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Tammany Picked An Honest Man
The 1910 race for the mayoralty of New York looked like a tough one.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
In the early years of this century, the manager of Delmonico’s famous restaurant in New York was sometimes heard to lament that all his customers looked alike, dressed alike, and even talked alike. In 1910 there occurred an instance of individualism run wild, if not rampant and amuck, that sufficiently stifled his lamentations. This refutation was the unloosing upon the New York scene of William Jay Gaynor, the city’s new and extraordinary mayor. Delmonico’s served as background for the eruption.
In midsummer of 1909 the political situation in the city was violently agitated. An election was coming up in November, and Tammany Hall was faced with a three-front opposition—from the inchoate but belligerent Fusion forces, from the equally tumultuous Republicans, and from top-of-the-lungs publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was trying to carry off the acrobatic feat of planting his feet simultaneously in all camps and appearing to belong to none. In this emergency, Charles F. Murphy, Tammany’s taciturn boss, hit upon Gaynor, a veteran justice of the New York Supreme Court, as the candidate for mayor under the Democratic banner.
Judge Gaynor had built a reputation for nonconformity by the conscientious effort of a lifetime devoted to going his own way. He fitted into no category in heaven or on earth. Born poor, of an English mother and an Irish father, he had been reared on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York. He attended a one-room schoolhouse, decided to enter the priesthood, became a lay student of the teaching order of Christian Brothers, journeyed to San Francisco with the order, gave that up, abjured Catholicism, returned east, taught school, studied law, practiced successfully, engaged in politics in Brooklyn (where he made his home) with furious independence, happily sent several political sharks to jail, was elected a judge, and had established himself as the possessor of a hot temper, profound learning, and unrivalled powers of pungent expression. A master of the plain Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (“the short words are the best” was his rule), he was fearless in stating his views without deference to time, place, or the listener. He was not averse to treading upon any corn that was placed in his path, and with all his explosiveness was so transparently honest and ruggedly well-intentioned that he won friends while simultaneously infuriating them.
He knew more law than most of the lawyers who appeared before him, and did not hide it. He told the American Bankers Association, “Your reputation was bad before the time of Cato the Elder”; and when a startled reporter ejaculated “Who?” he turned to the representatives of the press and snapped, “Cato! Cato! Have you ever heard of him?” Without pause, he then favored the bankers—J. Pierpont Morgan sitting at his elbow—with a free translation of the passage in Cato’s De Re Rustica showing that in ancient Rome moneylenders were classed lower than thieves.
Although nominally a Democrat, Judge Gaynor was a thoroughgoing maverick whom no fence could hold within bounds. Consistently unpredictable, he had committed the heresies of supporting Henry George, the single-taxer, and William Jennings Bryan, the crusader for free silver. Above all abominations he hated peculating politicians, and said so on every available occasion. Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher of the New York World, rightly called Gaynor “nobody’s pocket judge”; he was nobody’s pocket anything. In private life he was erudite, read the classics for recreation (Epictetus and Cervantes were his favorites), took pride in operating a farm at his Long Island summer home (he often quoted in court the lessons inculcated by his geese), and domestically and among friends was affectionate, kindly, and generally good-humored. He had married, divorced, and married again, and had numerous children.