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History's Headlines: Allentown mansion has a scandalous past

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 20 2012 04:35:03 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 23 2012 04:38:22 PM CDT

Secrets and scandal are woven into the history of one particular home in Allentown.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

On the afternoon of January 26, 1922, reporters came knocking at the door of a big, white home at 45 S. 16th Street, in Allentown. They were not unexpected.

That morning the Allentown Record newspaper had printed a wire service story that was making national headlines.

Martin E. Kern, the home’s owner and one of the most important men in the city, was revealed to have had a criminal past, one that he had claimed was that of a dead brother.

Greeting them at the door was Kern’s formidable German butler Paul, the major domo of the household who presided over the staff of six maids, a cook, a gardener, two helpers and the chauffer who drove Kern’s Rolls Royce Towncar and fire engine red Stutz Bearcat roadster, both of which were the talk of Allentown.

Speaking slowly, first in English and then in German, he curtly replied to the reporters' questions. His master was in Europe. The madam, Kern’s mother, was indisposed. Then he repeated twice the words “the brother never lived and so could never have died,” before firmly shutting the door.

Martin Kern 1 Ninety years later it is hard to imagine anything scandalous happening at 45 S. 16th  Street, a quiet corner of 16th and Walnut.  Built 100 years ago as the home of Joseph Mack, the one Mack brother not in the truck business, it is currently the home of retired Parkland school teachers Bill and Barb Petro.

Martin Kern, wife Mary Jane and mother Marie Kern came to Allentown in 1909.  He was an insurance salesman with offices in the Allentown National Bank building, now senior citizen apartments at 7th and Hamilton. In violation of the generally understated male dress code of the community Kern kept his derby at a rakish angle, wore spats and had a fresh gardenia in his buttonhole.

But when Kern sold a million dollar insurance policy to Joseph Mack and later another to Jack Mack, paid for with Mack stock, business people began to give him a second look. Within a year he was a Mack vice president.

Kern’s first major coup came in 1911 by handling a deal for a loan to the cash-strapped Mack Brothers with the investment banking house of J.P Morgan, over the heads of conservative Allentown bankers. This led to a merger with a Swiss and an English truck maker, re-creating Mack as the International Motor Truck Company. Kern was made a Mack vice president. In 1912 he opened a bank, The Penn Counties Trust Company. Shortly thereafter he purchased Joe Mack’s home.

dining_room Kern’s new wealth gave him a higher profile in the community.  Call-Chronicle cartoonist Bud Tamblyn recalled that one Christmas Eve as a boy he and fellow members of his church were out caroling and invited into Kern’s home. While most neighbors gave them a cookie or glass of punch he recalled Kern’s stunning gift of a five dollar gold piece to each singer.  

Kern’s formal dinner parties consisted of meals of nine courses with a different wine for each. He would always begin them with a toast to his mother. His other parties at the Lehigh Country Club, then located at Club Avenue and said to be attended by Broadway chorus girls, were among the whispered gossip of the Lehigh Valley.

When people asked about his past, Kern, who spoke English with a carefully cultivated Central European accent, would say he was Swiss by birth. He noted he did have one brother, Edward, who had regrettably followed a life of crime was deceased. When business associates heard his mother call him Edward he asked them to forgive her lapse of memory.

bars_on_windows Kern’s greatest business venture came in 1918 when he purchased Bosch-Magneto, the maker of ignition systems for most of the world’s cars and trucks. When the German-owned Bosch was confiscated by the U.S. government as enemy property in World War I, Kern used his insider influence with high level politicians in both major political parties to acquire it.

His Democratic contact was A. Mitchell Palmer, a former congressman from Northampton County, then the Alien Property Custodian and later Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General.  The other was John W. Weeks, a Wall Street stock broker and Secretary of War in the Republican administration of Warren Harding.     

Kern_house_2 But then Kern made a fatal error. He began an affair with Marion Davies, the actress mistress of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. A furious Hearst, aided by the still-outraged former German owners of Bosch, hired private detectives to dig up dirt on Kern.

They found, as Paul the butler obliquely told the press, that Martin Kern never existed. There was only Edward Kern, a petty criminal, con-man and former occupant of Sing-Sing prison. Most importantly a legal document was discovered showing Kern was not Swiss but German, and ineligible to buy Bosch.

Kern was overwhelmed.  Transatlantic cables flowed frantically from his suite in Paris’s exclusive Meurice Hotel, urging his lieutenants to get political insiders to put a “quietus on this.” But it was too late. What Kern himself later came to call “a house of cards,” had crashed.

stairs Forced to give up Bosch on his return to America, he vanished from Allentown. Congressional hearings into the affair made headlines.  But gradually they died away. Apparently it was not of benefit to either Democrats or Republicans to have their links to Kern made public.

Kern’s attempts to return to great wealth failed. Following years of petty schemes, he died under an assumed name in 1947, a suicide by cyanide poisoning in a Newark, N.J. hotel room. Police detectives did not finally discover his true identity until 1956.

But ironically, if some literary critics are correct, Kern may still be living on under his greatest alias ever, as the partial inspiration for the tragically flawed protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel, “The Great Gatsby.”