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Thursday, December 15, 2011

John McGraw's Trouble at The Lambs: Part II

Despite Slavin not cooperating, McGraw was not yet out of trouble. McGraw’s initial statement about what had happened included describing his purchase of alcohol at The Lambs, which perked up the ears of authorities. McGraw admitted to police that he had bought four pints of whiskey at the Lambs Club, but that he did not drink them there, proudly stating, “I never fight unless I am drunk.” The United States had just passed the Volstead Act, prohibiting the sale of alcohol, and if what McGraw had said was true, it would have been in violation of the law.

Slavin’s decision not to testify in either a criminal or civil case smartly prevented him from incriminating himself, by having to admit that he had been drinking with McGraw on the night of his assault. Although Slavin got out of being prosecuted with just a fractured skull to show for it, McGraw ended up having to face the music by himself.

Chief Prohibition officer James Shevlin began investigating McGraw’s statement. The case really began to sizzle on August 11th, when police arrested two men who were trying to remove 15 cases of alcohol from The Lambs. Three cases of whiskey, seven cases of sherry, four cases of Tarragona and a case of champagne were seized in the Lambs’ arrests. The men were Ernest Smith, a Lambs’ employee, and Charles Bertney, a chauffeur. Their arrest fueled speculation on the role alcohol had played on the night of August 8th.

A.O. Brown spun damage control after the arrests, emphatically stating that The Lambs did not involve itself with alcohol, explaining, “Any liquor in this club could have been brought in only in a bottle or in the member’s stomachs.” Given the status of The Lambs as one of the most popular nightspots in New York, this was almost certainly not true, as many establishments flaunted Prohibition laws in order to provide the beverages their patrons craved.

While the criminal investigation into Slavin’s assault languished, the inquiry into the potential alcohol violation quickly gained momentum. After McGraw was indicted by a grand jury for illegal possession of alcohol, he posted a $500 bond, and was tight-lipped when approached by reporters, simply telling them, “The whole thing is a joke to me. It’s not worth discussing.”
McGraw hired William “The Great Mouthpiece” Fallon, a favorite of gangsters and bootleggers, and a personal friend of Giants’ owner Charles Stoneham, to be his lawyer. It turned out that his ability to get high profile clients out from under charges ended up making the indictment a joke. 

While McGraw had initially admitted he may have gotten his whiskey from The Lambs, he would not say that it was from any agents of the club. He also showed concern over being used as an informer, but did say he would be willing to testify if necessary. It turned out that wouldn’t be necessary. 

Once Fallon took McGraw’s case, the manager changed his story and denied purchasing any whiskey. His alibi was that it would have been impossible because immediately after arriving at the club he had given all of his money to a needy looking cleaning woman. It became apparent that somewhere along the way, some sort of fix was in, as was typical of higher profile alcohol cases at the time. Once McGraw changed his story, the jury deliberated for five minutes before acquitting him. 

However, McGraw’s acquittal was not to be the end of his connection to Slavin’s assault. At the time of the incident, McGraw had just come off a three month suspension from the Lambs for being in a physical altercation with fellow member Walter Knight. As early as August 10th, A.O. Brown, said that the club was considering another suspension because of the Slavin incident. Ultimately, The Lambs expelled McGraw from membership and suspended Boyd for a year. 

McGraw did not take the news of his expulsion well. A few days after the decision, several members of The Lambs went to a Giants game with season passes that McGraw had previously provided the club. McGraw saw the men and had them escorted out of the Polo Grounds, and their passes confiscated. 

Incredibly, even in the midst of dealing with his legal troubles, McGraw didn’t seem to learn any lessons, as he was involved in another very public incident directly related to the Slavin case. Another actor and member of The Lambs announced that he too had been ambushed and beaten up by an irrational and paranoid McGraw.

56 year old actor Wilton Lackaye sought treatment for a fracture ankle and other injuries he claimed were caused in attack by McGraw on the night of September 18th, 1920. Lackaye told reporters he had gone to McGraw’s home after conveying a message of support for his recent troubles, to him through a mutual friend. Lackaye explained, “I told him that twenty-five years ago a man told me that a man who stuck to his friends when they were both right and wrong was the only worthwhile friend. I told him that I was still his friend and that I would like to see him.”

Upon arriving at McGraw’s apartment, Lackaye said he was invited in and McGraw demanded to know who had sent him. Lackaye explained that McGraw had punched him in the face with his left fist after extending his right hand in a manner suggesting he wanted to shake his hand. Lackaye claimed the punch knocked him to the ground, and he fractured his ankle in the fall.

Not surprisingly, McGraw’s story differed from that of his accuser. He said that Lackaye was intoxicated when he arrived. “About midnight Saturday, Sept. 18, 1920, Mr. Lackaye of his own volition called at my apartment under the influence of liquor and was reinforced by a bottle of gin which I later returned to him unopened.” McGraw further described how “After some little talk, Lackaye said that he understood I was about to make a statement against the Lambs Club. I replied that if I did it was my own affair. In reply to this he became very abusive, using violent and indecent language. I remonstrated with him, telling him Mrs. McGraw was in hearing and insisted upon his leaving my home. He refused, whereupon two of my guests escorted him to the door. After he got outside the door he kicked one of my guests, and in the scuffle that followed, slipped to the floor. I did not see anything that happened outside the premises, and I did not strike Mr. Lackaye at any time.”

Francis X. McQuade, the Giants’ treasurer and part owner, and a judge, was in McGraw’s apartment at the time of the incident, and not surprisingly, backed McGraw. “You have Mr. McGraw’s signed statement, but I wish to add that I have never heard more abusive and indecent language than that used by Mr. Lackaye when he called at this apartment. Mrs. McGraw finally came into the room and said, ‘I want that man put out.’”

According to McQuade, as Lackaye was being escorted out, he kicked B.G. Praitt, another friend who was visiting McGraw. Lackaye got knocked down in the scuffle, but got up, went down the elevator and got into taxi with a friend and drove away.

Lackaye scoffed at the explanation from McGraw and McQuade, saying that if anyone was drunk, it was McGraw. “He worked himself into a sort of berserk rage. McGraw’s attack on me was not an isolated instance. He has attacked many others. McGraw’s whole statement, including his charge that I was under the influence of liquor, seems to have been for the purpose of providing a defense against possible legal action. The matter never would have become public if some of his bibulous friends had not insisted upon telling untruthful versions of it. If it had not been for that I never would have said anything about it. I had no wish to be connected publicly with that sort of a mess.”

Lackaye also refuted that a man of his age and intelligence would have provoked a fight, knowing he was in a situation where the odds were so solidly stacked against him.  “There are two particular items in McGraw’s statement of the affair which must necessarily appear ridiculous to anyone who knows him and his group of intimate friends. McGraw says that I forced the quarrel. It is preposterous to suppose that I would have gone to McGraw’s home, knowing that four or five of his cronies were to be present, for the purpose of picking a fight.”

Finally, Lackaye took a parting shot at the character of McGraw and McQuade, insinuating that the two friends were covering up for each other to avoid further legal trouble. “The other ridiculous point in McGraw’s statement is that he says I was ‘escorted’ to the door. McGraw and Judge McQuade have done many things during their lives, but I never heard of their escorting anyone one. ‘Escort’ seems hardly the proper word for McGraw to have used in this connection.”

Despite this war of words in the press between the former friends, Lackaye refused to press charges. When reporters came to his apartment and asked  why he was letting McGraw off the hook, Lackaye explained his motivations, while sitting in a chair with his ankle propped up on a pillow. “My personal conviction is that McGraw has been ridden so hard by all his former friends that he is running amuck with rage at them all. He refuses to take any advice except that which agrees with his own ideas.” With that, the story disappeared as fast as it had broken.

It was hard to keep a well known public figure like McGraw down in an era like the Roaring 20’s. He was re-admitted to The Lambs in 1924 and remained a member until his death in 1934. Presumably his link to the vicious assault and embarrassing legal proceedings were excused because of the positive notoriety he brought the club.

With allegations of two severe assaults within the span of six weeks, John McGraw dodged major bullets by never having to fully answer the charges. Interestingly, his connection to these cases faded over time, to the point that they are now little more than minor footnotes in the story of his life and career. Although nothing was ever proven in a court of law, these two incidents offer fascinating glimpses into the life of the fiery manager, and the New York City in which he lived and worked for so many years.


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