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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Circles Within Circles

From Washington Lawyer, June 2007

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

There are people whose wide circle of friends has within that wide circle a number of smaller circles of friends, each unaware of the other.

Milton Kronheim Sr. (1888–1986) had friendships with lawyers and judges, police officers, journalists, retail liquor dealers, old athletes, politicians, local businessmen, Little Sisters of the Poor, and has-beens.

How did this come about?

In the late 1880s Kronheim’s father was the proprietor of a Capitol Hill bar popular with politicians. Young Kronheim was fascinated by men of influence. Thereafter, at each stage of Kronheim’s long life, he made friends with politicians. One of these friendships was with Senator, and then President, Harry S Truman.

Kronheim left school when he was 15 years old, and went into business on his own after a dispute with his boss, who had a small retail liquor business. He rented a room in Georgetown where he set up a mail order liquor business. In those days liquor could be bought through the mail. The J. Paul’s restaurant now occupies the site.

He prospered. Things were going well. But the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in 1920, outlawed alcoholic beverages.

Without missing a step, Kronheim went into another business. He set himself up as a bail bondsman with an office on Fifth Street. As a bail bondsman, he made friends with the police, the criminal bar, and the local judges. When a person was arrested, he could not get free unless a bondsman put up a bond to secure the defendant’s attendance in court. There was no such thing as release on personal recognizance, as is done now. If the defendant did not show up on his court date, the bondsman forfeited the bond.

In 1933, when the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, Kronheim returned to the liquor business as a wholesale distributor. He prospered as a businessman and as a public citizen, contributing to many charities, some publicly, most anonymously.

Kronheim thought he was a pretty good athlete. He fancied himself as a boxer and a baseball player. He boxed in the Arcade gym at 14th and Park.

At that time John Sirica, later the famous Watergate judge, boxed as an amateur and also boxed as a professional under another name so his parents would not know he was in the fight game.

Kronheim liked to spar with John Sirica so he could brag to his friends that he went a few rounds with a professional boxer. During one of those sparring matches, Kronheim got too frisky. Sirica slowed him down by giving him a black eye. When Kronheim got home, his wife angrily asked him how he got the black eye. Kronheim said proudly he had been boxing a few rounds with Johnny Sirica. His wife said, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you are no boxer. One of these days Johnny Sirica is going to knock your head off.” Kronheim liked to tell this story when Judge Sirica was in the audience.

During the summer months Kronheim arranged for baseball games on Sunday morning at the 16th and Kennedy streets ball diamond. He pitched for the Kronheim Tigers. A good local pitcher pitched for the other team. Kronheim continued playing well into his eighties.

Kronheim hosted a Saturday luncheon at Blackie’s restaurant. It was at these luncheons the people from the circles within circles got acquainted.

Kronheim gave an interview in connection with President Truman’s oral history project for the Truman Library. Here is Kronheim giving his recollection of his first meeting with Truman:

Well, I first met President Truman, and became acquainted with him, when he was in the United States Senate. The first time I saw him I’ll never forget. He came to a dinner at the Mayflower Hotel. He and I were standing in the doorway. I had never met him and he had never met me, but he was standing there and no one paid any attention to him. I went over to him. I said, “Mr. Truman, have you got a seat?” He said, “No, I haven’t.” So I called the Head Waiter over and said, “You know that’s Senator Truman. I wish that you would see that he gets properly seated,” and he was seated and Mr. Truman appreciated it. After that I met him on many occasions. For instance, I’ll never forget he went with his family to New York to the dedication of a battleship. He wanted to take his party to go see Oklahoma! which, at the time, was the biggest hit in New York, and he couldn’t get tickets. [The president couldn’t get a ticket!] I was able to get seats for him.

Truman ran for president in 1948. Few believed he had a chance of winning. Kronheim thought otherwise. He was one of the original contributors to Truman’s campaign fund.

Kronheim’s wide range of friendships among influential people gave him access to gossip, classified information, and personal disclosures. He had learned the proper use of circumspection. There were conversations in which he knew more about what was said than the participants. He remained silent.

Two more things. Kronheim never took a drink, and when he was in his office, he took all telephone calls (there were many of them) as they came. His secretary had orders never to ask who’s calling.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.