Searching for Richardson Dilworth
It was a hell of a life. And if it’s easy now, maybe too easy, to see the Dilworth administration as our own Camelot, an enchanted and elevated time and place — a paradise gained, then lost — it’s because Dilworth was such a supersaturated presence. He never pretended he was a regular guy, because nobody would have believed him. But he didn’t exactly take pride in his lineage. He was Jay Gatsby in reverse: a man who started out as a legitimate upper-class Wasp, then spent his life trying to live that circumstance down. Perhaps because he had seen up close how the rich behaved, he could never take seriously the idea that wealth was a virtue and not an accident of birth. His father was the scion of a huge grocery outfit and believed that Theodore Roosevelt was a “dangerous radical.” Dilworth’s mother was a good friend of the Mellons and helped to found Southampton as a summer playground for the robber-baron class.(4) During the FDR administration, she wrote a letter to the White House suggesting that FDR had syphilis of the brain, that it seemed like only the good presidents ever got assassinated, and that somebody ought to assassinate a bum president for a change.(5)
Dilworth spent his childhood under the oppressive eye of this “domineering” woman; it took the war to finally “liberate me,” he said. As a student at Yale, he was so caught up in the patriotic fervor of the time, and so in thrall to Woodrow Wilson’s idealism, that he accompanied several fellow Yalies into the Marines. At the desperate battle of Belleau Wood, outside Paris, a high-explosive shell shattered his left arm, and he came home full of bone fragments, with a Purple Heart, “which is really no decoration if you’re dumb enough to get hit.” One night after he got back, he went out drinking with the very few buddies who had survived the war. When he stumbled home to his mother’s house, drunk, in a coonskin coat, she grabbed an umbrella and began to beat him over the head. “I said to Mother, ‘Mother, for Christ’s sake, you should know enough not to antagonize a jag [i.e., a drunk],’ and that would make her doubly furious and then she’d pound me over the head with the umbrella twice as hard as before.”
HE MOVED TO Philadelphia to make his bones as a lawyer, and did. Eventually he got bored with practicing law, and re-enlisted in the Marines.
He was no kid anymore. He was 43 years old. This was unheard of. But he went ahead and shipped out to World War II. Guadalcanal. Tens of thousands died. Not him. He came back with a new medal, sat on a beach, and drank and drank. “I guess it was almost sort of a male change of life or something. And I just figured that all the exciting end of life probably vanished.”
Here is what the “exciting end of life” had entailed, besides the war: Sex. Sin. Adultery. Dilworth had run off with somebody else’s wife to Havana, Cuba. He later married her — this was Ann Hill — but still. Parties in New York with author John O’Hara and literary critic Dorothy Parker. Drinking and drinking and drinking. Two things saved him. The first was Ann Hill, who sent him to a neurologist, who then sent him to a hospital for 10 days to dry out. The second was politics.
4. Once, at a party in Southampton, Dilworth got drunk and threw up all over the dress of Andrew Mellon’s daughter, Ailsa.
5. This and other Dilworth anecdotes and quotes come from a series of six expansive interviews that Dilworth granted to reporter Peter Binzen in 1972, when Binzen was with the Bulletin. Binzen is working on a book about Dilworth and provided the transcripts to Philadelphia magazine.