One day in May of 1933, lawyer George E. Hamilton Jr. received a phone call from a man he didn't know: Floyd R. Harrison, for many years the right-hand man to Eugene Meyer.
A few days ago, half a century later, Hamilton, a lean, agile and still active 88, recounted what developed from that call.
"I was in the midst of a trial," so "when Harrison asked if I could meet Meyer the next morning I had to put him off until that afternoon after court." Harrison asked Hamilton to come to the Meyer family residence at 1624 Crescent Pl. NW, overlooking 16th Street across from Meridian Hill Park.
When Hamilton asked Harrison why Meyer wanted to see him, Harrison replied: "Let him explain it to you."
When the three men met in the otherwise closed-for-the-summer mansion, Meyer at once told Hamilton: "This is very confidential. I want to buy The Washington Post." He explained that he wanted the lawyer to be his secret bidder at the June 1 bankruptcy sale. Meyer said that a few years earlier (1929, in fact) he had offered $5 million but found the paper not for sale. Hence, admonished Meyer, secrecy was imperative because "the price would go way up if I'm known to be interested."
At this Hamilton responded, "I think you should know that I am an attorney for the Evening Star," then the capital's leading daily and Sunday newspaper. Hamilton was also a friend of several Star executives.
The lawyer explained that Samuel Kauffmann, then the Star's assistant business manager, and Kauffmann's wife "Bubbles" were close friends. Indeed, Hamilton illustrated that fact with an ironic tale: The two couples had been golfing at Hot Springs, Va., where they had run into Eleanor (Cissy) Patterson, editor of Hearst's morning Washington Herald. Patterson asked Kauffmann if he had heard that The Post would be sold at auction. Kauffmann hadn't. After some discussion of who might bid for the paper, Hamilton recounted, "I piped up to say 'I think I'll go buy The Post. If you,' " indicating Kauffmann, " 'are so successful, I can be, too.' " Everybody laughed.
But Hamilton's relationship to Kauffmann and The Star didn't faze Eugene Meyer. He had asked J. Harry Covington of what then was the legal firm of Covington, Burling and Ruplee for the name of a lawyer he could trust and who, being unknown to Meyer, would not tip his hand as a secret bidder for the newspaper. Covington, who had done legal work for Meyer and whose firm represented The Post's chief creditor, the International Paper Co., had suggested Hamilton.
And so Meyer went on to ask Hamilton, "Do you know Ben Minor?" Benjamin S. Minor was the court-appointed receiver for the sale. Hamilton did know him and Meyer told him to go see Minor to find out all he could about The Post's finances, its circulation and advertising and its building, which Hamilton soon did. The paper's physical assets were estimated to be worth perhaps $100,000.
Meyer told Hamilton, "I'll transfer $2 million to your account at the Metropolitan bank so you can write a $25,000 check to qualify as a bidder and then another for the rest of it, if you are successful on my behalf."
Hamilton recalled that Meyer did not ask for, and he did not give, any document to show Meyer's ownership of the money, part of which was in the form of securities. "It was a matter of complete trust," he recalled. Hamilton explained that it would probably be 10 days or so after the sale before the court would confirm the winning bid.
Meyer admonished Hamilton, "Don't come directly here from your office," for future meetings. Instead, "Go by taxi to the Meridian Hill Hotel," at 2400 16th St. NW, on the corner of Crescent Place, "go in the front door and out the side door and then come across the street to my house."
Apparently no one ever tried to follow Hamilton and secrecy was well kept. Hamilton disclosed Meyer's name only to his personal secretary and to the senior partners of Hamilton & Hamilton, his father and his father's cousin. He told his wife only that he was to be a Post bidder.
As Hamilton was about to leave the Meyer mansion that May day, Harrison turned to Meyer and asked: "Aren't you going to tell Mr. Hamilton why you want to buy the paper?" So Meyer said that owning The Post would be "a wonderful life" and that it would bring him a sense of influence, of power in Washington. In recalling this, however, Hamilton was uncertain whether Meyer had used the word "power," but he felt that that was the gist of Meyer's meaning.
There were two or three other Meyer-Hamilton meetings, the last one, the night before the sale, at Hamilton's Wyoming Avenue home. Hamilton's wife, Marian, went upstairs so that "if there were a leak, it couldn't be traced to her." Meyer explained that he wanted Hamilton to top rival bids in $25,000 increments. "Don't hurry, but when you get started, keep on going." When Meyer asked what might be the lowest figure the court would approve, Hamilton responded, "Several hundred thousand."
The next afternoon, following the sale, with Hamilton the winning bidder at $825,000, the lawyer wrote out a check for $75,000 to meet the court's deposit requirement. Then he walked the five short blocks to his 15th Street NW office in the Union Trust building where "the phone began to ring constantly."
Soon he escaped the inquiries, walked over to 14th Street, hopped a cab to the Meridian Hill Hotel, sauntered in and out and ducked across the street to the Meyer mansion where curtains had been drawn so no lights could be seen from the outside. "I told Meyer he had bought the paper and the price. He was very pleased but he said, 'Remember, it's very confidential,' until the sale could be confirmed."
Meyer quickly flew off to the quiet of his Mount Kisco, N.Y., estate but for the lawyer there was no peace. When Sam Kauffmann and others called, Hamilton said only, "I'm not going to answer any questions."
Before Meyer reached Mount Kisco, Kauffmann had the Associated Press send a reporter there but he was put off by a butler who said that Meyer couldn't see him because he had hurt a shoulder pruning a tree. That was enough to convince Kauffmann that Meyer was in Mount Kisco and that he couldn't have been the purchaser or else he would have been in Washington.
One evening the Hamiltons were among the diners at the Kauffmanns where "Everybody descended on me." But "I was enjoying it thoroughly as the diners went over the names of every possible purchaser, including Meyer. As they drove home, "Marian said to me, 'I know who bought the Post.' When I asked: 'Who?' she said: 'Eugene Meyer.' When I asked, 'How do you know that?' she said, 'Because of your expression when his name was mentioned.' "
There was a last-minute flurry on June 12, the day Justice James M. Proctor of the District Supreme Court confirmed Meyer's winning bid. Lawyer Charles Evans Hughes Jr., son of the chief justice, asked for more time for Evalyn Walsh McLean to raise enough to top Meyer's $825,000 bid. But when Minor and creditors objected and Hughes could give no assurance of a higher bid, the Meyer purchase was declared legal and final.
Hamilton's day in the spotlight thus quickly ended. It only remained for him to submit his bill, which Meyer promptly paid. Hamilton's fee was $20,000.