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Encyclopedia > Ralph Owen Brewster
Senator Owen Brewster defeated after battles with Howard Hughes
Senator Owen Brewster defeated after battles with Howard Hughes

Ralph Owen Brewster (February 22, 1888December 25, 1961) was an American politician from Maine. Brewster, a Republican, was solidly right-wing, a close confidant of the infamous Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and antagonist of Howard Hughes.


Owen (he preferred to be known by his middle name) Brewster was born in Dexter, the son of William Edmund Brewster, a member of the Maine House of Representatives, and Carrie S. Bridges. He graduated summa cum laude from Bowdoin College in 1909, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. From 1909 to 1910, Brewster was the principal of Castine High School, and then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1913.


In 1915, he married Dorothy Foss; from 1915 to 1923, he was a member of the Portland School Committee. From 1914 to 1925, Brewster was a lawyer for the Chapman and Brewster law firm in Portland. He was elected to a two-year term as a member of the State House (191718), but resigned to enlist in the U.S. Army (Third Infantry unit of the Maine National Guard) when the nation entered World War I. Brewster served successively as private, second lieutenant, captain, and regimental adjutant, and returned to the State House after the war ended. He continued to be a House member from 1921 to 1922, when he was elected to the State Senate.


Brewster served in the State Senate until 1925, when he became the Governor of Maine. Brewster served two terms as Governor, leaving office in 1929, losing the Republican nomination for a third term. In 1932, he was defeated for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but was elected from the Third District in 1935 and served until 1941, when he went on to the U.S. Senate. Brewster was reelected in 1946.


During his time in Congress, Brewster worked on legislation to provide old-age pensions (the forerunner of Social Security) although he was a loud opponent of welfare and spending programs in President Roosevelt's New Deal. As Senator, Brewster sat on several Senate committees, notably the Special Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (the Truman Committee), and the Joint Committee to Investigate the Pearl Harbor Attack. At their time, these were politically very high profile and Brewster's work on those committees did much to raise his profile in Washington.


In the Senate, he was good friends with Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. His association with McCarthyism eroded Brewster's political support as McCarthy's anti-communist excesses became increasingly unpopular. His alleged association with the Ku Klux Klan also cost him support among liberal Republican circles.


Brewster came to national attention due to his opposition to the commercial interests of Howard Hughes, America's wealthiest man at the time. Brewster was chairman of a special Senate committee investigating defense procurement during World War II. He was concerned that Hughes had received $40 million from the Defense Department without actually delivering the aircraft he had contracted to provide.

Enlarge
Alan Alda portaying Senator Brewster in The Aviator

Hughes aggressively combated the inquirer, alleging corruption. In the Martin Scorsese movie The Aviator he is protrayed similarly by Alan Alda as corrupt and in the pocket of Pan American World Airways, the rival of Hughes' TWA. Hughes spread rumors about Brewster's close association with Pan Am, alleging that he received free flights and hospitality in return for legislation such as his bill to withdraw government approval for TWA flights across the Atlantic. Hughes publicly claimed that Brewster had promised an end to the Senate inquiry if he would agree to merging TWA with Pan Am. In response, Brewster, stung by the allegations, stood aside from chairing the inquiry and became instead a witness before the committee. He denied Hughes' allegations and made several counter-claims. Brewster's reputation suffered greatly from the incident.


Hughes worked hard to ensure Brewster's political demise, persuading the then Governor of Maine, Frederick G. Payne, to challenge him for the Republican nomination. Armed with practically unlimited campaign funds from Hughes, Payne challenged Brewster's connection with McCarthyism, racist groups and also took up Hughes' claims that Brewster was corrupt. This led to the unusual defeat of an incumbent senator in his own primary.


In his retirement he continued active involvement in many conservative organizations. Brewster was a Christian Scientist. He was a member of the American Bar Association, Grange, the American Legion, the Freemasons, the Elks, the Odd Fellows, Delta Kappa Epsilon and was alleged to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, although he denied this.


Brewster died unexpectedly of cancer in 1961 in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Dexter, Maine where his home was converted to the Brewster Inn, a bed and breakfast.


Sources

  • "Brewster, Ralph Owen, 1941-1952." (http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=B000816) Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
  • Brewster Inn website (http://www.virtualcities.com/ons/me/l/mel1701.htm)
  • "Film shows how Howard Hughes trashed senator from Maine" (http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/viewpoints/brunelle/041224aviator.shtml)

 
 

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