Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Milton Kronheim: Teenage Hustler to Washington Power Broker

In 1968, Milton S. Kronheim, who dropped out of school at 14 to work in the liquor business, was asked by the Harry S Truman library in Independence, Missouri, to provide his oral memories of the 33rd President of the United States. Shown here with Truman, the Washington DC whiskey dealer was being recognized as a national power broker.

In his interview, Kronheim said: “Mr. Truman and I were on a very friendly basis....He was a very simple man and so am I.” Whatever Truman was, Kronheim was anything but simple. He had a burning ambition to make money and powerful friends. He accomplished both and in the process left a legacy of bottles, jugs and advertising items by which to remember him.

Kronheim was born in the District of Columbia in 1889. At the age of 11 he went to work part time in his father’s D.C. saloon. Three years later he rejected an offer by a cousin who owned a D.C. liquor store to go to work for him for $6 a week. Milton held out for $8. When refused, he quit school and in 1902 at the age of 14 open his own liquor store at 3218 M Street, NW, in Georgetown. He called his business the Maryland Wine and Liquor Co. -- the name he kept throughout his eight decade career.

As Kronheim explained later: “In those days it did not take a lot of capital to open a store. I did not buy expensive fixtures. All I needed was some shelves.” That first day, with whiskey selling for 24 cents a pint, he reportedly made $6. Almost immediately his company met with considerable success. Kronheim bottled his own whiskey and packaged it in clear glass bottles. They carried embossing that makes them easily identifiable today.

As Kronheim’s business grew he expanded his brands, among them, Snooky Oakums, after a popular song, and Casino Club. A bottle of the latter claims that it is: “The whiskey for particular people.” Another early brand was Finola Pure Rye, seen here with the original label. The company also bottled and sold its own brands of beer and wine.

Like other Washington, D.C. whiskey dealers before Prohibition, Kronheim merchandised through an array of giveaway items. Among them were shot glasses, one of them featuring the pig motif, and drink glasses. One of the latter advertises the firm as a “Mail Order House” which probably dates it from around 1905 when neighboring states were going dry but liquor by mail was still legal.

When Prohibition hit the District of Columbia in 1917, Kronheim’s Maryland Wine and Liquor was forced to close its doors. Milton was only 29 years old and already a rich man. Apparently without missing a beat, he opened a clothing store in Washington and a bail bonding business. Later his critics would claim that he specialized in furnishing bail money to notorious bootleggers and other underworld characters.

Those businesses failed to absorb his energy and when Prohibition ended in 1934, he jumped back in as a liquor wholesaler, famously providing whiskey to Roosevelt Administration officials. About this time he took his son, Milton Jr., into the firm. That dates the bottle of “Kronheim’s Bond” shown here as post-Prohibition, probably late 1930s or 1940s.

Kronheim’s reputation as a Washington “mover and shaker” arrived with the Truman Administration in 1945. He had befriended the then senator in the restaurant of the Mayflower Hotel during the 1930s and thereafter contributed generously to the Missourian’s elections, including $25,000 for Truman’s presidential campaign in 1948.

After Truman became President, Milton was a frequent guest at the White House. This proved controversial for both men. In 1945, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) levied its stiffest fine of $200,000 against the Kronheims for “black marketing.” The story goes that Milton paid by plunking stacks of hundred dollar bills on an OPA hearing table.

For more than 50 years Kronheim presided over a lunch at his northeast Washington warehouse. There he hosted presidents, lawmakers, judges, sports figures, religious leaders, and businessmen. Shown here is a picture of Kronheim, seated third from left, hosting a power lunch. It included, at his left, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Earl Warren, and three other Supreme Court Justices. An anti-Truman “muckraking” book in 1952 identifed Kronheim as the “czar and Boss Hague” of Washington.

Such terms, however, unfairly characterize a complicated man who also was known as a local philanthropist and friend to many. As one writer has characterized him: Milton Kronheim Sr....had friendships with lawyers and judges, police officers, journalists, retail liquor dealers, old athletes, politicians, local businessmen, Little Sisters of the Poor, and has-beens.”

By the time of Kronheim’s death at age 97, following a stroke at his Mayflower Hotel apartment in 1986, his storefront enterprise had grown to mammoth proportions. His firm distributed an estimated 4.5 million cases of beer, wine and liquor annually. It employed some 350 employees in the D.C. area and maintained a 211,000 square foot distribution facility in Jessup, Md.
A dozen years after his death in 1998 Kronheim’s company was bought by National Distributing Co. of Atlanta, an even larger liquor wholesaler. It continues to operate from the Jessup location, but the Kronheim name has disappeared.