Tyrus Cobb: Sen. Key Pittman: On ice and an American 'diplomat' extraordinaire

One of the most colorful figures in 20th century Nevada history has to be Sen. Key Pittman, a one-time gold miner, later a U.S. Senator, where he, among other things, actually chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. One has to wonder, how?

The most tantalizing tale about Pittman, of course, was the rumor that the senator died just before his re-election in November 1940. The story goes that his friends kept his body on ice at the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah so that his Senate seat would remain Democratic, his death to be announced only after his re-election. Alas, what really happened was almost as lurid - the senator suffered a heart attack during a pre-election drinking spree at the Riverside Hotel in Reno and remained semi-comatose until he died at Washoe Hospital (after the election). His political aides concocted a cover story that the senator was just suffering from exhaustion, although his doctors knew his death was imminent.

The maneuvering after his "re-election" again is an "only in Nevada" story. Having "won" the election fairly since he was technically "alive," Pittman passed on a few days later and (Democratic) Gov. Edward Carville appointed his successor. The agreement among the Democratic power brokers was that Key's younger brother, Vail, would be appointed. But Carville, after initially considering appointing himself until his wife objected, gave the seat to the relatively unknown Berkley Bunker. It turns out that Bunker was Carville's Mormon bishop, whom he owed a favor for past campaign support.

In 1945 Carville did resign the governorship to be appointed to a vacant senate seat, by - irony of ironies - his lieutenant governor, who then became governor: none other than Vail Pittman!

I recently came across another Pittman story, this one just as fascinating. Seems that in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt, having little interest in yet another international conference that would seek to "stabilize global currencies" and prevent the dollar from falling further in value, reluctantly agreed to appoint a delegation to attend a meeting in London. As Liaquat Ahmed notes in his masterful history of currencies, "Lords of Finance," the president's attitude was obvious from his choice of delegates who, he observes, "were even by the insular standards of Congress singularly unqualified to represent their country" in an international forum.

Attending the London conclave were one King (Feisal of Iraq), 20 foreign ministers (including the USSR's Litvinov), and many heads of central banks. While the American delegation may not have matched these luminaries in prestige, they made up for it in colorfulness, Ahmed writes. Pittman, in particular. He broke with social convention at a reception at Windsor Castle by wearing his raincoat and a pair of bright yellow bulbous-toed clown shoes while being presented to King George V and Queen Mary. He greeted the royals with the salutation, "King, glad to meet you. And you, too, Queenie" (p. 468). "He was usually drunk," Ahmed notes, "but even then amazed everyone by his ability to spit tobacco juice into a spittoon with great accuracy from long distances." One night he was discovered by waiters at the Claridge Hotel sitting stark naked in a kitchen sink, pretending to be a fountain.

Another evening Pittman amused himself by walking down Upper Brook Street and shooting out the street lamps. Later, when an American delegate dared express an opinion contrary to Pittman's desire to "remonitize silver" (as was done with gold), the senator pulled out a gun and chased the poor man through the corridors of Claridges.

Damn, Democrats sure are a lot more boring today!

• Tyrus W. Cobb is a former Special Assistant to President Reagan.湳


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