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Fiorello’s Finest Hour
Once upon a time an honest man ran for mayor of New York City — and, naturally, lost
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
By October 5, a month before election, the New York Evening Post , shocked at Mayor Walker’s frank statement in a speech that he would always follow the advice of the new boss of Tammany Hall, John F. Curry, urged its readers to vote for La Guardia, since the issue now was “La Guardia vs. Curry.” The World was impressed by La Guardia’s charges, particularly those involving the disreputable Rothstein and favoritism to some people in tax assessments, but it still felt that he was succeeding in making “cynics but not Republicans.” It took the Republican Herald Tribune until October 25, less than two weeks before Election Day, to come out definitely for the Republican-Fusion candidate.
Tammany and Mayor Walker, self-confident in the face of all La Guardia’s charges and banking heavily on public indifference and lethargy, ignored La Guardia. Mayor Walker made very few speeches and got his customary applause for his wisecracks. Toward the end of this 1929 contest Tammany brought its respectables into action. Al Smith, Senator Robert F. Wagner, and Senator Royal S. Copeland made speeches for Mayor Walker.
Without mentioning his name, Walker ridiculed La Guardia as “next door to a Bolshevik” and accused his opponent of making racial appeals to Italians and Jews. La Guardia screamed in reply if Italians and Jews voted for him, it would be because they were robbed and exploited daily by thieving Tammany officials. He accused Mayor Walker of being a loud dresser rather than the well-dressed man he was credited with being in some circles.
Nor was the Little Flower completely above the oldtime crudities of melting-pot politicking. At a meeting of Irishmen La Guardia announced that among the names on Jimmy Walker’s Committee of 682 was that of Winston Churchill, then Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. He assured the Irishmen:
Why, if you go to the Mayor’s apartment, you will find an autographed photograph of the Prince of Wales! He can have it! I have got something I treasure more! I have the autographed letter of an American citizen, the real type of perfect womanhood, thanking me for standing up in the House of Representatives and asking our government to lend its force for the liberation of a great champion of liberty. I would not trade that letter from Mrs. Wheeler, the mother of Eamon de Valera, for any autographed photographs or letters from all the nobility of Europe.… I’ve got Jimmy Walker in a corner! He can’t move! He’s groggy! This is a real fight! This is no time for sobbing, Jimmy! Come out and fight like a man! Come out!
Irish songs and dances followed.
Mayor Walker played one trick on La Guardia against which he was defenseless. “What was my opponent doing in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the night of June 1?” he asked mysteriously. La Guardia screeched that he hadn’t been in Bridgeport in fifteen years, but Walker went right on insinuating. After the election the two men, who had known each other since 1915, when La Guardia was a young deputy attorney general of New York State and Walker a state senator, met at a club where both sometimes lunched. La Guardia, still troubled by the Bridgeport insinuation, said, “Jimmy, what did you mean by that?”
“Nothing, Fiorello, nothing at all,” Walker replied. “I don’t know whether you’ve ever been in Bridgeport. But it worked, didn’t it?”
As Election Day approached, the going odds were twenty to one against La Guardia. Would it were possible to end this story, as a novelist might, with an utterly unexpected triumph for Our Hero. But unfortunately, as so often outside fiction, the expected did in fact occur. Early on election night it became obvious that Mayor Walker had won an overwhelming victory. La Guardia did not carry a single assembly district and failed even to carry his own ward. Norman Thomas polled the largest vote a Socialist candidate had ever received in New York’s history.
By 8:25 P.M. La Guardia conceded defeat and sent Mayor Walker a telegram which read: “ ACCEPT MY CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR VICTORY AND BEST WISHES FOR A SUCCESSFUL ADMINISTRATION. FIORELLO.” “I am licked,” he told reporters. “I hope the election is all for the best.” By 8:45 P.M. he and Mrs. La Guardia were home in their apartment with Paul Windels, one of his leading campaign managers. Quite undaunted, the defeated candidate put on his large white chef’s hat, tied his apron round his protuberant belly—pinning his war decorations on the apron, as he liked to do when cooking—and made the inevitable spaghetti he often served his friends. Meanwhile he entertained them with stories in Italian dialect about the domestic difficulties of his sculptor friend, Attilio Piccirilli, who was often the object of La Guardia’s jokes.
The final returns showed 865,549 votes for Walker to 368,384 for La Guardia, and the only Fusion candidate to win was George U. Harvey, who became borough president of Queens. Walker’s plurality, 497,165, was the largest any candidate for mayor had ever received up to that time.