Robert Moses’s Bethpage

Robert Moses at Bethpage, April 1935

I am sorry about the lack of posts recently. Blogging will continue to be light through next week as the academic year enters its endgame. There are so many things to make happen before submitting grades, which we will probably do a week from today if all goes as planned. I spent a good chunk of today reading and grading papers. I have learned a great deal this year, about not just Robert Moses but local, state, and national history more widely. We intend to keep the energy going. It’s the people you work with who make it all worthwhile.

Way back on the first day of class we were telling students about Moses’s many accomplishments. The course focus is on New York City itself but you must lay the foundation talking about the master builder’s wider legacy. One of those things, I told the class, was Bethpage State Park near Farmingdale, where they played this week’s PGA Championship on the Black Course. Brooks Koepka held on to become the first back-to-back PGA winner since Tiger Woods in 2006-07. The Black Course is a pretty good test of golf; Woods won the US Open there in 2002. It and the four other links that comprise Bethpage were built under the leadership of Robert Moses in the 1930s within his jurisdiction as head of the Long Island State Park Commission. Needless to say, there was some serious sausage-making in turning it all into a reality. The detail-orientated Moses was involved in every aspect of turning the nearly 1,400 acre site into a golf location open to all. He also used New Deal money and men, putting about 1,800 laborers to work.

Moses envisioned Bethpage State Park as a Jones Beach for the middle-class golfing set. Remember, as its name indicates it is a public facility, not a private club. That they play the majors there is testimony to the vision and legacy of Robert Moses. In class tomorrow I’ll talk to the students briefly about it before getting on with the business of the day.

(image/Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

May 1919, the 77th returns

The 77th Division Band plays for its commander, Major General Robert Alexander, Aisne, France, 27 August 1918

They have my article about the return of the 77th Division up and running at Roads to the Great War. This was the piece I alluded to a few weeks back about writing the first draft in a Brooklyn coffee shop one Saturday afternoon. As I say in the bit, by mid-May 1919 most of the troops were stateside. When we think of the bitter peace that soon settled in, this was that period. It’s not a happy topic, but an important one.

(image/Library of Congress)

V-E Day plus 74 years

Stars and Stripes. V-E Day extra from Paris, 8 May 1945

I don’t have much time this morning to write more than a quick note that today is the 74th anniversary of V-E Day. I’m old enough to remember when the observance of the anniversary of Victory in Europe was still more current event than history. Time moves on. It was ever thus. I attended a symposium in the city last night about the New Deal. One of the most unfortunate aspects of the closing days of the Second World War is that Roosevelt did not live to see it, either the “peace” in Europe that May or the surrender on the Missouri in early September.

In many ways the hard was was just beginning. After the war itself came the immediate crises of feeding the starving, relocating refugees, and creating the international order that ultimately brought peace, stability, and prosperity to much of the world for the next three quarters of a century.

(image/U.S. Army Stars and Stripes)

Ranking the presidents at the Roosevelt House

Ranking the Presidents event, The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter Colllege, May 4, 2019

Last night some friends and I ventured up to Roosevelt House on East 65th Street to attend a discussion with Susan Swain and Brian Lamb with Amity Shlaes and Harold Holzer. The event was in recognition of the release of The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best–and Worst–Chief Executives. Swain led off with an introduction about how the book developed and noted that the latest survey of historians is the third such study they have conducted since 2000. Lamb picked it up from there with a discussion/interview of Holzer and Shlaes along with audience Q&A.

Shlaes is the author of a 2013 biography of Calvin Coolidge and 2007’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, a reinterpretation of the Roosevelt Era that casts FDR’s New Deal in a less favorable light. I ordered both of these works for the library where I work when they were first released and, while I don’t know if I agree that Calvin Coolidge’s policies in the 1920s were ultimately a good for the nation or that Roosevelt’s Depression Era initiatives harmed us to the degree she seems to believe, I am all for a more nuanced understanding of our history. In class all semester we and out students have been studying the laws of unintended consequences, most notably as it applies to our course with the failures and successes of Robert Moses.

It is no doubt true that the New Deal did not end the Depression; the industrial output necessary to win the Second World War did that. And indeed, as she argues, some of the Roosevelt Administration’s polices aggravated the situation. That said, I find it unpersuasive that Roosevelt’s measures were not the way to go given the historical moment. If you want to Roosevelt’s legacy, look around you. That said, I’m glad Shlaes is offering a well argued counter-narrative and have nothing but respect for her. That is why I ordered her books for our collection. I can’t wait for her book about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to come out in November. Check out the episode when it is broadcast tomorrow tomorrow, May 5, on C-SPAN.

FDR opens the 1939 World’s Fair

World’s Fair 1939 first day cover

Yesterday in class we spoke about the opening of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which opened on April 29, 1939. Robert Moses, Fiorello La Guardia and their associates made certain that the bridge opened in time for the World’s Fair, which began the following day. One of the first to cross the span from the Bronx into Queens was Franklin Roosevelt, who left Hyde Park early that morning eighty years ago today and crossed the Whitestone in his motorcade on the way to speak to 40,000 gathered in Flushing Meadows. The 1939 New York Fair opened when it did to commemorate George Washington’s first inaugural. In a good reminder that the Early American period is not that long ago, and that the ideals for which it stands are still quite fragile, when Roosevelt spoke of his presidential predecessor it was only the sesquicentennial of Washington’s presidency. We are still a work in progress.

Why should I go on when Roosevelt himself put it so well himself? In part he told the gathered eighty years ago today:

“Fortunately, there have been preserved for us many generations later, accounts of his taking of the oath of office on April thirtieth on the balcony of the old Federal Hall. In a scene of republican simplicity and surrounded by the great men of the time, most of whom had served with him in the cause of independence through the Revolution, the oath was administered to him by the Chancellor of the State of New York, Robert R. Livingston. And so we, in New York, have a very personal connection with that thirtieth of April, one hundred and fifty years ago.”

This postcard of the George Washington statue at the 1939 World’s Fair represents the first president as he was taking the oath of office 150 years previously in Manhattan.


Sunday morning coffee

Lieutenant Adrian C. Duff, aka The Camera Kid, took this image of two French peasants greeting a pair of infantrymen of the 77th Division in the final week of the war.

A few moments ago I hit “send” on a piece that should see the light of day in a week or so. I don’t want to give away too many details, but it relates to the 77th Division. In my research I came across this extraordinary image of two infantrymen from “New York’s Own” being welcomed by a French couple. History even remembers the couple’s names; they are Monsieur and Madame Baloux of Brieulles-sur-Bar, France. The image was taken on November 6, 1918 after the town was liberated from German occupation. The photograph was taken by a Lieutenant Adrian C. Duff, who the internet tells us served in the U.S. Signal Corps. I get the impression that Lieutenant Duff probably took many images of American troops on the Texas-Mexico Border during the Punitive Expedition and then in France during the Great War that are part of our iconography of those conflicts. His nickname was “The Camera Kid.” The image first appeared in the February 4, 1919 Albuquerque, New Mexico Evening Herald, on page one no less, adjacent to troubling news from Eastern Europe about the Czechs and Poles.

I wrote the first draft yesterday in a coffee shop in Brooklyn while waiting for a particular store to open. I’m trying to clear the decks of a few small projects like this as spring break winds down and I prepare for the final month of the semester. The next few weeks will be intense, but I’m looking forward to it. Alas I will not get to wear it for about six months and it gets cool again, but yesterday after leaving the coffee shop I headed down to my destination, where I bought a beautiful vintage, grey, tweed, herringbone suit. Being tweed, the suit is by definition less formal; nonetheless, it is quite understated and stunning in detail with patch pockets and a high rise to the trousers. Come fall I’m going to make suits part of my almost-daily arsenal.

Today I’m going to do laundry and prepare for the hectic week ahead. Enjoy your Sunday.

(image by Lieutenant Adrian C. Duff via Wikimedia Commons)


Mount Vernon, Easter Sunday

The Potomac from the Mount Vernon shoreline, Easter Sunday 2019

I hope everyone had an enjoyable Easter or Passover. I’m watching the beautiful sunset as I type this.

We indeed went to Mount Vernon today. We were questioning our decision halfway there because mass transit proved difficult this holiday weekend. Still, when we arrived we had a good time. (Not wanting a repeat of the frustrating arrival, we took an Uber back to our destination.) The grounds were crowded, which was great. It’s always good seeing people experiencing historic sites. It was warmer than when we were there in January and more of the grounds were thus accessible. The gardens were blooming and the animals–sheep and even cattle–were out. We took in quite a bit. I also had many conversations with the living historians who work there. My strategy on these things is: jump in. At the shoreline not far from where I took the above image I had a conversation with a staffer about how Washington used these low-lying grounds. She replied that it was basically swampland and thus not especially productive. She then added that the flood walls in the Potomac were constructed in the 1930s. This naturally led to a conversation about how and why that happened, with yours truly speculating that it probably happened as part of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. I intend to dig a little more on this when I get home.

In the gift ship I bought a copy of Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. I don’t want to go into specifics right now, but Chernow and Thomas Flexner will play into some Interpretive projects I hope to work on this summer. It’s only about six weeks away now.

Happy Easter

Contralto Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial on 9 April 1939, Easter Sunday, after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, among others, stepped in. Those on the improvised stage included Ickes, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr. (D-NY), Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley (D-KY), and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

Happy Easter, everyone. We’re out the door in a few minutes here to go to Mount Vernon.

It has turned into a beautiful weekend here in the Washington D.C. area after the hard rain and tornado that touched down in our vicinity Friday night. Yesterday I ventured to the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favorite cultural institutions. They had a stunning painting of “negro contralto,” as she was called in her time, Marian Anderson. Seeing the portrait reminded me that Ms. Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial was Easter Sunday 1939. Someone at the Portrait Gallery knew what they were doing; adjacent to her likeness was one of Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped arrange Ms. Anderson’s appearance on the National Mall after a local high school and the Daughters of the American Revolution both turned the singer’s representatives down.

Constitution Hall itself dated back a decade. First Lady Grace Coolidge used the same trowel that George Washington used to lay the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol in 1793. Her successor, First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, opened DAR Constitution Hall when it opened a year later on April 19, 1929, ninety years ago this week. Now, ten years later, the organization was embroiled in controversy for turning Anderson away. That’s when Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes stepped in. Terrible as the episode was it was just as well in one respect: Constitution Hall has a capacity of 3,702, and the high school that turned her away only 1,000; a crowd of 75,000 turned out to see Ms. Anderson when she took the stage at 5:00 pm. Millions more listened on their radios.

An Easter performance at the Lincoln Memorial was appropriate, even poetic, for another reason: Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated on Good Friday 1865, something that more Americans would have realized in 1939 than probably do today. The Sunday after his mortal wounding was Easter Sunday, and religious leaders throughout the Union states worked his death and apotheosis as our nation’s secular saint into their Easter sermons.

(image/Library of Congress)


Sunday morning coffee

Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime friend Margaret Suckley took this image of the president in early April 1945 at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. Accompanying him there as well in his final days was Lucy Mercer Rutherford, with whom he had had an affair in the 1910s.

I hope everyone spring is going well. I made the mistake of wearing a flannel shirt when I went into the city yesterday; it was by far the warmest day of the year so far and I was sweating profusely by the time I returned home. I suppose it’s time to put the heavier stuff away. Here is an image taken seventy-four Aprils ago when the weather was turning warm. Margaret “Daisy” Suckley took this photograph of President Roosevelt at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia days before his death. Roosevelt and his entourage–sans Eleanor, who remained in Washington–had arrived in Georgia in the last days of March just before Easter, which fell on April 1. Roosevelt essentially had gone to Warm Springs to die and surrounded himself with many of the people who meant the most to him, including Lucy Mercer Rutherford, the woman with whom he had had an affair during the First World War.

It is interesting how Roosevelt surrounded himself with a coterie of women who remained loyal to him for much of his life. Certainly he and Eleanor loved and remained loyal to each other in a complicated way that only they themselves could understand, if even they themselves did understand. Who among us can say they comprehend their own marriage, let alone what happens behind others’ closed doors? A reason she probably stayed in Washington was a sense that either the president or first lady should remain in the capitol with the war and so much else going on.

There in Warm Springs that long-ago April Roosevelt was surrounded in his final days by a woman he loved (Mercer) and a woman who loved him (Suckley). It was a complicated set of circumstances, not least because Roosevelt was aided in the whole thing by his daughter Anna.

(image/FDR Presidential Library)

Robert Moses vs President and First Lady Roosevelt

A model of Robert Moses’s unrealized Brooklyn-Battery Bridge

One of the biggest myths about Robert Moses is that he was so powerful that he managed to build whatever he wanted wherever he desired. In reality nothing could have been further from the truth; Moses worked within political and economic realities and more often than not had to change his plans to satisfy elected officials, citizens, insurance companies, and other stakeholders. One project dear to his heart was the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. If you have never heard of it, that’s because it never got built. The bridge would have gone fro the Manhattan Battery to Brooklyn Heights.

It almost happened. Moses pushed the initiative through the myriad city agencies and managed to get Governor Herbert H. Lehman signed off on the measure. It took none other than President Franklin Roosevelt to quash the deal. It was a personal thing with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; they were New Yorkers who owned a house on East 65th Street, Franklin was briefly a Wall Street lawyer, and their Roosevelt ancestors had roots in the city dating back to the mid-seventeenth century.

Eighty years ago today, writing from far off Seattle in her April 5, 1939 “My Day” column, Eleanor wrote obliquely of Moses and his proposed bridge:

“I have a plea from a man who is deeply interested in Manhattan Island, particularly in the beauty of the approach from the ocean at Battery Park. He tells me that a New York official who is, without doubt, always efficient, is proposing a bridge 100 feet high at the river, which will go across to the Whitehall Building over Battery Park. This, he says, will mean a screen of elevated roadways, pillars, etc., at that particular point. I haven’t a question that this will be done in the name of progress, and something undoubtedly needs to be done. But isn’t there room for some considereation of the preservation of the few beautiful spots that still remain to us on an overcrowded island? After all, lower Manhattan at Battery Park is one of the gateways through which many of us leave and enter our country. These moments are important moments in our lives and the irritation of an eyesore perpetrated in the name of progress will be bad for the souls of many Americans.”

If you look at the rendering above, you see that the proposed bridge would have cut through the harbor directly north of Governors Island, still a major headquarters of the U.S. Army. Further north, in the East River, was the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Besides ruining the beautiful views Mrs. Roosevelt speaks of, there were national security implications. And that was how the president and his Secretary of War, Harry H. Woodring, killed the thing, declaring the harbor too important for national security interests to have such a bridge cross through it. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built instead.

(image/New York Preservation Archive Project)