Tammany Picked An Honest Man

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“Reverend and Dear Sir—Your letter informing me that as you walk about the city visiting the homes of your parishioners people apply opprobrious names to you, and throw empty cans and rubbish at you, and otherwise assault you, on account of your beard, is at hand. You ask me, ’Is it a crime in the City of New York to wear a beard?’ No, it is not. I wear one myself and nobody ever takes notice of it. How is it that they take notice of your beard? Have you trimmed it in some peculiar way, contrary to the Scriptures? For you know the Scriptures say, ‘Ye shall not round the corners of your beards, neither shall thou mar the corners of thy beard.’ Yes, if they assault you, and throw cans at you, you have a right to defend yourself to the last extremity; but if you find it necessary I will have a detective go around with you for a few days until we arrest some of those who are wronging you. Are you certain it is your beard which is the cause of the trouble?”

Day after day, the letters streamed out, full of pith and curious humor, on serious subjects and trivial, and each correspondent was treated with respect and, where possible, salty sympathy. The public enjoyed it, and Gaynor enjoyed the role of omniscient counsellor. He wrote about books and reading; Don Quixote was his favorite character, and in his own makeup there was something of the noble knight whose pate was addled and whose heart was soft as a coddled egg. He expounded upon the spirit of Christmas; on roof playgrounds; on marriage fees; on banning books from libraries; on observing Good Friday; and on converting the Jews.

“It seems to me that this work of proselyting from other religions and sects is very often carried too far,” he advised the Reverend Thomas M. Chalmers, of Brooklyn. “Do you not think the Jews have a good religion?… I do not think I should give you a license to preach for the conversion of the Jews in the streets of the thickly settled Jewish neighborhoods which you designate. Would you not annoy them and do more harm than good? How many Jews have you converted so far?”

No sager counsel was ever contained in fewer words than Mayor Gaynor’s reply to the request of a newspaper syndicate for a message which might be of interest to their readers:

“Dear Sir—You ask me to give an interview saying ‘What I would say to the readers of 3,000 newspapers.’ I would say to them to be very careful about believing all they see in the newspapers.”

Another nugget of ultimate wisdom was his response to a question in the New York Times about the art of letter-writing: “What is the best way to write things, you ask? Often the best way is not to write them.”

In constant ill-health due to the irritation set up by the bullet in his throat, which made speaking painful, the Mayor was often racked by violent coughing fits; these sometimes lasted half an hour and left him limp, with nerves jangling. Life indeed had become difficult for him. But never did he lose sight of his fixed objective—to deliver the “common people” from political footpads. Friends bore his distempers with what patience they could; enemies, with furious impatience. As the New York World candidly put the case:

“If anybody chooses to say that Mr. Gaynor is irascible and irritable in his discussion of public affairs, we shall agree with him; but we are aware of no provision in the Constitution of the State of New York or the charter of the city which asserts that the mayor of New York must be sweet-tempered and gentle and lovable.”

An end to the long drought at Tammany Hall appeared likely when in 1913 another election drew nigh. Murphy had been hard put to hold his parched and ravenous district leaders in line, and around the wigwam there was an impression that Delmonico’s was to blame for their emaciation: it was their leader’s pernicious eating habits that had brought upon them the blight of Gaynor. Nevertheless, it was again to a private dining room at Delmonico’s that the leaders were bidden in midsummer of 1913 to decide upon their candidate for mayor this time.

Upon one point they were united: never again would they make the mistake of winning an election with the wrong man. Many cigars were reduced to ashes while the meeting congenially tore to shreds the mayor who had let them down. Only Murphy had a few kind words to say for Gaynor; for the Boss had a sneaking regard for any man who would not be bossed. The vote was taken, and Gaynor was consigned to a Gehenna which all trusted would be as hot as the last four years for them had been lean. The mayoral nomination was handed to a party spear-bearer, a lawyer named Edward E. McCall.

Gaynor had wanted renomination. Despite the clangor of critics, he believed that the “common people” were with him—“the people in general,” who were too engrossed in their own affairs “to bother their heads very much” about the tribulations of their mayor. In a showdown vote, Gaynor was confident he would be upheld, and he would not willingly be turned out without a fight.