Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
Crime-fighter Turned Executive
Shortly after his resignation as safety director in Cleveland, Eliot and Evaline moved to Washington, D.C. to live in a large home that the government had furnished for them. Ness threw himself into his federal job with renewed enthusiasm. He used his considerable intellect to come up with imaginative ways of educating service men on the dangers of venereal disease. When education was not enough, he pressured various communities around Army bases to discourage prostitution. He worked hard and his federal bosses thought very highly of him.
While he did very well in his position, the heavy travel to various Army bases did nothing to improve his relationship with Evaline. She liked to travel, but not to Army bases. Also, Eliot wanted to entertain the prominent people in Washington at his home and Evaline became bored very quickly with this part of her married life. She wanted to be with her own artistic friends and pursue a career in art, so she left Ness and went to live in New York.
This time it was Eliot's turn to file for divorce after she walked out on him in 1944. It took them a while to get around to the paperwork but when Ness filed it on October 9, he charged Evaline with gross neglect and extreme cruelty for refusing to live with him. The divorce was filed in Cleveland, Ohio, where he returned after his several years in Washington.
As the war effort wound down, Ness looked for a new career. Janet Rex, daughter of Ralph Rex, the deceased chairman of Diebold Corporation in Canton, Ohio, asked him to replace her father as the chairman of the badly mismanaged company. In May of 1944, he accepted the position.
At that time, Diebold was one of the country's largest safe and vault companies, but it was in serious need of reengineering. Eliot was able to capitalize on his business education from the University of Chicago. First, he revamped the existing management, cut out the dead wood and promoted a lot of younger, eager staff members. Like all reengineering efforts, the managers who lost responsibilities held grudges against Ness. Then he set the company on a path of diversification into the new fields of plastics and microfilming equipment. Most importantly, he consummated a merger with Diebold's chief competitor, the York Safe and Lock Company.
During this time he fell in love with a pretty soft-spoken divorcee named Betty Anderson Seaver. Betty was the daughter of Otto Anderson of Redfield, S.D. and a graduate of the Cleveland School of Art. She was a very talented sculptress and had won several prizes for her art in the May Shows at the Cleveland Museum. When she met Eliot she was living in New York working on several commissions.
They were married in January of 1946 in Baltimore and went to live on Lake Shore Boulevard in the posh Cleveland suburb of Bratenahl. This time Eliot made time for a real honeymoon in New York.
While he was chairman of Diebold, Ness formed a new venture with two prominent businessmen, Dan T. Moore and James M. Landis. The Middle East Company was an import-export firm, which leveraged Landis' capital and Moore's Mid East contacts.
Later, Ness formed a similar company with Claire Chennault, the man who made the "Flying Tigers" famous in the fight against the Japanese. The Far East Company specialized in the import into the U.S. of silk fabrics from China, capitalizing on Chennault's status as a hero in that Far Eastern country.
Ness had started to develop a national reputation as a sharp businessman. There were articles in Fortune and Newsweek magazines about him. It seemed like for the first time in his life he was becoming financially secure now that big corporate salaries were replacing the very modest pay he got as a civil servant.
The glow of success was not to last. Eliot became bored and restless at Diebold and devoted less and less time to his work there. His political enemies used the opportunity of his absences to stab him in the back. The Far East Company was running into a myriad of problems with U.S. government policies, trade restrictions, serious transportation and fabric quality problems. Finally when the U.S. government banned all trade with Mainland China, the company folded.
The Middle East Company was also running into trade restrictions and U.S. policies that made it difficult for any import export firm to survive. However, the Middle East Company was able to get along by changing direction and bringing in new deals. Unfortunately, Ness was spread too thin too effectively assist Dan Moore with the deals he was bringing to the table.
Early in 1947, Eliot and Betty adopted a son who they named Robert Warren Ness. Eliot was starting to go through changes again. He resented the heavy travel that took him away from his family and he developed a longing to go back into public service. An opportunity that he once declined in the early 1940's began to capture his interest.