Eliot Ness smiled. The flashbulb popped. Behind him, hands waved at the camera. The photograph caught more than 50 of Mayor Harold Burton's friends and supporters, gathered in the Hotel Cleveland's ballroom, cheering his re-election. Ness was one of the youngest faces in the crowd, boyishly handsome at 37, a forelock of slicked-back hair falling toward his blue-gray eyes.
He had a special reason to celebrate that night, Nov. 7, 1939. Already famous for busting Al Capone's breweries, Cleveland's youthful safety director had done more to guarantee Burton's landslide re-election than anyone besides the mayor himself. A year and a half of hard times — divorce, a failed investigation, the gathering of political enemies — seemed behind him. And during those times, the Hotel Cleveland, the 14-story landmark on Public Square — now the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel — had witnessed his most carefree moments, his closest secrets and now, one of his most satisfying triumphs.
In his four years on the job, Ness had investigated crooked cops, labor racketeers and mobsters. His efforts had convinced voters that Burton was delivering on his promise to cleanse City Hall of bribe-takers and free businesses from protection shakedowns.
Voters had rejected their political rivals' attempts to wrest control of the police department from him. The Torso Murderer, the serial killer whose identity had eluded Ness, hadn't struck in more than a year. And Ness' second wife, Evaline, who'd eloped with him three weeks earlier, was standing beside him.
Evaline Ness, a fashion artist for Higbee's department store, was 25, tall and slender, with a slim face and dark, pretty eyes. She liked drinking and dancing in Cleveland's hotel nightclubs and bars, just like Ness did, and enjoyed the excitement of nights like this one with her celebrity husband close to the center of attention. In short, Evaline liked everything that Ness' quiet first wife, Edna, hadn't. Ness adored Evaline, called her Doll.
Eliot and Evaline frequented the Hotel Cleveland's Bronze Room, a dance room with bronze-tiled walls and a walnut bar where big bands played every night of the week. Ness felt comfortable there, mingling with high-society figures and his fellow newsmakers. He could unwind, let his guard down, but only halfway.
"He never went to a nightclub because he was always fearful of their mob connections," Marion Kelly, a friend of Eliot and Evaline's, told Cleveland Magazine in 1987. "His favorite public place was the Cleveland Hotel. But wherever he was, he would always sit with his back to the wall, facing the door."
Ness also relied on the Hotel Cleveland for its discretion. For a week or two in 1938, he and an assistant held a suspect in the Torso Murders against his will in a guest room, interrogating him. The suspect, deranged doctor Francis Sweeney, failed a lie detector test, but Ness lacked the evidence to charge him and had to let him go. Sweeney sent him cryptic, taunting postcards for decades afterward.
And just two weeks before Burton's re-election, in late October 1939, Ness had convened a quiet meeting of local factory owners in the Hotel Cleveland's Empire Room. The executives agreed to pay for investigators to recruit informants among their plants' workers to report potential sabotage. Ness' stated motivation was to prevent plots by foreign sympathizers during the war in Europe. But the local head of the CIO charged that it was actually a union-busting effort. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover took the CIO's side. He wrote angry notes and memos that called Ness' plan an anti-union move, a shakedown of the industrialists and a usurping of the FBI's wartime authority. Ness had gained an immensely powerful lifetime enemy.
It was no coincidence that so many significant moments in Ness' career in the city took place at the Hotel Cleveland. For decades, it was one of the city's most prominent social and business addresses, playing host to countless speeches by local leaders. Attached to Cleveland's Union Terminal, it was an essential stop for almost any politician or entertainer passing through town.
Charles Lindbergh spoke in a Hotel Cleveland ballroom in 1927, three months after his historic solo flight to France. President Harry Truman stayed at the hotel before a 1948 campaign rally at Public Auditorium. Eleanor Roosevelt visited as First Lady.
In 1961, the Bronze Room became the even more colorful Kon-Tiki, Cleveland's contribution to the Polynesian restaurant craze, before it was gutted and converted to hotel offices. "When I lift my ceiling tile ... the teal is still painted on the ceiling," says Lou Zsula, the hotel's event manager.
The former Hotel Cleveland has changed interior styles about as often as it's changed names. But the staircase at the Superior Avenue entrance, high drama sculpted in gray marble, looks much as it did in 1918.
The lobby, too, evokes the splendor of Cleveland's reign as the nation's sixth-largest city. A 1991 renovation tore out a drab false ceiling and restored the room's original colors and details (though the fountain and chandeliers are new). The lobby's dozen marble columns, 18 feet tall, flower into lines of gold leaf and arches that stretch across the speckled-blue ceiling. And in the Lobby Court bar, you can often find Eliot Ness Amber Lager on tap.
The Alcazar / 1923 / Named after the Alcazar palace in Seville, Spain, and patterned after the Alcazar and Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, Fla., the Alcazar dropped Moorish exoticism into Tudor-fixated Cleveland Heights. George Hale, one of the Alcazar's builders, traveled through Spain to pick out the lobby's 14 tile patterns. 2450 Derbyshire Road, Cleveland Heights
Hotel Westlake / 1923 / Nicknamed the "Pink Palace" for its salmon-colored facade, the hotel overlooking the Rocky River became popular with aviators, including Amelia Earhart. A 1983 renovation transformed it into the Westlake Condominiums but restored the lobby's bright, verdant murals. 19000 Lake Road, Rocky River
Tudor Arms / 1931 / Built as the Cleveland Club, a men's athletic club, this towering Gothic building served as a hotel in the '40s and '50s and reopened as the Hilton Doubletree this year. With oak balconies and plaster reliefs of lance-wielding knights, the Tudor Ballroom evokes an English estate, while the Crystal Ballroom's eight chandeliers sparkle with pre-war American glamour. 10660 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland