After Long Silence

MAURY was never a handsome man. He had a thick neck and an immense head. He looked a bit like a bullfrog.

He had enlisted as a private in the First World War and was badly wounded. His back was broken; his body, twisted. It was painful for him to stand, but he never mentioned his pain.

Maury was elected mayor of San Antonio during the Depression. By aligning himself with Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, who was running the Texas office of the National Youth Administration, he was able to accomplish a great deal for his city. Among the projects that he carried through was the preservation and restoration of an original Mexican village. It winds along the San Antonio River and is known today as La Villita.

Maury was elected to Congress in 1934. He soon became a leader of the Southern liberals. In the counteroffensive of the Conservatives, in 1938, he was challenged by a radio commentator who had the strong backing of the businessmen and the bankers of San Antonio.

Maury sensed that he was in trouble. He needed funds. He would not come to me himself, but he asked Roosevelt’s aide, Tom Corcoran, to approach me. Tom went in turn to Joe Alsop, and, with a good deal of hemming and hawing, Joe took Tom and me to lunch.

The New Deal was in retreat in 1938, but Tom was still at the height of his power. He was forceful and eloquent—a field commander in action and an Irish poet at heart.

Tom’s imagery was startling. Joe complained at lunch about the way in which the White House was using the Works Progress Administration as a political tool. Tom sighed.

“Joe,” he said. “Joe! You are the Pegasus of politics!”

Tom took me aside when our luncheon was over. The bankers and the businessmen, he said, were in the field, well armed, after four years of acquiescence in the New Deal. They were setting out to defeat the best of the New Dealers in the Democratic primaries, and if they succeeded, the gains made by Roosevelt would be undermined.

“You are a friend of the president’s,” Tom said. “You come from a great American family, with a long tradition of supporting the best elements in our national life.”

I still did not know what was coming.

“Maury is the best of the Southerners,” Tom said. “His defeat would be a bitter blow for the president. Nonetheless, he’s facing defeat unless we can get some money to him.”

“Go on.”

“Maury wouldn’t ask you himself,” Tom said, “but he asked me to ask you. Can you help him?”

“I can give him ten thousand dollars,” I said.

“Great!” said Tom. “I want you to go down to San Antonio,” he added. “I want you to watch the campaign. It will be an introductory course in American politics for you. If you take to it, as I think you will, I want you to come back and work for me.”

A kindly old messenger named Clarence laid the Economist and other journals on my desk in the State Department as he moved slowly on his rounds. Late in June, he brought me a letter with a postmark San Antonio. It was from Maury.

Dear Mike:

The campaign here has broken out like the smallpox, only it is on such a low plane as to make certain other diseases more appropriate for identification.

The Sun shines bright and hot. There is a great thundering about the C.I.O. and Communism is bandied back and forth across the ether.

I have an idea that this will be interesting to you because it is new to most Americans. As I’ve told you, we have 100,000 Mexican-Americans in San Antonio. The lives and the habits of the people are entirely different from other parts of the United States.

We can show you slums par—I started to say par excellence, but I should say par degredado.

Mainly, I want you to know that you will be welcome here. You will be treated like a bum. At the end of a week, I predict you will be a bum, actual and perfect. But, if your young lady comes, we will treat her like a young lady, so everyone will be happy.

My young lady’s parents thought it unwise for her to go to San Antonio with me. I went alone and stayed for ten days with Maury and his wife, Terrell.

Each morning, Maury and I drove downtown to his office in the city. A hundred or more Mexicans would be waiting outside his door, holding their babies in their arms. He spent his mornings trying to help them. In the afternoons, he toured the city, speaking in schools, in churches, in market places, and in union halls.

At one rally in the Mexican quarter, three men wearing sombreros plucked their guitars and sang. They sang a mournful ballad that they had written, and Wanda Ford, who had studied at Dartington, translated it for me: “In San Antonio/ before Mister Maverick was our Mayor the VD rate/ was seventy-nine percent. . . .”

I took my Leica camera with me when I went to San Antonio. Maury insisted that I carry it with me wherever I went. After a day or two, I noticed that I was being treated with undue deference. People nodded and tipped their hats to me; they stepped off the pavements to let me pass.

I mentioned it to Maury; he shrugged his shoulders. Then, one morning, the reporter who was covering the campaign for the San Antonio Light drew me aside.

“Tell me,” he said, “how are things at the bureau?”

“The bureau?”

“Sure; what’s J. Edgar up to?”

“J. Edgar?”

“Hoover. We all know you work for the F.B.I.!”

“The F.B.I.!” I was naïve in those days, but I knew that to J. Edgar Hoover, impersonating an F.B.I. agent was the most dastardly crime that anyone could commit.

I asked Maury where on earth that rumor had started up. He grinned. He admitted that he had spread the story around that I was an F.B.I. agent, sent down by Roosevelt to make sure that his opponent did not steal the election. I was, supposedly, taking pictures with my Leica that could be used as evidence later on.

I protested mightily. Maury laughed. If I should be arrested, he said, he would put in a good word for me with Hoover.

The reporter from the Light asked me another question:

“Where is Maury getting al his money from?”

“Is he getting a lot of money?”

“Enough to give me twenty bucks for every story that I write about him.”

Maury nodded when I mentioned this exchange to him. “It’s a bad practice,” he said. “It began during the Depression, when the reporters were hungry, and it never stopped.”

Negroes were banned as guests in almost all white households.

The household where Maury lived with his mother was no exception, but Maury paid no attention to the ban. He invited his black friends into his mother’s home.

“Maury,” said his mother when his guest were departing after a barbecue, “it seems to me that some of your guests were mighty dark-skinned.”

“I was going to keep up the pretense,” said Maury, “then I thought, oh, what the hell. The old lady might as well face the truth. So I said to her, ‘Momma, you know something, you been entertaining some goddamn niggers in your house!”

“She looked at me long and hard,” said Maury, “but she never said a word.”

We laughed a good many times in the course of my ten days in San Antonio, but the laughter could not go on for long.

Maury’s opponent had a major radio station at his command. He broadcast his commentary night after night, and he used it to discredit and to weaken Maury. As voting day approached he began to describe the dresses that his wife was buying in preparation for their move to Washington. I thought he was being gauche, but his confidence proved to be well founded. When half of the returns were in, Maury knew that he was beaten. Even the Mexican wards had turned against him. He guessed that they had been bought, but he never mentioned it. He conceded defeat at his headquarters; we drove home to his house. His political life was over.

Michael Straight

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