Milton Kronheim's, Where the Justices Adjourn for Lunch

The New York Times, July 15, 1979

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Chief Justice Earl Warren's birthday party. Sitting, from left: Associate Justice William O. Douglas; Judge Simon Sobeloff, then Chief Judge of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals; Mr. Kraihelm; Chief Justice Warren; Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. Standing, from left: Milton King, a lawyer; Judge David L. Bazelon; former Maryland Gov. Theodore Re.McKeldin; Stanley Rosensvreig, a businessman; Judge J. Skelly Wright; Associate Justice William E. Brennan Jr. Photo credit: the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

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WASHINGTON, July 15, 1979

 

Two, sometimes three days a week, Judge David L. Hazelon of the United States Court of Appeals slips on his ‘suit jacket about noon, takes the elevator down to the basement of the Federal Courthouse here and instructs his driver to head for “Mr. K's.” A colleague, Judge J. Skelly Wright, often joins Judge Bazelon as the dark blue Mercedes rolls out of the garage.

The first sap is the Supreme Court. The Mercedes pulls up, and Associate Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall climb in. The car turns north, rapidly leaving behind the quiet, rigidly controlled world of the courthouse. The polished marble of the Supreme Court is replaced by the rusting remains of abandoned automobiles as the car speeds through the decaying neighborhoods of Northeast Washington.

Not far from where New ‘York Avenue feeds into the Baltirndie‐Washington Parkway, the Mercedes passes Rayco seat cdver and muffler dealer and turns right, onto V Street N.E. The car stops beside a liquor warehouse, and the judges step out. They have reached the offices of Milton S. Kronheim Company Inc., one of the biggest liquor distributorships on the East Coast.

There is no restaurant at Krononly an employee dining room, furnished with plastic chairs and bare wooden tables. But the food is delicious: broiled rockfish, tender beef stew, lean corned beef. Like the decor, the food is not fancy, but it is fresh and tasty.

Friendships Across the Tables

The camaraderie is old and good. Milton S. Kronheim, who runs the business, acts 30 years younger than his 90 years, and he presides over a lunch table rich with nostalgia and unpretentious friendship; in the cloistered world of a powerful Federal jurist, good old friends are hard to find.

“The first thing we do when we walk in the door is take off our jackets,” said Judge Wright. “That sets the whole tone. Anywhere else we'd have to walk in frozen‐faced.”

Federal District Judge John J. Sir-ca, another Kronheim's regular, put it . this way: “Going out there brings back a lot of memories. Milton is just one of those down‐to‐earth guys who's never let success go to his head. You can sit around with him and talk about the good old days.”

The good old days, just in case anyone's memory should falter, are recorded on the wall in thousands of photographs that span half a century of Washington history: Pictures of Presidents going back to Herbert Hoove;; pictures of Senators, Representatives, judges, football players and boxers.

Behind Mr. Kronheim's place at the lunch table is a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt taken in November 1944, shortly after his election to a fourth term as President. Mr. Roosevelt, splattered with rain, is seated in a car outside Union Station In Washington. He is slumped over, apparently in pain.

 

A Living Institution of Capital

That is one of the few photographs in which Mr. Kronheim does not appear. Though he is not well known nationally, he has been an institution in Washington for decades. Successful businessman, friend of political leaders, generous contributor to political campaigns, he is known as one of the city's movers and shakers, a man who once was reputed to “control City Hall,” or what passed for a city hall in the days when Washington had no Mayor, but only a District Commission.

Whatever the extent of his power, the extent of his friendships has been vast, and blind to politics. Separated by only a few feet on the wall outside his office are two pictures that reflect the span of his associations.

One shows Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States, seated in the Kronheim dining room celebrating birthday with a few friends, including Mr. Kronheim and three fellow liberals of the High Court, Justices William 0. Douglas, Marshall and Brennan.

The other is a picture of Senator Patrick A. McCarran, one of the leading supporters of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy during the witch‐hunt fever of the 1950's, with the following inscription: “To Milton Kronehim, one of God's noblemen.”

“When Judge Bazelon sees that picture he sputters,” said Mr. Kronheim, referring to Mr. Bazelon's reputation as one of the most progressive judges in the nation.

Judges Bazelon and Sirica go back furthest with Mr. Kronheim. Judge Sirica and Mr. Kronheim met 52 years ago when Mr. Sirica was a lawyer here and Mr. Kronheim was tiding out Prohibition as a bail bondsman. Both were good athletes, and they played handball together and boxed for years. Jack Dempsey is a friend of both.

Mr. Kronheim still works out every afternoon in the gym at George Washington University, and seems built as solidly as an oak. He played handball against men half his age — and won —until a few years ago when a shoulder injury forced him to stop. “To compensate,” he said, “I learned to play racquetball left‐handed.” Before Mr. Kronheim removed the punching bag that hung in his office, Judge Sirica could often be found pounding it with a few quick combinations after lunch.

Judge Bazelon has known Mr. Kronhelm more than 30 years. According to Judge Wright, Judge Bazelon is the ringleader of the lunch crowd at Kronheim's. “Judge Bazelon goes out two or three days a week,” said Judge Wright.

“He rounds up the rest of us whenever we are free.”

The routine has now become ritual. The men of the high benches arrive, greet Mr. Kronheim in his office, doff their jackets, and pour themselves drinks. Mr. Kronheim, despite his business, does not drink liquor.

In the dining room, the judges sit around a small square table, without tablecloth, and start out with homemade soup. That is followed by the day's entrée.

“Mr. K insists on the best,” said Irma Banks, who has been the cook at Kronheim's for the last five years. “Everything is fresh.” Mrs. Banks, who says she learned to cook by feeding six children — and now has to cook daily for 50 people — usually prepares chicken on Wednesdays, beef on Thursdays, and fish on Fridays. She varies the main course on Mondays and Tuesdays.

“The crabmeat gumbo out there is fantastic,” said Judge Wright, who is native of New Orleans. “The corned beef is also excellent. It's sliced very thin.”

Walter Williams, who works with Mrs. Banks in the kitchen, is responsible for the gumbo. He would not reveal the recipe. Mrs. Banks said she simply doesn't have any recipes. “I cook as I go,” she said.

According to Mrs. Banks, Judge Bazelon is the biggest eater. Asked what the judges and justices like best, Mrs. Banks replied: “Food” — and she laughed.

Mrs. Banki orders her provisions from local wholesalers. The secretaries, executives, salesmen and truck drivers who work for the distributorship eat the same food as the judges and other distinguished guests.

The luncheon conversation, according to Judge Wright, is “nonpolitical.” Judge Wright says he and his colleagues “mostly kid around and joke.”

Mr. Kronheim said: “They can relax out here, loosen up. They know then can talk off the record without anything being repeated. I never discuss their business, and they never discuss mine.”

The lunches are not completely without their little frictions. “Judge Bazelon's got this can of candy that he likes after lunch,” Judge Wright said, in jest. “Frankly, he's not very generous with it.” Mr. Kronheim reports that he has ordered a fresh supply of the candy. Plenty, he says, to go around.

​© 1979 The New York Times Company