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“well, What Are You Going To Do About It?”
Thus Boss Richard Croker breezily dismissed charges of corruption. But the fortune he made from “honest graft” was not enough to buy him what he most wanted
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
In his great days Croker could have tried anything—building the City Beautiful, even cleaning up one slum. It never occurred to him that he should. For a long time it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the voters either. Daniel P. Moynihan has said that Tammany’s leaders didn’t know what to do with power once they got it. “They never thought of politics as an instrument of social change.”
The big-city machine had only one goal—the perpetuation of its own power. It developed a bureaucracy second only to that of the Catholic Church; it controlled the city for the better part of a century, winning elections and dispensing patronage, but in the end it left behind it no more than Ozymandias. Its leaders had no vision of the city; no works of theirs remain.
Croker retired to a castle in Ireland called Glencairn, and in his seventies, a few weeks after the death of his first wife, he married a young lady some forty years his junior who uniquely combined the distinctions of a degree from the University of Chicago and direct descent from a Cherokee chief. He returned to America again, an old man nearing eighty, almost blind, to face a lawsuit. The plaintiffs were three of his own children by his first marriage, anxious to save him from the mistake he would make by leaving his fortune of several million dollars to his new wife. Croker’s son Frank had been killed racing his car along the Florida shore, and young Bertie, ahead of his time, had died of an apparent overdose of narcotics. Richard, Jr., Howard, and Ethel remained, along with Florence —the recipient of Mayor Grant’s largesse a quarter of a century before and the only one of his children who did not join in the suit or in the bitter court battle over the estate that dragged on long after his death.
Croker won the suit, but he was worn out now, and he returned to Glencairn with pneumonia. He died on the last weekend of April, 1922. The next day Charles F. Murphy, Croker’s successor and the last of the big-time Tammany bosses, ordered the flag on top of the hall on Fourteenth Street and at every district clubhouse throughout the city to be flown at half mast. And the next day the secretary of the Society of Tammany got up a tribute that he gave to the press in the form of a resolution expressing sorrow at “the passing of the lion.” Now that he was dead, Croker was two things he hadn’t been in a long time —remembered and praised.
“Look at the bosses of Tammany Hall,” said Plunkitt. “What magnificent men!” And he added, with unconscious irony, “To them New York City owes pretty much all it is today.”