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Finding Justice On a Small Scale
Recently Identified Archive Photo Captures a Young John Paul Stevens

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 5, 2005

The boy on the left is smiling. Did one of his brothers tell a joke? Did the photographer tell him to "Say 'cheese' "?

Or is he grinning at some private inkling of his own bright future?

It's fun to imagine that he is, because the boy is John Paul Stevens -- who, as an 85-year-old man today, serves as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Back in 1928, a photographer from the Chicago Daily News took some shots at the big new hotel in town, the Stevens. Upstairs in the playroom, the owner's sons, including 8-year-old John Paul, posed.

The pictures went into the newspaper's photo archives, which were later acquired by the Chicago Historical Society. Recently digitized, they can now be seen through a Library of Congress Web site, http://www.memory.loc.gov .

In cyberspace, Stevens remains forever young but also anonymous. The photo archive included no identification of the boys. Leslie Martin, a research specialist at the Chicago Historical Society, says that no one there had recognized the justice until she was contacted by a Post reporter who had stumbled upon them in a Google search.

Robert V. Allegrini, a spokesman for the Hilton Chicago, which now operates the former Stevens Hotel, said that he, too, was unaware of the photograph.

But in a brief interview, Justice Stevens confirmed that he is, indeed, the boy on the left. The two others are his brothers, William K. Stevens, then 11, in the center, and Richard James Stevens, 13, who died in 2001. The oldest brother, the late Ernest S. Stevens, is not pictured.

The boys were working a jigsaw puzzle, Stevens recalls.

"I'm very proud of [the Stevens Hotel]," he says. "It's one of my dad's contributions to the city."

Certainly the rise -- and fall -- of the Stevens played a role in the justice's youth.

To be sure, when people hear the words "Supreme Court justice" these days, they probably do not think "youth." The youngest justice is Clarence Thomas, 56. The eight others are 65 or older. Yet each of them was once a child.

Sandra Day O'Connor rode horses on her parents' Arizona ranch. Thomas played in the streets of impoverished Pin Point, Ga. As a high schooler, Antonin Scalia, the wisecracking bane of attorneys at oral argument, appeared on a TV show called "Mind Your Manners."

Stevens, still vigorous after almost 30 years on the court, can claim a childhood as colorful as any of his colleagues'. It began amid Jazz Age splendor, only to conclude, like many others of that generation, on a note of Depression and war.

The imprint of Stevens's Chicago upbringing was discernible in his dissenting opinion in the court's recent 5-4 decision overturning state laws against direct shipments of out-of-state wine. To buttress his argument that the majority misinterpreted the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition, Stevens noted his own "recollection" of "the historical context."

Born on April 20, 1920, Stevens was the youngest of Ernest J. and Elizabeth Stevens's sons. The family lived in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago. Stevens's grandfather, James W. Stevens, was the founder of the Illinois Life Insurance Co.

His father ran the LaSalle Hotel, the biggest in town. In his Daily News portrait, Ernest J. Stevens blinked just as the camera shutter snapped. Even with his eyes closed, he radiates confidence. It was the Roaring Twenties, and his ambitions were sized for the times. Though he ran the biggest hotel in Chicago, Stevens dreamed of running the biggest hotel in the world.

Ernest and his brother, Raymond W. Stevens, sank hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money into the project, and also sold $22 million worth of bonds. The total price tag of nearly $30 million ($330 million in today's dollars) awed the business community.

Passing out cash bonuses to his workers on Nov. 9, 1925, Stevens told them they were putting up "the largest and finest hotel in the world," according to a history of the hotel by Allegrini and Geraldine Hempel Davis.

When completed in 1927, the Stevens Hotel occupied an entire city block along Michigan Avenue, between Seventh and Eighth streets. It was 28 stories tall and had 3,000 guest rooms. There was a miniature golf course on the roof and a special dock on Lake Michigan for guests arriving by seaplane.

The Grand Ballroom was "like something out of Versailles," says Allegrini. It was, for its time, an architectural wonder, free of visible structural pillars. The Stevens had a 1,200-seat movie theater, an ice cream factory and a lending library. The youngest Stevens was a part of the scenery -- he and his brothers had modeled for bronze sculptures in the Grand Stair Hall.

"What a grand realization of an ambition and an ideal of the Stevens interests and of Ernest J. Stevens is this great caravansary," gushed the May 7, 1927, edition of Hotel World magazine, "this magnificent palace of hospitality dedicated to Chicago and the world!"

While Al Capone supervised a network of speakeasies from rooms at the Lexington, 15 blocks to the south, the Stevens was dry (though it claimed to be the first hotel to mount handy bottle openers on its bathroom walls). Decent folk could escape the violence of Capone's streets and take in a musical performance at the hotel's Boulevard Room.

Little John Paul and his brothers stood with their parents and grandparents in the lobby on opening night, May 2, 1927. The first guest to register was the vice president of the United States, Charles G. Dawes. The second was President Gerardo Machado of Cuba.

John Paul got to meet Charles A. Lindbergh when he came to the Stevens for a testimonial dinner in August 1927. He also met Amelia Earhart. Babe Ruth was another guest.

The vital statistics of the Stevens Hotel -- 300,000 pieces of china, 150,000 pieces of silverware -- call to mind another large-scale tourism venture of the early 20th century. But while the Titanic hit a physical iceberg, the Stevens hit a financial one.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression sent 81 percent of the country's hotels into bankruptcy. The Stevens held out until June 1934, when it, too, was declared insolvent.

In the meantime, the state of Illinois indicted Ernest Stevens, his father, James, and his brother, Raymond, for allegedly illegally diverting money from the Illinois Life Insurance Co. to keep up interest payments on Stevens Hotel bonds. James Stevens fell ill and was excused from trial; Raymond committed suicide. Ernest was convicted by a Chicago jury of embezzling $1.3 million.

But his conviction was overturned in October 1934 by the Illinois Supreme Court. The court noted that, although Ernest Stevens may have shown bad business judgment, he did not line his own pockets. In fact, the court noted, the hotel repaid almost half of the amount he purportedly embezzled.

"There is not a scintilla of evidence of any concealment or fraud attempted," the court's opinion said. Ernest Stevens "was emotionally wrapped up in the hotel," says Justice Stevens's nephew, Michigan lawyer William J. Stevens. "Did that cloud his judgment? Probably. Was it crooked? No."

Though Justice Stevens's father managed other hotels and restaurants, he never owned another one.

The U.S. Army bought the Stevens for $6 million in 1942. Trainees bunked four to a room for a year. Then the Army sold it to new private owners.

By that time, John Paul Stevens was a young man. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1941 with an English degree, he accepted a commission as a Navy intelligence officer -- a day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Returning from the Pacific in 1945, Stevens took his brother Richard's suggestion and enrolled at Northwestern University's law school.

Eventually, Conrad Hilton bought the hotel and named it after himself. The Chicago police battled demonstrators outside its front door during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Today, the hotel has been renovated, reconfigured and renamed the Hilton Chicago -- though with a mere 1,544 rooms it is no longer the biggest in Chicago, let alone the world.

There is still a Stevens Suite upstairs. And in the mid-'80s, one of the justice's three daughters held her wedding at the dream palace her grandfather built.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company