Howard Gamser was at work in his Capitol Hill office one day late in 1961, trying to cope with the flood of legislation and reports inundating the House Education and Labor Committee, when committee Chairman Adam Clayton Powell walked in leading a striking young brunette.
"This is Tamara Wall," the chairman told Gamser, the committee's chief counsel. "She's our new assistant counsel. Find something for her to do."
Gamser, a New York labor lawyer who had joined the committee staff at the urging of some John F. Kennedy aides, was not suprised. He had been working on Capitol Hill for several months, long enough to understand the perpetual favor-trading that helped keep things going. Hiring Tamara Wall was clearly a favor Powell was doing for someone else, Gamser figured. But she also seemed smart and suited to the work.
"My recollection is that she fitted in very well," Gamser recalled. "She was most pleasant. Everybody liked her.I didn't supervise her myself, so I can't say anything specific about her work. But . . . I got no complaints from anyone."
Tamara, at age 29, had good reason to avoid controversy. When she started work in 1962, less than two years had passed since her graduation from law school, less than three years had gone by since the rupture of her marriage, which had never been legally ended. she had a young daughter and was beginning to suspect that something might be wrong with the child, who at the age of 2 could not speak.
She was also an ambitious woman trying to move up in Washington. She had worked for the law firm of Powell, Dorsey & Blum for nearly five years, starting out as a receptionist, working as a law clerk and being hired as an associate after she graduated from law school and passed the D.C. bar exam in 1960. but she found it a little difficult to be taken seriously as an attorney in a place where she had been something less, she told a friend. She needed to find something new. h
By this time, many people around town were ready to help her, including one of the best-connected lobbyists, Charles Patrick Clark, whom she had met while in law school. Clark, a swashbuckling figure described by veteran Washington correspondent James Deakin as "a perennial bachelor with an appreciative eye," had taken a liking to Tamara.
"He took her to lunch a couple of times," said Maurice Rosenblatt, himself a lobbyist at the time and the man who became one of Tamara's closest friends. "Charles Patrick Clark was always looking for attractive women to wear on his arm. It was good for his ego; it was good for his image. . . .
"There was no reciprocity on her part. She despised him," Rosenblatt added. "She took him for what he was. But she also took the pearl ring he offered her." Clark was, after all, a man who could get things done. As chief lobbyist for the government of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, he had helped funnel $1.7 million in aid to Spain over a 12-year period, according to Deakin's book, "The Lobbyists." Compared to that, getting his attractive, intelligent luncheon date a job was simple.
"Clark was very tight with Powell," Gamser recalled. "I didn't like him.
He [Clark] was an oily character. Exactly what the connection between them was, I didn't know and I didn't want to know." But it was Clark who prevailed on Powell to put Tamara on the committee staff.
She had sought out a new job because she wanted something new, something exciting, a place where she could acquire a speciality and establish a reputation of her own. In Adam Clayton Powell's committee, she had a surfeit of all of that.
Here was a place where everyone moved, talked and thought at high speed -- particularly the chairman, who never was out of the news for long. He was a black, flamboyant Harlem Democrat who had replaced a conservative white southerner as committee chairman in 1961, a year before Tamara joined his staff. He was in trouble with the IRS. And he had a reputation as a playboy, an absentee congressman far more devoted to perks than to work.
But he also now headed a committee that was a major conduit for some of the progressive social legislation of Kennedy's presidency. In this role, he had a thousand new plans, a thousand new ideas every day. New ways to push through the floundering Kennedy plan to get federal aid to public schools. New ways to win enactment of a law raising the minimum wage from $1 to $1.25 an hour. New discrimination charges to lodge against this government employe or that National Guard officer.
"Tammy came in at a very hectic time, " said Louise Wright, another staffer. "Powell was out to make a name as chairman. . . . If any problem arose anywhere in this country that had anything to do with [our work], he looked into it."
"Tammy had an adventuresome quality about her, and Adam Powell was an adventure," said Jean Thompson, a onetime committee staff member. "Just working around Adam Powell was exciting -- you're talking about a dynamic person."
In the midst of the frenzy that was the committee, however, other staffers remember Tamara as an oasis of serenity. "She had kind of a serene sense of confidence," said staffer Donald Berns.
"On the committee staff, there was a lot a scrambling around and trying to get ahead, but Tammy was not one of them," said George Skinner, another congressional staffer who knew Tamara at the time. "She was not an aggressive, go-get-'em, know-it-all woman. . . . She was trying to put bread on the table for her daughter and herself, but I didn't see any signs of over-weening ambition.
"At the time, Powell was as important a black leader as there was in Washington. There were a lot of people on the committee staff wanting to be close to him, and there was a lot of interoffice jockeying. She just wasn't interested in that." The Trip
Yet it was Tamara whom Powell approached when he had a delicate problem on his hands in the summer of 1962. The chairman had been the subject of considerable controversy -- and continually acidic columns by Drew Pearson -- as a result of his frequent trips abroad and his reputation as a playboy. This reputation made him a chief topic of Washington gossip and not-so-subtle allusions in the newspapers.
He had had three wives; the latest, Yvette, lived in his Puerto Rico home while drawing a $12,000 salary as a congressional staffer. Recently, he had become entranced with a young beauty-contest winner, Corrine Huff, who had come into his office early in the year on a promotional tour for a cigarette company.
Now Powell was planning another trip to Europe -- on congressional business, of course -- this time to France, Italy and Greece. He wanted to take Huff with him. But it would not look right for the two of them to go alone. There had to be a third person. As Gamser explained it: "It would have been much more proper at that time to have [Huff] accompanied by a female than to have him accompanied by a male. . . . Why exactly he picked Tammy, I don't know. Maybe he felt [she and Huff] were most compatible."
What Powell told Tamara was that there would be work to do, information to gather about wage scales in Europe, about equal pay laws. Would she want to go with him?
Indeed she would. Tamara had not been back to Europe since the age of 13; many of her memories of it were bleak. She had not seen Paris nightclubs or the Greek isles. She was recovering from pneumonia and thought an ocean voyage might help her recuperate. With Powell in control, the trip would certainly be first-class, and all expenses would be paid. Sure, she wanted to go.
She had been in Washington long enough to know she was taking a risk, given Powell's reputation. Her role on the trip could well be misunderstood. So she turned to several friends for advice: her boss, Gamser, and her friends, Rosenblatt and Lilla Cummings.
"I had very, very strong feelings about Adam Clayton Powell," said Cummings, who is married to Sen. John Tower (R-Texas). "I saw him as a horror, and I told her not to go. She said, 'But Lilla, I'm going to be working on this trip.' I said, 'I know that. It isn't what you're doing, but how it can be interpreted. . . . In this town, you can't make too many mistakes, especially if you're a good-looking woman.
"Her response was ambivalent," said Cummings. "She had an assignment she was going to discharge. She had a report to do. But she was not unmindful of the fact he was using her."
"There was quite a chorus of nays about her trip," Rosenblatt agreed. "But she wanted to have the fun of sailing on the Queen Mary. There was a light side to Tammy, a willingness to damn the torpedoes. It was feminine, it was gay, it was spirited."
"She was a convenient cover for Powell. . . . She could have refused, but it would have been difficult," said Gamser. "Powell was a powerful and persuasive man, and there was the fact she was beholden to him for her job. And let me say this in her defense: at that time everyone was taking a joyride on the committee. It was a time when you took advantage of that sort of thing."
On Aug. 10, Powell, Huff and Tamara boarded the Queen Mary in New York City and set sail. The Story
Pearson's column ran in The Washington Post on Sept. 4, after Powell, Huff and Wall had been gone several weeks. It said:
"Adam Clayton Powell, the debonair congressman from Harlem, has been sending postcards home from one of the most unique junkets in Congressional history. With Congress stewing over vitally important legislation, Powell has gone off to the nightclubs of Paris, the theaters of London, the film festival of Venice and the delights of a cruise through the Greek islands, largely at Government expense. He has taken with him two lady members of his staff, Mrs. Tamara J. Wall, a young blonde divorcee, and Miss Corrine Huff, a . . . dark-complexioned former runner-up in a Miss Universe contest. Officially, they will study equal opportunity for women. . . ."
Never mind that Tamara had dark brown hair and was not divorced. The phrase "young blonde divorcee" was an easily understood code for "loose woman." This time, Powell had gone too far, asked too much, been too flagrant. And he had been caught at it by his nemesis, Pearson. And Tamara had been caught with him. To all appearances, she was either doing something wrong herself or covering for someone else's shenanigans.
Powell held press conferences on his return and promised a lengthy report about the wage scales in the Common Market. "He kept saying, 'I don't do anything more than anyone else, and I'm not going to do anything less,'" said Powell's onetime secretary, Louise Maxienne Dargans.
There was no public forum for Tamara to make her defense, however. She did go to Maurine Neuberger, who by then had succeeded her late husband as senator from Oregon. "She said, 'You've known me for a long time, and you know I don't deserve the notoriety I'm getting,'" Neuberger recalled. "She didn't really come to me to apologize. She wanted to explain. But I didn't allow it. I said, 'He's the scoundrel, not you.'"
"It was a very unfortunate thing. There was no sense in pursuing the subject afterwards," Gamser said. "The worst had happened. I know she was deeply hurt, but she didn't seem to show it."
The hurt soon got worse. One of her first jobs after the trip was preparing the report that would justify it.The report was nearly 100 pages long and included graphs, tables and a three-page, single-spaced bibliography. But by the time it appeared, Tamara had been relieved of her job.
"The Pearson column derailed Tammy's career," said Rosenblatt. Other revelations were piling up about the congressman's profligate life style, his lavish spending on travel and the size of his committe budget, which was nearly double that of his predecessor. The committee budget quickly became the target of conservative congressional critics. It had to be cut. Some staff positions had to be eliminated.
In late November, Tamara received a formal letter from staff director Russel Derrickson. "The chairman has directed me to advise you that, due to staff planning for the coming session of Congress, in relation to budgetary constraints, your employment . . . will be terminated on December, 31, 1962."
"As Powell's difficulties rose, he had to lighten his baggage," Rosenblatt said. "She was expandable. You don't have to be guilty of anything for that to happen. You just have to be a liability."
There was no doubt she was a liability. Rosenblatt approached another congressman, a friend who chaired another House committee and had staff positions to spare. Whatever the papers might say, Tamara was still a bright, competent young attorney. "I asked him about taking her on and he said, 'Absolutely not,'" Rosenblatt said. "To him she was a hot number. A refugee from a scandal. He wanted nothing to do with her. . . . She was marked 'unemployable' in the congressional power structure."
"She looked frantically for a job," said Cummings. "She looked at a committee or two, at law firms, at agencies. She spent days looking, calling, interviewing. . . . But the assumption was, 'Wherever she goes, the press will be following her.' You know 'Former Powell Confidante Hired By Smith & Jones.' What is she? Relatively unemployable."
She left the committee at the end of the year, having worked there exactly 365 days. If she had made any plans about a career on the Hill, they now seemed hopeless. She had enough to do finding secure work to support herself and her child. Finally, she found a haven on the legal staff of the National Labor Relations Board. Once there, she immersed herself in that agency's taxing, but relatively anonymous work, determined to turn herself into the best possible labor lawyer.