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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
A number of admirers, including many important New Yorkers, organized to run him independently for a second term. On September 4 he accepted this nomination in a ceremony held on the steps of City Hall before a large gathering of people. His appearance shocked his friends—the haggard air and, still more startling, the rumpled clothing. It was a sad decline from the days when he could confidently castigate the mind of Hearst as “a howling wilderness.”
Too feeble to speak, he had the few words he had scribbled down read for him. They were like a letter addressed to the people:
“How different this vast impressive scene is to the little scene which occurred in a room at Delmonico’s one night a week ago. There sat at a table eight men to decide who might run for mayor and other offices. They were all of one stripe, and of a kind to cast lots for the garments of the city. Let me read their names to you lest you have forgotten them: Charles F. Murphy, John H. McCooey, Thomas Foley, Philip Donahue, Edward E. McCall, John Fitzgerald, Arthur Murphy, John Galvin. There was no room for anyone except themselves. None of you were invited. None of you were allowed to make a suggestion. But here today all representative men have a voice. … The people of this city are going to shovel all of these miserable little political grafters into one common dumpheap.”
Next day he boarded a ship for Europe, to get two weeks of rest and collect strength for the coming campaign. “I cannot possibly get any privacy on land, so I am going to spend two weeks on the ocean, where nobody can get at me,” was his parting statement. “Murphy and the chaps that sat down with him at Delmonico’s the other night and guzzled and abused me until their faces were red were ready to cut me up, I am told, and yet I never did anything to them except what tended to make them look respectable.”
Shortly after the ship left port, a message came back, addressed to a newspaper: “The rentpayers and taxpayers of New York City will not throw the government of their city … into the control of a vulgar gang of grafters, all of one stripe, such as met at Delmonico’s. Give them the shovel;/No king, no clown/ Shall rule this town;/That day is gone forever . W. J. Gaynor.” It was his last public word. In mid-ocean he was found dead, slumped in a deck chair, a volume of Emerson open on his lap.
From two sources came appropriate epitaphs.
The New York Sun, which on the day of his election four years earlier had called him “certainly the most unfit candidate for the mayoralty in the history of the community,” on the occasion of his death published this different estimate: “First and foremost, he was, as no other mayor ever was, the people’s champion, the actual father of the city.”
Tammany’s Thomas Foley, afterward New York surrogate and the man for whom Foley Square was named, also paid his tribute: “I will say this about Mayor Gaynor; he did more to break up the Democratic organization than any other man ever has in this city.”
Gaynor’s own summation had been phrased in his familiar, terse style: “I have had a pretty hard time for four years to hold my own against all comers, and against every corrupt influence, but I have been Mayor.”
Gaynor’s goodness glowed in the memories of many humble New Yorkers for a long time. They relished his way of dealing with the self-righteous, the “unco guid”—“these few virtuous persons,” he called them, who “think that we ought to be able to make everybody as virtuous as they are, or rather as virtuous as they think and pretend they are. Now these people we forgive, of course, twice a day. We forgive them, but we desire to have nothing to do with them.”
Best of all, perhaps, was his jaunty conclusion, “There is less misery in the world than some miserable people think.”