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Thursday, 05 December 2013 00:25

Repeal and My Great Godfather

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Sunny Jim Rolph PicmonkeyJames Rolphby Dan Clarke


Sacramento, CA December 6, 2013 - I had a beer yesterday afternoon. That in itself isn't unusual, but communing with a dead politician might be.

“Sunny Jim” Rolph died in 1934 during his third year as Governor of California. Prior to his election to statewide office he spent nearly 19 years as Mayor of San Francisco. It was during that time that he became my Dad's godfather. Rolph lived at 21st and Guerrero Streets in San Francisco, my paternal grandparents' house was at 23rd and Guerrero. How well they were acquainted, I don't know.

My grandfather had a good job, but wasn't in Rolph's league, as the hard working Mayor had already become a millionaire—mostly from the shipping business—before starting his political career. Maybe he was godfather to all babies born to voters in the Mission District, an Irish enclave in those days. For all his business success though, he billed himself as “Mayor of all the people” and was regarded by most San Franciscans as one of their own.

As Governor of California, Rolph publicly condoned a pre-trial lynching of two men accused of the kidnapping and murder of the son of a San Jose businessman. It sullied his reputation forever and I won't celebrate that, but I have heard and read enough about his earlier life to know that he had his good points, too. A successful businessman at the time of the city's earthquake and fire, he was reported to have been a tireless worker to help displaced fellow citizens and to contribute to the rebuilding of San Francisco. After his election as mayor in 1911 he led efforts to make the 1915 Pan Pacific Expostion—in effect, a world's fair—a reality. It is said that on the way to City Hall his limo tended to stop for citizens at street corners to offer a lift if they were going his way. Kind gestures to fellow San Franciscans or canny PR? Who knows, but I'm inclined to believe he was basically a good-hearted guy.

Gary Sleppy and Sunny Jim PicmonkeyGary Sleppy, proprietor of The Shack, salutes Gov. Rolph James Rolph was also a man who enjoyed a good time. Or so it would seem. His “Sunny Jim” persona came from a popular song adopted as his campaign anthem, “There are smiles that make you happy.”  By 1917 he had purchased a shipyard in Humboldt County and celebrated the "largest 4-masted wooden ship ever built on the West Coast" by throwing a party that lasted two days and two nights on a chartered 12-car train. The costs ran to $25,000--this at a time when the Mayor's salary was $6,000 per annum. Though first elected on a platform that promised to clean up the notorious Barbary Coast neighborhood, not too much changed in that regard during his long tenure as Mayor of San Francisco. In the words of writer Daniel Steven Crafts, Rolph's administration “was characterized by the not so unlikely combination of populism and debauchery.” In his latter years as Mayor, the married “Sunny Jim” was dogged by rumors of an affair with a movie star named Anita Page. Crafts writes that Rolph brought along San Francisco's most notorious madam as his escort to one of the city's Policemen's Balls. If that isn't laudable behavior, it certainly is colorful.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution (The Volstead Act), which forbade the production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages went into effect in 1919. Its restriction on the liberty of American citizens was bad policy from the beginning, but even if you allowed for “good intentions,” its “unintended consequences” caused terrible damage for the nation. To his credit, I believe, Dad's godfather wasn't much of a fan of Prohibition and apparently tended to ignore it as much as possible in his personal life, as well as in his official capacities as Mayor and, later, Governor. These days I often have a beer at The Shack, located on the corner of 52nd and Folsom in Sacramento. Upon the repeal of Prohibition—eighty years ago yesterday—Governor James Rolph enjoyed a glass of Ruhstaller's Gilt Edge, his first legal post-Prohibition beer, at that same spot, then known as “Docs.”

On that anniversary I raised a glass in toast to you ,“Sunny Jim,” and to your godson.

Read 3586 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 December 2013 12:44

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