- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

THE WASHINGTON CENTURY: THREE FAMILIES AND THE SHAPING OF THE NATION’S CAPITAL

By Burt Solomon

William Morrow, $26.95,

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

This is a good season for Washingtonians. By that I mean most of us who have come to this city from elsewhere and who are fascinated about our adopted hometown. Last month Ernest Furgurson’s evocative history — “Freedom Rising” — of Washington during the Civil War dramatized how the city’s size and main purpose for being was transformed forever by that terrible fratricide. Now comes Burt Solomon’s well-written story of Washington’s next period of change during a time that basically covers the 20th century.

Ernest Furgurson creates suspense out of the war’s imminent danger as Washington is jerked from a somnolent backwater meeting place for politicians who essentially are commuters from elsewhere into being a true national capital. Mr. Solomon tells a more nuanced story of the next step — the transformation of Washington as a global capital where a permanent party of residents — that’s us, folks — take root and exert influence.

Mr. Solomon is a veteran White House reporter for the National Journal magazine and he has used his experience to make a point that many of us have suspected about our own fascination with this city: What happens here often mirrors the important changes elsewhere, and often gives us a preview of things to come. Put another way, on matters that interest us — public policy, cultural and social change — Washington is where the action is and often in advance of what happens out there in the world.

That may be a smug way of putting it, but there is no denying that there is something that draws us all here that we can’t find anywhere else, not in New York, not in Hollywood. The story Mr. Solomon tells take three families from someplace else who come to Washington. Once rooted here, each of these three archetypical clans exert their separate influences on the capital city and, in turn, are transformed by the larger changes going on around them.

Along the way the threads of the broader story of Washington, the threads of government, of commerce, and of building a civil community, all are woven with skill and humor by an author who has a clear understanding of his subjects. On the surface there are no men less alike than real estate developer Morris Cafritz, Congressional power broker Hale Boggs, or civil rights activist Julius Hobson Sr.

Yet coming to Washington made them the men they wanted to become. All three were possessed by a drive, an anger if you will, to better themselves through their chosen work until they were second to none. How they worked their way to power is the story of how Washington changed and how that change affected the three main characters.

Cafritz, Boggs, and Hobson were all combative, competitive to a flaw, and all three sought wives who were something more than life partners. Indeed the stories of the three founding wives — Gwendolyn Cafritz, Lindy Boggs, and Carol Joy Andrews Hobson — tells us more about who these families were and about their times. They had their ambitions too, it seems.

Morris Cafritz, as he later became, arrived in Washington at the turn of the 20th century as the 11-year-old son of Nussen and Anna Kafitz, who had fled the anti-Jewish pogroms that raged through Lithuania. By his mid-twenties Morris had turned himself into a commercial whirlwind. He operated a saloon, sold coal, ran silent films in vacant lots, and opened a series of popular bowling alleys.

But it was real estate, and a rivalry with the English-born developer Henry Wardman, that sparked Cafritz and sent him rocketing to wealth and prominence. Selling his bowling alleys and borrowing a huge $700,000 he bought most of the old Columbia Golf Club and turned it into the 3000-home neighborhood we now know as Petworth. He never looked back after that.

But it was Gwendolyn de Surany, a Hungarian physician’s daughter who had been educated in Paris, Rome, and Los Angeles who transformed Cafritz from simply a striver into the cultural and charitable force that his name evokes today. In marrying Gwendolyn, as the saying has it, Morris “married up.” As Gwendolyn Cafritz, she not only turned herself into a social arbiter but she changed the nature of social compassion and charity in Washington itself.

Lindy Boggs and Carol Hobson had a rougher time of it, but Mr. Solomon makes it clear they knew what they were getting into from the start. Hale Boggs came from a down-at-the-heels Mississippi family with literary pretensions and a penchant for skipping out on overdue rent. College newspapering brought Hale and Lindy together. Julius Hobson had come from Alabama and was in the midst of an unsuccessful enrollment at Howard University when Carol sought him out on campus.

Both women brought an energy and faith in their marriages that must have been hard to sustain. Boggs was rejected by voters in his first re-election bid. Only World War II and his ability to climb the network of acquaintances during the war brought him back. His ultimate success as a Democratic party leader was dependent on his fealty first to House Speaker Sam Rayburn and then to the whiskey-lubricated process that dominated Congress until his death in a plane crash in 1972.

It is a testimony to Lindy Boggs’ resilience and talents that she not only succeeded as her husband’s replacement in the House but also held the post of U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. Carol Hobson did not have such luck. While Julius Hobson is one of the heroic vanguard of both the national and DC civil rights movement he was hell to live with. A controlling tyrant at home, his own struggles to break down the entrenched barriers of segregation in American life took him far from home too often and down pathways he should never have traveled — as a paid FBI informant, an undependable political ally, and ultimately as an unfaithful husband.

Yet all three families — six separate lives and the generations that descended after them — changed Washington and our own lives forever. Burt Solomon has skillfully taken these separate stories and produced a tapestry worth examining.

James Srodes is the author of “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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