"The Milton S. Kronheim, Sr. Collection: Celebrity and Friendship"
By Margery Elsberg
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in JHSGW's journal, The Record, in 1999 in celebration of the donation of more than 400 photographs from Milton S. Kronheim, Sr.’s famed lunchroom walls to our archival collections, through the generosity of the Kronheim Family. We are sharing it today on the occassion of the anniversary of the end of Prohibition.
For more than a half-century, Milton S. Kronheim’s treasured photographs lined the walls of his company lunchroom, a testimony to his longevity and success. Row after row of famous likenesses ensured an air of celebrity and friendship, power and triumph. They made the room inviting and exciting, easy to fill with laughter and conversation.
And filled it was, day after day, week after week, decade after decade. From around 1928, when Mr. Kronheim was about 40, until a few years before he died in 1986 at the age of 97, this Washington legend hosted lunches for an extraordinary array of friends: presidents and diplomats, justices and judges, senators and congressmen, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and boxers—surrounded always by those fabulous photos.
President Harry Truman was there, on the wall and in the flesh. So was Chief Justice Earl Warren and Associate Justices Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas and Sandra Day O’Connor. U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica, who presided over the Watergate trials, was one of Mr. Kronheim’s oldest cronies. The two men had met during Prohibition, when Mr. Kronheim was a bail bondsman and John Sirica was a young lawyer. That was before Mr. Kronheim returned to his first career, selling wine and spirits to a capital city where social calendars are filled with diplomatic and lobbyists’ receptions.
Mr. Kronheim was born in his parents’ home at K and 4½ Streets, SW, in the midst of Washington’s Jewish community. Arena Stage and Waterside Mall help fill that neighborhood now. In 1903, when he was just 14, young Milton dropped out of Business High and opened his first liquor store at 3218 M Street, NW. Married to the former Meryl Goldsmith (the marriage ended in divorce), Mr. Kronheim had two children, Judge Milton Kronheim, Jr. and Judith Stahl. For the last third of his life, he lived at the Mayflower Hotel.
Except for the Prohibition years, Mr. Kronheim stayed in the liquor business—and remained a teetotaler—building the largest wholesale distributorship in the Washington-Baltimore area and amassing a fortune in money, friendships and influence.
Every Sunday, Milton Kronheim pitched for his baseball team, the Kronheim A.C. Bearcats, until his arm gave out when he was in his mid-eighties. He played handball well after that. He loved his city, was loyal to his friends, fought against racial and religious prejudice and shared his wealth with the poor.
Mr. Kronheim was a major supporter of the Democratic Party (he gave more than $100,000 to the Democrats the year Truman won the White House) as well as to the State of Israel, Georgetown University, St. John’s College High School and the Little Sisters of the Poor. As his photographs document, he was honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice), Washington Hebrew Congregation, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Washington Knights of Columbus. For years, he served on the advisory council of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
The Kronheim photographs are both a pictorial biography and a who’s who of Washington throughout most of the 20th century. The following pages contain a few of the thousands of photographs that lined the walls of the Milton S. Kronheim Company dining room on V Street in Northeast for so many years. That’s where the plastic chairs were stackable, the food was delicious but plain, and the host was Washington’s best.
Object No.: 2006.3.1 Donor: Stephanie Silverstein Description: Menu from Comet Liquor and Deli, 1815 Columbia Road, NW, 1990s.
Do you remember Comet Liquors in Adams Morgan on Columbia Road between 18th and 19th Streets? It had a distinctive neon sign. Most who remember the business don't realize it was opened by a Jewish immigrant in 1940 and continued to be Jewish-owned throughout its existence.
When Oscar Gildenhorn opened Comet Liquor in 1940, the neighborhood was not yet called Adams Morgan. The name had caught on by the time Gildenhorn's son-in-law Howard Speisman took over management 25 years later. Sidney Drazin bought Comet in 1980. Drazin, a native Washingtonian, had served in World War II and then run a few different businesses before buying Comet.
In 1989, as neighborhood demographics changed, Drazin added a deli counter. Earlier in the 20th century, it was common for Jewish grocers in Washington to move into the liquor business, but now, a few decades later, a liquor man was adding food to his business.
Shortly after this change, Drazin (seen left) brought in a chair so he could sit while at work. He quickly found that customers wanted to sit and chat, so he set up a table and a few chairs by the entrance. These extra pieces of furniture changed the atmosphere of the store. The Washington Post wrote that Comet became a "kind of plastic-chaired neighborhood salon." Regulars came from all walks of life – from blue-collar workers to investment bankers – and they sat around the table to socialize and debate. Drazin was a popular neighborhood personality. One regular told the Post that "Sid was the surrogate parent to all the lost souls of Adams Morgan, all the single people who needed a confidence boost."
When Drazin died in 2005, in a show of community affection, Rabbi Ethan Seidel's eulogy ran in The InTowner newspaper. Drazin's widow Bernice shut Comet while the family sat shiva, and a shrine of flowers and cards grew outside the door. After running the store for a few months, Bernice decided to close Comet permanently. The above menu highlights the deli offerings at the time – with whitefish salad and lox served on a bagel hinting at the Jewish ownership.
Drazin's niece, Stephanie Silverstein, who worked for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington at the time, alerted the Society's archivists to the impending loss of Comet's historic materials. JHSGW staff embarked on a rescue mission to document the business – Jewish-owned for 60 years. We arranged for a professional photographer to take exterior and interior photographs before the store closed. The iconic neon sign was purchased by a local restaurateur and now hangs at his restaurant, Comet Ping Pong on Connecticut Avenue, NW.
This year, in conjunction with the Jewish Food Experience, our Objects of the Month feature DC's rich Jewish food history. For stories about this history and the latest on the local Jewish food scene – recipes, restaurants, chefs, events, and volunteer opportunities – visit jewishfoodexperience.com.
Object #: 2006.2.23 Donor: Mitchell Slavitt Description: Pair of shoulder marks worn by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, c. 1945
Background: Shortly after World War II, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz sent his five-star shoulder boards, discolored from Pacific sea water, with an accompanying note (see below), to D.C. business owner Harry Slavitt.
Slavitt had opened a liquor store in 1932 at 509 Seventh Street, SW, close to the Army War College at the Washington Barracks (the post was later renamed Fort McNair). During the war years, customers patronized his store from the College, Pentagon and other local military institutions. The interior of the store was decorated with military memorabilia and the vast majority of liquor was sold under Slavitt’s private label, “GHQ” (General Headquarters). Slavitt's sons Mitchell and Robert remember making deliveries to the White House mess, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense mess.
Slavitt commissioned Gib Crockett, cartoonist for The Washington Post, to draw caricatures of many of his military customers. With these drawings, he created individualized labels for liquor bottles (such as the one seen here sent to General George Patton) and sent the bottles to these customers across the world. In appreciation, Slavitt received personal letters and autographed photographs. Over time, Slavitt amassed an impressive collection of letters, photographs, and other items such as these shoulder boards. Military customers brought friends and family to view the gallery room in the back of the store where much of this material was displayed. Among those customers represented in Slavitt’s collection are eight of the nine 5-star officers in U.S. military history: Henry “Hap” Arnold, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, William Leahy, Ernest King, George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, and Chester Nimitz. Additionally, photographs of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were sent by their military attachés.
Slavitt himself volunteered for the Navy in 1943 and served in the Supply Corps. His wife, Helen, ran the store while he was away. In the early 1960s , the store moved to Fourth & M Streets, SW, and Slavitt sold the business a few years later. The liquor store, still named Harry’s, remained at Fourth & M under its new owners for about 10 years before relocating to the Waterside Mall one block away. The business was sold once more before closing around 2004.
In 2006, Harry’s sons donated Nimitz’s shoulder boards as well as two albums containing a selection of Harry’s letters, photographs, and drafts of the custom cartoon bottle labels to the Jewish Historical Society.
Do you have material documenting a local Jewish-owned business that you’d like to donate to the Jewish Historical Society’s collection? Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 789-0900.