Sunday, July 13, 2014

135. Carmine DeSapio, the Last Tammany Boss of New York

Carmine De Sapio      Tall, deft, sophisticated, courteous and smooth-talking with an imposing manner and a winning smile, he was the very antithesis of the stereotypical big city boss, promoted himself as an enlightened modern reformer.  He favored well-tailored dark business suits and striped or patterned ties, his wavy black hair always meticulously trimmed and neat, his nails manicured.  Because of a chronic eye condition he wore dark glasses that in the opinion of some made him look like a gangster, the very image he meant to scrupulously avoid.

     Living modestly with his wife and daughter in an apartment on Washington Square West, he began his long workday with phone calls before breakfast, and while still in pajamas and bathrobe received favor-seekers who lined up on the sidewalk outside, awaiting their turn.  Then, having dressed and breakfasted, he sortied, sleekly and immaculately groomed, to visit his various offices – one for each of his many titles – attend fund-raising events for charities, give speeches, appear on radio and TV, and maybe attend a late-night political dinner.

     Such was Carmine DeSapio at the height of his power in the 1950s.  Born in 1908 to a family of Sicilian immigrants in Greenwich Village, he got his start in politics as a teenager running errands for the Tammany machine, delivering coal and Christmas turkeys to poor immigrant families in winter, blocks of ice in the summer, and turkeys on Thanksgiving, thus assuring that the recipients would vote Democratic in the next election.  By the 1930s he had his own club in a rented hall on Second Avenue, helping blue collar Villagers find jobs or deal with their landlords, and receiving ambitious lawyers eager to get Tammany-appointed positions and judgeships.  And in 1949 he became the first Italian-American to be elected leader of Tammany Hall.

     DeSapio’s rise signaled the end of Irish-American dominance of the machine, just as, in his native Village, the Irish were yielding in numbers to the Italian immigrants.  His power base was the South Village, where Italian immigrants lived in crowded tenements, did their shopping locally, and had little contact with the rest of the city.  There were pushcart men on the streets, and ragmen and watermelon vendors and icemen, all Italian.  The kids played games on the sidewalk, and the boys formed gangs that fought other gangs, but knew that to trespass on another gang’s turf was to risk getting beaten up.  It was a tough, raw working-class world, a world that DeSapio knew and courted for votes.

     By now he wore many hats: leader of the assembly district including Greenwich Village; chairman of all the assembly districts in Manhattan; grand sachem of Tammany; and chair of the Democratic National Committee.  All of which, in overwhelmingly Democratic New York, gave him significant power – power that he knew how to use.  His influence was conclusive in getting Robert Wagner elected mayor of New York in 1953, and Averell Harriman elected governor in 1954; he became Harriman’s secretary of state.  So respected now and feared as a kingmaker was he, that at fund-raising dinners those seeking favors would brush by the governor and mayor to shake his hand.  In 1955 his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and the Washington columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop opined that he could name the next president.

     His success marked a resurgence of Tammany, which had long been in decline, but he sought to give Tammany a modern, progressive image.  He shunned secretive deals in smoke-filled back rooms, preferring to work through consultations and consensus-building, and announced his decisions to the public.  A self-proclaimed liberal, he helped minority politicians obtain important posts, supported progressive legislation, rent control, and lowering the voting age to 18. 

     But try as he did, for many he never quite scraped off the taint of the old, corrupt Tammany machine.  In time it became clear that he was staffing the city government with clubhouse hacks, selling judgeships, and awarding lucrative city contracts to a company later found to have cheated taxpayers of millions of dollars.

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Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee.
A man you wouldn't want to know, or at least, you
wouldn't want it known that you knew him.
     Worse still, rumors circulated of his ties to Frank Costello, New York State’s most powerful mobster, who controlled a vast nationwide gambling empire.  When Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee held hearings in 1950 and 1951 to investigate organized crime, Costello became the star attraction, watched by millions on TV.  DeSapio of course always denied any connection to the mobster, but the Mafia had long since infiltrated Tammany, and Costello stated that he knew DeSapio “very well” and had done Tammany leaders “personal favors.”

     DeSapio survived these rumors for a while, but in 1957 a taxi driver found an envelope on the back seat of his taxi containing $11,200 in worn and dirty $50 and $100 bills.  Taking it to the police, he described his last passenger as a tall, well-dressed man wearing dark glasses, which strongly suggested DeSapio.  DeSapio admitted taking the taxi but denied that the money was his, and when no other claimant appeared, a year later the money was given to the driver.  But the incident raised more questions.  If the envelope wasn’t his, how could DeSapio not have noticed it?  And if it was his, why did he deny it, and what was the money for? 

     Meanwhile DeSapio’s Greenwich Village base was changing, which boded ill for him.  Moving into the neighborhood were reform-minded younger Democrats like the people I came to know when I moved here in 1961: editors, writers, teachers, white-collar office workers, and people with steady jobs in theater and the arts.  These middle-class professionals wanted no part of a Tammany politician, no matter how well-groomed and slick, who might have links to the mob and denied leaving a bundle of cash in a taxi.  The Village was no longer dominated by the old immigrant groups that Tammany could count on; reform was in the air.  Founded in 1957, the Village Independent Democrats (VID) launched a campaign to unseat DeSapio, whom they saw as a traditional back-room boss.  They found a powerful ally in Eleanor Roosevelt, who resented DeSapio’s talking her son Franklin, Jr., out of running for governor in 1954, so he could promote Averell Harriman for that office.  Slowly, year by year, the campaign against DeSapio gained ground, and Democrats who had once hailed him began to denounce him as an old-fashioned Tammany boss.

     In 1961 Mayor Robert Wagner won reelection as a reformist candidate who denounced his former patron as corrupt.  In that same year DeSapio lost the district leadership of Greenwich Village, a post he had held since 1943; clearly, he was on the way out.  “We tried and we lost,” he told his supporters.  “Don’t let’s get sick about it.”  Hearing of his loss, Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have announced, “I told Carmine I would get him for what he did to Franklin, and get him I did.”  If true, this shows that the globe-trotting former First Lady, known and respected the world over, was quite capable of personal venom and skilled in the nasty infighting that practical politics often requires.

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Loudmouths sometimes win.
     In 1963 and again in 1965 DeSapio tried to regain his position as Village district leader, running against an upstart who had, a little belatedly, joined the reformist camp: Ed Koch, who was his polar opposite.  DeSapio was smooth; Koch was jagged.  DeSapio spoke softly; Koch was a loudmouth.  DeSapio was deft, courteous, urbane; Koch was in-your-face.  A gangly bachelor from Brooklyn with less than stellar looks, Koch, blunt and balding, had only recently moved to the Village.  When the polls closed on September 23, 1965, Koch seemed relaxed and self-confident in the VID clubhouse, but with a huge turnout reported in the South Village, which was considered DeSapio territory, his backers were preparing a concession statement.  At 10:20 p.m. the returns began coming in.

     “The thirtieth election district,” the club president shouted, “Koch 113, DeSapio 65.”

     Cheers from Koch’s supporters, but this was reform territory and not a good indicator.

     “The tenth election district, Koch 60, DeSapio 162.”
     Groans.  But this was an Italian-American neighborhood.

     Next, the sixth election district: Koch 65, DeSapio 243.  But the results were still too fragmentary to be meaningful.   As more results came in, there were groans and cheers, as DeSapio took the South Village districts and Koch prevailed in the others.  Tension mounted, and only Koch seemed cheerful and unperturbed.  Then, at 11:00 p.m., DeSapio appeared on television. 

     “I’m behind by seven hundred votes,” he announced.  “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to catch up.”  And he conceded.

     Tumult in the clubhouse, as weary campaign workers hugged each other and shouted, and swirled around Koch, who beamed a quiet smile.  DeSapio had lost his home district, his power base; his political career was practically over, whereas Koch’s had just begun.

     From then on it was downhill for DeSapio, the acclaimed kingmaker of only a few years before. In 1969 he was convicted by a federal court for conspiring to bribe a former water commissioner, and for getting kickbacks on lucrative city contracts from Consolidated Edison.  His moving fifteen-minute plea for leniency failed to sway the judge, who declared the evidence “overwhelming.”  He could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison, but the judge, taking into account his age and his record of public service, gave him only two.  Upon release he kept shy of politics but supported various charitable and civic causes.  He evidently accepted his final defeat with dignity and without bitterness.  If he met Ed Koch, by then mayor, who lived not far from him, they exchanged friendly greetings.  “He is a crook,” Koch remarked later, “but I like him.”  Many did.  DeSapio died in 2004 at age 95.

     Happy Bastille Day!  Yes, that will be tomorrow and I want to acknowledge it because France is the only foreign country where I lived for any length of time.  As we all know, on July 14, 1789, an armed mob lay siege to the Bastille, a royal prison in Paris, and when the marquis in charge there agreed to surrender on condition that the lives of the defenders be spared, the mob poured in, freed the handful of prisoners, and massacred the garrison, parading the marquis’s severed head through the streets on a pike.  Ah, they don’t make revolutions like that any more … or do they?  Anyway, our signing of the Declaration of Independence seems tame and sane by comparison, and we honor our national holiday with the same patriotic fervor that the French honor theirs; we do barbecues and munch wienies, while they forgo the Marseillaise (I can handle the first verse, I’m proud to announce) but shoot off fireworks and dance in the street.  (I once saw the fireworks shooting off from the medieval walls of Carcassonne – unforgettable; it was as if the whole old city was aflame.)

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     Ever since Yorktown or soon thereafter, we and the French have enjoyed an enduring love/hate relationship, summed up in an American tourist’s cliché comment to me on the ship coming back (yes, this was back when one still went by ship): “Loved the country, hated the people!”  (Granted, he and a bus full of American tourists had been ripped off by a greedy bus driver who demanded an additional handout during a nationwide strike, when there was no other way for the tourists to get back to Paris.)  And to this day the French resent our superpower status, which they now lack, even when that status – to their gleeful satisfaction – seems to be fast eroding.  They think us primitive and adolescent, and at times a nation of cowboys, and we think  them overcentralized, overcivilized, even decadent.  There’s some truth in both assertions, but things are far more complicated than that. 

     Today the French government seems a bit decapitated (or should I say guillotined?), given presidential failings and scandals, but with our own government supremely dysfunctional, who are we to criticize?  And the city of Paris, as I noted recently, is replacing its ancient gas mains, which we are not doing over here, with resulting explosions in our cities.  French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century is now #3 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and has taken the world by storm. 

     Finally (as if there could be a “finally”), the French, who aren’t afraid of government intervention, have just passed an “anti-Amazon” law prohibiting online booksellers from offering free shipping on discounted books.  So determined are the French to encourage diversity in books, booksellers, and publishers, they already have a law preventing booksellers from offering a discount of more than 5% off the cover price of new books.  The French buy books – mostly in bookstores – and actually read them.  Their government classifies books as an “essential good,” along with electricity, bread, and water.  A Times op-ed piece reporting this recently noted that the author, strolling through central Paris, counted seven bookstores within a ten-minute walk of his apartment.  The French aren’t going to let Amazon or any monopoly put those stores out of business.  If this is overcivilization, maybe we primitives could use a bit of it.  Be that as it may, Happy Bastille Day to all from a confessed Francophile!

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     Coming soon:  Cardinal Spellman, friend of Presidents and kingmaker.  But shh … was he or wasn’t he?  We’ll explore it.  And after that, one of the most controversial -- and many would say obnoxious -- figures in U.S. politics, Roy Cohn, friend and consultant of Presidents, and the question of outing: is it ever justified, and if so, when?  Juicy times ahead.

This is New York

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     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

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