Solomon for real?

Update, April 10: A long essay in the back of the second edition of The Solomon Scandals discusses the Smith family’s government leases and other ethics-related issues in D.C., including the Clarence Thomas controversies.

image Sy Solomon, the real estate millionaire in The Solomon Scandals, never existed. Like many of the characters in my novel, he is a composite.

The late Charles E. Smith, however, the founder of the construction company of the same name, would have been the most like Solomon. He and associates controlled at least $150 million in government office leases in the mid-1970s, when 150M was real money. His family built the giant Crystal City complex, located in Arlington, Virginia, and shown here in a photo. You can read a little more about Smith—and his relationship with Abe Ribicoff, the now-dead Connecticut senator—in Scandals’ Origins. I’ll be adding to this “For real” page when time allows. But for now, let me compare Solomon and Smith and also tell a little more about the latter.

Sy Solomon is a classic Washington Alpha male, self-made version. As I describe this ex-bricklayer, he is massively muscular, with thick, well-trimmed hair. Charles E. Smith by contrast was a balding little wizard in matters like accounting and business negotiations. Solomon depends on a mix of brains and charisma. But Smith, who came to America from Russia in 1911 when he was about ten years old, relied more on sheer intelligence to make his millions even though he had social charms of his own—sometimes used in problematic ways.

In business matters, there are overlaps. For example, like Solomon, certain Smith-related interests benefited from a shady bank‘s backing of some real estate projects, and among his family’s business allies were parking operators who razed townhouses to make way for parking lots, followed by the erection of high rises. But in many other respects, Smith and Solomon are different men.

Crystal City and Jane Jacobs
image Jane Jacobs crusaded for walkable, livable cities. What would she have thought of Charles Smith’s legacy of Crystal City—all those hulking high-rises? Crystal City does not blend in with its surroundings across a highway from Reagan National Airport. It dominates them, and high rents reduce diversity. Critics just might say that Crystal City is a Pruitt-Igoe for the managerial class.On the positive, the complex has some pedestrian walkways and a vast network of underground passages. Many residents are among Crystal City’s 60,000 workers, an eco-blessing. Partly by accident, Crystal City has taken on some traits of a planned city.The issue is whether Crystal City can ever become a genuine community. Might Facebook-style activities on the Net help the 6,000+ residents catch up in person with others with their interests and values? Every bridge club adds to the worth of the place. Perhaps would be a logical Web portal for residents—as opposed to just a promo tool for the complex and its commercial tenants. I’ll be curious to see how the site develops.

While Solomon contributed to charities, especially those that could win the favor of the Washington elite, I doubt he’d have taken the same focused interest that Smith did in, say, the National Institute of Psychobiology, an Israel-based project that Smith helped start. Smith himself knew what it was like to be married to woman with serious mental illness and correctly understood that “talk therapy” often was not enough. Locally Smith gave millions to such charities as the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington and a Jewish day school, one of the largest in the world. What Col. Sanders was to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Smith is to Jewish philanthropy in Washington, and his descendants are carrying on many of the good works.

But what about a building collapse, one of the events in The Solomon Scandals? Yes, the Smiths controlled Skyline Plaza, a condo project in Northern Virginia, where 14 men died in  a construction accident. But I’ll not blame the collapse on them, just raise questions. Were any Smiths directly or indirectly involved in the decisions that led some concrete shoring to be removed too early? And if so, which ones? Charles Smith’s son and son-in-law were running or helping to run various Smith-related enterprises. But by itself that doesn’t necessarily indicate personal guilt on the part of any Smith in the Skyline collapse. I have not researched this matter enough to reach a conclusion one way or another.

For a different take on Charles Smith, who died in 1995, you can read Conversations with Papa Charlie, by his grandson David Bruce Smith. A local reviewer liked it. The most curious thing about the book is what it doesn’t tell—for example, the details of Charles Smith’s relationship with Ribicoff and other influential people. Perhaps that will be coming in another biography.

Meanwhile we can understand, in part, why Smith would seek out powerful friends in an era when WASPish family backgrounds and school ties often counted more than merit.  But did certain of Charles Smith’s business relationships—such as the one with Ribicoff, who helped oversee the scandal-tainted General Services Administration, the very agency that enriched Smith—push past the bounds of ethics if nothing else? And what about the Smith family’s dealings with the parking magnates who razed fine old townhouses and in effect gutted neighborhoods?

“Good and evil fortunes,” Jonathan Stone quotes Spinoza in The Solomon Scandals, “fall to the lot of the pious and impious alike.” But what is “good,” and what is “evil,” and what about the spending of fortunes? Can philanthropy make up for evil, if the latter exists?  All those questions arise in the cases of both Seymour Solomon and Charles E. Smith.

Note: See pages 76-80 of Mortgage on America, by Leonard Downie, for information on Smith’s friends in the parking business—Dominic Antonelli and Kingdon Gould, a descendant of Jay Gould, the 19th-century railroad tycoon.

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David Rothman

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