June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
He came out of the Horseshoe, a teeming slice of downtown Jersey City that owed its name to a gerrymander of earlier decades. From the brutal poverty of those narrow waterfront streets crammed with saloons and slum tenements, Frank Hague rose to plush accommodations at the Plaza and a mansion on Biscayne Bay, to dinners at the White House and at the homes of the wealthy, to annual trips to Europe in the royal suites of luxury liners, to made-to-order shirts and silk underwear from A. Sulka Uc Company. A few years before his death he secretly acknowledged that he was worth eight million dollars. The lawyer who extracted this figure, a former attorney general of New Jersey, says: “The real amount was probably ten times higher.”
But it was not just his wealth that made Hague unique—it was the totality of his power and the ferocity with which he exercised it. For thirty years he reigned as mayor of Jersey City and ruler of New Jersey. Judges and district attorneys, senators and congressmen, governors and presidential candidates, respected—or at least feared—his name. Those who opposed him, especially on his home grounds, frequently ended up in jail or in the hospital. “I am the law!” he bellowed once in a moment of unguarded candor. Though he could claim, with some justice, that his enemies had distorted the circumstances in which he said it—he was trying to keep some delinquent boys out of jail—even his friends had to admit that, inside Jersey City’s 8,320 grubby acres, it was the literal truth.
How Hague achieved this wealth and power is an American saga, rich in irony and symbolic overtones still significant today. Born in 1876, he was expelled from school at the age of thirteen as a hopeless incorrigible; he acquired his real education in the brawling streets of the Horseshoe in the iSgo’s. Along with a taste for violence, he acquired from his boyhood a deep infusion of Irish Catholicism in its most puritanical form. The infusor was his mother, Margaret Hague. Her husband, John Hague, was a quiet cipher. Mrs. Hague is recalled by one old Jerseyite as “a bitch on wheels.” She turned Hague’s younger brother, Jimmy, into a mamma’s boy so effeminate he never married. Her son Frank, made of tougher stuff, emerged from her stern tutelage ideally equipped to march to power flaunting the banner of a Catholic reformer. The two words are of equal importance in Frank Hague’s rise.
Religion was as divisive to the slum dweller of 1900 as race is to the slum dweller of 1969. The Anglo-Saxon Protestants on Jersey City’s affluent Heights had the money, and they were haughtily determined to convert or browbeat into submission the immigrant Catholics downtown. From his earliest days, Frank Hague was a devout Catholic, and he could always draw on this simmering sense of discrimination as part of his political weaponry.
His psychological combination of Irish puritanism and hypochondria also guaranteed him a “clean” image. He had no interest in fast women or in drinking the saloons dry. Until the age of twenty-seven he lived at home with his mother and frequently accompanied her to church on Sunday. Then he married Jennie Warner, a prim, shy, retiring girl who never played the slightest role in his political life.
The reform side of Hague’s image has been almost totally forgotten today. But it is one of the two things— the other is his technique of holding power—that makes his story worth recalling.
When the lean, red-headed six-footer won his first election, to the post of constable in 1897, New Jersey was called The Traitor State by despairing reformers. Hague’s campaign, which consisted of borrowing seventy-five dollars from saloonkeeper Nat Kenny to “make friends” in the Horseshoe’s ubiquitous bars, was typical of New Jersey’s seamy political life. The political boss of Newark, James Smith, Jr., and the boss of Jersey City, Robert Davis, had auctioned off the state to the burgeoning railroads and utilities in return for juicy stock options and side deals. Thirty per cent of Jersey City’s land was owned by the railroads, and they were assessed at only $3,000 an acre while other properties were evaluated as high as $18,000 an acre. Backed by his self-organized “Tammannee Club”—a name that revealed little originality but much ambition— Hague swiftly became the leader of the Horseshoe’s second ward. Having antagonized Davis, Hague promptly formed an alliance with H. Otto Wittpenn, a reform Democrat who was committed to fighting bossism and the “interests,” as the big corporations were called. When Davis died in 1910 and Wittpenn attempted to assume his mantle as Democratic leader, Hague turned on him and smeared him with ‘the “boss” label. Meanwhile, Woodrow Wilson became an aggressive reform governor of New Jersey, ramming through a series of bills aimed at returning the control of the government to the people. No one supported him more vociferously than Hague, especially when the Governor attacked and all but destroyed Boss Smith of Newark.
In 1911, Hague became the street and water commissioner of Jersey City. He instantly cut his department’s budget from $180,000 a year to $ 110,000 and “for economy reasons” fired half the men. Later in the year he quietly replaced them with his own followers, and at his sotto voce request the city council restored his budget cuts. He had more than made his point—he was a tough administrator who meant business when he cried “reform.”
Now Hague pulled out all the stops for one of Governor Wilson’s pet reform measures—city commission government. This new style in city government had been inspired by the superb job a commission of citizens had done resuscitating hurricane-wrecked Calveston, Texas, in 1900. It was supposedly superior to the mayor-council form because each commissioner was directly responsible to the people for the operation of his department. The so-called reform (Jersey City returned to the mayor-council pattern in 1961) won massive approval in a referendum, and candidates blossomed by the dozen for the first election, in the spring of 1913. Wittpenn entered a slate of followers but did not run himself because he was campaigning to succeed Wilson, now President, as governor. Hague, running for commissioner, turned his campaign into a crusade against the so-called Wittpenn “machine.”
The second-ward leader’s bellows on behalf of reform won him wide support. On June 9, 1913, the local Jersey Journal ran a cartoon showing the city awakening from a long slumber. Beside it was an editorial urging the voters to “kill machine rule forever.” The voters responded by choosing Hague as one of the commissioners. A pioneer Republican reformer, Mark Fagan, ran first with 21,379 votes, and was made mayor, while Hague became commissioner of public safety. Shortly thereafter, the Hudson County Democratic Committee, under Hague’s leadership, rescinded an earlier vote endorsing Wittpenn for governor and urged the election of James Fielder, his opponent in the approaching Democratic primary. This about-face meant that Hague was the acknowledged, unopposed leader of the Democratic party in Hudson County.
One of the unrealized dreams of Hague’s political life was to create a “Greater Jersey City” out of the hodgepodge of municipalities that made up Hudson County. Besides Jersey City, with about half of the county’s 538,000 population, there were Bayonne, at the end of the peninsula formed by New York and Newark bays; Hoboken to the north; and a number of smaller enclaves such as Weehawken, North Bergen, Secaucus, Kearney, and West New York. All of these places could, at times, become very jealous of their independence. That made for political headaches, but it also had its advantages.
The multiplicity of governments, each with its own police, fire, and other city departments, created a remarkable number of political jobs. The county itself, with its courts of justice, its own police department, hospitals, jails, and other institutions, was also a hive of political patronage. Moreover, the man who controlled Jersey City inevitably ruled Hudson County, and with it the grand juries that had the power to investigate graft. The politicians of the smaller cities were therefore almost certain to fall into line behind the Jersey City leader.
The scent of total power inspired Hague to tackle his public duties with passionate ferocity. He needed all the energy he could muster; his new job plunged him into a violent conflict with Jersey City’s police and fire departments. The police had been a municipal disgrace for decades. Robert Davis had run Jersey City as a wideopen town. Red-light districts flourished, saloons served liquor into the dawn, and gambling was uninhibited. Such an atmosphere made the moral decay of the police force inevitable.
Hague launched an all-out assault on police laxity. His motive was twofold. First, it was vital for him to protect his reform image in the shadow of Mayor Mark Fagan, who had achieved national fame in this role. Second was the opportunity to open an unparalleled number of jobs to his dispensation. As many as 125 men were put on trial in just one day for violating departmental regulations. Hundreds of police officers were ruthlessly demoted or dismissed. Into the decimated ranks Hague poured his tough young Horseshoe followers, from whom he culled an elite squad of plainclothesmen, called Zeppelins, who wove a web of secret surveillance around the entire force. Soon not a cop in the city dared to accept petty graft. They began enforcing for the first time city laws against prostitution and afterhours drinking. Women were barred from every one of Jersey City’s thousand saloons, and any saloonkeeper who violated this puritanical ordinance was threatened with fines, loss of his license, and less legal kinds of punishment. The result, to the average voter in Jersey City, seemed almost miraculous. Public Safety Commissioner Hague had literally cleaned up the city.
Hague’s organization now demonstrated its political prowess by winning its first county-wide contest: Hague’s deputy commissioner of public safety, James F. Norton, was elected to the potent post of surrogate. Next came a more crucial test—the gubernatorial election of 1916. Running with the endorsement of President Wilson, Wittpenn, now Hague’s avowed enemy, had won the Democratic nomination for governor. Coolly, Hague reversed the engine of the county Democracy and wrecked Wittpenn by giving him the smallest majority a Democratic gubernatorial candidate had received from the Hudson County bastion in decades —a puny 7,430 votes, in contrast to the 25,959 ‘he organization had rolled up for Governor Fielder in 1913.
Time was running out for the antiHague men in Jersey City, and they knew it. The mayoralty election of 1917 found them in a frantic mood. Wittpenn and Mayor Fagan both begged President Wilson for help, but they could not agree on a united front. Wittpenn entered a slate of so-called regular Democrats, and Mayor Fagan headed a group of Republicans. Hague, with a prominent ex-Wittpennite, A. Harry Moore, firmly wedded to his standard, dubbed his Democratic slate “The Unbossed.”
Hague and his four candidates won easily. His style of reform—the swept sidewalk, the honest cop, the clean saloon, all of which the citizen could see with his own eyes—had won. The other reformers never had a chance. Moore ran slightly ahead of Hague— 19,883 to 18,648—in the final count. But when the city commission met to organize for the new administration, they ignored the tradition that the man with the most votes had the first call on the mayor’s job. In a tumultuous scene in the City Hall council chamber, which was packed with howling Horseshoe supporters, Hague was unanimously elected mayor. Three decades would pass before another man stood there to receive similar acclaim.
The man thus poised on the threshold of state power had, at first glance, some curious personal defects. He was still almost totally uneducated; some of his surviving enemies insist to this day that Hague could not read more than the headlines in the daily paper. Immediately after he became mayor he took some lessons in public speaking, but he never mastered the complexities of English grammar. He remained likely to declare: “One hundred ten thousand voters has endorsed my administration,” or to remark that the city commission “has went on record” regarding a particular issue. He once called Jersey City “the most moralest city in America.” Closing a radio address he said, “And thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for the privilege of listening to me.”
Nor was Hague personally popular, much less beloved, in the James Michael Curley Last Hurrah tradition. The stern aura of the reformer, the protector, the tough taskmaster who got results, was more in keeping with his personality. Even his closest legal adviser, John Milton, wryly called him “the Commissar.”
As the years passed, Hague became more arbitrary about inflicting his likes and dislikes on subordinates. Each year, he took the office workers of City Hall to Dinty Moore’s in New York for a banquet. Not a man was allowed to touch a drop of liquor as long as the Mayor sat at the table. Once he left, it was tacitly acknowledged that drinking could begin. In his later years, Hague even treated non-New Jerseyites this way. Once Dan Finn, a powerful Tammany politician, called on Hague for a New Jersey favor. The Mayor was lunching alone in New York City at the Plaza Hotel. Hague asked Finn if he would like to order anything. “I’ll have a Scotch and soda,” the chieftain said. “Not at my table you won’t,” snapped Hague.
Hague’s taste for personal violence was another unendearing trait. He was prone to punch, kick, and batter people who disagreed with him. He reportedly knocked one of his commissioners, Michael I. Fagen, cold on the mayoral carpet one day in 1929. Once, during one of his long walks around the city (always accompanied by bodyguards, at a discreet distance) Hague called an ambulance to see how quickly it would respond. It took fifteen minutes, and Hague began excoriating the interne in charge. “It took me a while to wake up,” the young man said insolently. Hague belted him into the gutter.
He was equally willing to condone violence on the part of the cops. He guaranteed their loyalty by making the police force the largest (for cities of comparable size) and best paid in the country. Jeff Burkitt, a cheerful Alabamian who fought Hague for almost a decade, was beaten up so many times that he finally went to the Mayor, his head wrapped in bandages, to ask Hague to be “a good sport” and let him have two or three street corners where it would be understood that the cops would not club him.
Hague began roaring with laughter. The battered Burkitt looked puzzled. “I’m sorry,” the Mayor said, his eyes streaming, “I just can’t help it. You look so goddamn funny with all those bandages on your head.”
But Hague did not win all his elections with night sticks. Although he obviously enjoyed violence (boxing was far and away his favorite sport), he reserved it for emergencies. The election of 1920 fell into that category. The country was tired of Wilsonian idealism. Even before Election Day, it became obvious that the entire Hudson County ticket was going to go down the drain. An order went out from City Hall—“Save Madigan.” Thomas “Skidder” Madigan was an old Horseshoe crony who was blithely running for sheriff of Hudson County, ignoring a disability that would have been considered something of a handicap by the average candidate: the Skidder could not read or write. His campaign slogan was unique, even for Jersey City—“He was good to his mother.”
As sheriff, Skidder would control an absolutely vital function in the Hague scheme of things—the selection of grand juries. All other candidates were abandoned to their fates. Using every electioneering technique at their disposal, including physical force, Hague’s lieutenants carried Madigan, the lone survivor of that terrible debacle, into office with a majority that was one hundred per cent stolen.
On the other hand, when Hague knew he had an election sewed up, he was a model of decorum. In 1929, Republicans made an all-out effort to unseat him as mayor. On election eve there were frantic predictions that Hague was assembling hoodlums and phony voters by the busload. At the end of the voting day, the Republican prosecutor grudgingly had to admit that it had been the cleanest election in Jersey City in decades. Hague coasted to victory by 25,000 votes.
Contrary to myth, the paper ballot and the graveyard vote did not fully account for Hague’s success. Wherever they could get away with it, Hagueites voted the cemeteries and the names of those who had long since moved out of the county. The state’s permanent registration law offered an irresistible opportunity for fraud, especially when the local election bureau was lackadaisical about keeping track of the dead and departed. Hague guaranteed their laxity by making sure those appointed to the local election bureau were “Hague Republicans”—men who had nominal allegiance to the GOP but were keenly aware that their jobs had come from Hague. But in the 1940’s, when the Republican-controlled state legislature inflicted voting machines and genuine Republican watchdogs in the election bureau, Hague’s majorities were almost as huge as ever.
Hague’s three decades of success as a political leader were, above all else, a triumph of executive ability. With the same driving energy he had exhibited in cleaning up the police department, Hague completely overhauled the structure of the Democratic organization in Hudson County. Not loyalty alone but also efficiency became the hallmarks of Hague Democracy. The city was divided into twelve wards, and these wards were subdivided into districts. Each ward and each district had a male and a female leader. There were ward committees and district committees. Hague knew from personal observation that thousands of Hudson County residents stayed home on each Election Day. Most of them were immigrants—the Poles, Italians, Czechs, and Slovaks who had followed the Irish into the slums—and they often did not know enough English to comprehend the era’s tumultuous politics in the newspapers. Hague grimly decided that these people were going to vote. Whether they had to be bullied or cajoled, bribed or frightened to the polls, they were his secret weapon in Hudson County.
In every election every district was canvassed—which meant that every voter was personally asked to come out and vote on every Election Day. Lists of the aged and infirm were carefully compiled, and fleets of cars were at the disposal of every ward leader, to transport even the dying to the polls. Names were carefully checked off as people entered the polling booths, and the final hours of each Election Day were devoted to telephoning and even visiting those who had not yet voted to ask them why. Ward and district leaders were rewarded—or punished—strictly on the basis of their turnouts.
Simultaneously, Hague never abandoned his clean-city policy. He could boast, with considerable pride, that throughout the twenties, when hoodlums were shooting up Chicago and other cities, no gangster’s corpse was found within Jersey City’s borders. As usual, Hague’s methods were not always orthodox. City detectives, disguised as bums, loitered in the stations of the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad and at the ferry slips. Anyone they considered undesirable was likely to be sent back to New York on the next train or ferry.
Hague’s political technique was a blend of violence and benevolence. At Christmastime each ward leader distributed thousands of food baskets to the poor. Every ward had a boat ride or a picnic or both each summer. But for Hague, the ultimate charity was free hospital care. He poured millions into a medical center, hired top-notch doctors to run it, and supervised it in fanatical detail. He maintained a suite of offices there, and was ever roaming the corridors picking up stray bits of paper and checking the meat in the kitchen.
Once a Republican prober accused Hague of allowing the affluent as well as the poor to have their babies and operations free. With oracular sincerity the Mayor proclaimed: “If they say they cannot pay, that is good enough for me. … We do not argue with a sick person.”
“If the patient is trying to get something for nothing,” the prober demanded, “notwithstanding his ability to pay?”
“My God, he is welcome to be restored to health!”
“At the expense of the other taxpayers?”
“Of anybody, of anybody. When you give me a sick man I will restore him to health at anyone’s cost.”
It all dovetailed neatly with the reform aura that created Hague’s initial power. He was barely ensconced as mayor when he demonstrated that he could war on “the interests” far more ferociously than a Fagan or a Wittpenn. Where previous reformers had raised corporate tax assessments to levels they thought were reasonable and yet would not produce violent counterattack by the companies, Hague went all out. In 1917 and 1918, he increased the tax assessments on the Standard Oil Company from $1,500,000 to $14,000,ooo, on the Public Service Corporation from $3,000,000 to $30,000,000, and on the railroads from $67,000,000 to $160,000,000. The corporations rushed to the state Board of Taxes and Assessments in Trenton. The board cancelled all Hague’s escalations.
Hague furiously denounced the board members as tools of the interests, and summoned his Hudson legions to elect a Democratic governor, who would appoint a new tax board. He soon found his candidate, Edward I. Edwards, president of the First National Bank of Jersey City. Edwards won by 14,510 votes, aided by the huge majority— 58,527 to 23,009—Hague delivered for him in Hudson County.
Bucking a national Republican era, Hague proceeded to elect three governors in succession (the law then prohibited a governor from serving two consecutive three-year terms); his third, Jersey City’s A. Harry Moore, boomed into Trenton in 1926 atop a Hudson County avalanche of 103,000 votes. In eight short years, Hague had quadrupled the standard Hudson County majority. Even subtracting the extra votes he garnered from woman suffrage, it was still a remarkable achievement.
During this nine-year period, Hague exultantly concentrated on appointing Democrats to the state Board of Taxes and to a breathtaking number of other jobs that the New Jersey governor had in his power. Between 1900 and 1910, the state had espoused the reform idea of the short ballot, and had eliminated scores of jobs that had theretofore been elective. The governor had the power to appoint almost every officer in the state government, ranging from the attorney general and the treasurer down to the prosecutors of the individual counties. There were more than eighty different boards and commissions, plus judgeships in fourteen court systems.
Most important were the judgeships. They were reserved for men with proved loyalty to Frank Hague. The Mayor’s attitude toward these vital figures is summed up in an argument he had in the 1940*5 with Governor Charles Edison when the two men differed over a judicial appointment. Edison insisted that his preference was a man of integrity. “The hell with his integrity, Charlie,” Hague roared. “What I want to know is, can you depend on the S.O.B. in a pinch?”
Another politician recalls Hague’s wheeling and dealing to execute his greatest judicial coup, the installation of his former corporation counsel, Thomas Brogan, as chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. For all Hudson’s clout, Hague never won control of the New Jersey legislature; Brogan’s appointment had to be confirmed by the Republican-dominated state senate. Hague traded jobs by the dozen to Republican politicians in return for their votes.
The senate confirmed Brogan’s appointment. He proved he could deliver in the pinch, more than once. Outraged Republican investigators tried to subpoena the voting records in Hudson County after the gubernatorial election of 1937, another emergency in which Hague needed every nightstick and graveyard vote he could find to squeak A. Harry Moore into his third term as governor. Chief Justice Brogan listened to stories of people being beaten up and thrown out of polling places, of men voting from insane asylums, and solemnly ruled on the great principle of the law, Quod non apparet non est . Since there was no evidence of corruption in the election, there was no basis for granting a subpoena of the voting records.
Hague penetrated the Republican party, not only by astute job trading, but also by occasionally helping the Republicans select their candidates. He first performed this bit of legerdemain in the 1928 gubernatorial primary. The man favored to get the Republican nomination was Robert Carey, a former Jersey City judge and a fierce critic of Hague and the organization. On primary day, some 20,000 “instant Republicans” flowered in Hudson County, and not one voted for Carey. All their enthusiasm—and the nomination— went to a colorless state senator from Middlesex County named Morgan Larson.
Worse, the galled Republicans discovered the ploy was perfectly legal. Hague’s lawyers had spotted a loophole in the election law that permitted a man who had not voted in a previous year’s primary to switch his party affiliation without penalty. Like a shrewd general, Hague had simply ordered 20,000 loyalists to skip a primary and stand by, on reserve status, to name the Republican of his choice.
In the beginning New Jersey Republicans could not quite believe what was happening in Hudson County. The only answer they could produce to match Hague’s maneuvers was a gimmick to pin the state closer to the coattails of the national Republican ticket, which still looked like a winner. They called for a referendum to lengthen the governor’s term to four years, and to elect him in presidential years. In a special election in September, 1925, the proposal was defeated 200,716 to 135,288. Of the No votes, 100,002 were from Hudson County. This was only 3,000 fewer votes than Hudson’s huge gubernatorial turnout the next year for favorite son Moore. Such a vote on an issue so tenuous to the average voter struck the state as little short of miraculous. As one politician to another, New Jersey’s Republican senator, Walter Edge, congratulated Hague for an unsurpassed performance.
The almost incredible solidarity Hague had created in Hudson County was partly based on his reformer’s war with the corporations. It injected a priceless element of drama into the humdrum lives of those nondescript thousands on Jersey City’s downtown streets. On their behalf, Hague thundered defiance of the once all-powerful railroads, Public Service, and Standard Oil. He created a kind of inverted arrogance in his followers, the feeling that John L. Sullivan excited with his famous shout, “I can lick any man in the house.” With Hague at their head, each election day they marched, like an army with banners, into the heart of the state, flattening those arrogant Protestant Republicans who had for so long looked down their aristocratic noses at the Irish and their fellow immigrants.
Taxes were only one weapon used by Hague in his continual war with the corporations. During the winter of 1926, a coal strike caused severe hardship among Jersey City’s poor. Cries for help poured into City Hall. Hague knew, without even bothering to check, that there were thousands of railroad cars full of coal standing in Jersey City’s railyards, waiting for shipment across the Hudson River to Manhattan. The denizens of the Horseshoe had stolen their fuel from these cars for decades. The Mayor called the chief of police and ordered: “Don’t allow a scuttle of coal to go out of this city.”
The coal company screamed that the Mayor was interfering with interstate commerce. The Mayor said he had the authority “by virtue of my office as Mayor.”
“That is not enough,” shouted the manager of the coal company.
“By the law at the end of a night stick,” roared the Mayor. “How do you like that one?”
The coal company capitulated and sent ten tons of coal to each police and fire station, where city residents were able to get it for little or nothing.
Hague’s antibusiness stance was a distinct break in the boss tradition in the United States. Most bosses made their money through seemingly legitimate business fronts, co-operating behind the scenes with the powerful corporations. Not Frank Hague: his money came from other sources.
Each year, every officeholder in Hudson County had to contribute three per cent of his salary to City Hall, supposedly to finance the organization’s political battles. A third or half of every raise a man received went to City Hall. So did perhaps half the salary a man was paid for nominal work on a state board or commission. No accounting was made of this river of cash—which swelled to at least $500,ooo and probably $ 1,000,000 a year.
Then there were the real-estate deals. Dummy corporations headed by shadowy figures in New York bought land shortly before Jersey City or Hudson County condemned it, and resold it at fabulous prices. One of these operations cleared a profit of $628,145 between 1919 and 1924.
Most lucrative of all was the gambling take. Among the sports columnists and betting fraternity, Hague’s Jersey City quickly became known as “the Horse Bourse.” In the downtown tenements, under Hague’s careful control, major bookmakers set up a system of telephone and telegraph connections that handled the enormous quantities of off-track betting on races all over America and Canada. Beside this golden stream flowed the by no means inconsiderable pay-offs of the numbers racketeers. These too were carefully controlled by the organization. Finally, each ward was given the O.K. for a carefully regulated number of card and dice games, each of which paid a monthly slice of its “handle.”
Inevitably, Hague’s personal habits began to change. He moved out of the Horseshoe into a fourteen-room apartment on fashionable Hudson County Boulevard, bought a mansion in even swankier Deal, on the New Jersey shore, and acquired other property in Jersey City. In seven years he laid out a grand total of $392,910.50 for real estate, a remarkable performance for a man supposedly living on a salary of $7,500.
This, of course, was only the tip of the iceberg, the portion visible in New Jersey. In New York and elsewhere, vastly larger sums of cash were being invested in stocks or stored in savings banks. A still-active Jersey City politician recalls how, as a young man just out of the Army, he got a job in the city finance department. On one of his first assignments he was given an old suitcase and told to make a series of stops at brokerage houses and banks in New York, where the suitcase was taken into back rooms and then politely returned to him, considerably lightened.
“What the hell is in that thing?” he finally asked. “Money,” he was told.
But Hague’s ostentatious display of wealth was to be his Achilles heel. Each winter he was a familiar figure at Florida’s racetracks, where he displayed an almost childish fondness for flashing thousand-dollar bills. Summer cruises to Europe became part of his routine. At World Series games and other major sporting events, the Mayor always entertained a contingent in the more expensive seats. In 1929, a committee from the New Jersey legislature, convened to investigate election irregularities in Hudson County, asked Hague some questions about his personal finances. He declined to answer. He defied not only the committee but both houses of the New Jersey legislature, assembled in righteous panoply.
The legislature charged him with contempt, and he was still defiant. Eventually, the state supreme court decided in Hague’s favor, accepting his lawyers’ argument that the legislature did not have the judicial power to probe for felonies: that function belonged to the courts and their grand juries. But it was a barren, legalistic victory. It ruined Hague’s image as a reformer forever. The Newark Evening News summed up the public sentiment in the state: “If Mr. Hague himself would come clean; if he would tell the truth and shame his enemies with the truth, what a triumph would be his! A man who has nothing to conceal, a man whose life is an open book, does not fall back on right of privacy or other technical safeguards when his reputation is at stake.”
There was, at that point, some ground for wondering if Hague could last much longer. The Republican-controlled legislature was still in furious pursuit of him, and a hefty two-fifths of the voters in his Jersey City bailiwick had turned against him in the May, 1929, mayoralty election. Time magazine predicted that he would soon imitate several former leaders of Tammany Hall by taking refuge in Europe. Then an event occurred across the river in New York that transformed the politics of the entire nation. The bottom dropped out of Republican prosperity, and with a shock that was felt around the world, the stock market crashed. The gray, dismal years of the Depression settled on the nation. They were made to order for Hague.
As the private sector of the economy shrank, thousands found themselves unemployed, and Hague was transformed from a politician on the run to a titan of steadily swelling power. He alone, by executive fiat, could ignore economic reality and maintain his padded payrolls intact. A city job became not merely a way out of the slums but a source of salvation for those who thought they had achieved the mythical security of the American middle class. Many of the older, wealthier Protestant families, who had been the backbone of Hague’s Jersey City opposition, were totally ruined.
His new Depression-spawned power made Hague meaner and tougher. For the next two decades, his operation became an exercise in the retention of power for its own sake. Having doublecrossed the two leaders who had given him his start, Hague trusted no one. Phones were tapped regularly. “Every night,” declares a man who is still an important Hudson County official, “a police lieutenant sat in the Western Union telegraph office in Journal Square and read every telegram that came in and went out of Jersey City that day.” Hague spies in the U.S. Post Office maintained similar surveillance on the mail of all those who were labelled untrustworthy. There were informants in every bank in Jersey City, quick to alert City Hall to any unusual surplus in a man’s account.
Throughout the twenties, when Hague had been blasting the corporations, he had maintained a warm alliance with labor unions. Theodore “Teddy” Brandie, head of the Ironworkers Union, loaned Hague $60,000 when the Bureau of Internal Revenue gave the Mayor a tap on the wrist in 1930. Three years later, Brandie was called a hoodlum and a crook by Hague, and driven out of the labor movement. Every other union in Hudson County was invaded by Hague’s “reporters” and reduced to docility. “Everything for industry” became Jersey City’s slogan, and Hague lured companies to Jersey City by promising them “perfect” labor relations.
Hague was equally adept at instilling fear or preferring favor. “Play ball with me and I’ll make you rich,” he would tell those who fought him. A distressing number of them took him at his word, and quietly accepted a judgeship or a commissionership in the state, county, or city government. The churches, a potential source of moral censure for an ex-reformer, were mopped up with extensive favor-doing and giving. Hague helped Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Walsh of Newark raise millions for Darlington Seminary. The Mayor donated a !50,000 altar to Saint Aedan’s, his own parish church. At least fifty-four priests, ministers, and rabbis were on the government payroll as chaplains to hospitals, police, fire, and other city and county departments.
Massive majorities were demanded in every election, no matter how trivial, to awe and discourage potential rebels. The zenith was reached in 1937, when Hague was re-elected mayor for the sixth time, by 110,743 to 6,798. Each year, in a final rally at the uptown auditorium known as The Grotto, Hague would exhort the faithful as if Armageddon were at hand. “Three hundred and sixty-four days a year I work for you,” he would cry. “Now this one day I ask you to work for me.” In 1941, Hague needed, under the Walsh Act, only 766 signatures to nominate him for his seventh term as mayor. The organization collected 125,371. “It is very gratifying,” the Mayor said as truckmen staggered into City Hall with bushels of the signed petitions.
Then there was the ritual of January i. No matter how hung-over he may have been by year-end whoopee, every faithful job holder dragged his bones into the cold to stand in an immense line, which wound around City Hall three or four times, inching slowly forward into the lobby and up the steps to the Mayor’s office. There the Mayor and the commissioners, in morning coats and striped pants, received handshakes and earnest good wishes for the coming year. A man who failed to appear was practically saying that he was no longer interested in promotions or favors. He was all but declaring his intention to leave the city.
Even while Hague thus assumed almost total power inside Hudson County, he revealed a weakness that was to embarrass him and his followers again and again in the next two decades of his reign. He was singularly unable to grasp the psychology of the average voter outside the county.
This defect plus an almost insane arrogance bred by an excess of power might explain why he had Governor Moore appoint thirty-two-year-old Frank Hague, Jr., a likeable playboy who had failed to get thrqugh two law schools (yet had miraculously passed the New Jersey bar exam on his first try) to the Court of Errors and Appeals, New Jersey’s highest judicial body. Bar associations fulminated, newspapers across the country decried, but Governor Moore only replied: “I know this appointment will make his Dad happy.”
On the level of national politics, Hague was even more obtuse. In 1932 he blundered to the brink of disaster by backing Alfred E. Smith against Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. But there was an explanation for this mistake: sentiment. Hague had been an advocate of the Happy Warrior since 1924, and the grateful Smith had helped make Hague vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Nothing stirred Hague more deeply than the Irish clan spirit. Loyalty was one of the few words in the English language that made him choke up. Like the Tammany sachems across the river in New York, he refused to face the facts of the 1928 disaster—Al Smith was simply not presidential timber.
On June 24, 1932, Hague issued a blast against Roosevelt, declaring he could not “carry a single state east of the Mississippi and very few in the Far West. …” Since Roosevelt was governor of New York, this exaggeration struck more than a few politicians as ludicrous.
At the convention, Hague was the floor leader of the Smith forces and at an early stage in the struggle exuberantly declared, “We’ve got them licked.” But no southern politician could be induced to try Smith a second time, and among northern Democrats Hague found himself totally out-generalled by a younger, smarter Irishman, James A. Parley of New York.
As Parley said of F. D. R.’s convention victory, “Everyone knew we had just nominated the next President of the United States.” No one knew this better than Hague. Even before Al Smith made his peace with Roosevelt at the New York state Democratic convention, Hague had persuaded Parley to bring Roosevelt to Sea Girt, New Jersey, on August 27 with a promise that Hague “would provide the largest political rally ever held in the United States.” Commandeering most of the rolling stock of the Jersey Central, plus squadrons of buses and cars, Hague assembled a total of 150,000 faithful. In the little resort town, sixty miles from Jersey City, they swarmed around the summer home of New Jersey’s governor and cheered their lungs out for Roosevelt when he appeared on the platform to congratulate “my friend, Mayor Hague,” for this overwhelming demonstration of Democratic muscle.
Fighting for his niche in the Democratic party, Hague slammed his Hudson County political dynamo to full throttle and produced an astonishing 184,000 votes for Roosevelt on Election Day. The performance swung New Jersey into the Democratic column, 806,000 to 775,000. The victory consolidated Hague’s power in the county and the state on a hitherto unparalleled scale. Although Roosevelt piously declined to deal with Tammany Hall, all the federal patronage for New Jersey passed through Hague’s City Hall. Some $47,000,000 in W.P.A. funds alone poured into Jersey City, enabling Hague to complete his medical center on a scale so large that the hospital’s staff frequently outnumbered the patients.
The argument, fondly repeated by many students of American politics, that the New Deal and its welfare philosophy ruined the old-style political machines simply does not apply to Hague. Roosevelt stuck with him, even when the Mayor fought a tremendous war with the C.I.O. and the nation’s liberal establishment in the late 1930’$. Hague tried to bar the aggressively independent C.I.O. from his Hudson bailiwick, using the canard that the unionists were “Reds.” Norman Thomas, Morris Ernst, and other liberals rushed into the fray. Although at one point a Jersey City police captain told a C.I.O. worker, “We’re enforcing a Jersey City ordinance, not the Constitution,” the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the C.I.O. had the right to distribute literature and give speeches inside Jersey City. In the course of the struggle, the liberals were outraged to discover that Hague’s post-office spies were opening their mail. They howled for Hague’s scalp, but once more F.D.R. stood by the Mayor. “We had a hell of a time getting Hague out of that one,” a Cabinet-level official of the Roosevelt administration told me.
The reasons for Roosevelt’s embrace of Hague were twofold. In the early years, there were not enough independent Democrats left in New Jersey to form an anti-Hague wing of the party. Later, Roosevelt needed Hague for his third-term and fourth-term pushes. With Ed Kelly, the boss of Chicago, in happy concert, the “Hague-Kelly axis” was the driving engine of Roosevelt’s 1940 steamroller. After Roosevelt was nominated, practically by acclamation, a prominent Democrat ruefully declared: “Mayor Hague has more stuff on the ball than anyone else here in Chicago.”
But Hague was to pay a bitter price for this more intimate relationship with Roosevelt. With an artful combination of cajolery and political armtwisting, the President persuaded Hague to accept Charles Edison, a son of Thomas Edison, the inventor, as the Democratic nominee for governor in 1940. Edison was an independent Democrat who owed nothing to Hague, and he had plainly spent some time in the library reading Wilson biographies. With Hague sitting at his right hand and 150,000 Democratic faithful in the audience at Hague’s by now traditional Sea Girt rally, Edison declared: “It is my happy privilege to stand here today and tell you that if you elect me, you will have elected a governor who has made no promises of preferment to any man or group. … I’ll never be a yes man except to my conscience.”
For senator that year Hague also had to accept, on White House orders, James H. R. Cromwell, a millionaire ex-playboy inflated for high office by a tour as minister to Canada. While Edison understandably excited no enthusiasm in Hague, Cromwell had precisely the opposite effect. Throughout the igso’s, while most of the country was in violent reaction against the rich, Hague had been courting their company and imitating their manners. He invited anyone and everyone from the ranks of the well-born to his magnificent Biscayne Bay mansion in Florida. Jersey City clubhouses whispered the story of the day that Deputy Mayor Johnny Malone, in Florida to confer with the Mayor, humbly asked if he could come to one of Hague’s splendiferous parties, promising to stand obscurely in the corner and not open his mouth. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” said the Mayor, “you just ain’t got enough class.”
Hague embraced Cromwell with an ardor that made no sense politically. Genial Jimmy had written many books and made scores of speeches in which he had alienated huge blocs of the electorate. He had nicknamed war veterans “the American Pillaging Force” and denned the Constitution as “a millstone around the necks of the American people.” He had called for repeal of the National Labor Relations Act and come out in print for birth control. Yet Hague toured New Jersey beside Cromwell, obviously revelling in his company. He was almost delirious with pleasure when he and several select henchmen were invited to Boxwood Manor, an English-style castle in the center of a wooded estate, the property of Mrs. E. T. Stotesbury, widow of a Morgan partner, and Cromwell’s mother.
Edison, preaching his independence of Hague, won the governorship handily. Roosevelt also carried the state, but Cromwell stumbled to defeat. As governor, Edison firmly practiced the independence he had preached during the campaign. This soon produced violent hostilities. The Governor, for instance, tried to solve the financial collapse of the state’s railroads by forgiving them some $81,000,000 in back taxes. Almost half of this money belonged to Jersey City, and Hague began belaboring Edison for selling out to the interests.
It was like Old Home Week for Hague; it was the heady crusading days of 1920 all over again. The Edison script, which called for a Wilson-style confrontation, ended in political disaster for the Governor. When Edison went out of office, Hague was still state chairman of the Democratic party, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and as invulnerable as ever in Hudson County. One explanation is that earnest, honest Charles Edison was not Woodrow Wilson. Another, equally valid, is that the dimensions of Frank Hague’s power far exceeded that of Wilson’s old foe, Boss James Smith.
No one ever fought with Hague and emerged unscathed. When Walter Van Riper became attorney general of New Jersey in 1944, he launched a series of raids on Hague’s sacrosanct “Horse Bourse.” Within months Van Riper was indicted by a federal jury for kiting checks and for selling black-market gasoline through a service station he partially owned. He was acquitted on both counts, and there is strong evidence that some of the witnesses committed perjury. But Van Riper, once considered a shoo-in as the next governor, was politically dead.
With “Hagueism” for a rallying cry, the GOP proceeded to elect two governors in a row, for the first time since Hague had come to power. This was a serious blow to Hague. From 1941 to 1949, counting Edison’s term, he was voiceless in Trenton. Dozens of key appointments to the state’s boards and commissions fell into Republican hands, as the terms of Hague Democrats expired. Deaths and resignations accounted for still more, in both the judicial and executive branches of the government. Worse, a new state constitution, with a provision which would force public officials to answer embarrassing questions, was proposed in 1944. A massive effort by the Hague organization, climaxed by an official denunciation of the document by Archbishop Walsh, defeated this threat temporarily. But it was still very much on the horizon; Republicans and Edison Democrats were beating drums for it with crusaders’ fervor.
Within Hudson County, Hague suddenly began having almost as much trouble exerting his hitherto complete control. Insiders have always maintained that the trouble, which started in Bayonne, was Hague’s own fault. By now, Hague was spending very little time in Jersey City. When he was not in Florida, he was sojourning in New York at the Plaza. Most of the city’s political and economic business was conducted on the telephone, through Deputy Mayor Malone. For too many politicians in the organization, Hague had become a remote figure, no longer to be feared. When a public school was erected in Bayonne, Hague’s leaders skimmed off all the gravy for themselves, ignoring the standard distribution that assured each politician a share, however small. Feuding promptly erupted inside the Bayonne organization, and a slate with a “Home rule, not Hague rule” slogan swept all five city commission seats in 1943. Similar revolts exploded in North Bergen and Hoboken during the next four years.
Perhaps, at seventy-one, Hague was weary at the thought of extinguishing these rebellions. They were ominous signs that a new generation of voters had come to maturity, and many of them were not inclined to accept Hague’s leadership in the old unquestioning fashion. Jersey City, the heartland of Hague’s power, had a similar corps of restive veterans home from the global wars and hungry for a slice of the political pie. Hague’s next move seemed to be a major concession to a new era. He announced his resignation as mayor of Jersey City on June 4, 1947.
A magnificent ceremony was staged two weeks later in the auditorium of Dickinson High School, at which Hague handed over the official rule of the city to his nephew, Frank Hague Eggers, the commissioner of parks and public works. Moore and dozens of other politicians whom Hague had elevated to power appeared on the platform to gush forth hours of soggy oratory in praise of his accomplishments. Hague then rose and made it clear that he was not resigning as chairman of the Democratic party in the state and county. It suddenly dawned on a lot of people that the great change was really a great smokescreen. The choice of Eggers made Hague’s sleight of hand even more transparent. Just to make sure he retained total control, he was ready to risk the hostility that such nepotism was certain to arouse.
The realization was discouraging to more than a few local Democrats, who yearned for relief from Hague’s heavy hand. One of the most restless was John V. Kenny, leader of the second ward. Short, balding, and mild-mannered, Kenny was the son of Nat Kenny, the man who had given Hague his start in politics. Kenny was a good leader, who worked at his job in a ward that had been completely transformed since Hague’s era; gone were the feuding, brawling Irish, replaced by Poles and Italians and Slovaks. They were intensely devoted to “the Little Guy,” as many people called Kenny, for the same reason that Hague’s Irish had been devoted to him.
In the light of these undeniable political realities, it was only natural for Kenny to think of himself as Hague’s logical successor. But Kenny, a political realist, declined to challenge Hague personally. As a second warder, he was acutely aware of Hague’s fondness for retaliating, not merely politically but physically. The Little Guy had no desire to get his head cracked. Better—or at least safer—to wait until the Big Guy was safely planted in Holy Name Cemetery, and then make his move. But the emergence of Eggers as the heir apparent forced Kenny to make a decision. If he wanted to inherit the crown, it was now or never. Quietly, Kenny began making secret trips to Newark to confer with leading Republicans. The only hope of beating Hague was a fusion ticket, fuelled by Republican money.
Hague knew about Kenny’s dealing with the opposition almost immediately, thanks to his superb espionage system. He called a meeting of the Democratic county committee and announced that there was a double-crosser in their midst. With special ferocity, Hague read Kenny out of the Democratic party and deposed him as leader of the second ward.
Driven into a corner and made to look not a little like a martyr, Kenny fought back. Grimly he gathered together his ward supporters and a strong cadre of disgruntled young veterans from other parts of the city, and began building his fusion ticket. He made no attempt to surface during the November, 1948, elections. On this, the year of Harry Truman’s come-from-behind victory, Hague cracked the whip furiously, and the organization had seldom looked better. Although Dewey carried the Garden State by 86,000 votes, every local Democratic candidate scored a crushing victory.
Earnest, hard-working Frank Eggers and the other commission candidates began making the rounds of the ward clubs and parish houses before Christmas, hitting the opposition of Kenny, who had yet to announce a ticket, and pounding home the achievements of the organization. To those on the outside, it was a very impressive show. But from all over the city, the word from the wards came: it was not working.
The Eggers team orated about the medical center, about the city’s vicefree image and low crime rate. The Kenny opposition ignored achievements, issues, and political philosophy and blasted at only one target: Frank Hague. Their argument was simple. Hague was an evil dictator. Eggers was just a stooge. Endlessly they denounced the “Royal Family,” condemned “King” Hague’s wealth, sneered at his accomplishments, called him an absentee dictator, and proclaimed themselves the Freedom party. They published a Freedom newspaper which mocked the organization with biting humor and wry observation. They published photostats of Hague’s bills at Sulka’s, showing him spending $75 for a shirt and $25 for silk underwear. They persuaded supporters inside the telephone company to leak the astonishing amounts Hague ran up each month on long-distance calls from his Florida mansion to City Hall. They also shrewdly placed Polish and Italian candidates on their fiveman ticket to oppose the organization’s all-Irish slate.
More and more men and women of local prominence came out openly for John V. Kenny. Patrolmen in Journal Square directed traffic with their fingers raised in a V for a Kenny victory. Revolt was general among the younger men in the police and fire departments. City Hall itself seethed with malcontents and ambitious minor politicians who saw in a Kenny victory a chance for quick promotion.
Then came a voice from Florida. For months Hague had stayed in his Biscayne Bay mansion, letting Eggers and the other candidates make all the public statements. But now, as the battle roared toward a climax, he seemed to lose faith in the organization’s ability to survive without him.
There was a hint of desperation in his announcement that, under his personal leadership, the organization was going to make a supreme effort—a tremendous rally in the heart of Kenny’s second ward, the site of the old Horseshoe district. The Friday before the rally, Hague sent letters to over 7,000 voters in the second ward, recounting the story of his association with Kenny. He told how, out of gratitude to Kenny’s father, saloonkeeper Nat Kenny of Horseshoe days, he had gotten the young man his first job and had helped him rise in politics. “If now he betrays me,” Hague asked, “how can he be trusted not to betray you?”
On May 3, the ward clubs formed up outside City Hall at about 6:30 P.M. The orders had gone out to every job holder in the city to be on hand. But many stayed home, deciding that the loss of a job was a less formidable danger than a fractured skull. Hague, his lined, tanned face grimly set, escorted Eggers and the other candidates to the front rank of the parade. With long strides he led them up Grove Street into the second ward—and bedlam.
Six deep, the second warders lined the curbs, screaming contempt and defiance at the Boss and his aging battalions. They pelted the marchers with eggs, tomatoes, stones, and chalk powder. Police had to fight to clear a space in front of the speaker’s platform.
More than a few of the marchers retreated to the safety of Public School 37’s auditorium immediately. The courageous formed up before a flag-draped platform outside the school; around them a mob of thousands surged, bellowing, screaming, sounding horns and cowbells, waving Kenny placards and streamers.
The police cordoned the platform, and Hague, Eggers, and the other candidates stepped out before the crowd. Eggs spattered them. The derision rose to an enormous crescendo. Eggers tried to speak. He went on for a few sentences, then stopped in despair. He could not even hear himself: With a shrug he motioned to the others to leave the platform.
The commission candidates filed off, but Frank Hague did not move. For a moment he stood alone, his face a mask of suppressed fury. Then he strode to the edge of the platform and glared down at the shrieking mob. For more than three decades Frank Hague had ruled them. He had fought those who opposed him with ballots and with clubs and fists. And he had won every time. Remembering, they suddenly shut their mouths.
For a long, hushed moment they stood facing each other. Then a small thin man in the first row sprang forward. A “Down with Hague” sign on a long pole swung toward the Boss, twisting and whirling like a crashing kite. Hague had to step back to avoid it, and in the same instant the man screamed:
“G’wan back to Florida!”
Hague almost choked with fury. Smashing aside the sign, he pointed down at the culprit.
“Arrest that man!”
He was speaking to the cordon of police around the platform. For too many years in Jersey City those words had been the signal for swinging clubs, the crunch of wood on bone.
The man fell back, cowering. The crowd held their breath. Then people realized that the police were not moving. Every policeman in the cordon was anti-Hague. Quite logically they had decided they had no obligation to obey orders from the ex-mayor of Jersey City.
The crowd exploded into a howl that dwarfed all their previous efforts. Hague stood staring at them. For a second something close to shock was on his face. Then he turned and stalked stoically off the platform.
Incredibly, the disaster in the second ward did not make Hague or Malone realize that the organization was in deep trouble throughout the city. They wrote off downtown and, with an irony that only those who understood Hague’s history would appreciate, placed their hopes on the uptown wards where the middle class had looked down their noses at Hague and his Irish forty years ago. On Election Day, Kenny revealed how thoroughly he had studied Hague’s tactics. His workers made the same heroic effort to get out their vote, matching the organization car for car, telephone call for telephone call. As many as forty-one watchers were on duty in each of the polling places, making it impossible for Hague to spring any of his old rough-and-tumble tactics.
Most important, the Kenny organization had unprecedented amounts of money to spend. The going rate in Jersey City had long been five dollars a vote. This was always dispensed freely, especially in the poorest sections of the city. Hague’s ward leaders were soon deluged with frantic pleas for help from their district leaders. They simply could not match the Kenny prices, and the sums dispensed by City Hall to each ward for this purpose were soon exhausted. At 1 P.M. , the leader of the sixth ward phoned Malone at City Hall. “Johnny,” he said, “I’ve got to have ten thousand dollars right away. They’re paying fifteen dollars a vote and they’re murdering us.”
“The hell with them,” Malone rasped. “We’re not goin’ over five dollars a vote and that’s final. It’ll give them bad habits.”
With a curse the ward leader slammed down the phone. Then he called the ward’s chief bookmaker (and his best friend), George Ormsby. “Can you get me ten grand right away?”
“Come down and pick it up,” Ormsby said.
Before the polls closed, the $10,000 was gone, plus several thousand dollars of the ward leader’s own money, which he always kept in reserve on Election Day. He should have saved it. At nine o’clock that night, the stunning news came over the radio. Kenny had won by 22,000 votes. He had carried every ward but one—the sixth.
A vast mob of Freedom ticket supporters snake-danced through the downtown streets carrying a coffin labelled “The Hague Machine.” Kenny and several of his lieutenants stormed into City Hall, hoping to seize incriminating records. But the organization had known for hours that the election was lost, and there was nothing but charred scraps of paper in the furnace room. The vault in the mayor’s office was empty. Earlier, according to several reliable witnesses, two police captains had helped lug suitcases filled with cash down to the vault of the First National Bank. The Kenny men did discover two thick ledgers, containing the names of more than 17,000 citizens who were politically unreliable, with careful comments written beside each name, based on reports from district leaders and other members of Hague’s espionage system.
Kenny was in charge of City Hall, but Hague was still very much a factor on the political scene. His men controlled most of the county government. Moreover, there was a gubernatorial election coming up in November, 1949, and Hague had found his strongest candidate in years. He was Elmer Wene, a popular three-term congressman and millionaire chicken farmer from southern New Jersey. The combination of Hague and Wene seemed unbeatable.
With the irony that keeps recurring in Hague’s story, Kenny found himself confronted with a situation similar to the one Hague had faced when he seized power in 1913. Then, Hague’s chief rival, Wittpenn, was running for governor. Kenny knew that if Wene won he would immediately appoint a Hague prosecutor in Hudson County. With Hague already in control of the grand jury, it would be only a matter of months before most of Kenny’s administration was in jail.
After a long strategic silence, Kenny announced that he was for Wene. But there was not an iota of enthusiasm in his endorsement. Meanwhile, Hague made an almost incredible blunder in his final pre-election speech. “We’ll be back in the driver’s seat in Trenton in January,” he thundered. Instantly, the Republicans seized on their old “Beat Hague” battle cry, and Alfred Driscoll, fighting to be the first governor to succeed himself (as permitted by the new state constitution of 1947), made it the theme of his final campaign speech.
Wene lost by 70,000 votes. For the first time since 1920, Hudson County went Republican. Kenny had quietly reversed his political engine, just as Hague had done to Wittpenn in 1916. On election night, Hague resigned as state and county leader of the Democratic party. The long reign was over.
Hague clawed desultorily at Kenny for the next few years, until Kenny resigned as mayor and, eventually, sought refuge in the less visible role of Democratic county “leader,” a position he still maintains. Neither temperamentally nor politically was Kenny capable of asserting Hague-size power. He has been content to remain an easygoing, behind-the-scenes leader in the Robert Davis tradition.
As for Hague, he shuttled between Florida and his Park Avenue apartment, an outcast from the state he had once ruled. With the encouragement of the Kenny regime, job holders banded together and filed suit to recover the estimated $15,000,000 paid by threeper-centers over the decades. Hague had to stay out of New Jersey to avoid an always-waiting subpoena in this litigation, which never came to trial.
In some ways, his exile from Jersey City hurt Hague more than his loss of power. He had often said, “In the Horseshoe I was born, in the Horseshoe I will die.” He had apparently envisioned a serene old age, surrounded by another generation of loyal Democrats to whom he could be the paterfamilias he never was in his years of action. A glimpse of this sense of loss comes from an old City Haller whom Hague used to call in the middle of the night during those last years. “Billy,” he would say, “I can’t sleep.” He would then express anguished concern over a family whose father or brother he had ruined or maimed in earlier years. “Go down now and ask them if they’re all right, if they want anything.”
“My wife used to think I was crazy,” says the storyteller, “but I’d get up, put on my clothes, and go down and see them, and tell them why I was there. Not once did any one of them ever ask for help. Sometimes they slammed the door in my face. Other times they’d just say, “We don’t want anything from him.” ”
On January 1, 1956—the annual holiday on which he used to hold regal court in City Hall—Frank Hague died at his Park Avenue apartment of complications of pneumonia and arthritis. Only then did he return to Jersey City. At Lawrence Quinn’s funeral home he lay in state for two days. Then eight professional pallbearers- hefted the seven-hundred-pound hammered-copper casket and carried it out to a solemn high funeral mass at Saint Aedan’s Church. There was only a small crowd in the street. One elderly woman stood holding an American flag and a crudely lettered sign: “God have mercy on his sinful, greedy soul.”
A reporter asked a funeral-home aide why there were so few flowers. A true citizen of Jersey City, the aide shrugged. “When the Big Boy goes,” he said, “it means he can no longer do anything for anybody.”