New York in History and Anecdote

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How I Got Out of Politics

“Ah, Frank,” he said softly. “You’ve done grand things. Grand, grand things.”
“Among others,” Skeffington said.

Edwin O’Connor, The Last Hurrah

Eleven percent of all eligible New Yorkers voted on Tuesday, November 2, 1999. I was among them. I was also among a smaller minority. I was a candidate myself—for Richmond County district attorney on the Right to Life ticket. How did an Irish Catholic regular Democrat come to this?

I was a professional politician for the first nineteen years of my working life. I wrote speeches, newsletters, press releases, and brochures for several city officials, most of whom I remember fondly.

On my first day in the Manhattan borough president’s press office, I used the men’s room. Like the rest of the Municipal Building back in 1982, it was something of a museum piece, with massive five-foot-tall marble urinals that Toulouse-Lautrec could have comfortably used as a shower stall. (It is there, legend says, that the great editor Gene Fowler once asked of the cliché-ridden politician standing beside him, “Do you view with alarm or point with pride?”) A colleague passed me, stepped up to the plate, and gazed down. “I feel so inadequate,” he sighed.

The director of communications was a florid ex-tabloid reporter. He still looked like one of your classic Irish muckers, with a beer in his hand and a “fuck” on his lips. But his drinking days were over. They had been the stuff of  legend. He had won a well-deserved award for reporting. Colleagues had helped him celebrate with enthusiasm, and he had come to consciousness in a Philadelphia house of carnal recreation—alone, I might add, and still in his clothes. He had $20 and a return ticket in his wallet, no recollection of the previous two days, and the kind of hangover that makes death an attractive option.

He had staggered from the Congressional Limited to the IRT #1. Emerging at West 72nd Street and heading for home, wishing West End Avenue a few blocks farther away, he’d passed the local laundry (ah! Anything to put off the inevitable) and picked up his shirts. He arrived home, finally, to find his wife fixing dinner. When she put down the knife and looked at him, he hefted the shirts and replied to her unspoken question, “He runs a great laundry, but the lines are so long.”

He was old-school, and his invective tended to be old-school. I never thought twice about it. But I recall once when he was ranting about a political opponent whom he kept referring to as “a cocksucker,” being surprised when another colleague—a quiet, reserved gay man—objected.

“I am a cocksucker,” he said, “and I really find this offensive.”

New York City politics seems sordid, petty and corrupt. Well, it is. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. As Donald T. Regan has said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power is a real gas.”

Occasionally, this truth spills into a public forum like the City Council. (“The difference between the City Council and a rubber stamp,” former councilman Henry Stern famously quipped, “is that the rubber stamp occasionally leaves an impression.”) Once, when the late Ted Weiss closed a speech to the Council by urging colleagues to “do the right thing,” the Honorable Dominick Corso of Brooklyn weighed in. “You think that takes guts?” he jeered. “It doesn’t take guts to do the right thing. What takes guts is to stand up for what you know is wrong, day after day, year after year. That takes guts!”

Most politicians are gray men: gray in their clothes and temperament, blending into the background. It’s protective coloring. I worked for only one colorful politician, an imposing, avuncular municipal statesman. Once, the statesman and I were going to City Hall. This was in early 1986. The gay rights bill was before the City Council. My statesman polled his district, found his constituents opposed and came out against it. The local gay-bashers, enraged by oncoming defeat, lobbied him anyway.

We had reached the escalator to the Woodside stop on the 7 line when a local scholar, a woman, slipped between the statesman and me to rant about the bill. My boss, probably irritated at my failure to body-block her, played the jolly fat man, chuckling benignly as we rode up the escalator. A train pulled in. People crowded the down side of the escalator. We were within five feet of the top.

At this point his face flushed. He roared, “No, lady! I won’t buy cocaine from you!” and rushed for the train. I followed. She remained, stunned on the platform. It’s been 13 years. She may still be there.

The statesman was opposed for Democratic district leader by an affable right-wing candidate who had unsuccessfully sought office some ten times. The rightist and his wife had seventeen children. He and I were passing out literature at a corner as an older woman came up. She took my stuff. She took his. She noticed the photograph of the candidate, his wife, and their brood. She flung the flier into his face, snarling, “You pervert!”

This job lasted about a year, until the statesman’s driver and I had a disagreement. The driver belted me in the face after I called him an asshole. (He was: he couldn’t resist graphic conversations with his girlfriend, then a discouraged use of the airwaves, and the statesman’s car phone had been disconnected as a result.) In a fatal moment, I told the boss that the driver went or I went.

I went. Good drivers are hard to find.

I enjoyed many such adventures until that life ended on December 31, 1993, when my then-employer, the last City Council president, left office and his successor chose not to retain my services. He and I had tangled before: I had expected it.

I am intolerant of political appointees who whine when a newly elected official fires them in favor of his friends.  Having lived by the sword, I expected to die by it, and I did. Sic transit.

To a regular politician, silence is the paycheck’s price. If one’s opinions are not shared by one’s employer, remain silent or resign. But as a ronin, a masterless samurai, I now had no loyalties commanding discretion.

My opinions are largely conventional: I prefer solving immediate problems to enunciating long-range policy, most of which is bullshit anyway, and there is a lot of truth in the cliche that there is neither a Democratic nor Republican way of picking up garbage.

A few of my opinions, though, are outside the norm. For instance, I believe that despite the ranting about welfare, far more local government spending is largely the investment of public capital for private benefit, i.e., publicly funded improvements to privately managed facilities for immediate private profit and ill-defined public benefit, such as stadium projects for the West Side, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. This merely redistributes wealth from the working classes to the rich.

Issues represent not problems to be solved, but bloody shirts to inflame the rabble. V.O. Key Jr., in his classic Southern Politics in State and Nation, wrote of the Mississippi demagogue James Kemble Vardaman—aka “The Great White Chief”—that “His contribution to statesmanship was advocacy of repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment, an utterly hopeless proposal and for that reason an ideal campaign issue. It would last forever.” In the same vein, adequately funding Social Security, passing a state budget on time, or resolving rent regulation are never resolved. The politicians would then have to invent new issues.

Too many political activists use their activity as therapy: a licensed release for frustrated ambition, hatred, and need to control others. Politicians manipulate these fools to get elected, and later patronize them with little plaques for civic work, unpaid appointments to meaningless boards, or even unimportant paying jobs. Meanwhile, the pols enjoy the perks of office while shaking down businessmen for campaign contributions so their own good times won’t end.

Expressing in mixed company my belief that unborn children are human beings entitled to the right to life quickly placed me in outer darkness. So be it. One step led to another. The laws permitting abortion on demand, being wrong, should be changed by constitutional means. These include peaceful agitation, which includes running for office.

So I became a candidate.

I had advised the Right to Life Party’s state chairman in February that I was available if the party wanted a candidate. One week before the July deadline for filing designating petitions, the local organization got back to me. The Staten Island Right to Life Party organization really isn’t. Organized. Seven or eight volunteers gather sufficient signatures on the party’s designating petitions to qualify its candidates for the ballot.

For the first day of filing, I was the only candidate in the book. Visions of lucky clerical errors danced through my wee little head. Then the others filed before the deadline. Damn.

The campaign was relatively quiet. William Murphy, the pleasant four-term incumbent Richmond County district attorney, had been nominated by the Democratic, Independence, Conservative and Working Families parties. If you went by his political support, he was running farther to the left and to the right than anyone since Norman Mailer ran for mayor on the slogan, “End fluoridation, free Huey Newton.” Catherine DiDomenico, the Republican challenger, though bright, spunky and articulate, was knifed before the campaign began by someone in the GOP apparatus who leaked that four or five other persons had turned down the nomination. And then there was me, Bryk, the lawyer.

The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, a starchy, self-congratulatory professional organization, interviewed the candidates through a committee of self-important men and women. I chose not to participate. I found the questionnaire intrusive.

My lack of faith in the integrity of the enterprise was rewarded when a committee member leaked its confidential deliberations to Murphy’s campaign, who leaked it to the local media. The association approved Murphy’s reelection, and did not approve his Republican opponent. Somehow “Not Approved” became “Not Qualified” in Murphy’s newspaper ads. DiDomenico’s friends counterattacked with a full-page newspaper ad accusing Murphy of favoring the Atlanta Braves over the New York Yankees, which seemed a little desperate to me.

My friends, I found, remained my friends regardless of their opinions on abortion. And audiences were generally polite. In my case, this is probably because (a) I’m polite, (b) I’m articulate and (c) everyone knew that I was going to have my clock cleaned on Election Day.

With the other candidates, I spoke at community forums, from the Staten Island Coalition of Women’s Organizations to the New Brighton Citizens Committee. Murphy calmly recited his accomplishments in office. DiDomenico attacked him as a weak prosecutor and advertised her experience as a legislative counsel and crime victims’ activist. I briefly talked about my background and argued for competent administration and the prosecution of environmental crimes; I occasionally answered questions about the death penalty (I’m against it) and the narcotics laws (I favor relegalizing drugs).

On Election Day, Murphy polled 62 percent, DiDomenico 37 percent and Bryk 2 percent.

Say not that the struggle naught availeth. I had fun, and besides, every man in politics deserves his last hurrah.


New York Press, December 21, 1999

February 17, 2015   Comments Off on How I Got Out of Politics

J. Thomas Heflin, Democrat

Some claim that Mother’s Day was invented by Frank E. Hering, a district governor of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, who first called for Mother’s Day in a 1904 speech in Indianapolis on February 7, 1904. Others hold that Anna M. Jarvis, a wealthy Philadelphia spinster, thought it up. Yet if any man fathered Mother’s Day, he is the Hon. James Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin of Alabama, who as a representative in Congress introduced a joint resolution to designate the second Sunday in May as a day dedicated “to the best mother in the world: your mother.” In 1914, President Wilson signed Cotton Tom’s bill. There are those who argue that this was Heflin’s major contribution to American life. If so, it would be more than we get from most politicians.

He was born on April 9, 1869, the second son of Dr. Wilson and Lavicie Catherine Heflin. After his 1893 admission to the Alabama bar, Heflin practiced law for about a year and then found a job as a clerk in the county courthouse. He would not leave the public payroll for nearly four decades.

For a politician, the ability to entertain an audience may be more useful than intelligence or common sense. Tom Heflin was a great entertainer. He had been a storyteller from childhood, developing a standup comic’s sense of timing, and combined this skill with a great natural instrument, described by The New York World on January 29, 1928 as “a voice of marvelous flexibility and power which he used with conscious and calculated effect. He can be strident when he is denouncing his enemies, or his voice can sink to the soft diapason of an organ when he grows gentle.”

Heflin’s eloquence was more a question of manner than content. Derived from the full-blown bombast current in his youth, his orations were filled with showers of rhetorical sparks and Roman-candle phrases, rich with alliterative generalities and mellifluous polysyllables that were meant to glow and expire. One supporter said, “He can take any two words you mention and turn them into the Declaration of Independence and have enough left over to write the Book of Revelations.”

Thus, he eulogized Alabama’s leading crop: “Cotton is a child of the sun; it is kissed by the silvery beams of a southern moon, and bathed in the crystal dew drops that fall in the silent watches of the night.” He denounced his opponents as those who would “tear the stars from the flag of Alabama and leave the stripes as a token of her shame.” Whether his audiences were edified or stupefied by his magniloquence is another question.

He dressed the part, affecting white linen or cotton suits in summer, with ivory double-breasted waistcoats. In winter, he wore spats, frockcoats, and pin-striped trousers. Around a high, stiff collar, Heflin knotted a huge flowering bow tie and topped off the ensemble with a black, broad-brimmed slouch hat. And, as was said of Warren G. Harding, “the son-of-a-bitch looked like a United States Senator.”

He was elected mayor of his hometown of Lafayette in 1892, register in chancery of Chambers County in 1894, state representative in 1896, delegate to the State Constitutional Convention in 1901, and Alabama secretary of state in 1902. In 1904, he went to the U.S. House of Representatives. He favored free trade and a progressive income tax, opposed high railroad freight rates, and denounced corporate monopolies. Later, he supported the League of Nations, whose detractors he considered tools of arms merchants.

He also defended lynching as a natural response to interracial rape and called for racial segregation on public transportation. One March evening in 1908, Heflin was aboard a Washington trolley. As the car stopped, he noticed a Negro passenger taking a drink of whiskey only a few seats from a white woman. The outraged congressman dragged the drinker from the streetcar. Witnesses said that the Negro cursed at Heflin and reached into his own pocket. Heflin thought he was going to be attacked. Like any self-respecting Southern gentleman of the day, Heflin was packing heat, and drawing his revolver fired on the man, hitting him in the neck and an innocent bystander in the leg.

The police arrested Heflin for assault with a deadly weapon. Allan A. Michie, in Dixie Demagogues, describes the scene at the stationhouse:

“What’s your name,” growled the sergeant.
“J. Thomas Heflin.”
“I’m a Democrat.”
“Oh! Well, what’s your occupation?”
“I’m a Democrat.”

Eventually, the charges were dropped.

When Senator John H. Bankhead died in 1920, Heflin was elected to the vacant seat and won reelection in 1924. As a freshman senator, he launched a crusade against the Federal Reserve when it raised the discount rate, causing a deflation that threw five million people out of work. Heflin denounced this as a deliberate plot of the Money Kings. He regaled his constituents with humorous anecdotes.

A man said to a Republican, “Harding and his crowd put me on my feet.” Well, the Republican interrupted him with delight. “You didn’t let me finish,” the man said. “When the Democrats were in office, I could afford a car. Now I have to walk.”

Heflin’s oratory was most attractive when ironic—as when Sen. William E. Borah, the self-proclaimed Lion of Idaho, roared in disingenuous opposition to a bill to raise senators’ salaries. “Senator Borah,” the Alabamian purred, “reminds me of John Allen, an old soak who pretended he had no taste for the mint julep his wife was preparing.” He want on:

After protesting long enough, John Allen took that mint julep, with frost on the sides of the glass, a bank of sugar an inch deep on the bottom, and three strawberries nesting thereon like so many eggs in a robin’s nest, while the mint leaned lovingly over the rim of the glass; John Allen took that mint julep in his hand, and the amber-colored liquid flowed over the velvet folds of his stomach like a dewdrop sinking into the heart of a rose.”

During the 1920s, the Mexican revolutionary government began nationalizing its American-controlled oil industry. Some investors, believing that American foreign policy existed to ensure their profits, demanded an invasion to regain their property. Heflin opposed any intervention, charging that the Knights of Columbus were conspiring with Big Oil to interfere with Mexico.

The charge was not wholly unfounded. The Knights of Columbus openly favored the overthrow of Mexico’s anti-clerical regime. Wealthy Catholic oilmen financed some of its propaganda. But Heflin soon lost all credibility with wilder accusations of bewildering irrelevance. He charged that a Catholic employee of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving had engraved a rosary on a new dollar bill (it was the filigree work around Washington’s portrait). He attacked the White House for purchasing scarlet drapes—cardinal red, of course—which he claimed was further proof of the Vatican’s ascendancy in the United States.

Heflin campaigned against Catholicism across the country, drawing thousands to Klan-sponsored meetings for $150 to $250 a speech. When the 1928 Democratic national convention nominated Alfred E. Smith, Catholic governor of New York, for president, Heflin brought his campaign to the Empire State, addressing thousands at a meeting sponsored by the United Protestant Alliance in Richmond Hill, Queens, amidst posters reading, “KEEP THE ROMAN MENACE OUT.”

Bigotry was one thing; bolting the party was something else. The Alabama Democratic State Executive Committee ruled that only loyalists who had supported Smith in 1928 could be candidates at the 1930 state primaries, which barred Heflin from seeking the Democratic nomination. After an unsuccessful appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, Heflin ran as an independent.

The Democrats nominated John H. Bankhead II, son of Heflin’s predecessor and uncle of actress Tallulah Bankhead. In those days before television completely altered the nature of campaigning, Heflin stumped the state in person, going from town to town, drawing and amusing enormous crowds with set-pieces like the story of Uncle Johnny and the telephone. It seems that Uncle Johnny was afraid of the contraption and didn’t believe it would work. One day his friends put a call through to his wife several miles away and dragged him to the telephone. Just as he picked up the receiver, a bolt of lightning struck the building, followed by a blast of thunder. Uncle Johnny was knocked ten feet. “It works!” he yelled. “That was my old woman all right—it sure was.” Then Heflin would say, “It takes a good bolt of lightning to wake up some people. Maybe some of us need a shock like Uncle Johnny to realize that behind the strange doings of Alfred E. Smith is their master’s voice in the Vatican at Rome. The Pope is ready to try again in 1932.”

Bankhead defeated Heflin by 150,000 to 100,000 votes. Cotton Tom contested the outcome, arguing that he had been illegally barred from the primary and that the general election had been fraudulent. After an investigation spanning fifteen months and costing over $100,000, the Senate’s Privileges and Elections Committee found Bankhead had been validly nominated and had no direct link to any irregularities, and that the disputed votes would not have changed the outcome.

On April 26, 1932, as the Senate considered the committee’s recommendation, Heflin sought permission to speak from the floor. It was an extraordinary request. By now, Bankhead had been seated. Nonetheless, over the fierce objection of the majority leader, the Senate granted Heflin its permission—by one vote. Red-faced with emotion, Cotton Tom held the floor for five hours. As he thundered to a conclusion, the gallery audience, packed with his supporters, jumped to its feet with a roar of approval. Heflin’s great performance was nonetheless his last hurrah: two days later, the Senate voted against him, 64 to 18.

Heflin never lost hope of a comeback. He ran for Congress in 1934 and lost. He scraped out a living on patronage, serving as a Federal Housing Administration special representative and a special assistant U.S. attorney. When FDR nominated one of Alabama’s U.S. senators, Hugo Black, to the Supreme Court, the old war-horse ran for the vacant seat at a December 1937 special election. He lauded FDR as the greatest man who ever lived and attacked the Federal Reserve as the “great money masters of the East [who] shear us with panics like the shepherd does his sheep.”

In the last days of the campaign, Heflin developed pneumonia. He was delirious in a hospital bed during the voting and did not know he had lost by nearly two to one for several days. “When I told him,” his secretary said, “he wasn’t bitter at all. He just said, ‘The Lord takes care of his children, and there are other things to be thankful for!'” By the spring of 1938, Heflin was out campaigning again, this time for Congress, and again he lost. He managed to get his job back at the Federal Housing Administration, where he remained until 1942. Whenever he was in the nation’s capital, he found time to use his privilege as a former senator of access to the floor, often finding a vacant seat and sitting quietly with his eyes closed, listening to the debate.

In his last years his mind wandered, and he believed himself still a senator and needed at the Capitol. His relatives occasionally had to come down to the Greyhound station in Lafayette and gently take the old man, dressed in his threadbare frock coat and battered slouch hat, off the Washington bus. He died in Lafayette, the town where he’d been born, on April 22, 1951.

New York Press, May 14, 2003

February 16, 2015   No Comments

The College of Cardinals

The Code of Canon Law defines the College of Cardinals—a college in that its members are each other’s colleagues—as “the senate of the Roman Pontiff…his chief counselors and collaborators in the government of the Church.” If, as Jerrold Packard wrote, the U.S. Senate is the world’s most exclusive club, the Sacred College is a close second, and its members keep their rank for life. “Cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo, -inis. First used in a figurative sense, the word is usually rendered in English as “hinge,” a device that, in serving as a juncture for two opposing forces, establishes harmony. Dr. J.C. Noonan Jr., in The Church Visible, his 1996 book on the Church and its protocol, suggests “pivot,” a small nail-like device, on which symbolically hangs the relationship between heaven and earth.

Their major role remains the election of a pope. Over a reign now in its third decade, John Paul II has elevated nearly all the cardinals who will elect his successor. If a mortal man can set the future course of the barque of Peter, he has. On February 21, 2001, the Holy Father elevated forty-four men to the cardinalate. The selections, though based on consultation, were his alone. At the private consistory—the ceremony at which new cardinals are formally named—the Pope asked the consent of the assembled cardinals by asking, Quid vobis videtur? (“How does this seem to you?”) The question is rhetorical: no one disagrees. At last month’s ceremony, the Holy Father handed each man the red hat of office, reminding them that it is “the distinctive sign of the Cardinal’s dignity: that even unto death and the shedding of your blood you will show yourself courageous…”

As expected, among them was Edward Egan, the new archbishop of New York. Since 1875, when John McCloskey, the second archbishop of New York, became the first American cardinal, all but one of his successors have received the red hat.

The incumbents of a few other American sees also almost automatically become princes of the Church: Baltimore, New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. The key word is “almost.” St. Louis has had no cardinal-archbishop in nearly a generation. John May, who was its archbishop during the 1980s, though a disastrous president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, somehow felt he deserved elevation to the Sacred College. The person who mattered did not share this belief. May never received the hat. Neither has his successor.

Cardinal is a rank, not an office. Thanks to Pope Urban VIII, a cardinal is styled “eminence,” a style then shared only with reigning princes. He is conversationally addressed as “Your Eminence,” more formally, as Most Eminent Lord or Most Eminent Cardinal. Describing a cardinal as a prince of the Church is no figure of speech but a statement of fact founded in international law. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 ratified the confirmations of the Congresses of Vienna and Berlin that a cardinal held a status equal to that of a prince of the blood royal.

Cardinals still take official precedence behind only emperors, kings, and heads of state. Their relations with each other are also governed by exquisitely elaborate etiquette: even in the early 20th century, the master of ceremonies of a Roman cardinal receiving foreign cardinals had to determine the proper placement of each eminence in relation both to the host and to the door.

At the beginning, cardinals were workaday priests. Only the twelve apostles were considered possessed of full priestly powers through the commission entrusted them at the Last Supper. Their assistants, entitled deacons, were mere laymen. Cletus, the pope, recognizing a growing Church’s need for more priests (the word derives from prebyteri, “elders”), ordained 25 men to say Mass in the different Roman districts, or parishes. Some deacons and priests, who had been provided with assistants, were called cardinal deacons and cardinal priests. A third category, cardinal bishops, came into being by the ninth century. The word “cardinal” was thus an adjective, connoting a duty or assignment.

Yet each cardinal, then as now, was nominally a priest of the diocese of Rome, assigned a Roman parish. From the beginning, they elected their own bishop. As successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome held primacy among the bishops of the Church. When the Western Roman Empire disappeared at the end of the fifth century, the Roman pontiff became the most important office in Europe and his electors increased in worldly prestige. By the 11th century, the adjective had become a noun, conferred as a title, and the cardinals began functioning collectively as the Sacred College.

Although the Church itself is perfect, those who led it were not. With power came corruption. Cardinals came to hold vast perquisites. The office was sought for material gain rather than the service of the Church. Thus, the sons of nobles were made cardinals while still children, with little boys being dressed in clerical robes as a fulfillment of their office. The rank was even conferred on non-priests. Maurice Andrieux quoted one cardinal thus: “I know neither theology nor church history, but I know how to live in a court.”

Thus the Church came to endure the Borgia popes. Rodrigo Borgia, whose uncle, Pope Calixtus III, made him a cardinal at twenty-four, was elected pope by flagrant bribery. As Alexander VI, he granted the red hat to his bastard son, Cesare Borgia, who was neither a priest nor yet eighteen years of age. Even in the context of the Renaissance, Cesare’s conduct was somewhat unconventional for a cardinal. A poisoner and murderer, he assassinated his own brother and successfully conspired with his Pontifical father to assassinate the Duke of Bisceglie, whose marriage to Cesare’s sister, Lucrezia, was impeding her search for personal happiness.

Yet the gates of hell did not prevail. A later pope, Sixtus V, an honest and ruthless man, decreed requirements for prospective cardinals. They included a novel idea: that a cardinal be a man of blameless reputation. Sixtus also forbade anyone with children or grandchildren, living or dead, legitimate or otherwise, or who had a brother, cousin, nephew, or uncle who was already a cardinal. Our word “nepotism,” after all, comes from the Latin nepos, which means “nephew,” among other things.

Even into recent history, a Roman cardinal was expected to maintain a certain outward show of pomp, often employing at least fifty servants: chamberlains, chaplains, masters of ceremonies, lawyers, physicians, lackeys, cooks, porters, and coachmen. An enormous retinue was expected on formal public occasions: in the 18th century, Cardinal de Bernis never departed his residence without thirty-eight footmen, eight couriers, ten Swiss guards, four gentlemen, two chaplains, and eight valets-de-chambre. This did not include his coachmen, grooms and equerries on horseback. Even the shabbiest cardinal had at least three coaches—black, decorated with gilded bronze mountings—to his name. (As Lord Hervey wrote, the playthings of princes, be they ever so trifling, ought always to be gilt.)

By contrast, however, New York’s cardinals have not subjected their people to the Renaissance extravagances of the old Roman cardinals. Like most American cardinals, they were not aristocrats; they were usually quiet, hard working and incorruptible.

Finally, one other New Yorker received the red hat last month: Father Avery Dulles, a convert, decorated ex-naval officer, Jesuit, theologian, writer, and teacher. At eighty-two, he has published twenty-one books and more than 650 articles. His father, a great-uncle, and a great-grandfather were secretaries of state of the United States; an uncle was the founding administrator of the Central Intelligence Agency; yet another great-grandfather was speaker of the House of Representatives.

Dulles, born a Presbyterian, was agnostic when he entered Harvard in 1936. There his studies of Aristotle gave him confidence in human reason. Plato persuaded him of a transcendent order of right and wrong in which one has an unconditional obligation to do right, implying an absolute being to impose that obligation upon us. The Gospels reaffirmed what he had learned from the Greeks and added the idea of a loving, merciful, and forgiving God—one who had offered rescue “when we had slipped and fallen overboard,” Dulles has said. His love of the early Renaissance required him to understand its context, and thus he studied the writings of the early Church fathers, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and Dante. It was a solitary journey: he had no close friends who were practicing Catholics, and through the exercise of his reason, he came to believe.

He converted to Catholicism in 1940, much to his father’s distress; served in the Navy during World War II, and returned after an attack of polio in Naples (its sole evidence the cane with which Dulles walks) to enter the Society of Jesus. Francis Cardinal Spellman ordained him in 1956.

Dulles has been a teacher since 1951. There is some talk that Fordham may give him a larger office. As Cardinal Dulles is more than eighty years old, he cannot vote for the next pope. Though the oldest man elevated in February 2001, as a priest he is the most junior of cardinals.

As may all princes, Dulles has taken a coat of arms. In the language of heraldry, his achievement of arms is ensigned by the red galero, the broad-brimmed cardinal’s hat from which are suspended fifteen red fiocchi, or tassels, on either side. Behind the shield is the jeweled episcopal cross and staff symbolizing his rank. Below is his motto, taken from the second letter of Timothy, scio cui credidi, “I know whom I have believed.” The shield is divided per fess, horizontally. In base, the lower half, appear the lilies of France, an example of punning heraldry, for his family believes their name was derived from the French de lys. In chief, the upper half, appears IHS, the Greek abbreviation of Jesus. There the old sailor also placed a single star. It is an attribute of St. Mary, Mother of Jesus, whom Catholics hail as Our Lady of Refuge, of Pity, of Reparation, and of Reconciliation, the Help of Christians, Queen of Peace, whom some call Star of the Sea.

New York Press, March 20, 2001

February 15, 2015   No Comments

The Witch, the Wench & the Colonel

At her death, the Witch of Wall Street was worth more than J. P. Morgan, and nearly all of it was in cash. Yet Hetty Green had worn the same dress for thirty years and lived in squalor. The Witch’s son Ned was another matter, a six-foot, four-inch, 300-pound eccentric who tossed away $3 million a year on cars, coins, stamps, female “wards,” pornography, yachts, and Texas politics.

Henrietta Howland Robinson was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 21, 1835. She inherited about $1 million outright from her father in 1865 and a life interest in $5 million. She was tall, full-figured, and handsome, with “a bosom full and high,” large, bright blue, intelligent eyes, regular features, and a fine, delicate, peach-blossom complexion that she retained into old age. Edward H. Green, a wealthy Vermonter, fell in love with her as she walked into the dining room in Boston’s Parker House.

With a pre-nuptial agreement under which each remained independent of the other in financial matters, they married in 1867. After eight years in London, the couple returned to America to live in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Here Hetty began to show an obsessive parsimony, spending half the night looking for a two-cent stamp she had mislaid, wearing wildly outdated clothes that were never mended or replaced, and not washing to save money on soap. (In later years, Mrs. Green’s economy led guests in hotel dining-rooms to ask for Hetty to be seated as far away from them as possible.) She became notorious and a favorite target for reporters with a satirical eye.

Mr. Green found Mrs. Green embarrassing. Relocating the family to New York, he took a bachelor apartment in an expensive men’s residential hotel, while Hetty, though wealthier than ever, lived with her children in cheap flats in Brooklyn and Hoboken, frequently moving to evade state taxes. They rarely paid more than twenty-two dollars a month for rent or five dollars a week for food.

In 1886, her son Ned was knocked down and dragged by a cart at Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street, severely injuring his right leg. She refused to pay doctors’ fees, instead making the rounds of free medical clinics in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She was recognized and turned away because she refused to pay although she could afford to. Eventually she had to take Ned to a doctor who, by then, could do nothing but advise amputation. It was that or death by gangrene, but Hetty would not—perhaps could not—pay for a doctor. Finally, her husband paid for the procedure, and the youth’s leg was cut off about seven inches above the knee.

Yet the boy remained loyal to his mother, who had begun to recognize his flair for business. Within months, Ned had become Hetty’s agent, first in Chicago and then Texas. During his stay in the Windy City, his lodge brothers, realizing the lad was an innocent at twenty-two, arranged an appointment for him at a house of mirth, ensuring first that the madam understood the guest of honor was a shy one-legged virgin.

The voluptuous redhead who entertained him, Mabel Harlow, was a thorough professional, skillful, tolerant, and kindly, who had learned her trade in Dallas and Houston before hitting the big time. Ned fell immediately in love but Mabel, uninterested in commitment, left town on the next train.

One of Hetty’s lesser enterprises, the Texas Midland Railroad, was fifty-one miles of unprofitable rusty rail connecting no place with nowhere. She sent Ned to make it viable. He stumped into the American National Bank of Terrell, Texas, bearing a cashier’s check for $500,000. This was then twice the bank’s capital. The bankers wired Hetty for confirmation. She replied that Ned had a mole on his forehead and a cork leg. He showed both to the bankers. They took the check. Then they made him a vice president.

Of those days, he later said, “I felt wonderful. I was fancy free.” Looking down at his cork leg, he added, “You might also say I was footloose.” Shortly after Ned’s arrival in Texas, the Governor made him an honorary colonel. Ned ordered gold-braided uniforms from Brooks Brothers for the next inaugural ball and used the title for the rest of his life.

He also became interested in Republican politics, befriending an unlikely but powerful state boss, William Madison “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald, a gangly black man with a bobbing Adam’s apple.

After working his way through Roger Williams College, Gooseneck Bill had returned to the Lone Star State as a teacher. This was no way to get rich, so he also sold insurance for fraternal orders and went into politics. Texas Democrats then banned blacks from membership. So McDonald joined the Republicans. While the GOP was then an electoral dead-end in a former Confederate state, the Texas Republicans sent delegates to their party’s national convention, where Presidential candidates wanted their votes.

McDonald was soon able to buy and sell jobs, do deals, get contracts, and begin making money. But no Negro could become State Republican chairman. He needed a white man to front for him, like the large, affable railroad president from Terrell. McDonald planted the seed of ambition: State Chairman, Governor, maybe…. In September, 1896, following McDonald’s advice (“Never bribe a man with a check. Always use cash.”), Ned overwhelmed the State convention in a tidal wave of babes, booze, and gold, winning the first of four terms as State party chairman.

In his private life, Colonel Green behaved as if he had just invented sex and couldn’t wait to spread the idea around. When the Texas Midland bought an opera house as its office building, Edward used its top floor as his apartment, where he received an ever-changing array of women, including occasional professional talent from Dallas. He and his friends enjoyed snapping photographs of each other flagrante delicto, perhaps foreshadowing his robust taste for pornography.

One day Ned and Mabel met by accident in the lobby of the town’s hotel. (She was in Terrell on business.) She said, “Hiya, Eddie,” and they fell into each other’s arms. This time, Mabel stuck around to become the Colonel’s “housekeeper.” As she was easily bored and her only friends were whores, Mabel occasionally bolted town after a few drinks to return to her trade. Gooseneck Bill repeatedly tracked her down, had her arrested, and ensured her return to Terrell on the next train.

In the meantime, Hetty, who referred to Miss Harlow as Miss Harlot, had been busy on the stock market. As Lucius Beebe observed in The Big Spenders, “The New York Stock Exchange had hitherto been a closely guarded present of purely masculine rapacity, but Hetty, in the guise of a sort of reverse Florence Nightingale, was soon stacking the maimed and dying like cordwood as a result of her ruthless operations, and bears and bulls alike were licking financial wounds that were pitiful to behold.”

But indulging the odd occasional bout of securities manipulation was merely a pastime. She made her real money as a loan shark, lending money to bankers and brokers at the highest possible rate of interest from her rent-free desk at the Seaboard National Bank’s Wall Street office, where she always had $40 to $50 million on deposit.

During the Panic of 1907, perhaps her finest hour, the Knickerbocker Trust Company failed for $52 million. There was no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation then: the depositors lost their savings. Hetty was not among them. Several weeks before the crash, she had told a friend to get her money out of the Knickerbocker. Hetty had already done so. “The men in that bank are too good-looking,” she explained. “You mark my words.”

Meanwhile, she continued to live in obscure and shabby boarding houses, sometimes in unfurnished rooms where she did her own cooking on a single gas plate. In April, 1916, while staying with a friend, the old lady suffered a stroke after arguing with the housekeeper over extravagance. The cook, Hetty claimed, was bankrupting her employer by using whole milk where skimmed would do. She died two months later: the Colonel had paid for round-the-clock care, the nurses dressing as maids lest Hetty have another stroke at the thought of the expense. She left $100 million to her two children.

At the time of his mother’s death, Colonel Green usually wore rimless spectacles, wing collars and, except on the very saddest occasions, a bemused smile. Thereafter, some say, his way of life became a protest against the penury that had cost him a leg. He collected stamps, coins, and pornography without restraint.

Hetty had been dead for less than a month when Ned married Mabel. To celebrate his nuptials, the Colonel wanted the world’s largest private yacht. With World War I raging, the Colonel was unable to order a vessel to his design. He inquired whether J. P. Morgan’s Corsair or Vincent Astor’s Nourmahal were available. They were not. Instead, he purchased a Great Lakes excursion steamer, the S.S. United States. It was only 195 feet long, shorter than Corsair. Green solved the problem by having the United States lengthened by sixty-one feet. When finished, the main cabin was 28 by 32 feet, with an open fieldstone fireplace. Here, the Colonel’s  imagination failed him and the boat’s interior was furnished by John Wanamaker’s department store

When the United States arrived at Round Hill, the Colonel’s residence in Buzzards Bay, he encountered an insurmountable obstacle. The steamer burned nearly two tons of coal a day just keeping up enough steam pressure to activate the showers and fire lines. In wartime, nothing like this was available for a single civilian’s use. Then, on August 21, 1919, the United States sank at its mooring in sixteen feet of water. Colonel Green’s pride took ten hours to go down in broad daylight. There were no casualties; the furnishings were recovered; and the boat was scrapped.

In any case, he was finding that the money now piled up without his help. Eventually, the only words he was uttering at directors’ meetings were the motion to adjourn. Respectable neighbors on the Cape only noticed him when the Goodyear blimp he loved to moor to a tree on his front lawn got loose and was pursued by its custodians over their immaculately groomed estates. But he was wildly popular as a prize spendthrift of the Miami winter season. He signaled his arrival by presenting a $20 gold piece to each traffic policeman and would repeat the gesture when he went back North.

Colonel Green usually carried sufficient pocket money for emergencies. Once, he was breakfasting at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas with Edward Harper, president of the Security National Bank. Just as the sausages were coming to the table, a shaken emissary rushed in to tell the banker of a run on his bank. Unwilling to see his guest inconvenienced, Green pulled out his wallet and counted out twenty $10,000 banknotes. As this might have been insufficient, Green sent a bellboy to his suite, instructing him to fetch a battered Gladstone lying on the bed. It proved to be almost entirely filled with $10,000 bills, from which the Colonel counted out another thirty and handed them to Harper, no receipt necessary. Half a million dollars proved sufficient to save the bank, and Green had the valise returned to his rooms instructing the bellboy to stow it safely in the closet.

Still, now and then his mother’s thrifty ways would surface in the Colonel too. When his estate foreman told him that fifty gallons of flat paint were needed for the outbuildings, the Colonel bought a carload, paying $1.00 a can instead of the retail price of twice that amount. Reportedly, the foreman never figured out what to do with the extra 3,000 gallons.

Ned’s right leg had been buried in the Green family plot of Immanuel Church, in Bellows Falls, Vermont. In 1936, the rest of him joined it. His last joke came during probate. Among the objets d’art that made up the appurtenances of the estate was one that resembled a crown: large, bejeweled, gilt and enamel. One lawyer finally picked it up and to inspect it. He suddenly wrinkled his nose. “Gentlemen,” he said, “it’s a chamber pot. And it’s been used.”

New York Press, April 28, 1999

February 14, 2015   1 Comment

The Iconoclast


From New York Press, September 3, 1998

Some years ago, while researching William Cowper Brann, editor of The Iconoclast, a turn-of-the-century Waco, Texas monthly, I encountered the multi-talented New York–born George Graham Rice, one of America’s most successful and unscrupulous promoter-swindlers. This resulted from a natural confusion: one of Rice’s stock market tout sheets was also named The Iconoclast.

Colonel Brann (in those days most Southern editors were addressed formally as “Colonel,” owing perhaps to the degree of violence involved in the profession of journalism in that region), was a village atheist who wrote scintillating prose, supporting his paper with an admirably profitable sideline in pornography (“They were not texts from which a minister could take his lesson,” admitted one biographer). H. L. Mencken praised him as “the Voltaire of the Staked Plains” and “the greatest writer ever born in Toadsuck, Texas.” Like Villemessant of Le Figaro, the Texan believed that if a story didn’t cause a duel or a lawsuit, it wasn’t any good. Alas, while Brann was exposing some sex scandal at Baylor University, an outraged alumnus accosted the Colonel on the street and induced his death by severe lead poisoning, having shot him several times in the back.

Unlike Brann’s, Rice’s prose is utilitarian. He described himself as “a facile man with a pen”—“When news was scarce I could write more about nothing than any man I ever met.”—but his memoirs, written before his fiftieth birthday, mingle paragraphs of audacity with pages of unreadable self-justification. The book is not as much fun as its title: My Adventures With Your Money.

Rice flourished in those last innocent decades before the Securities and Exchange Acts placed restraints on a promoter’s enthusiasms. His admirer, J. S. A. “Alphabet” MacDonald, a/k/a Colonel John R. Stingo, praised him to A. J. Liebling, not as “a thief,” or even “a truly great thief,” but as a pisseur—“an appellation,” Liebling explained, “used for objects of his highest approval, like P. T. Barnum’s Jumbo, Elbert Hubbard, William Randolph Hearst, Boss Croker, or Al Jennings, the bank robber.”

He was born Jacob Simon Herzig in 1870. Disowned by his nice middle-class family after doing time for forgery, he resurfaced under a new name in New Orleans, reporting for the Times Democrat. By coincidence, he was in Galveston, Texas during the great hurricane of September 8, 1900, when the seawall broke and the Gulf laid waste the city. Rice escaped the tidal wave, stole a horse, found a working telegraph office, and—he claimed—was among the first reporters to get out the story.

Being Rice, he double-billed his expenses, was fired, lost his money gambling, and changed careers.


It is there he begins his memoirs, writing, “The place was New York. The time was March, 1901. My age was thirty. My cash capital was $7.30. I was out of a job.” Rice began making book, doing business as Maxim & Gay. (A partnership sounded more respectable than a one-man bookie operation.) He took the first name from a machine gun and the second from a sign he’d seen in the street. Within a year, he was publishing a sprightly racing sheet, Daily America.

Touting the publisher’s own bookmaking firm for its skill and integrity in horse-picking was acceptable, almost traditional. Rice’s flaw, then and throughout his life, was lack of restraint.  As bettors began wagering by the Gospel according to Rice, he began systematically manipulating the odds, day after day, by reporting, not reporting, or inventing stories about the horses, the jockeys, the stables, and the tracks was not.

His competitors lacked a sense of humor about losing money and acted against him in mysterious ways. Rice lost control of his paper to The Daily Racing Form, and was soon broke. He went west.

In 1903, men died of thirst in the desert at the place that would become Tonopah, Nevada. Two years later, Tonopah had come into booming existence as the center of the last great North American gold rush. It was overrun with miners, prospectors, gamblers, vaudeville performers, mining stock promoters, boxers, newspaper reporters, and ladies of frail virtue. Main Street was a two-thousand-foot-long strip of bars, dance halls, and gambling dens, with fandango houses (a euphemism for love store or house of carnal recreation) every fifty feet. “Water was four dollars a barrel,” Rice wrote, “and there was some talk of building a church.”

It was a fast town. Lucius Beebe wrote in Mixed Train Daily of a trigger-happy bad man who descended from a Pullman of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad, investigated the resources of the Nose Paint Bar, shot up the Tonopah Bank & Trust Company, and became the unwilling guest of honor at a neck-stretching party, all within three hours. Rice suggests the Bank was better robbed from within: “It was a tin bank, literally and figuratively, being constructed of corrugated tin plate with a false front, and when it went up the flume in 1907, the officers having been informal in their book-keeping, the aggregate cash balance in the safe was eighty cents.”

Rice had barely stepped down from the train when he encountered a former gambling associate who wanted to peddle shares of stock in the Tonopah Home Gold Mine. There was no mine, not even a hole in the ground. The Tonopah Home Gold Mine was merely a claim in an area near a gold strike, and the mining rights were held on a one-year lease. But the corporation had been organized and stock certificates printed up. This important factor eliminated “the delay and expense incident to preparing something for the immediate consumption of the public.”

As a mining stock promoter, Rice believed “having a market is as important as having a mine.” He established a news bureau to provide colorful stories about the mines, the miners, and the gold being found at Tonopah, and the nearby towns of Goldfield, Manhattan, Rawhide, and Bullfrog. He began wiring “reports of gold discoveries, shooting affrays, gamblers’ feuds, stampedes, hold-ups, narrow escapes, murders, and so forth. Some of them were true.”

At his most shameless, he could write a description of an ore sample from the Balloon Hill mine in Rawhide as “gold with a little rock in it,” going on to say, “When a man is broke in Rawhide, he can always eat. All he has to do is go…pan out breakfast money.” He describes concocting a story about an attempted robbery of the Tonopah Home Mine’s manager, complete with gunplay, posses, runaway horses, and dynamite explosions. He regretted only that the pressure of events prevented him from the ultimate touch: “I should have seen to it that the mine manager was actually robbed.”

Eventually, he and other promoters (Rice was not unique: merely more organized than most) even hired workers, leased mining equipment, dug shafts, and ran pumps and machinery night and day, not to search for gold, but to look busy for potential investors and visiting journalists. Just for the fun of it, he arranged a phony strike and riot, complete with torching a mine house, for the unwitting benefit of the wildly successful sex novelist Elinor Glyn, who was writing stories on the West for the Hearst papers.

He began promoting Tonopah Home at fifteen cents a share. “In my enthusiasm,” he later recalled, “I wrote stories about [the mine] which might have induced the reader to believe that when all the riches of that great treasure house were mined, gold would be demonetized.”

Tonopah Home was the first of many. Rice puffed and promoted the Four Aces, Gold Scepter, Bullfrog Gold Bar, Stray Dog, Jumping Jack, Flying Pig, Red Top, Silver Pick, Inspiration, Nevada Wonder, and dozens more, all for ten,twenty-five, or fifty cents a share. Looking back, he wrote, “It was an orgy in market manipulation and money fleecing that had no parallel in history. As a mining stock boom it was a dizzy bewildering success, full of red fire and explosions to the last curtain climax.”

For example, his syndicate purchased the Tramps Consolidated Gold Mine for $150,000 in notes; sold two million shares at fifty cents each, paying the notes from the proceeds; issued Rice and his associates 500,000 shares as a bonus and puffed the stock up to three dollars on the San Francisco Mining Exchange through dishonest publicity and wash sales, secretly buying and selling the same stock over and over again to generate artificial activity and attract investor interest. Then they unloaded. “Today,” Rice wrote in 1915, “the stock is at three cents a share and has never paid a dividend.”

Rice continued, “The Goldfield Daisy went from fifteen cents to six dollars a share. At one time, its market value was $9 million. It never earned a dime. Great Bend never even opened a mine. Yet it went from ten cents to $2.50 a share.” Pointing to a successful project, the Mohawk of Goldfield, which went from ten cents to $20 a share, Rice argued that “two hundred to one money is more than can be won on a long shot at the races and not so much less than the old Louisiana Lottery.” (Rice does not remind his reader that the old Louisiana Lottery was fixed.)

Over 2,000 mining companies were organized, raising over $200 million from investors, nearly all of which was lost. Rice said, “Far more gold was extracted from the pockets of speculators than from the Nevadan alkali. Stocks boomed up to $1.50 are now selling for five cents, others from one to three cents, and many not at all.”

By 1907, the book was dying. As one adventurer, Waymon Hogue, wrote in his 1932 autobiography, Back Yonder, “The road was full of men going to and coming from the mines. We met many who looked disappointed and dejected. We were stopped by a man wanting a match. He was a middle-aged man, carrying a bundle tied up in a red bandanna handkerchief suspended from a stick which he carried on his shoulder. Tom asked him the distance to the gold diggings.

“T’ey’s not any coldt,” he said. “T’ey toldt you a lie—a cot dam lie. You are a tam fool if you go up t’ere!”

“Wal, mister,” said Tom, “we want work. Do you thank they will give us work?”

“T’ey gif you not’ing,” he said. “T’ey got no work. T’ey got no goldt. It’s all a cot tam lie!” Saying this, he walked on.

By the late 1940s, Lucius Beebe wrote in Highball, “The big hotel at Goldfield was a haunted house, no longer did the glittering roulette wheels spin the Bank Club and the Double Eagle; the Palace and Heritage saloons were a memory and lizards sunned themselves among the cellarage debris of what had once been the glittering Montezuma Club.”

Undaunted, Rice in association with one J. L. “God Bless You” Lindsay began promoting copper mines. Some copper had reportedly been found at Greenwater, Nevada, by Charles M. Schwab’s Greenwater & Death Valley Mining Company. Rice immediately organized and promoted the Greenwater-Death Valley Consolidated Mines (similar corporate names were never a coincidence in Rice’s business), El Capitan Vindicator, Copper Queen, Crackerjack, and other mining companies.

It was all fake. There were surface copper carbonates, but no exploitable ore bodies. To Rice’s disappointment, “The boom busted when only $30 million had been paid in.” But his professional pride reasserts itself: “Greenwater: it exists no more. All mine development work ceased long ago. The ‘mines’ have been dismantled of their machinery and other equipment, and not even a lone watchman remains to point out to the desert wayfarer the spot on which was reared the monumental mining stock swindle of the century. Every dollar invested by the public was lost. The dry, hot winds of the sand-swept desert now chant their requiem.”

After all, there had been gold in Goldfield: creating the copper boom at Greenwater had been a matter of artistry.

The Copper Handbook of 1908, a copper industry almanac  proudly quoted by Rice, commented on the Greenwater-Death Valley Consolidated: “Taking the lowest percentage of ore reported by the company, and the company’s own figures as to the size of its ore-bodies, the first 100 feet in depth on this wonderful property would carry up to 20,000,000 tons of refined copper, worth, at thirteen cents per pound, the comparatively trifling sum of five billion, two hundred million dollars.

“It is indeed lamentable to note that this magnificent mine, which carries, according to the company’s own statements, more copper than all the developed copper mines of the world, is idle and its present office address a mystery.”

Rice later operated bucket shops (a gambling house disguised as a brokerage firm, where customers did not buy stocks but wagered on their fluctuations) as well as promoting still more cheap mining and oil stocks. All involved shameless hype through either bogus news services or a succession of tout sheets masquerading as newspapers, such as the Rawhide Stampede, Mining Financial News, Nevada Mining News, or The Iconoclast. He was imprisoned four times on various charges, including tax evasion. When Liebling interviewed Rice in 1934, the Wayward Pressman described the swindler as a potbellied, white-haired old man with an air of injured innocence. He died in obscurity.

Back in 1998, R. M. Smythe & Company, then at 26 Broadway, both researched obsolescent securities and retailed  old stock certificates to collectors. Whether elegantly framed or filed in the drawers, Smythe had a Golconda of old securities with the intrinsic value of wood pulp (I once wall-papered my dorm room with gaudy certificates for busted companies such as National Telephone, Middle West Utilities, and Amalgamated Copper). Amidst the sheaves of Pierce-Arrow, Packard, and Penn Central is a bright orange certificate for one hundred shares of Rice Oil Company’s common stock. Issued in 1917, signed by Rice, ornately engraved with a heroic bald eagle. At $75 this piece of paper is worth more now than at any time since Rice adventured with other men’s money.


February 13, 2015   No Comments

Will You Love Me in December?

The walls of City Hall are lined with formal portraits of former Mayors. But the magnificent official portrait of the 20th Century’s handsomest Mayor hangs where none save the Fine Art Commission’s staff can admire it, up beyond a chained doorway in the rotunda. Trim, slender, broad-shouldered—with not a hair out of place and just a hint of a smile—he stands, papers in hand, wearing a beautifully-cut bespoke suit of his own design. Even now, more than sixty years dead, James J. Walker still outclasses any guy in the joint.

Yet all he had wanted to be was a songwriter. After composing some songs for high school plays, he began turning them out for Tin Pan Alley: “Kiss All The Girls For Me,” “There’s Music in the Rustle of a Skirt,” “After They Gather the Hay,” and many more. None really took off.  Only after he had finally promised his father to attend New York Law School was he inspired to compose the smash hit of 1908, “Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?”:

Now in the summer of life, sweetheart,
You say you love but me,
Gladly I’ll give my heart to you,
Throbbing with ecstasy.

But last night I saw, while a-dreaming,
The future, old and gray,
And I wondered if you’ll love me then, dear,
Just as you do today.

Will you love me in December as you do in May?
Will you love me in the same old-fashioned way?
When my hair has turned to gray
Will you kiss me then and say
That you love me in December as you did in May?

It was schmaltzy. It was blatantly sentimental. It sold over 300,000 copies and put $10,000 in his pocket. In 1908, this was real money, comparable to over a quarter of a million dollars today. For the rest of his life, bandleaders could extract $100 tips from him by striking up the song as he entered the room. In the meantime, he went to law school and, in 1909, to the State Assembly.

Walker was a dandy. When he first visited Paris, he immediately went to Charvet’s, the foremost haberdasher of the time, for silk ties and scarves. Later in the same trip, while visiting London, he introduced himself to several Bond Street tailors. One refused to build a suit for him to Walker’s specifications: broad shoulders, narrow waist, and one button rather than three on the jacket. The tailor referred Walker, by then Majority Leader of the New York State Senate, to a theatrical costumer, and then asked whether he was an actor. Walker smilingly replied, “Most of the time.” To the astonishment of his companion, Walker then soft-shoed to the door, saying, “This is called, ‘Off to Buffalo,'” spun, twirled his cane, bowed, and left.

All his suits were tailor-made, usually closely cut, with broad shoulders and exaggeratedly narrow waists. His trousers never had cuffs: he believed them dust-catchers. He disliked belts and suspenders, believing that they constricted the body. Instead, he always wore vests. Inside the lower edge of his waistcoats were sewn two tabs with buttonholes in them, corresponding to buttons on his trousers’ waistbands. He wore thin ties without linings, arguing that thick knots became soiled after contact with one’s chin.

Charles F. Murphy, the boss of Tammany Hall, saw talent in the young clotheshorse and sent him to the State Senate in 1914. Even as Democratic leader he usually walked into the chamber unprepared, glanced at the agenda and at the bills, and rose to his feet with a fine speech. He proved a spectacular debater, conciliator, strategist, and showman. He seemed to thrive on late hours. Al Smith repeatedly tried to reform him, saying, “Why can’t you be like Jim Foley? His light is burning late, but he is studying.”

“At that hour, I’m lit up too,” Walker replied.  Some weeks later, while Smith and Walker were meeting in the Executive Chamber, there was a total eclipse of the sun.  Walker said, “No matter what they tell you, Al, I had nothing to do with this.”

With a quick wit and ready smile, Walker was much pursued by women; and such was his temperament that they never had to pursue him very far or very fast. His first wife, Janet Allen, found him generous, affectionate, and chronically unfaithful. He had a particular weakness for actresses. Once, during Walker’s long affair with Yvonne Shelton, a comedienne and dancer, she was fired for lateness from a show at the Century Theatre. She told the manager as she walked out, “Laddie, the license for the show walks out with me.” Once she called Walker, it had. She was hired back the next day for double the salary, with a chauffeured limousine to get her to the show on time. Mysteriously, the license was immediately restored.

He was the city’s symbol of the Jazz Age, the perfect master of ceremonies, the man to keep the tempo sweet and hot, relying on his eloquence, emotions, and improvisation to keep him aloft.

Probably his sensuality, reflected in his emotional life and even his love of clothing, affected his politics. Walker’s passion for his personal liberty made him an instinctive friend of individual freedom. He intensely disliked censorship and legislated morality. And, unlike many politicians who only passively support liberty, Walker put the full power of his skills in its service. Thus, Walker the statesman put through Governor Smith’s progressive legislation: workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and rudimentary social services. Walker the libertarian legalized prizefighting and Sunday professional baseball games, repealed the State prohibition laws and allowed motion picture houses to open on Sunday.

Among his finest moments was his defeat of the so-called Clean Books bill. Its sponsors read passages from D. H. Lawrence into the record, declaiming about protecting womanhood and the home from pornography. Walker’s speech, uttered without flourish or oratory, as a reasonable man speaking to other reasonable men, did what few speeches do. It changed men’s minds: “I have never yet heard of a girl being ruined by a book.”

In 1925, Walker entered the Democratic primaries against incumbent Mayor John F. “Red Mike” Hylan, not among the brightest bulbs in the municipal chandelier. Hylan published a pamphlet, “The ABCs of Hylanism.” Walker said, “What does it mean? At the Bottom of the Class.” Walker trounced Red Mike, 248,338 to 154,204. In November, he swept the general election to become the city’s 96th Mayor.

Thirty years or so ago, there were still a few old-timers around City Hall who had begun their careers in Walker’s time. One told me of how Walker, having spent a night shooting craps in some dive below Canal Street, strolled over to a greasy spoon on Broadway, near Chambers Street, around 7:00 a.m. (When I first hung out around City Hall, Ellen’s Restaurant was there; it’s now been replaced by a branch of Washington Mutual Bank.) The place had just opened for the day. The mayor walked in. He was the only customer in the place. The cook grumbled, “Whaddaya want?” Walker turned on the charm and said, “How about coffee, some scrambled eggs, and a few kind words?” The cook poured him some coffee, went to the stove, made the eggs, and silently put the plate before the mayor. “How about the kind words,” Walker said.

“Don’t eat the eggs,” the cook replied.

The greatest pageantry of the Walker years were the official welcomes, produced by Grover A. Whalen, described by journalist M. A. Werner as  “one of the most entertaining personages of the period…whose waxed and polished exterior concealed a considerable amount of real ability.” Perhaps Whalen’s masterpiece was the welcome given to Marie, Queen of Romania. Strikingly attractive, stylishly dressed, Her Majesty had America swooning at her feet. On a raw October morning, she disembarked at the Battery. From there, the parade marched up Broadway, with soldiers, sailors, buglers, cops, and the Department of Sanitation band.

As the open car bearing the Mayor and the Queen passed a construction site, the Queen’s lap robe slipped from her knees. Walker leaned over to adjust it. Some riveter, perched on a girder of the partly finished skyscraper, cupped his hands about his mouth, and boomed an inquiry that has been most politely translated as, “Hey! Jimmy! You make her yet?”

The Queen, smiling, said, “Everyone seems to know you in this great city.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Walker replied, “and some of them know me very well indeed.”

In 1927, he fell in love with Betty Compton. She was a musical comedy actress: a short, slender brunette with a great figure, good legs, and considerable temperament. He was forty-six, she was twenty-three. When they met, he offered her a ride in the limousine to get her through traffic. Although Walker hated fast driving and never used the siren, he told the chauffeur to do both. After a time, Compton turned her large brown eyes on Walker. “I’m impressed. Now you may stop the siren.”

Even with her, the charm worked its way. In 1928, Walker took his valet and wardrobe and left his wife. Not a whisper appeared in the press, which then felt that a public person’s private life was his own business.

In 1929, he defeated Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, his Republican opponent by nearly 2 ½ to 1. But the stock market had crashed the month before. Things soon fell apart. Patrick Cardinal Hayes, during a private meeting with Walker at the Residence, rebuked him for his personal life. Although Walker did not end his relationship with Compton, the reprimand weighed heavily on his mind. Judicial scandals led to a full scale investigation of city government by former judge Samuel Seabury, a cold, austere man of rigid integrity, aloof as Mount Everest, relentless as Javert, and completely unable to understand or forgive Walker’s political, financial, or moral lapses.

Walker had always lived beyond his means. There had always been some wealthy friend to help pick up the checks. Paul Block, a newspaper publisher, apparently gave Walker nearly a quarter of a million dollars in one year, paid his personal expenses, and even lent him a private railway car. Not even Seabury could prove that Block did this for any reason other than friendship. But Walker had also accepted money from persons with an interest in obtaining municipal contracts or franchises. He denied that any of these had been bribes. With the exception of Seabury, his political opponents privately believed him. Even Fiorello LaGuardia believed Walker at worst guilty of bad judgment.

Seabury examined the mayor in May 1932. Admission to the court room at 60 Centre Street was by special pass only. As Walker trotted up the stairs, one man got close enough to ask for his help in getting a seat. Walker replied, “I’ll gladly give you mine.” Seabury pounded away at the “benefices” given to Walker by his wealthy admirers and, on June 8, referred eighteen charges to Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Governor then grilled Walker over twelve sessions between August 11 and 27, 1932.

Roosevelt never had to decide whether to remove him. Walker resigned on September 1, 1932. A few days later he left for Europe where he remained for three years.

He married Compton, and eventually the two returned to the city. In 1940, LaGuardia appointed him an impartial arbitrator for industrial and labor relations in the garment industry. In 1945, the Daily News took a poll of potential mayoral candidates. LaGuardia, craving a fourth term, was a poor third. Walker, who was not even a candidate, had been included in the poll at the last moment.  He had come in first.

A year later, the man they once called Beau James died after a short illness. He will be remembered for his amiable vices long after we are forgotten for our admirable virtues.

New York Press, December 8, 1998

February 11, 2015   No Comments

W.R. Grace, the Businessman Mayor

Some years ago, New Yorkers chose a self-made billionaire businessman who had never held office to be the 108th mayor of the City of New York. His major opponent, a politician then apparently without business experience, argued that at least a decade at the public trough was a requirement for the office. Many commentators apparently shared this belief, or at least seemed to think that a businessman mayor was a new idea.

It wasn’t. Being mayor was once a lot less work than it is now. City government didn’t do very much. If the streets are cleaned by herds of pigs, you don’t need sanitation workers. If the law is enforced by elected sheriffs and ward constables, public order is not your responsibility. Cholera and riots, then, become acts of fate. (One early 19th-century mayor considered his a record of glorious achievement: he replaced the fence around City Hall Park. Period.) One could tend to business while dealing with public affairs in one’s spare time.

Once New Yorkers began electing their mayors, the chief executives tended to be men who could endure campaigning. As the elites found, more and more, that politics required time more profitably invested in their businesses, they abandoned the field, leaving it to Tammany and other scum who were interested in doing the day-to-day work of winning elections.

We still elected businessmen mayors. James Harper, elected in 1843 on the Know-Nothing ticket (an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, pro-slavery party), was a partner in Harper Brothers, Publishers. Edward Cooper, son of the philanthropist Peter Cooper, had inherited his father’s glue factories. William F. Havemeyer, wealthy sugar merchant, served three terms as mayor, 1845-’46, 1847-’48, and 1873-’74. Seth Low, mayor of Brooklyn before the city’s consolidation in 1898 and elected mayor of New York in 1901, was also a businessman. These men inherited money and status.

Another was a self-made man. Although his public service is nearly forgotten, his name is remembered because the company he founded still bears his name: W.R. Grace.

William Russell Grace, the 54th and 56th mayor of the City of New York, had been born in Ireland in 1832. His early adolescence coincided with the repeated failures of the Irish potato crop between 1845 and 1847 that caused the Great Famine. Along with the widespread starvation, disease, and emigration which followed the blight, there arose a hidden psychological consequence. Ambitious young men who had seen the collapse of the rudimentary social welfare system in Ireland were revolted by what they perceived as the failure of Irish society. Billy Grace was among them. At thirteen, he ran off to sea.

He first entered New York as a merchant seaman. Once ashore, he worked as a cobbler’s helper, printer’s apprentice, and clerk. He found that he liked business, and after he returned home in 1848, he became a broker. Three years later, he traveled to South America with his father, who was leading a colonization scheme involving a Peruvian sugar plantation. At twenty-two, Billy became a ship’s chandler in Callao, Peru.

W.R. Grace had arrived amidst a kind of gold rush, for the wealth of the world was being flung at Peru’s feet, all for a unique resource: guano, dried bird dung. Millions of birds interrupt their annual migrations by resting on the Guano Islands, off the Peruvian coast. Over time, they left behind mountains of dried excrement. In the 1840s, agricultural science rediscovered what the Incas had known before Pizarro: that guano is an amazingly rich fertilizer.

Thus Peru became the world’s largest and most accessible source of guano. World demand became a passion and then madness. Chinese immigrant workers shoveled the guano into wagons, which were dumped into barges, which lightered the cargo out to hundreds of waiting ships. Having gone around Cape Horn, the clippers and square-riggers were in immediate need of naval stores: sails, rope, spars, masts, ship’s blocks, turpentine, tar, pitch, oakum, nails, kerosene, hard tack, salt pork.

In 1854, Grace adopted an elemental rule of retailing: go where the customers are. He equipped a store ship, a floating warehouse, and had it towed to the Guano Islands. The customers found his store convenient, and Grace himself was brisk, well mannered, and a fun-loving charmer. New England captains often brought their families along on their voyages. Grace met Lillius Gilchrest, a captain’s daughter, aboard her father’s ship; on September 11, 1859, they married. She brought patience, good humor, and courage to an extraordinarily successful marriage.

By 1862, W.R. Grace was rich. He moved to New York, where he worked out of 47 Exchange Place and, later, India House, using a secondhand desk placed near the door so he might be handy to callers. He speculated in real estate. He dealt in sugar and rubber. He operated, chartered, and invested in ships to carry his cargoes and those of other merchants: sewing machine oil, shoe-pegs, grindstones, glassware, shoe nails, tacks, stoves, scales, wallpaper, cutlery, lamps, tools, files, flatware, machinery, and novelties, among many, many other things. His passion for sail never left him: he built up the last great fleet of sailing freighters and did not own a single steamship until 1893.

Grace was an independent Democrat who had never taken more than a layman’s interest in politics. Nonetheless, in 1878 he had been mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor. Two years later, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He favorably impressed several professional politicians, including John F. “Honest John” Kelly, the Tammany Hall boss. In September 1880, the Irving Hall and Tammany Hall factions of the Democratic Party began negotiating a single ticket for city office. Irving Hall suggested Grace for mayor; Kelly agreed. On October 22, 1880, with two weeks before the election, Grace was nominated.

The New York Times immediately tossed the campaign into the mud. In its first attack editorial, the Times said, “Though neither his birth nor his religion can be held to be of itself a disqualification for the office of Mayor…” Thus the Establishment signaled its disfavor of an Irish-born Roman Catholic mayor. The Republicans chimed in, one orator claiming that Grace would “make this City subordinate to…the Holy Father in Rome.” Despite the outrageous anti-Catholicism of the Times, Grace squeaked in by 2,914 votes.

Tammany’s enduring power rested on social services. The poor don’t think of reform when the local boss immediately provides food, shelter, clothing, and jobs without endless questionnaires. John F. Kelly was called “Honest John” because, having been in Europe during most of the Tweed era, he had been unable to steal. Now he made up for lost opportunities.

Grace and Kelly were allies at best and the alliance did not survive Grace’s first month in office. The boss suggested a man for important office whom Grace found unfit. Grace did not understand that public office existed to support the organization. Kelly called on Grace at City Hall.  Voices were heard from inside the Mayor’s office. Then Grace barked, “No one can dictate to me, Mr. Kelly.” Honest John stomped out of City Hall. Some said he seemed cross. Thereafter it was war.

Grace’s great struggle during his first term was reorganizing the street-cleaning bureau, which was then part of the Police Department. Although vast sums were spent, no cleaning was done and the streets were filthy, with up to a foot of muck in the roadbed. The commissioners had hired an army of Tammany hacks who seemed to appear only to pick up their paychecks. This was unwise in the long run. Paying $10,000 for $1,000 worth of work is incompetence; paying $10,000 for no work at all is an indictment.

In early 1881, after comparing the increasing expenditures of the bureau with the increasingly bad condition of the streets, Grace preferred charges against the street-cleaning commissioners. Grace knew he was dealing with either corruption or incompetence. The legislature enacted a Tammany bill creating a separate street-cleaning department. Then the Governor dismissed Grace’s charges because the commissioners reverted to duty as police officers and were no longer street-cleaning commissioners. Yet because Grace had drawn so much attention to the issue, the streets became cleaner.

Businessmen, too, tried to raid the city treasury. In 1881, Jay Gould, the financier, used his control of the New York World to attack the management of the Manhattan Elevated Railway. He intended to drive down the price of its stock. His attacks were largely accurate, effective, and successful. In late 1881 or early 1882, Gould asked Grace for a meeting to discuss tax reduction. Grace declined the offer, simply stating that the Manhattan Elevated would have to pay its taxes. Gould had a bill written to his order and passed by the legislature. Under public pressure from Mayor Grace, the Governor vetoed the legislation.

The Mayor chose not to run in 1882. Instead, he concentrated on governing the city. Grace returned to business, praised by many who had criticized him during his first campaign. He did not entirely neglect his political fences: he developed a warm friendship with a young Republican assemblyman, Theodore Roosevelt, who shared his interest in municipal reform.

On October 20, 1884, reform-minded businessmen met at the Academy of Music on 14th Street between Third Avenue and Irving Place to choose a clean government slate at the upcoming city elections. They nominated Grace, creating a three-way race between Grace, the Tammanyite, and the Republican, who had agreed to take a dive in Tammany’s favor. Roosevelt, learning of the Tammany-GOP deal, came out for Grace. It was an amazingly dirty campaign. Tammany even called into question whether Grace had been lawfully naturalized. Most people thought Tammany’s violent attacks on Grace were a most powerful endorsement of his integrity, and so he won by 10,000 votes.

Grace’s second term was less dramatic. He understood the job now, and his appointments were generally strong. The legislature approved his bill to require that all city franchises be sold to the highest bidder. Surely, he must have allowed himself a moment of glee when he formally accepted the gift of the Statue of Liberty from the French Republic in the name of the United States.

After his second term Grace again returned to private life. In 1900, he dislocated his shoulder in a fall. Thereafter, he was never an entirely well man. Yet there were flashes of the old fire. Marquis James in Merchant Adventurer, his biography of Grace, writes that the former mayor sometimes rode the 3rd Avenue elevated from his home on 79th Street to his offices on Hanover Square, below Wall Street.  “One day in his seventieth year, he arose to give his seat to a lady. A young man dropped into the seat. Mr. Grace took the young man by the collar and lifted him to his feet.”

On December 7, 1903 W.R. Grace left his office and went straight home with a bad cold. Pneumonia developed in both lungs. He recovered enough to transact business from bed. On March 20, 1904, he asked about one of his steamships.  Then he slipped into a coma from which he never awoke.

New York Press, December 11, 2001

February 11, 2015   No Comments

Napoleon of the West

From that day… succeeded the scenes of blood and extermination until the horses of the north arrived to trample the smiling level fields of the beautiful valley of Mexico, and the degenerate descendants of William Penn came to insult the sepulchers of our fathers.

Ramon Alcaraz, The Other Side

New York was mother of exiles long before Emma Lazarus bestowed that accolade on the Statue of Liberty. Some merely sought respite from the struggle. Giuseppe Garibaldi, between commanding the armies of the revolutionary Roman Republic in 1848 and the unification of Italy in 1860, spent a quiet year or so in Rosebank, Staten Island. Many Latin American revolutionaries also spent time in New York: the father of Cuban independence, Jose Martí, for instance, whose dashing features now adorn rum advertisements.

In the late spring of 1866, one might have met another Latin American exile—a lesser man but a more successful politician—limping up Broadway from the Staten Island ferry to yet another meeting with his rapacious lawyers or hangers-on. Eleven times Mexico’s president, Antonio Lopez de Santa-Anna Perez de Lebron—His Serene Highness; General-in-Chief of the Liberating Army of the Mexican Republic; Well-Deserving of His Country; the Hero of Tampico; the Hero of Vera Cruz; the Benefactor of the Fatherland; Napoleon of the West (he had proclaimed himself all of these)—was plotting yet another comeback.

In this country, Santa Anna is known solely as the man who massacred Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. His capacity for cruelty was only one aspect of a character so complicated that one biographer called him “the enigma who once was Mexico.” He had first taken power in the 1830s over what was then one of the largest countries in the world. From 1836 to 1847, through his faults as a soldier and statesman (as well as American expansionism), he had lost half the nation’s territory: nearly one million square miles of land, comprising what is now most of the Western United States. Despite this, he had again served as president from 1853 to 1854 and felt he might serve again.

Santa Anna was still handsome, with fine dark eyes, sensual lips, and a full head of dark hair. Restless and energetic, he was usually involved in a revolution, plot, or coup attempt—one nearly every year. His great strength came from the Mexican street, where (paradoxically) his pseudo-aristocratic poses had overwhelming appeal to the illiterate masses.

He was born at Jalapa, Vera Cruz on February 21, 1794 to a family of middle-class creoles: Mexican-born Spanish whites. Uninterested in school or business, the younger Antonio was appointed in June 1810 to a cadetship in the Spanish colonial army, where he fought bandits, insurgents, and Indians. He was repeatedly decorated for valor and barely escaped court martial for embezzling regimental funds.

As long as the right held sway in Madrid, the insurgents in Mexico remained weak. But in 1820, the Spanish Liberals came to power, summarily abolishing the economic, legal, and social privileges enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church and by the army. Suddenly, quietly, large numbers of the Mexican colonial establishment changed sides, sensing they might safeguard their perquisites by ruling their own country.

On March 29, 1821, at 4 AM, troops under Santa Anna’s command defeated a force of insurgents; the Spanish promoted him to lieutenant colonel on the spot. At 2 PM, he changed sides; the insurgents made him a full colonel. His timing was impeccable: within weeks, the Spanish regime in Mexico crumbled.

Independent Mexico was first an empire, ruled by Augustin Iturbide, another ex-Spanish officer. The Emperor failed to promote Santa Anna to full general. Worse, he ordered Santa Anna’s removal from command at Vera Cruz. The young brigadier mustered his troops and called for a republic. (He later admitted he had not known what a republic was.) By happy coincidence, the Emperor had disappointed many in his brief reign.

Numerous generals also rose against him. Abdication followed. Once again (and perhaps he perceived this) Santa Anna’s timing in changing sides had precipitated change itself. Now, under the Republic, he was a general, his uniform encrusted with gold braid and festooned with the numerous crosses, medals, and stars he had won fighting for and against Mexican independence and for and against the Empire.

The new Republic was not blessed in its leaders, who seem to have been a mélange of fanatical ideologues and cynical adventurers. History’s indictment is that Santa Anna was the most effective of the lot. The Republic was torn by endless factional struggles, not merely between cliques or parties, but even the different rites of the Masonic order. Santa Anna flourished in this revolving-door politics: having been a Loyalist, then an Imperialist, and then a Republican, he would soon have been a Federalist, a Liberal, a Centralist, a Conservative and a follower of the Scottish and the Yorkist Rites.

In the twenty-two years between 1833 and 1855 Mexico enjoyed no fewer than thirty-six presidencies, eleven of them Santa Anna’s.

Changes of power were a process nearly as orderly as an American election. A general called together his troops and read a pronunciamento, a fire-breathing proclamation against the government, usually calling for freedom and liberty. Next he published his program, or “plan.” Then the insurgent and government forces would face each other. They fought only rarely. Much more frequently, they felt each other out, feinted and negotiated. If the government forces remained loyal, the insurgent commander “depronounced.” If the government forces changed sides, the insurgents marched into Mexico City while the incumbent president booked passage on a fast boat out of Vera Cruz.

Santa Anna loved gambling, whether with dice or at cards. Mexican politics, too, was a game of chance. The payoff could be tremendous. A lieutenant who had brought over a few ragged privates might find himself a general overnight; a general who had changed sides at the right moment might find himself a cabinet minister; the fellows who hadn’t might find themselves in exile, waiting for the next change of fortune. Santa Anna’s genius for this kind of politics led him to the governorships of Yucatan and then Vera Cruz.

In 1829, the Spanish landed an army at Tampico to reconquer their lost colony. Santa Anna assembled an army by seizing all weapons in Vera Cruz and forcing loans from the local merchants, commandeered six ships and sailed for Tampico. Within three weeks, through bluff and audacity, he had misled the Spanish into believing his forces much stronger than they were and negotiated a surrender. He crowned himself with glory by writing the official dispatches, emerging as the Hero of Tampico, even further bemedaled, with a trunk of jeweled swords from the various Mexican states.

He overthrew the government in his own right in 1833, becoming president as a Liberal. Within the year, proclaiming Mexico unready for democracy, he was governing as an autocratic Centralist.

One result of his dictatorship was the practical abolition of slavery. Texas, then a Mexican state largely populated by American immigrant slave-owners or pro-slavers, found this intolerable and rebelled. Santa Anna’s response was as ruthless as Lincoln’s in 1861: he marched north to suppress the rebellion, proclaiming that all opponents taken in arms would be put to death. He even claimed that if the Americans supported Texan independence, he would advance until he raised the Mexican flag over the Capitol in Washington.

On February 26, 1836 he rode into San Antonio, Texas, where he found an insurgent garrison in a fortified monastery called the Alamo. Santa Anna besieged the fort for just over a week. At 5 AM on March 6, 1836 the Mexican buglers sounded the deguello, the ancient Spanish call (its name derived from the verb meaning “throat-cutting”) that signifies no quarter to the losers. The Mexicans got over the wall on the second try to find the Texans barricaded in every building. The Mexicans took four hours to capture the fort; the white male survivors were bayoneted. Santa Anna probably sustained 500 casualties.

Santa Anna fought as he had been trained as a colonial officer in ruthless colonial wars. From his point of view, the rebellion itself was an act of treason: the Texans were Mexican subjects rebelling against lawful authority. And, after all, the Texans fought in much the same way. (Santa Anna’s treatment of the women, children, and slaves taken prisoner at the Alamo was most humane, with many being passed through Mexican lines to the insurgent forces.)

Commanding superior forces at San Jacinto, Santa Anna caught up with General Sam Houston and the 800-man army of Texas. It was a hot afternoon. Santa Anna ordered his men to siesta, a custom sacrosanct in Mexican warfare—so much so that the Napoleon of the West failed to post guards against the enemy.

Houston was in no mood to honor Mexican customs. Only a few of Santa Anna’s army were on their feet when Houston’s artillery opened fire and the Texans, screaming, “Remember the Alamo,” slaughtered every Mexican they could get their hands on. Quickly sizing up the situation, the Hero of Tampico grabbed a horse and galloped off.

Within the hour, the Mexicans lost 400 men, leaving 200 wounded and 730 taken prisoner, while Santa Anna, a few miles away, abandoned his horse and discarded his uniform for some clothes stolen from a farmhouse. A scouting party captured him, unaware of his identity. It wasn’t until they had brought him into Houston’s camp, past the stockade where the prisoners of war were held, the Mexicans murmuring recognition, that they realized whom they had taken.

He was brought before Houston where, legend has it, he gave the Masonic signal of distress to some of the Texan officers. It is unclear whether Houston said, as the official version puts it, “Ah, general, take a seat,” or uttered, as the unofficial version has it, a less friendly and more profane greeting. Yet even in defeat, Santa Anna could still sling it: “The man may consider himself born to no common destiny who has conquered the Napoleon of the West, and it now remains for him to be generous to the vanquished.”

Houston dictated the terms of victory on the spot. He compelled Santa Anna to order an armistice, all Mexican forces to retreat from Texas, and all Texan prisoners released. Houston also forced him to sign the treaty of Velasco, whereby Texas became independent. The treaty ensured the Hero’s personal survival, albeit at the price of Mexican territory.

Two years later, a French citizen, claiming his bakery in Mexico City had been looted during a riot, demanded compensation from the Mexican government. The French, who were pressuring Mexico into a trade agreement, sent a fleet to bombard Vera Cruz. Santa Anna rode out of disgrace to command the city’s defenders with dash and courage. Several horses were shot out from under him before a French blast shattered his left leg below the knee. Though the limb was lost, honor was regained. He became acting president in 1839 and overthrew the government again in 1841, effectively ruling as dictator until 1845.

Most of Santa Anna’s term was dedicated to furthering his cult of personality and replenishing his personal finances. His greed was equaled only by his extravagance. To raise money, he raised taxes exponentially and even sold phony mining shares to foreign investors. In 1842, he unearthed the remains of his leg, which were paraded through Mexico City and placed in a giant urn in the public square. The good times ended only after he had emptied the treasury and left his soldiers unpaid. The new regime sentenced him to exile. He would be back.

The United States annexed Texas in 1845, which the Mexicans denounced as an act of war. The U.S. responded by blockading Vera Cruz (also an act of war then as now) and moving troops to the Rio Grande. In February 1846, Santa Anna entered into negotiations with President James K. Polk, offering a peace settlement in exchange for assistance in regaining power. Polk took the bait. On August 16, 1846 Santa Anna and his staff landed at Vera Cruz, having been allowed to pass through the American blockade. Polk now learned what various Mexican politicians had learned before him: Santa Anna was a terrific double-crosser.

On arriving, he declared, “Mexicans! There was once a day, and my heart dilates with the remembrance…you saluted me with the title of Soldier of the People. Allow me to take it again, never more to be given up, and to devote myself until death to the defense of the liberty and independence of the Republic!” Upon the declaration of war, Santa Anna took the field as generalissimo of the Mexican forces. His intelligence service learned that one American army under Zachary Taylor would advance from the north and a second, under Winfield Scott, would land at Vera Cruz to march on Mexico City.

Santa Anna first dealt with Taylor at Buena Vista on February 22-23, 1847. His attack enveloped Taylor’s left and shattered three American regiments. Taylor fell back on Monterrey, where he remained for the rest of the war. Having effectively neutralized Taylor, Santa Anna turned to face Scott, who smashed him at Cerro Gordo, on April 17-18, 1847. The Mexican then began secret negotiations with Scott, demanding a $1 million bribe to make peace. Scott actually paid a $10,000 advance. Santa Anna double-crossed Scott too, pocketing the money and raising another army. They fought again, at Churubusco. Scott drove Santa Anna from the field and took Mexico City. Once more, Santa Anna went into exile. Any other man, in any other country, would have been glad to leave with his life. He would be back.

The Conservatives seized power in January 1853. They wanted a monarchy ruled by a European prince. But choosing one would take time, and the rightists in the government believed Santa Anna could keep order until the choice was made. Fools that they were, they made him president on April 20, 1853. How the old man must have laughed! Within months, he had squandered the treasury, much of it on pleasure. He sold the Mesilla Valley-what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico-to the United States as the Gadsden Purchase for $10 million. In 1854, the Liberals overthrew and exiled him.

For eleven years he plotted his return. In 1864, when the French invaded Mexico to install the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as Emperor, Santa Anna returned home, proclaiming himself a monarchist. Maximilian had learned from others’ experience: he exiled Santa Anna almost immediately.

In January 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward, on a tour of the West Indies, paid Santa Anna a visit in St. Thomas. Santa Anna interpreted the visit as an indication of official support from America and retained various Washington lobbyists. At least one of these sensed that the aging fox could be outfoxed.

He sent a letter to Santa Anna, forged with Seward’s signature, reporting that the House of Representatives had approved a $50 million loan for Mexico, $30 million of which had been earmarked to finance Santa Anna’s return to power. A ship was leased. Before the General left St. Thomas, he had paid out $70,000 in cash. He may not have understood that his name had meanwhile been signed to some $250,000 in notes for supplies. Certainly, he was surprised on arriving in New York on May 12, 1866 to find no one from the State Department at the dock to greet him, and that the guns of the harbor forts did not fire a salute in his honor, and that the cash was not immediately available.

Various suits and countersuits commenced over the procurement of the ship, the enforcement of the notes, and even the terms of the General’s room and board. His legal fees were reportedly $30,000. Eventually, his nephew, suspecting that the old man was being swindled, wrote directly to Seward to ask whether in fact the United States government had undertaken to finance Santa Anna’s return to power. Seward replied in the negative. The old rascal had been outfoxed, the conner conned.

On March 22, 1867, with Maximilian’s fall at hand, Santa Anna left New York aboard the merchant ship Virginia. He attempted to land at Vera Cruz on June 7, 1867, only to be intercepted by an American warship. He tried again four days later at Yucatan, where he was arrested, jailed, tried by a military tribunal, and sentenced to exile.

In 1874, they let him come home. There were no crowds as he landed at Vera Cruz; the railway to Mexico City carried him into anonymity. He sought back military pay and the return of his estates. He was refused. The nation celebrated the anniversary of the Battle of Churubusco with speeches and parades; the man who had commanded Mexico’s troops that day was not invited. His health, eyesight, and mind failed, and he died of chronic diarrhea on June 21, 1876.

One last thing. During his sojourn on Staten Island, Santa Anna had hired a certain James Adams to act as his interpreter and secretary. During the many hours they spent together, Adams often noted the General’s habit of cutting and chewing thin slices from an unfamiliar, exotic plant—not exactly palatable yet elastic enough to tire the most persistent jaws. The General called this plant chicle and left some behind on his departure. Adams experimented with it, blending it with various sweeteners and flavorings. The results were wildly popular: it has never left the American mouth. The Hero’s enduring legacy is chewing gum.

New York Press, September 10, 2002

February 10, 2015   1 Comment

The Eagle of the Sea

The senior ship on the United States Navy list and the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world last visited New York in August 1931. Her arrival was reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire: the square-rigged wooden man-of-war being nudged along by the minesweeper USS Grebe. Freshly restored after three years in dry dock, the ship had been ordered on a nationwide tour by Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams, great-grandson of President John Adams, under whose administration she had first gone to sea.

She wore the Star-Spangled Banner of the War of 1812 and the long commission pennant of a warship of the US Navy, and her whitejackets lined the rail. The broadsides that had swept the Barbary Pirates from the Bay of Tunis, provided fire support to the Marines landing on the shores of Tripoli, and blasted the guts out of HMS Java off the Brazilian coast now only exchanged salutes with the forts at the Narrows and Governor’s Island. The studding sails, jibs, staysails and square sails that had made her the fastest warship of her size in the world were carefully furled.

USS Constitution has met the enemies of the United States over thirty times in battle, taken thirty-three enemy ships, and never struck her colors in surrender. She was sailing for New York harbor shortly before the fight against the British frigate HMS Guerriere—on August 19, 1812—that won her nickname. An American sailor, watching Guerriere‘s cannonballs bounce off his ship’s oaken hull, cried, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”

The United States Navy began with the USS Constitution and her sisters. Corsairs operating from the shores of North Africa, the Barbary Coast, were seizing American merchant ships and holding their crews hostage with impunity. On March 27, 1794 Congress authorized six frigates. All were designed by Joshua Humphreys to be powerful enough to defeat any enemy of comparable size and outsail anything larger. Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard, in Boston, built Constitution for less than $300,000. Paul Revere forged her copper spikes, bolts, and sheathing. Launched on October 2, 1797, she first put to sea under Captain Samuel Nicholson in July 1798.

When President Jefferson took office he disfavored a large military establishment and ordered the seagoing frigates of the Navy laid up. Piracy then resuming along the Barbary Coast, Congress determined that a state of war existed between this country and the North African states. The President ordered a squadron to the Mediterranean under Commodore Edward Preble, who spread Constitution‘s canvas on August 14, 1803.

An old revolutionary, Preble had an irresistible touch of audacity. One dark evening, as Constitution was entering the Straits of Gibraltar, she found herself near an unknown man-of-war. Preble ordered his crew brought to quarters and gave the usual hail, “What ship is that?” The question was returned—simply repeated word for word. Preble gave the ship’s name and repeated the hail. Again the question was returned. Preble, somewhat testily, replied and then repeated the question. A third time, the question was returned. Preble took the trumpet himself and replied, “I am going to hail you for the last time. If a proper answer is not returned, I will fire a shot into you.” The stranger promptly replied, “If you fire a shot, I will return a broadside.”

Preble cried, “What ship is that?” The reply came, “This is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Donegal, eighty-four guns, Sir Richard Strahan, an English Commodore. Send your boat on board.” This was an insult, as it was the inferior’s place to send its boat to the greater.

Preble leapt onto the rail and roared back, “This is the United States Ship Constitution, forty-four guns, Edward Preble, an American Commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board of any vessel!” The conversation ceased. A boat was heard coming from the stranger, bearing an extremely apologetic lieutenant from a very small British man-of-war, HMS Maidstone, which had been bluffing.

Preble blockaded the Barbary ports, bombarded their cities, sank their ships and sent the Marines ashore. In 1805, the treaty of peace between the United States and Tripoli, Tunisia, and Algeria, “negotiated at the cannon’s mouth,” was signed aboard Constitution. She then remained on patrol for two years to enforce the treaty.

By early 1812, relations with Great Britain had deteriorated and the Navy began preparing for war, which was declared June 18. Captain Isaac Hull, who had taken command of Constitution in 1810, put to sea from Washington on July 12, without orders, to make for New York.

Constitution sighted five British ships off Egg Harbor, New Jersey on July 17. As she began to run for it, the wind died with each side just out of gunnery range. Hull put boats over the side to tow his ship and the British did likewise. Lieutenant Charles Morris, one of Hull’s officers, suggested kedging: carrying an anchor out before the ship, dropping it, and winching the ship up to it. The crew manned the capstan all night. Slowly, despite the July heat, Hull made headway. A light breeze rose at dawn. Hull slipped away.

On August 19, 1812 Constitution sighted the frigate HMS Guerriere, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Hull waited until the ships were abreast. Then he roared, “Now, boys, pour it into them.” Two broadsides swept Guerriere and her mizzenmast collapsed. Constitution passed ahead and fired a broadside down Guerriere‘s decks as the Englishman’s bowsprit fouled in Constitution‘s rigging. As the ships parted, Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast collapsed, leaving her helpless. Thirty-five minutes and some 900 rounds after the first broadside, Guerriere struck her colors.

Four months later, around 1:30 a.m. on December 29, 1812, Constitution, Commodore William Bainbridge commanding, was thirty miles off the Brazilian coast when a large frigate was sighted to windward. They sailed on converging parallel courses, Bainbridge allowing the frigate to overhaul him. At noon, Bainbridge ran up the Stars and Stripes. Captain Lambert, commanding the frigate HMS Java, raised his colors. At 2 p.m., Bainbridge, who had developed his gun crews’ skill through constant practice with live ammunition, opened fire at one mile believing that he could damage Java before she could injure him.

Java’s return fire destroyed Constitution’s helm. Bainbridge sent forty-nine Marines below to manually steer the ship as he barked his orders from the quarterdeck. By 5:30 p.m., Constitution had dismasted Java and killed her commander. She struck her colors and Bainbridge sent the Marines aboard. They returned with Java’s survivors and supplies, including Java’s wheel to replace the one her fire had reduced to kindling. Then Bainbridge sank Java and sailed home.

In December 1814, after Constitution had been blockaded in Boston harbor for eight months, her new captain, Charles Stewart (guts ran in that family: his grandson was Charles Stewart Parnell), ran the gantlet. On February 20, 1815 Stewart fell in with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant off Madeira. Though each was smaller and lighter than Constitution, together they outgunned her. At 6:05 p.m., amidst heavy mist, Constitution came abreast of Levant with Cyane sailing up astern. Stewart exchanged broadsides with Levant and, under cover of the smoke, braced his yards aback and went astern. (In other words, he sailed her backwards.) Constitution loomed out of the mist and smoke, surprised Cyane and loosed a broadside into her.

Stewart then shifted his yards, filled the sails with wind again, pulled ahead, and fired two broadsides into Levant as she turned to Cyane’s aid. Stewart fired another broadside at close range into Cyane’s stern, and the Englishman struck around 6:45 p.m. At 8:50 p.m., Constitution and Levant exchanged broadsides at fifty yards. Stewart then maneuvered across Levant’s stern, fired another broadside with the usual deadly results, and Levant surrendered about 10 p.m. It was Constitution’s last victory. Stewart dropped anchor at New York on May 15, 1815.

After more years of patrolling the Mediterranean, the ship returned to the Boston Navy Yard on July 19, 1828. A Navy board of inspection and survey reported her unseaworthy and recommended scrapping. Then Oliver Wendell Holmes, the father of the great jurist, published “Old Ironsides” in the Boston Advertiser.

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout
And burst the cannon’s roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!
Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale.

Holmes’s wildly popular poem made an old ship into a national monument. Against its will, the Navy repaired Old Ironsides. Thereafter, she served as flagship of the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and south Pacific squadrons. She patrolled the African coast to suppress the slave trade. She trained midshipmen for the Naval Academy. In 1878, she made her last cruise in foreign waters, transporting exhibits to the Paris Exposition. In December 1881, she paid off her crew at New York and went to sea no more, becoming a receiving ship for recruits. In 1897, the Navy towed her to Boston for her 100th anniversary, and there she remained, leaving only for her 1931-’34 tour.

On September 25, 1992 Constitution was dry-docked, emerging three years later. This time, she would go down to the sea again. In March 1996, Constitution’s crew began seventeen months’ training in an extraordinarily complicated, obsolescent technology: running a square-rigged sailing ship. Learning the ropes is no cliché to a square-rigger sailor. Truss tackles, pendant tackles, clew garnets, clew jiggers, topsail sheets, topsail clew jiggers, topgallant clewlines, royal clewlines and each of the 200 or so other lines comprising Constitution’s running rigging (the lines pulled to steer her by manipulating her sails)-each has a distinct function. Confusing a clewline with a halliard or a lee brace with a weather backstay could dismast the ship and endanger everyone aboard her.

On July 21, 1997 two Navy tugs towed Constitution into Massachusetts Bay. Her crew set her sails for battle, as she had worn them to meet Guerriere. At midday, her captain, Commander Michael Beck, USN, ordered the towlines released, her canvas bellied in the wind, and she was again under sail for the first time in 116 years. The cannons of USS Ramage and USS Halyburton, two guided missile ships, barked their salutes. Constitution’s broadside boomed in response. She was on her own for an single glorious hour. Then the towlines were reattached and the old warship went home to Charlestown.

Several times a year, a tugboat tows her into Boston harbor on a turnaround cruise so she can be reversed at her dock so the hull wears out evenly on both sides. At sunset, a lone bugler sounds “The Last Post.” With the final note, a single gun speaks from Constitution’s lee side. Sometimes, amidst the traffic, one can hear the echo.

New York Press, September 18, 2001

February 9, 2015   No Comments

The Malbone Street Wreck

Among the stories recently published in the dailies about past transit strikes, I saw none about the brief strike by motor-men employed by the privately owned Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) in November 1918. It led directly to the Malbone Street wreck, in which a strikebreaker lost control of a Brighton Beach train during the evening rush on the grade down Crown Heights between Park Place and a tunnel under Flatbush Avenue at Malbone Street, killing 93 people. Eighty-four years later, it remains the worst disaster in the history of New York’s subway system.

Formerly the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad, the Brighton Beach line dated from the 1870s. It had been one of several lightly built steam railroads linking the city of Brooklyn with its seaside resorts. In 1913, the BRT controlled the line, now electrified, along with streetcar and elevated lines throughout Kings County.

Throughout 1918, the last year of the Great War, tensions between the BRT and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had escalated. At least twenty-nine motormen had been fired for membership in the union. The Brotherhood had filed a grievance with the National War Labor Board, a federal review panel created to strengthen the war effort by improving labor-management relations. In late October, the Board had recommended that the BRT rehire the men with back pay, but the Board had no power of enforcement, and the BRT declined to even meet with the union’s delegation. A strike was called for 5 a.m. on Friday, November 1, 1918.

The walkout staggered the BRT. Supervisors and clerks with little or no training as motormen filled empty cabs. Among the strikebreakers was Edward Luciano, a young clerk working under the assumed name of Billy Lewis to blunt anti-Italian prejudice. He had been with the BRT for two years, recording crew assignments. Earlier in 1918, he had received two hours of classroom instruction to become a motorman. In the fall, he had spent two days riding with regular motormen as practical experience in train operations.

This—as Brian Cudahy notes in The Malbone Street Wreck—fell far short of the BRT’s usual sixty hours of training, ninety-question exam, sixty hours of apprenticeship aboard regular trains, as well as a physical examination and further testing and certification. After all this, a motorman would spend weeks taking empty trains on practice runs in and around yards and terminals before being allowed to operate a train carrying passengers.

At 5 a.m. on November 1, Luciano began his usual eleven-and-a-half-hour tour of duty. When it ended at 4:30 p.m., his superiors offered him a $20 bonus and a post-strike raise to pilot a rush-hour train from Kings Highway to Manhattan and back to Brooklyn over the Brighton Beach line to Coney Island. (“A man has to earn a living,” he later explained to a reporter from The New York Times.)

At trial, William Brody, a BRT trainmaster, testified that Thomas Blewitt, a BRT superintendent responsible for certifying motormen, had represented Luciano as properly qualified. Cudahy speculates that as men with similar “qualifications” had taken trains over the line all day, Brody and Blewitt felt they could take a chance with Luciano. At the yard, he was given a train, four of whose five cars were at least thirty years old, each car with a steel underframe and a wooden body and roof.

At 6:08 p.m., Luciano’s train arrived at Park Row terminal, a great vaulted train shed that stood at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, between the Municipal Building and the golden-domed tower that Joseph Pulitzer had built for the New York World.

At 6:14 p.m., Luciano began his return trip to Brighton Beach. Charles Darling, a lawyer riding in the first car, later said the train moved with starts and stops and sped a curve at Sands Street, the first station in Brooklyn. The train then rumbled onto the Fulton Street elevated line. Walter H. Simonson, a civil engineer, recalled that the car was jammed to near standing-room only.

At 6:29 p.m., Luciano departed Grand Avenue for the junction at Franklin Avenue. The switch there was wrongly set, keeping the train on the Fulton Avenue line toward East New York, rather than turning it southward toward Brighton Beach. After some delay, the train was properly routed onto the Brighton Beach line at 6:38 p.m. Two minutes later, Luciano left Park Place station.

Crown Heights is a land form as well as a neighborhood. Between Park Place, at the crest of the Heights, and Prospect Park, the station at the foot of the hill, the track dropped seventy feet over a distance of less than a mile. By now, Luciano was probably frazzled. His conductor signaled a stop at the next station, Consumers’ Park, but Luciano rushed through without stopping. Simonson felt the train accelerate, as if to make up for lost time. Now the next stop was Prospect Park, just the other side of Flatbush Avenue.

Making trains move is relatively easy. Stopping them is less so. Braking a subway train safely and smoothly, to halt it in proper alignment with a station platform so passengers may depart and board, is an art. Train brakes operate with compressed air. By maximizing air pressure in a train’s main brake line, a motorman releases the brakes—that is, he permits the air to push the brake shoes from the wheels so the train can move.

When a motorman wants to slow a train, he applies the brakes by reducing the air pressure, permitting the brake shoes to make contact with the wheels. Air brakes take time to apply and to take effect; thus a train may travel hundreds of feet while stopping. A motorman who knows from training and experience how his train will respond to a particular uphill or downhill grade can gauge when to begin braking. Luciano had no such experience. He had never run a train over the Brighton Beach line—or anywhere else before that day.

At the foot of the hill, the line curved sharply, entering a short tunnel beneath the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Malbone Street. The speed limit for this curve was six miles an hour. Luciano later testified he was going thirty. However, he also testified that the air brakes had failed, after which he had applied the emergency brakes and thrown the train into reverse. Investigators from both the New York State Public Service Commission and the BRT found when examining the wreckage that the brakes had not failed, the emergency brakes had never been applied and the motors were never reversed. The New York Times quoted a naval officer who had survived the wreck as estimating the train’s speed as fully 70 mph when it left the track.

It was 6:42 p.m. when Luciano reached Malbone Street. The control car, No. 726, roared into the curve and derailed, ripping up the third rail in a burst of blue sparks. The second car, No. 80, and the third, No. 100, also jumped the tracks, smashing into the wall with a crash heard nearly a mile away.

No. 726 skidded along the roadbed into the tunnel, its front and rear corners crashing into the tunnel wall, windows fragmenting in shards upon screaming passengers. The two following cars had swung wider. No. 80 struck the edge of the tunnel’s mouth and ripped along its inner wall, where steel girders strong enough to support the tunnel roof and Flatbush Avenue above it protruded from the concrete surface. These tore into the car’s roof and left side, disintegrating it in a burst of wood, steel, glass and flesh.

Back in No. 100, Walter Simonson felt the car rising beneath him. It tilted to the left, squarely striking the concrete pier at the opening of the tunnel. In the moment before the lights went out, Simonson saw the left side of the car fragment and its benches shatter, their riders crushed and impaled on splintering car timbers. He saw other passengers beheaded by the tunnel girders and the car’s roof crumple into the car, all as quickly as that. Centrifugal force threw straphangers against stone and steel. Simonson himself was flung against a stump of No. 100’s left side, which kept him from flying into the tunnel.

Then the train stopped. Ten seconds had passed. It was still 6:42 p.m.

The two last cars had not derailed. Car No. 100, however, was mere fragments of wood and broken and twisted bits of iron and steel. It had been fifty feet long going into the tunnel. Now its wreckage was compressed into a space of forty feet. From beneath part of its roof, Simonson squeezed free and staggered down toward the open cut in the darkness.

Up at the front of the train, Car No. 726, too, was largely intact. Charles Darling watched as Luciano emerged unscathed from the cab. (The power had shorted out when No. 746 tore up the third rail.) The lawyer asked what had happened. “I don’t know,” Luciano replied. “I lost control of the damn thing. That’s all.” Then he stepped from the car and walked up the track to Prospect Park station. A newsboy, waiting there for the train, had heard the crash, the silence and the screams. A minute or so later, he saw a man walk out of the tunnel from the middle of the tracks—presumably Luciano, who got home between 8 and 9 p.m., probably by trolley.

The first rescuers to arrive on the scene found the tunnel jammed with debris “so tightly…that no crevice or opening was left,” reported The New York Times. With lanterns at hand, they began removing wreckage piece by piece. Cops and firemen set about removing the wounded from the tangle of steel, glass and splintered wood, “which stuck out like bayonets in all directions, some of them having already pierced those in the cars.” Those who could walk staggered from the tunnel. Others had to be carried out. Cradles of burlap were made for the recovered bodies, which were hoisted by the rescuers to the street and laid out in rows before being taken to the morgue.

Automobiles were commandeered and their headlights shone on the wreckage. Brooklyn Gas Company and Brooklyn Edison Company also sent gangs of men with searchlights to illuminate the site. Down in the tunnel, surgeons were working by lantern light, side-by-side with priests administering last rites. Ebbets Field was opened as an aid station for the least seriously injured passengers. Some 200 others were taken to local hospitals.

Luciano and five BRT officials were indicted for manslaughter. Before the trial began, however, the BRT’s lawyers obtained a change of venue from Brooklyn to Nassau County. Mysteriously, although the prosecution knew that Luciano had perjured himself by lying that he had applied the brakes, they never used the evidence. All cases ended in hung juries, acquittals and dismissals.

In December, the BRT went into receivership. This delayed the payment of any claims for over three years. Eventually, the company paid damages totaling $1.6 million. In 1923, the BRT was reorganized as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation—the BMT. It, too, went into receivership and then dissolved itself on November 1, 1941, the 23rd anniversary of the wreck.

After his 1919 acquittal, Luciano moved and entered the real estate business. Then he vanished.

After the wreck, even the name of Malbone Street was tainted. It was eventually changed to Empire Boulevard.

A trace of the BRT may survive endures in the letters “TRB,” under which The New Republic, once published in New York, runs its weekly opening editorial. Legend has it that an editor at the magazine, Bruce Bliven, under pressure from the composing room to invent a byline for a new column, simply reversed the initials of the subway he had ridden into the city.

New York Press, December 31, 2002

February 9, 2015   2 Comments