No one ever confused Allentown’s Livingston Club with the Union League Club in Philadelphia. For one thing, the power base here was not on a national level. But it did have its “perks.” And one of them was having several rooms on the top floor for special guests of members. One person who was said to have taken advantage of them was Bethlehem Steel’s Charles Schwab, although a man with a mansion in nearby Bethlehem would hardly seem to need to spend a night in Allentown. It is said that he did “occasionally” have liaisons outside of marriage.

But another name that comes up as at least an occupant of the club’s facilities once was Boies Penrose, who from 1890 to 1920 was the most influential political force in the state. A visit by Penrose in his chauffeur-driven Winton touring car in any Pennsylvania town meant something was going on politically. The story goes that Penrose was consulting with General Harry Trexler late one evening on into the early morning hours. It is known that Penrose was a master of using the telephone, ahead of most of the politicians of his day. He understood anything said on the phone, as opposed to something written, could always be denied. Supposedly rather than stay at Trexler’s home, presided over by the formidable Mary T., he arranged for Penrose to spend the night at the Livingston Club’s rooms. Since there is no paper trail to follow (Trexler’s papers were systematically destroyed at his death), it is possible it did not happen at all. Still, it would stand to reason that Trexler would have had some links with Penrose, since he was such a political powerhouse and formidable presence in the Republican party. Today Penrose is almost forgotten. But he was never overlooked in his time.

Boies Penrose was born on November 1, 1860. Unlike many political “bosses” of the day he did not come from recent immigrant roots. His ancestor was Bartholomew Penrose who came to America in the colonial era from his native Cornwall in England. By the 18th century they were a well-established merchant family in Philadelphia. Penrose’s father was Dr. Richard Alexander Fuller-Penrose, a well-respected physician. His mother was Sarah Hannah Boies. Among her ancestors were two graduates of the first class at Harvard in 1642. Although they could have very easily have mixed in the social world of Philadelphia, the senior Penroses cared not to. Apparently, they did not feel that there was anyone in the Quaker City they needed to impress.

Boies Penrose

Penrose’s mother was to give birth to seven sons, of which Boies and his brother Charles were the first two. Both were tutored at home and later graduated from Episcopal Academy with high marks. Both brothers went on to Harvard. But unlike his brother, Boies was not the best student. Fearing he would be dismissed from the school, he took to his books and graduated with honors. But when he returned home, he learned that his much loved mother had died.

In the early 1880s when Boies returned to Philadelphia from Harvard, the city was going through political turmoil. A new, reformed slate of politicians had replaced the old, corrupt city machine. But it did not last. Over the next three years he watched as the former political organization gradually worked their way back into control of the city. In February 1884 Penrose, all six-feet of him, ran for office as a reform candidate. He won and was cheered. But Penrose apparently decided at this point that politics was a game he wanted to play. He let the political leadership of the machine know he wanted to be elected to the state legislature. He was nominated and was elected and entered the legislature at Harrisburg in 1885.

In an insightful article in the October/November 1978 issue of American Heritage, the late historian John Lukacs has this to say about Penrose’s sudden turn to machine politics:

“Penrose threw himself into the muddy pool of politics, the theory goes, because he liked low company. This may be too simple an explanation.”

Boies Penrose

It was management of politics, Lukacs believed, that Penrose found himself attracted to. As cynical as Penrose was, he was not corrupt in the traditional sense of that word. He never took or accepted bribes or “raked off” campaign contributions. Another student of Penrose put it this way: “Uncorrupt himself, he delighted in corrupting others.”

Penrose quickly decided that the legal career he had planned was not for him. “My offices,” he recalled later, "were always full. On one side of the waiting room, the politicians gathered. Across the other side were my clients. After a few months I decided to choose between them. I chose the least stupid and more honest.” He chose the politicians.

"Two years after that frozen January day in 1885 he had taken the train to Harrisburg, he was elected state senator," Lukacs writes. “Four years later at the age of twenty-nine he presided over Pennsylvania Senate. Six years after that in 1897 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he remained, growing more powerful, for twenty-four years; his career was spectacular at its outset and solid for its duration, an impressive combination.”

Penrose’s total lack of interest in lining his own pockets, while letting others line theirs, seemed to both impress and confuse other politicians. When they went overboard with their greed at times it exasperated Penrose. “They’re damn fools, not criminals,” he once said in frustration. And he tried as best as he could to keep them in line. Penrose firmly believed in patriotism as he saw it. Once while standing next to a parade, a friend told him how impressed he was. But as a skilled political operative Penrose said there was something that stirred his heart more: “a well-drilled body of voters marching in perfect and obedient order to the polls.”

A devout isolationist, he believed that America should not enter World War I. At the same time, he said America ought to have a battleship named for every state in the union to defend the country.

History's Headlines: Boies Penrose

Penrose received a huge amount of mail and had an efficient staff. At the same time he was also very careful about letters he wrote. He is supposed to have said that he never wrote a letter to a woman "that you couldn’t chill beer on.” He never married and was said to have “visited” brothels frequently, not an unknown practice of many men at the time.

Penrose was also very aware of the importance of the press. Newsmen and editors of the day could count on one of his phone calls with a political tip. As most of them were valid, he became a valued if a somewhat self-interested source.

He felt that the working class in Pennsylvania, far from being revolutionary, were the strongest supporters of capitalism. He believed that they wanted to keep the factories going, so they would have to keep their jobs. And to do that the tariffs should be kept high, showing the mutual interests of capital and labor. At the same time, he had no compunctions about seeing the state police used as strikebreakers. He also had no use for immigrants, from the Irish to Mexicans.

Boies Penrose

Once he is said to have held a meeting with Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor. Gompers wanted to get his support on child labor legislation and to speak in favor of it. “Well, Sam, I’d like to help you, but you know those industrialists are really big campaign contributors and I can’t do that,” he said. As Gompers got up to leave Penrose said, “Drop by any time, Sam, always a pleasure to talk to you.” Penrose did not have any love for any kind of reforms, women's suffrage, direct election of senators or anything else that smacked of changing the system.

Nor was Penrose above interfering in Democratic Party politics. In 1910 at Allentown’s Lyric Theater (now Miller Symphony Hall) the Democratic state convention selected their candidate for governor, Cyrus LaRue Munson of Williamsport. He was expected to be a sure winner when suddenly in the middle of the campaign Munson withdrew for what he said were health reasons, and that he was not up to a rigorous campaign. It was not until two weeks after the election that it was discovered Munson had been promised by Penrose a position as a judge on the newly created U.S. Commerce Court if he withdrew. Unfortunately for Munson the stink of this deal was so strong that his appointment was never made.

Along with politics, food was an obsession of Penrose's. He had always been a large man but was not much into physical exercise. The coach at Harvard wanted him to play on the football team but the thought of dirty, sweaty male bodies repulsed him. Penrose hated to be touched and would rebuke someone who tried to whisper into his ear. Although a germaphobe Penrose’s hands were often dirty and his finger-nails filthy. Penrose was known to consume huge amounts of oysters and other foods with gusto. He grew so fat that friends nicknamed him the Big Grizzly.

Penrose always remained a cynic about politicians. He called Theodore Roosevelt “a cock-eyed little runt” and Woodrow Wilson a “schoolmarm.” He hated Governor Gifford Pinchot, particularly for his stand on Prohibition. “Somebody, told me that the man never had a drink in his life. If that’s the fact, there is no use arguing with him. The man needs a drink,” Penrose said.

Penrose’s last hurrah came at the Republican convention of 1920. Here he had to keep in contact by phone. His phone bill to Chicago from Washington for the month of July 1920 was seven thousand dollars. During the presidential campaign a rumor that Republican candidate Warren Harding had Black ancestry was circulated in pamphlet and book form by his political enemies. When asked about it by a friend, Harding said, “How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.” Penrose was said to have not been concerned. "It’s all right. It might help, we’ve been having trouble hanging on to the (Black) vote lately.”

One day in 1921 Penrose’s Black valet William Underwood was pushing the 61-year-old into the sunshine in a wheelchair. “See here, William,” said Penrose, “I don’t want one of your damned lies. How do I look? Am I getting any better?” Underwood, who was a lay preacher said, “Senator I tell the truth. You ain’t got long. Amen.” Penrose responded, “All right, William, then pray for me, too.”

Boies Penrose died on the last day of 1921 in a Washington hotel room, waiting for his doctor to arrive.