From time to time, I'm going to be running one of the biographic essays from my upcoming book, The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill. The first in the series is about one of my favorites, the late Representative Sol Bloom, who served in Congress in from the 1920s to the late 1940s. Perhaps it will intrigue you enough to want to buy the book when its published in early 2008 by the Scarecrow Press. Enjoy!
By any stretch of the imagination, Sol Bloom must be considered one of the most colorful and unlikely people to ever have served in the United States Congress. An entrepreneur and impresario of great note, he had at least three highly successful careers before entering Congress at the age of fifty-three, where he remained for more than a quarter century, capping off his career by becoming chair of the House Committee on Foreign Relations.
Born in Pekin, Illinois, on March 9, 1870, Sol Bloom was the sixth and youngest child of Gershom and Sarah Bloom, Orthodox Jews who had immigrated to America from Poland in about 1860. Gershom, also known as Garrison, was an itinerant peddler. Although intelligent and industrious, he could never earn enough to feed his large family. In 1875, his small clothing store having gone bankrupt, Gershom packed the family onto a train and headed west to San Francisco. More than seventy years later, Sol Bloom would recall that train trip: how the family subsisted on eggs and fruit they purchased from Indians at the various railroad stops because they couldn't obtain kosher food.
Sol Bloom's formal education lasted precisely one day; his family could not afford to purchase the requisite texts for their son (a common practice in those days), and were too proud to ask for assistance. Therefore, at age seven, Sol found himself working in a brush factory. By age ten he was keeping the factory's books. At night, he sold programs at local theaters, acted in occasional bit parts, and became involved in a series of schemes he would later term "legitimate chiseling." As a younger, he became friends with the equally young David Belasco [see photo] , who would go on to become one of America's premier theater producers. They remained lifelong friends.
At age fifteen, Bloom was hired by San Francisco newspaper publisher H.H. de Young to be assistant treasurer of the Alcazar Theater. Over the next four years he sold advertising, got into merchandising and production, and by age nineteen, had amassed a fortune of more than $80,000. At this point, he "retired" and took the grand tour of Europe. While there, he became fascinated by a troupe of Algerian sword swallowers, glass and scorpion eaters, and signed them to a personal contract. Upon his return to the United States, he was hired by his old mentor, de Young, to run the Midway Plaisance at the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago. For this he was paid the princely sum of $50,000. During the Exposition, Bloom introduced America to the Ferris Wheel and the exotic dancer Little Egypt, for whom he wrote the famous "Hootchy Kootchy" tune. The song took the country by storm and made young Sol Bloom an even wealthier man.
When the Exposition closed, Bloom remained in Chicago and opened up the country's first mail-order music store. He renamed himself "Sol Bloom, the Music Man." Between 1896 and 1903, he built a chain of eighty music stores from coast-to-coast. By 1903, he was a millionaire.
In Chicago, Bloom was introduced to Evelyn Hechheimer, an aspiring songwriter from San Francisco. The two fell in love and were married. Sol's only concern was how she would be received into his family: the Blooms were Orthodox Jews; Evelyn and her family belonged to San Francisco's Temple Emanu-el, a classical Reform synagogue. Despite their "religious differences," they were married on June 22, 1897. At the reception following, they were serenaded by two of Bloom's better-known songwriter clients: Paul Dresser, who sang "On the Banks of the Wabash," and Charles K. Harris, who crooned "After the Ball is Over: -- both published by Sol Bloom. The Blooms had one child, a daughter named Vera.
A genius at self-promotion, Sol Bloom managed to take out the first copyright of the twentieth century, a song called "I Wish I Was in Dixie Tonight." He managed this minor coup by sending agents to stand in line at the copyright office starting on December 29, 1899, and remained there until the office opened for business on January 2, 1900.
Moving on to New York in 1903, Bloom became national distributor for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Always restless, he also became a theater builder and a backer of stage productions. Over the course of less than ten years, he either built or renovated more than a dozen theaters along Broadway's "Great White Way." Among the theaters he built were the Apollo and the Harris. Bloom's partners in these ventures were Asa Candler, the founder of Coca-Cola, Edgar Selwyn, a movie pioneer, and Ed Bowes, one day to become famous as radio's "Major" Bowes. As a theater angel, Bloom backed the early works of playwright Elmer Reizenstein (Rice) and the then unknown John Galsworthy.
Moving into real estate, Bloom became a speculator and builder of apartment houses. When he learned that the Pennsylvania Railroad was going to bore a Hudson River tunnel in order to carry passengers into the heart of New York City, he took an option on all the land between 31st and 33rd Streets west of Seventh Avenue. He then made yet another fortune by selling the land that was to become Penn Station. Bloom always considered this to be his shrewdest real estate investment.
Sol Bloom got out of the music business in 1910, and by 1920, at age fifty, was ready to "retire" once again. The retirement proved to be short-lived. In the off-year elections of 1922, Democrat Samuel Marx was elected to Congress from New York's Nineteenth District, but died before taking office. A special election ensued, in which Tammany Hall convinced Bloom to throw his hat into the ring. Bloom had no illusions about why the boys from Tammany had selected him: "I had been chosen to run because I was an amiable and solvent Jew." The Nineteenth District, one of America's wealthiest, soon became Bloom's. He would serve in Congress until his death in 1949.
Bloom's first decade-and-a-half in Congress was largely undistinguished, and his colleagues looked upon him as a bit of a buffoon. He spoke out against radio advertising, fought Sunday "Blue Laws," advocated putting baseball under federal control, and railed against the tax on boxing match admissions. In the late 1920s, he became interested in the so-called "Eastman Plan" for reforming the calendar, a brief craze that soon went out of fashion.
In 1926, Henry Ford published a series of anti-Semitic articles in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, under the collective title "The International Jew." The articles purported to show that Jews were "in direct control of all financial centers of government." Incensed by Ford's malicious and scurrilous charges, Representative Bloom introduced a resolution in the House calling for a committee to be appointed that would inquire into their truth or falsity. Threatened with a subpoena and plagued by numerous court battles, Ford issued a public apology and finally shut down his anti-Semitic paper. Bloom believed that he had been largely responsible for putting Ford's noxious tirade to an end.
Sol Bloom's first taste of national exposure came when he was appointed director of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission in 1932. Given a budget of $350,000 and a staff of 125, Bloom produced and directed a year-long gala that put the name, face, and ideals of America's first President on every school bulletin board -- as well as in newspapers and movie theaters, and on radio. Much to everyone's surprise, Bloom turned a million-dollar profit for the government. So closely tied did he become with the Father of our Country, that for years to come, the New York Democrat received mail from schoolchildren addressed simply to "George Washington." Bloom also headed the Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission and published a brief book entitled The Story of the Constitution, which was provided free of charge to every schoolchild in America.
Through attrition and seniority, Sol Bloom became chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 1939. This caused a shudder on Capitol Hill, because most cognoscenti believed that Bloom was incapable of anything but theatrics. In his first year as committee head, Bloom led the unsuccessful fight for President Roosevelt's revision of the Neutrality Act, but gained the respect of his colleagues in the process. After the beginning of World War II, Bloom successfully pushed through both Lend-Lease and the Selective Service Act. His role in reintroducing a military draft earned him the undying enmity of American isolationists, who picketed his home even as Bloom was sitting shiva for his wife. He was vilified in the press as a "Jewish warmonger," and received enough threats on his life that J. Edgar Hoover assigned him a personal retinue of bodyguards.
Bloom was the only Jew selected for the eight-man American delegation that went to San Francisco in April, 1945, to write the United Nations Charter. At the sessions of the nascent world body, Bloom, viewed by more than one prominent historian as a "perennial court Jew," argued vociferously on behalf of refugees. It was too little, too late. IN 1943, Bloom had been the sole Jew on the American delegation to the Bermuda Conference, convened to discuss the single issue of wartime immigration. No aid was forthcoming for the Jews of Europe; Bloom's presence on the delegation was mere window dressing. Additionally, during the innumerable congressional battles over increased immigration quotas, Sol Bloom, House Foreign Relations Committee chair, did virtually nothing to help the Jews of Europe to escape Hitler's ovens. It was Bloom, acting at the behest of the State Department, who buried a 1943 House resolution to create a U.S. Government agency to rescue Jews from Hitler. But the agency -- the War Refugee Board -- was established anyway, when Jewish protests forced FDR's hand despite the non-action of Bloom's Congressional committee. One wonders how in the world Congress could again and again have barred increases in the number of European refugees allowed into America, especially when the three committees most directly responsible for this type of legislation (Foreign Relations, Immigration, and Judiciary) were chaired by Jews: Bloom, Samuel Dickstein and Emanuel Celler.
Throughout his long Congressional career, Bloom was both an ardent liberal and a vociferous supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal. Despite his vast wealth and opulent lifestyle, Bloom could always be counted on to vote for the interests of the downtrodden and the have-nots -- with the bothersome exception of the Jews of Europe.
Short and thin with slick black hair, Bloom was known for his impeccably tailored clothing, his omnipresent walking stick and the gold pince-nez attached with a flowing black ribbon. One of the most notable characters on Capitol Hill, Bloom used to walk up the steps of the Capitol each morning "strewing pennies, nickels and dimes along his path like Hansel and Gretel had done with crumbs in the fairy tale." After repeatedly observing this, House Doorkeeper "Fishbait" Miller asked him what he was doing. "He said, 'Shhhh;. Let the little children find them when they come to see the Capitol. In this Depression, someone has to show them that good things can happen.'" Till the end of his days, Bloom called himself an Orthodox Jew, observed the Sabbath as a day of total rest, and was easily able to converse in Yiddish. He served as honorary president of the Hebrew Convalescent Home in the Bronx, and was a life member of the West Side Institutional Synagogue. From all indications, he kept a kosher home until the last day of his life. Sol and Evelyn's daughter, Vera Tova, became an author, a prominent Washington hostess, and a songwriter of some note. She never married.
Sol Bloom succumbed to a heart attack in Washington on March 7, 1949, just two days shy of his seventy-ninth birthday. His seat in Congress was taken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. He is buried in Mount Eden Cemetery, Pleasantville, New York.