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The Eddie Cantor Peace Prize – Podcast #166

It has been said that the golden age of radio, when radio was at its best, was the period between 1930 and 1955, after which audiences turned their attention to television.  One of radio’s highest-paid stars was Eddie Cantor, one of those entertainers who seemed to be able to do it all.  He was a singer, dancer, comedian, actor, and songwriter.

While few people today are familiar with Cantor, a few of his hit songs can still be heard today. Perhaps you’ve heard his hit songs “Makin’ Whoopee” or “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie).” Even if you aren’t familiar with those two, he co-wrote a song titled “Merrily We Roll Along,” which was later adapted as the theme song to the Merrie Melodies/Looney Toons (Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, etc.) cartoons. On his radio show, Cantor introduced the world to a song no one else would give a chance: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Another one of his accomplishments, if you could call it that, occurred on May 25, 1944, when he was scheduled to sing on television “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me,” but censors at NBC in New York considered some of the song’s lyrics too risqué. But Cantor didn’t have time to prepare another number and went ahead with the song anyway. So, the censors cut the sound and blurred the picture at various points during his routine, making Eddie Cantor the first person ever to be censored on television.  What’s interesting is that eight years later, Ricky Ricardo sang that same song on I Love Lucy after learning that Lucy was pregnant.

Eddie Cantor signing a radio on December 14, 1936. Library of Congress image.

On January 5, 1936, millions of listeners were tuned in to Eddie’s Sunday evening show on the Columbia network when Cantor announced that he would provide a four-year scholarship to any college or university within the United States to the person who wrote the best essay explaining how the United States could stay out of war. Anyone, male or female of any age, could enter.

There were no set rules for the contest. All one needed to do was write the best essay of five hundred words or less.  What could go wrong? As we will later find out, a lot could go wrong.

Cantor explained, “There are absolutely no strings attached of this offer. No one has to tear the top off of a carton of any kind, nor send in stamps, nor solve a crossword puzzle. All one has to do is sit down and write a straightforward letter on ‘How Can America Stay Out of War?’ I never was fortunate enough to have had a college education myself — but I want to provide one for some American boy or girl. I’m a rabid peace advocate. I’m certain that the winning letter will be one worthy to bring before millions of Americans as another link in the strong chain of peace. I’m very grateful to Mr. Newton D. Baker for so kindly suggesting the title.”

Sidenote: Baker was the United States Secretary of War under President Woodrow Wilson from 1916 through 1921 and presided over the US Army during World War I.

Now, I have some bad news.  If you had a great idea for an essay on peace, you missed the deadline.  You are about 86 years too late.  The deadline for essay submission was set for President’s Day, February 22, 1936. The winner would be announced on Cantor’s April 5th show.

To make sure that everything was on the up-and-up, Cantor set up a $5,000 (over $100,000) trust fund with the Manhattan Trust Company of New York. Once the winner was selected and chose which college to attend, these funds were intended to cover all college expenses: tuition, books, meals, and housing.  And should the winner be unable to use the scholarship, he or she could designate another person as the recipient.

Judges chosen for the peace contest were Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago; Frederick Bertrand Robinson of the College of the City of New York; Ray Lyman Wilbur, of Leland Stanford University, and Henry Noble MacCracken, of Vassar College.

These four men had their work cut out for them. A January 10, 1936, suggestion by the Daily Illini, the University of Illinois student newspaper stated, “It would be a wise step, indeed, if the universities, which deal in advancing intellectual, moral, social, and physical standards, were to assist Mr. Cantor in unearthing constructive answers to this question.” That simple message is said to have set off a wave of discussions and essay-writing competitions in educational institutions across the nation.

8,420 submissions were made within the contest’s first week. 58,000 by week three. When the contest closed on February 22, more than 212,000 essays had been received, 40% of them coming from high school students.

That’s a lot of essays for four men to read! They ultimately whittled the pile down to fourteen essays, each identified solely by a number. They unanimously selected Number 2 as the best of the bunch, noting that it was “the most constructive, sincere, and interesting letter, regardless of fancy writing and technical knowledge.”

Eddie Cantor at Casa Manana, August 22, 1939. University of Texas, Arlington image.

And, as promised, Eddie Cantor revealed the identity of mystery writer Number 2 during his April 5, 1936, broadcast. The winner was 18-year-old Plattsburg, Missouri student Lloyd Franklin Lewis.  The son of Elsie and Logan Lewis, Lloyd was a junior at Plattsburg High School. It was reported that the Lewises were in bad financial straits with their family farm heavily mortgaged, so learning that Lloyd had won a fully paid college scholarship must have been incredible news.

Two days prior to the announcement, a phone call for Lloyd was received in the Baber cleaning shop, which was next door to the building where Lloyd was temporarily attending class. The Plattsburg High School had recently burned down and all industrial arts classes were moved to that building.  Mrs. Baber told him, “It’s long-distance, Lloyd.” He picked up the phone and the operator informed him that the call was from New York, but Lloyd told her that she had the wrong person because he didn’t have any relatives there.

A man on the other end of the line then stated, “Don’t get excited. This is me, Eddie Cantor, in New York.” Lloyd instantly recognized his voice. Eddie continued, “You’re one of the fourteen chosen to compete for the scholarship. Listen in Sunday and maybe your name will be announced.”

As soon as he hung up the phone, Lloyd ran over to the Presbyterian church, where all the freshman and sophomore classes were being held, and he told the exciting news to the first teacher he could find. It wasn’t long before the news spread around town like wildfire.

He wrote his winning essay as part of an assignment in his American History and Government class. Two students actually scored higher than him, so Lewis took it upon himself to submit his essay to the contest. The day after being awarded the scholarship, Lewis was interviewed by the Associated Press. He described how he had done all his own work except “that my teacher and the school principal and superintendent helped me on some grammar.” He planned to study engineering but was still undecided as to which college he would attend.

Lloyd had won more than a scholarship. “Eddie Cantor has called me up three times. And, gee, he is going to show me all around New York!” This would be an amazing adventure for a young man who had never ridden on a train or an airplane and had only traveled out of Missouri for thirty minutes when he went across the state line to Leavenworth, Kansas.

As for the winning essay, here is what Lloyd wrote:

“Peace is an expensive luxury. It is so expensive that the countries have never yet been willing to pay its price. The world can have peace whenever it really wants it more than anything else, but up until now, men have never wanted peace as much as at the present.

“The price of peace is free movement of trade, free movement of populations and adjustable distributions of territory. This is an expensive demand. It will not be until we see the superiative value of peace that we shall be willing to meet it.

 “At the present moment, we have national trade barriers that have set up artificial and expensive systems so as to cut off others from the normal markets in which they might dispose of their goods. Our own tariff is an example. It was adopted over the protest of 50 nations. It was one of the most difficult policies of the contemporary world making a dislocation of normal markets, shutting off other nations from natural outlets for their surplus products and so condemning millions of their people to live at starvation levels. We cannot escape responsibility for the resulting tendency to war.

 “Would we fight rather than surrender the right to control our tariffs to suit our own welfare? Would Great Britain call out her Army and Navy before she would part with a square mile of her empire? These are questions whose answers reveal whether we are willing to pay the price of peace. My own guess is that there are some things we value more highly than peace, and this leads me to the belief that it is not until we are willing to say we want peace more than economic or territorial or colonial advantages that we shall have peace.

 “This has produced the most enthusiastic belief of our current world, namely, that we serve our own best interest to the nation above all other. The supreme good in the mind of the average man is not the building of peace among nations, but the securing of the advantages of his own nation before that of any or all other nations. As long as this is true every man is the raw material of an army and popular psychology supports our own economic nationalism in a tendency towards international strife. It will not be until we are ready to put international good above national advantage that we shall be prepared for peace.

 “The first advance on the road to peace is to recognize its cost. Peace is an easy word to praise, but a costly one to live with. Nevertheless, it is only on the keeping the peace that we shall achieve those goals that set men free. There is no other way. There is no cheaper way.”

That’s incredibly well written and much of what Lloyd said could be applicable to the world today. I can tell you from experience that there are few students of that age who can write at a similar level.

Lloyd’s wise words were reproduced in newspapers across the country. Radio announcers read his essay to their audiences. Reporters and photographers lined up outside his home as congratulatory telegrams poured in from around the nation.  The citizens of Plattsburg could not have been prouder of Lloyd.

But anyone who is about to go to the big city needs to go in style. Lloyd was fitted in a brand-new Oxford double-breasted suit, complete with a red silk tie, new shoes, a pearl gray felt hat, a coat, and gloves. Of course, the provider of all these goods took out a large ad in the Kansas City Times. It read, in part, “Lloyd Lewis, Winner of Eddie Cantor’s $5,000.00 Essay Scholarship Award, was completely outfitted by Pecks Young Men’s Shop before leaving for New York. Pecks is proud of the achievement of Lloyd Lewis… proud, too, that he selected his outfit at our store.” To the left of the text is a large photograph of Lloyd dressed in his new outfit.

Advertisement for Pecks featuring Lloyd Lewis. Ad originally appeared on page 5 of the April 11, 1936 publication of the Kansas City Times.

On April 9, Lloyd boarded a TWA airliner in Kansas City, and he was off to New York City. Upon his arrival, he checked in at the Roosevelt Hotel and was then treated to a season’s opener baseball game, a visit to the Empire State Building, and a front-row seat at the Ziegfeld Follies. After viewing the play “Victor Regina,” he met the play’s star Helen Hayes and exchanged autographs with her.

His trip would culminate on Sunday, April 12, 1936, when Lloyd spent the day at Eddie Cantor’s home. Later that evening, Lloyd was introduced on-air to the millions of listeners tuning in to Eddie’s show. Lloyd spoke briefly and then thanked all those involved for his “good fortune.”

Reporters continued to treat Lloyd like he was a celebrity.  When asked if he was enjoying his trip, he answered, “It is very nice.” Another reporter inquired, “Have you a sweetheart?” He replied, “No. The girls never thought much of me but now they are all crazy about me.”

Lloyd Lewis, winner of the Eddie Cantor Peace Prize.
Lloyd Lewis. Image appeared on page 6 of the May 30, 1936 publication of Radio Guide.

Lloyd went to bed that night feeling like he was floating on cloud nine. That was until the phone rang early the next morning. Lloyd drowsily answered. On the other end of the line was Eddie Cantor’s manager, Benny Holzman, who asked, “Can you drop over at the office right away?”

The life of Lloyd Lewis was about to drastically change.

Upon his arrival, Lloyd sat down beside Benny’s desk. Others were present at the meeting, although they were not identified in press reports. Benny then asked, “I understand that you copied this essay, Lloyd. Is that right?”

While many students would deny that they had, Lloyd replied, “Yes, of course.”

It was clear that Lloyd did not understand that he had done something wrong. He questioned, “What is plagiarism? I don’t know what that means.”

Lloyd explained to those present at the meeting, “Sure, I copied the article. I don’t see anything wrong in that. It was much better than I could’ve done and honestly, I don’t see anything wrong in it. I wanted to win the contest and go to college, so I just looked up a lot of magazine articles on the same subject in the library and then picked out what I thought was the best. I didn’t copy it all, though. I took just enough paragraphs to make it the right length. I counted the words.”

The discovery that Lloyd had copied his essay had begun two days earlier when Mrs. William Thayer Brown was memorizing a speech that she was scheduled to deliver to a club that she belonged to. She had read Lloyd’s essay in The New York Times and opted to include a part of it in her own speech.  But, as she was reading the words aloud, she suddenly got this funny feeling that she had read the words before.  She then grabbed a copy of Peace Digest and found the article that she had in mind.  It had been written by Dr. Frank Kingdon, President of the Newark University. Mrs. Brown immediately called Dr. Kingdon.  After that, she tried to get in touch with Eddie Cantor but was unsuccessful.  Come Monday morning, Dr. Kingdon contacted the Newark News and told them what Mrs. Brown had discovered.  The paper then called CBS, who, in turn, contacted Cantor’s manager Holzman.

What’s interesting is that after the story broke, a reporter recalled that Lloyd had told him shortly before he flew to New York that he had taken his essay from Peace Digest. Lloyd later explained that “It was filled with a lot of words that was a bit too big, and I took some out and put some in that I thought of.  I didn’t think I would get anywhere with it.”

Let’s face it. This was a contest with no rules. All one had to do was submit the best essay that answered the question “How Can America Stay Out of War,” and that’s exactly what Lloyd did. There was nothing stating that the essay needed to be one’s own work.

So, was Lloyd disqualified?  It’s best to let Eddie Cantor answer that question: “I feel badly—it’s a terrible thing. I don’t think the boy thought he was doing anything that wasn’t on the square. He was trying to get a college education. I’d hate to see him suffer from what seems, on the surface, an honest mistake, but of course, he does not get the college scholarship.”

Shortly after Lloyd admitted to plagiarizing the essay, Eddie Cantor’s secretary made a call to the Plattsburg High School to let them know that Lloyd’s peace essay had been disqualified. His history teacher, Mr. Gillian, told a reporter that the secretary had mentioned something about “a lack of quotation marks.” Gillian added that all fifty-three of his students who entered the contest had been told that the material needed to be original, but Lloyd clearly didn’t get that message.

“I guess everybody will feel pretty badly about this,” Lloyd said, “but I didn’t know it was wrong. There was nothing in the rules about it. Honest, there wasn’t.”

Upon hearing the news, his mother Elsie stated, “Of course, I feel hurt, and I feel sorry for the boy, not ourselves. I am sure that if Lloyd copied another essay he did so unconsciously.”

Dad Logan appeared to be a man of few words. “We’ll just forget it.”

That Monday evening, the same day that he was caught, Lloyd boarded an airplane to head home. No longer a hometown hero, he now had to face all the people of Plattsburg in shame.

But the citizens of Plattsburg were better than that. No one held a grudge, and none were willing to make Lloyd feel worse than he already felt. When he got off the plane in Kansas City, Lloyd was shocked to find a delegation had arrived to greet him. As he stood on the steps of the plane, his first remark was “Gosh, I didn’t think anybody’d be here to meet me.”

School Superintendent E. O. Hammond replied, “Of course, we’re here to meet you, Lloyd. We’re mighty proud of you.”

J. H. Baber, who operated a cleaning shop in Plattsburg, asked, “Have a good trip, Lloyd?”  He replied, “I had a swell time but I’m sure glad to be back.”

Baber later told a reporter, “He mustn’t feel that he’s committed a crime or disgraced himself. This could put the old damper on him if it gets under his skin. He didn’t mean any harm. He’s a fine boy. My boy was in the contest. How else could they get any dope on peace if they didn’t read what someone else wrote? They never have been to Europe.”

A reporter then asked:

Reporter: “Lloyd, did you copy that essay?”

Lloyd: “Why I guess so. Anyway, I had it with me when I wrote mine. But shucks, I didn’t know it was the fellow’s property.”

Reporter: “What did Cantor say?”

Lloyd: “He told me not to worry. He said everybody makes mistakes. He said he had made some mistakes when he was young.”

Reporter: “Do you intend to go to college when you get out of high school?”

Lloyd: “Yes, if I can. Mr. Cantor said that ‘We’ll see that you get to college.’”

There had been a celebration planned for that Thursday night at the Baptist Church, but that was called off. Reverend Whaley explained, “Just because it would be embarrassing for Lloyd, not because we’re not still for him.”

But there was still one big question that needed to be answered: Who should get the $5,000 scholarship? It was reported that Eddie Cantor’s first thought was to award it to Dr. Kingdon.  After all, he was the true author of the winning essay, and anyone could have entered the contest.

The decision was made to give it to the author of the essay chosen by the judges for second place.  He was Owen Matthews III (Owen Matthews IV according to Ancestry), a high school graduate living in Portland, Oregon.

Owen dreamed of going to college but was financially unable to do so.  Instead, he was working as a messenger for the Swift meat company.

“And it’s really true,” Owen questioned. “Whew! Five thousand dollars – and I can go to any school that I want to! That’s going to take some thought.”

Owen William Matthews III, winner of the Eddie Cantor Peace Prize.
Owen William Matthews III. Image appeared on page 6 of the May 30, 1936 publication of Radio Guide.

He explained, “I just wrote what I knew. In the summer of 1933, I attended the world Boy Scout jamboree at Godollo, Hungary. There were boys my own age there from all countries. Even though we couldn’t talk each other’s languages, we make ourselves understood.

“We knew that no matter what the diplomat of our respective countries might say, we boys had no reason for fighting. That was the basis of my essay. I suggested the governments of all countries could well afford to sponsor such international youth conferences, instead of leaving them to a private agency like the Boy Scouts. I believe and I suggested that such meetings of young people would do more for world peace than any meeting of diplomats.”

Here is what Owen wrote:

“My idea how America can stay out of war is based on my personal experiences.

“I am an eagle scout and have been in scouting for seven years. Through scouting and other worthwhile youth movements is the way this can be accomplished.

“The spring of 1933 I heard of the coming fourth international scout jamboree to be held in Godollo, Hungary and made my plans to attend. I went to the jamboree and there found my solution for future world peace. While a member of this wonderful jamboree I learned what true brotherly love meant.

“In Europe wherever we met a person in the scout uniform we knew he was our loyal friend and brother. Although unable to converse with some foreign scouts, their actions always bespoke friendliness.

“All boys at the Jamboree wanted to be friends, and we made new ones every day. By actually living for two weeks with 30,000 foreign scouts we learned that they thought and acted just as we did, even though their color and creed might be different. We loved these brother scouts as much as those in America. Throughout the jamboree encampment covering many square miles was an attitude of friendliness and good-will, no thought of enmity, every one showing their paramount thought of creating world peace for the future.

“The real benefits from this Jamboree are being manifested as time goes on. I am corresponding with eight scouts I met at the jamboree who live in the following countries: Esthonia, Luxembourg, England, Austria, Persia, Syria, South Africa, and Australia. We exchange stamps, songs, literature, and various articles pertaining to our respective countries and thereby continuing our worthwhile friendship. After these contacts how could we ever want to go to war against each other?

“If the United States government sent picked groups of youth to these international gatherings, expenses paid, it would open the eyes of youth the world over as to the futility of war. Upon their return to America, they should deliver lectures in schools and to older organizations telling the thoughts of youth in regard to war with other countries. If taught in youth the crime of war, as adults these boys will wholeheartedly disfavor war. Peace gatherings and encampments of youth from all countries will do more to further world peace than adult peace conferences held in some castle or other building.

“Stress the movement for intelligent voting at the polls, to see that the only people sent to congress are those who will do everything humanly possible to always vote to keep us out of war.

“If we teach our youth of today the crime of taking human life, as in war, they will vote in the future to never leave their own shores to fight against other nations.

“Thus, America can stay out of war.”

I was unable to find out much about either of the contest winners once this story disappeared from the headlines. An online scan of a 1939 MIT yearbook lists an Owen William Matthews III as a junior there, which was three years after he won the prize money, so it appears that he made good use of the award. His World War II draft card indicates that he was working for the Aluminum Company of America – ALCOA – in Vancouver, Washington.  After the war, he would marry Carol Virginia Birum on October 21, 1945, and Owen passed away on December 13, 1972, at 55 years of age.

As for Lloyd, his obituary stated that he served one term in the US Army and worked for General Dynamics Aerospace. He married Irene Willmott on February 13, 1944. Lloyd passed away on April 15, 2016, at the age of 98, and was survived by two sons, six grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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