Recently, I found some audio tapes from the mid-1970s. Among them was an interview Cleveland Magazine conducted with the late Louis B. Seltzer, then the retired editor of The Cleveland Press.
Seltzer liked to visit the magazine, talk with writers and keep abreast of the town. Philip W. Porter, the former executive editor of The Plain Dealer, did the same. But we had to be sure their visits did not coincide, for there was no professional camaraderie between the two.
Journalism was a serious competitive endeavor in those days, and the results often created abrasive relationships, especially at the higher levels.
Since Seltzer’s journalism career reached back to the 1910s, it was fascinating to listen to him on tape recall the extent of political corruption in those days.
“There was a time in this town when the political machines were so powerful and corrupt that they stood outside the voting booth and paid cash for votes,” Seltzer said. “I was a reporter, and they did it right in front of me.”
Seltzer’s account reaffirmed that nothing really changes. We generally never learn from the past.
Revelations from the past always make me think that Cleveland needs a good book about its history. We need a history that not only deals with names, dates and events, but one that reaches into the soul of the town and speaks of the times as they were, a history that names the scoundrels and draws a picture of the ambience and chicanery of the day.
Cleveland is a place where the real stories behind the town’s rise and decline are never officially recorded, but passed along word-of-mouth like myths and legends in olden times. And I wonder, Why is there no such history?
“Probably because no one would buy it,” says David Gray, president of Gray & Company Publishers, which has been publishing books about the Cleveland area since 1992. “Those kinds of histories don’t sell well.”
Gray’s story is remarkable. He has published more than 70 books, all local in nature, and estimates that he has sold some 700,000 and generated some $12 million in retail sales. As far as Gray knows, his company is the only regional publisher in the country that specializes in writers and topics from a single metro area. The most popular books he has published are Neil Zurcher’s “Ohio Road Trips” series.
Gray thinks the history of a city is best told in many books, each focusing on a person or aspect of the town.
“If you want to know what Clevelanders want to read, look at the newspaper and see how much space is devoted to the various subjects,” Gray says. “The sports pages get a lot of space.” Books on the subject have been a staple of Gray’s efforts. Former Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel’s book sold tens of thousands of copies in one year.
Cleveland does possess an interesting 1,271-page tome that gives a general outline of the past through the mid-1940s, but offers little of the flavor and foibles of the times. The book, “Cleveland, The Making of a City” by the late William Ganson Rose, a celebrated advertising and public relations man, is a chronological compendium of events and people from 1796 through 1946. No one has bothered to update Rose’s work, and, as David Gray says, there probably is not a great market for it anyway, because the most gripping feature of this book is its weight.
George Condon, a former Plain Dealer columnist, has written 12 books, four about Cleveland. The most successful is “Cleveland: The Best Kept Secret,” a 1967 book published by Doubleday that sold 32,000 copies and profiles figures, such as Sen. Marcus Hanna and mayors Tom L. Johnson and Fred Kohler.
Condon, now 90, continues to write. His newest book, “West of the Cuyahoga,” published by Kent State University Press, is in bookstores. He has another book, dealing with interesting Cleveland characters of the past, ready for publication.
Mark Stueve, the owner of Old Erie Street Books, says both Condon’s “Best Kept Secret” and Philip W. Porter’s “Cleveland, Confused City on a See-Saw,” published in 1976, are good histories of the city. Porter’s book focuses on the politics and journalism from the 1920s through the 1970s and is a valuable first-hand account of the times. Condon writes of the events and people that made the town in a pleasant, stylish manner.
Seltzer’s book, “The Years Were Good,” which is out of print but still available used, is a good companion to the above works. It’s autobiographical and sheds light on the personality of the city’s dominant media figure of the 20th century.
Some other notable books provide valuable insights into the town. Hank Messick’s “The Silent Syndicate,” published in 1967, is a detailed account of the rise of organized crime in Cleveland and the creation of Las Vegas with local mob money after World War II. Interestingly, the Ford Foundation financed the book.
One of the most illuminating books about Cleveland, one that gets beyond the civic veneer and uncovers the dark machinations that truly influence a city, is James Neff’s “Mobbed Up,” a compelling story of the late Teamsters leader Jackie Presser. Neff revealed one of the darkest moments in Cleveland journalism: how the Plain Dealer’s owners forced the paper’s editors to cover up for Presser.
Carl Stokes’ book, “Promises of Power,” documents his election as the first black mayor in a major American city and the racial turmoil that racked Cleveland throughout the 1960s. Lesser-known books that portray that era are Cleveland civil rights activist Lewis Robinson’s autobiography, “The Making of a Man,” and Frank Keegan’s “Blacktown U.S.A.,” which includes interviews with many Clevelanders.
One of the best reference books for local history is “The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History” by David D. Van Tassel and John L. Grabowski. You could spend a lot of time wading thorough its 1,127 pages, or browsing it online at ech.case.edu, and have a lot of good cocktail conversation with newcomers.
Journalist Roldo Bartimole, the venerable, caustic, contentious conscience of the city, recommends “Confessions of a Reformer” by Frederic Howe, which includes an account of Mayor Tom L. Johnson’s reform administration. Johnson, elected in 1901, is still regarded as the most progressive mayor in the city’s history, and a hundred years later, his legacy has become a sad commentary on those who succeeded him.
The price and interest in old Cleveland books varies with the ebbs and flows of the city, Stueve says. So at the moment the market for these books is hardly at its peak.
Despite the warnings from those who know books best, I still feel Cleveland deserves an enlightening, entertaining popular history that would offer insight into why the city failed to capitalize on its once-vibrant past. My guess is that we do not have such a work because of the burden and cost of researching and writing it.
It would be fortuitous if the Gund or Cleveland foundations would finance such a project. They generously contribute to the arts, but it may be harder for them to support writers who try to honestly navigate the river of time. Alas, such a trip could darken the memory of wealthy benefactors. Over the years, that crowd always tended to look away from the realities that faced the city.
Since the money in books is rarely enough to motivate a writer, Gray says a writer must have a compelling need to tell a story. At 90, George Condon still has that fire. I don’t know about the rest of us.