This Abe Lincoln is a pol who never hurt the name

June 08, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

CHICAGO -- If people here have a high tolerance for political corruption, it is not because they admire evil or think the powers of goodness are weak.

It is because their political heroes often have been men who have had a foot in both worlds.

Abraham Lincoln Marovitz is 88 now and still a federal judge on senior status in Chicago.

His office contains not only hundreds of photographs drawings, paintings, and busts of Abraham Lincoln, but autographed pictures from John Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Bob Newhart, Joey Bishop, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, and my personal favorite: "To Abraham Lincoln Marovitz with respect and loving regards, Carl Sandburg."

Judge Abe has always had friends.

He grows up poor and he grows up tough. He is from a family of seven living in three rooms without even a bathtub on Chicago's near west side. His father is a tailor, and his mother sells penny candy.

The neighborhood is filled with hard-working people and petty gamblers. Bricklayers and swindlers. Merchants and pimps.

Decades later, Abe will tell a reporter, perhaps with a hint of pride: "Many of the boys of that neighborhood now are the top echelon of the crime syndicate."

One bleak and cold morning, Abe is selling papers by St. Patrick's Church after the 3 a.m. Mass. Father McNamee comes down the steps and takes Abe and his two friends, King Rollo and Muggsy Cosentino, for milk and doughnuts.

Abe is hungry but feels he should be up front. "I'm a Jew," he says.

Father McNamee pats his shoulder. "The milk doesn't care," he says.

Abe becomes an amateur boxer, goes to night law school, graduates at 19 and passes the bar.

But he doesn't forget his friends, some of whom have gone wrong. So he organizes a group to go into the prisons and counsel offenders in Yiddish, the only language they speak.

"My father died broke," Abe tells me. "He calls us into his bedroom and he says, 'I got nothing to leave you. I owed a lot of money, but I paid it off.' Then he says: 'I never hurt the name, I never hurt the name, I never hurt the name.' Then he expires."

Abe is elected to the Illinois Senate, where he makes friends with two powerful senators: Richard J. Daley, who will go on to become mayor of Chicago, and Tom Keane, who will go on to prison.

Abe will always have friends. "Don't believe everything you hear about me and the, uh, Mafia," he tells Mike Royko, when Royko is doing his book, "Boss." "You see, in my younger days I wanted to make a lot of money. I was very ambitious to become a big success. So I defended people who were some of the dirtiest, the most disgusting people around."

Like Gus Winkler, a gunman for Al Capone and one of the machine-gunners at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. Years later, a police phone-tapper hears Abe Marovitz pick up a call from Gus by saying, "Well, what bank did you rob today?"

Today, Abe has been shrunken by age, his skin taut on his skull, but he is still active, still doing.

Like when a few weeks ago he finds out that there are now 27 bar associations in Chicago -- Polish, Arab-American, Asian, Bohemian, Chinese, Hellenic, African-American, Gay and Lesbian, Hispanic, etc., etc. -- and he asks each one of them for a volunteer "to counsel a lad on probation."

He still remembers those who went wrong, those who strayed and did not come back. Yet.

I ask him about Dan Rostenkowski, the congressman from Chicago, freshly indicted.

But Abe waves a hand, a look of pain on his face. "I don't want to talk about it," he says. "I know him. I knew his father."

He grows silent. He looks out of his 19th-floor office window across the Chicago Loop.

He leans forward. "I never hurt the name," he whispers. "Never."

But let us not end here. Let us end on this true story:

It is 1963 and, as a favor to Mayor Daley, President John F. Kennedy is about to elevate Abraham Lincoln Marovitz from the state bench to the federal bench.

So the FBI agents go to Abe's neighborhood to do a routine background check. And the next day, the calls begin coming in to Judge Abe.

"There's been some guys askin' around about you, Judge," the callers say. "But don't worry: We didn't tell them nuthin!' "

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