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“Big Jim” Farley: The True-blue Democrat

June 2024
18min read

One of FDR's closest aides remembers "the Boss" and a lifetime in politics.

Once upon a time—some eighty-three years ago—a likable lad named James Aloysius Farley was horn in the milage of Grassy Point, New York, on the west bank of the lower Hudson River, to “poor but honest”parents, Irish to the core. When he was nine, his father was killed in an accident. “Jimmy” promised his mother he would help her run the grocery store and saloon, go faithfully to Mass, and neither smoke nor drink. He has kept every one of those promises. When he grew to manhood—six feet two inches—he wed Elizabeth Finnegan, whom he had known all his life, and lived happily with her until her death in 1955. He also commenced another lifelong and still warm affair, common to young Irishmen of his generation—this one with politics, inside the hospitable embrace of the Democratic Party. And it was this that brought him to a place in life where he spoke as a friend to Presidents, prime ministers, and popes, and even heard his own name placed in nomination for the Presidency.

On the opposite bank of the Hudson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a scion of the Knickerbocker aristocracy, grew up m a mansion, in an aura of ease and privilege. He and Jim Farley made each other’s acquaintance in Democratic politics. Twice Farley helped elect Roosevelt governor. When F.D.R. became President in 1932, he said that Louis McHenry Howe, his faithful adviser, and Jim Farley were the men most responsible for his victory.

During Roosevelt’s first two terms, “Big Jim” was chairman of the Democratic National Committee and of the New York State Democratic Committee, Postmaster General, and number-one glad-handerfor the New Deal. Raymond Moley, an adviser to the President, said Farley possessed “inexhaustible geniality.” It was reputed that Farley could call by their first names fifty thousand faithful Democrats all over the country. When he and the President were alone, Farley called F.D.R. “Boss” and Roosevelt called Farley “Shamus, ” which is Irish for James.

After his famous split with Roosevelt over the third term, Farley resigned as “three-job Jim.” He became chairman of the board of the Coca-Cola Export Corporation. As a soft-drink supersalesman for three decades, he has averaged each year some 120 banquets, one hundred luncheons, and visits to thirty countries. He is still hale and vigorous. Since his wife’s death he has lived alone. His three children telephone nearly every day, and his four grandchildren in college call every Sunday (“Collect!”). Usually Farley takes one or two of his ten grandchildren on his trips abroad. Unless it’s raining, he walks to his Madison Avenue office every weekday and Saturday morning. Football and baseball are his big sports enthusiasms, but he also enjoys harness racing and occasionally a boxing match. During the baseball season, Farley, who used to play first base for the Grassy Point Alphas, can be found in his box at Yankee Stadium almost every Saturday and Sunday and many evenings.

Farley spends a couple of hours every Friday afternoon m the Biltmore turkish baths, perspiring and relaxing. This helps him keep tabs on his weight. If the scales go too high, he eases up on two of his favorite dishes, ice cream and nee pudding. Every Sunday morning, ram or shine, Jim Farley passes the collection plate at nine o’clock Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He regrets that he seldom sees a familiar face there, because the congregation is mostly from out of town.

It is an active life. James A. Farley does not, like some old warriors, live entirely among his memories. He is still a worker, still an involved Democrat. But he relishes the recollected days of his political peak. In answer to an interviewer’s questions, he recalls the thunder and the shouting of New Deal days, in fluent, soft-spoken sentences, stippled with a wealth of detail drawn from a memory that was once legendary, and is still remarkable.

How did you come to know Franklin D. Roosevelt?

I first met Franklin Roosevelt in 1920, when he ran for Vice President with Governor [James M.] Cox. There was a reception for them at the National Democratic Club of New York, which was on Fifth Avenue where Saks [a New York department store) is now. I had been married only a short while, and I brought Mrs. Farley. It was a long reception, and, in a facetious way, Bess said that if she’d known she had to go through things like that, she wondered if she would have married me. “Well,” I said, “in the days ahead, you may run into many like this.”

I went to Mr. Roosevelt’s office —he was attorney for an insurance company—many times to seek his services as a speaker. I remember I asked him to speak at Flag Day services of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks when I was active in the Haverstraw, New York, Lodge No. 877.


I’ll never forget once I met Mr. Roosevelt at the Biltmore Hotel. Every time I go to the Biltmore that scene flashes before my mind’s eye. The hotel has about sixteen steps, and I stood at the top and watched Mr. Roosevelt bound up those steps, two at a time. That’s the last time I saw him before he was stricken [with polio].

Did you think that his becoming crippled would be a handicap to him politically?

No, I thought it would be a help to him. I thought it would evoke sympathy. I think it did. In fact I’m sure it did. Only on one or two occasions did I ever hear him refer to his infirmity. We were playing poker one Saturday night at the White House. As the game broke up, he looked at a fellow named Stephen Gibbons, who was an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of the U. S. Customs and who had been stricken with paralysis, and walked with a cane. Mr. Roosevelt said: “I’ll tell you, Steve, there’s one thing about you and me. We’ll never have to worry about getting high blood-pressure running up stairs!”

He hated to go into a building if there was danger of getting out in case of fire. He might say to me: “Will there be any difficulty getting in the building?” I remember one time he spoke in Yorkville, and they brought Roosevelt in a side entrance, through windows, rather than the front door because he’d have difficulty getting on the stage.


W hen did you think of him seriously as a Presidential possibility?

I didn’t produce Mr. Roosevelt, although I was given a lot of credit for his nomination and election. He was the logical candidate. Governor [Alfred E.] Smith had persuaded him to run for governor of New York in 1928, although Mr. Roosevelt didn’t want to run and his wife didn’t want him to run. But he was persuaded on the theory that, if he won, it would help Governor Smith carry New York [in the Presidential campaign]. Well, Governor Smith lost the state by over one hundred thousand, and Mr. Roosevelt carried the state by approximately twenty-five thousand, if I remember the figures correctly.

Being elected governor in a year when there was a Republican landslide made Mr. Roosevelt appear a miraculous candidate. When he was re-elected in ’30, he carried the state by approximately 725,000. Next day after that election, I prepared a statement in which I said, whether Mr. Roosevelt wanted to or not, in my judgment he would become the Democratic candidate for the Presidency in 1932. Of course I had consulted with his secretary, Louis Howe. I called Mr. Roosevelt up and read him the statement, and in substance he said: “Whatever you want to do, Jim, is all right with me.”

After the first of the year I had a tabulation made showing how New York governors in past years had run. I listed the counties from 1912 on, and showed in heavy type the upstate counties Mr. Roosevelt had carried that no other Democratic candidate for governor in the history of New York had ever carried. That was sent out to all Democratic governors, senators, members of Congress, members of the Democratic National Committee, country chairmen, and members of state committees—about seven thousand people all over the United States—with my card attached: “James A. Farley, Chairman, New York State Democratic Committee.” Well, that really started a flood of correspondence. It’s amazing the number of people who said they were for him and were glad they had that information.

The last Democratic convention in which a two-thirds vote was required for nomination was in 1932. Can you explain how and why that rule was abolished?

Well, Mr. Roosevelt was in favor of doing away with it. I did more to bring that about [in 1936] than anybody else. And [in 1932] Mr. Garner told Sam Rayburn when he went to Chicago that if, as, and when Mr. Roosevelt had the majority of the votes, he was entitled to be nominated. He didn’t want to see a duplication of the Baltimore convention [of 1912] or the Madison Square Garden convention in ’24 [when a deadlocked convention took 104 weary ballots to name John W. Davis].

It’s been said that the change began a reduction of southern influence in American life that accounts for some regional bitterness. Do you agree?

Well, they have their influence in the Senate and in the House. They may not have had it with a nomination for President or Vice President, but there’s no section of the country had more influence in the Congress and especially in the Senate than the South, because those men get re-elected, and get on the committees, and they become chairmen. A lot of the complaint now is that the South holds too many chairmanships, and they’re not, the southern states, are not supporting the Democratic nominees for President.

Let me say that I travelled all over the United States during the years I served as national chairman, and never once did I see the slightest sign of intolerance or discourtesy. So I have great affection for people in all sections of the country. No place was more generous in support of me than the South. I had a fine relationship with southern leaders and southern people. As a matter of fact, in the polls of those days, outside of Mr. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull I ran better in the South than any other man.

A big change in 1932 was the swing in the votes of Negroes to the Democrats, after a long era of Republicanism among them. Did you try to win over that vote?

No, no, no. I think they felt that Mr. Roosevelt would be more helpful in helping their position, in helping their way of life, than the Republicans would be.

It has been claimed that Hoover asked Roosevelt for help in the period when Hoover was a lame-duck President, but that Roosevelt refused, because he didn’t want to take any steps until he had full responsibility. Is that true, and did you so advise him?

I’ve forgotten. I doubt very much whether I advised him one way or another. That was a policy matter of his own, which of course he discussed with friends in and out of the incoming administration. I don’t think he wanted to participate and be helpful, as you indicate, until he had to assume responsibility, and I don’t think he wanted any prior act of his that would embarrass him in any way when he finally took over. You see he was—this has appeared in print and it isn’t private—he was very much annoyed with Mr. Hoover when he called on him to pay his respects, which is the usual thing, a day or two before the transition, and when Mr. Roosevelt got there Ogden Mills [Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury] was there, and I think [Undersecretary Arthur A.] Ballantine was, too. And I know Mr. Roosevelt resented it very much. Now he and Mr. Mills were close personal, social, society friends—they lived close to one another—but they were as far apart as the poles, politically speaking. Right or wrong, I think he resented that the President had Mr. Mills there and he was going to try to get him involved, get him interested, get him to participate in some of the programs that Mr. Hoover wanted to carry out. That caused the break. And frankly all it was supposed to be was a social call. They should have asked previously if he had any objection to the presence of Mr. Mills. Now, if they had done that it might have eradicated the problem that developed.

I think Herbert Hoover was one of the most dedicated Americans I ever knew. I Worked with him on the Hoover Commission. There isn’t any doubt of his regard and affection for his country. Now I might disagree about his policies, but you can’t take away from Mr. Hoover his dedication to his country. He ran at a bad time and inherited a bad situation, and he wouldn’t do anything to end Prohibition or use the RFC [Reconstruction Finance Corporation] the way Mr. Roosevelt later did.

I asked him one time after I got to know him fairly well, when he first thought that he would be defeated in ’32. He said that he had read my prediction [of Roosevelt’s victory] and thought I was crazy. He couldn’t believe that he was going to be defeated.

I used to see Mr. Hoover often at the Waldorf. He’d send for me to talk politics. My wife, Lord have mercy on her, she’s dead fifteen years now, but during her lifetime he’d invite the two of us to dinner. He said ten was too many for a dinner party; six or eight could all engage in one conversation.

I’ll never forget one time when I was being talked for governor of New York. Mr. Hoover said: “If you’d run, I’d come out and support you. I don’t know if it would do you any good, but I’d be glad to do it.” I thought this was one of the finest tributes ever paid me.

After he took office, Roosevelt quickly brought in a number of academic and intellectual leaders to advise him—the so-called brain trust. Could you say how you, as a working politician, got along with them?

I’ve always said that Professor Moley’s advice and wise counsel was most helpful to the President—the President-elect and after he was elected. And I was sorry when they broke because I felt that Mr. Roosevelt in losing Moley—he lost a very fine associate, who was very loyal of course, but above anything else, he was frank . He was not in any sense a yes man. I had a lot of respect for Professor Moley and for the services he rendered to the President. [Rexford G.] Tugwell and I never hit it off too well. Now I could talk to Moley and I was very friendly with [Adolf A.] Berle, very friendly with Berle. But with Tugwell I was more or less at cross purposes. It wasn’t personal. We just couldn’t reconcile our points of view, I guess that’s the way to put it. I was a political animal, you know, and everything I was doing was what I felt was in the best interests of Mr. Roosevelt and his administration and, incidentally, the Democratic Party. The rest of them I had no difficulty with at all.

Do you think that creating the brain trust was a good idea?

I think any President has the right to have around him, in the first place, men who are intelligent and in whom he has confidence. But I think it’s important that he have men on both sides of the question. I think he is entitled to have both sides rather than just one side. Mr. Roosevelt saw a lot of people, and he got their views whether they agreed with him or he agreed with them. He got the views on both sides.

How were you able to predict F.D.R.’s 1936 landslide so accurately?

I made that prediction based entirely on my conversations with state chairmen, national committeemen, newspapermen, from Maine, for instance, and different parts of the country. I was on pretty good terms with all of the newspapermen regardless of the papers they wrote for; I told them the truth as I saw it. And I got letters and all kinds of information. Mr. Roosevelt didn’t want me to go that far. As I recall it, we had a pool, and I don’t know whether he was in the pool, but I think he said 346 electoral votes, or something, I don’t know whether I’m right on the figure. But I’ll never forget, when I decided I was going to predict, that I called up the Democrats in the state of Maine and told them about it and also called up Frank Duffy, who was the Democratic leader in Vermont, about what I was going to predict. But Frank always called me James, talked like all Vermonters, very stiff. Hc said, “James, I wish you wouldn’t do that. We have a chance to elect a Democratic governor and if you predict Vermont is going Republican it will hurt us.” And I said “Frank, it’s my job to make a prediction on what I think is going to happen nationally, and I don’t think it’s going to hurt your state at all insofar as the election of a governor is concerned if the same trend is going along in your state—I’ve just got to make the prediction that I’m going to.” Hc was very much annoyed with me, but I made it nevertheless.

There’s a story that you sent personal notes of thanks to thousands of party workers afterward, and signed them in green ink. Why green?

The editor of my home town newspaper used to use green ink, so I started to use it when I was a boy, and I still do except that I sign obituary and official letters in black ink. Once in a while a regular letter will get signed in black ink, and the person will write back to know if I’ve given up green ink. But I had a funny experience—it wasn’t funny, it was tragic when I was in the Post Office. I used to sign all the commissions in green ink. The President’s signature was a facsimile, but the Postmaster General’s was an actual signature. Well, that green ink faded in the sunlight, so I asked the inspectors, as they made the rounds of post offices, to pick up commissions where my signature had faded. They picked up over ten thousand, and I had to retrace every signature! From that time on, I signed all the commissions in black ink.

It’s generally conceded that Roosevelt made two political mistakes in 1937 and 1938. One was the attempt to enlarge the membership of the Supreme Court: the other, intervention in the 1938 primaries to “purge” anti-New Deal Democrats. Did you advise him against these steps?

Well, frankly, I didn’t know anything about the Court fight, the Court bill, until I read it in the New York World Telegram . He had a press conference that morning where he brought in the legislative leaders and the chairmen of the Judiciary committees of both the House and the Senate—[Senator] Joe T. Robinson [of Arkansas], the Republican leaders, the House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, and the chairmen, I think, of the committees to which that bill would go for consideration and for hearings before it went up to the House. And it wasn’t until I picked up the World Telegram that I saw about it. And the next day when I went down the street, I dropped in and I said, “Why the hell did you do that without telling me?” He just called them that morning you know, and anybody that wasn’t there [didn’t get asked]. You see, he made it very secretive. Now if I’d been in Washington, I’d have been there. But they knew I was in New York and they didn’t call me.

Well, he had a mind of his own. Of course, I urged him not to participate in the purge at all. And I didn’t participate, as the records show. I took a rather strong stand, you know. Here I was his Postmaster General and the state and national chairman and I refused to participate in the purge.

You broke with him when he went after a third term. In fact, you had your name put in nomination in the 1940 convention and received seventy-two votes. Did you try to discourage the third term beforehand? And how do you feel, looking back?

I still think I was right. I didn’t think any man should have done that because it was against our tradition. I argued with Mr. Roosevelt about his health. I said: “You’ve been four years governor and eight years President, and it’s bound to have weakened you physically. There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen in the days ahead, and you ought not to do it.”

Do you think he could have won the third term if the war in Europe had not been going on?

I don’t know. I’m never quite sure on that. He took an awful chance on the third term, but, of course, [Wendell] Willkiejust wasn’t the fellow to beat him. I don’t know who could have beaten him. Willkie wasn’t accepted by the country, and he happened to be the nominee. They deluged the Republican convention in Philadelphia, you remember, with millions of wires. That really was a deluge. The third term, of course, brought on the fourth term, and by the fourth term Mr. Roosevelt was a very sick man.

As a loyal party man, of course, you had moved to make his nomination unanimous at the convention. Did you actively support him at any time in the campaign itself?

I didn’t see Mr. Roosevelt during the campaign, but it was customary for me to ride with him to Madison Square Garden for the big political meeting we always had a few nights before election. I had ridden with him and Mrs. Roosevelt in ’32 and again in ’36. I was up in Rockland County one Sunday in ’40 when there was a telephone call from the White House. Steve Early, the President’s press secretary, said that the President wanted to know if I’d meet him at Mott Haven railroad yards [in the Bronx] and ride to the Garden with him and Mrs. Roosevelt and appear on the platform. I said of course I would, and I went up there and we rode down in the car together. Mr. Roosevelt was a superstitious fellow.

I was in the Democratic state committee office [Farley had resigned as Democratic National Committee chairman but remained chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee] from early morning till late at night because I didn’t want New York State to go Republican and they’d say Farley was to blame. On the Sunday before election I sent a wire to every member of the Democratic county committees in New York State, about eleven thousand more or less, urging them to get every voter to the polls, Democrat, independent, or Republican, who they felt would support President Roosevelt, because I wanted him to carry New York. And he did. So everybody in the United States knew where I stood.


H ow do you rate Roosevelt as a President now?

I think Mr. Roosevelt is bound to go down in the history of this country, when they get away from hatred and bitterness, among the first six American Presidents. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and I would think Jackson and Truman, I’m a devotee of Jackson because he was such a Democrat.

Mr. Roosevelt’s entitled to that because he saved the capitalistic system of this country. God knows we might have had a civil war if he hadn’t moved as quickly as he did. People were threatening law and order. Out in Iowa they were burning corn and threatening judges who were honoring mortgage foreclosures. People just rebelled.

In the first hundred days the Congress put through many pieces of legislation, PWA [Public Works Administration), AAA [Agricultural Adjustment Administration], CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps]. The ccc took boys off the streets and put them in gainful employment in camps, and part of their pay had to go home to their families. It was great training for them. They were off welfare, well fed, disciplined, in proper housing.

The HOLC [Home Owners Loan Corporation] that President Roosevelt passed saved the banks, the insurance companies, and loan associations. They were proceeding to foreclose mortgages on thousands and thousands of homes in the United States. The HOLC stepped in and took over those mortgages and guaranteed them, you know, and when that organization went out of business after it had served its purpose, it turned a profit back to the government.

Mr. Roosevelt was never given credit for that. The Republican leaders and the bankers, whose businesses he saved, and the businessmen, whose businesses he saved, they were his biggest critics.

It’s an outrage that Mr. Roosevelt’s been dead twentyfive years now and he hasn’t any monument in Washington. Of course George Washington was dead a long time before they did anything for him, and Lincoln, too. Jefferson didn’t get his until Mr. Roosevelt was in office. I worked on that. It wasn’t easy to get an appropriation even for Jefferson, with people needing money for more important things. But I’ll never forget that Mr. Roosevelt said to me: “Jim, if we don’t get this through now, we’ll never get it for Jefferson.” He was just insistent about it.

What was the secret of his political success?

Well, he was an extremely charming man, very easy to know. He was born and raised in the country, so Mr. Roosevelt was really a country fellow, if I may use the term. He was friendly with all the folks around Hyde Park where he grew up, and they called him Frank or Franklin. So it wasn’t difficult for him to meet people around the country the same way. He was down to earth, a neighborly sort of fellow. When he was in Warm Springs, they all looked on him as a citizen of Georgia. When he’d greet them, he’d make them feel very much at home, that by God they were an old friend of his. He could do it without any difficulty. Now some people are born with that. It’s like a smile. Mr. Roosevelt could smile readily.

I think he could win today. He was probably the greatest campaigner of his day and generation, you know. And on TV he would have been marvellous. On radio…his fireside chats, you know. He wasn’t, I would say, a good extemporaneous speaker, but he read beautifully, and the intonation of his voice and everything else went over. Made him, I think, one of the outstanding campaigners of all time. He wasn’t an orator in the way Stevenson was, and he didn’t have the type of oratory that Smith had or any of the other men of his time, but he read a speech well and got it over, and he did it with a great deal of sincerity, and it got across.

You say “sincerity,” but a great many people charged him with being insincere and deceitful. What about that?

I can truthfully say that Mr. Roosevelt—a lot of people accuse him of lying or being careless with the truth—that he never lied to me except about the third term. In my situation, and may I say this very modestly, there wasn’t any reason why he should have lied to me. I was doing everything I could for him and the party and the country, and whatever strength I had I got from my association with him. I wouldn’t be doing anything publicly that would be contrary to his wishes. So there was little reason why we wouldn’t always agree. Whatever little differences we had would be resolved his way or the way I suggested.

How do you feel about him as a human being now?

All I can say is this: the entire time I spent with Mr. Roosevelt, from the time I first met him in ’20 down through the years, it was always a delightful relationship and a fine experience. I have, of course, regretted the fact that my disagreement with him on the third term broke a friendship that had existed for all those years, and I saw him only three or four times after I retired, and I felt very badly about that.

Did he ever forgive you?

I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

Are you still a good Democrat?

I have a deep sense of loyalty to the Democratic Party. I started in politics in a small town with a population of about three thousand at the time. The town was 75 or 80 per cent Protestant, and at least 65 or 70 per cent Republican. I was an Irish Catholic, but I was elected to office eight times on the Democratic ticket. [Farley was elected town clerk of Stony Point, New York, four times, a supervisor twice. He won election to the state assembly once, and lost once, but carried the town both times.] So I have a sense of appreciation.

There is talk of the need for one or more new national parties. Do you think the two-party system will be with us for a while yet?

I hope it’s always with us.

Do you have any plans for retirement?

No notion of it.

Looking back on it all—the people you’ve met, the offices you’ve held, the fights you’ve fought—do you have any comment?

It’s been an interesting life.






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