All's Well That Ends With a Drink to Cogswell
How Better to Honor a Temperance Activist Than Guzzling in His Honor?
(By Greg Kitsock. Reproduced from the Washington City Paper, March 6 1992)
On the first Friday of each month, Washington's exclusive Cogswell Society gathers to revere the memory of their namesake, Dr. Henry Cogswell, a 19th- century San Francisco dentist and ardent temperance activist.
They drink, they swear, and they attribute fictitious accomplishments to the inventor of a new method of installing false teeth. At the February assembly, one Cogswellian claimed that Dr. Henry had also devised a glow-in-the-dark condom "for when you want to rise and shine."
Ostensibly, the Cogswell Society was formed to protect the good doctor's enduring monument: a grotesque Victorian drinking fountain that still stands outside the Archives Metro station. But in practice, the society is an excuse for an afternoon of convivial rippling, a secret fraternity with its own arcane and pointless rituals, where Washington lawyers, businessmen, and other professionals can let down their hair.
Infiltrating their ranks is no easy task. At any given time, there are exactly 12 active members, selected by unanimous vote of their peers. A 13th seat is kept open in the never-ending hunt for the perfect Cogswellian.
"We were going to nominate W.C. Fields, but we found out he died in 1946," says Dave Buswell, president of Orbis International and one of the founding fathers of the group.
The role call of Cogswell irregulars (non-resident members and associate members no longer active) includes cartoonist Jim Berry, political satirist Mark Russell, and TV pundit John McLaughlin.
The Cogswell Society was born 19 years ago when a group of Capitol Hill toastmasters, over liquid lunch at Duke Ziebert's, resolved to found a modern Washingtonian equivalent of the old Algonquin Club. They wracked their brains for a suitable name, until one afternoon when Buswell (who then worked for the Federal Trade Commission) gazed out his window at 7th & Penn and spied Cogswell's Temperance Fountain in the square below.
Cogswell was not really a bad sort: a self-educated, self-made millionaire who turned to philanthropy in his old age. His chief fault seems to be hubris in believing that his statuary would inspire men to drink more water. Washington was one of about 15 cities to receive fountains from the teetotaling tooth-puller. In the Cogswellian canon, the fountain is "a tasteful Victorian blend of bronze, lead and granite, ornamented with pleasing rococo filigree and curlicues." Its four stone columns support a canopy on whose sides the virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, and Temperance are chiseled. The centerpiece is a pair of entwined dolphins-- "obviously copulating," remarks one member. Buswell and the other original members found the sculpture so uniquely ugly that they assigned themselves the mission of guarding it from vandals, graffiti artists, and unappreciative bureaucrats. They'll tell you proudly that if not for their lobbying, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation would long ago have disassembled the fountain and carted it off to a warehouse.
My brush with the Cogswellians occurred after I published an article in City Paper on the history of the fountain two months ago ("Fountain of Hooch," 113). A few weeks later, Cogswellian Howard Tucker, managing director for Capital Insights Inc., phoned me to mention a glaring omission: "You didn't mention us!"
"Well, I couldn't get anyone to admit they were a member," I countered.
Tucker invited me to the group's next meeting. The Cogswellians are highly migratory. Since 1983 they've gathered in 82 different places: restaurants, bars, members' homes, private clubs, colonial mansions, the presidential yacht Sequoia, and even St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill.
Today's meeting takes place in the upstairs banquet room of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge on 5th Street NW The place has been decorated with the group's icons: a likeness of the bewhiskered Cogswell in the prime of his manhood; a circa 1970 photo of the Temperance Fountain with the Apex Liquor Store looming in the background; a cartoon of a veritable redwood labeled the "Temperance Tree" bearing such figurative fruits as tranquility, a productive life, and a peaceful death.
The master of ceremonies is addressed as the Lead (as in the metal) Heron, in honor of the gangly bird perched atop Cogswell's fountain. He picks the site and makes the arrangements. This month, London Daily Express bureau chief Ross Mark has that honor. "Gentlemen, a toast to temperance!" he shouts.
"I'll drink to that!" reply the assembled members, hoisting wine glasses and balancing on one leg in imitation of the heron. It's a ritual without basis in fact: A close inspection of Cogswell's cast-metal crane reveals both his feet firmly attached to the cupola. "It's just a shtick we're used to; besides, water birds are supposed to stand on one leg," explains Buswell afterward.
Bill Day, director of public affairs for Ford Motor Company and another charter member of the group, takes the podium to explain the black and blue riband with the miniature bronze coat hanger that each member wears.
"The blue stands for the society's pusillanimousness in the face of a threatening city bureaucracy, and the black stands for the openness with which the society conducts its activities. The coat hanger is a constant reminder of neglect." In fact, it symbolizes the hanger that an unknown vandal wrapped around the heron's beak about 1960 and was still there moldering when Ruswell popped his head our the office window and had his epiphany.
Deane Maury, a Washington realtor, continues with a few meditations on Cogswell the man, considerably embellishing the doctor's official biography. "it's believed he gave up dentistry because he couldn't stand his patients' bad breath, so he became a proctologist."
A couple years ago, the society discovered Cogswell's great-nephew working in the Treasury Department and invited him to a meeting, recalls Tucker.
"He was so insulted that he left during the soup."
"I think you can see that we really do have affection for the old guy," noted Ruswell. "But you just can't come to our meetings and have a thin skin."
To Jay Coupe, a retired Navy captain, falls the task of recounting the history of D.C.'s Temperance Fountain. When he brings up the name of Sen. Sheridan Downey, the room erupts on cue in a chorus of boos and catcalls. Downey, a California senator in the 1940s, had suggested that the fountain "be torn down by chains and dragged away."
"We have long known that Downey is to aestheticism what David Duke is to the NAACP, what the Emir of Kuwait is to gratitude, what Mike Tyson is to foreplay,'' huffs Coupe.
As unofficial sommelier, it is Buswell's task to carry on the tradition of insulting the house wine. This particular vintage, he relates, hailed from Botswana where it was pre-aged by being fermented from raisins. He traces its manufacture from the initial fermentation, sparked by the local population having an orgy in the vat, to its purchase at a bargain-basement liquor store whose motto is "We will sell no wine before you pay for it."
Over steak and potatoes, the Period of Continuing Enlightenment begins. In counterclockwise fashion, each of the Cogswellians and their guests rises, introduces himself, and delivers scathing commentary (the more sexually explicit or scatological, the better) on some topical issue or personality. February's meeting took place shortly after Marion Harry's latest sexual indiscretion and shortly before the Jeffrey Dahmer trial started, prompting some real groaners. ("Did you hear about Marion Barry's new program for the city! It's called Head Start." "Do you know that Jeff Dahmer got arrested for passing his friend in an alley!")
Another speaker offered a pop quiz to detect latent David Duke supporters. !"Do you have curtains in your pickup truck but not in your living room? If your porch collapsed, would more than three dogs die?")
Every meeting has a Pigeon, an after dinner speaker who gives a brief talk on some issue of national interest, often the one serious interlude in the otherwise bawdy affair. This afternoon's Pigeon is Rob Williams, congressional liaison and PR officer for United Airlines, and he details the airline industry's financial woes in the post-Gulf War era.
Two hours after it began, the meeting breaks up. As the euphoria wrought by the wine and camaraderie wears off, one of the members realizes that there's a reporter at the other end of the table scribbling away and buttonholes me with a request for discretion. "There are some people here in very lofty positions," he cautions. Normally, these gatherings are strictly off the record, although they did invite a Washington Times reporter back in 1983 on the condition "that he neither eat nor drink."
Our waitress is the sole female presence at the meeting.
"There is no prohibition on women per se," explains Buswell. He notes that the Cogswell Society holds an annual black-tie gala every January at which both sexes are welcome. "But most of our members and most women would feel uncomfortable with the sort of ribaldry that goes on here. Some of these affairs can get pretty raunchy. This one was tame by comparison."
Just once did the Cogswellians bend this unwritten rule. A couple years back, the Pigeon was a woman who was introduced as the second secretary of the Soviet Embassy. Accompanied by KGB guards, she delivered a rambling tirade on all things American. "The members were furious!" recalls Buswell, until they found out that the whole thing was a hoax--their speaker was a New York actress who spoke fluent Russian.
Despite the general atmosphere of hilarity, Ross Mark chalks this afternoon's affair up as "mediocre".
"Sometimes these things catch fire, and sometimes they don't," he says, recalling one banquet where the guest of honor was a high-ranking White House official (whom he won't name). The speaker got wrapped up in his talk and became angry when the Cogswellians interrupted him with their comments and questions (which is perfectly acceptable as far as Cogswellian etiquette is concerned). "The members pelted him with napkins and rolls, and he walked out."
The worst thing you can do at these meetings is to take yourself too seriously."