From The Blog

Nick von Hoffman: a “Garrulous Old Man” Tells His Story

One of the challenges for researching my topic — the 1954 New York gubernatorial race — is that many of the main players are dead. Justin...

One of the challenges for researching my topic — the 1954 New York gubernatorial race — is that many of the main players are dead. Justin Feldman’s oral history has been an immensely valuable resource, an almost Nick Carraway-esque first-hand account from a man who was often a fly on the wall for a number of behind-the-scenes moments that took place before, during, and after the 1954 campaign. Nonetheless, reading through Feldman’s 300-page oral history left me with a number of questions, and I thought he would be an ideal interview. I was disappointed to discover he had passed away in 2011.

However his wife, I noticed, was still alive. Her name was Linda Fairstein. A quick Google search revealed that she was the infamous lead prosecutor of the Central Park jogger case (and the woman who coerced confessions out of the five suspects). Now she’s crime novelist. I wanted to ask if she had ever met FDR Jr., or if her husband had ever told her stories about FDR Jr., or about his time spent as FDR Jr.’s aide. Unable to find a phone number, I e-mailed her and even messaged her on Twitter. Unfortunately, I never heard back.

Stuck, I asked one of my professors if she knew of anyone who was still alive from the era, someone who might be a good interviewee. She suggested that I speak with one of her friends, Nick von Hoffman, who was born in 1929, and grew up in the Village. I thought he could potentially give me insight into the world that De Sapio came from — the neighborhood that informed his world-view, and taught him his first lessons in politics. Von Hoffman would go on to become a respected political reporter for the Chicago Daily News, and though he didn’t specifically cover the 1954 race, I wanted to hear what his impressions were of Tammany, of its leader, Carmine De Sapio, of the Roosevelts, and of Cardinal Spellman.

My professor sent me von Hoffman’s contact information, I reached out him, and he readily agreed.

“I warn you,” he wrote, “nothing is more tiresome than a garrulous old man.”

Perfect, I thought; in my reply I assured him that he was exactly what I needed.

Unfortunately von Hoffman was going to be in Maine for a few weeks, so he couldn’t do an in-person interview. I decided to conduct the interview over speakerphone and use a tape recorder to record the interview. I had a friend call me ahead of time to test out this system, and it seemed to work well: both his and my voice came in clear on the recording.

Before the interview, I jotted down some brief notes of things I wanted to cover: Tammany’s presence in the neighborhood, anecdotes of growing up in the Village, what his friends and neighbors were like, etc. And then, I wanted his impressions from when he was older — from the point of view of his time as a national political reporter — of the various players involved in the drama, to the extent that he could give them. All told, we spoke for about an hour-and-a-half. We covered mainly the Village of the 1930s and 1940s — the politics, the people, the conflicts, the collective consciousness. I had to wrap things up (sooner than I wanted to) because I needed to head to class, but he agreed to do a follow-up interview at my convenience so we could continue our conversation.

After class, I plugged my headphones into the tape recorder to listen to the interview. I was glad that von Hoffman’s voice came in audibly, and I cringed upon hearing my own voice (I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to hearing myself on tape). The beginning of the interview sounds awkward — it’s clear that I’m a bit anxious and I interrupt von Hoffman far too often. Thankfully, as the interview progresses, the conversation becomes more natural, and I pretty much let him do the talking, engaging with him only if something wasn’t clear to me. Occasionally I steer the conversation away from a topic (at one point he starts talking about baseball — his obsession with the New York Giants — and the baseball fan in me was fascinated, before I realized we were getting a bit off track), or ask him to elaborate upon something touched on earlier in the interview. But these interruptions don’t sound as forced as they do at the beginning of the interview.

I found the interview both illustrative and insightful. He provided numerous anecdotes of the era — details, flair and flavor — from the “old women propping their elbows on pillows in the windowsill” to various specialty stores that sold baguettes and Greek yogurt. He recounted the popularity of Tammany boss Jimmy Walker (“my mother adored him”), along with De Sapio’s early campaigns for district leader in the 1930s. He also explained importance of religion — specifically, Catholicism — in everyday life. Von Hoffman’s mother wasn’t a Catholic; she was a Bohemian, a part of the artists’ community that was a smaller sect within the neighborhood, which was primarily Irish and Italian. So while von Hoffman was a part of the neighborhood (“I never felt not accepted”), in many ways, he wasn’t; for example, he had no Catholic friends growing up.

“I didn’t know any Catholics, because I wasn’t a Catholic,” he said.

The Catholics went to their own church, went to their own schools, and rarely interacted with anyone outside of their own community.

“At that time in New York, in the Catholic world,” von Hoffman explained, “the psychological geography of the city was parish boundaries. You talked about — ‘I’m going to Holy Angel…I’m going over to Ignatius’ — these were parish boundaries. Everyone knew them.”