Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The Year: 1563
Scene: A meeting of all the Irish clans. A chieftain is speaking to an underling.
"Now, Riley, who's on the guest list an' what'll they be bringin' t' the clanbake?"
"Well, there's the O'Tooles, o'course. They'll be bringin' the potato salad."
"Ah, lovely! An' what about the Murphys?"
"The Murphys are bringin' the beer."
"Grand! An' what about the Sullivans? What are they bringin'?"
"Ah, yes. They always do."
Not much has changed in the intervening years.
I’ve had the news clippings that are the background of this story in my possession for close to three months now. During that time, I’ve struggled to come up with a way to present the story so as to keep it as interesting as it certainly is, yet not make a member of my family look a bit foolish. I’ve found it a near-impossible task. So, I'm just going to tell the story and let the chips fall where they may. The main character in it is dead, so that helps a bit. It’s very hard to embarrass the dead.
The story takes place in 1952. That’s important. In particular, there is one line in the newspaper account that... well, you'll see. It sounds impossibly silly now, but back then it wasn't as odd as it seems.
My Aunt Anna (actually, my great aunt) was an interesting woman. She was a lifelong old-line Democrat – as were all the Sullivans of that generation - and she was as stubborn as the symbol of that political party, too. If you did Anna (or any Sullivan) a wrong, the Irish Alzheimer’s came to the fore.
(Irish Alzheimer’s - You forget everything but a grudge.)
Anna lived in the White City Apartments in Jamaica Plain, a section of Boston, along with her husband, Roy Luffe (whose mustache and wake you’ve read about before.) Their daughters, Patty and Dolly Ann (whom you know these days as Dorothy) also lived there at one time. As a matter of fact, those apartments were just crawling with Sullivans. My grandparents also lived there, along with their four children (among them, my Uncle Jim, who comments here occasionally, and will no doubt have something to say about this story.) Another apartment was occupied by my Great Uncle Jim, a bachelor, and he shared that space with his (and Anna's) two unmarried sisters, Loretta and Agnes. In later years, my Uncle David (my Cousin David's father) rented there, along with his wife, my Aunt Cissy. And, at the time of this story, there was a John J. Sullivan living there - no relation, so far as I know - who will figure into the story.
Well, it seems that the landlord of these apartments was a mean and miserable son of a bitch. His name was Maurice Gordon. From all accounts, he was basically a slumlord. He bought the apartments when they were quite nice, but did very little in the way of upkeep or repairs. He also gave next to nothing in services, even though the rental price included such things as heat. And upon that heat our story hinges.
In the winter of 1951-1952, while he was enjoying the sunshine during a vacation in Miami Beach, Gordon more-or-less shut off the heat at White City. He didn't cut it off completely, but he made the living conditions fairly icy. The heat in the apartments would go on for four minutes an hour during the evening, but no more. As you might imagine, that smidgen of warmth didn’t go very far in a Boston winter.
Aunt Anna, among others, tried to reason with the bum. She called, wrote letters, and visited his office in person, but her protestations were met with a deaf ear from his lackeys. Temperatures in the apartments were so frigid, the tenants were forced to wear long johns, woolen shirts, jackets, caps, gloves, and other winter apparel.
Well, Aunt Anna was NOT one to take being ignored lying down. She decided to help organize a renter's protest against the landlord. Along with the afore-mentioned John J. Sullivan, she convinced all of the tenants to file suit against Gordon.
Gordon - or, at least, Gordon's representatives - came to court, and so did all of the White City tenants who could take time away from work. Here they are, arriving at the courthouse in West Roxbury.
(Please click onto the clippings for a better view.)
(My apologies for the quality of this and the following clippings. They are over 55 years old. Newsprint doesn't age well. By the way, the date written in on this photo is incorrect. It was definitely 1952. I have no idea who the child is with the arrow pointing towards him. Note that this was the second time in three months that they had Gordon in court.)
Here are more clippings. In order to get the full enjoyment out of this, you’ll want to read the entire account. Don’t skim.
Yes, that’s Aunt Anna in the photo, bringing the drama. That’s what "communist tactics" will do to a person.
Can you imagine anyone saying something like that today? It would be a swell line in a comedy, but back then it was deadly serious. It was The Red Scare and The Cold War. The Iron Curtain was fully in place, and Senator Joseph McCarthy was making his name out in Wisconsin. Alger Hiss was in jail for espionage, folks were being blacklisted in the entertainment industry, and if you accused someone of being a Communist, you were casting a fairly serious aspersion. It was pretty much equal to claiming that someone was in favor of cannibalism. I’m not really sure what would qualify as "communist tactics" in a cross-examination - perhaps the demand for "yes" and "no" answers - but I guarantee the accusation was not met with laughter.
As you saw in the story, Gordon was found not guilty on a technicality; no doubt, one that he planned as a fallback. In speaking with my Uncle Jim, he told me that the court cases did have an effect. Gordon took enough interest in the property’s upkeep to avoid having another suit brought. There was never another winter where the tenants completely froze, so it was a victory of sorts.
Let us return to the photo of Aunt Anna.
When it appeared in The American (a William Randolph Hearst newspaper), on THE FRONT PAGE, she was mortified. So was most of the rest of the family. Here was Anna, a devout Catholic and a daily communicant, on the front page of Boston’s most notorious tabloid, in an entirely unladylike pose. On top of that, they had lost. At least if they had won, they would have had that to throw back in the face of anyone who laughed.
You’ll notice I said most of the rest of the family was mortified. My Uncle Jimmy, who was about 10 at the time, wasn’t mortified. As a matter of fact, he thought it was a marvelous thing. He took a copy of the paper to school with him and, with great pride, showed all of his friends how important his family was. His Aunt Anna was on the front page! And, if I know kids, it probably did buy him a bit of fame among his peers.
It is not known who saved the clippings originally, but I found them in a scrapbook compiled by Aunt Anna herself, so it has to be assumed that whatever embarrassment there was became somehow mitigated over time. Perhaps the same lack of memory that resulted in the photos being labeled "1956", rather than the correct "1952", also served to make the whole episode less traumatic and more heroic in hindsight.
Aunt Anna lived to the ripe old age of 100. Until her death, she never backed down a single inch when she believed herself to be in the right. She married a Luffe, but she certainly remained a Sullivan.
Soon, with more better stuff.