Richardson Dilworth, the subject of a brilliant new biography by 91-year-old Peter Binzen with help from his son, Jonathan, is best remembered as the colorful, profane, fearless, reform-minded mayor of Philadelphia.
Camino Books ($24.95).
The Dilworths, though, came from Pittsburgh, where Dick Dilworth’s great-grandfather, William Dilworth, built the first bridge across the Monongahela River and the first bridge across the Allegheny. His firm, Coltart and Dilworth, built Pittsburgh’s original Waterworks and its splendid County Courthouse. The Dilworths were never as rich or as famous as the Carnegies or the Mellons, but they were not far behind.
Dick Dilworth was born in Pittsburgh in 1898. His mother, Annie Wood, came from a family that owned steel mills in McKeesport and elsewhere, making enormous sums of money. She was domineering, Peter Binzen says, and when her husband, Joseph, became bedridden, she moved the family to New York City, where she thought he would get better medical treatment.
Young Dilworth was 18 and a freshman at Yale University when the United States entered World War I. He and three or four of his friends enlisted in the Marine Corps. Mr. Dilworth was with his unit, the Sixth Marines, on July 18, 1918, near Belleau Wood in France when he was “walloped” by fragments from a high-explosive German artillery shell.
He came very close to losing his left arm. That wasn’t the end of his military service. At the age of 43, with six children and two stepchildren, he talked his way back into the Marines in World War II and managed, by hook or by crook, to participate in the Guadalcanal campaign, winning for reasons not very clear the Silver Star. He and Gunnery Sergeant Lou Diamond may have been the only two Marines to see combat at both Belleau Wood and Guadalcanal.
He was a hero again in 1956 when he helped rescue hundreds of passengers when he and his wife’s trans-Atlantic liner, Andrea Doria, was rammed by the Stockholm, and began to sink. They named their two poodle puppies Andrea and Doria.
Mr. Dilworth had flaws, and Mr. Binzen doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge them. He had a long-standing drinking problem, going back as far as his prep-school days. He got so drunk at a coming-out party for Ailsa Mellon, Andrew’s daughter, that he threw up all over her expensive ball gown. His mother marched him around to Mellon’s town house the next morning and made him apologize to the old man.
He was also a womanizer. When he was 36, he left his wife, Bobbie, and their six children behind, and ran off to Havana with Ann Hill, another man’s wife and the mother of two. They were married in 1935.
After the war, Mr. Dilworth ended up practicing law in Philadelphia because that’s where Bobbie came from. Philadelphia in those days was a mess — “corrupt and contented,” according to Lincoln Steffens. Mr. Dilworth teamed up with a young Philadelphian he had met on the beaches at Southampton, Joseph Clark, and together these two reformers turned Philadelphia around.
It’s a great story and Mr. Binzen, who was there, tells it eloquently. (I was there, too. I knew Mr. Dilworth and worked with Mr. Binzen at the old Philadelphia Bulletin. Peter was one of the two or three best journalists I’ve ever known.)
Mr. Clark and Mr. Dilworth wrecked the corrupt Republican machine that had been running the city ever since the Civil War. They rehabilitated neighborhoods, tore down slums and brought back what they called, a little pretentiously, Society Hill, the area of the city near Independence Hall.
They enacted a new city charter eliminating almost all the patronage jobs and infuriating bosses from both parties. Nobody, after 10 years of Joe Clark and Dick Dilworth, thought Philadelphia was still a joke.
Mr. Clark moved on to the U.S. Senate. Mr. Dilworth lost both times he ran for governor. Mr. Binzen doesn’t include my favorite Dilworth story. I can’t resist:
From time to time Mr. Dilworth could work himself into a terrible temper. Plans to build the Keystone Shortway across the northern part of Pennsylvania set him off. Responding to arguments that the Shortway, now Interstate 80, would be good for the northern part of the state, he exploded. “Nobody,” he said, “lives there but bears!” Every time he campaigned upstate, someone was almost certain to show up in a bear suit.
One of Dick Dilworth’s admirers said he was the greatest Philadelphian since Benjamin Franklin. If you read Peter Binzen’s splendid little book, you might just agree.
James M. Perry, a former chief political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, writes regularly for the Post-Gazette.