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The House of Truth

Washington’s DuPont Circle may now be a posh address for lawyers and diplomats—and 4,000 Starbucks outlets—but it was once a bohemian hotseat for intellectuals.

In 1911, William Taft’s 40-year-old commissioner of Indian affairs, Robert Grosvenor Valentine, moved into a nondescript townhouse at 1727 19th Street in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, about a mile northwest of the White House. It was an exciting time to be in the capital: New ideas about the role of the state in American life were taking hold, including the regulation of business, protection of workers, and conservation, and the cream of American legal and political thought was flocking to Washington to help shape the 20th-century U.S. government.

Valentine was a classic American Renaissance man—before coming to Washington he had been a poetry instructor at MIT and a Wall Street bond trader, as well as an acolyte of Frederick Taylor, the father of modern American management theory. Though a Taft appointee, he was decidedly liberal, and he chafed under his boss’s pro-business administration. When his wife and child had to leave the city for health reasons—Washington being, in the early part of the last century, an even more filthy and disease-ridden city than it is today—Grosvenor decided to open his house to roommates, preferably of the liberal variety. American intellectual history would never be the same.

From time to time, often by pure coincidence, small groups of amazing talent have coalesced around a charismatic genius, a research institution, or a neighborhood café. Bloomsbury. The Wollstonecraft circle. The Frankfurt School. It’s something seemingly as mysterious as the origins of life itself—the right combination of personalities, abilities, and interests creating a mutually reinforcing atmosphere of creativity and ideas, often with world-historical consequences.

Prosaic household tasks like laundry and grocery shopping were sidelined in favor of an almost continuous discussion about politics, the law, and American society.Such was the case when Valentine welcomed his first boarders, Winifred Denison and Felix Frankfurter. Both were hard-charging Harvard Law graduates who moved to Washington after working in Henry Stimson’s U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. Both were, like Valentine, aggressively liberal. More significantly, they were aggressively social—along with two other roommates, the young British diplomat Lord Eustace Percy and Loring Christie, a Canadian working in the Justice Department, they opened the house to a steady stream of Washington’s youngest and brightest, a regular coterie of beautiful women, and even the occasional graybeard. Staffed by a small team of servants and well-stocked with liquor, the house soon became known as a center of the city’s intellectual life. According to Frankfurter, “Almost everybody who was interesting in Washington…sooner or later passed through that house.” Among other noteworthy guests—Louis Brandeis, Herbert Hoover, British novelist John Galsworthy—was the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who one night surprised the other guests (and his hosts) by clearing the table of dishes and drawing, right on the table cloth, his plans for the Mt. Rushmore monument, which he began building in 1927. The house became, wrote University of Virginia Law professor Jeffrey O’Connell, “celebrated throughout Washington as an exciting place to dine and converse.”

Yet even as the House of Truth, as it came to be called, gained notice as a D.C. hotspot, the scene inside had a decidedly un-Washingtonian, bohemian atmosphere. Prosaic household tasks like laundry and grocery shopping were sidelined in favor of an almost continuous discussion about politics, the law, and American society. According to resident Eustace Percy, “the household had a touch of du Maurier’s Quarter [sic] Latin, with law and the erratic politics of the then infant New Republic taking the place of art as the focus of its endless table talk and even more endless flow of casual guests.” The debates were fueled by the regular appearance of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr., even in his old age a lively spirit drawn as much by the energetic young residents as by their intellectual fireworks. He was the one who gave the house its nickname.

The assistants—whom Holmes called his Young Fellows—were glorified interns who, during a one-year term, did everything from accompanying the justice on walks to reading to him while he played solitaire.Today the building is a private residence; its white paint is chipped in places and its sidewalk fence could use mending. It emanates a quiet, broken-in respectability, nestled in among the other townhouses in Dupont (now—after several decades of decline in the mid-20th century—once again a tony address for lawyers, diplomats, and lobbyists). On the southwest corner of the block stands the embassy of Sierra Leone; a few blocks away is an imposing, free-standing mansion that houses the Washington headquarters of the Scientologists.

Complementing the original five residents of the House of Truth were two groups of influential Washingtonians whose ranks often called the house home. The first was the editorial staff of the newly founded political journal The New Republic, including a young Walter Lippmann, who moved into the house after he married Faye Albertson (Mrs. Lippmann soon became a regular doubles solitaire partner with Justice Holmes). The magazine was then based in New York, but given that politics was its bailiwick, its editors—who also included Herbert Croly, Philip Littell, and Francis Hackett in addition to Lippmann—made frequent trips to the capital, and when they did they would stay at the house, or at least pop by for a meal and a heady dose of political discussion. Ideas first tested at the dinner table often blossomed into articles for the magazine, and many of the residents and visitors, including Frankfurter, became regular contributors.

A second group to pass through the house included several of the personal assistants to Justice Holmes. Selected from the graduating class of Harvard Law School, the assistants—whom Holmes called his Young Fellows—were glorified interns who, during a one-year term, did everything from accompanying the justice on walks to reading to him while he played solitaire. But the lack of legal responsibilities was made up for by constant engagement with one of the country’s greatest intellects. Several went on to prominence: George Harrison was a governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Harvey Bundy became an assistant secretary of state (and father of William and McGeorge Bundy, two of Kennedy’s “best and brightest” advisers).

The household was about more than politics. As Frankfurter averred, the residents made sure to include as many attractive young women at their parties, one of whom, Marion Denman, later became his wife. Judging by the scores of letters written by Frankfurter and his roommates over the years, the tenants of the House of Truth were well aware of the fungibility of intellectual and social status in the capital—once it became known as a place to observe great minds in action, it proved irresistible to the city’s less capable, but nevertheless important, functionaries. As ambitious as they were clever, Frankfurter, Lippmann, and the others used the house to fish for contacts, building a social network that eased their entrances into the inner circles of American power.

More important, however, were the connections made among the young and still relatively powerless roommates and guests, men who would lead the emergence of 20th-century American liberalism under Franklin Roosevelt. The house brought them together, giving this cadre of young liberals a chance to train their minds—imagine being in the same room while Frankfurter, Lippmann, and Holmes duked it out over labor regulations, or international law, or social insurance. It gave them a place to test ideas about government and society over cocktails (usually mixed by Frankfurter himself), before taking them to the public in the form of magazine articles, legal arguments, and legislation. After decades of Gilded Age excess, the residents of 1727 19th Street believed, Frankfurter wrote, that “the time had come for social movements, social reforms, putting an end to glaring and garish ruthlessness and inequalities.” Liberal intellectual history was never the same.
 

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TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen