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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
Fiorello La Guardia ran for office thirteen times. He was defeated three times: on his first trial for Congress in 1914, on his last trial for Congress in 1932, and on his first trial for mayor of New York in 1929. That 1929 contest against the popular and notorious Jimmy Walker was his most vigorous offensive. It was, in effect, his tryout for his successful mayoralty campaign four years later, when he won and became the most energetic and interesting mayor New York has ever had.
When La Guardia was a bouncing young lawyer, he kept telling his friends that one day he would sit in Congress and become mayor of New York. None of them believed him, and they put his aspirations down to admirable but unrealistic exuberance. He made Congress in 1916, left it in 1917 to command and fly with a group of American aviators in Italy, returned to the House of Representatives in 1918, left it again at the end of 1919 to become a contentious and constructive president of New York’s Board of Aldermen, and then went back to Washington to make himself one of the most valuable representatives there between the two world wars.
In 1929, La Guardia’s first step was the tough one of grabbing the Republican nomination for mayor, and he began his preparations early in January of that year. He was officially a Republican—but only officially—because when he first began to take an interest in politics as a youngster in Arizona (where his father was a United States Army musician) he read about the Lexow investigation of 1894, which revealed the corruption linking the police and Tammany politicians with prostitution and other illegal activities. These accounts in the New York Sunday World gave young La Guardia a distaste for Tammany Hall that lasted a lifetime. His only alternative was the Republican party in New York City, and Republican leaders frequently made deals with Tammany Democrats, permitting the Democrats to control the city in return for their co-operation in permitting the Republicans to control the state.
In 1929 there was some doubt whether Mayor James J. Walker would run for a second term. He had been elected in 1925 after Mayor John F. Hylan, who defeated the Fusion-reform Mayor John Purroy Mitchel in 1917 with the aid of William Randolph Hearst, had been ditched by Tammany leaders in favor of the more compliant and careless Walker. Hylan was eager to try again in 1929, even if he had to run as an Independent Democrat. La Guardia was confident that, with Fusion support, he could win on the Republican ticket. But many Republican leaders were even more reluctant than usual to give him their nomination, and he could not run and win without it. To most of them he was an unregenerate renegade and a dangerous radical, whose ideas they distrusted and despised and whose manner of expressing them they disliked and deplored. They considered his views on control of monopoly, regulation of public utilities, and relief for unemployed miners and other jobless workers downright socialism, and they mistook his verve for vulgarity.
La Guardia had made loyal friends as well as relentless enemies by his bluntness, sharp wit, and aggressiveness. Some of these friends were now ready to help him. Professor Francis W. Aymar of New York University Law School, La Guardia’s alma mater, sounded out sentiment among influential people of varied political complexion with a view to forming an independent citizens’ committee. La Guardia was raring to declare himself early in 1929 by presenting a platform, but his friend Courtlandt Nicoll, former New York state senator and a power in Republican politics, advised him to “hold your fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Edward Corsi, head of the Haarlem House settlement in La Guardia’s congressional district in East Harlem, and Philip Tirone, a political figure in the poorer sections of Brooklyn, went to work early and hard for their friend La Guardia in their neighborhoods. When the newspapers announced in the spring of 1929 that La Guardia might be the Republican candidate for mayor, he received offers of help from people he did not know but who knew his record as a courageous and constructive congressman. In May, Republican clubs in the Bronx and Brooklyn began to endorse him, and some Manhattan leaders, particularly the influential Samuel S. Koenig, chairman of the New York County Republican Committee, supported him.
In June the Socialist party nominated Norman Thomas for mayor, and an independent group nominated John F. Hylan. As the struggle for the Republican nomination became more intense, William M. Bennett, perennial entry in Republican primaries, announced that he would once more jump into the contest and inaugurated his effort by calling La Guardia “a sawed-off Big Bill Thompson,” after the blustering Mayor of Chicago who had promised his fellow citizens to punch King George V of England in the nose, though His Majesty had little to do with the gangster and sewage disposal problems of Chicago.
On July 18, Mayor Walker received a deputation at City Hall from the Committee of 682, headed by August Heckscher, prominent Republican real estate operator and philanthropist, and without much difficulty they persuaded him to run again. Walker was told how much he had meant to the city and, somewhat to his surprise, how many public improvements—there were forty on the deputation’s list—he had been responsible for. After looking over the list, he remarked that if it was the will of such men as August Heckscher and people prominent in the financial, sports, and department-store worlds that he should “carry on,” “Who could say No?”
A few hours after Mayor Walker “bowed” to the request of the Heckscher committee at City Hall, La Guardia was on his feet at a dinner tendered him by the New York Republican Club in Town Hall. In his speech he emphasized that the next mayor must be a man who could say no to the thieving politicians who had been able to twist previous “reform” mayors around their fingers. (La Guardia always had a way of pronouncing “politician” as if it were a dirty word.) He advocated reorganization of the city government to eliminate useless and overlapping officials—a task he performed when he eventually became mayor—suggested city planning that would look ahead fifty to seventy-five years instead of from day to day, and denounced Walker’s administration for having failed to produce “one useful existing important public improvement carried out since it has been in office.” The only change he could discover in the traditional bad old ways was that policemen were now compelled to wear “funny looking octagon caps.”
By the end of July, La Guardia was well ahead of all other contenders for the Republican nomination, insofar as his own efforts and those of his friends could put him ahead. But the regular Republican political leaders were still trying to head him off with any candidate, man or woman, more to their liking. They had little confidence that they could beat Jimmy Walker that year, and they had practically abandoned hope, devoting themselves to their prospects of electing a governor in 1930. A Republican party convention was scheduled for August 1 at Mecca Temple, where party workers would select their candidate for defeat. Whoever this sacrificial lamb might be, he would then have to win the nomination in the primary election on September 7, for La Guardia threatened to run in the primaries against any hand-picked selection of the bosses and their underlings. He also threatened that if he were denied the nomination he would tell the voters exactly what the leaders had done to him when it came time for them to elect a governor the following year. With compelling arguments like these, La Guardia’s friend Sam Koenig finally persuaded his fellow leaders to submit only La Guardia’s name to their convention.
Major General James G. Harbord, president of the Radio Corporation of America and a distinguished citizen interested in civic reform, was chairman of the Mecca Temple meeting on the night of August 1. He drew a picture of Mayor Walker as personally attractive, “young enough to have been in the Great War, but not in it; old enough to be mature, but not old enough to have outgrown the irresponsibility of childhood. … He has thoroughly enjoyed his job and has never been too tired to take a vacation,” the General continued. He described Walker as a credit to New York’s tailors and as a mayor who brought a steady procession of Channel swimmers, crown princes, Rumanian queens, and Arctic explorers to the steps of City Hall. He went on to denounce the Mayor as a costly extravagance to the taxpayers, and faithless to his pledges to give New York an efficient and economical administration. “He acknowledges no responsibilities for the performance of great tasks,” General Harbord said, and then prophetically added: “He has no serious moments and his sad ones are yet to come to him....I have no objection to your naming a Mayor who, with a proper sense of proportion, will smile occasionally,” he concluded, “but I hope it will be one who does not have to stop work to do it.”
The convention’s platform charged graft in many of the city’s departments, and waste and neglect in most of them. It pledged improvements in transit, law enforcement, housing, education, food distribution, and sewage disposal. It promised more parks and playgrounds, equitable tax assessments, and promotion and pay for city employees for merit rather than political pull. Courtlandt Nicoll put La Guardia’s name in nomination, gave a résumé of his career, and ended with the statement: “He is a man who knows New York, and New York, thank God, knows him. Success is his companion and victory is his habit.” But the convention, though it accepted La Guardia as its nominee, had no trouble controlling its enthusiasm. Five of the 1,519 delegates refused to vote for him, and one of them, Gordon Knox Bell, from the so-called “silkstocking” district, objected strenuously to the customary courtesy of making the nomination unanimous.
With a candidate it disliked, and committed to principles and ideals it did not relish, the Republican party prepared to meet a formidable opponent—flashy, popular, careless, and completely persona grata to Tammany Hall. For many years the city Republicans had preferred as candidate for mayor a colorless character who would not make it too difficult for his Tammany opponent, and who would thereby make it easier for their party to bargain with the Sachems for their indifference upstate. The Republican leaders were not so much interested in winning the mayoralty, which they considered well-nigh hopeless, as they were in avoiding the embarrassment that a slugging campaign of the kind La Guardia adored would cause them. Consequently the Republican clubhouses did not ring with cheers when La Guardia made it clear from the outset that, in the parlance of the prize ring, he was not going to “take a dive.”
In the course of his acceptance speech, La Guardia told the following story:
Many years ago there was a lull in the prize-fight game and Kid McCoy and Jim Corbett were out of work. The promoters wanted to stage a war. So they had someone throw a stone through the window of Kid McCoy’s store, and they told him it was Corbett who did it. When all the newspapermen were around they had the men clinch, and then they said they would put on a grudge fight. But it was all arranged for Kid McCoy to win. The men stepped into the ring and they came together and then Jim Corbett said to McCoy, “Sorry, Kid. This fight is on the level.”
Jimmy, this fight is on the level!
As if this were not enough, La Guardia had more shafts to bury in the hides of his half-hearted supporters: “The fact that I could survive an orthodox Republican convention, I want to assure you,” he said, “is the best proof of the coming success of the Fusion ticket.” And, concerning the platform, he told them: “Some of the planks are so progressive that they are quasi-La Guardian.” He promised that after January 1, when he expected to take office, “every Tammany commissioner and his deputy will be out of office.” Then he made a statement that rose to plague him throughout the ensuing campaign:
I know from more than twenty years of active work in politics the value of the district leader and the election district captain. I know that without the real work of the election district captain, no candidate can win. And I say to you now that I’ll appreciate your work, you election captains, and I’ll see to it that you’ll be recognized.
This enabled his opponents to say—and they did so regularly—that he was no better about the spoils system than the Tammany men he was denouncing.
Nor can it be said that the New York press, the next day, was full of praise for the new candidate. The Evening Post, then a conservative Republican organ, called La Guardia “semi-Socialistic” and claimed that he was as “undependable” as the incumbent Walker. The Republican New York Herald Tribune liked its party’s platform better than its candidate. In its opinion La Guardia, throughout his career, had “boxed the political compass in his efforts to win votes,” and it found his independence a symbol of “unstable convictions and poor judgment.” The Evening Sun, a Republican afternoon newspaper, came right out and accepted Walker as the lesser of two evils. The World, though Democratic, did not approve of Mayor Walker, but neither did it approve of La Guardia. William Randolph Hearst, alternately feuding and making deals with Tammany, was inclined at first to La Guardia and then supported Walker.
The New York Times, whose political affiliations were less formal and rigid than those of some of its competitors, did not like La Guardia’s nomination much more than the others. Its editorial writers rumbled that thousands of Republican voters would refuse to vote for him because he “has shifted his party allegiance as easily as he would put off an old coat....In his language he has often been violent and inflammatory,” the Times continued in its summation of La Guardia’s faults and disadvantages, “and has espoused political doctrines abhorrent to the substantial element of the Republican Party in New York.” The Times went on to pay its respects to La Guardia’s native ability, energy and enthusiasm, vigor and courage in the House of Representatives, his debating skill, and campaign cleverness. It looked forward to an interesting, colorful campaign.
As he prepared to give the town the colorful campaign the Times foresaw, La Guardia labored under other handicaps besides press antipathy. Not only was his own party tepid about him, but the progressives with whom he had worked in the past had declined into political insignificance. That summer of 1929 stock market prices were still high, and the electorate, always careless in good times, seemed to think it could still afford the luxury of jaunty Jimmy Walker, who was to La Guardia what a night club is to a settlement house. To cap all, campaign funds were painfully short. Many Republicans who usually contributed substantially to the party found La Guardia too radical for their pocketbooks. The bouncy candidate himself realized that his election would be no cinch, but he was optimistic enough to believe that silent, unaffiliated millions might come to his support if he waged a campaign that captured their attention, and that was just what he proceeded to do.
A World reporter visited La Guardia in his law office at 220 Broadway the morning after his nomination. He found the candidate in steady motion, full of exuberance. Presently there was an interruption from the telephone; La Guardia answered, to learn that an army officer claimed he had been involved in graft with an aircraft manufacturing company. The World reported:
La Guardia, sitting at his desk in his shirt sleeves, jumped to his feet with the telephone in his hand.
“You tell that officer that I say he is a blank blank blank and a blank,” he shouted through the transmitter, “and that if he makes that lying charge against me I will search him out in his office in Washington or wherever he may be, and drag him out into the street and thrash him.”
A minute later the candidate was chuckling and telling the World man that he preferred music to golf, which was too expensive for him, and that his forms of exercise were swimming and walking, which were free. (He might have added, “And waving my arms.”) “And,” the candidate went on, concerning his habits and hobbies, “I do get a kick out of a real political fight.”
The choice of La Guardia’s running mates had been left by the Mecca Temple convention to an executive committee of party brass. The Republican leaders, eager to get to the races at Saratoga and lacking confidence in any ticket headed by their maverick mayoralty candidate, wanted to dispose of this chore as fast as possible. La Guardia suggested asking the major civic and business organizations for their recommendations for comptroller—the most important post next to the mayor’s, since the city’s financial affairs would be managed by him—and for borough president of Manhattan, who had many contracts and much patronage at his disposal.
The Republican leaders did not want to take time for such consultation but, to La Guardia’s satisfaction, chose Harold G. Aron, a lawyer and banker, for comptroller and Bird S. Coler, an anti-Tammany Brooklyn Democrat who had once served as comptroller, to run for president of the Board of Aldermen. The New York County Republican Executive Committee chose Frederic R. Coudert, Jr., to run for district attorney, and Clarence H. Fay became the candidate for borough president of Manhattan. Keyes Winter, a lawyer and Republican leader of the Fifteenth or “silkstocking” district, became La Guardia’s campaign manager, and headquarters were soon opened in the Hotel Cadillac in Times Square.
Norman Thomas, Socialist party candidate for mayor, attacked La Guardia for running “with a bunch of militant conservatives, not one of whom has ever been known as a progressive.” He added the embarrassing charge: “He has openly promised jobs in event of victory to district leaders, the same district leaders who ordinarily sell out in local affairs to Tammany Hall.”
William M. Bennett made good his threat to contest the La Guardia selection in the primary election of September 17, but La Guardia beat him by 62,727 to 17,442. Ex-Mayor Hylan retired from the race, but his erratic police commissioner, Richard E. Enright, entered the mayoralty campaign as an independent on a ticket called the “Square Deal.”
After his victory in the primaries, La Guardia made an acceptance speech at a Town Hall meeting also presided over by General Harbord. He was curt in his gratitude—a quality many men found lacking in him:
I accept the nomination. Your remarks, General, are most flattering. I appreciate the many nice things you have said about me. Thanks. Now let’s get to business.
In this speech he also coined a slogan he used again four years later and adopted as his basic principle after he occupied City Hall: “No man can be a good Mayor merely by being a ‘good fellow.’ ” Elimination of waste and modernization in the city’s government were the keystones of his platform. He was talking at a time when extravagance, locally and nationally, was routine, and indifference to civic virtue was almost the rule. La Guardia then offered a constructive program of civic development and reform similar to the one he carried out when he finally became mayor.
In 1929 La Guardia already foresaw many needs of the future: he called for a large public works program to take care of the unemployed and to unify the city’s chaotic and inefficient rapid transit system. He campaigned for removal of what he regarded as the antiquated and unsightly elevated railroads and quick completion of the new Independent Subway system. He criticized the bus franchises negotiated by Mayor Walker and his friends, which the Seabury investigation revealed two years later to have been conceived in corruption and carried out with exorbitant profit to the promoters, including the Mayor and his cronies. “A temporary bus permit is to Tammany politicians what a horse and a six-shooter were to the James brothers,” La Guardia told the voters.
In his acceptance speech La Guardia threatened to establish boundaries outside the city’s limits that known criminals would not be allowed to pass, an action he took after he finally became mayor. He also frankly declared that he would not divert the police department from detection and prevention of serious crime to patrol New York’s thirty thousand-odd speakeasies “in order to snoop on respectable citizens desiring a drink.” New York under Tammany rule had an unusual number of unsolved murders, including the notorious case of the gambler and loan shark, Arnold Rothstein, which La Guardia was to use to dramatic effect later on in his campaign.
Fiorello La Guardia was a curious combination of pagan and moralist. He did not believe that government should or could regulate personal habits, but he was fanatical in his determination to protect people from having their desires exploited by thieves or suppressed by puritans. Prohibition he regarded as a restraint impossible to impose. He liked a drink now and then himseif. On the other hand, he did not gamble, and he often tried to stamp out gambling, as unsuccessfully as his predecessors and his successors.
The La Guardia campaign headquarters on the second floor of the Hotel Cadillac soon became a combined booking office and press bureau, where arrangements were made for the incredible number of meetings at which the candidate and his associates spoke day and night, and where publicity flowed like liquor elsewhere in town. La Guardia gave the enemy no rest and spared neither himself nor his co-workers. They supplied the newspapers with fresh charges almost every day. At first these were regarded as irresponsible exaggerations, but before long, as many of them were proved true, a certain respect for La Guardia crept into the skeptical press.
During this lurid 1929 campaign La Guardia first struck at what the Seabury investigation revealed later in detail: that the magistrates’ courts had never in their history been more corrupt, and that Tammany leaders and lawyers had a monopoly on the business of fixing, for high fees, the cases for builders who wanted to get around city zoning regulations.
La Guardia did not hesitate to criticize Mayor Walker’s personal life as well as his political one. In a Negro church in Harlem one night he said that things were terrible in the city but at least some people went home to sleep with their own wives. “And that ain’t so good either,” someone shouted.
Bouncing around the five boroughs of Greater New York, this volatile little Italian with the staccato indignation was both fearless and good-humored. He loved a wisecrack almost as much as Jimmy Walker did, but his were usually more pertinent than those of the night-club artist who was then mayor of New York. His ungovernable temper was an integral part of his honesty, and his disregard of the amenities won him the attention of millions who admired his spunk, even while it lost him the respect of thousands who thought he should be less vituperative. Throughout his career there were always those who considered Fiorello La Guardia their champion, and always those who disdained him as a jester.
It was only when La Guardia opened up on the Arnold Rothstein murder case that Walker and the Tammany administration really became worried. Rothstein had been a thoroughly mean loan shark, a gambler extraordinary, and a Broadway rounder. Some of his clients and protectors occupied high positions in the city administration—particularly in its police department—and in Tammany Hall, whose powerful and disreputable leader, James J. Hines, subsequently went to jail for protecting gangsters. Rothstein had gotten away with nearly everything but murder for fifteen years. He ran grandiose gaming establishments, helped fix the 1919 World Series baseball games, and was heavily involved with the underworld’s worst traffic, the narcotics trade. Then on Sunday night, November 4, 1928, this companion of criminals was shot to death in a Seventh Avenue hotel. Many guesses and explanations have since been offered, the most common being that Rothstein had this time “welched” on gambling debts larger than his fellow gamblers could ignore.
Rothstein’s books and records, containing the names of prominent people who were his clients and associates in gambling, fixing, and crime, were now in the hands of Tammany’s complacent district attorney, Joab H. Banton. Nobody has ever been convicted for Rothstein’s murder, in good part because it was the intention of the politicians who then ran New York that nobody should ever be caught for killing a man so few people regretted. By the time something could have been done to punish the guilty, all the evidence had effectively been destroyed and all potential witnesses “dissuaded” from testifying.
It was ten months after the murder that La Guardia, then running in the primary, made his assault:
Rothstein was murdered on November 4, 1928, a little before eleven o’clock. It so happens that at that time the neighborhood was mysteriously clear of police officers. He died on November 6. Before he died he made several communications. He also made statements to detectives. After his death there was an immediate scramble for Rothstein’s private papers.
La Guardia went on to sum up the course of Tammany “justice” in the case, specifically in the indictment of George McManus, a bookmaker and gambler who was granted bail—an unusual step in a murder indictment—after he had given himself up in the Bronx, where he had been put in hiding for three weeks by Tammany leader Jimmy Hines. A hotel maid was held for several months as a material witness to Rothstein’s murder, but she could not get out on bail. La Guardia charged that she was held in jail “until the police and the District Attorney’s office and the administration were sure that she would not talk.” He continued:
Since her release this woman’s picture has appeared with an automobile given to her. She is now, according to new items, out of the scrub business and doing well. How about that? What facts has she got that she has not revealed? What information did the police obtain during all the time that she was held as a material witness?
In another of his campaign speeches La Guardia told the story of “Nicky” Arnstein, big-time gambler and friend of Rothstein’s. Several months before Rothstein was murdered, Arnstein came back to New York from a place in hiding. He was broke. In order to make some money, he sold his memoirs to a tabloid newspaper. In those memoirs Arnstein, according to La Guardia, described Rothstein as the graft collector for Tammany Hall. After the Rothstein murder the tabloid began printing the Arnstein story. A few installments had come out, La Guardia said, and then Arnstein appeared in the newspaper office, went down on his knees before the editor, and begged to be permitted to buy back his memoirs, claiming that he would be killed if the story were not suppressed. “Why?” La Guardia asked his audiences. “Who gave Nicky the money to buy back these stories? Who was Arnstein seeking to shield?” Neither he nor anyone else ever received answers to those questions, but Nicky Arnstein was not murdered, and his story was not published.
Night after night La Guardia charged that the police and the district attorney’s office, both dominated by Tammany politicians, had concealed the Rothstein facts and protected crooks and murderers instead of discovering and prosecuting them. The prosecution of the Rothstein case, he charged, would have revealed the city officials’ “intimate, close, personal, and pecuniary connections with the criminal element of this city.” He told his audiences that Rothstein’s connections with the police department were so close that he had been permitted “to shoot and wound two police officers without fear of arrest.” He also pointed out that while the police department and the district attorney’s office had repeatedly gone out of their way to create the impression that Rothstein was killed in a gamblers’ quarrel, they had never produced any killer or revealed who might have hired one.
Then La Guardia began to write embarrassing letters to Tammany’s loyal District Attorney Banton. In one of them he demanded that Banton state publicly: “Who did Rothstein cheat?” Banton told the press that he would adopt the policy of President Herbert Hoover and refuse to answer letters made public before he received them. La Guardia sent Banton a second letter, which he did not make public until he was sure the District Attorney had received it. Still he got no answer.
The newspaper reporters made Banton’s life miserable, running to him daily with La Guardia’s charges and asking for answers. Mayor Walker, usually all glad-handed joviality, refused to see reporters, and Walker’s police commissioner, the impeccably dressed Grover Whalen, would not discuss the Rothstein case. Demands were made for a state investigation of the Rothstein murder, but Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, anxious to placate Tammany Hall in order to gain its support for his re-election as governor in 1930, remained silent. Tammany was frantic to prevent any state investigation which not only might reveal the truth of La Guardia’s charges, but might also develop into a comprehensive investigation of the entire Walker administration—such as was indeed made two years later by Judge Seabury. La Guardia announced in the course of his campaign that as soon as he took office as mayor there would be an immediate investigation “of the act, conduct, knowledge and inaction of every police official connected with the case.”
Meanwhile La Guardia brought forth the biggest sensation of his sensational campaign. On September 24, he asked District Attorney Banton publicly:
Did you ascertain whether any public officials now in office had ‘borrowed’ money from Rothstein? With what public officials and prominent men in Tammany politics had Rothstein conferred just prior to the time he was murdered? I trust that you will furnish this information not only to me, but to the public who are more interested in this case than you seem to realize.
Banton told the newspapermen that Rothstein’s black books, which he still refused to make public, showed no loans to men in public life. The reporters rushed back to La Guardia with this statement on the afternoon of September 27 at his headquarters in the Hotel Cadillac. The Herald Tribune reported his reaction:
Snatching off his glasses, he banged his desk and exclaimed: “That is not true! I will give District Attorney Banton until tonight to make public the name of a Democratic officeholder in the Bronx, who is now campaigning for Mayor Walker and against me, who received money from Rothstein running into five figures.”
The newspapermen rushed back to the District Attorney’s office. “I know of no such case,” Mr. Banton said. “Mr. La Guardia may go as far as he likes.”
“Give me half an hour,” La Guardia told them when they brought him that story. At the end of half an hour he held a press conference. Taking a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolding it, he said slowly:
Mr. Banton did not make a correct statement. His office has examined the files of the Rothstein case. When he states there was no record, no copy, no data indicating financial transactions between Rothstein and anyone in politics he makes a misstatement of facts. That is significant in connection with the case.
The files show the data, and with them a copy of a letter transmitting from Rothstein a check for $19,940, being the proceeds of a note due July 2, 1928. The letter was sent to the Hon. Albert Vitale, City Magistrate, addressed to 561 East Tremont Avenue, the Bronx, and in it Rothstein expressed his happiness to be able to accommodate the judge.
Rothstein had been in the habit of charging thirty to forty per cent interest for his moneylending, but in Magistrate Vitale’s case he had graciously lowered his usual rates. La Guardia went on:
Judge Vitale is at this very moment campaigning for Mayor Walker in the Bronx, has made several speeches for him and has undertaken the organization of Italian voters for him. I now ask Mayor Walker to repudiate Vitale or stand by him. Of course, I am sure the Mayor will ask a City Magistrate to explain a $20,000 note and a $19,000 check from Rothstein, whom Mr. Banton calls a gambler.
The reporters then rushed off to the Bronx to call on Magistrate Vitale at his home. He hurried to his office, where he issued a statement that in June, 1928, being hard-pressed for money in order to protect stocks he held on margin, he went to a friend, since dead, whose name he would not mention despite the reporters’ assurance that if he did so his story would become more credible. The anonymous dead friend, the magistrate continued, told him he could get money for him. Next thing he knew, Vitale told the reporters, he received a check in the mail for $19,940 from Arnold Rothstein, interest on the loan of $20,000 being deducted in advance. He claimed that he had repaid Rothstein two weeks later and showed a canceled personal check dated July 2, 1928, to prove it. He added that he had only met Arnold Rothstein twice, both times at big dinners, and that he had never been a friend of the murdered loan shark and gambler. (Nobody in New York in 1929 wanted to be known as a friend of Arnold Rothstein’s after La Guardia began making his charges.) Judge Vitale called the La Guardia charges “most despicable” and made the routine threat of consulting his lawyer to find out what grounds he might have for a libel suit. No such suit ever was brought in connection with the Rothstein case. When reporters took the Vitale statement to District Attorney Banton, he said he knew nothing about that loan and then shut himself up in his apartment and refused to make any further statements.
La Guardia now demanded that Banton make public the full contents of Arnold Rothstein’s little black books, in which the usurer had made memoranda of money paid out by him and owed to him. Banton admitted that he had the little black books but refused to make the contents public, and he still insisted that there were no names of public officials in those books. By this time the newspapers and any of the public who were at all interested did not believe a word the District Attorney said, and the press clamored for the little black books—to no avail. Mayor Walker kept silent and ignored La Guardia’s demands for explanations and investigation.
From the outset of his campaign La Guardia had known about the Rothstein loan to Magistrate Vitale, but he held it for use when he thought it would do the most good. One of his campaign managers and advisers, J. Arthur Adler, had been an assistant in the New York office of the United States Attorney. When he began work for La Guardia, Mr. Adler remembered that in the course of a case he had prosecuted against Arnold Rothstein, he had come across an item about a campaign contribution from Rothstein to Judge Vitale. A search of the files in the U.S. Attorney’s office turned up not only the campaign contribution but the loan and the note for it. As La Guardia said in one of his campaign speeches: “There is not a Tammany politician with the exception of Alfred E. Smith who can risk examination of his private bank account.” Judge Seabury was soon to prove the truth of this statement in detail.
In the course of his attacks La Guardia also went into deals in dock leases, racketeering (with the connivance of politicians) in the milk industry, and the splitting of fees by Tammany lawyers with Tammany politicians. These practices, too, were later corroborated by the Seabury investigation. La Guardia was able to reveal so much because he was constantly receiving information from many people who did business with the city and had to deal with crooks to get their business done, and from some city employees who did not like what they saw going on around them. Many of these informants were afraid to sign their names but their reports, after checking by La Guardia’s staff, proved in a surprising number of instances to be accurate.
Throughout his political career La Guardia developed extraordinary sources of private information. His innate courage and forthrightness inspired men and women, both well-known and obscure, to turn to him with tips and suggestions. He was tireless in following up these random efforts. Some of them were unproductive, but a remarkable number were profitable. He never had a machine—being a one-man machine himself—but he did enjoy an extraordinary number of loyal well-wishing lieutenants.
The newspapers, which began by calling La Guardia’s charges “reckless” and “irresponsible,” now took them seriously, and some belatedly came around to his support. On August 28, the New York Times praised him as “a true independent,” adding: “It is his habit to get the facts and know the subject.” The Times concluded: “He is no man’s man. He cannot be dull....To the public in general, not otherwise committed, a man of genuine talent who has not acquired the art of being stupid is a treat.”
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.
On the morning after election the newspapers greeted the huge Walker plurality with pious hopes that during the next four years he would develop, mature, and work. He did none of these things but remained indolent and permitted his associates to run the government and take the spoils, of which he was thought to have received his share. Before three years were over, the sad days for Jimmy Walker which General Harbord had predicted, in his nominating speech for La Guardia, finally arrived. He had to resign as mayor of New York after the Seabury investigation revealed the worst conditions in the city since the reign of Richard Croker as Tammany Boss in the 1880’s and 1890’s, when he too had obliging stooges for his mayors and when he and his henchmen levied graft on all sectors of the population.
La Guardia offered no alibis for his defeat and told the press that the next mayoralty election was too far away for him to be able to say whether or not he would run again. He claimed, however, that the regular Republicans had deserted him, that he would have something to say about them when the proper time came, and that he would continue to watch city affairs vigilantly. Some reporters believed he had been defeated because he had denounced wealthy members of his own party who had benefited from real-estate and tax assessments made in their favor, because he was of foreign extraction, and because he opposed Prohibition. He resented such objections, and often lashed out with a blanket charge of bigotry against those who made them.
La Guardia went back to Congress and became furiously active in coping with the Depression that had now come upon the country, following the stock market crash that occurred a week before his defeat.
The tremendous effort La Guardia had made to win—against overwhelming odds, in the most vigorous campaign he ever conducted—was not lost. Through it he became well-known as a fighter and a constructive leader to voters in all five boroughs of New York. After they had seen all his charges confirmed—and new abuses revealed—during the Seabury investigation of the magistrates’ courts and the city government in 1931 and 1932, and after they found themselves deep in depression in a city on the verge of bankruptcy, the people—no longer able to afford corruption, indifference, lethargy, and wisecracks—elected Fiorello La Guardia their mayor in 1933. They kept him in that office for the following twelve years, during which time he became one of the most valuable citizens that city has ever had, and one of the best mayors it seems ever likely to get.