On almost any Saturday nowdays, Thomas G. Corcoran and Benjamin V. Cohen, the legal lions of the New Deal's first, famous 100 days in 1933, can be found lunching together at the Cosmos Club.
They are an incongruous pair, Corcoran the son of a Rhode Island lawyer-politician, Cohen descended from a Muncie, Ind., businessman.
They disagree, half in jest, as to where and when they first met. Corcoran claims it was at the Hotal Carlton in Washington in the spring of '33. Cohen had been summoned redraft the Securities Act, a measure designed to force full disclosure of new stock issues. Corcoran was already at work at the Reconstruction Finance Corp. Both had been recruited by then-Harvard professor Felix Fankfurter.
Cohen says they met earlier, at Harvard, and Corcoran defers to him. He says he would never dispute Ben Cohen, then proceeds to do just that:
"I met you when I arrived at that Carlton Hotel. you and (Harard Law School Prof. James Macauley) Landis were holed up in two rooms. I lay on your bed every night after my day's work at the RFC. During those two weeks of all-night (legislative) drafting sessions, I drank coffee and laced with sugar, memorized the ceiling pattern and came awayweighing 245 pounds."
Cohen reminds Corcoran that the Carlton bill wasn't paid until 1936, the year Roosevelt was elected to his second term and the Democratic Committee had no trouble raising funds.
In fall 1933, Corcoran went house hunting, looking for a place big enough for himself and his friend Ben Cohen. What he found was "The LitteRed House" at 3238 R St. NW, a five-story Italianate mansion built in 1858 and occupied during the Civil War by General Grant. The house, where much of the New Deal legislation was drafted, became a controversial symbol of the Cohen-Corcoran law factory.
"We were running an underground railroad," Corcoran says. "We took care of dozens of young men until they found jobs and places to live." Sometimes there were as many as 10 boarders, with a sleeping porch as their quarters. "It was like joining up at war time," says Gerard Seope, whose father was president of General Electric. "You felt left out of it if you didn't go to Washington.
Rep. Fred A. Britten gave "The Little Red House" its name in spring 1934. Using congressional testimony about an alleged plot to overthrow the government, Britten referred to "the little red house in Georgetown where are held the meetings which promote the communistic legislation we all talk about in the cloakrooms. It is the little red house . . . where every night of the week 10 to 18 young men of radical minds meet; so-called young students, they call them Frankfurter's hot dogs."
The attack, with its allusion to "The Little Green House" on K Street that had been a symbol of corruption in the Harding administration, succeeded only in making the Cohen-Corcoran residence famous.
A reporter from the Washington Daily News who decided to inspect the premises was startled to find only " a group of well-tailored young men harmonizing. We felt a bit let down to be asked to sing second bass not to the 'Internationale' but to 'Git Along Little Doggie,'" he wrote.
Neither Cohen nor Corcoran can be certain of what they paid in rent. Ed Burke remembers that his share was $100 a month and more in winter when the antique furnace ate up about a ton of coal every week. Cohen recalls the furnace, and the fact that he and Corcoran made up the inevitable unfunded monthly excess.
At the close of the lease on "The Little Red House" in June 1936, the owner, an admiral's widow, and her lawyer appeared and claimed $600 in damages. Burke made them martinis. They sat in the long living room and talked of many things. In the end the claimants forgot about the andirons being dirty and settled for $150.
Corcoran, 77, and the 83-year-old Cohen talk as veteran might, retracing the battles and recalling Roosevelt's genius as a general.Cohen describes FDR as "his own best politician."
"He knew how to carry Congress and the people with him. If a member (of Congress) had problems, Roosevelt would personally intervene. He would even talk directly to constituents."
Corcoran points out that in those days members enjoyed a certain immunity from the voters. "There was no TV and there were no commercial airlines. Now those poor harassed devils have to have their pictures taken on the Capitol steps with every high school class from their district."
But mostly there was belief, trust and excitement in every encounter for the two friends. "We were succeeding," Corcoran says to Cohen, "we were winning. You used to say that the young law school graduates who come to work for the Lord, even if they never saw him."
One young man who did not encounter "him" was Richard Guggenhime, a San Francisco lawyer who stayed only six months.
Guggenhime recalls the ocassion when he sat outside the Cabinet room holding a draft of an executive order creating the Export-Import Bank. He and others had stayed up most to the night polishing and refining the piece of paper he clutched. Elated, Guggenhime figured he was at last about to meet the President. At the right moment, Cocoran came through the door, swept toward Guggenhime, snatched the oder and went right on through into the Oval Office.