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Interview with: Ben Kaplan
Interviews by Louis Marchiafava
Date: June 17, 1976
Archive Number: OH 087
BK: 00:04 …for the college paper—edited the paper there one summer session in school to make a little money. And I got my first real newspaper work on a morning paper called the Hudson Dispatch in Union City, New Jersey. The managing editor of that paper was a man named Morris Landing (s/l) (00:35) whose protégé I became. And he bought a weekly newspaper in Hastings on Hudson in New York in West Chester County. I followed him to a daily newspaper venture in Hackensack, New Jersey. This was at the beginning of the prolonged depression—the late ‘20s and ‘30s. That newspaper folded. I went back to West Chester County and worked on another weekly. When there was anything of a major news consequence, I’d make a few bucks by calling the New York papers. In those days, there were a lot of them, this being 1928, ’29, ’30, ’31 and so on. I got tired of working on the weekly, although I must say I worked harder on the weekly newspaper than I did on any daily.
Subsequently, due to coverage of a story—this was during the Hauptmann trial, the Lindbergh kidnapping period. And New York City had a famous police commissioner, Grover Whalen, who was noted for his sartorial taste, elegance—always had a white flower as a boutonnière. And the Whalens rented an estate in Hasting—Dobbs Ferry, the next town—from Tammany Hall lawyer named Levy. It was a beautiful estate and about 30 miles from New York City where Whalen was police commissioner.
He was on his way to Buffalo, New York when he was reached and told that apparently his son had been kidnapped. The boy as I recall was 14 or 15—he was a great big kid. And because of the intense frantic publicity over the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Hauptmann trial, this kidnap scare was big news. Actually, what occurred was one Saturday morning this kid was being shipped off to some prep school, had decided he didn’t want to go. His luggage was found on the front porch of the home by his mother who became frantic, called the local police station and immediately set off a county-wide search—airplanes, blood hounds, state troopers, et cetera. I called all the papers in New York City and proceeded to work on the story. Saturday is, kind of, an off day in the newspaper business. And it just so happened that the blood hounds sniffed the kid out of a culvert where he’d gone fast asleep. And this series of events occurred within maybe an 8-hour period, and he was found along 2 o’clock or so in the afternoon. And I was able to get the afternoon papers and told them what had happened.
The—it was then the World-Telegram owned by Scripps, and bought the Morning and Evening World—which were the Pulitzer properties, which were sold at will contest through—among many other wills and intestacies, the courts found reasons to permit the sales to Scripps Howard. And the managing end of the paper was quite satisfied what I was doing while I was on the ground locally. His was the only paper that depended on me without sending a staff writer. Papers—some of them sent 2 or 3 staff writers. Whalen got back just in time to greet his son and, I guess, shipped him off to prep school in Connecticut.
LM: 06:30 This ought to bring you to the forefront in the—
BK: Well, it—I was making pretty good money for the depression period running a weekly newspaper, then in Dobbs Ferry. The—but I got a little bit tired of it. And McHaney, who was the managing editor of the—had worked for the World and then went over to the World-Telegram—told me if I ever wanted a job with Scripps Howard to let them know, that they had nothing in New York City, but occasionally he would make an inquiry. And I decided to ask him to try to find me a job; he did in Oklahoma City. I took my wife and son—who was then about 16 or 18 months old—my wife again, was pregnant. And I remember we landed in Oklahoma City on the anniversary of the Run of ’89. That was when the territory was opened for colonization. And we got there with our heavy winter clothes. I believe it was in February that the Run of 1889 is celebrated.
LM: What position did you hold there at that paper?
BK: Well, I started out as a city hall reporter, police station, police work. Became assistant city—I was assistant city editor when the paper folded. I was there, I guess, 3, 4, or 5 years. And raised to the job—I suspect it was done in the exposure of a corrupt school board, which didn’t buy any land for a school site or to sell land or hire a football coach or buy pianos, pencils, you name it, without there being a payoff—promotions for example, payoff. What kicked off the scandal was the disappearance and subsequent arrest by the FBI of the school district treasurer, a man named Scruggs, who was also—I believe he was first vice president of the largest bank in the state in Oklahoma City. And he used this dual position as school district treasurer—which was an elected job—and this banking job he had to actually embezzle about three-quarters of a million dollars. In those days, that was a lot of money. He speculated in oil and had some wells in east Texas. Actually those wells came in, and if he hadn’t been apprehended he would have been an extremely wealthy man with great prestige in this community.
10:31 Well, there was a short story on a wire about a black hat—a paragraph about this fellow being held in Dallas by the FBI with no further identification or any other information. I called the school district attorney and found that he was closeted with a district judge. I remember his name as Ben Arnold. Now in Oklahoma City when a person was arrested for a commission of a crime, he ordinarily would simply be brought before the magistrate or the justice of the peace and bound over for a district court trial if the magistrate deemed that the state had a case. And there hadn’t been a grand jury call in 10 years. And a grand jury could be called there either by the governor or any district judge. And I got there—actually over at the old Oklahoma Club—early in the morning, like say 7:30, and found that the school district attorney had already prepared a petition and had a judge there who was going to plant what the school district had paid for and freeze everything in the school district treasurer’s lock box, which was done. And all hell broke loose thereafter because the—actually the treasurer was sentenced to 25 years in a federal penitentiary. I had to touch on payoffs—the human interest was that the judge who sentenced him had brought him up—he was an old Republican judge, Judge Vaught—and he gave him 25 years with 2 years stricken because he’d brought this young fellow up. He’d been in his 40s at the time of his arrest, and a grand jury investigation followed that was actually called by this District Judge, Ben Arnold.
And we had had tips—I didn’t ordinarily cover the school board—but discovered that we had every school district employee subpoenaed by the grand jury so that if the thing fell flat, these people wouldn’t be left on a limb or these politicians would fire them. And this one oil man had come up to the office and I talked to him and took his statement. Closed story, never printed it because he threatened to leave town and we couldn’t risk a liable suit without being able to produce him. He had been the successful bidder on an oil well. Now, there are 60 or 70 oil wells on school land and a lot more than that on city property. And one year in fact, there wasn’t even ad valorem tax—the oil royalties, drilling permits, stained local government without a nickel tax. At any rate, they started to sell off these—the school board did—these wells. And this bidder was not a disgruntled bidder, he was a successful bidder. But when he came—he had bought the property to sell for a quick sell to some California oil interest—but when he come up to get up the piece of paper, a deed that transfers title to him, the business manager of the school district hit him up for some more money—for some money. And he blew his stack and came down to the paper, then realized that he was criminally vulnerable. But when the grand jury was called to session we did succeed in getting him before the grand jury along with a lot of others and—
LM: 16:01 Well, your experience as an investigative report goes back a great ways from your early days in the news paper business.
BK: Well, when the paper folded I came to Houston along with a good friend of mine Carl Victor Little. And we went to work—Carl’s dead now. He was better known here for his column “By-the-Way.” He actually was—he had plenty of experience. He was head of the UP Bureau in Paris during the war and actually was a—subsequently joined the army. And Carl and I came down here and handled—he handled our war commentary. He was the best man on news make up that I’ve ever run across. But the—
LM: What position did you assume when you first came?
BK: Well, I came here as a reporter.
LM: A reporter for the Press?
BK: For the Houston Press, a Scripps Howard newspaper of which Allen C. Bartlett, now dead, was editor. He succeeded Marcellus E. Foster who wrote a page-1 column under the name MEFO which was his letters M. E. Foster—MEFO. And he, at one time, was the owner of the Chronicle, but sold it to Jesse Jones and then he became editor of the Houston Press, a Scripps paper. But when I came here he was editor emeritus and had actually nothing to do with the daily operation of the paper, and Mr. Bartlett was editor.
One of the early investigative jobs that I had to do was to interview the late—to interview George Parr. Now, in those days Parr was—I believe he was county judge. His father, Archer Parr, had been a member of the state senate for many years, and got rich on road kickbacks. And his son succeeded him in the legislature and subsequently in local government. You couldn’t sell beer or anything without Parr’s permission. Parr had never been interviewed up to that time, and I went out—I drove out to his home, which is of Moorish-type architecture. I found he was at the ranch; he lived in San Diego, Texas. There were a few Caucasians who spoke English; Spanish was the universal language. And since he was going to be gone for maybe 5 or 7 hours, I went to the only movie in town, and it was a Spanish-language picture, and I stayed through 2 shows. And I found George Parr to be very gracious. He didn’t drink. I went out there by bus to San Diego, he drove me back to my hotel in Alice where I was staying. And answered all my questions very candidly—why he had turned against Coke Stevenson a governor at the time. I think Coke had appointed some district attorney who was not Parr’s choice. Parr had a real fine machine going for him as you probably know—most Texans do. The vote might be 4000 to 9 or thereabouts. The—he was—really controlled the tier of counties in south Texas ranging clear to Corpus Christi. Now he didn’t get into Oasis County, which is a county of which Corpus is a county seat, but there must have been half a dozen counties that he did control.
21:47 And I found surprising that he was charged—oh, let’s say stealing in ordinary language and arraigned in San Antonio, the federal district court there. He pleaded nolo contendere—quite familiar, I think. Threw himself on the courts mercy, which is about what Agnew did and—our former vice president. Well, I had dug up a lot of stuff on Parr—how he got his money—most of which unless you could prove it would be libelous. And I knew that unless it was libel-proof, why, any jury in Duval County would find for Mr. Parr. Actually, I wrote a series—about 5 or 6 pieces—and it was a little difficult to align—not to heroize the guy. I talked to the then district attorney of Bexar County, as well as the man—his predecessor, and the man who was then district attorney had actually handled the case. And by pleading nolo contendere, George Parr simply in effect bottled up all the evidence and all the testimony against him because he was never introduced. And so I had to be very careful in writing something that years later this—oh, I must have interviewed Parr maybe around 1940 or thereabouts—and he—our own lawyers, Fulbright, Cooker and Jaworski, advised us, we got to lay off that because witnesses are dead, they disappear, and I couldn’t prove what house of prostitutions had paid off, how much, and how much was paid to sell beer, and all of that.
But as—the hold Parr had on the Mexican population—which of course dominated that area in Texas—was firmly inherited from his father in the senate who was known quite favorably by his constituents as Senor Archie Parr. There was a battle royal—I believe, that there was some killing at a—during an election, and Parr was the only Caucasian who went to bat for these Mexicans and they never forgot it. And the first—Archer Parr, whom I didn’t know and who was dead when I interviewed George Parr, had—any time they were in trouble they’d go to the lord of the manor and he’d provide them with medicine, food, money, anything, and they swore by him. I could find not one voice critical of Parr in that constituency, and I spent probably a week or so down there when I went to San Antonio. Anyway, that story established quite a lot of record for me in the—and became a white-haired boy a while. Then I put in a lot of time as a city hall reporter and as a courthouse reporter—civil courts. And there were—
LM: 27:11 That’s where you did a lot of important work in the local investigations.
BK: Well, we had nothing of the magnitude of that school board scandal in Oklahoma City.
LM: You did work in investigative reporting with the gambling, didn’t you—gambling operations in Houston?
BK: Well, you might call it that. Gordon Hanna, who is now a top man in the Scripps-Howard hierarchy, was then covering the legislature. I covered the legislature too, long before Gordon. But Gordon covered the legislature that particular session and wrote a story that marble board payoffs were being made to a certain member of the legislature. I can’t mention his name because he’s still serving and he is now a state senator. Once faced with an opponent, he never denied the charges leveled at him by the opponent, but said, “I’m a known factor. You know what I can do, and you know just where I stand and when I will walk. A lot of people think—they accuse me of this, that and the other, but you can always tell where I’ll be and when I will walk.” But the story was, that a friend and colleague wrote, was that he’d actually been given a payoff to beat a bill that would have outlawed these marble boards. Now, a lot of the gambling fraternity got into these payoff machines—the marble boards and slot machines and so forth. I assure you, they’re very profitable. We had one slot machine at the Press Club, and I think it brought us in about $1500 a month. But once the legislature outlawed even possession of a machine, we had to immediately get rid of it. Actually, we turned it into the base of a lamp shade and plugged up the slots where’d you put the coins in. But the—I took another reporter along with me, Jeff Donahue who is a freelance writer and had worked in press for many years—city editor, managing editor for the Post, also I believe city editor for the Los Angeles Mirror—which Chandler folded. But—so it’s always wise to have 2 men when you get on pretty thin ice. The Wall Street Journal always followed that practice—a very thorough newspaper, one of the best that’s published. The man I went to see was the vice president of a local bank whose president happened to be a good friend of mine. And the reason I went to see him was that among those who were supposed to have paid or retained this representative—he was like many of them, an attorney—was a gentlemen who worked for the bank. He was an officer of the bank, and I believe was the chief officer of the local ___ (??) (32:09). And like many others—like the American Legions, Churches, our own Press Club—we depended—many organizations depended on the revenue from these marble boards. They had a payoff or free games. They were both held to be illegal, but the idea was to make sure that they’d be legal. And at first, he said, “Oh, yes, yes. We knew that he was a man of certain influence and retained him.” And the reason we did all this was to back up our statehouse reporter because the man he accused of taking all this money probably sued us for liable. And in order to defend our paper, we had to demonstrate that—well, truth is more often than not the way out of being—actually libeling somebody. If you can prove what you said, why, you’re home free. The—anyway, we got our statehouse reporter in the paper off the hook.
34:01 I have to go back—and just in the near exercise of the conversation with you, why, I recall some of the things that I put on the back burner in my memory book. Because most of the things I remember about my newspaper business—my newspaper experience—are the oddball, humorous stories—stories that have takeoffs or unusual angles that really were insignificant stories. Those are the ones I remember because they were the funny ones or they were tragic ones. For example, I covered a lot of child custody cases., a practice which neither daily newspaper in Houston or any newspaper in Houston really bothers with today. But— (recording interrupted) As I said, some of these little minor stories are the ones I most remember vividly. I remember covering a divorce suit and the husband had brought an action against his wife. In those days, milk was delivered by a driver in a wagon—a horse drawn wagon. The husband suspected the milk driver was carrying on with his wife in his absence, and apparently caught them red-handed. And the wife’s testimony was that, yes, he did deliver the milk and stayed for coffee, and he elected to make this sort of a daily stopover because they had a lot of grass in the back yard and they could turn his horse loose so that he could grass to his stomach’s content on the grass. Those are the oddball things I remember vividly.
But the—getting back to the prevalence of gambling and getting into Houston rather than Duval and other counties where I—Houston’s experience has been on the whole rather clean. There has been a series of wide open gambling, not too much prostitution. And, of course, Galveston was known chiefly for its Maceo gambling connections. A story I remember led to a legislative investigation, and I’m about to tell you about that. But our most permanent gambler is the late Jakey Friedman. Jakey ran a gambling house on the edge of what was—I think is now inside city limits on South Main. A very elaborate set up, but you or I couldn’t walk in and gamble. What he did was when he’d get a call from some very wealthy, very prominent, some of our finer citizens who wanted to play cards or shoot dice, they’d call Jakey and he’d open this house. And he maintained the finest foods in keeping with the tradition that he later continued when he became a part owner of the Sands in Las Vegas. Jakey died some years ago. He was—started out as a—incidentally, he never was raided successfully. The Texas Rangers would try to get him regularly, but his house was a long distance from the highway and he had some dogs there and he had electronic devices, so that any time any body climbed the fence of wanted to get in, bust in, the dogs would howl. He—it wouldn’t take him but a few minutes to get paraphernalia out of the way. And he became friendly with this Texas Ranger whose name escapes me and I ought to remember it because he was well known. And Jakey sent a beautiful funeral wreath when this Ranger died. But Jakey came here as an immigrant—a banana salesman, fruit salesman. And the fellow was that the greenest of greenhorns and he was apparently a compulsive gambler. And he set up shop in the Rice Hotel—ran a gambling game in the Rice Hotel. He was taken in hand by the late Sam Maceo of the Maceo family. Rosario, I guess, would be the oldest member of the clan—both have long since died—but Sam was the front man—very active, very polished, suave. Ordered his shoes from the boot maker who serviced the former King Edward of Windsor who married Wallis Simpson and resigned as king, and the tailoring was of finest material and finest tailor. Maceo, in those days, ran a gambling establishment known as the Hollywood Club before he later moved his operation to the Balinese Room—which is no longer a gambling institution but is owned, I think, by Johnny Mitchell and strictly is a restaurant and dance place. Well, the education of Jakey Friedman is a story in itself. He was taken in hand by Mr. Maceo, and Sam tried to teach him manners. He would eat and slop all over, his trousers we’re about eight inches from the center. He was a very tiny man—I’d venture to say about 4 feet 6 inches or thereabouts. And his bones were small—he was very, very, very small. He wore maybe like a size 4 shoe. And Sam told me—I once did an unpublished series on Jakey Friedman and broke my heart when it didn’t run. But the—
LM: 43:46 Was the Holcombe administration involved in gambling here?
LM: Because I understand that the police department looked the other way when gambling operations—
BK: I’ll—there’s a yes and no answer to it. The Friedman story fascinated me. He taught—Sam Maceo taught him to eat spaghetti—to roll it around his fork—and he discovered every time they’d eat, he always ordered spaghetti. It was the only food that Jakey had learned to eat without putting all the food all over himself. Anyway, Sam taught the behavior of a gentleman and dressed him accordingly. And I had to do this story on him and practically lived, my wife and I, with the Friedmans. I believe his widow is still alive in Las Vegas, I’m not to sure. And he prepared the steaks that he had in his deep freeze—he had gone into the oil business and lost his shirt. At first he was very reluctant to talk, but once he started, he wanted me to learn everything. We’d go out there and he’d eat his steaks, which he didn’t really know how to cook at all and very nervous. He was almost like a man with Parkinson’s disease or palsy. And I asked him, I said—he was known as probably the biggest horse better in the country and never placed any bets in Houston. And how in the world he managed his nerves at that—he played poker and I understand played it well—how in the world—and he could hardly hold a fork without shaking and shivering. And he said that to him gambling was a great relaxation, he was a complete ease and comfort and poise. He says he could drop $150,000 on a horse race and you couldn’t tell by looking at him that he had just dropped a bundle like that. He later had his own stable, was a member of the Jockey Club, and he really couldn’t gamble. He couldn’t run a gambling establishment and he quit and he went into the oil business. And he took great pride in showing me the papers on which the agreements—where half a dozen men would get together and they’re going to put X dollars and drill for oil. And some of the people—in fact all of the oil men that he went into these drug deals with were of most prominent independence in Houston, and most of them were. And the question would be why would this fellow be so proud of his associates. Of course he always lost, never hit a well at all, everything they got was dry holes. And when I asked Jakey—he had an office in the First City National Bank building—whether he was ever going to go back to run a gambling game, he says, “I’m not going to lie you, I don’t know. If I need money and I need it fast, it’s the quickest way I know how to get it. And I’m not going to lie to you, but if I tell you I’m going to do it, I don’t know that I am, and I’ll be disqualified from membership at the Jockey Club.” And this guy really was a character. He had monogrammed underwear, and he had the choicest tailored clothes thanks to his education in sartorial elegance by Sam Maceo. His shoes were so tiny that he couldn’t give them away to anyone who could wear them. He had closets full of clothes, shirts, shoes, literally by the gross. He—I guess there’s something like the shoe of the month club, and they’d come and he’d but them in a closet and once in a while get around to wearing them. But he wore—he was the most fashionable fashion plate you ever saw. And—
LM: 49:18 Did Maceo—did he finance his operations?
BK: No. He had nothing to do with his gambling his Houston.
LM: They were just friends?
BK: They had at one time—Jakey had bought an interest in the old Hollywood Club where some very well known entertainers, top bands, played. I’m not going to get into the history of the Balinese Room—but its too well know really—under the operation of the Maceos.
LM: How involved were politicians here in Houston into gambling?
BK: Well, there was wide open slot machines at one time in Houston during the Holcombe administration. The—Oscar Holcombe had been a young contractor in his early thirties. And Sewell Meyer—both men are dead—who later served many years as a city attorney. Sewell Meyer played on one of the early Texas football teams, and a very shrewd lawyer and operator. In those days, Oscar Holcombe’s office was in the old Union National Bank building down, I believe, it’s on Congress and Main or Franklin—no I think it’s Congress and Main. But he was a small building contractor and Sewell suggested that he had a political future—“Why didn’t he run for mayor?” And at first Oscar dismissed it without much thought. Finally he decided, by golly, he would. He and his wife went out to the coast and were sitting in a hotel room when he told her that he planned for mayor when he got back. And he looked up Sewell Meyer and Sewell says, “Oh, forget it. That was just a pipe dream.” But by this time the bug had bitten Holcombe—who originally came from San Antonio—and he decided to run for mayor. I no longer remember his opponent.
LM: 52:27 The first time he ran for mayor was about 1922.
BK: Somewhere in there, yes. I think that’s right. Before my time in Houston; I got here in ’38. But Holcombe has told me that he didn’t have much money—that the way he campaigned he’d get on a street car. We had many trolleys in Houston then. I expect that we’d like to have them back except during the war the rails were all torn up and we went to an all bus system. And he’d go from one end of the trolley to the other giving them cards saying, “I’m Oscar Holcombe. I’d appreciate your consideration for mayor.” Oscar never asked you to vote for him. He’d ask for you to “Consider my qualifications, think about me, and vote—” that kind of thing—but he never directly asked you to vote for him. And he’d go from one passenger to the other and get off and get on another street car, and that’s the way he campaigned for weeks and weeks. He got elected. As a matter of fact, the Houston Press supported him—supported him 2 or 3 times. He was mayor, I believe, 10 or 11 terms, and most of the time he encountered bitter opposition from the Press. The—
LM: Didn’t the Press break off its support of the mayor?
BK: Oh, yes.
LM: When did that occur, do you remember?
BK: 54:24 In the late ‘20s—in the late ‘20s. He, Oscar, always had the support of the Post and Houston Chronicle. Now, in those days the Chronicle pretty well—I won’t say they called the shots for the Post, but Mr. Jones had convinced Bill Hobby’s father—the late W. P. Hobby, who was former of governor of Texas and who was publisher of the paper, and, I guess, from Beaumont if I’m not mistaken—to come to Houston and to operate the Post Dispatch, a morning newspaper. It had been acquired by Holcombe and he didn’t—not by Mr. Jones, and Jesse didn’t want to fool around with the morning paper—which may or may not be a commentary on the business judgment of even the smartest man. And he talked Hobby into coming in even though Hobby didn’t have the kind of money it would take to operate that paper. Why, I think Jones’ bank extended him credit, and subsequently the Hobbys we’re given a loan by some financial institution in Dallas and were no longer responsive to the Chronicle line. Now, Holcombe was a very, very dedicated supporter of Oscar Holcombe. And, of course, Oscar generally went along with Mr. Jones’ editorial policy. An example, one time Holcombe—who was really a brilliant administrator—came up with the idea that he’d seen out west where the center four signals were used by railroad men—that the city of Houston could use it, and in effect came up with the first traffic signal system. He had the city electrician install traffic lights on a raised platform, and a policeman would stand on this platform in downtown Houston, and he would switch like a railroad signal from red or green to stop and go. And to Oscar’s regret, he never really got into it and never patented it and never got a nickel out of it. But Oscar had real—really was brilliant in ideas, in foresight. He—as an example of the influence of the Chronicle on Holcombe, Holcombe came up with a pretty smart idea of building a brand new city hall—a skyscraper with the city offices occupying portions of the building and the rest of it up for rent for office space. Obviously it would have leased in no seconds flat because of the proximity—being in the same building—having a huge skyscraper. Why, it was a good idea and it would have, of course, not only liquidated the construction and maintenance costs, but yielded the city a handsome profit. He broached the suggestion to Mr. Jones one day, and Mr. Jones, thinking of the ‘76 downtown office building, suggested he drop the idea, that Mr. Holcombe didn’t need a floor plan. And he dropped the idea.
But there was some wide open gambling by numerous individuals, and the police winked an eye at it. Now, in a good many of those years, Oscar’s Police Chief was B. W. Payne—the late B. W. Payne—and B. W. wouldn’t ever interfere. I once interviewed Frank Cagle (s/l) (59:59) who ran the policy game here, who had been a contributor to Oscar Holcombe’s campaigns. And Cagle (s/l) (1:00:14) didn’t—he was in the policy racket and he didn’t want wide open slot machines. They used to be in lobbies of the downtown buildings and hotels and restaurants. And every time Payne, who was chief—this was long before the legislature that made it illegal, even possession illegal—but it was gambling and payoffs were still in violation of the law. And the—Cagle (s/l) (1:01:01) told me he went out of town one day and was gone for about a week. When he came back he says, “Every downtown building and restaurant had these slot machines.” And for that reason he switched his support from Holcombe to Neal Pickett and contributed to Neal’s successful campaign which lasted one term. His vote dropped from 50,000 to 1500.
LM: Why did that happen?
BK: 1:01:39 Well, Mr. Pickett was no longer a resident of Houston, but the general feeling was that he had proved a disappoint as mayor. All mayors contribute something and Mayor Pickett did too, but a movement had started to bring city manager government in here. And many of them had—many of the supporters for the—advocates of city manager government had voted for him and supported Pickett thinking they were voting in a clean administration, and they had their own ticket and elected a city manager slate. Holcombe didn’t run but he had a surrogate in there as candidate, and the entire city manger slate was elected. Otis Massey was elected mayor, and I think Otis has passed on and most of the then councilmen have passed on. The caliber of that administration was notably higher than ordinary administrations have. They had a banker, they had a lawyer—in fact they had several bankers. Bill ___ (??) (1:03:16), who was pretty much retired from the First City National which was headed as president under Jim Elkins. He had a railroad man and a CIO representative. They were—the idea was, was to have representative government and merge it. They had a good group of men, and they hired themselves a city manager. It lasted 4 years. They caved in due to the inability—this was during war years—due to the inability to get material. The garbage trucks couldn’t be replaced and were falling apart. They couldn’t get sewer—everything was going towards steel-lined pipe. Equipment and rolling stock, and they just couldn’t do anything. And Oscar came back as mayor on the pledge to rescind the city manager government, which he promptly did after his election. And he simply submitted charter changes, which simply transmitted the powers of the city manager to the office of mayor, and a strong-mayor form of government evolved. We still operate under it, and the council is supposed to be a part-time council with a very low salary in order to make politics not an end in itself. That was the theory behind it. I think, in large measure, it worked during the city manager days. But Holcombe frowned—I happened to be among those who feel that Oscar didn’t make money on any gambling operations at all. Obviously, because he was shrewd and smart, he knew it was going on. And certain councilmen who served in his administrations certainly must have profited, but the—as far as I can remember there was no formal charges. It doesn’t mean Oscar wasn’t—where Oscar actually made money, he became quite a real estate developer and builder. And very frequently, when an area needed sewers, he’d see that they were extended into the prairie which maybe he and his brother-in-law happened to own, and when the time came to develop the sewers, the plumbing was already in place. Now, the practice here has been to—for the developer to put X percentage of the installation of sanitary sewers or storm sewers or water lines. And to have that waiting for you when you want to develop kind of gave you a little edge.
BK: 1:07:11 But the—
LM: Did the Chronicle make an effort to expose these type of things?
LM: I’m sorry, not the Chronicle, the Press.
BK: The Press on numerous occasions jumped Mr. Holcombe. One of the more famous cases—again before my time—was shortly after Mr. Foster had taken over the Press and left the Chronicle. And the only gas company here was United, and as I remember it Insull—Samuel Insull of Illinois, who was in his day a very famous utility man that was the power behind the throne of the gas company then in business here at the time. Another gas company, which is now Houston Natural, wanted in. Now, the charter provides that—and I think probably the state law does too—that you cannot grant an exclusive franchise. So that the Press wanted this competing gas company in they figured that was a way to keep the rates down. And Mr. Foster alleged connivance in dirty work at the crossroads and ran a page-1 spread and continued it inside with a 2- column—it was a double truck, a 2-page spread in which he listed, I believe, 10 charges against the Holcombe administration. And Mr. Foster, in his own right, was a fairly
well-to-do citizen. The—Holcombe and Sewell Meyer—who was then a city attorney—promptly turned around and sued for liable and scared and frightened Mr. Foster. They made a midnight deal at Mr. Foster’s home where he agreed to retract his charges if they would drop the liable suit. When the news reached the Press attorneys, they hit the ceiling. It was the same law firm which Mr. Jaworski is still, I guess, the most—is now the senior lawyer. And Leon and John Cooker were both comparatively young men then, and this being some 48 years ago or thereabouts. And they were incensed that the editor and publisher had gone to this—had made this deal because they thought that they had their positions that had frightened—that the mayor and the city attorney didn’t realize how much they knew. Now, what is contained in those depositions—what testimony, what evidence they gathered—I don’t know whether they still preserved. I do know that we were running the city manager campaign—this is how I came across it in the old files. And I saw the retractions and I went to the lawyers to find out if they thought it was safe to use. And the answer was no because you couldn’t prove after that passed its time.
But that was one instance where they—another time when the Press hit the ceiling—and I don’t know whether Van Ulm had said—Van Ulm was getting to the cartoon you know. He—Holcombe had had a tremendous argument with, I guess it was, Ross Sterling, who later—who was governor—at one time had been governor of Texas and was president of the Humble company. And it was a rainy day and Holcombe stuck him in the Humble building with his umbrella. All kinds of accusations were made by Sterling. Mr. Holcombe has always denied the things that—the accusations. But Sidney Van Ulm immortalized this event with a cartoon which the cut lines were “Me and my shadow,” which was then a very popular song, a popular tune. And there was a silhouette, somebody who looked Oscar Holcombe and his police chief—who incidentally I neglected to say accompanied the mayor to Sterling’s office. And the Press made a—boy, they very bitter as a result of that. There were several other incidents in Holcombe campaigns that led to fiery denunciation by the Press. And Mr. Holcombe didn’t have all these 10 or 11 terms consecutively. He lost 3 or 4 races in between them, and one of those he lost was to the late Judge Monteith, who had—I believe he was on the court of civil appeals at one time.
LM: 1:13:56 That was in 1928.
BK: That’s about right, yeah. And—
LM: I don’t want to interrupt you. (first tape ends; second tape starts)