Grover Cleveland Bergdoll: “The Fighting Slacker of Fairmount”

Louis C. Bergdoll arrived in America in June 1846 from Germany and in 1849 founded a brewery in the heart of the appropriately-named Brewerytown neighborhood. The Bergdoll brand became one of the most popular brews in America and made Louis Bergdoll a multi-millionaire. Flush with cash, he then set about planning a new dynastic seat in Fairmount. Completed in 1882, the Renaissance revival family mansion at 22nd and Green was a monument to the Bergdoll family’s taste and sumptuous lifestyle. In its size and grandeur, it rivaled the Vanderbilt mansions on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Louis’s grandson Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, born in 1893, grew up in the big house in Fairmount. More interested in mechanics than brewing, Bergdoll purchased an airplane only a few short years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight and raced exotic automobiles. The charming playboy and swashbuckling aviator also was also known to be a momma’s boy.

But Bergdoll’s party days were cut short. In the three years before America entered World War I on the side of the Allies, a significant portion of Philadelphia’s large German-American community either urged neutrality or sided with the Kaiser’s army by holding benefits for the German wounded. The sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania in 1915 by a German U-boat, which killed 1,200 people including 110 Americans, caused the public to cry for revenge. When Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, President Wilson instituted the first mass draft since the Civil War and cracked down on German-American organizations he believed to be supporting the enemy.

It is unclear whether playboy Grover Cleveland Bergdoll dodged the draft because of his pro-German sympathies or because he did not want the war to interfere with his social life. What is clear is that when the Draft Board called up his number, Bergdoll was nowhere to be found. His rich mother hid him in the big house on Green Street.

On March 20, 1920, two and a half years after the guns fell silent, two bounty hunters nabbed Bergdoll outside the house on Green Street. Imprisoned on Governor’s Island, Bergdoll asked his jailer if he could make one more visit to Philadelphia to see his mother at the family mansion. They agreed. Eluding two guards, Bergdoll jumped into a waiting car packed with bundles of cash and sped off into the night.

Bergdoll booked a ticket to Europe and settled down in the small town of Eberbach, Germany. He then flagrantly continued to live the high life using his family’s riches. Yet he lived in constant fear of bounty hunters. Two tried to nab him at a wedding, and Bergdoll fought them off. Another time, Bergdoll bit off the thumb of one would-be kidnapper and shot another one dead.i

These actions earned him the nickname “The Fighting Slacker” and made the exiled beer heir one of the most reviled men in America. Even so, Bergdoll wanted to make a secret trip to see his mother in Philadelphia. He even had the nerve to apply for a U.S. passport in Stuttgart. His application was flatly rejected. According to one contemporary report, “his stains remains [sic] that of an escaped prisoner who would be returned to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence if caught.” ii

In May 1939, Bergdoll returned to America, realizing that facing the music was better than being drafted into the Nazi army. Upon his return, he was tried, convicted, and sent to prison. There he remained until 1946. When he emerged from jail, Bergdoll was a shadow of his former self and was put away in an insane asylum. The one-time Philadelphia brewing heir, aviator and playboy died demented and forgotten in 1966.iii

By then, the Bergdoll family had left the big house on Green Street. After the stock market crash of 1929, the Fairmount area fell from its lofty status as a Rittenhouse Square North to that of a run-down slum. The 14,000 square foot Bergdoll mansion was cut up into apartments, although many of its original interior details were left intact.

The former home of Grover Cleveland (“The Fighting Slacker”) Bergdoll has recently been restored as a single family home and is now listed for sale. The asking price: $7 million.iv

References:

[i] Willis Thornton, “Bergdoll – The Fighting Slacker,” The Olean Times-Herald,” Tuesday, January 24, 1933. http://earlyaviators.com/ebergdo1.htm Accessed August 3, 2010.

[ii] Willis Thornton, “Bergdoll – The Fighting Slacker,” The Olean Times-Herald,” Tuesday, January 24, 1933. http://earlyaviators.com/ebergdo1.htm Accessed August 3, 2010.

[iii] “Biographical Note: Bergdoll Papers,” The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. http://www.balchinstitute.org/manuscript_guide/html/bergdoll.html Accessed August 6, 2010.

[iv] Deirdre Woollard, “Bergdoll Mansion, Estate of the Day,” Luxist.com. http://www.luxist.com/2010/06/29/bergdoll-mansion-estate-of-the-day/ Accessed August 6, 2010.

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