Al Smith and the Fall of Tammany Hall
Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2002-2013, All Rights Reserved)
Thus, on January 2, 1933, at the start of the political year, a rejuvenated Smith seemed ready to do battle for his program and his city. Indeed, although Smith was photographed leaving for Albany with Tammany boss John Curry to attend the gubernatorial inauguration of Herbert Lehman, the New York Times noted that "it was admitted in political circles. . .that the truce between the former Governor and the present leader of Tammany was yet to be tested, and that the tests most likely would come over charter revision proposals and Mr. Smith's own plans regarding the Mayoralty in the 1933 election." Indeed, the paper soon expected "a further declaration by Mr. Smith of his independence" in the guise of further outspoken support for his charter proposals.54
Alas, just as Smith was preparing for battle in the next legislative session, tragedy struck. On January 2, 1933, Belle Moskowitz passed away from complications following a bad fall that had occurred a month previously. Hearing the news while attending Lehman's inauguration, Smith was visibly devastated by the death of his "most devoted and loyal friend, " a woman whom he claimed "had the greatest brain of anybody I ever knew."55 According to the Times, Smith "gulped and stammered when he was told the news and was so overcome with emotion that he would make no comment."56 The next day, Smith, whose "manner showed the depth of his sorrow at the passing of one who was credited with having played a leading part in his rise," was still "overcome with grief" and "almost speechless."57
Coming so recently on the heels of his ignominious primary defeat, Smith was ill-equipped to deal with this tragedy. As Molly Dewson, a friend to both Smith and Moskowitz, wrote in her private diary, "[Belle], we realized after her death, had been Al Smith's tutor and mentor to an extraordinary degree . . . My favorite metaphor for the pair has always been: Mrs. Moskowitz was Al Smith's tent pole."58
The New York papers also commented on the close affinity between Moskowitz and Smith, and the potential political implications her passing would have on Smith's reform plan. As the Evening Post noted on the day after Moskowitz's death, Smith "is [now] the most important uncertainty in the impending fight over charter revision. If he will become a candidate for the Mayoralty nomination. . .it is believed that, with the help of Mr. Roosevelt and Governor Lehman, the present Tammany leadership will be doomed." But, the paper continued, "[u]nless Smith is willing to take an active and aggressive role it is doubted that Governor Lehman and many lesser anti-Curry leaders in the party will go very far toward interfering in the city situation . . .As [the death of Moskowitz] deprived Alfred E. Smith of his most trusted and skilled adviser, there was inevitably speculation tonight as to whether or not it will alter his own political plans. A reformer herself, Mrs. Moskowitz was viewed as a powerful influence in drawing Mr. Smith into the movement for charter revision."59
The Post was right to question Smith's commitment to the plan in the wake of Moskowitz's death. For, without his beloved tent pole, Smith collapsed once again into despair. The ebullience that had marked his public statements only a week before, when he had declared that life began anew at fifty, now seemed another world away. The Happy Warrior disappeared from public view at the very moment when his charter reform plan needed him most, and he spent much of 1933 in the grim seclusion that had characterized the fall of 1932.
Sensing Smith's withdrawal and knowing full well the implications it would have on charter reform, Governor Lehman attempted to entice Smith out of his funk in mid-January by offering to appoint him to the head of New York's new Liquor Control Commission, which would set up the laws for and "lead the nation" into the post-Prohibition era. For Smith, it should have been the capstone and vindication of his years as the nation's most prominent Wet. But the man who believed he lost the 1928 election because of Prohibition, and who had spent October of 1932 re-fighting the battle against Prohibition on the Roosevelt campaign trail, turned down the honor because of "personal affairs."60
Whatever these personal affairs were, they did not include defense of the charter reform bill. As the Post had predicted, without Smith's aggressive support keeping the iron to the fire, the charter revision was soon squelched by Tammany's minions in Albany. Despite the pleas of Judge Samuel Seabury and Governor Herbert Lehman, twenty-six Democratic senators, comprised "of Tammany and its up-state allies" according to the Times, "joined in a solid phalanx to kill the measure" in committee on April 8, 1933.61
In spite of the failure of charter reform, however, the calls for Smith to run for the mayoralty continued. Indeed, important voices all across the city were suggesting -- nay, demanding -- that Smith come out of retirement and take the reins of the city. As noted earlier, Fiorello La Guardia attempted to draft Smith as the mayoral candidate for the Fusion party in May of 1933, believing him to be the best hope for dismantling Tammany.62 Similarly, Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, tried to draft Smith as the Republican candidate for mayor. "Here is a crisis. Why not make the election of the Mayor unanimous?" argued Butler. "We do not care whether he is a sachem of Tammany or not; we would like to join the rest of you in voting Governor Smith for Mayor. There's a man whom Tammany would not dare oppose. Nobody else is so well qualified. Nobody else has the same grasp on these particular problems. If I could have a chance to vote for Governor Smith, I should like to do so."63
And elites weren't the only ones clamoring for Smith to return to form. A poll conducted in February of 1933 by the Women's City Club and the City Club of New York (ostensibly to build support for proportional representation as a key facet of charter reform) had Smith winning the mayoralty handily over seventeen other candidates.64 Cards and posters reading "Draft Smith for Mayor" began appearing all over the city.65 And letters appeared in New York papers conveying the same sentiment, such as the man who wrote the Times in May, "Although I am well aware of the needs that push the former Governor to give his time to his private business, I think it is the duty of the city to draft him, and I do not believe he will accept the mayoralty unless he is obviously drafted."66
Even amid these cries, however, a disconsolate Smith no longer wanted the job. Gone was the coyness that marked his mayoral stance in December of 1932. After the entreaties of La Guardia and Butler, the once-happy warrior issued a statement from the Empire State Building to definitively turn down the position. "I am not a candidate for the Mayoralty," said Smith. "There is no compulsion or persuasion that can affect my decision. It is final."67 The window of possibility for a political and emotional renewal, open so tantalizingly and so briefly to Al Smith in the last month of 1932, had now clearly closed for good.
Return to Part II.
54. New York Times, 2 January, 1933, 20.
55. Slayton, 377. Christopher M. Finan, Alfred E. Smith -- The Happy Warrior (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 299.
56. New York Times, 3 January, 1933, 24
57. New York Times, 4 January, 1933, 19. Smith did manage to convey his grief to some extent in a telegram to the bereaved: "I cannot find words to express my deep sense of loss and my sympathy to you and to the family. In her death the world has lost one of its finest women."
58. Perry, 184.
59. New York Evening Post, 3 January, 1933, 1.
60. New York Herald-Tribune, 15 January, 1932, 1.
61. New York Times, 9 April, 1933, 18.
62. And knowing full well that Smith would not break ranks to join the Fusion party. New York Times, 11 May, 1933, 1
63. New York Times, 12 May, 1933, 3.
64. New York Times, 17 February, 1933, 5.
65. New York Times, 12 May 1933, 3.
66. New York Times, 5 May, 1933, 14.
67. New York Times, 15 May, 1933, 1. Despite the failure of the Draft Smith movement, many reformers were pleased that Smith wasn't going to be Tammany's candidate either. As Fusion spokesman Maurice Davidson put it, "Alfred E. Smith has refused to pull Tammany Hall's chestnuts out of the fire. . . Mr. Smith's refusal to run for Mayor removes any doubt about his heading the Tammany ticket and confusing the issues."