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Incident In Miami
On a warm Florida evening in 1933 a madman with a pistol and a personality profile now all too familiar—“unskilled, unfriendly, unmoneyed, and unwell”—came within inches of altering the course of American history in one of its most critical moments
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
And this was the conclusion Roosevelt gave his wife when, at about 10:40 P.M., she reached him at the hospital by phone from their New York City home. She had been giving a speech at the Warner Club, 321 West 44 Street, when the first news of the assassination attempt was received by the New York newspapers. She left the club without having heard the news. Not until she arrived at the Sixty-fifth Street house did she learn, sketchily, what had happened, first from the agitated, stammering butler who met her at the door, then from her daughter Anna (Mrs. Curtis DaIl), then, somewhat more fully, from a newspaper reporter. She received the news calmly, almost with a shrug. “These things are to be expected,” she remarked as she reached for the phone to place her person-to-person call to Miami. And with her husband she conversed perfectly calmly for only a minute or so. “He’s all right,” she said to a reporter after she’d hung up. “He’s not the least bit excited.” Nor was she. A few minutes later she left the house to go to Grand Central Station, where she boarded a train for Ithaca, New York. There, next day, she was to speak at Cornell University’s annual Home and Farm Week.
At about the time his wife arrived at Grand Central, Roosevelt arrived back at the Nourmahal to spend the night, having postponed till the next day his departure for New York. And there it was, in the yacht’s grand saloon, that the ever-watchful Moley was presented with a final and (to him) now astonishing display of Roosevelt’s nervous control.
Everyone knew by then that it was definitely Roosevelt, not Cermak, whom the gunman had meant to kill. At the police station, Zangara had made, eagerly, volubly, a full statement of his act and motive (“I hate all Presidents … and I hate all officials and everybody who is rich”), expressing as his only regret the failure of his attempt on the President-elect’s life. (How, wondered Roosevelt, could he have missed? While shooting, he could not have been more than twenty feet away.) Roosevelt’s companions, therefore, “were prepared, sympathetically, understandingly, for any reaction that might come from … [him] now that the tension was over and he was alone” with intimates. They themselves were let down, their nerves frayed, and they showed this in their manner. Roosevelt, however, remained unmoved. “There was nothing—not so much as the twitching of a muscle, the mopping of a brow, or even a hint of false gaiety—to indicate that it was not only another evening in any other place,” recalled Moley in his book After Seven Years . ”… I have never in my life seen anything more magnificent. …” When the President-elect went to bed at two o’clock he fell at once soundly asleep (the Secret Service man guarding his stateroom testified to this); he remained so until somewhat later than his usual rising time.
From newspaper accounts that next morning Roosevelt was able to fill in theretofore missing elements of the story of the assassination attempt; he learned how and why the attempt had failed—and learned, too, substantially all that history would ever know about the man who had tried to kill him.
Giuseppe Zangara, nicknamed “Joe” upon his immigration from Mussolini’s Italy in 1923, had come early to Bay Front Park. He wanted (in his own words) “to be as close to the President-elect as possible.” He found, however, that he had not come quite early enough: hundreds were already gathered before the bandstand and he could not place himself in the foremost row of the crowd as he had planned to do. He must remain in the second row, where he dropped down on a bench to wait through the nearly two hours intervening between his arrival and Roosevelt’s scheduled appearance.