Searching for Richardson Dilworth

He was the aristocrat who found his voice as a populist. The cerebral lawyer who fought in two World Wars. The cocktail-shaker dilettante who became the greatest reformer in the history of the city. Here’s why, more than ever, we need a mayor like Dick Dilworth

When Dilworth first arrived in Philly, he sought out people who were like him, Democrats who hated Prohibition and moralism and thought a man should be able to get a legal drink in America. They formed a club called the Warriors. This was fateful, because one of the Warriors happened to be a guy named Joe Clark.
Clark was a monied aristocrat, like Dilworth. A war veteran, a fellow white knight. Summered in Southampton. Not as good-looking as Dilworth: something hunted in his eyes, something coiled. But a hell of a mind, and hellaciously ambitious.
Clark and Dilworth began to fool around with politics in the early ’30s, running for small offices like City Council and the State Senate — one year Dilworth would run Clark’s campaign, then they’d switch the next year. They were so shocked by the corruption of ward leaders that by the late ’40s they decided to get serious and began to raise money, build an organization, agitate, identify fat targets. The fattest — literally — was county sheriff Austin Meehan. Meehan was a teetotaler, an Irish Catholic, a powerful Republican ward leader in the Northeast. Dilworth was convinced the sheriff was letting crooks use his office to run numbers rackets. He and Clark nicknamed Meehan “The Fat Mahatma” and “The Fat Sultan.” In 1949, Dilworth went to Meehan’s ward and stood across from his house and shouted into his sound truck’s microphone, “For every dollar the sheriff hands out, he’s robbing somebody of five. It would be interesting to hear from the sheriff himself how much he shakes down from the Philadelphia Electric, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Philadelphia Gas Works.”
That year, 1949, the Democratic slate crushed the GOP (although the sheriff survived to pass the reins of the Philadelphia GOP to his son, Billy, who passed it to his son, Michael, who still rules the diminished city GOP today). Dilworth was elected city treasurer, and Clark city controller. By now they were hardly alone; they were supported by a local chapter of a nationwide organization called Americans for Democratic Action — FDR’s New Deal shock troops. The Republicans called the ADA folks Commies and pinkos — Dilworth’s “own pet hothouse of Reds.” But they weren’t pinkos, just dreamers — a bizarre coalition of down-and-dirty union guys mixing with rich liberal housewives from Chestnut Hill and funded by old money. Strange times. This was the era of the city planner as Big Man — not a bloodless technocrat, but a romantic hero and a swinging dick. There were parties every weekend, old-fashioned cocktail parties in the city, with 50 or 60 people, the women in dresses and the men in suits. Someone would mix up a pitcher of martinis and a pitcher of manhattans, and the kids of the house would carry around Ritz crackers with anchovies on little trays, and on every table there were little glasses filled with cigarettes.

“What I remember is the intensity of the conversation,” says Frank Hoeber, whose parents hosted several of these parties. “Noisy, jovial, on the one hand, and on the other, tremendously serious. These were people dreaming up visions of the way things ought to be.”