Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The President and the Prodigy


The President and the Prodigy

Warren G. Harding and James "Sonny" Fraser at Seaview Country Club - 1922
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The caption reads:

President Harding congradulating James Fraser, five year old golf expert, on the Links at the Seaview Golf Club, Atlantic City, where the President compared his style of play with that of the youthful champion. (circa 1922)

The President and the Prodigy – Warren G. Harding and Sonny Fraser at Seaview.

By William Kelly (

HBO’s award winning TV series Boardwalk Empire features a number of characters based on real people, including Nucky Thompson (aka Johnson), Commodore Louis Kuehnle, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, and then they introduce President Warren G. Harding as a character in the final segments of the first season.

In the Boardwalk Empire version of events, Nucky leads the New Jersey delegation to the Republican national convention in Chicago, and instead of backing New Jersey legislator Walter Edge, as expected, he gives the votes to a longshot, darkhorse candidate nobody ever heard of, Warren G. Harding. Harding is portrayed as a manipulated sap, and Nucky makes his deals with Harding’s campaign manager. Nucky wants new highways built to bring more tourists to Atlantic City, and he withdrew his support for Edge when he learns the highway funds went to Edge’s construction company for roads in North Jersey. Walter Edge was a real person too. As founding publisher of the Atlantic City Press, Edge went on to serve as a senator and twice as governor, decades apart, 1917-1919 during World War I and 1944 – 1947 during World War II.

Whether you can credit Nucky with getting him the office is questionable, but President Harding really did visit Atlantic City.

Warren G. Harding liked to play golf and gamble and reportedly came to town as a friend and guest of Seaview Country Club owner Clarence Geist, who also liked to play golf and gamble. They played together quite frequently and President Harding is said to have placed a wager on every swing of the golf club.

There is a photo of Harding and Geist and two other golfers standing in front of the Seaview Clubhouse, which is often the subject of a trivia question as to the identity of the other two golfers.

There’s also a newspaper photo of Harding shaking hands with Sonny Fraser, a seven year old golf prodigy and son of the Seaview golf pro Jolly Jim Fraser. Harding lost a bet with Geist that young Sonny Fraser couldn’t round the course in less than a hundred, which he did handily.

Arguably the worst president of the United States ever, Harding presided over the “Teapot Dome” scandal, which preceded Watergate as a national Deep Political event, and he may have been assassinated since he died suddenly of apparent food poisoning while traveling aboard a train.

Young Sonny Fraser however, grew up to be a real Boardwalk Empire character, as he went on to become one of the best amateur golfers ever, and a successful politician who introduced the first legal gambling to South Jersey before he died, tragically young.

James Emerson “Sonny” Fraser was born to Millie Fraser, the wife of golf pro “Jolly Jim” Fraser, at the Fraser home on the first fairway at Seaview Country Club on August 4, 1916.
His mother had practiced putting on the nearby green earlier that morning and golf would become a primary factor in Sonny Fraser’s life.

Growing up in the house on the course, the fairways and greens were his backyard and playing the game of golf was a natural for him. His father hand-carved a custom set of clubs so young Sonny could take his first swing at an early age and he quickly learned to play well.
As a five year old child golf prodigy, Sonny won a bet for Clarence Geist, against then U.S. President Warren G. Harding, that he could round the Seaview course in under 100. Sonny won the bet for Mr. Geist and by the age of 12 he shot a 73, and at 13 he was credited with a 69.

Since he was young when his father died in a traffic accident, Sonny and his older brother Leo were greatly influenced by Seaview owner Clarence Geist, as well as club members and other golf professionals associated with the world class resort.

Sonny began formal tournament play at the age of 14 when he tied the Seaview course record of 67, then held jointly by his father and Walter Hagen. He reportedly missed a two foot putt on the final hole, some say intentionally, so as not to break his father’s record. In 1943 he did set the Seaview mark – a remarkable 60, 11 under par.

Known as one of the longest hitters in the game Sonny went on to meet and beat the best amateur as well as professional golfers, and his fame outlived his short but glorious life. He played in hundreds of exhibition matches, was in great demand for charitable events, and always drew a crowd to the galleries whenever and wherever he played. Those who knew him say Sonny Fraser was one of the best amateur golfers ever.

Tall and handsome, Fraser attended Atlantic City High School, but never graduated since he often played hooky to play golf with Geist, who promised to leave Sonny an inheritance in his will. Geist was a self-made man who thought college graduates were “saps.” When Geist died in 1938, and there was no inheritance, as promised, Sonny sued the estate and won a modest settlement.

In 1939 Sonny decided to concentrate on business, working at first for Geist’s Atlantic City gas company, then for a Philadelphia sugar concern before becoming secretary to Atlantic County political boss Frank “Hap” Farley, whose college room mate and business associate Elwood Kirkman had taken over the Seaview when Geist died.

But it was Sonny Fraser who was always in the center of the action, and he became known for making difficult tasks appear easy and accomplished a lot as a businessman, politician and charity fundraiser.

Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, Sonny was unable to enlist in the service during World War II; instead he served with distinction on the War Manpower Commission. He also helped raise thousands of dollars for wartime charities – the Salvation Army, Red Cross, USO, Valley Forge and the Atlantic City Naval Hospitals. Suffering from his own disease, Fraser founded and helped raise money for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society.

In the winter of 1943-44 Sonny Fraser and a group of businessmen purchased the Atlantic City Country Club, and Fraser was named President.

In May, 1944, Sonny Fraser married the beautiful artist Madeline Vautrinot, of Egg Harbor, a prominent painter and art teacher. They lived in a big house in English Creek, the scene of many political discussions and where Fraser’s birthday was annually celebrated on August 4 with friends he met on the golf course – Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt, N.J. Governor Alfred E. Driscoll, baseball star Jimmy Foxx, Olympic hero John B. Kelly and his teenage daughter Grace, along with Hollywood icons Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

While the main house sits on a hill with a sloping green, Fraser built an art studio for Madeline down by the stream around the old grist mill. That’s where she painted and many of the party guests gathered around the mill pool, where they kept the lobsters fresh and champagne cool.

Sonny Fraser and his friends would sit around the grist mill pool, drink champagne and make glorious plans for the future, including the establishment of legal gambling with the Atlantic City Rack Track.

When Sonny Fraser began developing the Atlantic City Race Track, opposition surfaced from Florida Senator Frank Smathers, who considered the New Jersey tracks competition to those in Florida. Smathers publicly objected to Fraser opening the track while owning the Atlantic City Country Club, where there were illegal slot machines in the clubhouse.

Rather than getting rid of the slot machines however, Sonny sold the Atlantic City Country Club to his brother Leo, just returned from the war. While Sonny was the archetypical amateur golfer, Leo was the total professional who made golf his life, eventually becoming president of the PGA. Leo borrowed the money to buy the club from his friend Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Baltimore Colts football team, a sale that permitted Sonny to open the Atlantic City Race Track.

Nominated as the Republican candidate for Assembly, Sonny was elected to the State House in 1947, and reelected again two years later, becoming popular with Democrats as well as Republicans. He made highway construction and safety a prime concern, sought spraying of seashore communities for mosquitoes and managed to get every one of the bills he introduced passed into law.

Although heavily involved in state and local government, various businesses and the Race Track, Sonny Fraser always found time for a round of golf with his pals Hap Farley, Somers Point Mayor Fred W. Chapman and race track partner John B. Kelly. Fraser often played in charity golf tournaments, including an annual tournament to raise money for the local cancer society. For Sonny, it was personal as well as athletic challenge.

In 1947 he was named The Most Courageous Athlete of the Year by the Philadelphia Sportswriters, and in 1949 was named the Most Outstanding Young Man in New Jersey and was considered a possible candidate for governor, but his disabilities overcame him. Although confined to a wheelchair, he continued to play golf and carry out his official duties.
In 1950 he was named Speaker of the Assembly, one of the most prestigious positions in Trenton. When Sonny tried to resign because of his illness, the Governor refused to accept his resignation and requested he return to Trenton, but that never happened. Fraser fell down and injured his hip while visiting his friend Bob Hope in California. He returned home and tried to recuperate but his health deteriorated rapidly.

Sonny Fraser died on Tuesday, August 29, 1950. Flags as the State House in Trenton, throughout Atlantic City and much of the State were lowered to half mast, and tributes poured in from around the country. His English Creek home, the scene of many political planning sessions and parties, was the scene of his wake, attended by over two thousand people, friends, neighbors and ordinary citizens as well as powerful politicians and celebrities.

Reverend Gill Rob Wilson, an editor of the New York Herald Tribune, conducted funeral services on the lawn from a temporary pulpit on the edge of the lake. Wilson said, “Sonny drove deep into the hearts and affections of everyone who knew him. The strong hands he wrapped around a driver gripped the heartstrings of people. He will always be remembered as someone who fought hard for the underdog and for lost causes. No one ever came to him and was turned away. It is appropriate that we pay tribute to Sonny, not in cloistered halls but here in this space in the surroundings he loved. It is here that Sonny must go on and we must turn away.”

James Emerson “Sonny” Fraser was then laid to rest in the Absecon Presbyterian Cemetery.
To honor the 300th anniversary of Egg Harbor Township in 2010, local historians tried to find anything left from the 1710 founding of the township - a tree, a building or a monument.

But all they could find was the old grist mill at Sonny Fraser’s home, where they used to keep the lobsters fresh and the champagne cool, and make glorious plans for the future.

[William Kelly is the author of “Birth of the Birdie” – a history of golf. He can be reached at ]

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