Modern history

Chapter 29


L EVERETT SALTONSTALL, three times governor of Massachusetts, senator from Massachusetts since January, 1945, and a mild Republican white hope for 1948, is a tall, swift, skinny man of fifty-four with hard red cheeks, absolute honesty, and the gift of being popular. He is practically the nicest person anybody ever met. I never heard of anybody who disliked him—after years of hurly-burly in one of the toughest political states in the union. You talk about Saltonstall in Washington or Boston and sometimes wonder where the nigger in the woodpile is. It seems almost too much to believe that any politician can have so many good traits, and so few bad ones. He has, it seems, everything: wealth, industriousness, Yankee shrewdness, and, above all, character. Then you discover that in 1944 he won the greatest vote in Massachusetts history up to that time; the cliché has it that when Saltonstall is running, you don’t count the votes, you simply weigh them. And finally you discover that he, a blue-blood of blue-bloods, achieves these astonishing results in part through the support of those who it might be supposed would most vigorously oppose him—the Boston of Irish descent.

I heard some pleasant stories about John H. Corcoran, the Democratic mayor of Cambridge who was rash enough to oppose Saltonstall for senator. They met shortly before the campaign began; Mr. Corcoran spoke up anxiously: “You don’t mind if I run against you, do you, Lev?” In another campaign—this must certainly be apocryphal—his opponent told a friend, “I don’t know whom you’re going to vote for, but I’m for Saltonstall !”

How shall one explain stories of this kind? Saltonstall is the most complete possible contrast to the popular conception of the successful American politician. How did he get that way? Let us explore.

The Gift of Modesty

For one thing, Saltonstall has the great and precious gift of modesty; for another, he gets on well with almost all kinds of people. When still governor he took me out to Needham where he made a noonday speech. Afterward I overheard two bits of dialogue. One man said, “Governor, thanks for your check.” Saltonstall looked puzzled. “I’m your electrician,” came the response. At the same moment another guest called out, “Any chance of playing tennis sometime this week, Lev?”

A few days later I ran into him in the lobby of the Somerset Club. Nobody who has ever seen him could possibly forget him; his face is extraordinarily distinctive. But before I could say a word he strode up and introduced himself! “Maybe you’ve forgotten me,” he said with complete genuineness, “I’m Leverett Saltonstall.”

His wife is as modest as he is. I met someone who has known them well for years, who said, “I have seen Lev and Alice come into a room together about a hundred times, and I never saw either look anything but shy.” In one election campaign Saltonstall’s opponent kept graciously making Mrs. Saltonstall gifts of nylon stockings.

Family Tree of Family Trees

One hears much of Cabots, Lowells, Adamses, but actually from the point of view of seniority the two greatest families in New England are not these; only the Winthrops and Saltonstalls are, as the phrase is, “arms-bearing”; they brought their coats of arms from England. “My God, they are a family!” one friend told me, explaining that they were so impeccably sure of their perpetuity that they named their children for their grandparents, not the parents.

The Saltonstalls trace descent back to 1343. Sir Richard Saltonstall founded the Boston suburb of Watertown in 1630, and on his death left his fortune to Harvard College; for ten successive generations the Saltonstalls, father and son, have gone to Harvard. During the Revolutionary days the family—very intelligent and prescient—supported the American side. Leverett’s great-grandfather was once president of the Massachusetts senate and mayor of Salem; his grandfather was collector of the Port of Boston by appointment of Grover Cleveland. Both grand-father and father were Democrats, odd as this may seem.

The Saltonstall wealth came from his mother’s side of the family; she was a Brooks, and so Leverett’s tidy background is interlaced not only with Saltonstalls but Brookses and Adamses. The considerable family fortune was founded not in Massachusetts, but in the Middle West: the Saltonstalls were early and highly successful speculators in Chicago real estate and western railroads. Leverett and his mother are supposed to be worth anywhere between five and ten million dollars today.

Seldom have I seen in America a more compactly packed parcel of family ground than the Saltonstall colony in Chestnut Hill, Newton, just outside Boston. Gray stone gates lead into a small park; an artificial ditch lies across the road, so that automobiles must slow down to protect children playing. Saltonstall’s grandfather laid out in this neighborhood five simple plots for his five children; on one is Leverett’s house today—a gray frame structure with three red chimneys, cream window frames, and a comfortable railed porch—and his mother, Mrs. Richard Saltonstall, resides next door. More Saltonstall properties and houses lie close by: a cousin, George West has one, and three more relatives, Mrs. Henry Fessenden (“Cousin Kitty”), Mrs. Reginald Grey (“Cousin Rosie”), and Mrs. George S. Mumford (“Cousin Bella”) occupy the others.1

For all this extreme tincture of family exclusiveness Leverett had a very normal upbringing. A Boston newspaper asked some eminent New Englanders if they had ever been punished when they were children. These were the governor’s answers:

“Ever spanked or whipped?”


“With what?”

Father’s slipper.

“By whom?”


“What age?”

Old enough to remember and while Father was still young enough to do the job.


Father’s bedroom.

“What for?”

Stubborn disobedience.

In 1903, Saltonstall met a young girl named Alice Wesselhoeft at a dancing school, and he fell in love with her on the spot. He was then eleven years old. He has been in love with her ever since. They were married in 1916, and had six children; one, Peter, was killed in Guam in the summer of 1944. Several others, like Leverett Jr. and Emily who was a radio operator in the Waves, had active service records; the youngest were still in school during the war.

I talked to Saltonstall several times and each time I tried to explore the pattern of his convictions. The central core is always, it seems, associated with his family: the family that produced him and the family he produced. And he has reached a simple philosophy more or less to the effect that a good family spirit is what produces good communities which in turn is what should produce good government. Naïve? Perhaps. When I asked him “What do you believe in most?” he scratched his head and looked puzzled. “Well, it might sound more impressive if I said something like ‘democracy’ or ‘the country,’ but let’s not be pretentious—what I believe in most is Harvard and my family.”

A Steep Rise in Career

Saltonstall was conventionally graduated from Harvard in 1914, and was secretary of his class. His scholastic record was not distinguished, nor did he do anything notable in athletics, though he played hockey and captained the first and only crew ever to win the Henley cup. He read for the bar, and worked for a few years as an attorney and—of course, Boston being Boston—as a “trustee.”

But politics bit and scorched him early. It is in the blood. He happened once to find an old newspaper—of date 1875—in the family archives; it described how his grandfather, on being sworn in as collector of the port, made a stirring appeal for integrity in public office. This made a considerable impression on Leverett; from that time on, so he says, he wanted to follow his forebear’s footsteps. I asked him how his political life began, but I do not vouch for all the details that follow—he is both so swift in speech and so shy that it is somewhat difficult to nail him down. It seems that one of his uncles, Endicott Peabody Saltonstall (the whole story is pivoted on family relationships), once set out to run for district attorney. When James Michael Curley, the celebrated Irish boss of Boston, heard that Endicott Peabody Saltonstall might get this job, he snorted, “What! All three of him?” But Uncle Endicott got in. Then Leverett became an alderman. Endicott gave him a post in the district attorney’s office, and in 1923 he ran for the Massachusetts legislature and won.

In 1936, having risen to be speaker, Saltonstall entered for the lieutenant governorship; he was defeated in a close race by an Irishman who, ever since, has lived on the reputation of being the one man who ever beat him. For Saltonstall has never lost another election. His rise has been astonishingly swift and steep. He ran for governor in 1938 against Curley, and won by a tremendous vote—in part because so many Bostonians had become sick of that grotesque old man. Running for re-election in 1940, Saltonstall got in again, but only by a narrow margin; his opponent, Attorney General Paul A. Dever, was an excellent man—which goes to show that when Massachusetts has to vote between two good candidates, the result will be close. In 1942, running for governor a third time, Saltonstall beat Roger Lowell Putnam, the mayor of Springfield. Then came the senatorial race in 1944.

This election filled the seat originally held by Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. who, a capable and highly complex and ambitious young man, resigned in February to enter the Army. Saltonstall might easily have quit as governor, whereupon the lieutenant governor could have appointed him to the Lodge vacancy—which would have meant a senate seat without a fight. But, says Saltonstall, “I didn’t quite like to do it.” So he decided to stay on as governor until his term was finished, and take his chances running as a regular candidate. To fill the vacancy he appointed his friend Sinclair Weeks, with the understanding that Weeks would not subsequently run against him. His victory in the race that followed was prodigious. He carried Massachusetts by a 2-to-I majority—something all but unprecedented. And it was the more impressive in that Roosevelt carried the state by 113,946 votes against Dewey, and Mayor Maurice J. Tobin of Boston (a Democrat of course) won the governorship overwhelmingly; taking the Roosevelt-Tobin figures as a criterion, Saltonstall ran ahead of his ticket by three hundred thousand votes. No such personal triumph had been known in Massachusetts history, and Saltonstall became the greatest personal vote getter the Bay State has ever known.

Saltonstall seconded Dewey at the Chicago convention (1944), but he was something of a Willkieite at heart. During the campaign he inadvertently caused Willkie great pain, however. In an interview in New York he predicted that Dewey would carry Massachusetts by getting so-and-so many votes more than Willkie got in 1940. Saltonstall did this because if he had said anything else everybody would have known at once that Dewey was as good as beaten. But Willkie was hurt at what he thought was a slight from a friend, and because he thought Lev was showing himself a shockingly poor prophet. (Willkie was right, of course.)

We come now to a question that demands answer. Why did Saltonstall run so far ahead of the ticket? What accounts for his hold on Massachusetts voters? It appears that there are several reasons:

(1) His obvious merit. He gave the state six years of excellent administration. People liked him because he was wholesome and upright. His popularity overran party lines.

(2) He was careful not to say anything much against Roosevelt. He always worked closely with Washington on national defense.

(3) A moderate liberal, he caught most of the middle-roaders. Some of his speeches sound as if they had been written for, not against, the New Deal.

(4) His labor record was good, and although the Political Action Committee, which was very strong in the state at the time, did not overtly support him, it did little to oppose him. (The CIO, incidentally, did support him in 1942.)

(5) Above all, the Irish-descended community did not fight him with much punch. Motives for this date back a long way. Many honest Irish were mortified by the records of previous Democratic governors; they wanted a decent upstanding man. And some Irish, looking up to the Yankees, voted for Saltonstall out of a curious inverted snobbery—they enjoyed being on the Brahmin side for a change; they were eager to line up with Beacon Hill.

(6) A last complex point. Some of the Irish voted for him, even if this meant a diminished vote for the Democratic ticket, because they hated FDR.

Incidentally Saltonstall is a member in good standing of the most venerable and celebrated of Irish institutions in Boston, the Charitable Irish Society. He dug up an Irish ancestor some years ago and thereupon became eligible for membership. The small joke is that it was quite a strain to find his Irish strain.

Things Mostly Personal

I have mentioned Saltonstall’s house in Chestnut Hill, but when in the Boston area he much prefers to spend what time he can on his ninety-acre farm near Dover. When he was governor he always spent week ends there, even if it meant leaving the state house at three o’clock Saturday morning, when his work was finally done. On the farm, he liked to relax by pitching hay and cutting wood; more lately he has dropped exercise so strenuous. For years he and Mrs. Saltonstall rode to hounds. But they gave it up in 1939 when, Lev told me, “I fell and broke my neck and the Missus fell and broke her leg.”

His weekday routine (as governor) was more or less as follows. He took a Boston & Albany suburban train from the Chestnut Hill station, and got off at Huntington Avenue, one stop before the terminus. From here it is a mile to the state house; he usually walked it, since this provided the only fresh air he was apt to get. He arrived at his desk at 9:20. Then he worked till six, eight, ten, as the day demanded.

He drinks moderately, smokes very little, and eats anything. He has a drawl and pronounces the word law “lawr.” He is fond of the theater but never gets time to go. He told me, “But the Missus gets to the symphony every once in a while.”

What he likes best are familiar things. When he was governor, if he happened to be in New York or Springfield, he would always try to catch the last night train, so that he could sleep at home in Boston.

He has little time to read anything except official papers. But he goes through Time cover-to-cover, and glances at Life. It takes him a very long time to read a book. Sometimes he picks up a heavy volume, usually on a political subject; it will last him months. “My wife jollies me about it,” he likes to say.

He seeks to persuade good people to help him write his speeches; then sometimes this embarrasses him. Boston’s new archbishop, Dr. Cushing, drafted his last Thanksgiving Day proclamation; but when this was widely praised he felt that Cushing should have had the credit.

Saltonstall is not much of a churchgoer. Technically he is a Unitarian. But his faith, in the Puritan tradition, springs out of himself rather than from any obedience to a dogmatic creed.

His sense of humor is fairly acute. Once he got letters from President Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt on successive days, expressing totally different views on the same matter. Saltonstall exploded, “Can’t those two ever get together?”2

I asked him what he wanted most out of life that he didn’t have. He replied with a disarming simplicity, “To be of service, and to leave a good name.”

His friends are legion, partly because his own friendliness is effortless. He told me that he probably knew about ten thousand people in Massachusetts by name and face, but that now, as he gets older, his memory sometimes fails him. He has a nice homely touch, comparatively rare in blue-bloods; he is neither stuffy nor a backslapper. Probably his closest political friend and adviser is Henry J. Minot; I asked what Minot “did” and got the reply, “Oh, he’s just a gentleman.” Minot’s brother is a Nobel prize winner in medicine. He held no official job when Saltonstall was governor; he carried no title or salary, but simply kept a desk in the state house.

Another person very close to him—and this is a good example of Saltonstall’s wide gamut—is Allan Larrivee, his aide and chauffeur. You can tell a good deal about a man from the amount of proprietary interest taken in him by people of his entourage; and Larrivee worships him. No detail in Saltonstall’s life, from high politics to what he has for breakfast, escapes Larrivee’s attention, and he wants any visitor to like and above all understand his boss just as he does. Larrivee is “new” in Saltonstall’s service; that is, he has been with him a mere six years. The other chauffeur has been with the family thirty-four years. Saltonstall, Larrivee told me, “is the most considerate man who ever lived.” He will take the most extraordinary pains to see to the chauffeur’s comfort, and so on. Larrivee, of French descent, is Catholic. Ted Stavredes, a sergeant in the state police who was his bodyguard, is Greek in origin.

Saltonstall has a good puritanical sense of the value of industry; also of time. He has one habit that sometimes annoys the entourage. “He drives us crazy catching trains.” If a train is to leave at 2:37, he will not dream of getting to the station until 2:36½.

He works “like a jumping jack,” his friends told me; he is doing something day and night, and one of the few criticisms I heard is that he tries to do too much himself. He is so conscientious that he finds it difficult to delegate authority; he likes to fuss around. He can’t keep his fingers out of things—another New England trait.

He has considerable capacity to turn unfriendly comment to his advantage. On one occasion his inveterate opponent Curley called him a “blue-blood with a South Boston face.” (In college, Saltonstall’s nickname was “Horseface.”) He replied to the effect that he certainly wasn’t afraid to show South Boston just what his face was like.

Saltonstall has come a long way quickly and he still has much to learn, his friends say. At the beginning, because of his shyness, he didn’t like rough give-and-take; he was the world’s worst public greeter. The legend is that two friends hired a suite in the Parker House, installed a soap box in a locked room, ripped off Lev’s coat and shirt, hoisted him up on the box, and kept him there shouting and gesticulating till he got used to it. Another story is that one adviser sought to curb him from ever saying anything extemporaneous; Saltonstall had made some wisecrack that didn’t quite catch fire. The adviser cautioned him, “Lev, any time you ever think of another quickie, call me up, and next day I’ll let you know whether or not to use it.”

There is a cliché about Saltonstall: that he has everything—except brains and top-flight intellect. I have read everything I could find about him, and almost all critics assert that he is neither brilliant nor profound. But good senators are seldom “brilliant” or “profound.” His chief defect, if you can put it that way, is what I would describe as a lack of essential bulk. He does not lack stamina; but his shoulders are not very broad. He could never be like Theodore Roosevelt, say—a prodigiously full man capable of taking violent risks, of making tremendous mistakes, of creating explosive cataclysms. Saltonstall is not a genius. (Few men are.) He is not an Olympian; he will never mimic Prometheus. The blasting fires of creation do not rage in his lean belly.

Nevertheless, in recapitulation, we may summarize the chief sources of his considerable power. First, integrity. He never pretends to be what he isn’t. Second, modesty and friendliness. Third, a canny man, he never promises anything. He told me that in three campaigns for governor, he had made only one specific promise, to repair a stretch of local road near Holyoke. Fourth, he draws support from both sides, because of his essential moderation. Fifth, though wealthy, he is very frugal, and he gave Massachusetts the strictest financial administration since Coolidge. He has never in his life wasted a cent—something which appeals to Yankees. Sixth, he has a kind of naïveté more precious than the most refined sophistication. I heard him say once that he had sent two chickens from his farm to Washington by air express, so that a relative might have them for Thanksgiving. The express bill was $3.88. He added quite seriously, “The chickens weren’t worth $3.88 themselves, but I sent them anyway.”

Saltonstall would be pleased to be president in 1948. Probably he has very little chance. Anyway the prospect frightens him almost as much as it attracts.

A Word or Two on the Record

Saltonstall’s record as governor for three terms was commendable, and he is particularly proud of his state’s contribution to the war. I asked him what had been his biggest crisis; he replied that the first six or seven weeks of his first term were the hardest, when he had to clean house and establish the level of government on a new, sanitary basis. This aside, his worst crisis came over birth control. Massachusetts and Connecticut are the only two states in the nation where the practice of contraception is still technically illegal; after years of effort a birth control act finally passed the legislature. The governor believed personally in the bill, but after a stiff struggle with himself he vetoed it. His reason: its enactment would have hopelessly divided the state just when political unity was most necessary at the beginning of the war.

He is very proud of some of the men he got to work for him like Thomas F. Sullivan, a distinguished engineer and former chairman of the Boston Transit Commission, whom he made Boston’s chief of police. Oddly enough, it is the governor who fills this municipal post in Massachusetts; Saltonstall, by appointing an Irishman of irreproachable character, pleased almost everybody, rural Republicans and urban Democrats alike.3 Another interesting appointment was that of Matthew W. Bullock as chairman of the State Parole Board. Bullock, a graduate of Dartmouth and the Harvard Law School, and a man with an outstanding civic record, is a Negro.

On January 9, 1945, Leverett Saltonstall was sworn in as junior senator from Massachusetts. When he and his wife arrived in Washington they were met at the train by their daughter Emily, who had temporary leave from her post in the Waves. Saltonstall’s first remark to reporters was characteristic: “I’m not here to make news; I’m down here to try to learn. All I know is that I’m on the honeymoon. No commitments; no promises of any kind.”

He took a strong liberal line on foreign policy at once; one of his first acts was to join a round robin of freshman senators pledging support to the administration on international affairs. I asked him in Boston how he happened to become an interventionist long before Pearl Harbor, in 1939. His answer was disarmingly simple. He kept hearing airplanes fly over his house. And he knew they were en route to Europe. Well then, Europe couldn’t be so far away! He represents a seaboard, a mercantile community. Therefore he couldn’t afford to blind himself to what went on abroad.

Early in his Senate career Saltonstall showed (a) that he was willing to be heterodox with the courage of his convictions, and (b) that he was a liberal on some domestic issues too, by being one of the few Republicans to vote for confirmation of Henry Wallace as secretary of commerce after the fight with Jesse Jones. Finally, it is extremely typical of him that he waited for more than a year, until April 25, 1946, before making a major speech in the Senate. He was feeling his way cautiously, exploring the unfamiliar ground. When he did speak at last it was in support of the British loan.

1 In the immediate vicinity are both a large reservoir and also the former German Consulate, where Dr. Herbert Scholz, one of the most active Nazis in the United States before the war, had his headquarters. Saltonstall told me that this proximity disturbed him greatly and helped to awaken him to the German menace in pre-Pearl Harbor days; he feared the Nazis might blow up Boston's water supply.

2 As to his sense of humor he wrote in the American Mercury (August, 1946), that like all senators who work in the Senate Office Building, he sometimes gets mail addressed “Senator Saltonstall, S.O.B.. Washington, D.C.”

3 Boston is the only great city in the country where the governor of the state, not the mayor, appoints the chief of police. The rural Republicans, who thought that their governors might not be safe in dangerous Boston in the old days, put this measure through in the first place, and rural jealousy of urban political power has kept it on the books ever since.

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