As the very model of the dynamic 20th century gentleman, George Preston Marshall, the president of the Washington Redskins football team, is something of an anomaly. Unusually energetic and sometimes foolhardily brave, he has never driven a car or flown in a plane. "No guts," he says. His political heroes are two of the most disparate personages in American history: Thomas Jefferson and Calvin Coolidge. A man who seldom ducks the messiest of public debates, he is as fussy as an old maid about his personal habits. When he calls at the office of C. Leo De Orsey, his financial adviser, he is apt to straighten the pictures and rearrange the furniture. Marshall likes attention, but he is so sensitive about his age—he was 65 on the 11th of this month—he gets angry if wished a happy birthday. Not long ago De Orsey told Marshall he had arranged for the Redskins to have a 30-year lease on the new D.C. Stadium. "Did you get an option to renew?" Marshall asked. "I won't be here," De Orsey said. "I will," Marshall declared.
Marshall has won many nicknames in the pursuit of numerous careers. Known variously as George the Gorgeous, G. Presto, Marshall the Magnificent and Wet Wash, he has been celebrated as a bon vivant, newspaper publisher, wit, friend of the mighty, controversialist, intimate of the socially elite and laundry proprietor. He takes his greatest pride in the ownership of the Redskins—although, thanks to his refusal to hire Negro players, that pleasure must have had its limitations in recent years. Aside from the adverse publicity resulting from this policy, it has done nothing to help the Washington team, whose members are but pale reminders of such celebrated Redskins as Cliff Battles, Sammy Baugh and Dick Todd.
A fortnight ago the all-Caucasian Redskins marked their debut in the new stadium by losing to the Giants 24-21, but not all was lost for Marshall; the half-time show, called the "Matinee at Midfield" in Washington, was marvelous. Baritone Gene Archer and the 225-man Redskin band and chorus led the fans down "Musical Memory Lane." Marshall delights in such razzmatazz. Above everything else, he is a showman, a would-be Ziegfeld.
"Football to him is show business," says Dutch Bergman, an ex-coach who has reason to know. "The only reason Marshall wants the team is to be on stage," says Harry Wismer, a former Redskin stockholder. "He used to tell me, 'Don't worry if you don't win. What the hell, people are coming in and out of here all the time.' " (Wismer and Marshall are feudists. Of Wismer, Marshall says, with a sigh, "Think of the opportunities that guy has blown.")
The early days of George Preston Marshall were set in chivalric splendor.
He was born in Mason County, West Virginia, the son of T. Hill Marshall and the former Blanche Preston Sebrell. The Marshalls ordinarily resided in Washington, but when their child was expected, Mrs. Marshall, following the custom of the ladies of the storied South, repaired to the family manse for the accouchement. Despite his West Virginia birth, Marshall looks upon himself as a Washingtonian. "Yes, I was born in West Virginia," he says, "but I was conceived and everything else in Washington."
Marshall says he recalls being wheeled about on the White House lawn as an infant. He vaguely remembers McKinley. An only child, he took an interest in dramatics and became a super in a local stock company in which Helen Hayes had worked. At 17, over the protests of his father, he quit school to try his luck as an actor in New York. He didn't get very far. When the U.S. entered World War I he enlisted in the Army. The flu epidemic kept him from serving overseas, and he remained a private throughout. "I was the only private in World War I," he says with pride.
The laundry man cometh
In 1918 his father died, and Marshall returned to Washington to run the family laundry. With the slogan "Long live Linen," he set about building up the business. "I didn't know a lot about the laundry," he says, "but I used my show experience to develop sales and a series of stories in the papers." At its height in 1945, when Marshall sold out, the Palace Laundry had 54 stores throughout Washington, all painted in striking blue and gold. The windows were bare save for a solitary flower to herald the appropriate season of the year. " Mr. Marshall is Washington's most famous laundryman," Damon Runyon wrote. "The rumor that Mr. Marshall personally does the washing is somewhat exaggerated. He does only the ironing of the finer pieces, such as lingerie."
Marshall thrived on the publicity. He objected only to the nickname of Wet Wash, which irks him to this day. "I was never in the wet-wash business," he says indignantly. "This was considered the lowest form of laundry business, and it was used by a lot of writers in derision." These were writers, Marshall says, who sought payola. "I always took the attitude," he says, "that the first-rate men couldn't be bought and the second-rate men weren't worth buying."