“That Portia of Prohibition”: The Remarkable Life and Career of Mabel Walker Willebrandt (1889-1963)

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

During the 1920s, there were few women in America with the prominence of United States Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt (1889-1963), whose task of enforcing Prohbition along with other responsibilities, gave her a highly public, though sometimes controversial, persona. While she was not a native of greater Los Angeles, she first garnered attention here as an early female attorney and Republican Party stalwart which was her entre into national law and politics.

She was the only child of David W. Walker and Mabel Eaton and she was born in Woodsdale, Kansas and lived in small towns in Oklahoma and Missouri before the family moved to Kansas City, where she attended high school. She attended the Ferris Institute, now a state university, in central Michigan and, at age 20, married Arthur Willebrandt, a fellow school teacher. She then attended the Tempe Normal School, now Arizona State University, to complete her teacher education.

Los Angeles Times, 8 October 1916.

When her parents moved to greater Los Angeles in the early 1910s, first settling in Buena Park in Orange County and later on a chicken ranch east of San Gabriel, Willebrandt took a job teaching in South Pasadena and rose quickly to be principal of the school. She had higher ambitions, however, and enrolled in the University of Southern California’s law school, becoming one of the very few female graduates in the school’s history when she earned her degree in 1915.

Willebrandt immediately took a position as a public defender for women withe Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office and it was said she worked on 2,000 cases over the last half of the decade. After a few years, she went into private practice with a couple of male classmates from U.S.C. She also achieved regional notoriety for her advocacy of women’s rights in the issue of community property and, as a gifted public speaker, gave many addresses to women’s clubs and other organizations for a 1920 state ballot measure that failed.

Los Angeles Express, 15 December 1918.

A president of the Women’s Lawyers League in Los Angeles and involved in other community groups, she also quickly made a mark in the Republican Party and became a powerful local advocate for former governor and current United States Senator Hiram Johnson, who sought his party’s nomination for president in 1920, though it was Warren Harding, a fellow senator from Ohio, would was the G.O.P. standard-bearer and who won election.

Through Johnson’s considerable influence, Harding appointed Willebrandt to be an Assistant Attorney General, succeeding the first woman to hold that role under Harry Daugherty, Harding’s campaign manager, and she was assigned the predominant role in prosecuting cases brought under the recently established Prohibition of almost all production and distribution of alcoholic beverages.

Willebrandt’s enumeration in the 1920 federal census, listing her as a “general attorney” and residing in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles near Crenshaw and Washington.

Willebrandt, who became the highest-ranking woman in the federal government was not known for being publicly anti-alcohol, but she took to her work with zeal and one of her early notable projects was fighting the smuggling of booze from “rum ships” and she also prosecuted highly publicized cases involving major bootlegging operations, while using tax evasion charges, another area of her focus, to go after bootleggers.

While she was largely known in the public for her persistence in prosecuting Prohibition violations, the “First Lady of the Law,” as she was often called, also had a prominent place in prison reform, setting up federal pentientiaries for young first-time male convicts and the first institution for women, opened in West Virginia in 1927. Another cause was providing gainful employment for federal prisoners, including the creation of a shoe-making factory at Leavenworth, in her native Kansas. She was honored a national prison and prison labor committee for her commitment to reform.

Los Angeles Record, 5 November 1920.

Despite the pervasive corruption in the Harding Administration, including involving her boss, Daugherty, she publicly defended him even after he was forced to resign after Harding’s death and the assumption of Vice-President Calvin Coolidge to the chief executive position. Willebrandt continued her work and her critiques of lax enforcement within the Department of Justice led to the resignation of a spate of federal prosecutors just prior to the 1924 elections, though this was perhaps not a coincidence as to timing.

Eaerly in 1925, there were rumors that Willebrandt was the leading candidate to appointment as the federal judge of the Northern District of California and it was reported that she was going to resign from her job with the Attorney General’s office in expectation that she would secure the judgeship. The appointment, however, did not come through, purportedly because she did not live in the district and was most recently a resident of the Los Angeles area.

Psadena Post, 29 August 1921.

Despite that setback, she continued her rise in public recognition and, when U.S.C. completed a new law school building on campus, Willebrandt was one of the main speakers at the ceremony. During the remainder of the Coolidge Administration, she maintained her very active campaign against violations of Prohibition, spoke frequently and fervently about the successes of her team, and wrote editorials in newspapers on the topic.

When Coolidge declined to run for reelection in 1928, the obvious choice for the Republicans was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and Willebrandt took a strikingly visible and highly controversial role for a major figure in the government, especially as an Assistant Attorney General, by making stump speeches all over the nation for the G.O.P. candidate. Particularly galling to Democrats, and even some Republicans, were her frequent appearances at churches where she encouraged pastors to get their congregations out to vote for Hoover and to maintain Prohibition, with the undertone being concern about the fact that Democratic candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, was a Catholic.

Los Angeles Record, 9 January 1924.

Democrats in Congress tried to get committee investigations of her activities, but with Republicans in dominant control, nothing got past a good deal of heated rhetoric. This only intensified when Willebrandt launched high-profile Prohibition prosecutions in New York the day the Smith officially accepted the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency and she engaged in public mudslinging with Smith, who labeled her “that Prohibition Portia”, and New York’s colorful major James Walker.

The final days of the campaign brought her back to California, where spoke in Pasadena, Pomona and Los Angeles before thousands to promote Hoover’s candidacy. The Los Angeles Record, a Democratic paper, ran a feature on Willebrandt in early October 1928 which included speculation that she would either be appointed Attorney General, which would have been a monumentally historic occasion, or judge of the United States District Court in Southern California, another milestone.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 28 October 1924.

A photo of her and another of her parents gazing at a portrait of their successful daughter was accompanied by another article titled “Mrs. Willebrandt Was Divorced As ‘Poor’ Housewife.” In it, Mrs. Walker talked about how Willebrandt divorced her husband four years prior after about a half-dozen years of separation “because her political aspirations blocked his desire for a home and a home-making wife.” Calling her son-in-law, “a very fine man,” Mrs. Walker added that Mabel “didn’t particularly care whether they were divorced or not” and told Arthur he could file whenever he pleased.

Mrs. Walker went on to say that her daughter and son-in-law, who taught at a high school and lived with his mother in Huntington Park, didn’t fight, though they agreed on little, but “Mabel wanted a career—she has always been ambitious—and Mr. Willebrandt wanted a home-loving wife, that’s all.” Turning to her daughter’s crusade with enforcing Prohibition, Mrs. Walker noted “I think [her] feelings against liquor must have been in her blood” as she was active in the movement in Kansas and took her daughter to prohibition meetings from the age of three. It was reported that Mabel bought her parents a ranch after the family lost their money in a Michigan bank failure.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 5 February 1926.

The passions of the election even led to death threats made against the Walkers, whose home in what became, five years before, the Town of Temple, was purportedly the planned target of a bombing because of their daughter’s prominent role in the campaign. Newspapers reported that the Walkers, who lived on Encinita Avenue in what was, by 1928, renamed Temple City and where they raised chickens, turkeys, fruit and grapes (not, of course, for alcoholic purposes!) on three acres, received a letter demanding their daughter cease her political speechmaking for Hoover, though it appears the matter was treated by the sheriff’s department, which had a station in Temple City, as a prank.

The rhetoric involving Willebrandt’s role as a prime public promoter of Hoover even led the Democratic nominee from 1924, John W. Davis, to demand that Coolidge and Hoover do something about her “offending speeches which have rightly shocked the nation.” Addressing the country on NBC radio with the title of “Religion and Politics,” Davis proclaimed “I denounce the assertion [by Willebrandt] that a Catholic is disqualified for the presidency as an insult to 18,000,000 of free-born Americans.”

Pomona Bulletin, 20 March 1927.

He went on that she lied about American history, betrayed the nation’s ideals, and was disloyal to the country’s institutions, asserting “this is the head and front of the offending speeches of Assistant Attorney General Willebrandt” as she purportedly urged church officials to get their members to support Hoover for religious reasons.

The Record issued a sarcastic editiorial a month ahead of the election, headed “Atta Girl, Mabel!” suggesting that her use of religion in support of Hoover was such that “at first we were inclined to condemn the lady; then to smile at her. We have finally decided she is not a bad influence.” This was because “she is making religious bigotry ridiculous, and thus helping to wipe it out.” It went on to say “we are all for her, and hope she gets wilder and wilder from now until November 6.” It closed with:

Mrs. Willebrandt is an object lesson to Americans in the sort of mentality possessed by many of their officials. Most of them whisper their wild ideas; Mabel shouts hers from the housetops. And the more she shouts, the more laughable her notions seem. More lungpower to her!

The paper, however, really thought, or publicly professed to believe, that Smith had a chance to win the election and it eagerly promoted “California’s Joan of Arc,” Mary McCarthy as Willebrandt’s superior nemesis in public pronouncements. When Willebrandt got off the train in Los Angeles to make her final push for Hoover before the election, the Record claimed that virtually no one was there to greet her and that her efforts were failing.

Record, 2 October 1928.

As for Republican newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, though, it was noted that thousands saw her speak in those final days, including what were reported as masterful orations at such venues as the Philharmonic Auditorium across from Pershing Square. The paper also reported on the major show of support for Willebrandt from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU,) a huge force in the Prohibition movement.

Hoover rolled to an easy, convincing victory and Willebrandt remained in greater Los Angeles to bask in the glow of her role in the outcome, appearing as the featured speaker at an Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) event at Temple City’s Community Park to mark the tenth anniversary of the end of the First World War. One wonders if the town’s founder, Walter P. Temple, also an ardent Republican, was in attendance that day.

Monrovia News, 5 October 1928.

In the months after the election, Willebrandt made several public pronouncements about Prohibition, claiming that it was working well and that public support was growing for the movement. Whether this was in expectation that she would land the top law enforcement job in the nation or a federal judgeship is not known, but it turned out that the situation changed dramatically for her as 1929 dawned.

Before Hoover took office in early March (inaugurations moved to January in 1937 for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term), Willebrandt was embroiled in more controversy regarding allegations that she used inmates as spies in the nation’s federal prisons to report on problems with wardens and administrative problems in institutions. After John W. Snook resigned as warden at the Atlanta facility, he castigated her spy system, claiming that she demoralized the system and demanded a congressional investigation of her tactics. He added that documents were falsified to make him and others look bad and claimed Willebrandt was “drunk on power.” It is notable that a United Press account referred to her oversight as “petticoat rule.”

Pasadena Post, 1 October 1928.

Estelle Lawton Lindsey, a Socialist who was, in 1915, the first woman to serve on the Los Angeles City Council and who became a columnist, opined in a piece published in early May in the Pasadena Post that, while she did not like spy systems, Willebrandt “devised an effective method of finding out what goes on inside penitentiary walls” and that, rather than being “drunk with power,” the Assistant Attorney General “is using power as it supposed to be used” and wrote “more power to her.” Lindsey linked Willebrandt to powerful evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and her mother “Ma” Kennedy as garnering attention because “of the trouble they have been causing the men.”

Nonetheless, three weeks later, President Hoover accepted Willebrandt’s resignation and the White House “emphatically discredited reports that there had been a serious disagreement between Mrs. Willebrandt and Attorney General [William D.] Mitchell, or between Mrs. Willebrandt and President Hoover.” Rather, it was reported, her “resignation was prompted by her wish to accept an opportunity to become the Washington counsel for the Aviation Corporation” and she remained after Hoover took office “to complete some special work.”

Los Angeles Record, 28 May 1929.

The Record observed that her departure “removed one who has long been a stormy petrel of political life,” but allowed that

her rise from obscurity as a country school teacher to the high post of assistant attorney general in charge of prohibition, tax and federal prison matters, reads like fiction.

It concluded by reporting that her taxing campaign on behalf of the president “is reported to have affected her health,” though eight years of work in a demanding, stressful job must also have taken its toll, while Willebrandt “has been anxious to retire and engage in private law practice.”

Times, 16 August 1929.

The Times quickly published an eight-part series by Willebrandt titled “The Inside of Prohibition” in which, during August 1929, she wrote about the politicians who got in the way of her ability to better enforce the law, including by members of Congress who voted dry, but lived wet out of the spotlight, bootleggers, racketeers and rum runners who wielded influence with government officials, administration officials who protected compromised federal agents, and much else. She also trumpeted her achievements and professed that Prohibition was still likely to succeed, though it had long been clear that it was not going to. An editorial in the Monrovia News Post lionized her for her powerful account and supported her view that, in time and given a real chance, the law could work.

A Newspaper Enterprise Association press photo from the museum’s holdings, dated 3 February 1928, of Willebrandt with Minnesota legislator Mrs. James Mabeth Paige at a conference on the causes and cures of wars.

Willebrandt continued to work in private practice for over three decades after she left the political realm (it was reported she was paid $30,000 a year by the Aviation Corporation) and she represented the aircraft and radio industries and even defended a company making medicinal wine against a Prohibition charge. In the 1932 campaign, Al Smith, speaking on behalf of Franklin D. Roosevelt, resurrected the bitterness of the previous election, saying that Willebrandt “appealed for votes of politically minded Methodists and Ku Klux Klansmen and “that the Republicans ‘paid off’ Mabel with a $20,000,000 farm loan” to a fruit company “for whom she also convinced the department of justice that 12 per cent wine was not intoxicating.”

She, however, remained largely out of the political spotlight. Raising a friend’s daughter, whom she adopted, Willebrandt became friends with Louis B. Mayer and represented his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio as well as stars like Clark Gable, Jeanette McDonald, and Jean Harlow and, for twenty years, the Screen Directors Guild, working with the latter on a loyalty oath during the McCarthy “Red Scare” period of the first half of the 1950s. She retired about a year before her death from lung cancer not long before her 74th birthday.

Monrovia News, 15 August 1929.

Mabel Walker Willebrandt was a remarkable figure in Los Angeles before her rise to national prominence as the highest-placed woman in national government for eight years, comprising most of the 1920s. While largely forgotten today, her story should be remembered as one of the more exceptional of that time, whether that of a man or a woman.

Leave a Reply