Quay, controlled much of the news reporting in the state through owning stock in a number of newspapers. Penrose consorted with reporters, played host to them, dropped them all kinds of hints. In this respect he was a twentieth-century politician, rather than a surviving nineteenthcentury one.
On the day of his first electoral triumph—and for some time afterward—the proper people were impressed. He was not impressed with them. He had concluded his treatise on Philadelphia ground rents with a scathing summary of the failure of the reform movement in Philadelphia. He read the manuscript before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania: it is not difficult to imagine the frozen faces of that distinguished audience, many of whom were members of the reform movement that this young lion in a den of Daniels dismissed in so many words. He had supported the reform charter for Philadelphia; but he was very skeptical of its results. The first mayor elected under the charter was a devout manufacturer, a bearded ropemaker named Edwin H. Fitler, who, Penrose said, was certain of the church vote “because he looks like a prosperous Apostle.” Reformers were “wateryeyed,” “pious fools.” Their substance was thin. Many of his political allies feared the reformers; Penrose had only contempt for them. They were hypocrites. They prided themselves on having opinions more exalted than those of the common man, which made them feel good. Even more than the corrupt politicians, they depended on the support of the wealthier classes. “To whom did the reformers go when they needed the money to finance their campaigns of blather?” Penrose asked. “To the wage earners? Not by a damn sight. They went to the capitalists, to great merchants and manufacturers who, as it happened, themselves yearned to be legislators and write laws.”
“There is more simplicity,” Chesterton wrote, “in a man who eats oysters on impulse than in a man who eats Grape-nuts on principle.” Penrose, who was a gargantuan devourer of oysters, the bigger the better, would have agreed. Yet his character was not simple. He had no scruples at all in presiding over the briberies spun out by his associates; he approved complicated plots whereby the latter would shortchange and defraud people through legislative legerdemain. His experience at law made him understand that even more important than the letter of the law was the procedure in the courts: he had his minions fix juries, occasionally studding them with reliable veniremen with prison records. He succeeded in halting the proceedings against one of his men who had committed vote fraud. Yet no one could ever prove that any one of his own election victories depended on fraud. He cultivated his contacts with courthouse politicians, rumpled men with owlish faces who carried pints of whisky in brown paper bags. Yet he kept an impeccable staff of secretaries, and turned over his entire senatorial salary to the chief one among them.
His mail was voluminous; he made sure that every letter addressed to him received a prompt answer; he declined to use the congressional franking privilege on his personal mail. He had, as we have seen, an excellent prose style; yet his speeches are not interesting to read, and his letters are no more so. He wrote nothing that could cause him any kind of embarrassment. He was supposed to have boasted that he never wrote a letter to a woman “that you couldn’t chill beer on.”
He was a superpatriot; yet when his bitter political opponent Progressive Robert La Follette was about to be expelled from the Senate because of his opposition to the war against Germany, Penrose said that he would have no part of it, and later pulled strings to quash the expulsion motion. Both before and after World War I, Penrose was an unreconstructed isolationist; yet during the war he simply and squarely proposed that there ought to be “a dreadnought for every state of the Union.” His mother had taken him to Europe during a Harvard vacation; after three weeks he asked to be allowed to return home. He was contemptuous of any kind of American involvement in the Old World; yet he was well versed in the classics. He was a collector of the first editions of travel books, of certain manuscripts, an amateur scholar of the history of explorations, and a voracious reader.
He was a genius at getting things done without working very hard. He knew how to delegate authority; his secretaries were tirelessly efficient. He was one of the first politicians to recognize the usefulness of the telephone as an instrument of instant, and unrecorded, contact; his bills ran to a thousand dollars or more a month. In 1914 his secretary persuaded him to purchase the large red Winton touring car which became his trademark. He found it to be a useful vehicle for visiting all the counties of the state.
He sought the companionship of all kinds of people; yet he was essentially lonely. To his niece and nephew he was the classic uncle: a generous giant who spoke few words and was, perhaps, therefore especially impressive. He refused the invitations of Philadelphia dowagers with a bland formality. On the few occasions when he did appear at a dinner party, he was usually taciturn and bored, a graceless hulk of a man. He was surely different from other patricians of his era who had ventured into politics. It is difficult to imagine Boies Penrose contemplating the French châteaux as wiry, wispy Henry Cabot Lodge did, in the company of an intellectual wife with the tea-cake name of Nannie.
He never married; he never had a durable relationship with a woman. He was attractive to women when he was young; even when he had grown enormous, some of his attraction remained. He frequented brothels; these were especially numerous in the south end of the eighth ward, where he started his political career. His legendary appetites were reputed to have been sexual as well as alimentary. Yet during his career there was but a single instance when his enemies could pin the scarlet letter of scandal on his coattails. In 1895 he wanted to run for mayor of Philadelphia. At the last moment his nomination was withdrawn. The story was that the opposition had produced a photograph of Penrose issuing from a known house of prostitution. It was a grave disappointment, perhaps the greatest of his career.
In a largely unknown novel, The Great One by Henry Hart, the young protagonist—Penrose, only thinly disguised—has a searing and exceptional affair at Harvard with a beautiful society girl who flings herself at him on the rebound from an unhappy affair. Their affair, too, is unhappy and deeply wounds the protagonist. His carapace of cynicism hardens. The hero will never marry. This kind of construction seems plausible. (Hart knew Penrose well and at one time considered writing his biography.) Yet there is not a shred of evidence, or of family reminiscence, sustaining it. Penrose’s sentiments about women remain a mystery.
His personal habits, too, were full of paradox. Penrose’s strength and size made him a coveted candidate for the college football team. But he refused because he hated any kind of physical contact with other male bodies, especially muddy and sweaty ones. He hated to be touched. People who placed their hands on his arm or shoulder were pushed away; so was anyone who tried to lean close and whisper in his ear. He had a phobia of germs; yet his huge and hairless hands were often dirty, his fingernails unkempt. He had a fine dark head of hair; yet he, who made few compromises in his quest for comfort (he would leave his vest unbuttoned even on certain ceremonial occasions), wore large hats even on the hottest of days. He had an extensive wardrobe, with suits made of the best English cloth; they were often spotted with food stains. His boots were always polished, yet at times tied with string and, on one occasion, it was said, with a corsetstring borrowed from a prostitute. He drank cheap gin and whisky in low dives. Did he have what the French call the nostalgie de la boue , the desire to wallow in the mud? Perhaps—but there is little evidence that he behaved indiscreetly. He kept his dignity at the lowest of tables and, perhaps, in the lowest of beds.
He was magnificently coarse. His eating habits were said to be gargantuan: a dozen eggs for breakfast, with twelve rolls, a quart of coffee, a halfinch-thick slab of ham; an entire stuffed turkey for lunch. There is the story told by Pennsylvania congressman J. Washington Logue, in whose presence Penrose had ordered reedbirds for dinner; the waiters brought a chafing dish containing twenty-six, which he proceeded to devour one by one, finishing the wild rice and drinking the gravy out of a cup, all of this after having drunk nine cocktails and five highballs. Yet Penrose cared little for luxuries: his favorite drink was Pennsylvania Highspire whisky. His table manners were ugly. Toward the end of his life he told the manager of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia to put a screen around the table when he was eating his lunch. Otherwise, he did not care. His sloth, too, was legendary. It grew with the years, eventually to be incarnated in the huge layers of fat which rendered him nearly immobile. Immobile, but not helpless. He was bearlike, not elephantine. In his youth, while hunting in Wyoming with his brother, the latter was badly mauled by a bear; disregarding the advice of the guides, Boies carried him out of the wilderness on his shoulders. Now he was the big boss of Pennsylvania, of the Republican party, in the Senate of the United States; friends and enemies alike called him Big Grizzly.
He hardly exercised in his later years; yet his strength did not desert him until near the end. It would be, I think, a mistake to speculate that his growing immobility, his sloth, was the result of hormonal imbalance, of a faulty metabolism. It was rooted, rather, in a deep and permanent sense of futility. There lay the tragedy of Penrose. He had an enormous appetite. He had little appetite for life.
He was born, he lived, he died in the same house. The furnishings were somber. He slept late, never engaged a cook, relied on a minimum of maid service. Penrose had no interest in traveling, even within the United States. His protectionist and isolationist preferences in politics were also the preferences of his private life. In 1915 he let himself be persuaded to buy a yacht, a broad-beamed, comfortable boat rebuilt to accommodate his dimensions. Around the Betty all kinds of legends sprang up, including one which had her anchored in the swells with a nude Penrose aboard, surrounded by politicians and floozies. According to others, Penrose never entertained a woman on his boat. The second version seems as believable as the first.
Were there two Penroses, a public and a private one: the tight-fisted, taciturn senator during the day, and the drunken orgiast at night? No, he was too much of a piece. His impassive face eventually congealed into a mask: but unlike other public personages in this century, it was his face that became the mask, not the public mask that became his face.
Penrose was a national figure for a quarter of a century. He entered politics at a moment when the generational guard was changing. McClellan, Grant, Arthur, Hancock, Seymour, Tilden—the Presidents and the presidential candidates of the period following the Civil War—all died within a year of Penrose’s arrival in Harrisburg. He was a contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt and of Woodrow Wilson. He did not like either of them. The first was “a cock-eyed little runt,” the second “a schoolmarm.” He had no liking for Progressives of whatever stripe. He preferred the older type of boss, such as his ally Matthew Quay. He and Quay had considerable respect for one another, even though Quay was compulsive about money. (“A plum” and “to shake the plum tree” were politico-financial metaphors that he brought into the American language. Penrose is reputed to have said that Quay “made it his policy always to keep at least one hand on the public purse. Only once in twenty years was there a state treasurer [Quay] could not control while he was in power. That state treasurer was Matthew Stanley Quay.”) It is ironic that Penrose and Quay together played a decisive role in furthering the career of Theodore Roosevelt. They were behind Roosevelt’s nomination to the vice presidency on the ticket headed by William McKinley in order to spite Quay’s opponent Mark Hanna, the puissant boss from Ohio.
Penrose’s association with corrupt politicians did little harm to his popularity. The secret (then called “Australian”) ballot was enacted by reformers in Pennsylvania in 1891, with the intention of abolishing voting fraud. Penrose never had much trouble getting elected. The Pennsylvania legislature elected him to the United States Senate in 1896. Before the nomination Quay and his friends persuaded him to take on the front-running candidate, the merchant prince John Wanamaker, in a primary contest for popularity in Huntingdon County: Penrose won by nearly two to one. In 1913 the Progressives pushed through the constitutional amendment for the direct election of senators. It did not bother Penrose. In 1914 he beat his vocal opponent, the Progressive Gifford Pinchot, two to one again. His popularity was such that in 1915 the Republican organization considered carving a new county out of Luzerne and Schuylkill counties, to be called Penrose County. Penrose was not much interested, and the matter was dropped. In the taverns of the Philadelphia tenderloin district, autographed photographs of Penrose hung side by side with those of John L. Sullivan. The fact that Penrose considered it politic to support the city machine, even when it was proven to be awarding contracts to high bidders and charging the taxpayers double, hurt Penrose not at all. So much for the argument that people, expecially in the age of materialism, vote according to their pocketbook.
Penrose believed in the practicality of the capitalist credo. He supported large industries; he believed they made the United States great, since they provided ample work and high wages for the masses. He knew that industrial health depended on governmental rules and regulations, foremost among them the high tariff walls that protected American industry from foreign competition. Like most Republicans, he did not believe in free trade or free competition; he thought the government ought to intervene on behalf of the industrialists. He advised steel magnate Henry Clay Frick not to fight the strikers. “Give ’em a little extra gravy till they settle down, then raise prices or the tariff to pay for it”—an inflationary philosopy of which Richard Nixon would have approved. At times Penrose could sound downright demagogic, thundering, for example, against the insidious invasion of margarine: “We are not willing that the profits of our domestic animals shall be taken away from their legitimate sources and given to a select syndicate of capitalists, in order that they may become inordinately rich.” For “the profits of domestic animals” read the Pennsylvania dairy industry, as powerful in 1910 as it is today.
In 1914 the president of a Pennsylvania manufacturers’ association declared that the divine purpose of the United States was, simply and squarely, to maintain “the best market on earth.” Penrose did not really think of the United States in these terms; but he accepted, and welcomed, this kind of capitalist support as well as the support that had come to his party from the slush funds of small capitalists, even from the assessment of saloon keepers and brewers. His voting record was not moved by any consistent principle. He opposed four constitutional amendments: the income tax, the direct election of senators, woman suffrage, and prohibition; but he often changed his votes, backing away from causes when he sensed they had become unpopular. At times he would even propose and support reformist legislation. On occasion he actually led the fight against corruption. The Philadelphia Public Buildings Commission was a source of public robbery on a vast scale; and when, after long years, it was finally abolished, Penrose wired his crony in Philadelphia, State Senator James P. “Strawberry Jim” McNichol: “Splendid But What Steps Taken To Compel Commission To Take City Hall With Them?” He hated Philadelphia City Hall. There is an irony in this. That white-marbled, French-Victorian pile has become increasingly appreciated since Penrose’s day as a national monument to the municipal mansard era, while Penrose Bridge and Penrose Avenue in South Philadelphia have remained the most depressing of thoroughfares, lined by dumps and the metallic filth of junkyards.
He did not hate reform, but he hated reformers. He would have agreed with Ambrose Bierce that a conservative is a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguised from a liberal who wishes to replace them with new ones. Was he a conservative? It is at least arguable that his opponent, the Progressive Pinchot, an early conservationist and a stern upholder of civic virtues, including prohibition, was a truer conservative. Penrose abhorred what he saw as the dry, the thin, the abstract virtues Pinchot represented. “Somebody told me that the man never had a drink in his life. If that’s.the fact, there’s no use arguing with him. The man needs a drink.” “You are a liability,” Pinchot once wrote Penrose, “the most perfect living representative of the worst kind of politics in America.” Penrose did not deign to answer but said that “Pinchot is as important as any cheap side show outside the fence of a county fair. He’s as important as the tattooed man or the cigarette fiend.” Penrose would have agreed with Burke’s principle that politics must be adjusted not to reason but to human nature, of which reason is an important part but only a part. But Penrose was too much of a cynic to believe in principles; and in the age of democracy and of universal education, Boies Penrose had a lower estimate of human nature than had Edmund Burke of the untutored people of the eighteenth century. Burke said that the people must never be regarded as incurable. “The people are all right,” Penrose said, “but their tastes are simple: they dearly love hokum.” Penrose dearly believed in the efficacy of hokum. In 1919 a Washington newspaperman asked Penrose who would be the ideal Republican candidate for President. “We shall select a man of lofty ideals,” Penrose said. “He shall be a man familiar with world problems. … He will be a man who will appeal warmly to the young voter—the young men and women of our country. A man of spotless character, of course.… A man whose life shall be an inspiration to all of us, to whom we may look as our national hero.…The man I have in mind is the late Buffalo Bill.”
Penrose was a nationalist. He had a contempt for the foreign-born; he pushed through several acts to forbid or curtail their employment on public projects. He spoke out against the Yellow Peril, and introduced a Senate resolution in 1913 to send American troops into Mexico. In one of his rare foreign policy speeches, in 1914, Penrose said that the Mexicans were a bunch of shiftless Indians. At least the Spaniards had “compelled the Indian to work instead of lying comfortably, on the ground and letting ripe bananas drop into his mouth.” He distrusted Europeans, and wanted to keep the country out of World War I. Yet by 1917 he realized that Americans were itching for war, and he chose not to swim against the current. After the war, he approved of the national revulsion against internationalism: “As far as I can ascertain, the League of Nations occupies an obscure place in the political cemetery of dead issues,” he said. Disarmament was “a purely idealistic and nebulous theory.” He may have been right, but for the wrong reasons. He had no interest in Europe, and disapproved of those who had, or pretended they had. When the Harding administration came in, one of Penrose’s old Pennsylvania allies, Cyrus E. Woods, yearned to become ambassador to Spain. Penrose supported his nomination. Woods wrote an effusive thankyou letter, to which Penrose replied: “Dear Woods, I have your letter of June 15th, and am glad to hear from you. I congratulate you upon your appointment, although I frequently doubted the wisdom of your going abroad. I shall hope to see you before you leave. Yours sincerely, etc.”
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.
All his life Boies Penrose had an aversion to funerals. He had given orders for a spartan interment. There were to be no guests, no attendants, not even a clergyman. There was something terrible and solitary about this scene. The gates were kept closed by the police. Five high-wheeled black automobiles, containing fewer than ten people, including Penrose’s three surviving brothers, drove to Laurel Hill, that most Victorian of cemeteries, filled during the nineteenth century with the grayed and yellowed and half-sunk mausoleums of rich ironmasters, deserted and empty. The grave was swept and garnished, the clods of earth were wet and dark. It was a day of cold black rain.
During the middle span of Penrose’s life, Lincoln Steffens wrote a famous book on American cities, calling Philadelphia “corrupt and contented,” a pair of adjectives that applied to Philadelphia politics at large; many people thought they also applied to Boies Penrose in particular. The truth was more complicated than that. Penrose had giant faults, but he was not personally corrupt. He had a giant appetite, but he was not contented. Beneath that mountainous flesh and behind that sternest of stoic countenances there lay, I think, the desperately solitary sadness of an unbelieving heart.
Penrose had left his estate to his three brothers. It amounted to a fraction of what his father had left him. The furnishings of 1331 Spruce Street were appraised at less than seventeen hundred dollars. His brothers found thirteen unworn suits, a dozen overcoats, four dozen new nightgowns, and in the cellar a stock of liquors appraised at a quarter of a million dollars. This last was legally theirs, since their brother had bought it before Prohibition became the law of the land, but a silly Pennsylvania law held that it could not be removed from the premises without a special permit of the state Prohibition director. Boies’s brother, Dr. R. A. F. Penrose, a distinguished geologist, moved into the house. He made an abortive attempt at writing his brother’s biography and died nine years later, also wifeless and childless. In 1934 the house was demolished to make way for a parking lot. A junk dealer paid four dollars for Boies Penrose’s giant tub.