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Monday, August 7, 2017

Montgomery Major and the USCF in 1955

     While reading 1955 issues of Chess Life, I noticed that Montgomery Major was the editor and remembered his name being associated with The Chess Correspondent in its early years. Major left the Correspondent to serve as editor of Chess Life from May, 1946 to December of 1957. Of some interest is that there is a Montgomery Major Attack in the Tennison Gambit. 
     Major was described as a Dickensian character and had a reputation for being a curmudgeon as an editor. For much of his tenure he had an ongoing heated battle with readers and officers of the USCF. In 1955 there was also and brouhaha between the USCF and Norman T. Whitaker that appeared in the pages of Chess Life
     Major was born in Chicago and lived in the area most of his life. He originally was expected to earn a law degree, but in his own words he “exhibited his natural perversity early in life by concentrating on Romance languages and literature instead.” Major played for the Harvard chess team before leaving school and becoming an assistant editor for a community newspaper. He later was an editor for a children's book publisher, and later still edited Motor Life and Store Equipment and Supplies, two trade publications. He would also serve time as a Sears, Roebuck copy writer and even work in the accounting department of the Pullman Company. 

     His success in chess were mainly organizational in nature. For eight years he was Executive Secretary of the Chicago City Chess League, while simultaneously active as Secretary or Vice-President of the Illinois State Chess Association. He was also one of the organizing directors of the American Chess Federation (a forerunner of the USCF). 
     George Sturgis, President of the USCF, in early 1941 persuaded Major to edit the USCF Yearbooks which he did in 1941, and 1944 through 1946, before being asked to design and edit Chess Life. By that time Major no longer played chess. 
     When Major took over as editor of Chess Life it was a 4-page newsletter published every 2-3 weeks and the USCF had only about 1,000 members. He contributed numerous articles under various pseudonyms, most notably as “William Rojam” to make it look like the newsletter had more contributors. Note that Rojam is Major spelled backwards. 
     In the February 25, 1955 edition of Chess Life, Major wrote an editorial stating that due to the fact certain minority groups had voiced criticism of the program of the USCF and questioned the intent and advisability of promotional plans authorized by the Ways and Means Committee (consisting of Frank R. Graves, William M. Byland and A. Wyatt Jones) the Committee had asked for a poll of the Board of Directors to determine whether or not they enjoyed the support of the Board. If they did not, they would resign. 
     The vote was important because it would determine how they would answer the “vicious and scurrilous” attacks on USCF officials by one Norman T. Whitaker. If they received a vote of confidence, they announced that it was their intention to expel Whitaker from USCF membership and refuse to allow him to participate in any USCF chess activities or those of affiliated units. 
     In the March 5, 1955 issue there was an editorial concerning a financial crises and possibility of dissolution that had been faced back in July, 1952. At that time Kenneth Harkness proposed a plan to promote the USCF and the Board had created a Promotional Plan Committee composed of Wyatt Jones, Frank Graves, William Byland, Edgar McCormick and Herman Steiner. If approved, the committee would enter into a contract with Harkness. At the same time Major's contract as editor was up and they had to consider renewing it also. The result was the Committee entered into a 5-year contract with Harkness and extended Major's contract 5 years. Their proposal was submitted to the Board of Directors and the contracts approved. 
     The Promotional Committee considered their plan had been successful as membership more than doubled and expenses were met and debt slightly reduced. Nevertheless, according to the editorial, management had been subjected to “severe and constant criticism” of their policies, objectives and accomplishments which had mostly come from the California chess association. 
     USCF officers tried to explain their decisions to the Californians and believed it was all a misunderstanding. The Californians decided to prepare a formal list of complaints to present to the USCF for clarification of the issues. At about the same time Whitaker had attacked the USCF management, but the USCF emphasized the California attacks were constructive in their nature whereas Whitaker's were vicious and unfounded. 
     The editorial went on to add that they were not going to attempt to refute Whitaker's claims in detail nor would they resort to his methods. However, they hastened to call attention to certain facts in Whitaker's background which made “peculiarly inappropriate the high moral tones of indignation evidenced in his letter.” They pointed out a couple of facts: 

1) The Business Mangers and Treasurer were financially bonded (i.e. insured)
2) Kenneth Harkness' salary was $2,549.53 (a little over $23,000 today), not the $7,500 (over $68,000) that Whitaker had “guessed” it to be.
3) Elections were governed by then present By-laws and they were not going to “be stampeded” into changing anything without careful consideration. 
4) Kenneth Harkness had been a resident of the United States since 1918 and Kenneth Harkness was the name he had used professionally since that time. (Note: Harkness was born Stanley Edgar in Glasgow, Scotland on November 12, 1896. He passed away on October 4, 1972). There were no sinister implications in the use of his nom-de-plume and he was not a “deportable alien.” 
5) All the Federation's books had been properly audited and were on the up and up. 

     In the March 20, 1955 edition, the Ways and Means Committee received their vote of confidence from the Board of Directors and in April, 1955 a resolution was submitted to the Executive Committee to expel Whitaker and the causes for such action were spelled out. 

1) Violation of the clause that if any member was guilty of conduct that brings the game into disrepute his membership can be revoked. 
2) As a USCF member, Whitaker had for several years been a disgruntled member and on “many and numerous occasions” publicly denounced the USCF and its officers and “defamed their good name by making direct accusations of misconduct and by innuendo accused them of crimes.” He had recently published a six page letter which transcended “all bounds of free speech and even common decency.” 
3) His letter, which was mailed to various individuals and many USCF members, made false, scurrilous and libelous attacks on the USCF and its officers. 
     As a result Whitaker's membership was revoked and he was barred forever from playing in USCF tournaments. If he did play in a tournament it would not be rated.  The USCF graciously extended Whitaker the opportunity to petition them for modification of their actions and it was noted that if he wrote a letter of apology he would be reinstated. 
     Instead, Whitaker sued the USCF and several of its officers for $100,000 each...about $900,000 today...for damages for the publication of a brief reference to his connection with the Lindberg kidnapping hoax for which he had served time in the Atlanta Federal Prison.
     Whitaker's claim was that it was “a reprehensible liable.” Further, part of the story was false, defamatory, and even it it were true, it had nothing to do with the chess matters under discussion. At about the same time they received a letter from a John Alexander of California claiming he had also been libeled and defamed more than once and he was threatening to sue for damages. 
     But there were more problems. In April, 1955 Sidney Bernstein, Jeremiah Donovan, Eliot Hearst, Carl Pilnick, Anthony Santasiere, Herbert Seidman, George Shainswit and Dr. Harold Sussman wrote a letter to Dr. Max Pavey, Chairman of the International Affairs Committee, protesting the way the US team for the match against the Soviets had been selected. However, it was not Pavey who had personally selected the team. 
     The letter writers agreed that for the most part those selected merited it.  They felt the top 5-6 players on the rating list should be on the team, but the next 10-15 players were so equal in ability that a rating system could not accurately measure their current strength. They wanted a large tournament to select the remaining players, not the four-man tournament the USCF had organized. 
     Pavey replied he thought team selection should be made based on the rating list, not a subjective opinion, and asked why hold a special tournament? He also pointed out many could not afford to play in a qualifying tournament and in Moscow. He believed that a player's rating was a much better judge of performance. The USCF responded by stating the reasons for their decision.
     In the end the US lost to the Soviets by an embarrassing 25-7. It's unlikely that the addition of any of the signers would have helped the US team that much, so it was probably a good thing for them that none of them were a party to the embarrassment. 
     Finally, in the January 5, 1956 issue Major wrote an editorial column that lambasted anybody that tried to influence policy decisions for the magazine Chess Life even if they happened to be officers of the USCF. 
     In Major's opinion the magazine should be an independent publication that was free to criticize even the USCF and not just parrot the views of its officers. He wrote, “There have been attempts to stifle the independent voice of Chess Life, and it is no secret that prior to the USCF annual meeting at Long Beach the USCF Ways and Means Committee made a futile and clandestine attempt to replace the Editor with someone more subservient to their mandates. This conspiracy to gag Chess Life failed; and other like attempts will fail just so long as the membership at large combines in insisting upon an independent voice, representing them equally with management.” In Major's opinion Chess Life was an an independent entity, free to voice their opinion even if it was contrary to the USCF. 
     A lot of people felt Major was using Chess Life as his personal soapbox to voice his own opinions and political views and by the end of 1956, amid a lot of controversy, he resigned as editor. 

See Edward Winter's post number 6092-Fischer and Hastings for a Montgomery editorial.

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