By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
Continuing over the next few days, The Blade is looking at significant events and people of the past 100 years. This is one of a series of profiles about influential Toledoans of the 20th century.
To get to the old American Embassy in Brussels, you head to the Square Montgomery, one of the city’s most dangerous intersections, and take a left.
The tree-lined boulevard you’re on is a little bit of Toledo history.
It’s called Boulevard Brand Whitlock, and it’s named for the former mayor of Toledo credited with saving Belgium from starvation in World War I.
Mr. Whitlock was as well-known around the world as any politician Toledo has ever produced. His predecessor, Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones, got national attention as a reformer, and Michael DiSalle became Ohio’s governor and toyed with a presidential run.
But only Mr. Whitlock became noted in so many circles: political, literary, diplomatic.
In Belgium, he is well remembered, with a street named after him and a bust of him enshrined in the Belgian parliament. But in Toledo, only one major reminder of him exists, the Brand Whitlock Homes, a public housing complex south of downtown.
He never figured out exactly what he wanted to do in life, shifting from one career to another. He knew how talented he was – it’s doubtful that Toledo politics has ever produced more of a Renaissance man – and he was always bitterly disappointed that he never became the best at anything he did.
He never wrote the Great American Novel, and he never became president, and he never seemed to have the will to do either.
But, despite his flaws and disappointments, he left behind a substantial record of accomplishment on two continents, and a small European nation grateful for his efforts.
Brand Whitlock was born in Urbana, O., a small town midway between Dayton and Columbus, in 1869.
His family was staunchly Republican, as was nearly all of Ohio at the time, and young Brand was expected to follow the mold.
As he later wrote, the Republican Party in Ohio “was elemental, like gravity, the sun, the stars, the ocean. One became, in Urbana and in Ohio for many years, a Republican just as the Eskimo dons fur clothes. It was inevitable. It was not a matter of intellectual choice, it was a process of biological selection.”
His father was a Methodist minister, and he moved from post to post around Ohio, including stops in Findlay, Defiance, and Toledo, where he went to high school.
By the time he graduated, he had fallen in love with writing. He went to work for several newspapers in Toledo, including the News-Bee, before finding a semi-permanent home for his writing with The Blade.
After a few years, Mr. Whitlock went to Chicago and – in a break with his Republican family – went to work for the Chicago Herald, then one of America’s leading Democratic newspapers. Chicago was a radical town, full of socialist and anarchist ferment, and Mr. Whitlock breathed it all in.
He joined the Whitechapel Club, an enclave of artists, writers, musicians, and other thinkers that introduced him to odd ideas and gave him an appreciation of the underbelly of a city. The Whitechapelers were bohemian, a Midwest equivalent of Greenwich Village, and what Mr. Whitlock learned would become apparent when he entered Toledo politics. His writing also improved, and he began to dabble in fiction.
The struggle that haunted him throughout his life had begun. He believed himself a great writer, and wanted to spend all of his time penning great novels. But his skills appeared to be more in governing and diplomacy.
“It seemed to be my fate, or my weakness, which we too often confuse with fate, to vacillate between an interest in literature and an interest in politics,” he wrote in his journal.
After a brief stint in Springfield, Ill., covering the state legislature, he soured on newspapering and began working for politicians. He soon turned against that as well, and decided that law was the career for him.
Part of the problem was that Mr. Whitlock sought a career that would not be so pressing as to take time away from his literary aspirations. After a little training, he opened a small law office in Springfield, but didn’t bother to advertise his services; he was lazy.
He moved back to Toledo in 1897. He set up shop downtown and started taking small cases that didn’t occupy much time, minor disputes for which he would generally earn $5. He was happy; he had time to work on his fiction.
As fate would have it, he began to be noticed as a talented lawyer, winning many more cases than he lost. His writing time was being threatened. But, according to his memoirs, it took only one case to turn him away from the law.
A young German emigrant named Maria Rusch claimed her husband Reinhold was neglecting her and drinking too much. Mr. Whitlock, full of righteous indignation, had him arrested immediately and put on trial.
The trial was a mockery.
Reinhold, fresh off the boat from Germany, seemed to have no idea what was going on. He spoke no English, and his wife refused to translate for him at trial.
He yelled out angry protests in German at the wrong times, particularly toward the one witness against him, a tall, young German shoemaker who lived nearby.
Mr. Whitlock was an impassioned prosecutor.
One newspaper account showed the talent he had when he put his mind to it: “After Brand Whitlock, appearing for the prosecution, had drawn a heart-wrenching picture of the pitiable condition in the Rusch homestead, all the jurymen save Charlie Stevens were in tears.”
Mr. Whitlock won and Reinhold was sent to the workhouse for nine months. The young lawyer’s sense of justice was affirmed, and he was proud.
Not long after, Maria decided she wanted a divorce, and Mr. Whitlock had it arranged.
The day after her divorce, Maria married the German shoemaker. The two had been carrying on a torrid affair and the charges of neglect were invented by the couple. Mr. Whitlock realized what Reinhold had been yelling about at the trial. In an instant, he came to see the legal system as a sham.
“I discovered that whatever other men might do, I could never again prosecute anyone for anything,” he wrote in his memoirs. “And I never did.”
He had poor Reinhold paroled from the workhouse and never heard from him again.
But mistrust of the legal system would track Mr. Whitlock throughout the rest of his career. From that moment on, he was on the criminal’s side.
Toledo politics in the late 1800s were nothing to be proud of.
The new American cities were mostly made up immigrants easily exposed to graft and fraud, and Tammany Hall-style corruption in government was the norm. Defended by an entrenched system of those above and below the law, there seemed to be little anyone could do to oppose the way things were.
There was hope from the emerging social Christianity movement, which attempted to bring an ethical set of standards to governance. In Toledo, that hope came from Samuel Milton Jones, a Welsh immigrant who believed in living by the “Golden Rule,” treating others as you would like to be treated.
In 1897, Mr. Jones, a successful businessman running as a Republican, was elected mayor and began instituting his brand of social reform.
Mr. Jones’s morality didn’t favor harsh punishments for those who broke the rules.
He believed that criminals were often the product of bad circumstances, a relativistic argument that appealed to Mr. Whitlock. He decided not to enforce city liquor or prostitution laws.
Mr. Jones preferred orations about ethics than their enforcement.
Mr. Whitlock liked the mayor’s concerns for society’s lowest, and he went to work for him as counsel. When the local judge was on vacation or sick, Mr. Whitlock would sit in as his replacement, and he pursued the Jones philosophy on criminals: namely, let them all go.
He gave the most lenient sentences possible for gamblers, prostitutes, and petty thieves who had to be prosecuted. The press and the businessmen hated it; the Toledo Times once angrily denounced him for letting off a few Polish boys who had stolen 60 cents of coal from the railroad.
He became known as “The Great Suspender” for all the suspended sentences he gave.
Mr. Whitlock angered so many people with his free passes that the General Assembly passed a special bill to prevent a city’s mayor from naming a replacement judge – a law aimed solely at stopping the efforts of Mr. Whitlock.
With all the attention, he was becoming a public figure. His law career, based on defending troubled people who had done horrible things, was booming.
He was also enjoying the tussle of Toledo politics. Mr. Jones was enormously popular with the people (after the Republicans abandoned him, he won three more elections as an Independent), but few in power supported his cause. It was an odd mix, the gregarious mayor, uneducated but pure-hearted, and the more reserved and calculating Mr. Whitlock, a self-appointed intellectual. But they needed each other.
Mr. Whitlock’s devotion was such that when he received a job offer from an old friend in Chicago, the famed attorney Clarence Darrow, he turned him down.
When “Golden Rule” Jones died of pneumonia in July, 1904, Mr. Whitlock was the obvious successor. But in city council elections that fall, he refused to be nominated for any position, fearing (yet again) that a pressing job would take away time from his fiction. The Republicans moved back into power.
But eventually the pressure being applied to him worked. He began making more speeches, calling for woman suffrage and fair treatment of the indigent. In 1905, he was finally convinced to run, and won.
He now had a hands-on job to do, but he still convinced himself that he was an artist. “Even if I am in politics,” he wrote confusingly, “I am still in art – and … they may indeed very much mean one and the same thing – and mean religion, too.”
Mr. Whitlock served four terms as mayor, with the ardent opposition of the clergy, the wealthy, and most of the middle-class. Toledo was the fastest growing city in Ohio, and it was a mostly foreign brew. According to the 1900 census, 60 per cent of the city was either foreign-born or the child of immigrants. Mr. Whitlock’s election success came almost completely from the poor, the criminals, and those immigrants.
His actions did not make him a particularly distinguished mayor, just as “Golden Rule” Jones tended more toward talk than action. Mr. Whitlock talked a lot less than his predecessor – he said he didn’t want to give his opponents anything to throw back in his face later – and his actions mostly continued the progress his predecessor had made.
He supported organized labor and created some reforms in public franchises, notably in a battle over the streetcar companies. He helped individuals with sad stories, sometimes with his own money, sometimes with the city’s help. But his major accomplishment seems to be keeping the forces of corruption out of power for eight years.
As always, he spent his time writing. He was writing novels by now, including his most successful financially, an anti-death penalty story titled The Turn of the Balance. Mr. Whitlock was a social realist who, taking the humanist ideology of men like Tolstoy, tried to tell a keenly observed story without much artifice. That style, and topics like capital punishment, fit in well with his political career.
By 1913, Mr. Whitlock was depressed again. He wanted to spend more time writing, and became dedicated to doing as little work as mayor as possible
He helped New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson get elected president in 1912 – despite personal pleas from Bull Moose candidate Theodore Roosevelt for Mr. Whitlock’s support – and he hoped for some gratitude in return. He pulled every string he could in Washington to get a diplomatic appointment to some small, safe, cultured place where he could have time to write, talk to intellectuals, and relax. His good friend Newton Baker was in President Wilson’s inner circle and pushed hard for an appointment.
The greatest irony of Mr. Whitlock’s life is the quiet, little place to which he was sent was Belgium on the cusp of World War I.
When he was named minister to Belgium on Oct. 15, 1913, he didn’t know the Germans had designs on the little country that was to be his home. He loved his new environment. Despite his democratic urges, he was an aristocrat at heart and was thrilled at life in the court of a king. And no matter the difficulties between Germany and its other neighbors, Belgium was officially neutral, and invading a neutral country was illegal under international law.
On Aug. 2, 1914, the Germans invaded Belgium.
For them, it was a quick shortcut to France, but much of the war – by far the nastiest in human history to that point – ended up being fought on Belgian soil, in the hundreds of miles of trenches dug by both sides.
The Belgians put up a fight, but it was futile; most of the country was occupied in a few weeks. The German army began seizing local food to feed its soldiers, and the Belgians were at one point only two weeks away from starving.
Most foreign legations in the Belgian capital fled to France when the invasion occurred, but Mr. Whitlock stayed. The need for food was clear, and Mr. Whitlock, along with other diplomats in Brussels and elsewhere, organized the Commission for Relief in Belgium, the world’s first large-scale international relief effort.
He was named the group’s chairman. His main partner was Herbert Hoover, an engineer just entering public service, who coordinated the effort from London. Mr. Hoover’s efforts set him in the public spotlight and put him on the road to the presidency in 1928.
The two men coordinated the purchase of thousands of tons of food in England and its transportation into Belgium. It was a bureaucratic minefield; the Germans did not consider the nourishment of enemy civilians a top priority and sometimes intercepted the shipments for their own men.
But the effort worked. Belgium never experienced widespread famine, and much of the country’s population, particularly in the cities, survived the occupation relatively unharmed.
Mr. Whitlock, according to reports, was “the second most popular man in Belgium, behind King Albert.” He, almost as much as the king, became the man troubled Belgians went to for help, whether for safe passage to the United States, extra food, or other assistance.
Fluent in French, he could speak to most of them in their own language. Just as the poor of Toledo had come to him as mayor a decade earlier, the downtrodden of Brussels did the same.
In 1916, as a sign of the respect the Toledoan had earned in Washington, President Wilson offered Mr. Whitlock the job of ambassador to Russia. It was an enormous compliment, but one Mr. Whitlock would not accept. “I must finish my work here and not desert my poor Belgians,” he replied.
For him, it was likely a good decision. A year later the Russian Revolution occurred, another crisis that would have distracted Mr. Whitlock from his writing.
In April, 1917, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany, a prelude to entering the war. As a result, Mr. Whitlock left for Switzerland, but thousands of Belgians met the train all along its path out of the country, yelling, “Au revoir et bientot” – “Goodbye, and may we meet again soon.” Many were in tears.
Mr. Whitlock didn’t return to Brussels until the end of the war, in November, 1918. He received a hero’s welcome.
Brand Whitlock had always had the tendencies of an intellectual and an aristocrat, but his time in the Independent movement protected him from accusations of elitism. His politics were borderline socialist, but he always had the bearing of a man of wealth. With his increasing fame, his books began to sell and Mr. Whitlock made a small fortune off the royalties, giving him the wealth to live among the aristocracy of Europe after his diplomatic career was over.
He grew disdainful of the United States in general, and Toledo in particular, which he considered a dirty place without culture. During his time on the Continent, he had seen the worst elements of European civilization, but he also was charmed by the small pleasures of life in Brussels.
During the rest of his life, he returned to America for only a brief visits, such as when his mother died. He fell in with the expatriate community, floating from hotel to hotel and city to city across western Europe.
P.J. O’Rourke, the Toledo-born humorist who is working on a project involving the city’s history, told The Blade in September, “One of the few really good things about [World War I] was that it put an end to Brand Whitlock’s fiction career.”
Not quite true: With his diplomatic duties completed, Mr. Whitlock finally had time to write, and he took advantage of it. Most of his literary output occurred in his final years, including the book he had been writing on and off for a decade, J. Hardin & Son, a scathing novel about hypocrisy in a small town in Ohio.
It’s one of his most successful works, filled with solid writing and keen observations. But it was not a sensation, and in this case, Mr. Whitlock could rightfully blame the war on stunting his writing career. Had the book come out before the war, when he began writing it, the reception would likely have been outstanding.
But by the time it was published in 1923, the idea had already been done.
Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) covered much of the same ground in a tale about small-town Minnesota; it earned its author a Nobel Prize. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) remains on college literary curricula today as a symbol of the era as much as anything else.
During the next decade, Mr. Whitlock continued to write, and received small, polite praise from the critics. He was offered a few positions in diplomacy, but he always turned them down to keep at his writing.
When he died in 1934, in Cannes, France, he had lived a life most people would find remarkable. But it clearly was not the life he wanted.
“He died overwhelmed by a sense of failure,” wrote Robert Crunden, in the conclusion to his biography of Mr. Whitlock, A Hero In Spite Of Himself.
“His great novel that he wished so much to write remained unwritten. The great deeds in which, as mayor and diplomat, he deserved to play a leading role, remained undone. Whatever the world might think of his actual successes, he was haunted by his own knowledge of the little he had actually accomplished.”