Man for all seasons

Baltimore Glimpses


CITY COUNCIL President Mary Pat Clarke's proposal to raise council members' salaries by a whopping 24 percent lasted about a week before she withdrew it. It wasn't exactly a propitious time, what with city employees facing wage freezes and layoffs. Besides, Clarke lacks a floor leader with flair and the ability to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. She lacks a leader like Solomon ("Sol") Liss.

From 1955 to 1963, Liss was the City Council's heavy -- figuratively and literally. He weighed 300 pounds (though he actually dared to appear in a dancer's tutu, performing in the Swan Lake ballet) and laced his speeches with Yiddish jokes -- "things can be said in Yiddish that can't be said in any other language," he said -- and stories from the literature of 20 countries and both testaments of the Bible, not to mention jokes about fat people. He was public servant, Thespian, opera singer and raconteur. Commenting on his own oratorical skills, Liss said, "Even if I do say so myself -- as I should not -- the Almighty on high has blessed me with a clear, strong tenor voice." He enlivened the council's deliberations and enjoyed citywide popularity as few council members before or since.

In his first council term, Liss opposed a proposed bill that would have banned short skirts on women in Baltimore, lest they distract male motorists. "This would deprive the city of the beauty it needs," Liss said, suggesting instead that blinders be provided to male drivers unable to keep their eyes on the road.

Then there was Liss' famous debate with Council Peter G. Angelos on the night of May 21, 1959. Patronage was the issue. Though Liss was going to lose, he was fighting a move to strip the Jack Pollack forces (of which he was one) of patronage privileges. Angelos, at 29 the youngest councilman in history and at 5 feet 5 inches one of its shortest, was Liss' adversary.

"It was clear," a report of the confrontation noted, "that Mr. Angelos, with his terrier-like nips, and Mr. Liss, with his bulldog-like glowering, were in dead earnest."

When the Liss name came on the roll call, he slowly raised his 300-pound frame to a standing position and declared: "Perhaps neophytes would not yet be aware of the long tradition in the council that each district delegation gets patronage. I advise the councilman that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword."

Minutes later Angelos the terrier nipped back: "How appropriate it is that those who live by the sword during the past four years are now dying by it today."

Liss looked as though he had been stabbed. "I am quite a sizable dragon," he replied, "and I would like to admonish the new councilman that he is too small to be a St. George to accomplish my demise. I expect to be here after he is gone."

After his council terms and a stint as chairman of the state Public Service Commission, Liss was appointed to the Supreme Bench and later to the Court of Special Appeals. He died in 1988. One of his first cases on the Supreme Bench involved the underground film maker John Waters and four of his cohorts, who were charged with shooting a nude scene in the woods near Johns Hopkins University. Liss dismissed the charges with a 12-line poem, which began:

Old Baltimore is in a spin

Because of Isherwood's [the alleged flasher's] display of skin.

She cannot bear the shame and cracks

Brought on by showing the 'bare' facts.

Now that's the genius Clarke needs if she wants to push across a big council raise during these hard times!

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