Monday, May 11, 2020

Chicago Icon #1: Abraham Lincoln Marovitz

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, left, swears in Richard J. Daley
as mayor in 1955. Watching are Adlai Stevenson (center left)
 and former mayor Martin Kennelly.
     I was supposed to go to Taiwan Sunday, visiting volcanoes and indigenous peoples. Obviously that didn't happen. But I took vacation this week anyway—I haven't taken any this year, and we've been encouraged to burn through some now, if we can. 
    I first thought to post a photo and a few words each day. But then my younger son—mirabile dictu—asked me about Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. I thought back to this obit, which hasn't seen the light of day in almost 20 years. He was quite the character—in my Chicago book, he comes to my house to perform the wedding ceremony for my brother. This was the first in-depth obit I worked on, and whetted my appetite for those to come, which I will feature this week. Perhaps the most astounding thing is its length: over 2400 words. A different era.

     Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, a beloved fixture on the Chicago political and social scene from the Roaring '20s to the present day, and a close friend and early supporter of Richard J. Daley's, died of kidney failure Saturday at his North Side home. He was 95.
     "Abe Marovitz is a Chicago icon," U.S. District Chief Judge Marvin E. Aspen said Saturday in a written statement. "The history of 20th century Chicago could not be written without the story of Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, whose lifetime of achievement as a patriot, politician, lawyer, judge and humanitarian spanned the 1900s."
     Judge Marovitz was a savvy, behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party, who, despite association with many influential and, in some cases, unsavory individuals, enjoyed a long career untouched by scandal.
     He had an inate ability to make friends. Hubert Humphrey was a frequent houseguest, back to the days when he was mayor of Minneapolis. Jimmy Durante and Sophie Tucker were also close to the judge.
     But he is perhaps best known for his friendship with the elder Daley. He was one of the few politicians welcomed into Daley's Bridgeport home, and as a judge he swore Daley into office eight times, six as mayor.
     "Our friendship has withstood the test of time and change," Judge Marovitz said the day he swore in Daley for the last time. "To use an old Irish word, 'shalom.' Good luck and God bless you."
     Daley's sons called Judge Marovitz "Uncle Abe."
     "Abraham Lincoln Marovitz was a fine jurist, a well-known personality and a personal friend," Mayor Daley said in a statement Saturday.
     Judge Marovitz was born Aug. 10, 1905, in Oshkosh, Wis. His mother, Rachel, named him after the 16th president because she was touched by stories of Lincoln she heard at a settlement house lecture in New York City. But the tale that Judge Marovitz loved to tell is that his mother heard that Lincoln was shot in the temple, and so she thought he was Jewish.
     His father, Joseph, moved the family to the teeming Jewish ghetto around Maxwell Street on the West Side when Judge Marovitz was 5.
     Judge Marovitz adored his parents in a way that did not fade with time. He not only displayed their oil portraits prominently in his office for his entire life, but wore cuff links featuring their photos. He praised them constantly.
     "My mother and father came to this country from Lithuania, met, married and raised five children," he told a group of immigrants he was swearing in as citizens. "My father, a tailor, never learned to write English, but he was the most honest man I ever met in my life. My mother, who did not learn to read or write English till she was 70 and who ran a candy store, was the kindest."
     To help the struggling family of seven (he had two brothers and two sisters), Judge Marovitz went to work at an early age: selling newspapers, delivering telegrams and carrying groceries.
     He attended Jefferson Elementary and Medill High School, and became active in Boys Brotherhood Republic, a youth government. A speech he gave to the group impressed Levy Mayer, a senior partner in the law firm Mayer, Meyer, Austrian & Platt—now Mayer, Brown & Platt. Levy Mayer gave the young man his card and told him to look him up if he ever needed a job.
     He did, some time later, only to find that Mayer had died; nevertheless, he persuaded partner Alfred S. Austrian to hire him to work in the law library.
     Slightly built—he was affectionately known as "Little Abe" by friends—Judge Marovitz was athletic as a young man, fighting as a featherweight boxer at Kid Howard's gym on South Clark Street.
     He and a friend worked up a sparring act to perform at club dinners and parties. At one such gathering, instead of drawing his friend, the future judge drew a real opponent, an Italian steelworker.
     Two lawyers from the firm witnessed the pummeling he received at the hands of the steelworker, and reported it to Austrian, who encouraged Judge Marovitz to go to law school instead of making a living in the ring.
     So well-regarded was Judge Marovitz at the firm that Austrian lent him the $60-a-semester tuition to attend Chicago-Kent College of Law. He was 16 years old, and attended law school without having spent a day in college.
     He graduated in 1925 at age 19, but had to wait nearly two years until he took his bar exam, because Illinois law forbade anyone under 21 from becoming a lawyer.
     Again benefitting from the intervention of his mentors, he became an assistant state's attorney for Cook County—at 22, the youngest person to hold that position.
     Judge Marovitz worked there five years, until 1932, when a new state's attorney took office and fired him. But not before he met a young Dick Daley, then a City Council clerk.
     He then teamed up with his brothers Sydney and Harold in private practice, representing labor leaders and a rogues' gallery of some of the most notorious gangsters of the day.
     His clients included Gus Winkler, believed to be a machine gunner in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, North Side boss Ted Newberry, syndicate gunman Murray Humphreys and confidence man Willie Bioff.
     His association with gangland figures—which was to continue throughout his life—led to the inevitable rumor that he was somehow under mob influence, a charge belied by his spotless judicial record.
     "I've never taken a dime in my life," he once said. "I've never done a dishonest thing in my life. People call me up for a favor, and they can get it because that's the way I operate. But nobody can ever say I've ever done anything underhanded."
     He did learn to be less chummy with his criminal clients after an FBI agent read to him a transcript of a phone tap, in which the young attorney greeted Winkler with a breezy, "Well, what bank did you hold up today?"
     He was also close to the famed West Side boss Jacob Arvey, who helped Judge Marovitz get elected to the Illinois Senate in 1938—he was the first Jew to serve in that body. Judge Marovitz, remembering the prejudice he suffered in his youth, helped introduce the first Fair Employment Act, barring discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sex.
     In Springfield, he strengthened his friendship with fellow senator Daley. The two—part of the Democratic minority—took long walks together, avoiding the high life of corrupt Springfield politics.
     Judge Marovitz left the Senate in 1943 to join the Marines, as a private, predicting in his farewell speech to the Senate that Daley would be elected mayor after the war.
     Though color-blind and 38 years old, he pulled some strings to be sent overseas, and saw combat, taking part in the invasion of the Philippines.
     He was wounded but refused the Purple Heart. "I got a scratch, and some guys were without limbs," he said later.
     After the war, Judge Marovitz was involved in nudging Adlai Stevenson—who had used his influence to get Judge Marovitz into combat—toward his eventual role as a two-time presidential candidate, introducing him to Arvey when the three were in New York for the 1947 World Series.
     Judge Marovitz remained in the Senate until 1950, when he was named a judge in the Cook County Superior Court; he was sworn in by his old friend, Dick Daley, then the new county clerk. He served there until 1963, with a hiatus in 1958-59, when he served as chief justice of the Cook County Criminal Court.
     In 1963, President John F. Kennedy named him to the federal bench, as a judge in the Northern Illinois District, perhaps the last federal judge to serve without an undergraduate college degree.
     Judge Marovitz was involved in many noteworthy federal cases in Chicago—presiding over trials of Jeff Fort, head of the P. Blackstone Nation, later the El Rukn gang.
     The corruption trial of Ald. Paul T. Wigoda (49th), held in his courtroom in 1974, was a typical example of both Judge Marovitz's fidelity to friendship and his ability not to let it interfere with his judicial judgment.
     When Wigoda appeared before Judge Marovitz to plead innocent to charges of extorting $50,000, Judge Marovitz startled onlookers by reminiscing about a time during World War II when he was a Marine Corps sergeant in the Philippines and Wigoda was a Navy medical corpsman.
     "I got some shrapnel in my arm, and you removed it," Judge Marovitz told the courtroom. "It was painful for me that day, but I must confess that this is far more painful."
     The Chicago Council of Lawyers asked Judge Marovitz to bow out because of his history with Wigoda, but he refused, remaining in the trial and sentencing Wigoda to a year in prison after a jury found him guilty.
     Even the elder Daley was not immune when the law was at issue. When his administration in 1972 balked at notifying city employees of the Shakman Act, outlawing patronage abuses, Judge Marovitz angrily threatened to jail Daley and other top Democratic officials unless they complied.
     "Tell your client, unless they want to take a vacation in the County Jail, they better comply with this order," he told city lawyers. He later recused himself from the case.
     While he never married, he had a close relationship for nearly 70 years with Mickey Curtin, his former secretary. She died in 1997.
     Judge Marovitz was a fixture at concerts, benefit dinners and theatrical openings. Legendary feather dancer Sally Rand was his date at the opening of the Palmer House's Empire Room in 1933.
     He had friends among Hollywood entertainers. He was particularly close to comedian Joe E. Lewis. Lewis stayed at Judge Marovitz's home whenever he was in Chicago.
     Judge Marovitz was friends with the unknown as well. He could hardly walk through the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse or the Standard Club without pausing to shake hands, squeeze forearms, hug and kiss his many acquaintances. He had an affection for homilies, and friends became vastly familiar with his favorites.
     "He was one of those people who, if you walk down the street, you probably couldn't get very far because he knew everyone on the block," said Frank Mayer, a longtime partner at Mayer, Brown & Platt, whose grandfather was the lawyer impressed by the teenage Marovitz. In recent years Judge Marovitz, a senior judge, stopped hearing cases, but would preside over marriages and the swearing-in of immigrants, a duty he relished. Judge Marovitz claimed to have sworn in more new Americans than any other jurist.
     Judge Marovitz was honored when Plymouth Court from Jackson to Van Buren was renamed Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Court. There is also a forest with 200,000 trees in Israel that bears his name.
     Those seeking favors, or advice, or just to talk, would journey to Judge Marovitz's office in the Federal Building, where they found a veritable museum of Lincoln memorabilia, with dozens of images of the judge's namesake, from original autographed letters and bronze busts to needlepoint portraits and children's drawings.
     Walls of an inner office were jammed with autographed photos of presidents, prime ministers and popes, not to mention senators, poets and singers—the famous and powerful of the last half-century.
     Survivors include one niece, Adrienne Garman; four nephews, Sanford, James, William and Robert Marovitz, and several grand-nephews and nieces.
     The funeral and burial will be private. The federal courts will host a memorial at 2 p.m. April 3 at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.
     The family is asking memorials to be made to the McDermott Foundation and the two congregations where Judge Marovitz was an active member, Congregation Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel and Chicago Loop Synagogue.
     In August 1994, he was asked to say a few words eulogizing Cecil Partee—words that apply just as easily to himself.
     "Even long life ends too soon—but a good name lives forever," he said. "The hurt is awful, but never to have known him would be a greater loss."
      Contributing: Adrienne Drell, Kate N. Grossman

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 18, 2001,


  1. I loved reading those three pages about Judge Marovitz (and your brother's wedding) in your Chicago book, but this was, as our people say, the whole megillah, and I enjoyed it immensely.

    As an avid newspaper reader since childhood and a native Chicagoan, I knew his unusual name, but not much else about him. Guess I wasn't paying enough attention. What a mensch. Pure Chicago.

    Thanks for the buggy ride, Mr. S. I could read a whole book of life stories like this. So maybe you could write one?

  2. Weeping to read of his love for minting new citizens and marrying new couples even after he no longer heard cases. Love and hope eternal. In the end, when we are old and tired and the rest of the world must take care of itself, these are what sustain us.


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