Saturday, June 20, 2020

Would a Rosewater by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet? The Mystery of Dashiell Hammett and Victor Rosewater

One of the characters in the Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man whom I didn't mention in my recent review of the novel is a man named Victor Rosewater.  He is an elusive presence in the novel, almost as elusive as "the thin man," aka Clyde Wynant, himself.  We learn that several years before the start of the novel Victor Rosewater believed that Wynant, an inventor, had stolen some sort of lucrative process from him and that he was making threats against Wynant, only to get warned off and into hiding by Nick Charles, back when Nick was working as a private detective.  When Wynant's secretary is murdered, one of the possible suspects in the crime is Rosewater, who based on his erratic past behavior is rightfully considered a rather dubious individual.

In what seems to me an odd coincidence, Victor Rosewater is also the same of a once well known Republican newspaper editor and author, who died in 1940, six years after the publication of The Thin Man.  Rosewater was the editor of the Omaha Bee, the demagogic paper which helped provoke the 1919 Omaha race riot and lynching, which I blogged about recently.  In the blog article I speculated that the events at Omaha in 1919, which included a white mob attacking and sacking the county courthouse, might have helped inspire Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest.  Omaha at the time was struggling with the kind of pervasive civic corruption which has engulfed the fictional Personville in Red Harvest, and Victor Rosewater played a big role (and a perfidious one) in what happened at Omaha.

like a bee
Rosewater stung Omaha in 1919
though this didn't prevent him from
receiving a laudatory obituary in the
New York Times at his death 21 years later
Omaha had a boss, Tom Dennison, a Democrat who ran the town and managed the vice (liquor, gambling and girls) for three decades, excepting two years when a reform mayor managed to get into power.  "Dennison's main business," writes an authority, Jan Voogd, "appeared to be maintaining the availability of prostitution, gambling and drinking."

In Dennison's view, something had to be done about the dread specter of reform in his city, so, it is believed, the boss had his ally Rosewater, the anti-Progressive Republican editor of the Bee (he had inherited the job from his immigrant Jewish father, the founder of the paper in 1906), commence a campaign of agitation against the reform mayor and his newly-appointed police commissioner, based on the notion that there was an unimpeded black crime wave washing over the city, imperiling the virtue of Omaha's white women.

To again quote Jan Voogd:

The new police commissioner persevered in his mission to root out prostitutes, bootleggers and gamblers, but in doing so, his detractors claimed, he was diverting limited police resources from keeping other crime in check.  Rosewater's newspaper, the Bee, used sensationalized coverage of crime to promote the idea that the city's law and order had been undermined.  The came the race riot.

I go over this in more detail in my earlier blog post, but after a woman and her boyfriend (who had connections to Dennison) claimed that a single black man had assaulted them and raped her, police arrested a forty year old meat packer afflicted with rheumatism named Will Brown and took him to the courthouse, where not long afterward a mob of thousands of furious white Nebraskans descended, determined to lynch Brown.  They smashed gun shop windows and looted arms and ammunition and proceeded to fire on, and set fire to, the courthouse, forcing the authorities inside to turn over the dubiously accused man, who they promptly hanged, shot, dragged behind a car and finally incinerated.  For good measure some in the mob tried to lynch the reform mayor as well, but at the last second he was rescued from the noose.  Remember this next time Donald Trump and his myrmidons say that we are having an unprecedented breakdown of law and order in this country.

note sent out to the lynch mob
as the courthouse smoked and burned
threatening to choke and incinerate everyone inside
"The Judge says he will give up the negro Brown
He is in the dungeon
There are 100 white prisoners on the roof
Save them
Two days after the lynching, the city's leading local paper, the Omaha World Herald, published an editorial which memorably characterized the lynch mob and its actions as "wholly vile, wholly evil and malignantly dangerous."  The World Herald editor, Harvey Newbranch, won a Pulitzer Prize that year for this anti-lynching editorial. 

Meanwhile Victor Rosewater kept on disgracefully demagoguing matters over at the banefully busy Bee, trying to help rioters evade the wheels of justice.  He went on the attack against the grand jury investigation into the manifold crimes committed by the lynch mob, going after the police department as a whole and specific police officers who testified against rioters.  Rosewater in the event was charged with obstruction of justice and later found guilty of contempt of court and fined $1000.

Rosewater's tactics worked, however, for though scores of arrests of rioters were made, no one was ever convicted of a crime and the reform mayor was defeated when he ran for reelection in 1920.  In an outcome like something out of a Roman Polanski film ("Forget it, Jake, it's Omaha") Tom Dennison was back in charge, with Victor Rosewater's help.  (For more on these tragic times, see Jan Voogd's Race Riots & Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919 [2008], a timely book if ever there were one.)

Victor Rosewater sold the Bee in 1920 and moved to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.  Was he getting out of Dodge, so to speak?  In the last twenty years of his life he authored several books, including a history of the Liberty Bell.  He was celebrated as one of the nation's prominent Jewish Americans and received a long and laudatory notice in the New York Times when he died at the age of 69 in 1940.  The role he and his newspaper played in the bestial Omaha race riot and lynching went unmentioned in the account of a noble life well-lived.  It was an outcome the dark irony of which which should have appealed to the author in Hammett, a man who had seen it all.

Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
(Twenty-five year old Victor Rosewater, a recent graduate of Columbia University,
where he majored in philosophy, upper right)

The corruption of urban political machines and the role of newspapers in that corruption is a focus of both Hammett's Red Harvest (1929) and The Glass Key (1931), so it seems quite a coincidence that Hammett would have accidentally latched on to a name like Victor Rosewater in The Thin Man.  In the film version of The Thin Man, the name of Victor Rosewater is changed to Victor Rosebury, suggesting that the filmmakers wanted to avoid the possibility of a legal wrangle.  One wonders how the name got by Hammett's publishers at Knopf.  (In the novel the name of pianist, composer and wit Oscar Levant is changed to Levi Oscant.)  Perhaps this offers further evidence that Hammett really had paid attention to, and thought about when he was writing, the mass violence at Omaha and other American cities in 1919-21. Certainly the civil liberties of black Americans was a matter which would preoccupy him over the remaining years of his life.  More on this soon.

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