PHOTO: ZEV IN 1923
CATEGORY: THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE
When contemplating writing the story of one’s life, the first question is, “Where should I begin?” I think I will start with ancestors. Many people I know can point to their family tree and tell of their famous ancestors. I have a famous ancestor too.
His name was Zev. He was a race horse.
First it is necessary to explain that my mother’s family, the May family, was the only family we knew – “we” being myself and my two older sisters: Mary (14 months older) and Grace (5 years older). My father, Alexander M. Zevely, may have had a beginning, but we did not know what it was. It was as if he had been hatched deep within a primordial swamp and come crawling out of a sun warmed puddle. Our mother had told us that he was a genius, but she never talked about his family. However, if some friend or relative came and the need arose for such a conversation, they went into the kitchen and closed the door. I only got the name Zevely by some mysterious kind of osmosis.
Did you know that you can get the front page of the New York Times from any date since its beginning? I didn’t know that but Mary did. When Grace was about to turn 40, Mary sent away for the front page of the New York Times from the date of Grace’s birth as a birthday present for her. The date was January 26, 1924. I was at Mary’s house when it came in the mail, and when we unfolded the page, to our utter amazement, there was the name Zevely in a headline three inches high: “ZEVELY SAYS…(such and such)…”
You might say it got our attention.
The article was about a trial that was happening somewhere in the nether regions of the east coast concerning bribery of Government officials by oil company executives in the awarding of oil leases from some place called Teapot Dome in Wyoming.
We started looking for answers to what that was all about, as well as to the Zevely mystery, and what we found was this: the name Zevely originated in the latter part of the 19th century when two brothers came to America from Moravia (part of what is now the Czech Republic) and simplified the spelling and pronunciation of their unspellable and unpronounceable name by changing it to Zevely. Therefore anyone with that name is a relation of ours. I do not remember our exact relationship to the Zevely of the headline. What I do remember was that he was the lawyer for Henry Sinclair of the Sinclair Oil Company during what was called The Teapot Dome Scandal: a 1920’s corruption within the Harding administration in which the Secretary of the Interior secretly granted oil rights in the Teapot Dome, Wyoming oil reserves to Sinclair’s company. Sinclair and our relative were also good friends, which suggests that this Zevely was not a stickler for ethics. Sinclair, due to his habit of acquiring money by fraud, was able to afford a stable of race horses, and he named one of them Zev after his friend. Zev was also a nickname of mine when I was growing up, so you see, among other things, I was named after this horse. And, I inherited his long legs, protruding front teeth, and a rather loud laugh.
Now here is the famous part: Zev won the Kentucky Derby in 1923, a 19 to 1 long shot. He went on to win other important races in 1923. He won the Belmont Stakes and was the favorite to win the Preakness, and therefore the Triple Crown, except that he was injured at the beginning of the Preakness. He then was entered into a match-race with England’s top race horse, Papyrus, winning by five lengths. Then he was voted Race Horse of the Year. At the time of his 1924 retirement, he was the all-time top money earning racehorse in America, having beaten the record of Man o’ War. The reason his name was not better known was that after Teapot Dome, and the 1924 trial, anything to do with Sinclair was not a popular subject.
Zev winning the 1923 Kentucky Derby
A side shoot of this story was that I had actually heard of this horse before I learned that I was his progeny. Some years previously, I had seen a reference to Zev in a poem by Ogden Nash entitled “What’s in a Name?” In this poem, Zev was mentioned in the same breath with Man o’ War – in fact in such close proximity that they might as well have been joined at the hip. I remembered it well because I wondered how this dark-horse horse, Zev could be a kissin’ cousin of Man O’ War, and how he could have had my name when neither of us had ever heard of the other.
After our discovery of the notorious happenings that had put the Zevely name on the front page of the New York Times, we hesitantly told the story to our mother. It turned out that she had known all about it, but she had never told us, because “it was a scandal.” She even knew the relationship of Sinclair’s lawyer to our father – something like a first cousin. I wonder if this is one of the things she talked about behind the closed kitchen door. It seemed so unlike our mother, who was actually quite liberal for her time. Maybe she thought that blood really was thicker than water and didn’t want us to know that ours was tainted, even if it was only from a little horsing around.