December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
On a warm Florida evening in 1933 a madman with a pistol and a personality profile now all too familiar—“unskilled, unfriendly, unmoneyed, and unwell”—came within inches of altering the course of American history in one of its most critical moments
The sun had gone down on a warm Florida winter day (it was seven in the evening of February 15, 1933) when Vincent Astor’s Nourmahal tied up at a Miami dock after twelve days of cruising through the Bahamas. She was one of the largest private yachts afloat—virtually a small liner with her 263 feet of length, her diesel-powered speed of sixteen knots, her cruising range of 19,000 miles—and she had been much-publicized ever since her maiden voyage to New York from Friedrich Krupp’s Kielgaarden shipyards in Germany ( Astor had bought her there) in the summer of 1928. No doubt her gleaming white beauty would have attracted a good deal of attention in normal circumstances, even on a waterfront habitually crowded with luxury craft. As it was, hundreds of people watched her mooring with avid interest: aboard was the President-elect of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was to replace Herbert Hoover in the White House in just seventeen days.
The evening papers told of probable Sino-Japanese war; told of a consequent and soon impending day of reckoning for the League of Nations, whose inevitable condemnation of Japanese aggression might well provoke a contemptuous Japanese withdrawal from the League; told of policecondoned, Nazi-organized street violence throughout Germany as the newly installed Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, moved to crush all opposition; and told, under the biggest and blackest headlines of all, how the governor of Michigan had ordered closed every bank in that state for at least eight days.
This last news was frightening, even panic inducing: it presaged a total collapse of the national credit structure—the end of a process of failure that had begun with the stock market crash of 1929 and had been continuous, latterly accelerating, ever since. Some fifty-four hundred banks had failed. The physical volume of American industrial production had been halved, national income had been more than halved (down from $90 billion to $42 billion), farm prices had fallen below production costs, and unemployment had climbed from less than 1.5 million to well over 12 million. Fully one-fourth of the nation’s labor force was out of work, a brutal fact evinced in every city by lengthening bread lines of ragged hungry men and by the ghastly spread over urban wasteland of “Hoovervilles,” where flimsy shacks made of discarded materials sheltered, miserably, a discarded humanity. The Great Depression was entering its fourth year, each worse than the last, and if there had not yet developed in America the kind of bitter class antagonisms that in other lands had produced social revolution and fascist reaction, the development was manifestly under way, emergent from a stunned, apathetic hopelessness more horrible to contemplate, somehow, than almost any violent protest would have been. Among the unemployed there was more and more muttering about the need for a new American revolution; among businessmen there was increasingly open talk about the need for an American Mussolini.
Hence it was a sorely troubled nation, in a sorely troubled world, of which Franklin Roosevelt would soon be Chief Executive. The President-elect faced in mid-February, 1933, problems as crucial as Abraham Lincoln’s in mid-February, 1861—and problems harder to define. Heavy on the minds of Americans, therefore, as they watched and waited with growing anxiety, was the question of whether Roosevelt was strong enough of mind and will to respond successfully to his awesome challenge.
Many doubted it, having studied the man and his record.
His very charm, so personal and immense, made him suspect. Was not this kind of charm generally associated with serious defects of character? Did it not imply an excessive eagerness to please, a deficiency of purpose, tenacity, courage? True, he had suffered and triumphed over great personal affliction; but against this evidence of fortitude must be weighed dubious portions of his public record and doubts of his seriousness and determination. His dealings as governor of New York with banking chicanery and, the preceding spring and summer, with ugly Tammany scandals had been less than bold and forthright. Under pressure from isolationists whose support he wanted in the Democratic nominating convention, he had abruptly reversed his position regarding United States entrance into the League of Nations (he had formerly been a leading advocate of such entrance). His campaign speeches had been notably vague on specific issues (where did he really stand on the tariff? on monetary policy?), and since the election he had given no sign that he had any definite plans for dealing with the crisis. Finally there were persistent rumors of his superficial intellect, his adolescent humor, his frivolous “playboy” proclivities—rumors allegedly emanating from people who had long known him well in his private life.
Such doubts were certainly not reduced by the holiday he had just completed aboard the yacht of one of America’s richest men. Thev miffht have been reduced at least somewhat, had the doubters been permitted to see and hear him on the night of February 3, the eve of his holiday. He had then journeyed by special train down from Warm Springs, Georgia, toward Jacksonville, Florida, where the Nourmahal awaited him. And as the miles of darkness clicked by outside his drawing-room window he had talked over with two of his most intimate advisers—Professor Raymond Moley of Columbia and “Boss” Edward J. Flynn of the Bronx Democracy—his ideas for his inaugural address. Moley took notes: “1. World is sick 2. America is sick. Because failure to recognize Eco. changes in time vast development of machine age in 20 years from point of view or replacing manpower [have] moved faster than in 100 years [before] producer capacity in agri—capacity in industry outrun consumption. … Time to face the facts and get away from idea we can return to conditions of 29–30 … what’s needed is action along … new lines. … Action … action. … [If necessary] I shall ask Cong for … broad executive powers to conduct a war against the world emergency just as great as the powers that would be given if we were invaded by a foreign foe. …” Roosevelt’s two companions had had no doubts about his seriousness of purpose or his personal force that night. He dominated them, who were both formidable men; he appeared in full command of himself and his situation.
Next morning, however, certain doubts had assailed Ed Flynn as he stood on Jacksonville’s municipal dock at Commodore Point watching the Nourmahal ’s departure. Vincent Astor and his five guests, all in holiday attire, were lined up at the rail, waving their farewells, and Flynn regarded them sourly. He was particularly struck by a gaudily striped blazer worn by Mr. George St. George of Tuxedo Park. “The Hasty Pudding Club puts out to sea,” said Flynn, with more than a hint of contempt in his voice. He wished, as others of Roosevelt’s political associates wished, that the Presidentelect had chosen, in this dark winter of discontent, a less ostentatiously privileged mode of relaxation; that his holiday companions had not all been of that social elite which leftists damned as the “exploiting class”; and especially that his host had not been scion of a family whose huge income derived in good part from Harlem tenements. On the latter fact, left-wing journalists could (and did) make acid comment.
Thus, as the cruise ended, doubts remained about Roosevelt even among his closest political associates. And no doubter could have been reassured by Roosevelt’s demeanor as witnessed by Ray Moley when he, come down from the North to report orally on progress made in negotiations with prospective cabinet appointees, boarded the Nourmahal shortly after its Miami docking.
An obviously festive farewell dinner had just been completed. Roosevelt still sat at the dinner table, which had the remains of a laree birthdav cake at its center, talking with a group of reporters who, having been denied all communication with him during the cruise, now interviewed him. He talked of his vacation, and of that (so he indicated, grinning mischievously) with some reservations: he had locked away the ship’s log, he said, to keep its contents from the reporters’ prying eyes. He did want them all to know that he had had a perfectly grand twelve days in the Caribbean sea and sun. He had done a lot of fishing, a good deal of swimming. “I didn’t even open the briefcase,” he went on, with the sly glee of a truant schoolboy. “We went to a different place each day. Usually we fished in the morning and came back to the yacht for lunch. One day we had an all-day trip to the middle bight of Andros Island after bone-fish. The only difficulty is that you can’t talk and fish for bonefish. … We only fished for bone-fish one day.” There had been an absolute “whale of a fish” which “took nearly all the line I had” and was lost when it “sounded and the line was broken on some coral at the bottom.”
When the press interview ended, Moley was left alone with Roosevelt to present his confidential reports. He did so swiftly and succinctly, since Roosevelt was scheduled to leave in a few minutes for a public appearance (a “sort of reception,” Moley later called it) in Miami’s Bay Front Park. A crowd of several thousand had been gathered in the park for some time; among the dignitaries seated in the bandstand was Mayor Anton J. Cermak of Chicago, who wanted to discuss with Roosevelt the possibility of easing Chicago’s continuing financial crisis (the city owed its schoolteachers some $20 million in back pay) with a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (the previous summer, Hoover had approved a $90 million loan to a single Chicago bank).
So as soon as Moley had completed his reports, Roosevelt and his party moved from the yacht to the three automobiles that had been drawn up on the dock. Roosevelt entered the lead car, a touring car with its top down, and seated himself beside his official host, the mayor of Miami. With him also rode Marvin Mclntyre, who was slated to be the President’s appointments secretary; Gus Gennerich, Roosevelt’s personal bodyguard; and a Secret Service man. The second car, also open, carried only Secret Service men. The third and last car was a sedan, not a limousine (it seemed to Moley “rather small”), and in it rode Moley, Vincent Astor, Justice Frederick Kernochan of New York, and Kermit Roosevelt, T.R.’s son, who had been one of the five guests aboard the Nourmahal .
The journey to the park began a few minutes after nine o’clock. Leaving the dock, the small cavalcade turned into a boulevard lined with palm trees running along the bay—an almost empty boulevard which was lit only at wide intervals, and then dimly. The palm trees, their fronds clashing in a stiff ocean breeze, traced black patterns against a dark sky, and there was, evidently, in the night, some of the soft sensuous quality that had struck Eleanor Roosevelt as somehow eerie and sinister when she visited Florida in the 1920’s. At any rate, to Astor this night seemed, all at once, full of menace. It occurred to him, disturbingly—and he said aloud—that any man bent on assassinating the President-elect might do so without difficulty “in such a place as this. ” Roosevelt was clad in a light-colored suit. He rode in an open car driven at a very moderate speed (he disliked high-speed travel). He would be an easy target for any gunman lurking in the shadows.
Nor did the danger seem to Astor any less when the cavalcade reached Bay Front Park. Quite the contrary. For though the park was brightly lighted it was also densely crowded with people along the route taken by the three cars. The motorcade slowed to the pace of a walking man as it moved down a narrow lane cleared through the throng. Here an assassin might come within an arm’s length of the President-elect. And again, as they came in sight of the bandstand, Astor spoke aloud of the danger. Moley replied that the danger, though real, was also an accustomed one and should be somewhat less acute now than it had been on scores of occasions during the presidential campaign: the candidate had relied wholly on local police for his protection, “and their security measures were never very adequate,” whereas the President-elect was guarded by highly trained Secret Service men especially chosen for the job.
But now the lead car, having come abreast of the bandstand, halted, with the car bearing Secret Service men not far behind and that in which Moley and Astor rode about seventy-five feet back. The night grew loud with cheers and applause of a crowd which was now standing, though some hundreds of people theretofore had been sitting in rows of flimsy chairs and benches facing the bandstand. Then quiet descended. Roosevelt was hoisted up onto the top of the back seat (this was done so swiftly, so expertly that most of the crowd didn’t realize it was made necessary by almost totally crippled legs), was introduced by Miami’s mayor with the brevity (the simple unadorned naming of title) proper for a President-elect of the United States, and was handed a loudspeaker.
“I am not a stranger here because for a great many years I used to come down here,” he said, referring to the many weeks he had spent each winter, from 1923 through 1926, on a houseboat (first the rented Weona II , then the purchased Larooco ) in Florida waters, swimming and sunning and doing special exercises to strengthen his withered legs. “I haven’t been here for seven years, but I am coming back. I am firmly resolved not to make this the last time. I have had a very wonderful twelve days fishing in these Florida and Bahama waters. It has been a wonderful rest and we caught a great many fish. I am not going to … tell you any fish stories [the crowd laughed on cue] and the only fly in the ointment… is that I put on about ten pounds [more cued laughter]. I hope very much to come down here next winter and see all of you and to have another ten days or two weeks in Florida waters. Many thanks. ”
Almost before his last word was spoken—certainly before he could acknowledge the crowd’s applause in his accustomed manner (head high, wide smile on a face turned this way and that, right hand lifted in a little wave)—Roosevelt was accosted by a man who had clambered up on the car’s back, surprisingly unhindered in this by the Secret Service. The man was one of the “talking picture people,” as Roosevelt later put it, and he told the President-elect to turn around and repeat his little speech for the recording camera (Roosevelt had had his back to it). The gall of news photographers has always been notorious: they act on the assumption that great men and great events occur solely for the purpose of being photographed by them—indeed, cannot be said really to exist or occur unless photographed by them. But the gall of this particular specimen of the breed was almost beyond belief. He refused to take Roosevelt’s prompt, flat no for an answer. “But you’ve got to !” he protested. “We’ve come one thousand miles for this!” The smile faded from Roosevelt’s face. “I am very sorry but I can’t do it,” he said coldly, dismissingly, and slid down into the seat.
As he did so he saw Mayor Cermak approaching, hand outstretched, and he took that hand in a hearty shake. The two talked together for almost a minute, arranging to meet a little later for private talk in Roosevelt’s private railway car, which now waited at the Miami station to return him to New York. Cermak then moved off a few feet behind the car and stood there with a Secret Service man named Robert Clark beside him while someone else approached the President-elect, a man carrying what Roosevelt later described in typical hyperbole as “a telegram five or six feet long.”
Roosevelt was destined never to know what that curious telegram contained.
For just as the man carrying it had begun to explain its contents, he was interrupted by a sharp report which Roosevelt, leaning forward and to his left, interpreted as an exploding firecracker—which Moley, seventy-five feet away, interpreted as a car backfiring—and which initiated one of those moments that flash instantaneously through immediate experience but may become, in retrospect, longer than days of ordinary time, thick with simultaneous event, heavy with the significance of fatal might-have-beens.
Four more sharp reports followed the first in rapid succession. There were shouts, screams of pain and terror, a blur of violent action, and at the initiating center of it all sat Roosevelt, whose enforced immobility might have been expected to make him peculiarly vulnerable to flinching nervousness as he realized, all at once, that what he had heard was a gun and that he was almost certainly that gun’s intended target. He showed no excitement whatever. Only an alert attentiveness. Calmly, precisely observant (this fact comes clear in the account of the episode he dictated a few hours later), he acted with a commanding decisiveness in response to his swiftly accurate perceptions of what he saw. First, he saw the man with the telegram being pulled away, yanked away from the car, whose motor roared as the driver started it and shifted into gear—saw in that same instant that the back of one of Bob Clark’s hands had been deeply scratched and was bleeding—then saw that Cermak, his face marble white, was tottering, with blood on his shirt front, and was being held up by Clark—and instantaneously surmised that a bullet had creased Clark’s hand on its way into Cermak’s chest and that Cermak, not himself, had been the gunman’s intended victim. The car was now moving, gathering speed; immediately he ordered the driver to stop and, with forceful gestures, ordered the men beside Cermak to ease the wounded man into the car seat beside him.
“It was providential” as Roosevelt later said, that the car had moved some thirty feet beyond the spot where Roosevelt had spoken, for over that spot the excited crowd now closed in and “it would have been difficult to … get out.”
As it was, they were clear of the crowd in a few seconds.
And all the way to the hospital, which was quite a long way, Roosevelt sat with his left arm around Cermak, holding the stricken man in what he knew to be the correct position for one who has suffered a chest injury (he had learned a good deal about anatomy, and about medical practice, during his long struggle to walk again), talking to him continuously, though at first he believed he was talking to a dead man, for while he talked he felt with his right hand for Cermak’s pulse and could find none. “For three blocks I believed his heart had stopped.” But then, suddenly, Cermak, who had been slumping limply in the seat, straightened up and began to breathe, and his pulse surged surprisingly strong under Roosevelt’s fingertips. Thereafter his pulse steadily improved. “Tony, keep quiet,” said Roosevelt. “Don’t move. It won’t hurt you if you keep quiet.” He went on to say confidently, over and over again, that everything was going to be all right, that Cermak was doing just fine, that they’d be at the hospital in only a few minutes (”… encouragement of that sort is often the thing which will save a man when he is near death from shock,” commented a nationally prominent surgeon to newsmen next day), until in fact they were there, at the emergency entrance of the Jackson Memorial Hospital. Cermak was rushed to the operating room.
Meanwhile, in Bay Front Park, the car in which Astor and Moley rode was immobilized for a time by the crowd surrounding it. Roosevelt had not seen and would never see the man who had done the shooting (”… the second time the car moved forward I saw a melee down on the ground and I assumed he [the gunman] was in that”); but Astor, Moley, and the others in their car soon saw him. Into their car, too, by that time, a wounded man had been taken—a young man, Russell Caldwell of Miami, aged twenty-two (so they later learned), who had a spent bullet imbedded in his forehead (the wound proved superficial) and whom Astor held in his lap. So when the gunman, who had had much of his clothing torn off him in the wild melee, was plucked from the ground and brought to that car by three burly policeman, there was no room for him inside. He was therefore thrown roughly across the trunk rack at the car’s rear, where two of the policemen sat on him while, slowly, the car forced its way through and finally clear of the crowd, then raced to the hospital. The third policeman made the trip on the car’s running board, Moley holding him there by his belt. From him Moley learned that each of the five shots fired had found a different victim: in addition to Cermak and Caldwell, two women and a man were wounded, the man being William (Bill) Sinnott, a New York policeman assigned to Roosevelt’s guard detail, a man with whom Moley was acquainted and with whom Roosevelt was personally friendly, as he was with all who closely served him. The ride seemed to Moley, as it had to Roosevelt, unconscionably long, but when it was ended he was immensely relieved to see Roosevelt coming out of the hospital on the arm of Gus Gennerich—a Roosevelt who appeared perfectly calm and was (Moley had not theretofore been absolutely certain of this) without the slightest injury.
There was a brief moment of alarm when one of the policemen who had been sitting on the gunman, swinging his legs down from the trunk rack, crumpled to the pavement, but the policeman at once made it clear that this was because his cramped position during the lengthy ride had denied circulating blood to his legs. Soon he was on his feet again and on his way with his colleagues and the arrested man to Miami’s skyscraper City Hall where the arrested man was booked—his name recorded as Giuseppe Zangara—and then taken to a cell in the city jail on the nineteenth floor.
Roosevelt, Moley, Astor, and the others who had come with them from the dock were escorted to a room at the rear of the hospital. There they remained for an hour or more waiting for word (it came to them at frequent intervals) of the condition of the shooting victims, all of whom were brought to this same hospital. They learned that, in addition to Cermak, two of the victims were in critical condition. One was Bill Sinnott, shot through the head; the other was Mrs. Joe H. Gill, wife of the president of the Florida Power and Light Company, shot through the abdomen. Slightly wounded, in addition to Caldwell, was a Miss Margaret Kruis, a visitor from New Jersey, shot through the hand. The Roosevelt party also, while they waited, pieced their separate impressions into a reasonably coherent if incomplete story of what had happened. And as they did so, Moley, whose constant habit it was to measure men against standards (his own, of course, and they were rigidly conventional), and whose curiosity about Roosevelt was naturally immense, watched the Presidentelect for signs of delayed nervous reaction, now that the danger was past and the need to maintain appearances diminished. He saw no such sign. There was no departure from a normal tone of voice and rhythm of speech as Roosevelt spoke his continuing belief that this gunman, this Zangara, who might well be (with a name like that) a Chicago gangster, had aimed to kill the mayor of Chicago, not the President-elect. Otherwise Zangara would have shot while Roosevelt was speaking, a perfect target atop the car seat.
And this was the conclusion Roosevelt gave his wife when, at about 10:40 P.M., she reached him at the hospital by phone from their New York City home. She had been giving a speech at the Warner Club, 321 West 44 Street, when the first news of the assassination attempt was received by the New York newspapers. She left the club without having heard the news. Not until she arrived at the Sixty-fifth Street house did she learn, sketchily, what had happened, first from the agitated, stammering butler who met her at the door, then from her daughter Anna (Mrs. Curtis DaIl), then, somewhat more fully, from a newspaper reporter. She received the news calmly, almost with a shrug. “These things are to be expected,” she remarked as she reached for the phone to place her person-to-person call to Miami. And with her husband she conversed perfectly calmly for only a minute or so. “He’s all right,” she said to a reporter after she’d hung up. “He’s not the least bit excited.” Nor was she. A few minutes later she left the house to go to Grand Central Station, where she boarded a train for Ithaca, New York. There, next day, she was to speak at Cornell University’s annual Home and Farm Week.
At about the time his wife arrived at Grand Central, Roosevelt arrived back at the Nourmahal to spend the night, having postponed till the next day his departure for New York. And there it was, in the yacht’s grand saloon, that the ever-watchful Moley was presented with a final and (to him) now astonishing display of Roosevelt’s nervous control.
Everyone knew by then that it was definitely Roosevelt, not Cermak, whom the gunman had meant to kill. At the police station, Zangara had made, eagerly, volubly, a full statement of his act and motive (“I hate all Presidents … and I hate all officials and everybody who is rich”), expressing as his only regret the failure of his attempt on the President-elect’s life. (How, wondered Roosevelt, could he have missed? While shooting, he could not have been more than twenty feet away.) Roosevelt’s companions, therefore, “were prepared, sympathetically, understandingly, for any reaction that might come from … [him] now that the tension was over and he was alone” with intimates. They themselves were let down, their nerves frayed, and they showed this in their manner. Roosevelt, however, remained unmoved. “There was nothing—not so much as the twitching of a muscle, the mopping of a brow, or even a hint of false gaiety—to indicate that it was not only another evening in any other place,” recalled Moley in his book After Seven Years . ”… I have never in my life seen anything more magnificent. …” When the President-elect went to bed at two o’clock he fell at once soundly asleep (the Secret Service man guarding his stateroom testified to this); he remained so until somewhat later than his usual rising time.
From newspaper accounts that next morning Roosevelt was able to fill in theretofore missing elements of the story of the assassination attempt; he learned how and why the attempt had failed—and learned, too, substantially all that history would ever know about the man who had tried to kill him.
Giuseppe Zangara, nicknamed “Joe” upon his immigration from Mussolini’s Italy in 1923, had come early to Bay Front Park. He wanted (in his own words) “to be as close to the President-elect as possible.” He found, however, that he had not come quite early enough: hundreds were already gathered before the bandstand and he could not place himself in the foremost row of the crowd as he had planned to do. He must remain in the second row, where he dropped down on a bench to wait through the nearly two hours intervening between his arrival and Roosevelt’s scheduled appearance.
An utterly insignificant little man, he seemed, sitting there. Of all the thousands of people soon packed around him—of any crowd whatever, as he himself had long since realized, bitterly—none other was less impressive in appearance. Black-haired, hollow-cheeked, dark-eyed, square-jawed, plain-featured, swarthy, he lacked any facial distinction that would offset the impress made by his physique, and this impress was meager: when drawn up to his full height (he always held himself rigidly erect when on his feet) Zangara stood barely an inch over five feet tall, and he was proportionately narrow of body. Similarly unimpressive was he by the standards that normally measure human importance. Negatives described his general condition. No longer youthful at age thirty- two, he was unemployed, unmarried, uneducated, unskilled (or nearly so, a bricklayer by trade), unfriendly (therefore friendless), unmoneyed—and most decidedly unwell. On the bench, he was unable to sit still. Sometimes he huddled forward, elbows on knees. Sometimes he sat straight up, or leaned against the bench back, while his right hand gripped in his coat pocket, as if for dear life, or dear death, the butt of the revolver he had bought for eight dollars from a pawnshop on North Miami Avenue a day before. (The arrant stupidity of permitting any American to arm himself at any time with a handgun would be much commented upon, editorially, in the days immediately following. ) He fidgeted constantly. But no shift of position could ease his agony for more than a few seconds. “Maybe it was the excitement,” he later said. At any rate, he could not remember a time when his suffering was more intense than now, though severe stomach pain had been his virtually constant companion since early childhood. He felt (so he later indicated) as if a red-hot poker were thrust, twisting, into his abdomen.
A pitiful creature, you would have said, seeing him there. But merely pitiful.
Yet there is a sense in which he would have been highly significant even if he had not violently erupted for a brief bloody moment, as he was about to do, on history’s stage. For even if he had remained passive in his misery upon a park bench, utterly alone in the crowd (in any crowd save when absorbed into it, his individual will and consciousness dissolved), this unemployed little man with a bellyache (actual, figurative) would have been both symbolic and representative of the Depression’s human waste. As it was—pain-wracked, desperate, a revolver in his pocket and murder in his heart, his brain a blazing coal of hateful rage—he signified the vast social danger inherent in Depression misery: he personalized, individualized a deadly sickness then spreading, horribly, terrifyingly, through all the civilized world. Hatred was the organizing principle of his life. It was the very core of his being. Born in Calabria in the first year of history’s bloodiest century, he had begun “to hate very violently” while he was yet “a little boy in school,” as he would say, speaking in abrupt spasms of words, within an hour after his violent act. He hated his “richer schoolmates, who had money to spend” and “privileges” denied him, and who later, when he was in his teens, “went to school while I worked in a brick factory … and burned myself.” By then his hatred was fused with the chronic pain of an ulcerated stomach (an autopsy would show that his ulcers caused serious adhesions) and had become focused upon kings, prime ministers, presidents (“no matter from what country”)—upon any and all who possessed official power, official authority, and were by that token, in his view, the torture agents of “capitalists. ” He would “kill them all” if he could.
Thus was prepared the fateful encounter between historic darkness and light, between nihilism and optimistic faith, which began when Roosevelt’s car came to a halt barely sixteen feet in front of Zangara at 9:30 P.M. The little man was then on his feet, wild-eyed and sweating, his drawn revolver at his side, fully prepared to kill (he had planned to kill) while the President-elect was speaking. Typically, he was frustrated by the people in front of him, all of whom now also rose to their feet. They formed a wall of humanity too high for him to see over (“I’m such a short fellow I didn’t have a chance”), until some of them sat down after Roosevelt, his little talk completed, had himself sat down on the car seat. Then Zangara sprang up onto the bench before him. He was wildly excited, his perceptions blurred. Afterward he remembered of that moment only that the bench he stood on was “wobbly,” that “the gun started to shake” when he “pointed it at Mr. Roosevelt,” that he “pulled the trigger anyway” (he couldn’t “remember how many times”), and that he was then on the ground, his breath knocked out of him by the frenzied, clothes-rending, pummeling men piled atop him.
He didn’t know until the next day, when the newspapers told him (as they told Roosevelt), that his aim had been spoiled by a woman who had seized his shooting arm and forced it upward.
She was Mrs. Lillian Cross, wife of Dr. W. F. Cross, physician and surgeon, who lived at 1069 Northwest Second Street in Miami—a no-nonsense woman of middle age (she was forty-eight), physically small (though a bit taller than Zangara, she weighed only one hundred pounds), with remarkably swift reflexes. Because of her shortness she had clambered up onto the bench where she’d been sitting “to get a better look” at the President-elect after he sat down; she was standing there when Zangara jumped up behind and a little to the right of her. He almost toppled her to the ground. She turned to protest just as he raised his pistol, aiming it over her right shoulder. “My mind grasped immediately what he was up to,” she told reporters an hour or so later. “I said to myself, ’Oh! He’s going to kill the President!’ ” Horror of the kind that freezes many people had upon her a galvanizing effect. Her handbag was in her right hand but in an eye-wink’s time she had “switched it to my left hand and caught him by the arm” just as he pulled the trigger. The firing, within an inch or two of her right ear, deafened that ear temporarily and smudged her cheek with gunpowder, “but I held on. …”
And so Roosevelt lived on. When his valet, Irvin McDuffie, brought to him, that morning of Thursday, February 16, the tie rack from which he selected each day the tie he would wear, he reached out for the same one he’d worn the day before. McDuffie shook his head. “This morning,” said he firmly, “we won’t put the red tie on.” Whereupon, as McDuffie remembered long afterward, Roosevelt “laughed and laughed,” then accepted the tie McDuffie chose for him. Soon afterward he left the Nourmahal for the railway station, stopping on the way at Jackson Memorial Hospital to visit the shooting victims—all of them save Mrs. Gill, whose condition, though she eventually recovered, remained that morning too critical to permit her seeing anyone. With Cermak (“I’m glad it was me instead of you,” said Cermak) he talked optimistically for several minutes about the possibility of federal aid for Chicago’s schoolteachers. With Bill Sinnott, whose head wound (it was now evident) would not be fatal, he was jocular. “I… told him that they couldn’t hurt him with a bullet in the head. I left orders for them to starve him and take off at least twenty pounds.”
And throughout that day, and the next, with almost his every word and gesture reported by press and radio to a shocked, closely attentive nation, the President-elect continued perfectly exemplary in the cool disdain, the cheerful contempt for danger, the manifest faith in Divine Providence, with which he reacted to his close brush with death. (In his soon-dispatched telegram of thanks to Mrs. Cross he spoke of the “Divine Providence” whereby “it now appears that… the lives of all the victims of the assassin’s disturbed aim will be spared. ”) He continued concerned about those who suffered from bullets meant for him; otherwise, on the evidence, the incident seemed to have been dismissed from his mind.
His train left Miami at 10:15 A.M. After lunch he napped for a couple of hours in his stateroom, to make up for sleep lost when he went to bed late the night before. In the early evening, at Jacksonville, where Houston banker Jesse Jones of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation boarded the train for conference with him, he had a phone brought aboard so that he could talk to Miami doctors about Mrs. Gill’s condition, and Cermak’s. With Jones he later talked about the possible RFC loan to Chicago, and about the Michigan bank holiday and the rapidly developing national banking crisis.
At 8:10 the following morning (Friday, February 17), in Richmond, Roosevelt turned out of his stateroom in pajamas to shake hands with Virginia’s Governor John Garland Pollard, come to pay a courtesy call, and with Tennessee’s Senator Cordell Hull, slated to be his Secretary of State, who would ride with him to Washington. At the capital, Virginia’s Senator Carter Glass (he had refused the post of Secretary of the Treasury; Roosevelt felt obliged to ask him to reconsider) and New Mexico’s Senator Bronson Cutting (he was considering the offer to become Secretary of the Interior) boarded the train for a brief conference. It ended in Baltimore, where the two got off. At Philadelphia, son Elliott and daughter Anna, and Roosevelt’s long-time personal secretary, Marguerite (Missy) LeHand, came aboard to accompany him on the last leg of his journey. He arrived at 4:00 P.M. in Jersey City where he was met “by one of the most elaborate police guards ever accorded an individual,” as The New York Times reported. Upward of a thousand police, detectives, and Secret Service men surrounded him at the station; during the drive to his home, where he arrived shortly after five o’clock, his car, itself carrying several bodyguards, was preceded by seven and followed by seven that were wholly filled with more.
At his home, to reporters who found him “bronzed, vigorous, and smiling,” he said he planned no future curtailment of his public appearances but made no specific mention of the Miami incident.
“I’m feeling fine and I’ve had a fine trip,” he said. Then (said the Times ) he “plunged immediately … into work.”
He returned to work with his personal prestige and his effectiveness as national leader greatly enhanced, Zangara’s mad act had given the populace opportunity to measure the quality of this man who was about to become President of a nation in peril—had given Roosevelt opportunity to demonstrate his utter fearlessness in the face of danger, his imperturbable “grace under pressure.” There really was steel beneath all that charm: and the consequence was, in Frank Freidel’s words, “a surge of national confidence in him” such as “none of his other actions since the election” had induced. Added weight was thus given to those brave and heartening (if also palpably false) words which he spoke to a frightened, demoralized country at his inauguration fifteen days later: ”… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Anton J. Cermak listened to those words over the radio in his Miami hospital room. During the preceding ten days he had suffered through colitis, then pneumonia; now he had gangrene in his punctured lung. Two days later (March 6, 1933), shortly before seven in the morning, he died.
Joe Zangara was then still lodged in the Miami jail.
He had been convicted and sentenced to eighty years imprisonment for the shooting of three of his victims but had not yet been tried for shooting Mrs. Gill, who remained in serious condition, nor for the shooting of Cermak. He now was rushed to trial on a charge of first-degree murder in the Circuit Court of Miami where, on March 9, before Judge Uly O. Thompson, he defiantly proclaimed his guilt in a statement shot out from the witness stand in machine-gun bursts of words. “I want to kill all capitalists,” he cried in his high-pitched voice. “Because of capitalists, people get no bread. … I feel this way since I fourteen years old. … I have stomach pains since I six years old. I mad at capitalists. They get education. My stomach hurts since I six years old. … I feel I have a right to kill him [Roosevelt]. … It was right. I know they give me electric chair, but I don’t care—I’m right.”
Next day, before pronouncing sentence, Judge Thompson took occasion to express his “firm conviction that the Congress of these United States should pass” strict gun-control legislation. “Assassins roaming at will through the land—and they have killed three of our Presidents—are permitted to have pistols. And a pistol in the hands of the ordinary person is a most useless weapon of defense. No one can foresee what might have happened had Zangara been successful in his attempt.” (One sure thing is that John Nance Garner would then have become President of the United States on March 4, 1933: the then-recently ratified Twentieth Amendment makes the Vice-President-elect the Chief Executive if the President-elect dies.) Judge Thompson then sentenced Zangara to death in the electric chair during the week of March 19. “You is crook man, too,” screamed Zangara at the judge. “I no afraid. You one of the capitalists.” He was taken, heavily guarded by a squad of machine gunners, to the death house on the Florida State Prison farm at Raiford where, on the morning of March 20, while the country’s attention remained focused upon the opening fireworks of Roosevelt’s Hundred Days, he was executed.
He remained defiant to the last. He contemptuously refused the proferred ministrations of the prison chaplain (“I no want minister, there no God”), walked with a firm pace (head high, shoulders back) to the electric chair, and lost his composure only when, seated, he looked around the death chamber and saw no photographers. “No cameramen?” he asked. “No movie to take picture of Zangara?” The prison superintendent said none was allowed. “Lousy capitalists!” screamed Zangara. “No picture—capitalists, no one here take my picture—all capitalists lousy bunch of crooks.” And he sagged in the chair. But he straightened up as the headpiece was placed over him, shouting, “Good-bye. Adios to all the world. ” Then, tauntingly, his voice muffled by the headpiece, he said, “Push the button.”
The sheriff of Dade County did so at precisely 9:15 A.M.