Skip to comments.Carmine De Sapio, Kingmaker and Last Tammany Boss, Dies (Party of Corruption Mourns Guiding Light)
Posted on 07/28/2004 6:03:53 AM PDT by OESY
Carmine De Sapio, Political Kingmaker and Last Tammany Hall Boss, Dies at 95 [Yes, He Was A Democrat]
Carmine G. De Sapio, the last boss of Tammany Hall, as the once-notorious Manhattan Democratic Party organization was known, died late yesterday afternoon at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan, said his daughter, Geraldine A. De Sapio. He was 95 and lived in Greenwich Village.
At his apogee in the 1950's, Mr. De Sapio was credited with handpicking Robert F. Wagner Jr. as mayor of New York City and W. Averell Harriman as governor of New York State. Pundits in Washington asserted that the Tammany boss had the muscle to name the Democratic candidate for president. Time magazine put Mr. De Sapio on its cover as a national political force to be feared and admired. And at fund-raising dinners, favor-seekers would push past Governor Harriman and Mayor Wagner to shake the hand of Mr. De Sapio, whom they viewed as the most powerful politician in the room.
But a decade later, Mr. De Sapio's career and reputation were in tatters. Denounced as corrupt and authoritarian, he was abandoned by onetime allies and defeated in his own Greenwich Village election district by reform-minded Democrats who had recently moved into the neighborhood. Then in 1969, Mr. De Sapio was convicted of petty bribery and was later sent to prison.
It was a devastating plunge for a man who had reached the pinnacle of city political leadership by promising an end to old-fashioned machine politics. Tall, immaculately dressed and coiffed, courteous and smooth-talking, Mr. De Sapio offered himself as the antithesis of Tammany Hall predecessors such as William M. Tweed, the infamous 19th-century Democratic Party leader who died in prison serving a sentence for corruption.
Mr. De Sapio sought to end Tammany's image of smoke-filled back rooms where major political decisions were made hidden from public view. (In fact, a chronic eye disease forced him to avoid tobacco smoke and made him so sensitive to light that he always wore dark glasses - which created the very gangsterlike stereotype he was trying to dispel.)
Rather than evading public scrutiny, Mr. De Sapio reveled in the limelight, attending charitable fund-raising events, making himself available to the press and delivering speeches in highbrow venues that were thought off limits to political bosses.
"I am the leader of Tammany Hall," he once declared before astonished students at Harvard Law School, according to the 1967 book "Tigers of Tammany," by Alfred Connable and Edward Silberfarb. "I bear this title with gratitude and pride. I am proud of the tradition, the heritage, the record of Tammany Hall." Tammany Hall is named for a Delaware Indian chief, Tamanend, who is said to have welcomed William Penn and to have signed the Treaty of Shakamaxon with him.
Credentials as a Liberal
Mr. De Sapio burnished his liberal credentials by naming the first Puerto Rican district leader in Manhattan, Anthony Mendez, and by backing Hulan Jack as Manhattan's first African-American borough president. He came out in favor of progressive legislation such as the Fair Employment Practices Law put forth by President Harry S. Truman. He also endorsed rent control and lowering the voting age to 18.
But throughout his political life, Mr. De Sapio was dogged by charges that he courted or tolerated organized crime overlords and that he himself was tainted by corruption. In 1951, a United States Senate committee headed by Estes Kefauver, the Tennessee Democrat, concluded that the influence of a mob chieftain, Frank Costello, "continues strong in the councils of the Democratic Party of New York County" - in other words, at Mr. De Sapio's Tammany Hall.
Mr. De Sapio was accused of staffing New York City's government with clubhouse hacks. He followed the Tammany custom of selling judicial nominations - though he did cut the fee that would-be judges were required to pay. He steered valuable city contracts for streetlights and parking meters to the Broadway Maintenance Corporation, a company that according to the State Investigation Commission cheated taxpayers out of millions of dollars.
The turning point in Mr. De Sapio's reign came in 1958, when he foisted his own candidate for the Senate, District Attorney Frank Hogan of Manhattan, on reluctant Democratic leaders, including Harriman and Wagner. Many New Yorkers saw this move as a raw display of old-time political bossism, and in a backlash, they voted into office a Republican senator, Kenneth B. Keating, and a Republican governor, Nelson A. Rockefeller.
Democrats who once praised Mr. De Sapio now found it expedient to excoriate him. In 1961, Mr. Wagner won re-election by running a reformist campaign that denounced his former patron, Mr. De Sapio, as an undemocratic practitioner of Tammany machine politics.
The same year, Mr. De Sapio lost the district leadership of his native Greenwich Village, a post he had held for two decades, to an upstart reform Democrat, James Lanigan, who was backed by nationally known liberal Democrats such as Eleanor Roosevelt and former Senator Herbert H. Lehman. Mr. De Sapio was then defeated twice more as Greenwich Village district leader by another reform candidate, Edward I. Koch, who would later go on to become mayor.
Mr. De Sapio, the onetime kingpin of New York politics, reached his nadir in 1969, when he was convicted in Federal Court of conspiracy to bribe the former New York City water commissioner, James L. Marcus, and extort contracts from Consolidated Edison that would result in kickbacks. In 1971, he began serving a two-year prison term.
But even afterward, Mr. De Sapio continued to be viewed with sympathy by Democratic Party stalwarts. "He is a crook, but I like him," wrote Edward Koch in his 1992 book, "Citizen Koch." "Most politicians still like De Sapio. He always gets the most applause when he is introduced at Democratic dinners." Old political associates continued to pay their respects to Mr. De Sapio at the same Greenwich Village apartment where he lived for almost a half-century.
A Life in Lower Manhattan
Carmine Gerard De Sapio was born just a few blocks south of that apartment on Dec. 10, 1908. His mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, and his Italian-born father ran a fleet of horse-drawn trucks. In the predawn hours before attending parochial school, Carmine would load the drays at the docks on the Hudson River and then return the horses to the stables.
After school, he would help his parents with their business accounts. Then, he would hang around the Huron Club, Tammany's outpost and bar in Greenwich Village. "My most vivid memory is that long line of people - women and children, everybody standing all the way down the block from the Huron Club, waiting for baskets of turkey at Christmastime," Mr. De Sapio is quoted as saying in "Tigers of Tammany."
In those years before social welfare programs, Tammany was known for faithfully taking care of its loyalists, many of them recent immigrants and their families. Besides arranging for free turkeys and coal in winter and free blocks of ice in summer, Tammany brokered profitable city contracts for business associates and secured rank-and-file patronage posts for its blue-collar supporters.
In return, Tammany expected a heavy turnout for its handpicked candidates. Mr. De Sapio himself first rose through the Tammany ranks by being a messenger boy for political captains and ensuring that the most politically deserving, needy families received their food baskets promptly. "To put it simply, in those days we had leadership, respect, discipline," Mr. De Sapio said in a 1997 New York Times article. "There was such a thing as party loyalty."
But Mr. De Sapio's sense of party loyalty was severely tested early in his political career. In 1939, he won his district leadership by 51 votes, but Tammany - still dominated by Irish-American politicians - refused to recognize the election of an ethnic Italian candidate. Two years later, Mr. De Sapio ran again and was defeated but claimed fraud. In 1943, though, he easily won the district.
In 1949, he became the youngest Tammany boss in history. By then, Tammany had undergone a demographic shift, reflecting the more numerous Italian-American rank-and-file. Unfortunately, underworld figures like Frank Costello were also making their presence increasingly felt in Tammany Hall, seeking the same protection from police raids for their gambling, prostitution and other rackets that Irish and Jewish gangsters had received in previous years.
"In every instance in which Costello made his desires known to the Hall, Carmine voted to go along," wrote Oliver E. Allen in his 1993 book, "The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall."
In reply to questions by journalists, Mr. De Sapio admitted to having met Mr. Costello a number of times but insisted that politics was never discussed. He was seen with Mr. Costello at a fund-raising dinner for the Salvation Army at the Copacabana club in 1949.
"I have no apologies to make for that," Mr. De Sapio told a New York Times reporter afterward. "It was for a good cause. I attend many dinners." Asked if Mr. Costello had any influence in Tammany Hall, Mr. De Sapio snapped back: "Decidedly not." But two years later, the United States Senate committee headed by Mr. Kefauver and investigating organized crime called Mr. Costello as its star witness. The gangster admitted he knew many Democratic district leaders in New York - including Mr. De Sapio, whom he called a friend - and acknowledged often doing favors for them.
The adverse publicity did not stop Mr. De Sapio's rapid political rise. In 1953, he bucked other Democratic Party leaders in New York City by supporting Mr. Wagner against the incumbent mayor, Vincent R. Impellitteri, in the primary election.
Mr. Wagner was thought to be a long shot. But Mr. De Sapio had conducted a rudimentary poll of registered Democrats by sending them postcards in which they were asked if they favored Mr. Impellitteri's re-election. The 40,000-plus responses ran 5 to 1 against the mayor. Wagner went on to win the primary and then the election. Mr. De Sapio, his only patron among the city's political bosses, became recognized as a major powerbroker.
Dissuaded Roosevelt Son
Mr. De Sapio's clout grew even more in 1954 when he persuaded Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., the eldest son and namesake of the late president, to abandon his run for governor of New York and instead campaign for attorney general. Mr. De Sapio then got the Democratic Party to accept Mr. Harriman, a former investment banker and diplomat, as candidate for governor.
Mr. Harriman squeaked out a victory, while Mr. Roosevelt was defeated in his own bid for attorney general. Eleanor Roosevelt never forgave Mr. De Sapio for derailing her son's political career. "I told Carmine I would get him for what he did to Franklin," Mrs. Roosevelt told Murray Kempton, who published her remarks many years later in 1991 when he was a columnist for Newsday. "And get him I did."
But that would come more than a decade afterward. In the meantime, Mr. De Sapio was sitting at the top of the political world after engineering within one year the elections of the mayor and governor of the country's largest city and state (California had not yet overtaken New York in population).
In New York, he extended his power beyond Manhattan by installing loyalists as the political bosses of the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. Democrats with national political ambitions courted him. In 1955, Adlai Stevenson, who had been defeated in the presidential race three years earlier by Dwight D. Eisenhower, asserted, "If it were my ambition to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, I would welcome the support of Carmine De Sapio and Tammany Hall."
A year later, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, the national political columnists, wrote that Mr. De Sapio "could name the next president." In 1956, also, Time put Mr. De Sapio on its cover, asserting he had "the worldly and weighted mien of a Medici," the Florentine family of princes during the Italian Renaissance.
Dark Suits and Striped Ties
Mr. De Sapio had apparently succeeded in shucking Tammany's notoriety and fashioning himself as a sophisticated, enlightened and modern political boss. He favored well-tailored, dark suits and striped ties. He always looked as if he had just stepped out of a barber's chair. The only incongruity was the dark glasses he was forced to always wear because of chronic iritis.
But his diction was perfect, and his political message reassuring. "You're living in the past if you think you can still force the public to swallow any candidate you nominate," he told Life magazine in 1955. "This is a new day and we need a new formula. We have to offer the public what it wants - a slate of reputable officials who will give them good government and after they're in office we'll follow through to see that the people get what we promised them."
Mr. De Sapio became a star attraction as a public speaker. In 1955, the Israel Bond Organization honored him with its distinguished leadership award. He was often asked to address the Elks and the Knights of Columbus, and became a member of both groups. He lectured on politics at colleges throughout the Northeast. In one celebrated incident in 1956, Mr. De Sapio was booked for an appearance at New York University, but the date fell on Yom Kippur eve, the holiest of Jewish holidays, and his speechwriter, Sydney Baron, was in a panic because he feared few students would show up. In fact, the university auditorium was packed with seemingly attentive students and professors, much to Mr. De Sapio's delight.
The audience, however, consisted almost entirely of sanitation workers, who had been given college-style crew cuts and tweed jackets. They had been secretly recruited at the last moment by De Sapio lieutenants who were anxious not to disappoint the Tammany boss.
At the height of his power between 1954 and 1958, Mr. De Sapio had accrued a half-dozen political posts, of which the highest-ranking was secretary of state to Governor Harriman. He operated out of four offices, including a lavish suite in the State Office Building in New York City, the Secretary of State's office in Albany, the National Committeeman's office in the Biltmore Hotel, and Tammany Hall's modern suite on Madison Avenue. But he continued to reside in a middle-class apartment on Washington Square with his wife, Theresa Natale, whom he had married in 1937, and their only child, Geraldine. Mother and daughter worked as unpaid aides and political confidants of Mr. De Sapio, whose modest lifestyle earned him the nickname "the bishop." Mrs. De Sapio died in 1998, and besides his daughter, there are no immediate survivors. This image of austerity was tested in 1957 when a taxi driver who had just dropped Mr. De Sapio off at the Biltmore Hotel found an envelope containing $11,200 in $100 bills in his back seat. The cabbie got to keep the money after Mr. De Sapio denied it belonged to him. But public incredulity at the Tammany boss's statement was reflected by an ironic editorial in The Herald Tribune which noted: "It's a wonderful city, New York, where people have so much money they can absent-mindedly leave packages of hundred-dollar bills in taxicabs."
In wielding his enormous political clout, Mr. De Sapio usually preferred extensive consultations and consensus-building to unilateral decision-making. His 16-to-18-hour workday began with pre-breakfast phone calls at home, where still dressed in pajamas and bathrobe, he received a stream of political associates. Mr. De Sapio would then visit his various offices for further meetings, and cram in a half-dozen public functions, including radio and television appearances and a late-night political dinner.
He was notorious for his attention to detail. For example, he insisted on personally reviewing the seating arrangements for the annual New York County Democratic fund-raising dinner attended by more than 2,000 guests. That way every person knew how the Tammany boss rated his or her current political standing.
Up for his third term in 1961, Mayor Wagner denounced Tammany as autocratic and corrupt, and easily defeated Arthur Levitt, Mr. De Sapio's handpicked candidate. Then, with Mrs. Roosevelt fulfilling her vow to take revenge against the Tammany boss and rallying reform-minded Democrats, Mr. De Sapio lost three successive elections for his district leadership post in Greenwich Village in 1961, 1963 and 1965.
Whatever slim hopes Mr. De Sapio had of staging a political comeback were dashed by his bribery conviction in 1969 and his subsequent two-year prison term.
Nearing the end of his life, Mr. De Sapio exhibited little nostalgia for politics or rancor for his foes. The walls of his sunny, comfortable Washington Square apartment were bereft of photographs or plaques from his political heyday. He occasionally ran into his old enemy, Mr. Koch, who lived only a block away.
"We are very pleasant when we meet," Mr. De Sapio said about the former mayor in a 1997 New York Times article. "He was a hard worker and he tried to do a good job."
But in the same interview, Mr. De Sapio lamented the decline of his party in post-Tammany days. Asked why he thought so, he pointed to the election of Rudolph W. Giuliani. "You have a Republican mayor in a Democratic city," Mr. De Sapio said. 'That should give you the answer."
Mr. De Sapio discussed his situation after he was indicted
on perjury charges in 1976. He served a prison term
for bribery in an earlier case.
I bet he'll still vote though...
Today's corrupt politicians are much more subtle.
Wasn't Jimmy Walker actually Tammany Hall's swan song? The Establishment didn't love him even in December.
Tammany Hall was the key New York political force for a century and a half. It's a sad comment on politics today that we look back on it with nostalgia.
Mostly just a ping to myself. :')
Democratic Debacle (1964 convention, repercussions today)
Yep..in NY, Chicago and Philly...
The mayor in "Animal House" was named Carmine De Sapio
I was going to post it under "Announcements". I heard all those names growing up.
Let me know if you want on or off my NY ping list.
I wonder if his old rival Ed Koch will go to the funeral.
Actually, the Mayor of Faber's name was Carmine De Pasto.
Ask me if I give a sh*t.
I'm nostalgic. I'm nostalgic for the days when District Leader positions meant something, so much that Eleanor Roosevelt got into the act in the Greenwich Village race between De Sapio and Koch.
The passing of the society of St. Tammany deserves a toast.