Mayor William J. Gaynor, Primitive American


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Gaynor was born in Whitesboro, NY, on Feb. 2, 1848. He spent four years in the Christian Brothers as Brother Adrian Denys. The experience left him with a taste for the Stoics, particularly Epictetus; Don Quixote, which he ranked second only to the Bible; and the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Benvenuto Cellini. He read law for about two years and was admitted to the New York bar in 1871. Then he worked briefly as a reporter for the Brooklyn Argus before hanging out his shingle in Flatbush.

He married in 1874 and was divorced seven years later on the only grounds then available in New York: adultery. In 1886, he married Augusta C. Mayer, a beautiful woman, gracious, domestic and fond of society. The marriage endured despite Gaynor's temper, although Philip Kohler, one of Gaynor's secretaries, insisted there was a slug in the woodwork of the Gaynors' front hall that she had fired at the judge in a moment of anger and missed. He represented such men as Shifty Hughie McCarthy who, as Lately Thomas wrote in The Mayor Who Mastered New York, was "always in trouble, suspected of everything, and usually guilty." He also represented saloonkeepers accused of violating the Sunday opening laws. He became a superb trial lawyer, cutting quickly to the heart of a lawsuit through thorough preparation, cold logic and terse, colloquial presentation.

Gaynor first came to public notice after investigating election frauds in Coney Island, when he jailed John Y. McKane, the local Democratic boss who had once elected himself Gravesend town supervisor, land commissioner, chairman of the water, tax and excise boards, and chief of police?all at the same time. Elected to the New York Supreme Court in 1893 and reelected in 1907, Gaynor proved an extreme libertarian; he was "...a primitive American and really believed in the Bill of Rights," the Globe wrote. "These things did not represent sentimental nonsense to him nor did he regard them as impractical abstractions." He thoroughly believed in not interfering with people who lived as they wanted without disturbing their neighbors. He believed people should spend Sunday as they wished. He often released boys and young men arrested for playing ball on Sunday. He was tolerant of backsliding from the stricter moral codes. He did not believe men would be transformed into angels, at least in his time, and lacked patience for those who insisted on its immediate possibility.

Among working men and women, he was at ease, and chatted easily with the uneducated of farming or work or politics. Among his intellectual equals, he was a genial and fascinating conversationalist. If a reporter caught him on a good day, as did a reporter from the World who met him at his Long Island summer home, he would murmur, "Well, if you have to interview me, let's step inside and go to work on it like mechanics." There he took out two tumblers and uncorked the "Old Senator."

He loved dining with friends over a bottle of champagne, talking about history, politics, literature, the law and whatever came to mind. His capacity for spirits was bottomless and seemed only to sharpen his tongue. Ira Bamberger, a lawyer and friend, once spent the evening at dinner with the judge. As Thomas wrote, "their talk lasted well into the night, and more than one cork was popped." Bamberger had a case on Gaynor's calendar the next morning. Bamberger missed the first call. He staggered late into court, evidencing the kind of hangover in which the growth of one's hair is an agony. Judge Gaynor called Bamberger up to the bench and rebuked him for his lateness, concluding, "From your appearance, you would seem to have fallen among bad companions."

Yet all Gaynor's philosophy could not bridle his bad temper. Years later, reporters who had covered City Hall during the administrations of Gaynor and La Guardia agreed hands-down that Gaynor's capacity for sustained, epic, imaginative profanity, rich with allusion, imagery and metaphor, made the Little Flower look like a sissy.

In 1909, Tammany boss Charles F. Murphy began figuring how the party might keep City Hall at that year's elections. He chose Gaynor, somehow believing he could be controlled. This was a mistake. The Republicans nominated Otto Bannard, a wealthy, colorless banker, and a strong ticket with him. Then William Randolph Hearst, the publisher, who had unsuccessfully run for president in 1904, mayor in 1905 and governor in 1906, announced his independent candidacy. Gaynor found his 30 years' public service meant nothing. Only the World and the New York Press endorsed him. The Times called his nomination "a scandal." Gaynor's opponents called him "a symbol for everything that is indecent and disgusting," "a poor, I will go further and say a bad judge," "a hypocrite," "a learned fraud," "mentally cross-eyed," "incapable of telling the truth." The press said that no campaign had ever been fought on such low terms (then, as now, political reporters had no memories or sense of history).

On Election Day, Gaynor polled 43 percent of the vote; Bannard 30 percent; and Hearst 27 percent. Hearst never forgave him. Of course, Gaynor had said, "Hearst's face almost makes me want to puke."

Gaynor's marriage with Tammany was short-lived because he appointed qualified officials regardless of party ties. Without patronage, Tammany was on a starvation diet. "What do we have for Charlie Murphy?" a colleague once asked. "A few kind words," the Mayor replied.

During lulls in his office routine, Gaynor buzzed for a stenographer, took a basket of letters and began dictating. Most correspondents received such letters as:

Dear Sir:
I thank you very much for your kind and encouraging letter of March 31.
Very truly yours,
W.J. Gaynor,
Mayor

Others received more individual replies: "Dear Sir: I care nothing for common rumor, and I guess you made up the rumor in this case yourself. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor." "Dear Sir: Your letter is at hand and I have read enough of it to see that you are a mere scamp. Nonetheless, I sometimes derive profit from the sayings and doings of scamps. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor." "Dear Madam: I regret to say that I do not know anyone I can recommend to you as a husband. You can doubtless make a better selection than I can, as you know the kind of man you want. Of course, it may be very hard to find him, but no harder for you than for me. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor." "Dear Sir: I am very glad to receive your letter and your poem. The poem is very fine but your advice is very bad. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor." "Dear Sir: No, I do not want a bear. Very truly yours, W.J. Gaynor, Mayor."

In August 1910, Gaynor took a vacation and booked passage for Europe on the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. He was chatting on deck when an unkempt man rushed up behind him, shouted, "You have taken away my bread and butter," put a pistol to the back of Gaynor's neck just below the right ear and fired. The World's photographer just kept snapping pictures. Andy Logan, in Against the Evidence, notes that Charles Chapin, the Evening World's renowned and sadistic editor, rejoiced at the photographs: "Blood all over him, and an exclusive, too!" Then they rushed him to in St. Mary's Hospital in Hoboken, where he remained for two weeks.

James Gallagher, the gunman, had been fired by the Docks Dept. three weeks earlier. When Herbert Bayard Swope, a World reporter, interviewed him in jail, he asked Gallagher which paper he read, expecting it would be either the Journal or the American, the Hearst papers. "The Times," Gallagher replied.

The bullet lodged in the vault of Gaynor's larynx and, on doctors' advice, was not removed. Nonetheless, it brought on frequent fits of exhausting coughing. He became more difficult.

The city's better element had long since decided vice and its companion, police corruption, were New York's great problems. To professional reformers like the Rev. Charles Parkhurst, this meant eradicating prostitution and gambling. Somehow, it also meant rigidly enforcing Sunday closing laws, which meant denying the public any entertainments on their one day off. To Gaynor, Parkhurst and his ilk were self-righteous busybodies. Once, when Gaynor was introduced to William Sheafe Chase, a Sunday law enforcement fanatic who affected the ecclesiastical title of Canon, Gaynor refused his extended hand, saying, "Canon? You're no canon. You're only a popgun."

Gaynor worked hard to reform the police. He stopped warrantless raids. He stopped much police brutality, such as using clubs on children and passersby to clear the streets. However, his police commissioner, Rhinelander Waldo, was clueless. Waldo was a wealthy baby-faced 34-year-old blueblood descended from among the earliest Dutch settlers. A West Point graduate who had fought in the Philippines, Waldo was honest, energetic and enthusiastic, with beautiful manners. That was about it. This is why his three senior deputies were grafters. Indeed, his chief of staff, Winfield Sheehan, was a Sullivanite, one of the three men controlling illegal gambling in the city.

The lieutenant commanding the vice squad, Charles Becker, was a brutal, corrupt thug, a slugger and grafter throughout his career. Upon his appointment, Becker negotiated a protection racket with Bald Jack Rose (a leading gambler and fixer, Rose suffered from alopecia: he had not one strand of hair on his body), who within 10 months had passed Becker roughly $640,000 in graft?about $10 million today.

Becker's fatal error was dealing with Herman Rosenthal, a loud-mouthed Lower East Side gambler. When Becker was forced to raid Rosenthal's place, Rosenthal complained to Swope. On July 14, 1912, Swope's story filled most of the World's first two pages. It focused on Becker and his alleged partnership with Rosenthal in a gambling house. Shortly before 2 a.m. on July 16, 1912, a man stepped into the lobby of the Metropole Hotel and said, "Can you come outside a minute, Herman?" Rosenthal, who had been chatting with acquaintances, stepped through the revolving door into the steamy summer night. Hitmen shot Rosenthal four times at close range?in the neck, in the nose, and twice in the side of the head, killing him very dead.

Becker probably had not known about the hit: other gamblers wanted Rosenthal silenced. Nonetheless, New York County District Attorney Charles S. Whitman had Becker arrested, indicted, convicted and executed for the murder on July 30, 1915.

By then, Gaynor's career was over. Tammany Hall refused to renominate him in 1913. The Republican-Fusionists nominated John Purroy Mitchel, a social climber barely 30 years old. Rejected by all parties, Gaynor ran as an independent. In a massive demonstration and parade at City Hall, he picked up a shovel and said he would "shovel all these grafters into the ground."

On Sept. 4, 1913, an exhausted Gaynor left for a brief vacation in Europe. Eight days later, as RMS Baltic approached Ireland, Gaynor's son walked up to his father, who was reclining in a deck chair, bent down and realized death had preceded him. On Sept. 20, Gaynor's body lay in state on a bier in the City Hall rotunda, where Lincoln's body had lain nearly 50 years before. At 8 a.m., the doors were opened. Five hundred people were waiting to pay their respects. By 9 a.m., 15,000 people stood in a line two miles long to honor the mayor who, whether right or wrong, had always been on their side. All day, the people filed past him. At midnight, when the doors were closed, 20,000 were still in line. The next morning, more than 100,000 people lined Broadway as a horse-drawn caisson bore the coffin down Broadway to Trinity Church.

His official portrait in City Hall is hidden behind the door to Room 9, the Press Room.





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