• U.S.

National Affairs: Vigil on Astor Street

4 minute read

Farewell, my friends—farewell and hail! I’m off to seek the Holy Grail.

I cannot tell you why.

Remember, please, when I am gone, ‘Twas aspiration led me on. Tiddlely, widdlely, tootle-oo. All I want is to stay with you.

But here I go. Goodbye.

—Clarence Day

Three days before he was nominated, Adlai Stevenson went to earth at the William McCormick Blair home on Chicago’s most aristocratic lane, elm-shrouded Astor Street. What happened after that was enough to make Gold Coast matrons stare as they strolled by with their neatly clipped poodles and haughty Chihuahuas.

Shirtsleeved reporters and photographers, gnawing sandwiches, drinking coffee and sitting on the curb, took up the vigil outside the red brick Georgian mansion. From time to time, William McCormick Blair Jr., a Stevenson assistant, came out of his parents’ house to survey the scene uneasily. He decided to open up the garden between the Blair house and the four-story brick home of his 93-year-old grandmother, Mrs. Louise de Koven Bowen. She wouldn’t be disturbed; she was up at the family house near Waukegan. In the garden the Blair butler, Herman, set up a makeshift bar and plugged in a portable radio for the reporters.

Serpents in the Elms. But this did not quiet things down on Astor Street. Reporters need telephones. So half a dozen telephone company trucks roared up, electricians swarmed up into the Blair elms, foremen raced up & down the street, cables streamed out of the trees like boa constrictors, and nine pay-telephone booths were set up outside the garden wall. A mobile unit with six more pay phones hummed at the curb.

The Chicago Transit Authority was asked to set up portable toilets on Astor Street. The Gold Coast was spared this indignity when the Maryknoll Brothers, across from Blair house, opened their bathroom to the press on a 24-hour basis.

The man inside the Blair house was much more interesting to cover than the usual candidate; it looked as if he could get the nomination, but he had not agreed to take it. In the garden and on the street, reporters and neighbors recalled Stevenson’s long indecision. In April, he had said: “I could not accept the nomination for any other office this summer.”

Last week Stevenson had described himself as “temperamentally, physically and mentally” unfit for the presidency. When a friend asked him what he would do if the convention drafted him, he quipped: “Shoot myself, I guess.” All the while, however, he never said he would not accept a draft, and his friends kept working furiously.

“I Shall Go.” Inside the Blair house, Stevenson alternately watched television on the first floor, then worked in a second-floor room while listening to the radio. He was deeply moved by the demonstration that roared through the convention hall when his name was placed in nomination. He sent out a statement: “I had hoped they would not nominate me, but I am deeply affected . . .”

As the balloting and the roll calls of states and the bickering went on, Stevenson and his friends had moments of depression. A man who decides to bow to a draft wants a good strong one. The draft he got was only soso. Two extreme Fair Dealers, Minnesota’s Senator Hubert Humphrey and Michigan’s Governor G. Mennen Williams, telephoned, talked to Stevenson. By midafternoon of the last day, he was working on his acceptance speech. One of his friends who had seen part of the speech marched into the living room and asked how to pronounce “schizophrenia”—the malady Stevenson would diagnose in the Republican Party.

Just after midnight of the third day, the vigil on Astor Street ended. The convention had spoken, and the nominee strode before the microphones on grandmother Bowen’s veranda. His first words were for the reporters and photographers: “First let me say how much I regret the inconvenience that all of you newsmen have suffered.” Then he turned to the subject of the hour: “… I have never been more conscious of the appalling responsibilities of the office. I did not seek it. I did not want it. I am, however, persuaded that to shirk it, to evade, to decline would be to repay honor with dishonor. I shall go now to the convention hall and accept the nomination of the Democratic Party.”

Then the nominee’s caravan moved off to convention hall. Before long, Astor Street was quiet again, except for the excited buzzing of the well-modulated voices in the mansions along the street. That would go on for quite a while.

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