As the very model of the dynamic 20th century gentleman, George Preston Marshall, the president of the Washington Redskins football team, is something of an anomaly. Unusually energetic and sometimes foolhardily brave, he has never driven a car or flown in a plane. "No guts," he says. His political heroes are two of the most disparate personages in American history: Thomas Jefferson and Calvin Coolidge. A man who seldom ducks the messiest of public debates, he is as fussy as an old maid about his personal habits. When he calls at the office of C. Leo De Orsey, his financial adviser, he is apt to straighten the pictures and rearrange the furniture. Marshall likes attention, but he is so sensitive about his age—he was 65 on the 11th of this month—he gets angry if wished a happy birthday. Not long ago De Orsey told Marshall he had arranged for the Redskins to have a 30-year lease on the new D.C. Stadium. "Did you get an option to renew?" Marshall asked. "I won't be here," De Orsey said. "I will," Marshall declared.
Marshall has won many nicknames in the pursuit of numerous careers. Known variously as George the Gorgeous, G. Presto, Marshall the Magnificent and Wet Wash, he has been celebrated as a bon vivant, newspaper publisher, wit, friend of the mighty, controversialist, intimate of the socially elite and laundry proprietor. He takes his greatest pride in the ownership of the Redskins—although, thanks to his refusal to hire Negro players, that pleasure must have had its limitations in recent years. Aside from the adverse publicity resulting from this policy, it has done nothing to help the Washington team, whose members are but pale reminders of such celebrated Redskins as Cliff Battles, Sammy Baugh and Dick Todd.
A fortnight ago the all-Caucasian Redskins marked their debut in the new stadium by losing to the Giants 24-21, but not all was lost for Marshall; the half-time show, called the "Matinee at Midfield" in Washington, was marvelous. Baritone Gene Archer and the 225-man Redskin band and chorus led the fans down "Musical Memory Lane." Marshall delights in such razzmatazz. Above everything else, he is a showman, a would-be Ziegfeld.
"Football to him is show business," says Dutch Bergman, an ex-coach who has reason to know. "The only reason Marshall wants the team is to be on stage," says Harry Wismer, a former Redskin stockholder. "He used to tell me, 'Don't worry if you don't win. What the hell, people are coming in and out of here all the time.' " (Wismer and Marshall are feudists. Of Wismer, Marshall says, with a sigh, "Think of the opportunities that guy has blown.")
October 15, 1961
The early days of George Preston Marshall were set in chivalric splendor.
He was born in Mason County, West Virginia, the son of T. Hill Marshall and the former Blanche Preston Sebrell. The Marshalls ordinarily resided in Washington, but when their child was expected, Mrs. Marshall, following the custom of the ladies of the storied South, repaired to the family manse for the accouchement. Despite his West Virginia birth, Marshall looks upon himself as a Washingtonian. "Yes, I was born in West Virginia," he says, "but I was conceived and everything else in Washington."
Marshall says he recalls being wheeled about on the White House lawn as an infant. He vaguely remembers McKinley. An only child, he took an interest in dramatics and became a super in a local stock company in which Helen Hayes had worked. At 17, over the protests of his father, he quit school to try his luck as an actor in New York. He didn't get very far. When the U.S. entered World War I he enlisted in the Army. The flu epidemic kept him from serving overseas, and he remained a private throughout. "I was the only private in World War I," he says with pride.
The laundry man cometh
In 1918 his father died, and Marshall returned to Washington to run the family laundry. With the slogan "Long live Linen," he set about building up the business. "I didn't know a lot about the laundry," he says, "but I used my show experience to develop sales and a series of stories in the papers." At its height in 1945, when Marshall sold out, the Palace Laundry had 54 stores throughout Washington, all painted in striking blue and gold. The windows were bare save for a solitary flower to herald the appropriate season of the year. "Mr. Marshall is Washington's most famous laundryman," Damon Runyon wrote. "The rumor that Mr. Marshall personally does the washing is somewhat exaggerated. He does only the ironing of the finer pieces, such as lingerie."
Marshall thrived on the publicity. He objected only to the nickname of Wet Wash, which irks him to this day. "I was never in the wet-wash business," he says indignantly. "This was considered the lowest form of laundry business, and it was used by a lot of writers in derision." These were writers, Marshall says, who sought payola. "I always took the attitude," he says, "that the first-rate men couldn't be bought and the second-rate men weren't worth buying."
With his business booming in the early '30s, Marshall made his entrance into the great worlds of society and politics. He had a fountain in his dining room and a bathroom papered with covers from La Vie Parisienne. In 1931 he toured Europe with his friend Jimmy Walker. "Jim Farley and I were very thick for years," he adds. In 1932 and 1936 Marshall was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, but he gave up formal allegiance to the party in 1937, when he moved the Redskins to Washington from Boston. When business warrants, Marshall strives to be a neutralist. Before Pearl Harbor he warned his laundry drivers and sales force: "Your Palace organization is 100% American—employs only 100% Americans. Your United States of America is a neutral country...therefore, the discussion or conversation of the conflict in Europe with customers or with anyone is in strict violation of the rules of this organization—and anyone who violates this rule will be dismissed."
With Jimmy Cromwell, future bridegroom of Doris Duke, Marshall imported from Cuba the first rumba band ever to play in Palm Beach. With Cromwell, he climbed the heights of Newport, and many are the tales, apocryphal or otherwise, of that ascent. Making his bow there, Marshall—who has a phobia about dirt—deftly flicked a spot of dust off the shirt front of the Arnoesque Colonel Creighton Webb. When a bridge-playing dowager affixed him with her lorgnette and asked archly who he was, he replied, "Madam, the name is Marshall, and I'm in the laundry business. Can I get your work?"
He amazed a Washington dinner party by bounding in with the news, "congratulate me, folks. I've finally arrived socially. Today I got the sheets of Mrs. Bordy Harriman." He became chums with Averell Harriman, giving him, he says, ideas for Newsweek. "I dictated the format to Raymond Moley on a train going west," he says airily. But Marshall and Harriman haven't seen one another for several years. "He went one way, and I went another," Marshall says. "Politics!"
For a spell Marshall served as publisher of Hearst's Washington Times. He pepped up circulation by dressing a crew of street vendors in black and gold uniforms and dispatching them to strategic locales at critical intervals. He amused Washington no end. Society tittered with his doings. His zenith came when he sent out a Christmas card showing himself toting a bag of laundry up the social ladder.
It was the quest for publicity that led Marshall into sports. In the mid-'20s he took over a basketball team named the Yankees and dubbed it the Palace A.C. In 1932 he took over the Boston franchise in the National Football League. To avoid confusion with the Braves, he named the team the Redskins. He dressed the players in burgundy and gold uniforms, because, it was said in those days, he had spent so much gold for burgundy. He hired all the Indians he could and installed Lone Star Dietz, a full-blooded Indian, as coach.
Marshall literally spouted ideas to better pro football. He opened up the game by fighting for the rule allowing a forward pass to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. It was he who dreamed up the notion of two divisions and a championship playoff. And from the beginning he never failed to offer his own suggestions on how to coach the team. Once, after the Redskins had won the toss, he told Dietz to kick off instead of receive. Then, discovering that no one was available to work the spotting phones high above Fenway Park, he decided to man them himself. After clambering to his perch and donning the headset, he was aghast to see the Redskins lined up to receive. "Damn you, Dietz," he shouted into the phone. "I told you to kick off!" "We did," said Dietz, "and the Giants ran it back for a touchdown."
A Monday morning quarterback
Nowadays, Marshall denies he was involved in the incident, but there can be no denying he ponders every move of every coach carefully. (The Redskins have had five of them in the last decade.) Bergman says that when he was coach, Marshall used to discourse brilliantly at Monday morning critiques. Afterwards Bergman learned Marshall made it a practice to look at the game movies beforehand. There are times, however, when Marshall is not eager to claim credit for tactical brilliance. Once after the Eagles had pasted the Redskins 49-14, a youngster seeking autographs asked Marshall if he were the coach. "Not today," said G. Presto.
The year before Marshall moved the Redskins from Boston, where they were a financial flop, he married Corinne Griffith, "the Orchid Lady" of the silent screen. (Marshal! had been married previously to Elizabeth Mortensen. They had two children, George Jr., now living in Florida, and Catherine, who is married to George E. Price, the comedian. Marshall will say nothing of his first marriage other than that he still pays alimony.) Miss Griffith responded to football by collaborating with Barnee Breeskin, then the orchestra leader at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, a favored Marshall spa, in writing Hail to the Redskins. Miss Griffith did the lyrics, Breeskin the score. The song goes:
Hail to the Redskins, Hail Vic-to-ry
Braves on the warpath, Fight for old D.C.
Scalp 'em, Swamp 'em
We will take 'em big score.
Read 'em, weep 'em,
Touchdown we want heap more.
Fight on. Fight on till you have won.
Sons of Wash-ing-ton.*
Feeling a tie to the South, Marshall has changed a line so the song now goes, "Fight for old Dixie" instead of "D.C." Miss Griffith also wrote a book, My Life with the Redskins, which a library in Los Angeles filed under the heading. Racial. Although Miss Griffith has since divorced Marshall, he feels a deep attachment to both her song and the book. He presents a copy of each to every Redskin rookie. A couple of years ago he was most distressed when Breeskin, following a quarrel, sold his interest in the song to Clint Murchison Jr., the Texas millionaire. Although Marshall opposed expansion of the NFL, he agreed to back Murchison's Dallas team for admission in exchange for rights to the music.
For 11 years, from 1936 to 1946, the Redskins prospered both in the standings and at the gate as Quarterback Sammy Baugh led them to two world championships. Before Baugh retired, the Redskins had already begun to slip. Critics faulted Marshall on two counts, for failing to hire Negro players and for being 10th to spend money to find talented players of any color. An ex-Redskin says, "When you begin to reach a higher salary, you're traded." Bergman recalls the time he asked Marshall to ship the team to the Westchester Country Club for practice before a playoff with the Giants. "How much will it cost?" asked Marshall. "About $3,000," said Bergman. "Are you sure you're going to win?" Marshall asked. "Yes," said Bergman. "Go," said Marshall. At a luncheon in Baltimore, Buzz Nutter, a Colt center, kiddingly accused the Redskins of making him hitchhike home after he was cut from the team. Irate, Marshall rushed to the podium, brush-blocked Nutter out of the way and denounced him as a liar.
Marshall has feuded with Washington columnist Shirley Povich ever since a train trip home after a rough game with the Bears in 1938. "I was sitting in my room, doping out ideas for a column, when Marshall burst in the door," Povich recalled. "He was waving a check over his head and he literally screamed that the game had resulted in the Skins leaving Chicago with the greatest cut of receipts ever taken out of the city by a football team, college or pro. Next morning, after we'd pulled out of Pittsburgh, I started walking through the Pullmans to talk with a couple of players about the game. I knew they'd be pretty stiff and sore and a little surly, but I thought the night's sleep and a good breakfast might have softened them up. They weren't in the Pullmans. At Pittsburgh, Marshall had shifted them back to the day coaches for the rest of the trip to Washington. Why pay Pullman all the way? All right, so that's good business sense. But I just couldn't see the move, especially after the Skins' most profitable game to date. I wrote it up for my column. Marshall hit the ceiling and hasn't been down from it since."
A knack for controversy
Marshall started calling Povich "that fifth columnist," and he sent him wires commenting on his lack of journalistic ability. In the past, Marshall's knack for controversy has ranged afar. When the Redskins played an exhibition in Winston-Salem, N.C. local officials took Marshall on a tour of the city. Shown the R. J. Reynolds tobacco factories, he scoffed at Winston-Salem as a "one-corporation city." At the airport he derided flying and at an underwear plant he remarked, "I haven't woman undershirt in 25 years. Only wear shorts. Guess I cut your business in half." Even Oscar Levant met his match in Marshall. When Marshall appeared on his TV show, Levant said, "I hear you're anti-Semitic." Marshall answered, "Oh, no, I love Jews, especially when they're customers." An uproar followed. Wismer flew to Hollywood to announce he was "shocked, but not terribly surprised." Levant was contrite. "I'm sorry about this," he said. "I shouldn't have done it. Variety raised hell with me. Marshall kept saying how ugly I was—right there on the show. He said, 'What an ugly fellow you are, Oscar.' "
Asked about the contretemps, Marshall says, "If I'm doing a show that's supposed to be amusing and entertaining, and if Levant asks me a facetious question, I'll give an amusing answer. The audience laughed like hell. No one of intelligence has ever questioned my theories on race or religion. Ah is an independent boy!"
Someone of intelligence recently did question Marshall's theories on race. Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall, noting the lack of a Negro on the Redskins, wrote Marshall last spring that he was aware of "persistent allegations that your company practices discrimination in the hiring of its players," and that unless Marshall changed his policy he was going to have trouble. The new stadium is built on land owned by the Federal Government, and a regulation specifically forbids discrimination. If Marshall tried to back out of the 30-year contract he would face a suit. If he failed to adhere to the regulation, he would face prosecution. "I didn't know the Government had the right to tell a showman how to cast the play," Marshall said. "I would consider it a great honor to meet and discuss this with the President of the United States. Yes, I'd like to debate that kid. I could handle him with words. I used to handle the old man (Joseph P. Kennedy] in Boston."
Despite the bluster, Marshall wrote League Commissioner Pete Rozelle that he was interested in drafting good Negro players. Some of Marshall's friends rallied to his side. For one, Edward Bennett Williams, the lawyer, is convinced Marshall is no bigot. Marshall, Williams says, just doesn't like it very much being pushed around. He might have hired a Negro before if the press hadn't carried the fight to him.
In an interview the other day, Marshall seemed strangely subdued, for Marshall. "I'm now only interested in one subject," he said, "getting the Redskins back to what they were—winners." He denied there was any "new" Marshall. "I'm not any different than I ever was," he said. " 'Marshall's not as wild as he used to be.' Well, hell, Marshall was never wild." He appeared to have had his fill of controversy, at least temporarily. "I sure have been accused of being anti-everything," he said. "Anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic. Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'm just anti-people."
*Copyright ¬© 1938, 1959 Leo Feist Inc., New York, N.Y. Used by permission