Foreword: With more than 500 individual posts on pre-Prohibition American distillers, liquor dealers and saloonkeepers featured on this blog, it seems appropriate from time to time to describe patterns of behavior that link individuals and enlarging the perspective on what they were contributing to our Nation. I have decided to begin the series by briefly relating the stories of four whiskey men historically involved in international diplomacy.
Whiskey millionaire Samuel Taylor Suit whose distillery and estate sat in what is now Suitland, Maryland, was an early example of a “Washington insider.” At his mansion he wined and dined Presidents, members of Congress, and top Executive Branch officials. Shown right, Suit also was responsible for the venue of negotiations that settled a major crisis between the United States and England.
The dispute concerned warships built in Britain and sold to the Confederacy during the Civil War. The most famous of these was the CSS Alabama, shown above as it was being sunk in battle with the USS Kearsarge. Before its end, however, the Alabama had done significant damage to U.S. merchant shipping. Powerful forces in Washington howled for retribution in what became known as “The Alabama Claims.” Some wanted the equivalent today of $50 billion in damages; others called for ceding to the U.S. parts or all of Canada. The British responded by stalling.
When President Ulysses S. Grant sought negotiations to end the prolonged controversy he needed a location. Remembering Suit’s ample food and drink, including his excellent whiskey, in 1871 Grant asked him to host American and British diplomats to hammer out an agreement. Suit was delighted to oblige and played genial host throughout the deliberations.
The ambiance — and perhaps the whiskey — Suit provided seems to have helped break the deadlock and the result became known as the Treaty of Washington. In the end the U.S. settled for neither billions nor chunks of Canada but a relatively paltry $15.5 million — equivalent to about $387 million today. The British quickly paid up. And Suit took his place in the history books.
Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, was responsible forGuido Marx, a whiskey wholesaler from Toledo, Ohio, playing a role in international diplomacy. Marx’s story begins in Germany where in his youth he became a revolutionary, fighting for German political rights against Prussian authoritarianism, as in the scene shown below. When the Revolution of 1848 was crushed, he was among those “Forty-Eighters” who fled to the United States.
Settling in Toledo, Ohio, Marx became, in turn, a grocer, the owner of a German-language newspaper, and finally proprietor of the oldest and largest wholesale liquor business in town. He also embarked on a political career that took him into the Ohio legislature and later as Mayor of Toledo, the city’s first chief executive of Jewish heritage. A Republican, along the way he had befriended Rutherford B. Hayes from nearby Fremont, an Ohio governor who became U.S. President in 1877.
Hayes appointed Marx ambassador to Chile. That landed him squarely in the middle of the so-called “War of the Pacific” a conflict that pitted Chile against the combined forces of Peru and Bolivia in land and naval battles, as shown here. The U.S. was neutral in the war. Marx along with his counterparts in the belligerent countries arranged peace talks among delegates from Peru, Bolivia and Chile aboard an American ship, the USS Lackawanna. Peru and Bolivia made extreme demands that Chile rejected and the talks failed. Chile eventually prevailed in the war.
As a sidelight, the British barred selling warships to either side because, it was said, they were “in mortal dread of another Alabama award.” With the end of his term as ambassador, Guido Marx returned to Toledo and resumed running his liquor business.
Fast forward to World War I and an immigrant named Michael Bosak, a man who began life here breaking coal in a Pennsylvania mine and ended the self-proclaimed “Richest Slovak in America.” Shown here, Bosak began by opening a liquor store and a saloon in the early 1890s and then founding a company to manufacture a wine-based patent medicine that was reputed to remedy such ailments as constipation and loss of appetite. By 1897 he had accrued sufficient wealth to open a bank.
Despite his business success, Bosak never forgot the place of his birth. During World War I he organized collections of money and clothing to help native Slovaks who were suffering from wartime conditions in Europe. With the final break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a movement emerged to create a new country to be called Czechoslovakia.
Bosak played a key role in a conference of Czech and Slovak leaders who met in Pittsburgh in May 1818 to forge a joint approach to independence. The agreement they formulated after two days at the Moose Temple, right, became known as the “Pittsburgh Pact.” As a moving force and early signatory behind the agreement, Bosak became a celebrity among the Slovaks.
Since his death in 1937, Bosak has continued to be honored in Slovakia, now a country in its own right. In 1999 on the 130th anniversary of his birth, the Michael Bosak Society was formed among Slovaks in Northeast Pennsylvania. Each year the Society presents a monetary prize in the name of Michael Bosak to business and economics students in the secondary schools of Slovakia.
Milton Kronheim dropped out of school in the District of Columbia in 1903 to open a liquor store on M Street in Georgetown. He was only 14 years old. He called his enterprise the Maryland Wine & Liquor Company — the name he kept throughout his eight decade career as a Washington liquor dealer. Already a rich man when D.C. went “dry” in 1917, Kronheim opened a clothing store and bail bonding business. With Repeal in 1934 he jumped back in the liquor trade.
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. A photo here shows them together.
One of the outcomes of World War II was the effort to resettle Jews from Europe and elsewhere in Palestine in the Middle East, a new country to be called “Israel.” It was important to proponents that the United States recognize this new state but many in the State Department were skeptical, worried about reaction in the Arab world. Strongly in favor of Israel, Kronheim offered advocates for Israel access into the Oval Office and has been credited with swaying Truman to recognize the State of Israel only minutes after its leaders, as shown below, had declared independence on May 14, 1948.
Kronheim himself always was careful to downplay any role in the President’s decision. In an oral history for the Truman Library, he said: “I think Mr. Truman at heart…that he was whole-heartedly in favor of the establishment of a Jewish home. He knew more about Jewish history that a lot of people will ever know.” Despite his self-effacement, Kronheim has continued to be identified closely with Truman’s momentous decision. In tribute to his contribution, a town in Israel is named Nachalat Kronheim.
Here we have four whiskey men who who played a part in international diplomacy, each with a somewhat different role — host, ambassador, conferee, and political insider. Three were assisted in their efforts by being friends of U.S. Presidents. Moreover, despite whatever other activities they were called to, all four remained whiskey men throughout most of their working lives.
Note: This blog contains fuller biographies of each of these men: S. T. Suit, August 4, 2011; Guido Marx, May 21, 2011; Michael Bosak, August 23, 2013; and Milton Kronheim, July 12, 2011.