George Howard Earle III (1890-1974) was the 30th governor of Pennsylvania, only the second Democrat elected to the state’s highest office since the Civil War. A Roosevelt Democrat through and through, he “literally rode into office on the coat-tails of [the] President” in 1935. Earle’s administration is well known for introducing the “little” New Deal to the state, which brought federal funds and public works projects to Pennsylvania and aided many who were hurt by the Great Depression.
I’m not really one for writing political history, and I’m not about to bore you with one about the finer details of Earle’s term. Instead, I want to write about George Earle’s character and why he’s worth remembering today.
Earle was born into wealth and used it to rise through the ranks of business and politics. He commanded his father’s yacht (put into service as a submarine chaser) in World War I and was basically handed control of the Pennsylvania Sugar Company which he used to make his fortune. And in politics it was the same- Earle’s association with FDR boosted his political capital and many said he was elected more because of Roosevelt’s popularity than his own accomplishments.
Earle definitely made the most of being governor, and used the opportunity to support a number of important bills that dramatically changed Pennsylvania: welfare and unemployment reform, protections for organized labor, creation of the PA Turnpike, the first Pennsylvania civil rights law, relaxation of state Blue Laws, and restrictions on child labor. Earle may have been handed a lot in life, but he also made a different with his privilege.
Earle was a really popular governor- he even made the cover of Time magazine in 1937 and Gallup polls named him one of the most well-liked Democrats in the US. But his murcurial personality and corruption within his administration also kept him in the news for less admirable reasons as well.
After his term was over, President Roosevelt appointed Earle the American ambassador to Bulgaria. And this is where his story gets really interesting.
By all accounts, Earle really lived it up in Bulgaria, and soon made a name for himself in the nightclubs and social circles of the capital city Sofia.
After seeing a starving cheetah in a Belgrade zoo, he bought and kept it (uncaged) in his office. One visitor remembered “it terrified the life out of most of his visitors, and especially of the new Spanish Minister when he went to pay his first official call. As the Minister told me later, he had never before been received by a wild beast.” Another remembered “Earle and his cheetah suffered from the same sort of problem, the cheetah was really a good natured beast, but, when she placed paws on your shoulder and began to purr, you could not be sure that she was not about to bite your ear off. So with George Earle.”
An avid pinball player, Earle’s buddies at the Philadelphia Raquet Club had sent him a machine for his Sofia office. The ambassador played with Bulgaria’s King, Boris III, often. In 1942, Earle’s wife Huberta was spotted in Philadelphia wearing a huge emerald that very closely resembled one of the Bulgarian crown jewels. Though the Earles never admitted it, everyone said King Boris wagered the gem in a pinball game and lost it to the former governor.
But Earle’s time in Bulgaria wasn’t just fun and games. Earle arrived an isolationist, but after seeing the Nazis up close he quickly emerged as a vocal critic of Nazi Germany, one of the first high-ranking Americans to do so. And in his characteristic style, he had no hesitations making his feelings known publically.
At a 1941 meeting with Hitler, Earle didn’t bother mincing words. “I have nothing against the Germans, I just don’t like you,” he remarked, making his feelings plain. Earle constantly warned President Roosevelt of the danger Nazi Germany presented to Europe and the world, and in 1943 even worked out a secret arrangement with defecting Nazi troops to capture Hitler and end the war early. Unfortunately, hesitation from Roosevelt stifled the plan and nothing ever came of it.
But my favorite story has got to be the time that Earle took it upon himself to personally harass the Nazis and strike a blow against them.
Bulgaria was crowded with Germans when Earle was there (the county actually joined the Axis Powers in 1941), and he liked to “encourage anything likely to irritate the Germans.” His favorite way to get under the Nazis’ collective skin was to walk into crowded Sofia nightclubs and pay the band handsomely to play British songs. You can imagine what this would do to a room full of drunk German officers.
One night Earle was making his usual musical rounds in Sofia and had paid a club band to play “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” when an offended Nazi officer grabbed him and yelled “we don’t allow anti-German music here.” A moment later, his words were followed by a big glass bottle… thrown right at Earle’s head. In a flash, Earle deftly dodged it and without hesitating returned one of his own- a full bottle of red wine. The German wasn’t nearly as swift in protecting himself from the incoming projectile and it exploded in his face. In a blow stuck for freedom, democracy, and the American way, the bottle smashed into his face, covering him and his companions with wine, broken glass, blood, and a generous dose of humiliation.
In a New York Times report published shortly after, Earle showed no remorse for the incident: “The bottle which the German threw at close range, struck me on the forearm. A bruise which later appeared was more than six inches long. This sudden, vicious, unprovoked attack irritated me considerably. I also faced the necessity of defending myself against further vicious attacks, so I smashed him in the face, knocking him down and causing his face to bleed.”
Friends of Earle gathered around him and prepared for a brawl, but the owner of the club quickly removed both protagonists from the premises and the fight was over as quickly as it started. Afterwards, Bulgarian newspapers reported the German had actually been killed (which wasn’t true) and it became quite the scandal.
Earle faced some criticism from the press and especially from Congressman Robert Rich (R-PA), who called for the ambassador’s recall. “An act like that may lead us into war” he howled to Congress, “It’s too bad that Mr. Earle wasn’t knocked out too.”
Though some staff in the State Department were similarly shocked, President Roosevelt seemed to enjoy the news of Earle’s run-in with the Nazis. When a reporter asked the president he he “had any diplomatic reports on the battle of the bottles in the Balkans,” he smiled and said that he had read the news reports and thought that the incident was very “sedate.” He had no intentions of recalling Earle.
Earle remained in Bulgaria for some time, but eventually moved to work as a naval attache in Turkey. There he compiled information on the Katyn Massacre and concluded (correctly) that the murder of thousands of Polish officers had been committed by Soviet forces. Roosevelt, not wanting an incident with his wartime ally, ordered Earle’s report suppressed and transferred him to America Samoa, where he finished out his wartime service quietly and without further incident.
Though Earle’s wartime adventures and his political career aren’t super well remembered today, his impact is still present.
Allegedly his barroom brawl in Sofia was the inspiration for the famous scene in Casablanca where Paul Henreid and a crowd of French partisans sing La Marseillaise to drown out German music playing in Rick’s Café Américain. A song can be a powerful thing, especially if someone hates it and its gotten under their skin. Earle knew this so did the Casablanca screenwriters.
Earle’s political legacy in Pennsylvania is still around in many laws passed under his watch that are still on the books here in the state too.
George Earle wasn’t perfect, but he also wasn’t afraid to be loud and confrontational no matter if it required getting in the face of a drunken Nazi, the President, or even Hitler himself. And that’s something worth remembering.
So the next time you’re feeling punchy ask yourself, what would George Earle do?