Booze, Sex, Roaring ’20s and Conflict

Bill Jr.:

As an editor, Dad said that a ‘perfect’ story had sex, money and mystery. I doubt, however, that he ever expected that his most conflictual journalistic experience would surface, not in the labor disputes or over issues of war and peace, but because a graduate student submitted a long article that ran in two parts.

At the time the student was at the divinity school in Middletown, Conn., and one of the original ‘Berkeley Four.’   Horace Fort, Dean Billy Ladd’s administrative assistant, thought they said some things that should be printed.

They were, and hell opened up its portals. How often has a small denominational magazine had one-and-half headlines on all Chicago papers? Just this once! And for a month of feeding frenzy. When did the Literary Digest ever give two full pages to the revelatory attacks about lax morals on college campuses, specifically the University of Illinois, where the great Alonzo Stagg was coach-supreme? Just once.

In his article, the student, who was the son of a Methodist minister, asserted that it was unquestionably a fact that immorality is increasing on the university campus. That increase began, he said, with the coming of the co-ed. “Drinking is now a minor vice for dating, a comprehensive diversion which includes dancing, drinking and petting.   I know of as train-load of sleeping-coaches bound to an inter-university football game last fall, in which collegians of both sexes, most of whom were quite drunk, staged a pajama dance in the aisles between sleeper berths. Inevitably many of the men shared berths with co-eds. Nor was that outbreak the self-expression of a few daring souls, but a general condition pervading three long trains of sleepers. That affair was exceptional because it presented an exceptional opportunity to develop an ordinary tendency to license.’  Etc. etc. etc.

‘CLASH OVER ATTACK ON CO-EDS, (Chicago American)

‘ ILLINOIS DEAN DARES HIM PROVE CHARGES (Herald Examiner, p.l)

‘ASSAILS COED MORALS IN NEW CHARGES’ (Chicago Daily News, p. l)

‘EVE BLAMED AGAIN FOR EVIL IN EDEN’ (Literary Digest: Religion and Social Service feature)

Dad had to train out from his New York office and defend the publication of the articles. In doing so, he asserted that the ‘teaching of the newer psychology of behaviorism’ is breaking down moral standards. He recites that professors, students, pastors and matrons have told him tales of moral laxity, and that ‘the facts are to be had if they are sought diligently.’ 1

But not only the secular press. THE CHURCHMAN weighed in with a cute editorial:  “It is no longer necessary for certain types of people to read SNAPPY STORIES or Bernarr McFadden’s GRAPHIC, or to seek out Billy Sunday and his sermon on dancing. Instead one may read THE WITNESS.”

A gallery of pictures was spread across page 2 of the Chicago evening AMERICAN. In order is Dad, called “W. D. Spofford,” with a wispy moustache and an editorial coat and pencil in hand, saying:  “Conditions in colleges today are no different than they were fifteen years ago…and then they were rotten. He is no mud slinger, guard jumper or tale teller. His article is correct.”

Next comes Bp. I.P.J., called REV. JOHNSON, saying:  ‘Today’s standards are materialistic…spiritual wellbeing has deteriorated.”

Next a picture of the young student saying: ‘I can prove any of my statements. I did not name any university. Why did Illinois take the facts to heart?’

Then a smart photo of a woman, who is called Mr. (sic) J.L. Cochran Jr who is quoted: ‘The modern girl is extremely conservative. They may smoke a little and drink a little, but they know when to stop’.

And on to Bp. Anderson of Chicago, who had put Dad in St. George’s, ducking the fire this way:  “THE WITNESS is not an official publication. I have nothing whatever to do with it. It is a church publication.”

And, finally, a profile of well-coiffed Ellen M’Cracken, coed, stating: “The co-eds are blamed for the acts of outside girls brought into campus activities. These girls give a bad impression.”

The rector of the prestigious St. Luke’s Church in Evanston, and soon-to-be bishop of Chicago, George Craig Stewart sent a letter dated Sept. 14, 1926 and challenging the student on his facts. The concluding paragraphs say:

‘I am as keen as anyone for a high standard of morals among our college men and women and I am myself a total abstainer but i object to the stein, the toast and the drinking song of an elder time being dubbed immoral; only a sour Puritan conscience would. There was petting at college in my days, — then it was called spooning, — but it was not necessarily immoral, nor is bobbed hair today, nor short skirts, nor dancing to the syncopated strains of jazz immoral.

‘This young man has grossly maligned our undergraduates and particularly the co-eds. In every college there are bound to be young beasts — male and female — but they are far and away the exception, not the rule.

‘The churches as never before are providing pastoral oversight for communicants in college communities. There is still much to be done in realizing a really Christian standards of conduct among college men and women, but that is just as true of society outside of college walls.

‘To make such a wild and at times incoherent attack upon the moral conditions in our American colleges and universities as he has made and then unchivalrously to slur the Co-eds as a lot of drunken hussies, is indefensible and I hope that the authorities of the University of Illinois will make this son of a great institution prove his wild words or eat them with the bitter but salutary sauce of an out-and-out apology.”

N.Y., Milwaukee, Cleveland and ‘outer spaces’ picked up the stories and Dad went out to quell flash fires! For a guy who admitted that his Trinity days were mostly fun, girls and drinking, his comments in defense of the student and the articles appear absurd. But an editor protects his sources and writers.

In a letter on WITNESS letterhead featuring the names of 33 bishops and an equivalent number of deans, cardinal rectors and ecclesial academics and a few lay folk, he wrote (Sept. 19, 1926) to Dot:

“I have had a terrible time here in Chicago these last few days. Last night was the first night of sleep that I have had. Thursday night it was 2:30 before I could get to bed because of reporters. They were after statements, and were also trying to get him to write more. They went so far as to offer him $500 for three short ones but he turned them down, wisely I am sure. But they sure did hound him, and this office has been full of reporters for three days. But it is over now as far as the dailies are concerned, though I suppose the Literary Digest and other weekly papers will take it up. We came out of it all very well I think in spite of all the twisting and lies that the papers told. Of course had I known that all of this was to happen I would have never printed the articles. We have had dozens of letters, and all of them have praised the paper for coming out with stuff, except one from George Craig Stewart in which he said they were indefensible (he had to, for he is a trustee of Northwestern) and one from Page, chaplain at Illinois, which he wrote without seeing his articles, and which he wrote at the request of the president of the University. All of the others are for us 100% and I am sure that the paper is not going to suffer at all by the publicity it has received.”

The latter statement was right. The ‘World’s Greatest Weekly’ had taken on Goliath…including the Tribune (The World’s Greatest Newspaper’ by its own admission), and had a kind of victory. Subscriptions and, then, bundle plans, began to sell. I believe Dad, through the years, regretted that other more important crusades which he believed in much more deeply, could have done as well.

This was the Chicago of Al Capone and Red Grange; of Billy Wilder’s great movie, SOME LIKE IT HOT, which has train scenes reminiscent of the student’s accusation; and of Ben Hecht-Charles McArthur’s classic drama, THE FRONT PAGE.  Dad and THE WITNESS, in this case, fit right in.

It is significant that the Sioux City JOURNAL printed an article on Sept. 27, 1926, saying that, after a meeting of deans of the University of Chicago, there would be no more special trains to intercollegiate games. The article concludes that the student had gone to a divinity school in Middletown, Conn., ‘considerably subdued by the storm he had provided.’

With Dad admitting that he had received thousands of letters, the majority of them condemning the articles as slanderous and unsupported by facts, he stuck by his guns. The press release ends: ‘
‘Rev. Mr. Spofford insists the articles are borne out by facts and that the moral standard is breaking down in most of the big universities. He says men and women students do what the world considers wrong, what a Christian knows to be wrong, without having any sense of shame or remorse whatever. He attributes this largely to the teaching of ‘smart aleck’ professors.”

Rather weak, actually, because he never did believe that professors were ‘smart alecks,’ just irrelevant at times.

And, a partial answer to mystery: “The student” was later to be a professor of theology at the seminaries at Sewanee and Nashotah House, the Rev. Dr. Wilford O. Cross

As I write in 1993, how things have changed.  I was in D.C. during the Vietnam Spring of 1971 and, now in the spring of 1993, as the lesbiasn-gay communities are rallying on the mall. One era’s flagrant sins appear to become another era’s custom or peccadillos or cause for mounting the barricades! It may not be hard for the God of history to work with all of this but, on occasion, it is difficult for the Church to pilgrimage through it all.  But, then, we are a People of Pilgrimage above all else!

  1. Literary Digest, Oct. 9, 1926