The Tribune’s Sentinel: Charles Wayland Brooks

By Ray Hill

From 1940 until 1949, Charles Wayland Brooks served in the United States Senate.  A successful attorney who had fought in the First World War, Brooks was known to his friends as “Curly” because of his hair; TIME magazine had referred to Brooks as a “kinky headed” attorney in 1936.  Indeed, when Curly Brooks became a candidate for public office, there were rumors he had Black ancestry because of his hair.  Brooks was a Republican and like many of his fellow Midwesterners, was largely an isolationist in outlook.  Brooks became known as the favorite Republican of Colonel Robert McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune, a newspaper Franklin D. Roosevelt had described as one of the “three furies of isolationism” in the country.

Brooks was the son, grandson and great-grandson of ministers, grew up on a farm and became a Marine.  C. Wayland Brooks was attending the University of Illinois when America entered World War I.  Brooks and his older brother, Russell, left to enlist. Brooks’ exploits during the First World War made him a genuine hero who captured twenty-seven German soldiers manning a machine nest by himself.  Later, Brooks was seriously wounded seven times and returned to the United States with the rank of first lieutenant and a handful of medals.  General John J. Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Force pinned the distinguished service medal on Brooks’ chest.  While fighting near Soissons, an exploding shell blew off part of the future senator’s left foot.  Brooks returned home for surgery, which enabled him to once again use his left foot.  “I came back from France determined to have something to say about running my government and determined that no American soldiers should ever again be sent to die in foreign lands.”

From that time, C. Wayland Brooks became active in two organizations: the American Legion and the Republican Party.  Brooks became a captain in his precinct and worked hard for the GOP.  Brooks attended law school and became an assistant prosecutor in the state’s attorney’s office.  It was the height of the era of Al Capone and Brooks was deemed utterly fearless in his pursuit of “Chicago kidnappers, bombers, murderers” and other criminals.  It was C. Wayland Brooks who prosecuted Leo Brothers, a gangster who had murdered Jake Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Curly Brooks made his first statewide campaign in 1932 when he ran for state treasurer.  While Brooks and the rest of the GOP ticket lost in the Democratic landslide, Brooks was notable for at least having polled a goodly number of votes in a very bad year for Republican candidates.  Two years later Brooks was campaigning for an at-large seat in the U. S. House of Representatives from Illinois.  Only a flood of ballots from the corrupt Chicago machine in Cook County kept him out of Congress.  In 1936, Brooks was the “good government” candidate inside the GOP primary to forestall the comeback bid of former Governor Len Small, who knew quite a bit about corruption himself.  Brooks won the Republican nomination easily but lost the general election in what was one of the best years Democrats had enjoyed in decades.

TIME magazine, owned and published by fervent internationalist Henry Luce, frequently derided Brooks as the Tribune’s senator.  The weekly magazine described Brooks as “an oldtime rabble-rouser, a flag-waving Billy Sunday orator who can jerk tears from any group of mothers with a recital of his own World War I experiences…”  Paul Douglas, who succeeded Brooks in the U.S. Senate, once described his rival as “a public speaker of great ability and persuasiveness.”

In April of 1939, J. Hamilton Lewis, the flamboyant senior United States senator from Illinois died unexpectedly.  Governor Henry Horton appointed James Slattery to fill the vacancy.  Slattery was a candidate to succeed himself for the six-year term in the 1940 special election.  Curly Brooks won the GOP primary easily, beating Congressman Ralph Church.  Colonel McCormick’s Tribune reflected the publisher’s thorough dislike of President Roosevelt and his administration, as well as his own Republicanism.  Throughout the fall campaign between Brooks and Senator Slattery, the Tribune trumpeted the GOP senatorial candidate and pounded the Democrats.  Brooks eked out a 20,000-vote lead in more than 4 million ballots cast to win the election.  Still, C. Wayland Brooks had been swimming against the tide as Franklin Roosevelt carried Illinois for the third time.  During the campaign, Brooks had forthrightly opposed American intervention in the Second World War.

The GOP candidate also had warned of the United States doing anything to help the Communist government of the Soviet Union.  When C. Wayland Brooks died, one newspaper confessed Brooks had been “reviled by interventionists in both major parties, who were dominant in the financial and publishing fields.”  It was quite true.  C. Wayland Brooks remained a special target of interventionists.  Even after supporting the American war effort, Senator Brooks was a highly disliked political figure on the part of many interventionists.  They overlooked the fact Brooks had volunteered for service the day after Pearl Harbor to return to the Marine Corps.  The senator was politely told he could be more useful to his country in the United States Senate.

As a member of the U.S. Senate, C. Wayland Brooks had always been a strong proponent of building up America’s own defenses and was an especially forceful advocate for a strong air force.  Senator Brooks was popular amongst his Black constituents for his sponsorship of legislation that removed the poll tax from servicemen.  That same legislation also enabled American servicemen to send mail without postage.

Living in Chicago for his law practice, C. Wayland Brooks looked forward to the times when he could retreat to the peace and quiet of his farm in LaSalle County on the Fox River.

Brooks remained a strong isolationist, as did many Midwestern senators and congressmen, until Pearl Harbor.  Democrats targeted the GOP senator for defeat in the 1942 election for a full six-year term.  Illinois Democrats chose Congressman Raymond McKeough as their senatorial nominee and Colonel McCormick promptly labeled the representative as “Small Potatoes McKeough.”  In fairness, McKeough was not likely the strongest candidate Democrats could have nominated but was the choice of Pat Nash and Chicago, the rulers of the Democratic machine.  While in Congress, Raymond McKeough had only rarely spoken on the floor, sponsored no legislation of significance, and had largely been just another vote for the Roosevelt administration in the House.  Once nominated, McKeough paid tribute to Patrick Nash, who had made a sizeable fortune by tearing up the streets of Chicago and installing sewer pipes.  Nash’s political partner in running the Chicago political machine was Ed Kelly, who had risen from sewer worker to the mayor’s office.

Brooks won reelection by more than two hundred thousand votes.  Evidently, Brooks’ service in the Senate took a toll on his marriage.  Gertrude Ackerly Brooks sought a divorce in Reno in 1943.  Three years later Brooks wed Mary Thomas Peavy, the daughter of the late John Thomas, U.S. senator from Idaho.  Mrs. Peavy was a widow, her husband having been killed in a hunting accident.  She brought two children to the marriage, which Brooks proudly claimed as his own.  The senator also had a son from his first marriage, named for his brother, Russell.  Wayland and Mary Brooks would become one of the most prominent “power” couples of their day as Mary, the daughter and wife of United States senators, understood politics as well as anyone.  Eventually, she would be elected to the state Senate in her native Idaho.  The couple remained married until C. Wayland Brooks’ death in 1957.

Senator Brooks was highly popular with his fellow Republicans and was renominated easily in 1948 for a second six-year term.  Governor Dwight Green was renominated for a third four-year term and the duo was believed to be a very strong ticket for the fall campaign.  Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York, was the GOP nominee for president and virtually nobody believed he could lose the general election to Harry Truman.  Dewey’s campaign for the presidency was run as if the New York governor were an incumbent.  Dewey spoke in generalities and was careful to make no mistakes and said little or nothing of significance.  President Harry Truman ran a slashing underdog campaign and was drawing enormous crowds as he campaigned across the country, a fact which Republicans ignored until it was too late.  Senator Brooks and Governor Green were also the heavy favorites against Paul Douglas and Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominees for U. S. senator and governor, respectively.

Douglas, a former Chicago alderman and professor of economics, traded barbs with Senator Brooks in the general election.  Brooks said Douglas was “irresponsible” and thought him a “socialist-minded professor” as well as “a demagogue with a lot of cock-eyed ideas.”  Douglas fired back that Brooks was “a dyed-in-the-wool, reactionary isolationist dominated by the Chicago Tribune” and “a tool of the monopolists.”

Election Day brought quite a number of surprises to the professional political prognosticators, the biggest of which was Harry Truman’s defeat of Thomas E. Dewey.  Truman carried Illinois by just over 33,000 votes, while Paul Douglas beat Senator Brooks by 407,000 ballots.  The difference was the huge vote in Cook County, which Douglas carried by almost 430,000 votes.  Curly Brooks ran well ahead of his running mate, Governor Dwight Green, who lost by more than 570,000 votes to Adlai Stevenson.  The 1948 election was a disaster for Republicans, who went from a majority in both houses of Congress to a minority in both houses.  Both Governor Green and Senator Brooks conceded the election shortly after midnight.  It was readily apparent, the governor said, that the entire GOP ticket had lost.

Only fifty-one when he was defeated for reelection to the United States Senate, Brooks was mentioned as a candidate to challenge Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas for reelection in 1950.  Brooks chose not to run and in 1952 was unanimously elected as the Republican National Committeeman from the Land of Lincoln.  Out of elective office, Brooks was still in demand as a speaker for various clubs and organizations across Illinois.  Masons and American Legionnaires still enjoyed the oratory of former Senator C. Wayland Brooks.  During his lifetime, Curly Brooks had run no less than twelve statewide campaigns in the Land of Lincoln.  For a person who likes and enjoys people, it is a hard habit to give up.

Brooks had originally favored his former Senate colleague Robert A. Taft of Ohio for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination, but once the convention chose Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former senator enthusiastically backed the general.  Throughout the decade of the 1950s, Brooks was periodically plagued by a series of heart attacks, which slowed his usual frenetic pace.  The former senator had resumed his lucrative law practice and was a frequent visitor to Washington, D.C., for clients and political business.

On January 8, 1957, C. Wayland Brooks entered Passavant Hospital in Chicago suffering from chest pains.  Brooks had suffered a massive heart attack.  Still, the initial prognosis seemed good as the former senator’s physician noted the patient was progressing nicely.  The former senator’s doctor said Brooks had enjoyed an “excellent day.”  Brooks woke up after a peaceful rest, only to complain of chest pains and died shortly thereafter.  The cause of death was a tear in the artery leading from the left ventricle of the heart.

Colonel McCormick remembered his friend in an editorial strongly praising the former senator.  McCormick described Brooks as one “who always managed to smile when the going was toughest.”  McCormick praised Brooks for having “always put his country first.”  “Bertie” McCormick, a stiff and difficult man, lamented the loss of one he readily acknowledged he would greatly miss “as our friend.”  “He was unselfish and warm hearted in his associations, stimulating, and always kind,” the colonel wrote.  “His thoughtfulness in doing for others will long be remembered.”

© 2023 Ray Hill