Foreword by Dr. Rebecca Kitiona-Fenton of the Institute for the Study of Previrtual Media at George Washington University
She is writing in 2080.
Just what to make of my great-granduncle’s newspaper memoir?
When Aunt Erica first told me of his manuscript, I did not know what to anticipate. For all I knew, it might have been about whaling. I almost expected to read of harpoons and blubber boilers.
Typewriters existed outside museums back then. And those quaint old chronicles known as blogs had yet to bewilder and horrify the elite.
Washington, D.C., in skin color, was not so multihued. Rich, pale ladies born in the 1800s, the very century of Moby-Dick,1 lingered on in gargoyled apartment buildings. Civil War widows still breathed.
Even before first seeing Uncle Jon’s memoir about the Solomon scandals, I had known of George McWilliams. He had been Jon’s editor at the Washington Telegram and lorded over the most skilled of harpooners. Then one day his Ahab-like captaincy ended with a bloody dénouement in the parking lot.
Looking over the memoir, I’ll anticipate some readers’ objections to the social and sexual mores of Uncle Jon’s newspaper days.2 I did not attempt to sanitize this history. May I also say he learned and evolved with the times?
Alas, however, many actually regressed. Uncle Jon wrote of the oft-unholy triad of media, government, and business. The scandals of Fox News,3 the Trump Administration, and other Republicans showed how little they learned from the Democratic transgressions of Jon’s era.
I do think that Uncle Jon himself gained new self-awareness during the writing of The Solomon Scandals. At first keen to publish, he agreed to his wife’s suggestion that his scathing manuscript stay locked in a museum vault until the late twenty-first century. That way he could tell the full truth while showing compassion toward minor players far from the heart of the scandals. His wife disliked even positive publicity about herself.
Uncle Jon mellowed as he aged. I wonder what kind of newspaper memoir he would have written as a white-haired nonagenarian. Not only his own extra insights but those of many others could have enlightened him—about everything from gender and race to D.C. snobbery.
No matter where Uncle Jon is these days, and regardless of the usual academic strictures against sentimentality, I wish him the happiest and most accurate of harpooning.
—Rebecca Kitiona-Fenton, Ph.D., Washington, D.C., January 4, 2081
- So many literary allusions need to be explained in these days of diminished mass literacy. I’m glad this one doesn’t. – R.K.
- Fox News was a right-wing propaganda outlet that often placed itself at the service of favored politicians like Donald Trump. The Telegram was a liberal publication that erred in a similar way, although not as egregiously as Fox. – R.K.
- Uncle Jon charmed me from the grave, so to speak—I loved his wit, integrity, and courage. But I’m fully aware of his limitations as a late twentieth-century man. So in some places, not all, I’ll annotate my reactions as a modern feminist. I’ll also use endnotes for other purposes. With them I’ll explain now-obscure cultural references and others—and call out Uncle John when I believe he is just plain wrong. – R.K.
Wendy Blevin’s obituary in the Telegram ran only 578 words—a notably miserly length. As much as anyone, she was a natural for a long feature in the “She had everything to live for” vein. I say this despite the Solomon scandals.
She was thirty-three, slender, and WASP-pretty, with pale blond hair matching the coat of her Afghan hound. She earned seventy-five thousand a year, as one of Washington’s best gossips in print and in person. She’d been president of her class at Sidwell Friends School1 while leading an un-Quakerlike social life. She won a short-story contest sponsored by one of the snobbier women’s magazines. She edited the yearbook at Vassar and was the first columnist on the student newspaper to use the F-word with impunity.
Wendy marched against the Vietnam War. She lobbied for the environment, a cause made all the more attractive when a ticky-tacky development encroached on her family’s mansion in Potomac, Maryland. She was as highly pedigreed as her dog; she was eccentric rather than crazy. She jumped to her death off a balcony at the Watergate.
The day before her suicide, she was the subject of an exposé in her own paper—one, I am pleased to say, I had no part in writing.
And having said that much, I’ll stop. The Blevin obituary was a cover-up, all right, but no more than the Telegram’s treatment of the scandals that preceded it. I’ll never forget how George McWilliams wavered on his way to journalistic immortality, how McWilliams the editor warred with McWilliams the friend.
Inside the glass booth in the middle of the newsroom, I saw a wrinkle-faced man in a dowdy plaid jacket. Mac was small, with a sloping forehead and receding chin. But when he started speaking to you, quizzing you, trying to outmaneuver you, you felt as if he were a shark, preparing to steal dinner off the flesh of a larger fish.
I’ll always remember the glass shark tank that one of Mac’s foes suggested for the Sans Souci restaurant on Seventeenth Street, a VIP-gawker’s Eden. An embittered politician, he wanted the tank’s occupant named “Little Mac.” The Sans Souci originally threatened to banish the man to Little Tavern hamburger shops, but McWilliams caught wind of the customer’s malice and was captivated. Mac said he and his friends would only lunch at the Sans Souci if it bought in the shark. Within a week, the restaurant obliged with a baby red-tailed black shark.
Frowning, McWilliams lit up a Corona and leaned back in a plushly padded swivel chair.
My immediate boss and I sat on hard seats. E. J. Rawson—“E.J.” around the office, not just in his byline—was a national editor. Eons ago E.J. had fled to Washington from a gothic-grim railroad town in West Virginia.
“Stone,” Mac said, after the third puff, “I hear you want to go after Seymour Solomon.”
“Not go after him. Investigate him.” Officially, the Telegram was objective—Mac kept his shit list only inside his head. “Jeez, he’s got fifty percent of the leases locked up in the D.C. area. A little payback for political donations?”
Vulture’s Point, Solomon’s rickety complex, housing no small number of IRS and CIA employees, never really came up in the beginning. I had yet to learn of the cracks in the slabs, the sexual blackmail from the Oval Office, the Papudoian connection, Wendy’s role in the scandals, or the other heads of the Hydra. The white-sheeted corpses existed just within the realm of the unthinkable.
Mac glanced at his gold Rolex,2 with which he personally timed reporters writing stories or pumping news sources on the phone. After six months on the job, you were safe from the more lethal aspects of the Rolex Treatment, although the watch served the entire newsroom as a reminder of the Telegram’s role as a high-speed word mill.
“I know Seymour Solomon—he’s a good friend.” McWilliams puffed an “O” and stared at me with his fierce, dark eyes as if hoping he could elicit a good flinch. “What I’m driving at, pal, is he’s not the sort to steal from anyone.”
So Mac had Solomon hooked up to a polygraph twenty-four hours a day?
“Including the government,” McWilliams blustered. “Especially the government.”
I was touched. “Government” included President Eddy Bullard, Mac’s fellow alum in the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Like Bullard, Mac had majored in French literature. At Burning Tree Country Club, they gleefully forsook regulation shoes for ragged sneakers. I could just imagine them in private, jabbering away in obscenity-laced French about Rousseau and putt shots.
“Do you know how much Solomon gave Washington Stage last year so they could build that new children’s theater in Reston?” McWilliams asked me. “Two million. Now that’s Sy. How many millionaires do you know who drive 1970 Mavericks?”
Mac himself drove a nondescript gray BMW. His job, Rolex, and the antiques in his mini-Versailles provided enough dazzle in his life to suit him; well, those and the Power People he’d befriended outside his word mill.
“Take it from me, pal,” Mac said, as if auditioning for a Humphrey Bogart movie, “Sy is a regular guy. Look, isn’t Judge Philips one of his investors?”
“That’s reassuring,” I said. “I’ll remember that next time he rules in a zoning case.”
Not once did the forementioned E. J. Rawson—Ezekiel Jerome Rawson back in Thurmond, West Virginia—speak up for me. He was in his fifties, with crew-cut white hair, wire-frame bifocals, a weakened heart, and prudent decency toward his reporters despite fits of boss-man talk. We had met through one of my parents’ neighbors in northern Virginia, when I’d returned for Passover from my newspaper job in Ohio and accepted an invitation to E.J.’s home.
The first thing that struck me was his excessive formality before he knew you. “I would like,” he said, “to discuss your career in the newspaper business.” No contractions, no “I’d.”
Even in the ivy-covered brick Colonial he shared with his wife—a short, buxom Mississippian who had turned the basement into a seven-thousand-book library with thirteen dictionaries—he wore a white shirt and tie. It was as if he were distancing himself from the dust and grit of Thurmond.
I don’t remember drinking Scotch as E.J. went on about Dostoevsky, Melville, Faulkner, the editor of the Saturday Review, and some odd but logical parallels among the four. Still, I could not imagine any other beverage in his off-hours life.
By the time E.J. was through, a dozen writers later, having discussed George McWilliams in the same reverent tones, I hadn’t the least doubt of my future as Mac’s successor.
My own father, a “public affairs” man3 for a lobbying firm on K Street, toiled in a bazaar, not an editorial cathedral.
The Telegram’s building on Pennsylvania Avenue even looked like a church. Inspired by the Chicago Tribune Tower, our publisher’s late husband had insisted on gargoyles and spires. Our newsroom language might not be holy, but our ambitions and churchly edifice most certainly were.
“Well?” I asked the priestly shark in the plaid jacket.
“I’m not a regular guy, I’m a bastard, and I’m just enough of one to turn Stone loose on my friend Sy”—McWilliams glared at E.J.—“at your direction, pal.”
I wished that just once Mac would gulp down a tranquilizer, reach for some ulcer medicine, or do anything else to confirm his mortality.
As if dismissing a pair of menials, McWilliams waved us out of the booth, the Shark’s Cage, as everyone called it, and I decided I was confusing mortality with humanity.
Rexwood Garst, renter of a converted carriage house in Georgetown, filled in for me on the national housing beat. He had a penchant for pipes and attaché cases and the other impedimenta of Washington stereotypes.
Garst knew he’d soon rise beyond his beat in Prince George’s County. “Serbo-Croatian,” he had told me, “that’s the key.” Pause. “I know how to speak it.”
“It’s how I’ll become Eastern European Correspondent.”
“Why not Polish?”
“Because Serbo-Croatian’s more unique.”
I’d shaken my head. “The real future’s in Korean.”
“How do you know?”
“Suit yourself,” I’d said, “but you’ll never make it big here if you don’t know Korean.”
McWilliams rejoiced in assigning two people to one task and seeing who’d come out on top. If Garst dug up too much at the Department of Housing and Urban Development while I was away, I might have to share my muck with him in the future.
The Telegram was that kind of a place—a whole newspaper remade to reflect Mac’s ambitions for himself and the rest of us.
Mac had been born sixty-three years ago, the only son of a Scot and a Jew, and he’d put himself through Columbia University while reporting murders for the New York Daily News.
He had graduated summa cum laude; he had gone on to awe the dons of Oxford. In his thirties, after his days as a Herald Tribune prodigy and time in Washington with two secretive spy agencies, he had made a fortune as a bond and currency trader, outsmarting the brahmins of Wall Street and beyond.
Mac’s econo-Versailles in Maryland horse country dwarfed his publisher’s Victorian mansion on the Chesapeake Bay.
No one could fathom why Mac had returned to newspapering as a flunky rather than doing the genteel thing and buying Knopf or The New Yorker. He might still be alive today if enough people had gotten curious and saved him from himself.
When McWilliams blew up at an underling, he might take a catcher’s mitt from his battered wooden desk and smack a baseball against it. The object of his temper would inevitably recoil, as if convinced McWilliams were about to bean him. Mac didn’t use the mitt that often but kept it on a shelf behind him, so that you might as well be a horse looking at a whip.
The Rolex, too, had inspired a few stories. McWilliams had bought it just a few years out of Columbia, an ever-ticking, ever-gleaming assurance that he had left Brooklyn behind.
His parents, a warehouseman and a nurse, were long dead, but his sister, crippled from polio, still lived in the old neighborhood. As divulged by a six-thousand-word profile of him in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, she could barely support herself as a seamstress doing piecework—relentlessly paced by a dime-store watch.
Mac’s ambitions and quirks were fodder for the diligent ladies at The Elephant, the big-eared gossip column of a rival paper, which mailed its victims quarter-pound bags of Virginia peanuts. “The Elephant” sounded off enough about McWilliams for him to amass enough bags to feed half the denizens of the Washington zoo.
Driving home, I could see my obsessions all around me. Up and down Connecticut Avenue, the buildings of Seymour Solomon and associates loomed—each reaching Washington’s commercial height limit, each grabbing every dollar of space in the sky, each looking as if a giant George Babbitt had been at work with Scotch tape and an Erector Set.4
Bureaucrats occupied Solomon’s buildings, along with stockbrokers, trade associations, and other staples of the local rental market. Every now and then rumors wafted about. The drones next to Barb’s Secretarial Service—were they Agriculture or CIA? Was another Manhattan Project5 aborning above Menkov’s Ladies’ Wear?
At Dupont Circle, I saw half a dozen couples playing catch, just as Eddy Bullard did with his wife. A policeman strutted near the fountain there, his walkie-talkie squawking in some mysterious mix of cop lingo and Citizens Bandese.6 I remembered Dupont when it had been the territory of beats and hippies and junkies: an Allen Ginsberg poem writ in life on Connecticut Avenue.7
In recent years, however, it had become too expensive to be degenerate close to the Circle. Sy Solomon’s crowd had bulldozed away many of the cheaper rooming houses in the area, and they had priced the new apartments for the upper-level civil servants and lobbyists who worked in his office buildings.
Washington was a veritable white-collar factory town run for management.
My own apartment building was a jumble of sooty red brick, a semi-slum named Cambridge Towers. I wondered how many years would creep by before Solomon’s crowd tore it down in favor of their kind of ugliness.
I tried to envision myself a competent white-collar criminal. The closest I normally came to Dynamic Executivehood, the local robber barons’ most common guise, was when I donned my suit from Garfinckel’s to infiltrate the stockholders’ meetings of the companies I exposed in my articles.
Never could I have passed for Solomon himself, and not just because he was several decades older. We were both tall, but I was reporter-thin, as I liked to style myself, and he was businessman-heavy. He had wide shoulders and thick limbs and looked as if, by sheer bulk, he could bully the rest of the world. I remembered the huge hands I’d seen in newspaper photographs. Both physically and financially, Solomon struck me as a born grabber.
ENDNOTES (This sample does not include all of them)
Sidwell Friends is a school for the offspring of the Washington elite. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama sent their children there. Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy is the only child of a sitting president to have gone to a D.C. public school in the past century. – R.K.
Rolexes in the 1970s sold for anywhere from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands. Mac undoubtedly owned the highest-end model. – R.K.
“Public affairs” can involve many benign activities such as well-intentioned community outreach. But it can also refer to efforts to track or manipulate information for corporations—so as to influence government policies. Here’s one example. Let’s say an Internet or artificial intelligence giant faces new privacy regulations protecting children. Then it can hire a public affairs firm to hurt or help the regulatory efforts. – R.K.
George F. Babbitt, a real estate agent, was the epitome of banality and conformity in the novel Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize winner. Today we still have our Babbitts. But whether it’s gender roles or others, people mercifully enjoy more options for the most part. Scotch tape was transparent tape similar to the varieties in use now. Erector Sets were toys with which children—ideally girls, too, not just boys—could build anything from clocks to little skyscrapers and cranes. – R.K.
The giant secret project through which the United States created the atomic bomb. – R.K.
- Walkie-talkies were little handheld two-way radios. Citizens Band was a part of the radio spectrum that individuals could use without all the usual regulatory formalities. CBers developed their own argot. – R.K.
- Allen Ginsberg was an enthusiastic user of marijuana and stronger drugs. He was also a fiery gay poet-activist who helped blaze the way for more sexual freedom. That can mean more political freedom, too, considering the reduced opportunities for blackmail by governments or corporations. – R.K.
As a bonus, here is part of Chapter 2.
“We’ve talked to you mothers already, and we’re tired of your bullshit. You know about Solomon’s fucking dime, don’t you?”
Lew Fenton, a union leader and source of the only critical quotes about Seymour Solomon in the Telegram’s library, was eager to add to his distinction.
Solomon had quarreled with Fenton’s construction local over paying the men a dime more an hour. The upshot was a federal case, going up to the Supreme Court and inspiring editorial-page apologia for Sy along the way.
“Well,” Fenton jabbed at me over the phone, “that’s about it, mister, except one of his buildings’ll fall down. He’s just as cheap with his materials as he is with us. The floors—Vulture’s Point.”
I remembered that fifteen hundred clerks and bureaucrats worked for the Internal Revenue Service there. But I spoke not a word back to Fenton. More than once as a reporter, I’d heard false alarms, whether about impending earthquakes likely to topple the Washington Monument, or anthrax in the mashed potatoes at the Kingswood Elementary School cafeteria.
“The slabs,” Fenton said. “He cheated on the rebars. It’s the difference between a building that’ll stay up and one that’ll fall. And the difference of a million bucks to put the mother up. And that’s just one thing—the concrete, the girders, you name it, mister, he cut it cheap all the way around.”
“But why,” I asked, “would Solomon gamble with human life?”
I was lost in my work, unmindful of the evening ahead with Donna Stackelbaum, an old friend with charms beyond the curves suggested by the first syllable of her name.1
“The banks,” Fenton said. “His loans. The interest rates went up just before the loan, and he had to cut it real close.”
“How do you know?”
“The suit, mister. Buried in the middle of the trial records. All I know is that there’s cracks on the seventh floor, and a lot of fat-assed bureaucrats are gonna fall on their behinds. One of our guys knows someone in maintenance. At GSA.”
GSA was the General Services Administration, the government’s business and recordkeeping agency. It had doled out so many leases to Solomon that I suspected President Bullard of being his silent partner.
“You want another Skyline?” Fenton asked.
Not far from Vulture’s Point, in Fairfax County, the next county over, the center section of a huge condo building had caved in after the collapse of the twenty-fourth floor during construction. The domino-ing below had been catastrophic. Many blamed the weight of a construction crane. Whatever the case, the official story was that a subcontractor had removed the concrete’s shoring too early.
Fines had added up to just three hundred dollars for the shoring problem and thirteen thousand for violation of worker safety codes. Manslaughter charges hadn’t stuck against the manager overseeing the shoring at Skyline Plaza. A hung jury saved him. Crimped by a local court ruling, prosecutors could not hold Skyline’s owner criminally responsible for the lapses of subcontractors.
I remembered a line from A Prairie Home Companion, one of my favorite public-radio programs: “Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Yes, yes—welcome to Fairfax County, Virginia, where all the buildings are considered strong enough, and the business climate is always superior. Forget Skyline.
Skyline had killed fourteen workers and injured thirty-four. But could another collapse happen in the adjacent county and the same decade? When it came to bad luck on such matters, Northern Virginia had already exceeded its quota.
“How come the people in the building aren’t bitching?” I asked about Vulture’s Point.
“Because GSA and Solomon have a cover-up going,” Fenton said, “a real cover-up. A little reinforcement, pour more concrete, and plop down a carpet. Problem gone, and your upstairs storage area looks prettier. Just a little routine maintenance.”
I was getting much closer to being shocked, and I remembered the smashed corpses I had seen after a mine collapse in Sloansville, Pennsylvania—the bloodied, blackened men identified by their dental work.
- Uncle Jon was born too early. Given a chance, while he was drafting his memoir, I would have educated him about how to write of female friends. – R.K.