Thank God for Boss Tom
Tom Pendergast's vices made KC a spirited place.
One of the most notorious and corrupt political bosses of the 20th century made Kansas City greater — and fun.
The Kansas City I grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s was a very nice place, and oh, so respectable.
That’s in part because it was still drying out from a 20-year bender known as “The Pendergast Era.”
For most of the 1920s, Kansas City was the place Prohibition forgot, thanks to Pendergast’s protection of the rum-runners and Mafiosi who kept the place liquored up. An apocryphal story holds that when a reporter asked him the reason for all this lawlessness, his response was a simple: “The people are thirsty.”
You’ll find that quip emblazoned on the south wall of Tom’s Town Distilling Co., a craft distillery and restaurant in the Crossroads that seeks to recapture the spirit of the Pendergast years. On the inside, it looks like a cross between a tavern and a bordello (only with green padded seats instead of red ones), and the distilling equipment is proudly displayed behind huge glass walls.
Over cocktails made with McElroy’s Corruption Gin and Pendergast’s Royal Gold Bourbon, founder Steve Revare explained how he got the inspiration to open the city’s first legal distillery since Prohibition.
“We were looking at the Kansas City renaissance and saw parallels to the Pendergast era,” he says. “The streetcars, the baseball Monarchs, the performing arts and music scene. We felt there was something back then that has come back to the surface now.”
That “something back then” was a wide-open, rollicking nightlife that would put Vegas to shame. Name your vice — prostitution, gambling, booze — and you could find it in Kansas City. Those vices kept both Mob and machine rolling in clover, and they also made the city one of the landmarks in the history of jazz.
All of that, except the open prostitution, has re-emerged in today’s Kansas City, with the role of jazz now played by a much more varied and eclectic music scene. And as the Main Street streetcars rumbled past the front window of Tom’s Town every 15 minutes, it was easy to see where Revare — oddly enough, the great-great-nephew of the U.S. attorney who got Pendergast convicted for tax evasion — got his inspiration.
Those streetcars harken to another, more concrete way the spirit of Boss Tom moves through the contemporary city. That’s “concrete” as in the material his Ready-Mixed Concrete Co. provided to both the City of Kansas City and Jackson County during the Depression, when the greatest spending spree in the history of both built the city’s impressive art deco government center, miles of new boulevards and trafficways, a new Municipal Auditorium, a 600-plus-mile network of high-quality county highways, and perhaps most controversially, a huge concrete ditch where Brush Creek once ran wild.
“There may be a statue to Big Jim Pendergast, but there are a lot of monuments to Boss Tom Pendergast in Kansas City,” says attorney Terence O’Malley, director of the film Tom & Harry: The Boss and the President. “He was instrumental in the modernization of the city in the 1920s and 1930s. He made it the metropolis that it is now.”
He did it as he consolidated his grip on Missouri’s democratic politics in a way no machine politician had been able to do before, in the process steering a flood of federal relief money to Kansas City. His handpicked ally in Independence, Harry S. Truman, helped put that flood of money to work, but minus the corruption.
“Truman didn’t mind using Pendergast cement or contractors recommended by him as long as they were competitively bid and offered the highest level of service and materials for the best price,” O’Malley says. Sometimes, that wasn’t the case, and the machine contractors would lose to other bidders. “But Boss Tom left him alone and let him do his job because Truman did what he wanted him to do, which was put democrats to work.”
The “clean sweep” of the Pendergast machine in 1940 brought both the corruption and the partying to an end, and the city settled into a period of much quieter respectability. But the revelry survived on the fringes. “What happened was everything moved out into the county, into the roadhouses,” O’Malley says. “They couldn’t get liquor licenses, but they’d serve soft drinks and everybody brought flasks.”
Thus was the spirit of the Pendergast era kept alive without him, to be rediscovered by people like Revare, the crowds that fill the Crossroads and Westport and the patrons at the Blue Room. And a lot of this, O’Malley says, is the byproduct of a new wave of civic improvements such as the Sprint Center, the Power & Light District, the Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts and the streetcar.
“You really have this melange of things going on in Kansas City that weren’t going on 15 years ago, no doubt about it,” he says. “The criminal element has been phased out, but the fun has come back.”
I’m sure Boss Tom would raise a glass to that.
KC native Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine and a contributor to Next City. A graduate of Harvard University, he has lived in Philadelphia 34 years.