Empires Will Fall

By Nicholas Lehr

The three main characters in this book — Tammany boss Carmine De Sapio, Congressman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., and Cardinal Francis Spellman — represent three “institutions” within the post-war Democratic Party: Tammany Hall (urban, patronage-based, machine politics), the Roosevelts (liberalism), and the Catholic Church (conservative elements within the party, oriented toward anti-unionism, anti-communism, and family values). 

The beginning chapters establish each character, and how the events of his life — his childhood, his parents, and his personality — inform his particular brand of politics. We also learn how each reaches his respective position of power. 

Then the characters begin to converge: we start to see them in action, interacting with one another. Prior to the start of his 1954 New York gubernatorial campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. meets with Carmine De Sapio to discuss strategy. De Sapio correctly argues that upstate Democratic county bosses have long loathed candidates foisted on them by city leaders, that Roosevelt, Jr. ought to distance himself from the city’s machinery and focus his efforts on courting their favor; meanwhile, Roosevelt, Jr. incorrectly assumes that, in following De Sapio’s orders, he will instantly ingratiate himself to the Tammany boss. We also learn of the importance of the Catholic bloc of voters within the Democratic Party, and the immense power that Cardinal Spellman wields; previous chapters will have detailed Spellman’s feud with Franklin Jr.’s mother, Eleanor.  

The following section, told from the point of view of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.’s 1954 gubernatorial campaign, describes the fissures that begin to between among the three characters and the empires within the party that they represent. There are premonitions of trouble during the early months of the campaign — from Franklin Jr.’s avoidance of “insider events” (which will later lead to the fear among party leaders that he is “too independent”), to the lingering wariness of Catholic voters towards the Roosevelt family. Yet Franklin Jr. believes himself destined to secure the nomination. 

It sets up all that will fall apart towards the end of the summer, into the fall.


Chapter 6: Too Young To Be Disappointed

On the evening of Saturday, March 6, 1954, New York’s media and political elite converged in the Grand Ballroom of Times Square’s luxurious Astor Hotel for the Inner Circle’s annual roast. The Inner Circle, a parody group comprised of the state’s veteran political reporters, had titled this year’s lampoon “Junior Frolics,” the name of a popular children’s television program — and a pointed jab at the two “Juniors” considered rising stars within the Democratic party: newly-minted New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. — the son of former New York Senator Robert F. Wagner — and Congressman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., who represented Manhattan’s West Side and was now running for governor.

In line with the evening’s theme, the first song was a duet, with the Long Island Star-Journal’s Thomas Finnegan playing Wagner, and the Associated Press’s Walter T. Brown assuming the role of Roosevelt.

Finnegan began:

Please don’t call me Junior

I’m a big boy now

Want to be a statesman

And I’m learning how

Roosevelt might drop Junior

Just to be top rank

If I let you call me Junior

I’d be less than Frank

Brown (as Roosevelt) countered:

I don’t know the tune

You’re trying to sing to me,

But I’ll tell you, Junior

I do not agree

Though you are the mayor

You won’t go too far

Because New York’s next governor

Will be F.D.R.[i]

The crowd of 1,100 included Mayor Wagner, Republican Governor Tom Dewey, Tammany Hall boss Carmine De Sapio, Democratic State Chairman Richard Balch, and Republican Secretary of State Thomas Curren.[ii] Yet one of the evening’s “stars” was notably absent. As attendees dined on celery hearts, petite marmite croute au pot, potato fondante, and filet mignon — as Mayor Wagner serenaded the crowd with “Wonderful New York City,” sung to the tune of “Wonderful Copenhagen” (“Wonderful, wonderful city payroll / Patronage, jobs for us all / We’re the guys on top / Since the Impy flop / Running New York City”[iii][iv]) — Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. was motoring towards Rochester after a packed day of campaigning, where he had lunched with Democratic activists at the Benham Hotel in the village of Penn Yan, before dining with Ontario County boss Fred Rigney in Canandaigua.[v]

Avoiding the Junior Frolics — skirting the ultimate insiders’ event — fit Roosevelt’s campaign strategy: with De Sapio’s blessing, he had decided to focus on garnering support upstate and distancing himself from New York City’s political machinery. More pressing, however, was a scandal that had arisen in the Roosevelt family — not in New York, but 3,000 miles away, in California, where Franklin’s brother James was running for Congress. All of a sudden, Franklin Jr. found himself needing to make himself visible and available to as many upstate leaders as possible.

James Roosevelt’s second marriage had recently ended in divorce, and at the beginning of February, his ex-wife, a Catholic named Romelle Schneider, had leaked a letter to the press that James had written her.[vi] In the letter, James had confessed to having had affairs with nine women during their marriage, and by late February the New York Times was wondering how it would affect Franklin Jr.’s candidacy:

“The consensus is that Mr. Roosevelt’s chance for the nomination has been reduced…[Democratic] Leaders holding this view point out that [Franklin], like his brother, has been divorced and insist that many members of religious organizations — even those who usually vote the Democratic ticket — would not vote for him. Mentioned as possible alternative Democratic candidates for Governor are Averell Harriman, former Director for Mutual Security…” Though the Junior Frolics would proclaim “New York’s next governor / Will be F.D.R.,” cracks had sprouted in Franklin Jr.’s seemingly predestined path to the nomination.

Publicly Franklin Jr.’s campaign did its best to downplay James’ scandal. Privately Franklin Jr. was frantic; two days after the news broke, Franklin had penned a letter to his brother Elliott.

“Jimmy,” he wrote, “needs to settle this immediately” and “must withdraw completely from politics.”[vii] In a letter written to James on the same day, Franklin Jr. told his humiliated brother flat-out that he ought to drop out and work on reestablishing his reputation before mounting a campaign, concluding, “chances for political office always come to those who are eminently qualified rather than to those who desperately seek.”[viii]

His distress was warranted. Reports emerging from Lou Harris, one of Franklin Jr.’s chief advisers, indicated that Franklin Jr.’s stock was falling in the very upstate counties he had targeted for securing the nomination. Throughout the month of February, Harris had gone on an upstate tour, sending out feelers and meeting with Democratic county chairs to gauge their level of support. Harris returned to Manhattan with pages of notes outlining the issues important to each of the county bosses — unemployment in the counties where defense factories were closing, the condition of the roads in areas dependent upon tourism, and, in farming regions, Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson’s cut in the federal price support of milk, which was wreaking havoc on the dairy industry.

Yet regardless of the county Harris visited, one consistent and alarming theme emerged: Catholics — especially women — were appalled by the family’s most recent scandal.

Harris reported that in Franklin County, a conservative area at the northernmost part of the state populated by potato and dairy farmers, Democratic committee members had informed him that “their women were particularly against Franklin because he had an unfortunate reputation for being too ambitious and being like his brother Jimmy.” In Saranac Lake, Mrs. Joseph Stevens, the wife of a Democratic activist, told Harris, “the Roosevelt boys are using their father’s name and have tarnished it.” And in Malone, much closer to Montreal than to Manhattan, Harris said, “women were so hostile on account of the Jimmy affair that they were not sure anyone in the County could be for him.” Meanwhile, in Rensselaer County, next to the state capital of Albany, Chair John Purcell admitted to Harris that the city of “Troy is over 75% Irish Catholic and that [Franklin] would have some trouble among a number of the women…the Jimmy thing had hurt…”[ix]

Roosevelt, Jr., it seemed, could be in trouble, and he needed to mend bridges — fast. However, he had two things working in his favor: First, even though female voters were upset, all county bosses, along with the majority of delegates to the convention, were men; and second, Roosevelt, Jr. could easily ingratiate himself to the county bosses by simply showing up in their districts and wooing them personally. In other words, it was the county bosses — not female voters — who mattered.

To explain the nomination process: each county in the state of New York sent a certain number of delegates to the party’s convention; each county had a chair (or “boss”) who usually had enough sway among his or her delegation to control how the entire bloc would vote (as one article put it, “Delegates to a New York Democratic nominating convention are permitted to exercise about as much independence of judgment as so many sheep”[x]). So from Team Roosevelt’s point of view, its job, leading up to the convention in September, was to secure the endorsements from the county chairs (the “sheepherders”). Much of this was done behind closed doors, but it also meant making the requisite appearances at county political functions, ranging from fundraisers, to dinners, to clambakes.

The flipside, though, was that the New York City county bosses controlled 512 delegates of the 1,018 delegates statewide.[xi] In 1954, New York, at 14.8 million people, was the most populous state in the country. It was economically diverse, with industrial cities like Buffalo and Troy interspersed among vast stretches of sparsely populated farmland; yet its power was concentrated in the south, in New York City — with 7.9 million residents, the most populous city in the country, and, in the post-war era, considered by some to be the most important city on Earth.

“New York is not a capital city,” E.B. White wrote in 1949. “It is not a national capital, or a state capital, but is by way of becoming the capital of the world.”[xii]

No matter how much support Roosevelt garnered upstate, it would be the county bosses of New York City who would have the final say.

Nevertheless, since Franklin Jr. considered the New York City county leaders to already be on his side, the strategy made perfect sense: the upstate bosses were itching for attention, and Harris reported as much. During Harris’ February trip, Owego County Chair Dave Relihan told him “the upstate counties are always neglected and ignored by the Party in the City, by the State headquarters and by past Democratic Governors.” When he met with activist Walter Newell at Newell’s farm in Plattsburgh, near the Vermont border, Newell “first spent one hour telling me how the State Committee and former Democratic Governors had neglected the Party in Clinton County… then he said he wanted Franklin to give him a pledge that any son-of-a-bitch who gets a job in Clinton County will have to get it through Walter Newell.”

Meanwhile, Harris relayed that Schenectady County Chair Owen Begley “is very bitter at the neglect of the upstate Democratic organization both by past Democratic governors and by the State Committee… He wants some definitive assurances from Franklin that the Party in the upstate counties will not be neglected if he is elected.”[xiii]

Thus Roosevelt Jr.’s March trip commenced four straight months of upstate stumping. Forced to juggle his congressional duties in Washington with his campaign, he spent the spring working at a delirious pace. As his congressional aide Justin Feldman would recall, “It was backbreaking… We would fly out of Buffalo at 11 o’clock in the morning to get to a 1 o’clock quorum in Washington and back to Rochester for a 4 o’clock meeting, then to Washington again, then to Syracuse in a single day or in a two-day period….”[xiv]

Prior to each county visit, Lou Harris would meet with Roosevelt, Jr. to review his exhaustive notes that contained detailed information about the county’s Democratic leaders, elected officials, and potential delegates — their proclivities, the likelihood of their support, and the issues most important to them.And with Roosevelt courting activists in person, there were some pleasant surprises: upon meeting Roosevelt, Jr., even some of the women weren’t as averse to his candidacy as they had seemed back in February. For example, in Ithaca, a “powerful organization of women” led by “Mrs. Fabbricatori — also known as ‘Fab’” presented him with a fact sheet on unemployment in the area, with data indicating that the situation was especially dire in Binghamton, Ithaca, and Elmira. They seemed excited that Roosevelt, Jr. was willing to meet — and listen — to them; afterwards, Franklin Jr. noted in a memo: “The women are so enthusiastic I would say we have a good situation in Tompkins County.”[xv]

“Very honestly, I do not feel that Jimmy’s situation will in the slightest degree affect me in New York,” a high-spirited Roosevelt wrote to his sister Anna in April.[xvi]

Meanwhile, in between campaign events, Roosevelt studied up on all the major issues confronting state government. Campaign staffer Jonathan Bingham — a former classmate of Roosevelt’s at Groton — would accompany Roosevelt on the trail, bringing in specialists to lecture the candidate on the ins-and-outs of state government, with separate lessons dedicated to each issue, like the budget, housing shortages, and road maintenance. By the summer, Roosevelt had undergone over twenty-five of these sessions. Here, Roosevelt’s remarkable memory was put on display.

“He has total aural recall,” Bingham bragged to the Saturday Evening Post, referring to Roosevelt’s ability to remember and repeat verbatim just about everything he learned.[xvii]

As spring turned to summer, the work seemed to be paying off: upstate county leaders were reveling in the attention, delighted that, for once, a candidate from the city was earnestly making an appeal for their support; and at each of their events — the numerous county clambakes and picnics — Roosevelt was in his element, displaying the knack for campaigning that he had honed during his first congressional campaign (“turning on the old schmoo,” as he liked to say).[xviii]

“Frank,” he’d say, introducing himself to delegates as he bounced from Buffalo, at the westernmost part of the state, and worked his way east, to Rochester, and then Syracuse.

In June, Roosevelt officially announced his candidacy for governor, and from there, the endorsements rolled in: “8 Upstate Chiefs Back Roosevelt,” a June 5 headline in the New York Times read; then: “Five More Leaders Back F.D. Roosevelt” (June 13); and “6 More Chairmen Favor Roosevelt (June 26). “Political Stock of Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., Rises in New York” the Christian Science Monitor declared.

That same month, James Roosevelt — who had stubbornly continued his campaign against his brother’s wishes — won the Democratic nomination for California’s 26th Congressional District; it wasn’t even close, which must have come as a pleasant surprise to Franklin Jr.

“The first banana peel was, of course, [Franklin Jr.’s] brother James Roosevelt’s famous multiple adultery letter,” the Saturday Evening Post reported. “And now that James himself has won a Democratic congressional nomination in California by a handsome margin, it will take a really big and slippery banana peel to kill off Franklin.”[xix]

By July, it was clear that Roosevelt was the frontrunner — and by a significant margin. The Wall Street Journal wrote that Roosevelt was the “odds-on choice to win the Democratic nomination for governor of the Empire State.” According to the article, the only obstacle to Roosevelt securing the nomination was W. Averell Harriman, the 62-year-old former ambassador to the United Kingdom and the secretary of commerce under President Truman. But Harriman, the article noted, “isn’t expected to put up much of a fight.”[xx]

At one campaign event, a reporter asked Roosevelt if would be disappointed if he ended up losing the nomination; Roosevelt — perhaps buoyed by his recent surge of support — brushed the reporter aside.

“I am too young to be disappointed,” he said.[xxi]


[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 112, “Campaign 1954,” FDR Library.

[1] “Dewey Sketched As A ‘Ringmaster’: Wagner And Other Figures In Politics Also Lampooned by the Inner Circle.”         New York Times 7 March 1954: 38.

[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 112, “Campaign 1954,” FDR Library.

[1] “Impy” refers to the man Wagner succeeded — Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri — who won the mayoralty in 1950 running on the Experience Party ticket. Impelliteri’s surprise victory over Tammany’s candidate, New York State Supreme Court judge Fredinand Pecora, was indicative of voter backlash against the political machine. Three years later, Impelliteri — whose tenure was roiled with scandal due to his close relationship with the Italian Mafia — would lose handily to Wagner.

[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 160 – “Daily Journal – March 6, 1954,” FDR Library.

[1] “Wife Challenges James Roosevelt.” New York Times 3 Feb. 1954: 13.

[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 217 – “Correspondence, 1954-55,” FDR Library.

[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 317 – “Roosevelt Family Correspondence, 1951-1954,” FDR Library.

[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 113 – “Lou Harris,” FDR Library.

[1] Alsop, Joseph and Stewart Alsop. “Can FDR, Jr., Get His Father’s Old Job?”

The Saturday Evening Post Vol. 227, No. 10 (4 Sep. 1954): 17.

[1] Egan, Leo. “Roosevelt v. Harriman: De Sapio Has Last Word.” New York Times 29 Aug. 1954: E10

[1] White, E.B. Here is New York. New York: The Little Bookworm, 2000.

[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 113 – “Lou Harris,” FDR Library.

[1] Feldman, Justin. “Reminiscences of Justin Feldman.” Oral history. Columbia University Rare Book and             Manuscript Library. 1968.

[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 112, “Campaign 1954,” FDR Library.

[1] FDR Jr. Papers, Box 317 – “Roosevelt Family Correspondence, 1951-1954,” FDR Library.

[1] Alsop

[1] Levitas, Mitchell. “Rise, Fall and ____ Of F.D.R. Jr.” New York Times 23 Oct. 1966: SM14.

[1] Alsop

[1] Geyelin, Philip and Alan L. Otten. “Young Franklin Drives Hard for Governorship Of New York State.”

The Wall Street Journal 27 July 1954: 1.

[1] McQuiston, John T. “Franklin Roosevelt Jr., 74, Ex-Congressman, Dies.” New York Times 18 Aug. 1988: D22.

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