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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Memories and Vagaries

From Washington Lawyer, December 2011

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator “Time and vanity rearrange the facts.”
—Axel Munthe

In the 1930s and ’40s, F Street NW, from 14th Street to 7th Street, was Washington’s main shopping street. Garfinckel’s was on 14th and Hecht’s on 7th. In between were six men’s clothing stores, four theaters, several women’s shoe stores, and two stores selling radios and records.

But if one turned south onto 9th Street, there was an immediate change of spirit. The significant difference was the Gayety burlesque theater. It offered comedians, many of whom achieved fame in the movies.

The Gayety was supervised by an important Washington personality, Jimmy Lake—Carnation Jimmy—known as the Mayor of 9th Street. Jimmy Lake came to Washington from Brooklyn near the end of World War I. He claimed talents as a dancer, a burlesque comic, and a straight man. He prospered on 9th Street and presided over its golden age when it held out the promise of inexpensive, minor vice. There was a tattoo parlor, a photographer’s studio, a penny arcade, and triple-feature movies. At the Little Theater between F and G streets, there were foreign films and Charlie Chaplin movies.

During intermission at the Gayety, Mr. Lake would stand up and tell the all-male audience that his hat was to be passed around and they should put some money in it, which Mr. Lake would send over to Garfield Hospital for those who were on the charity ward. He knew those in the audience would flee to the men’s room. In anticipation of that, Jimmy Lake said: “I know where you’re going and I’m coming right in after you with the hat.”

Jimmy Lake’s bar was next door to the Gayety. The walls were covered with photos of strippers, comics, actors and actresses, and prizefighters—all autographed with personal dedications to Carnation Jimmy.

Jimmy sported a wilted carnation on his lapel. He was an object of attention to passersby simply because he looked like somebody who should be looked at. He had heavy rimmed glasses and a full head of curly gray hair. He was erect and courtly. Evenings, Mr. Lake introduced the local wrestling matches and prizefights at Griffith Stadium. His rich, sonorous voice instantly brought the sporting crowd to attention.

Jimmy generally stayed on his side of 9th Street, the east side. He would often point to people on the other side of the street, especially the sidewalk in front of the New England Lunch. He called it “the beach.” It was on the beach that local gamblers collected to carry on their business al fresco. The crowd was separated by a caste system. Those in the upper caste were overdressed, smoked big cigars, and always kept one foot propped on a portable shoe shine stand. Every now and then someone of a lower caste delivered white envelopes and racing forms.

One beach habitué was above the caste system. His name was Ben “Evil Eye” Finkle, whose stock in trade was the single, double, and triple whammy. A whammy was the 9th Street version of the hex—the evil eye—that Finkle used to place a curse on boxers he’d been hired not to like. For the $25 triple whammy, Finkle would stake out a position in his client’s corner, putting the hex on his client’s opponent even before Jimmy Lake introduced the fighters.

Another extraordinary person who occasionally appeared on the beach as a visiting celebrity was John “Blackjack” Keleher. He arrived by chauffeured black limousine. He was a dignified, white-haired gentleman who dressed in black and white only and who controlled considerable betting activity. Most of the time, Keleher was imperturbable. Occasionally, however, when the litigation he was carrying on with his estranged wife, Dolly, became extremely intense, he lost his composure.

The U.S. Court of Appeals opinion in Keleher v. Keleher, 192 F.2d 601 (1951),reveals that Mr. Keleher liked to have cash on hand, usually $60,000 in safe deposit boxes. One day when Mr. Keleher was out of town (at least that’s what he told his wife), Dolly removed the $60,000 from Keleher’s safe deposit boxes. Things like that perturb even the imperturbable.

I was in that courtroom in 1950 and saw Mrs. Keleher point a finger at Jack and state that, although he looked like a gentleman, he had ruined her life, which was why she had skedaddled with the money.

Jimmy Lake left us in September of 1967. I have at hand his autobiography, and I have his obituary in a scrapbook. The autobiography, a vanity publication, is titled Footlights, Fistfights, and Femmes: The Jimmy Lake Story. Each chapter is treated as one round of a 10-round fight; the subheads of “Round 10” are “Reminiscing Barroom Pugilism” and, finally, “The Last Round.”

His obituary tells us that back in 1960, when he was 80 years old, he continued to be the ring announcer for the fighters and wrestlers. In one match, the wrestlers got into a real fight. He tried to separate them. They broke his back and wrist. He wound up in an oxygen tent in Washington Hospital Center.

“I woke up one morning and looked around,” he said. “I saw this nurse sitting there. She was beautiful. I gazed at her a bit and my thoughts became corrupt. ‘What time is it?’ I asked her, and she said it was 3 a.m. ‘You had better be going home then,’ I told her.”

Well, on my last walk on F Street, there were no theaters, no Hecht’s, and no Garfinckel’s. The glory days are gone forever. So are those of 9th Street. The Gayety is now a cold office building. The New England Lunch has been replaced by another cold building.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.