By Ken Zurski
In January of 1933, a short story titled “The Reign of the Super-Man.” appeared in a science fiction fanzine created by two teenagers at the time, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
The “Superman” or title character of their story was a bad guy with a bald head and telepathic powers.
“The Superman theme has been one of the themes ever since Samson and Hercules; and I just sat down and wrote a story of that type – only in this story, the Superman was a villain,” Siegel later explained in an interview.
Eventually the two friends decided Superman would be better as a good guy. But they weren’t sure how to make the transition. So they drew up another character named Slam Bradley. “Jerry came up with the idea of a man of action with a sense of humor,” Shuster relates. “Still, he couldn’t fly, and he didn’t have a costume.”
Actually the concept of Slam Bradley, including the name, is credited to Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, an avid horse rider and one of the youngest cadets to join the US Calvary in 1917 at the age of 27. Wheeler-Johnson was commissioned a major in World War I. When the war ended, Wheeler-Nicholson openly wrote letters to president Warren G. Harding describing mistreatment by senior officers at West Point. The accusations led to counter charges, lawsuits and a court martial trail conviction of Wheeler-Johnson for violating the 96th Article of War which essentially prohibits public criticism of the military by an officer.
Wheeler-Nicholson resigned from his duties in 1923 and became a pulp writer and entrepreneur instead. While looking for a distinctive character to highlight his new Detective Comics series, he sent a letter to Seigel. “We want a detective hero called ‘Slam Bradley’ he wrote. “He is to be an amateur, called in by the police to help unravel difficult cases.”
Wheeler-Nicholson was even more specific: “He should combine both brains and brawn, be able to think quickly and reason cleverly and able as well to slam bang his way out of a bar room brawl or mob attack.”
Siegel and Shuster, however, used Slam Bradley as a test run. “Superman had already been created, and we didn’t want to give away the Superman idea; but we just couldn’t resist putting into Slam Bradley some of the slam-bang stuff.”
Despite his penchant for cigarettes and dames, the target audience of preteen boys took to Slam Bradley as a super hero of sorts. So Siegel and Shuster worked late nights and long hours to perfect their original character, Superman, which they felt had more appeal.
Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics in 1938.
Even Superman’s secret alter ego, Clark Kent, was patterned after Siegel’s real life luck – or lack of it – with girls. “What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that, then maybe they would notice me,” he confessed.
The look of Superman changed too, from a bald headed man to the costumed, caped crusader we know today.
In an interview in 1983, Siegel compared the look of the original Superman to a popular television star at the time.
“I suppose he looks a lot like Telly Savalas,” he said.
By Ken Zurski
Palos Heights, Illinois, a small southwest suburb of Chicago, is listed in at least one version of the Holy Bible. Not in scripture, of course, but in the Preface of the New International Version, a commonly used edition today, published in 1978. It reads “…a group of scholars met at Palos Heights, Illinois, and concurred in the need for a new translation of the Bible in contemporary English.”
Amazing as that seems, the story behind the story, is just as revealing.
And it all begins with a golf course.
In 1929, a showcase 18-hole golf course opened in an unincorporated grassy area southwest of Chicago known as Navajo Fields, named, of course, for its earliest residents. The Navajo Fields Golf Course proved to be a player’s delight, including its most challenging hole number four. Although the reason why the fourth hole’s play was such a challenge is not exactly known, it certainly earned a dubious reputation at the time. Despite the toughness of the course, however, the clubhouse was decorative and cozy with several steeple ceilings and large bay windows. It served many banquets for groups who traveled out of Chicago’s fancy hotels and convention halls for a gathering in a more secluded setting.
By the early 1950’s, Navajo Fields was one of the premium golf courses in the Chicago area and each spring excited players lined up to tee off. “The prolonged coating of snow during the winter has had the effect of preserving the turf, “ course officials bragged to the Blue Island Sun Standard in 1953. “The course is in beautiful shape this year.” Even hole number four, which “plagued many golfers,” was changed. “It has been rebuilt and enlarged and the hole will have an alternate tee.”
Regrettably , the course would only last a few more years.
In 1959 the area surrounding the golf course was incorporated and renamed Palos Heights, a small suburb of Chicago with only four square miles of land and water (Lake Katherine), but today boasts nearly 5,000 mostly upscale homes in neatly designed subdivisions.
Also that year, the privately funded Trinity Christian College bought the Navajo Fields grounds, including the two buildings. The golf course was subsequently closed. The old clubhouse was remodeled and became the school’s administration building, while the pro shop became the music building. The unaccredited college opened that fall with 37 students and 5 full time faculty members.
Then in 1965, the college hosted a special meeting of religious leaders to discuss a proposal to change the Old English wording of the Bible. Specifically, to make the King James Version easier to read, more understandable and sustainable to long-term teaching. They gathered in the old clubhouse building and came up with a plan.
Here’s why: In 1952, a Revised Standard Version of the Bible was released by the National Council of Churches, the ecumenical body of mainline Protestant denominations in the United States. Opponents of the new version, mostly hardliner Protestant conservatives, more commonly known as Evangelicals, refused to adopt it, sticking with the original King James version for scripture readings instead.
Change was needed.
So the Evangelical council along with the Christian Reformed Church, a group founded by Dutch immigrants, who were also looking for a more streamlined and Americanized version of the Bible, came to Palos Heights.
Why they chose Trinity Christian College is curious, but understandable. It was discreet and private, yes, but also represented the type of educational institution a translated bible would benefit the most. Plus, if it didn’t go as planned, no one would know. Not much was publicized while the work commenced. A New York group would fund the project.
This reticent attitude is likely due to the monumental challenge and possible backlash for such an undertaking. The Revised Standard Version was widely considered to be the first time the King James version had been extensively tinkered with since the early 17th century.
But that was not entirely true.
In the early 19th century, Noah Webster, yes, the dictionary guru, also wanted to change the King James Version of the Holy Bible. He had a different agenda, however. He hated what the majesty’s version stood for. Not the religious aspect, that was fine, but it was too British, too overbearing, offensive and insulting. So Webster set out to make it more American, and the language, more like Americans speak. This is what Americans wanted, he thought.
He was wrong. While his intentions were noble enough, the King James Version even after the end of British rule, continued to be accepted in America. Webster refused to back down. He went to work changing words he didn’t like and fixing grammar problems he called “atrocious.”
Webster’s “Holy Bible … with Amendments of the Language” or “Common Version” appeared in 1833. It was a colossal failure. A big, wordy waste of time, many thought. So dismissed, that a year later in 1834, Webster put out another book, an apology of sorts, but defending the Bible’s message and Christianity as a whole. Even at the age of seventy, he emphasized the importance of its completion. “I consider this emendation of the common version as the most important enterprise of my life,” he said.
Webster was off by nearly a hundred years.
By the mid 20th century, large church denominations were opening privately funded colleges and teaching the word of the Bible to students in hopes of sparking a revolution in religious educators and young pastors. The King James version of the Bible needed a revision. The Revised Standard Edition was a start. But the Evangelicals thought they could do better. So in Palos Heights, they came up with imperatives. For one, they needed more denominations to join in. They also needed a slew of scholars from around the world to participate. This unity -and variety – would safeguard it from sectarian bias, they thought, something the Revised Standard Edition did not do. Soon enough they assembled a team of scholars from a group of churches: Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Brethren, Church of Christ, Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, among others. The next year, at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, they put their plan to work.
According to the Preface of the New International Version, the detailed process went like this:
The translation of each book was assigned to a group of scholars. Next, one of the Intermediate Editorial Committees revised the initial translation, with constant reference to the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Their work then went to one of the General Editorial Committees, which checked it in detail and made another thorough revision. This revision in turn was carefully reviewed by the Committee on Bible Translation, which made further changes and then released the final version for publication.
Among the many changes, old verbs like “doest,” “wouldest” and “hadst” were tossed out and replaced. Pronouns like “Thou” and “Thine” – referring to the Deity – were also considered too archaic. “If there was uncertainty about such material, it is enclosed in brackets,” explained the Committee on Bible Translation. “Also for the sake of clarity or style, nouns, including some proper nouns, are sometimes substituted for pronouns, and vice-versa.”
Among the more interesting added features were the italicized sectional headings. This is the one part of the new work that was wholly generated by present day writers. They are simple chapter titles designed to give the reader quick reference in themes. For example, in the Book of John some of the headings include, Jesus Walks on Water and The Plot to Kill Jesus.
It took nearly 10 years and several revisions before the New International Version was published in 1978 and although slight additions and subtractions would come later, the original vision remains the same. “The most massive and painstaking literary tour de force in history,” one newspaper writer enthused upon its initial release.
Dr . Burton L Goddard, a theologian who worked on the new Bible was grateful, but relieved. “We all acknowledge this to be the hardest work we have ever known,” he expressed.
Trinity Christian College still sits on the grounds of the old golf course in Palos Heights. In 1966, the board initiated the process for the college to become a four-year, degree-granting institution. The first baccalaureate degrees were awarded in May 1971. More buildings were added but many were built similar in style to original clubhouse. Today it’s still considered a small school by college standards, with just over 1500 in enrollment.
In 1983, during a new printing of the New International Version a line was added to the Preface to reflect a very Christian-like humble attitude: “Like all translations of the Bible, made as they are by imperfect man, this one undoubtedly falls short of its goals.”
Oh, the anxieties of high expectations.
Kind of like playing golf.
By Ken Zurski
William H. McMasters was all ears.
In 1920, when an Italian immigrant and dreamer named Charles Ponzi walked into the Boston publicist’s office to promote his business, McMasters listened.
Ponzi was using investments to buy postal coupons internationally and reselling them for profit in the U.S. It was totally legal and ingenious.
Ponzi needed to recruit more investors and McMasters was just the person to do it. “I was not averse to having a millionaire as a client,” McMasters later remarked.
McMasters immediately set up an interview at The Boston Post, which was an instant boon for Ponzi. Everyone wanted in. Everyone that is, except McMasters.
The numbers didn’t add up.
Ponzi was recruiting new investors, but far too many. The amount of postal coupons was limited so the promised return was higher than the take. Ponzi knew this, but didn’t tell. McMasters went back to the Post.
The editors were interested in exposing Ponzi, but leery of the process. They didn’t want to get sued. So McMasters wrote an article titled “Declares Ponzi is Now Hopelessly Insolvent.” In it, he explained that Ponzi had invested none of his own money or personally bought any of the stamps.
He used investor money to pay returns, but didn’t know when to stop. Now there were too many investors, too much money owed, and not enough printed stamps to guarantee payouts.
On August 2nd , The Post ran the article and prominently displayed it on the front page.
The next day, the Ponzi scheme was over.
In the end, McMasters found only complacency in his role. While most investors angrily demanded their money back, there were a select few for whom Ponzi’s charm was too persuasive.
They still thought they were getting rich.
Eventually, they blamed McMasters, not Ponzi, for their predicament.
By Ken Zurski
In 1952, the name General MacArthur appeared on the Wisconsin Republican primary ballot for President of the United States. This was unusual, because the famous general everyone knew, Douglas MacArthur, was not in the running.
More on that in a moment.
First, the person responsible for the inclusion of General MacArthur on the ballot is a man named Lawrence Joseph Sarsfield Daly, or Lar Daly for short. Daly was a political shill from the Midwest who unsuccessfully ran for a variety of political offices including Mayor of Chicago and eventually President of the United States. “What made [Daly] famous was his hobby,” a Chicago historian once wrote. “He ran for public office –and lost.” In 1952, however, Daly had another tapped for the White House, Douglas MacArthur, the popular World War II general.
That year President Harry Truman decided he would not seek reelection for a second full term and backed Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II for the nomination instead. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the clear choice on the Republican side. Daly, however, liked another general, MacArthur, who had made it clear from the onset that he was not in the running. Daly, who had just lost to Representative Everett Dirksen of Pekin in the 1950 Republican primary election for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat, took the matter in his own hands. Without permission, he added the general’s name to the list of Republican nominees in the Illinois primary.
When MacArthur found out, he promptly had it removed.
Undeterred, Daly tried a different tactic in the Wisconsin primary. He grabbed the Chicago phone book and looked up the name MacArthur. To his surprise he found a man with the last name MacArthur and first name, General.
Daly called the man and asked if he knew of the famous general. The man said he thought the general was a “fine American.” When Daly asked if he could put his name on the ballot, General MacArthur, a 42-year old African American with eight children, said “yes.”
By law, as long as there was a signed consent, the name Mr. General MacArthur could legally appear on the Wisconsin ballot.
The novelty, however, was never a secret. Thanks to Daly, Mr. MacArthur took a few smiling photos for “Life” magazine and other publications, but never sought out any publicity for himself or his family. There were no monetary awards for his efforts. He continued to work as a tank inspector at a packinghouse. Nothing changed.
Daly hoped to find some delegates in the state and perhaps drum up support for Gen. Douglas MacArthur to consider a run, but there were few takers. Eisenhower easily won the nomination and later that year beat Stevenson by a landslide for the presidency.
Privately, Daly lived in a modest two story brick bungalow on Chicago’s south side and drove a Ford Station wagon, painted red, white and blue. He had six children and sold bar stools for a living. “To bookies,” he once said, “so they had somewhere to stand when they wrote the odds on the chalkboard.”
Born in Gary, Indiana in 1912, Daly’s mother died when he was five. His father, a policeman and fireman in town, moved the two boys, Lar and his brother, to Chicago. That’s where Lar became politically connected. In the second grade, he sold vegetables for a street peddler and gained friends among the local housewives. This would work to his advantage. As a teenager, Lar worked the streets again. No longer was he peddling produce, but candidates. He passed out fliers and helped vote seekers gain support in his Chicago neighborhood. At the age of 20, Daly decided to run against a powerful Cook County Democratic ward committeeman. He lost big in the election but won by defeating a court challenge of filing fake petition signatures. “I knew my petitions are good,” Lar said in his defense. “I got all the signatures myself.” Just getting on the ballot was a victory of sorts for the young politico.
In 1938, Lar ran for Cook County Superintendent of Schools, even though he himself never got past the first year of high school. He was listed as Lawrence J. Daly on the ballot and thanks to the Irish sounding name picked up nearly 300,000 votes, but still lost. It would remain the closest he ever came to actually winning an election.
Politically, Daly was an equal-opportunity candidate and ran on whichever ticket gave him the best shot to win. His views, however, were more in line with libertarians. He was for legalized gambling, against public education, and called for major tax cuts. He was also a staunch isolationist, often making campaign stops wearing an Uncle Sam suit, and calling himself the “America First” candidate.
In 1960, he was a “write in” candidate for President.
Even though he was never considered a serious threat to the two major parties, Daly sued – some say threatened – the FCC to force radio and television news broadcasts to give him equal coverage. He never got on the debate stage with the two nominees, then Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, but when JFK guested on The Tonight Show, Jack Paar’s late-night NBC talk show, Daly demanded—and got—his “equal time.” Paar was furious but went along. “Mr. Daly, I would like to know where your supporters are located” challenged a man in the audience. “I teach special studies in Illinois, and we’ve never heard of you.”
“Well, sir,” replied Daly, “you apparently don’t read newspapers, watch television, listen to the radio, or attend meetings, because in every Illinois campaign in which I engage, I am known as the tireless candidate.”
The studio audience booed as Daly calmly demanded: “Your only choice is America first—or death.”
Parr cut to a commercial, “for the tireless candidate,” he said sarcastically.
After the taping, Lar took off his Uncle Sam suit went to a New York bar and inconspicuously watched the show as it aired that night. “Holy smokes, what the hell is this?” said a patron during Daly’s segment.
Daly hardly registered a vote in the 1960 general election, besides his own. But that didn’t stop him. He continued on each subsequent year for many more years, running for offices mostly in Illinois for the U.S Senate seat and numerous attempts for Mayor of Chicago against another Daley (spelled differently).
He lost, of course, every time.
By Ken Zurski
In December of 1786, at the age of 35, John Ledyard packed a small bag and set off from London, alone but determined to be the first person to circle the globe. A momentous feat for sure, but even more impressive considering Ledyard planned to do it all by foot.
Well, mostly by foot.
Although Ledyard, an American-born son of a sea captain, had high regards for his own unconventional skills as a navigator, not even he could walk on water. So he would walk from London, hoof it across Russia, sail the Bering Strait, walk across North America to Washington D.C. then sail back across the Atlantic to London.
It was as crazy as it was ambitious and Ledyard had another American to thank for it, a self-described “explorer aficionado” and future President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson liked Ledyard and proposed the idea of an American exploring America, specifically the uncharted land between the two lateral coasts. There had been no precedent for the journey, no demands for such a seemingly impossible task, but at the time reaching new milestones especially in exploration was tantamount to becoming a rock star today. Ledyard however thought the idea was too simple. He was thinking bigger. Perhaps circumventing the globe would be more functional, he implored. Jefferson, who was an ambassador in Paris at the time, had no objections.
After all, it’s not as if Ledyard wasn’t qualified.
Born in Groton, Connecticut, Ledyard attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire then traveled to London and enlisted in the Royal Marines so he could assist the great explorers. In 1778, in his late twenties, Ledyard was a appointed corporal on Captain James Cook’s third and last voyage around the Pacific Rim. Unlike many of the other sailors on board, Ledyard was educated and literate, so he kept a journal. When the ship Resolution returned to England without Cook, who was killed – some say executed – by Hawaiian natives, Ledyard’s journal and his first hand account of the beloved Captain’s final days was confiscated by the Admiralty for security reasons. Ledyard however had a story to tell and didn’t hesitate to write down the details of Cook’s murder from memory. The resulting book, A Journal of Captain Cook’s last Voyage, became a best seller.
Despite his success, personally, Ledyard still had the desire to see the world, possibly all of it if he could. So with Jefferson’s blessing, Ledyard mapped out a route. North America would come later in his trip. But he needed help in getting there.
For the first two months, everything went as planned. Ledyard walked, begged for food and shelter and made it to the Baltic Sea, the short inlet separating Scandinavia from northern Europe. But the water had not frozen over as Ledyard had hoped. So walking across the ice was not an option. Ledyard had to loop around the sea, mapping out nearly 400 miles more just to reach St. Petersburg. The Acrtic Circle was brutal, but Ledyard pressed on. By September of 1787, nearly 6,500 miles into his journey, and enduring some of the harshest conditions imaginable, Ledyard somehow made it to the Russian border. Once he stepped onto Russian soil, however, he was subsequently arrested.
This likely didn’t come as a big surprise to Ledyard. When planning the trip, Jefferson had asked the Russian leader Catherine the Great for permission to cross her land unmolested. She flat out refused, worried that the American traveler – or any American – would infiltrate her country’s lucrative fur trade. Jefferson relayed this information to Ledyard who ignored it and went anyway. He even considered the fur trade idea an option, something he might pursue after the journey.
Now he was in Russia and in custody. The trip was effectively over. Russian officials marched him to the Polish border, set him free and promised to hang him if he ever set foot in their country again. Ledyard was defiant. He carried no flag and answered to no monarch. He wrote in his journal:
I travel under the common flag of humanity, commissioned by myself to serve the world at large; and so the poor, the unprotected wanderer must go where sovereign will ordains; if to the death, why then my journeying will be over and rather differently from what I contemplated; if otherwise, why then the royal dame has taken me much out of my way.
But Ledyard still wanted to find a way. “I may pursue other routes,” he wrote confidently. Perhaps the British royalty would have more influence over Russia was his thinking. So he turned his back on Jefferson and went directly to London where exclusive clubs and society’s were filled with men intent on one thing – exploring. They also funded expeditions.
His timing was impeccable. A new society called the African Association was looking for someone to lead a mission through the continent of Africa. Ledyard practically fell into their laps. He accepted the assignment wholeheartedly.
Ledyard set off for Africa, but didn’t make it very far. In Cairo he got sick, took a sulfurous substance to ease his aching belly, and died from an overdose of vitriolic acid. It was torture, but a quick end.
Fifteen years after Ledyard’s attempt to walk around the world, in 1803, Jefferson funded another expedition, this time a team of two men to charter the American west, his original plan for Ledyard.
Their names were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Perhaps had Ledyard followed Jefferson’s original plans, he would have been credited with exploring the expansion across the continental divide and the waterway to the Pacific. Even in Africa, he may have been the first person to discover the source of the Nile. But he was too driven, too courageous, too stubborn. He wanted more and got far too less.
After his sudden death in 1789, neither the British nor the American authorities claimed Ledyard’s body. In Cairo, his remains were buried in a makeshift grave that still to this day has never been located.
By Ken Zurski
In the early half of the 20th century, shortly after World War I ended, mathematician Edward Kasner, a professor at Columbia University, devised the concept of showing the common features of whole numbers, no matter how large.
As an example, he came up with the number one followed by a hundred zeros. Writing out such a large number was ridiculous of course, and at the time formal names didn’t exist for numbers larger than a trillion. But he needed a name.
So he asked his nine-year-old nephew Milton to intervene. During a causal stroll in New Jersey’s Palisades Woods, Edward wondered if Milton could come up with a name. “Googol” was the boy’s answer. Milton also came up with the term “Googolplex,” or one followed by a googol zeros.
In lectures, Kasner began referring to the seemingly infinite number as “Googolplex.”
Flash forward more than 70 years in 1995 when two Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began collaborating on a search engine they originally called BackRub. The project began to attract investors and bandwidth grew. But they needed a new name, something catchier, something they could easily register online.
Google was chosen as the common spelling of Googol which, thanks to Kasner, was as close to an infinite number as possible.
“We picked the name “Google” because our goal is to make huge quantities of information available to everyone,” Page later recalled.
When they presented the name however, math traditionalists balked. “You idiots, you spelled it [Googol] wrong!” one chastised. But Google.com was available and Googol.com was not. Besides, Page said, “It sounds cool and has only six letters.” According to Google’s official corporate website (yes, there is one): “The name “Google” reflects Larry and Sergey’s mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.”
Simple enough. But what about young Milton? Why did the word “Googol” pop into his head? Speculation runs rampant here. A great niece of Dr. Kasner, Denise Sirotta, claims her father Edwin, Milton’s younger brother, should get some credit since he claimed the siblings came up with the name together. “He was asked for a word with a sound that had lots of O’s in it,” she said.
Another observation seems to make more sense especially in the imaginative mind of a toddler. Caroline Birenbaum, another great-niece of Dr. Kasner’s, speculates the word was inspired by a comic-strip character named Barney Google, who debuted in 1919. She says Dr. Kasner, liked cartoons. “He may have tweaked the spelling to avoid any trademark issues,” she claims.
Barney Google was an American comic strip created by Billy DeBeck, that originally appeared on the sports pages. Google had big “banjo” eyes, a mustache, a large bulbous nose, and wore a tuxedo-type suit. He was an “avid sportsman and N’er do well” involved with some of the more contentious contests like poker, prize fights and horse racing. Google’s bow-legged horse “Spark Plug” was introduced in 1922, and nicknamed “Sparky.” The horse was a nag who rarely raced, but when he did it became a big media event. Millions of readers bought in.
A popular song was introduced, a foxtrot, titled Barney Google and Spark Plug:
Barney Google—with the goo, goo, googly eyes,
Barney Google—bet his horse would win the prize;
When the horses ran that day,
Spark Plug ran the other way!
Barney Google—with the goo-goo-googly eyes!
In 1934, another character named Snuffy Smith joined the fray and Barney Google and Spark Plug were phased out.
So Google, the word itself, was in the public consciousnesses long before the giant search engine came along. Still, Kasner had no idea that the chosen name for his boundless number would become so popular in the next century. So where did his inspiration come from?
Kasner, who never married, cited a description of unrequited love. In a divorce case, he explained, a woman called the commitment she had for her husband as “a million billion billion times and eight times around the world.” Kaisner was struck by the expansive description. “It was the largest number ever conceived of,” he said. So he set out to immortalize it.
And his little nephew gave it a name.
By Ken Zurski
The old Hotel Commodore building sits at the corner of 42nd street and Lexington in the heart of Manhattan’s thriving business hub once known as Terminal City, a complex of hotels and offices conveniently connected to New York’s bustling Grand Central Station.
Gloriously introduced in 1919, the hotel boasted a total of ten elevators and 2000 commodious rooms, each one elegantly designed and quite modern for its time. The ceilings were built low for a trendier look, and the largest and most expensive room came with its own working waterfall.
The spacious reception area was touted as “The Most Beautiful Lobby in the World,” and outside the main entrance, patrons were greeted by a statue of the man the hotel was named after: Cornelius Vanderbilt, a former steamboat entrepreneur and railroad and shipping tycoon, known as “The Commodore.”
From the moment the Commodore opened its doors, rooms were almost always filled to capacity and overflow crowds from the train station nearby moved feverishly about the hotel’s lobby. With such anxious and hurried activity inside, one could easily maneuver through the excited throng without being noticed or paid any mind. And so it was here at the Hotel Commodore in a quaint corner of the dining room, in a table for two, an unlikely conclave took place between a well-known Catholic priest and a communist sympathizer.
The year was 1937, two years before Germany invaded Poland and the start of the second World War. Fulton Sheen was a brash 42-year old monsignor, who was arguably the most popular public figure of the Catholic Church. His voice was known to thousands of listeners as the host of The Catholic Hour, which debuted in 1930 at WEAF in New York and nearly a decade later boasted a resume of 106 radio stations. Sheen was the first and only host. “I will preach Christ and him crucified,” he humbly stated when asked the purpose of the program.
Sheen’s modest upbringing began in El Paso, Illinois where his parents owned and ran a hardware store. Born in 1895, the first child of Newt and Delia (Fulton) of Irish and German descent, Peter John Sheen was just a toddler – and a constant crier due to a nagging case of tuberculosis – when something extraordinary happened. An errand boy at the store, fearful of being caught with a cigarette, threw the lighted butt under the stairs and directly on top of a fifty gallon drum of gasoline. It ignited. Soon, the whole business section of El Paso went up in flames including the Sheen hardware store, which was reduced to smoke and ash. Deciding not to revive the hardware business, Peter’s father bought a farm instead.
But Peter hated life on the farm. He was smart, gregarious, and quite the thinker even at an early age. The laborious chores didn’t challenge his mind. How to get out of doing them however, did. In one incident, he recalls destroying a wagon wheel with a saw just to avoid the work. “From the earliest age I showed distaste for anything associated with farm life,” Sheen later admitted.
His parents agreed. In order to give their two sons an education (Peter was the older by two years), they moved to Peoria and enrolled the boys in a parochial school. Sheen’s path to God was underway. School was also where he became known as Fulton. Although the boy had been born and baptized as Peter, when the school asked what name he went by, Sheen’s maternal grandfather chimed in (perhaps mishearing the question) and said his last name instead. “It’s Fulton.” The name stuck.
Archbishop Spalding, the patriarch of Peoria’s Catholic Schools, was influential in young Fulton’s life. While serving as an altar boy during Sunday Mass, Sheen slipped and dropped the wine cruet. The sound of the bulb-shaped container bouncing across the hard surface echoed off the high walls and arched ceilings. Years later, Sheen quipped: “There is no atomic explosion that can equal in intensity of decibels and explosive force that can equal the sound of a wine cruet hitting the marble floor of a cathedral in the presence of a Bishop.” Expecting a stern tongue lashing, young Sheen braced for his punishment. But the Bishop was thoughtful instead. After Mass, he asked, “Young man, where do you plan on going to school when you get big?” The answer was as obvious to Sheen as the question.
“Why Spalding Academy of course,” he said, referring to the high school founded and named after the Bishop.
“No,” Spalding said. “Tell your mother that I said when you get big you will go to Leuven (University) and someday you will be just as I am.”
When Sheen told his parents about the Bishop’s words, his mother gasped. “That’s in Belgium,” she said.
The Archbishop’s prophecy came true. Sheen attended high school at Spalding Academy where he exceled in academics and drama, then enrolled in Leuven, the largest and oldest catholic university in the world. “Oh, this is where Bishop Spalding told me to go,” he remembered thinking to himself while entering its doors for the first time.
In September of 1919, Sheen was ordained at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria. The next day he performed his first mass. In the ensuing years after his ordination, Sheen traveled, preached, and studied. Then in the summer of 1925, he returned home and was assigned to St Patrick’s Church in an impoverished section of Peoria. A humble, lowly position as a curate may have riled many men of his educational background, but Sheen enjoyed being home and helping the poor. Two years later, he was called to teach at the Catholic University in New York and left Peoria for good.
In 1926, Sheen went on the radio. It was a perfect outlet for his talent. He prepared scripts and preached the word of God, not just to believers but non-believers as well. This was his torment at first. How to preach the teachings of Christ to non-Catholics? Sheen found a way. He was a natural on the airwaves. His conversational style and ability to explain God‘s will through compassion and love struck listeners of all faiths. The show was called The Catholic Hour, but Sheen made it everyone’s hour.
He talked of God’s gifts to all mankind, and the weekly faithful listened. The first time he mentioned the evils of communism, however, even the FBI took notice.
Louis Budenz, a leading communist supporter, noticed too. Bundez and Sheen did not know each other personally, but like Sheen, Bundez, the son of Irish immigrants, grew up Catholic and was an altar boy too. But as an adult he left the church and followed another path. Now both men were talking about communism – only in vastly different ways.
Born in July of 1891, Budenz followed his mother’s advice and emulated her passionate support of Irish Revolutionaries by attending labor strikes and rallies. Violence ensued on occasions, but the action usually ended only in mass arrests. In each case, it helped that Budenz was also a practicing lawyer. (Time Magazine claims Bundez was arrested 21 times and 21 times he got off without an indictment.)
Next up for Budenz was joining the Communist Party. It was a logical decision. He would work as a writer and espouse his views and opinions in print. The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper, was the perfect outlet, and in writing for it, Budenz found his calling. Among his communist friends and co-workers, he quickly rose in the ranks.
The Worker never wavered in its support of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin even after he executed many of his adversaries, claiming they were out to destroy him. Many party members balked at Stalin’s blatant abuse of power. Fascism was the true threat, they cried, and Stalin’s actions mimicked a certain fascist leader of Germany. When Stalin and Hitler joined forces in 1939, the Communist Party fractured. The Daily Worker, however, remained loyal to the new Soviet-German pact, and Budenz, who was uber-loyal to the cause, became its new editor.
The paper wielded great power. “We turned on everyone who refused to go along with our new policy,” a former co-worker of Bundez ascribed. Many supporters of Stalin were staunch Hitler haters who could not comply. The Daily Worker never blinked in its allegiance to Stalin, and Editor-in-Chief Budenz made sure there was one consistency under his direction: total support of Soviet polices whatever they may be.
The rule generated an enemies list that was far reaching and long. They targeted individuals and organizations including the burgeoning Catholic Church.
During the Christmas season of 1936, Budenz took aim. In that month’s issue of the Worker, an article written by Budenz posed a series of questions directed at the Catholic Church and the radio host monsignor Sheen in particular. Explain your criticism of communism, Budenz asked. Sheen responded.
No one had to go any further than Sheen’s radio show to know that the “media preacher” was a staunch opponent of communism. It was a bold stand even for a priest. In the 1920s, anti-communism fever had spread in the United States thanks to President Wilson and the first “Red Scare.” But during the Great Depression that followed, a number of destitute Americans sought answers and solutions that were more in line with socialist thinking. In their minds, capitalism, specifically the profit driven owners and bosses, were the enemy. Therefore, they declared, socialism could only be attained by defeating capitalism.
By banding together, the empowered workers fought with a vengeance; staging heated rallies and strikes in protest. These were mostly laborers living off meager wages. Many had lost their jobs and homes. Capitalists exploited the amount of immigrants within these groups. Since many had come from countries influenced by communistic principles, they claimed, socialist ideals must be closely aligned with communism.
Russia was no birthday cake. Stalin was a ruthless leader. But there was a model of consistency in his polices that appealed to angry workers. When Hitler turned on Stalin and Stalin joined the Allied forces, a genuine wave of support spread through even the most hard boiled detractors. After all, there was a bigger concern now and a more valued prize: the crushing and ultimate defeat of the Axis Powers: Germany and its partners, Japan and Italy. Most Americans were ambivalent. No one trusted Stalin, and refuted communism as an unacceptable alternative to democracy, but they reluctantly gave Russia, now a war ally, a temporary pass.
Yet some Americans were ultimately drawn to this leftist ideology. During this time, the organized Communist Party of America gained momentum – and new members – although they never seriously challenged the two mainstay political parties in elections.
The FBI kept tabs of such activity. The agency closely watched communist party leaders and unfairly labeled them “Soviet spies” for lack of a better term. The Bureau’s interminable leader J. Edgar Hoover led this charge. Hoover hated Stalin and everything to do with communism, war pact be damned. The FBI even had a file on Sheen, thinking that the radio host might bring some of the most hardened sympathizers – Soviet and Nazi – to Hoover’s attention because of all the hate letters the priest received.
Sheen wanted nothing to do with the politics of it all. His message was simple: religious freedom must reign. He pounded that message home in speeches and sermons on the radio. A communistic society, he hammered, is no place for a Catholic.
Budenz was confused by the church’s stance. He published an article in the Worker critical of the Catholic faith and its leaders. “How strange it is to see in a world so set up, where Catholic spokesmen in so many instances belabor communism,” Budenz wrote.
In particular, he mentioned Sheen by name. As a man of compassion, Bundez inferred, how could he [Sheen] speak against those who were trying to help the poor and downtrodden?
Sheen sent a booklet back to Budenz titled Communism Answers Questions from a Communist. In it, he cited incendiary quotes from Marx and Lenin and articles from Soviet newspapers describing the economic hardships under communism. In his own words, Sheen wrote: “I’m rather surprised that a communist is not more familiar with Communistic literature and should have asked for texts. But there they are.”
Budenz’s strategy backfired. Sheen’s pamphlet was published and sold 65,000 copies. Many of the quotes were used to refute speakers at pro-communism rallies, including speeches by Budenz.
Incensed and perhaps intrigued by Sheen’s words, Budenz asked to meet with the church leader. “In hopes that they could win me over to their cause,” is how Sheen would later describe it.
Of course, the monsignor said yes.
Although it was meant to be private, Sheen gladly let the pronouncement of the meeting slip. “I’m having dinner with a leading communist tonight,” he exclaimed to an inquisitive newspaper reporter. “In fact, I’m looking forward to the encounter with great pleasure.”
The time and place however was never revealed. The press never figured it out. The two men met in private at the Hotel Commodore.
In their later years, both men recalled their “odd” meeting. “In an obscure corner we talked for an hour in earnest, quiet tones,” Budenz exclaimed.
Bundez remembers the monsignor’s smile and intense blue eyes. “He told me that he was leaving for England that summer.” Each year Sheen preached in Soho. “Near the house where [Karl] Marx labored,” the monsignor pointed out.
Despite opening with small talk, the insouciant greetings soon turned serious. The conversation drifted to the parallels of communism and fascism, something Bundez vehemently denied. “There is this merit in the communist view that does not inhere in fascism,” Budenz angrily contended. “Communism has within it the promise of democracy and the end of dictatorship in its doctrine of the withering away of the state.”
In Sheen’s own recollections, Budenz’s bickering about communist and fascist differences were inconsequential. There was only one objective in the monsignor’s mind. “I told him I did not want to talk about communism,” Sheen later wrote. “I wanted to talk about his soul.”
The next few minutes became solidly etched in Budenz’s mind. He remembered it vividly even years later as the moment that eventually changed his life. Describing Sheen’s restraint at first Budenz said, “He was not disposed to contradict me. That would have only aroused my personal pride and enticed me to further argument.”
“What he did instead,” Budenz reflects, “took me totally by surprise.”
Sheen rose and pushed aside the cutlery on the table. He bent forward and “waved his hand in argumentation.” In a voice snarling with contempt, he said: “Let us now talk of the Blessed Virgin.” Budenz froze with fear. “It was an ‘electrifying moment,’” he later described.
According to Budenz, Sheen spent the next few minutes talking “of the miracle of Lourdes, with the promises of Our Lady, the prayers of the church, and the conversion of Russia within her grace.”
Budenz was transfixed. He later confessed: “In the course of my varied career, I have met many magnetic men and women, have conferred with governors, and senators, have stood in court twenty-one times as a result of labor disputes – breathlessly awaited the verdict and each time experienced the triumph of acquittal – but never has my soul been swept by love and reverence as it was that April evening.”
The two men departed that day and would not meet or associate again for another nine years.
Bundez battled his own personal convictions in that time, but could not shake the power of one simple statement; the last words Sheen spoke before departing. “I will always pray for you because you have never fully lost the faith,” the monsignor said.
Nine years later, Budenz wrote Sheen a letter. “I’m returning to the Catholic Church,” he said, “and bringing my family with me.” Sheen welcomed him back without regrets. In 1945, Budenz confessed his sins and Sheen baptized him.
Budenz’s “turning (to God),” as Sheen called it, was also a major boon for Hoover and the FBI. In the now former communist, Hoover had a rat – and names, lots of them. Budenz enthusiastically complied. He was interviewed for 3,000 hours by FBI agents and, in the end, sent several leaders of the American Communist Party to prison for treason.
For Sheen, Budenz’s conversion was just another day at the office. One night the monsignor received a call came from a member of the Communist Party, who asked: “Is it true that you received Louis Budenz into the Catholic Church?”
Sheen coolly replied, “Don’t tell me the Daily Worker is at last interested in the truth?”
The man’s retort, Sheen remembers, were words that “cannot be found in any manual of prayer.”
Even the Daily Worker was blindsided by the news that its influential leader had switched sides. Sheen had kept tight-lipped about the defection right up to the day Budenz was received by the church. In fact, in that day’s edition of the Daily Worker, Budenz was still listed as editor-in-chief.
Sheen continued to condemn the evils of communism even after World War II ended.
Under the post-war agreement, Stalin’s Russia would be part of an American plan to bail out the European nations strangled by the economic toll of the war. Even Germany would be included. But Stalin balked. He refused any help from the U.S. and especially hated the idea of the Germans getting aid. He mapped out his own dominance of Europe. The Cold War began.
Most Americans, thanks to the government’s persuasiveness, were optimistic that Russia would stay on our side after the war. But based on past principles, Sheen never bought into it. He continued to blast Stalin and communism on the air.
The Catholic Church tried to diffuse some of Sheen’s comments by posting a lookout in the radio studio. The mandate was clear: cut the microphone if Sheen mentioned anything about the Russians and communism. Sheen had said all along that his battle was not with the Russian people but with the Soviet government’s polices. Still the Church wanted no backlash. Because of the scrutiny, Sheen nearly quit the radio show, but endured the pull of the church’s leash with grace. Eventually he moved on to television, a medium where he is most remembered today.
Many years after his death in 1979, an effort was launched to consider cause for sainthood, a holy consecration and stringent requirement by the Catholic Church. Sheen’s followers claim at least one miracle (at least two substantiated miracles is needed for canonization) can be attributed to him: an unexplained reversal of fate by a stillborn baby, who somehow survived after the child’s parents claimed they asked for prayers of convalescence in Bishop Sheen’s name. The Vatican offered no response to the so-called miracle, but a request to move Sheen’s body to Peoria for inspection and relics, another strict requirement, was initially denied. (Update: In response to a lawsuit filed in 2016 by Sheen’s oldest living descendant, in March 2019, A New York City appellate court denied an appeal by the Archdiocese of New York attempting to prevent the removal of Sheen’s remains from a crypt beneath New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Peoria, Illinois).
Although he may never become a saint, Sheen is still considered influential for being the first “face” of Catholicism on both radio and television. His persistent stance on communism, however, gets lost in the strong spiritual side of his faith. Sheen, however, credits himself for correctly predicting the grim future and spread of communism.
Shortly after the war, during a speech in Akron, Sheen was approached by a high-ranking official in the clergy and asked, “What are you talking about tonight?” Sheen coolly replied, “About Russia and Eastern Europe and how Russia will take over all of Eastern Europe.”
The man was furious.
“You’re crazy! Russia is a democracy,” he insisted. “It is no longer communist.”
Sheen started down a flight of stairs. He wanted no part of a confrontation. But as his foot hit each step, Sheen remembers the man pointing his finger and yelling at him from above.
“You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” the man said.
Sheen reached the bottom, turned and looked up. “Someday you will see,” he said, “Eastern Europe will belong to the communists.”
The man was left standing and wondering.
The monsignor bowed his head and quietly walked away.
(Sources: Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen; This is My Story by Louis Budenz; America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen by Thomas C. Reeves; Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner).
Note: This article was original published in April 2014. It has been re-titled, updated and posted on this website.