- Historic Sites
The True-blue Democrat
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Once upon a time—some eighty-three years ago—a likable lad named James Aloysius Farley was horn in the milage of Grassy Point, New York, on the west bank of the lower Hudson River, to “poor but honest”parents, Irish to the core. When he was nine, his father was killed in an accident. “Jimmy” promised his mother he would help her run the grocery store and saloon, go faithfully to Mass, and neither smoke nor drink. He has kept every one of those promises. When he grew to manhood—six feet two inches—he wed Elizabeth Finnegan, whom he had known all his life, and lived happily with her until her death in 1955. He also commenced another lifelong and still warm affair, common to young Irishmen of his generation—this one with politics, inside the hospitable embrace of the Democratic Party. And it was this that brought him to a place in life where he spoke as a friend to Presidents, prime ministers, and popes, and even heard his own name placed in nomination for the Presidency.
On the opposite bank of the Hudson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a scion of the Knickerbocker aristocracy, grew up m a mansion, in an aura of ease and privilege. He and Jim Farley made each other’s acquaintance in Democratic politics. Twice Farley helped elect Roosevelt governor. When F.D.R. became President in 1932, he said that Louis McHenry Howe, his faithful adviser, and Jim Farley were the men most responsible for his victory.
During Roosevelt’s first two terms, “Big Jim” was chairman of the Democratic National Committee and of the New York State Democratic Committee, Postmaster General, and number-one glad-handerfor the New Deal. Raymond Moley, an adviser to the President, said Farley possessed “inexhaustible geniality.” It was reputed that Farley could call by their first names fifty thousand faithful Democrats all over the country. When he and the President were alone, Farley called F.D.R. “Boss” and Roosevelt called Farley “Shamus, ” which is Irish for James.
After his famous split with Roosevelt over the third term, Farley resigned as “three-job Jim.” He became chairman of the board of the Coca-Cola Export Corporation. As a soft-drink supersalesman for three decades, he has averaged each year some 120 banquets, one hundred luncheons, and visits to thirty countries. He is still hale and vigorous. Since his wife’s death he has lived alone. His three children telephone nearly every day, and his four grandchildren in college call every Sunday (“Collect!”). Usually Farley takes one or two of his ten grandchildren on his trips abroad. Unless it’s raining, he walks to his Madison Avenue office every weekday and Saturday morning. Football and baseball are his big sports enthusiasms, but he also enjoys harness racing and occasionally a boxing match. During the baseball season, Farley, who used to play first base for the Grassy Point Alphas, can be found in his box at Yankee Stadium almost every Saturday and Sunday and many evenings.
Farley spends a couple of hours every Friday afternoon m the Biltmore turkish baths, perspiring and relaxing. This helps him keep tabs on his weight. If the scales go too high, he eases up on two of his favorite dishes, ice cream and nee pudding. Every Sunday morning, ram or shine, Jim Farley passes the collection plate at nine o’clock Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He regrets that he seldom sees a familiar face there, because the congregation is mostly from out of town.
It is an active life. James A. Farley does not, like some old warriors, live entirely among his memories. He is still a worker, still an involved Democrat. But he relishes the recollected days of his political peak. In answer to an interviewer’s questions, he recalls the thunder and the shouting of New Deal days, in fluent, soft-spoken sentences, stippled with a wealth of detail drawn from a memory that was once legendary, and is still remarkable.
How did you come to know Franklin D. Roosevelt?
I first met Franklin Roosevelt in 1920, when he ran for Vice President with Governor [James M.] Cox. There was a reception for them at the National Democratic Club of New York, which was on Fifth Avenue where Saks [a New York department store) is now. I had been married only a short while, and I brought Mrs. Farley. It was a long reception, and, in a facetious way, Bess said that if she’d known she had to go through things like that, she wondered if she would have married me. “Well,” I said, “in the days ahead, you may run into many like this.”
I went to Mr. Roosevelt’s office —he was attorney for an insurance company—many times to seek his services as a speaker. I remember I asked him to speak at Flag Day services of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks when I was active in the Haverstraw, New York, Lodge No. 877.
I’ll never forget once I met Mr. Roosevelt at the Biltmore Hotel. Every time I go to the Biltmore that scene flashes before my mind’s eye. The hotel has about sixteen steps, and I stood at the top and watched Mr. Roosevelt bound up those steps, two at a time. That’s the last time I saw him before he was stricken [with polio].
Did you think that his becoming crippled would be a handicap to him politically?