Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party

Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party

by Terry Golway


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"This is history told the old-fashioned way. The book is only as long as it needs to be, the adroit narrative full of heroes (Smith, Roosevelt, big-city Democratic bosses) and villains (William Randolph Hearst, William Jennings Bryan, the Ku Klux Klan). The scenes are vivid and the anecdotes plentiful." —The Wall Street Journal

"Frank & Al is the latest of Mr. Golway’s several captivating books on New York politics. He delivers once again, with a timely narrative on the centennial of Smith’s first election as governor." —The New York Times

"The tangled, tragic story of Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt is one of the great tales of American politics, and Terry Golway has told it beautifully. This is a joyous book... an especially important book now." —Joe Klein

"I highly recommend this fascinating and enlightening book." —Franklin D. Roosevelt, III

"Beautifully written...The book is must reading for anyone interested in the history of American politics and the rise of the country’s welfare state." —Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

“A marvelous portrait... Highly recommend!” —Douglas Brinkley, author of Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America

The inspiring story of an unlikely political partnership—between a to-the-manor-born Protestant and a Lower East Side Catholic—that transformed the Democratic Party and led to the New Deal

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democratic Party was bitterly split between its urban machines—representing Catholics and Jews, ironworkers and seamstresses, from the tenements of the northeast and Midwest—and its populists and patricians, rooted in the soil and the Scriptures, enforcers of cultural, political, and religious norms. The chasm between the two factions seemed unbridgeable. But just before the Roaring Twenties, Al Smith, a proud son of the Tammany Hall political machine, and Franklin Roosevelt, a country squire, formed an unlikely alliance that transformed the Democratic Party. Smith and FDR dominated politics in the most-powerful state in the union for a quarter-century, and in 1932 they ran against each other for the Democratic presidential nomination, setting off one of the great feuds in American history.

The relationship between Smith and Roosevelt, portrayed in Terry Golway's Frank and Al, is one of the most dramatic untold stories of early 20th Century American politics. It was Roosevelt who said once that everything he sought to do in the New Deal had been done in New York under Al Smith when he was governor in the 1920s. It was Smith who persuaded a reluctant Roosevelt to run for governor in 1928, setting the stage for FDR’s dramatic comeback after contracting polio in 1921. They took their party, and American politics, out of the 19th Century and created a place in civic life for the New America of the 20th Century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250089649
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/11/2018
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 314,048
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

TERRY GOLWAY is a senior editor at POLITICO and the author of several works of history, including Frank and Al and Machine Made. He has been a columnist and city editor at the New York Observer, a member of the editorial board of the New York Times, and a columnist for the Irish Echo. He holds a Ph.D. in U.S. History from Rutgers University and has taught at the New School, New York University, and Kean University.

Read an Excerpt



IN THE DRY SEASONS of the late nineteenth century, salt water from New York Harbor churned upstream from lower Manhattan to a bend in the Hudson River north of Poughkeepsie called Crum Elbow. There, brine from the harbor mixed with clear water flowing south from pristine streams in the Adirondack Mountains to form something not quite sea water, but not quite fresh water either.

From a bluff on the river's eastern bank overlooking Crum Elbow, the mixing and matching of north and south, upstate and downstate, country and city passed without notice. The river's surface was tranquil and timeless, a good deal like life itself at Springwood, the estate of James Roosevelt and his bride, Sara Delano. The back of their manor house faced the majestic waterway that was the source of so much of New York's power and wealth. The daily drama of Gilded Age commerce unfolded before their eyes: steamboats transporting goods from the farms, orchards, and quarries of the Hudson Valley to the markets of New York City ninety miles to the south; belching locomotives crawling along the river's banks, connecting the economic and cultural power of Manhattan to the state's center of politics and government, Albany. In the late afternoon, as the sun set behind the dark outline of Shawangunk Ridge to the west, the pace of commerce slowed and the river disappeared from view, with only the occasional blast of a night ship's horn reminding neighbors that it was never truly at rest.

As James and Sara Roosevelt awaited the birth of their first child together in January 1882, the river was untamed and unconquered, a divide that seemed impossible to bridge. Then again, the Hudson's resistance to modernity added to its charms, and those charms would not be lost on the baby boy born to the Roosevelts on January 30, 1882. "All that is in me," Franklin Roosevelt would later say, "goes back to the Hudson."

* * *

South of Crum Elbow, the river returned to its relatively straight path toward New York City and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. On either bank were the farms, orchards, and vineyards that fed the ravenous appetites of the great cities to the south — not just New York, but Brooklyn as well. Their combined population in 1880 was closing in on two million and growing with each immigrant ship that passed into the harbor on its way to the piers of lower Manhattan.

The river narrowed as it passed the gentle slope of Storm King Mountain on its western bank, famed for inspiring the artists of the Hudson River School. It was squeezed even tighter as it paraded past West Point, headed for the twin sentinels of Bear Mountain on the west and a sweeping peak known as Anthony's Nose to the east. Workers picked at granite deposits in Anthony's Nose and sent them off to the city, where builders needed all the raw material the valley could provide.

The river turned gently to the east as it approached Iona Island and back again to the west as it turned past the town of Peekskill toward the ancestral manor house of the Van Cortlandts, one of the many Dutch families that settled in the valley and gave the region place names that looked in English like typographical errors — Spuyten Duyvil, Gansevoort. Two miles south of the old mansion, on the opposite bank, was an enormous ice house, painted white to reflect the sun's rays. Ice was a commodity as critical to the valley's economy as grain and fruit, and the market for it just as insatiable. Ice on the river could measure as much as ten or twelve inches thick, and it provided work for twenty-five thousand people, most of them farmers who relied on the river just as surely as they depended on the land. Without ice, they could go hungry.

James Roosevelt's brother, John, had no such concerns. The uncle of young Franklin was the commodore of the Poughkeepsie Ice Yacht Club and owner of what was said to be the largest ice yacht in the world, named Icicle. For Roosevelt and his fellow club members, the frozen river meant not bread, but recreation and competition. If the wind was right, Icicle could easily achieve speeds of more than sixty miles an hour. Crowds gathered along the river banks to watch Icicle and its competitors from other clubs glide along the ice on weekend afternoons.

* * *

The river expands again south of Haverstraw until it reaches its greatest width of three and a half miles near Nyack, where the Erie Railroad ended and passengers boarded ferries to take them south to the great city. Within minutes ferry riders were treated to one of the Hudson's most glorious works of nature, a long stretch of monumental cliffs on the western bank known as the Palisades. They rose five hundred feet high along the New Jersey bank of the river, preening in their stark, jagged beauty.

As the river approached the slender finger of upper Manhattan, a portion of it peeled off to the east, creating the Harlem River, which joined with the Long Island Sound to form the East River. The Hudson, however, continued south, becoming in equal parts a great urban highway and an open sewer.

Humble ferryboats plying the New York–New Jersey route and great passenger ships powered by steam and sail from ports around the world shared this portion of the river, not just with each other but with the factories and slaughterhouses that relied on the river's current to dispose of chemicals, blood, bone, and human waste. Here there were no ice yacht races in wintertime, no green open spaces for weekend picnics or baseball games. Sanitary inspectors from the city Board of Health dutifully filed reports about odors wafting from the riverfront to the tenement districts of Manhattan's West Side, but action rarely followed, even as parents told of children vomiting because of the air they breathed, of scorching summer afternoons spent with windows closed to keep out the odor of decaying animal parts and foul liquids in the river. A West Side resident told the Board of Health that the riverfront air was so thick with offensive smells that he and his family could barely breathe, but when he complained to the local police captain, he was told that it was no use. There was too much money at stake, the captain said.

Straight ahead, as the river emptied into the harbor, was a small bit of land called Bedloe's Island. There were plans to erect an enormous statue, a gift from the people of France, on the island. Supporters said the statue of a woman with a torch would one day redefine the sky in the great harbor, but nobody seemed interested in funding the project. When the city sought the state's permission to spend $50,000 on the project, Governor Grover Cleveland vetoed the appropriation as wasteful. James Roosevelt, Franklin's father, was a good friend and admirer of the stout governor — Grover Cleveland understood the proper role of government, which was to stand aside and let the markets perform their magic.

Near the southern tip of Manhattan, a large, oval-shaped government building topped with a small dome and a tall flagpole served as an entrance point for the immigrants who once again were streaming into the city after a pause during and just after the Civil War. The facility, called Castle Garden, opened in 1855, when many of the newcomers were from northern Europe, especially Germany and Ireland. But after the war came a new wave from southern Italy and Eastern Europe, places of hopeless poverty and primitive conditions that rarely if ever saw a visitor from the great cities of Europe and North America. Among the new immigrants were Achille La Guardia and his wife Irene Coen, who arrived at Castle Garden in 1880 after a long journey from Italy. The couple barely had time to adjust to their new life when Irene gave birth to their first child, Fiorello, in December 1882.

The Hudson's long journey from the Adirondack Mountains comes to an end as it empties into the upper reaches of New York's harbor. But on the other side of the island, separated by less than a mile of lower Manhattan, was the East River, just as busy, just as much a part of the great city as the Hudson. A steamboat following the curved tip of lower Manhattan from west to east would present passengers with one of the great vistas in all the world as it turned up the East River: the Gothic towers and magnificent tangle of cables of a bridge that would unite the cities of New York and Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Bridge was nearly done in early 1882. It would cost an astonishing $15 million and the lives of more than twenty men, among them its chief engineer, John Roebling, who died of tetanus back in 1869 when his foot was crushed in an accident during the very early stages of planning. His son, Washington Roebling, took over, but the bridge cost him life as he knew it — at age thirty-five, he was overcome by the bends while working in one of the bridge's caissons. He became an invalid, watching from his apartment window in Brooklyn as the bridge neared completion.

Almost directly across the river, another set of eyes watched as small figures high atop the towers put the finishing touches on their work before turning it over to the public. Years later, Al Smith would write of the "sense of admiration and envy I felt toward the men who swarmed like flies stringing the cables and putting in the roadways as the bridge slowly took shape." Al Smith was eight years old in early 1882, and he and his sister and their parents lived in a five-room apartment on the third floor of a small building on South Street under the bridge's roadbed. The apartment's two front windows looked out on the river and its ceaseless activity and energy — schooners from another era sharing space with modern steamships; truckers hauling great boxes of tea, coffee, fruit, and spices from far-flung islands and nations; children who saw the great seaport as a playground as they raced from pier to pier, leaping to touch the long bowsprits reaching out from the water's edge.

In the summertime, with the windows open, young Al could hear the sounds of a city putting aside its childhood and embracing maturation and growth: rough sounds — shouts and curses, orders barked from ship to shore, the crash of cargo moved too quickly, the click of wheels negotiating with cobblestones, the barking of dogs who had free run of the waterfront, the raucous laughter of sailors leaving their ships for a few hours of entertainment on the Bowery. At night, when commerce was done, creaky wooden ships groaned with exhaustion, rocking gently with the current until they were awakened at ungodly hours by the arrival of the fishing boats. All of this took place in the shadow of the bridge that would change the destiny of the humid islands gathered in the great bay. The bridge would knit together the cities of New York and Brooklyn, so much so that less than two decades after its opening, the two would become one, with the stepchildren of Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx invited to join the blended family.

Strung across the great granite towers of the bridge was a catwalk designed for workers as they made their way from one end of the span to the other. Al Smith made that walk from New York to Brooklyn and back again one day with his father, Alfred Emanuel Smith Sr., who was determined to say that he and his son crossed the bridge before it was even completed. Father and son had little problem evading authorities to gain access to the bridge, as the elder Smith was employed part time as a security guard whose job it was to keep people off the narrow, wind-blown catwalk.

If he raised his eyes from the wooden planks below him and looked up as he made the return walk from the Brooklyn side, young Al Smith could see the city as few others ever had. To his left, looking south, was the steeple of Trinity Church, the most prominent landmark of lower Manhattan. Scanning from south to north, he would have seen rows of low-rise buildings seemingly gathered for protection around some larger structure: the post office near City Hall; the new Tribune building on Park Row, its magnificent clock tower rising two hundred and sixty feet into the air; the whitewashed headquarters of Harper & Brothers on Pearl Street. If he looked to the right, he would see the city advancing up the island, following the elevated train lines under construction above the north-south avenues (save for Broadway and Fifth Avenue, which were kept light and airy thanks to the influence of the wealthy who lived on those streets).

High above the river, young Al Smith was given a glimpse of the possibilities of the coming years, of the new century less than twenty-five years away.

"The bridge and I grew up together," Smith would later write. Joining them on the journey to maturity was the city itself.

* * *

He was born on December 30, 1873, the first child of Catherine Mulvehill but the second for her husband, the thirty-eight-year-old widower Alfred Emanuel Smith, whose daughter had been sent to live with her grandmother when Smith's first wife died. A strapping man of 225 pounds and more than six feet tall, Alfred Smith worked hard as a trucker with his own carts and horses, and he was rewarded, modestly, for his sweat and effort. He was not rich by any means, but compared to the wretched immigrants packed into the airless buildings of Manhattan's Fourth Ward, he almost qualified as gentry, even if he was the poorly educated son of immigrants from Italy and Germany. He was able to afford a fifteen-dollar-per-month apartment with more rooms than family members, no small accomplishment, and he made sure his son and namesake and, later, his daughter had toys and clothing and food, and that was about all one could ask of life.

Catherine Mulvehill was the daughter of Irish immigrants who left County Westmeath together in 1841, just a few years before the potato crop in Ireland turned black and inedible, season after season, until there were parts of Ireland that were home only to the dead and the departing. Thomas and Maria Mulvehill landed in lower Manhattan and rented an apartment just a few blocks from the waterfront. The young couple found other men and women who sounded and looked like them in St. James Roman Catholic Church, a few blocks from their apartment on Dover and Water Streets. In the manner of the country they left behind, the Irish flocked to the church for the pleasure of each other's company, whether gathered in pews with heads bowed or dancing a jig at a parish social.

Thomas and Maria Mulvehill had six children, four boys and two girls. Thomas was a skilled tailor who found work at Brooks Brothers, so he and Maria were blessed with the stability of a regular paycheck, and that blessing made others possible. The children were educated and sent off to useful careers in the police and fire departments. Catherine Mulvehill was born in 1850, the fifth of the six Mulvehill children, and she was sent to the girls' school at St. James parish.

Alfred Smith's stables were in a building on Dover and Water Streets, adjacent to the apartment building where Thomas and Maria Mulvehill and their children lived. At some point after his wife died, he took notice of Catherine, now finished with school and learning the umbrella trade. He summoned the courage to speak with her, and from there a romance blossomed.

He was fifteen years older than Catherine. He had a daughter somewhere in Brooklyn, a daughter he never saw and perhaps never spoke of. He was not Irish, but he was Catholic — a fellow parishioner at St. James Church — and at least he had an Irishman's love of storytelling. He had his own business, and he worked hard at it. He would take care of Catherine. Her parents could sense that.

Alfred and Catherine were married in St. James in the fall of 1872 and moved to the South Street apartment where Alfred E. Smith Jr. was born just over a year later and another child, Mary, arrived two years later on the very same day, December 30.

* * *

Young Al Smith never learned much about his father's family, mostly because Alfred was never around much. He rose early and came home late, and that was a good thing, because it meant he had work even during the lean times following the financial panic of 1873. They were lucky, because all around the great city men without work were begging in the streets, sleeping under lampposts and in parks, and wandering from place to place in search of a job. The New York Times noted that "the main thoroughfares seem absolutely blockaded with beggars." A quarter of the city's workers were unemployed, thanks to the cascade of closings and bankruptcies that followed the collapse of a Philadelphia-based investment house, Jay Cooke & Co. An official with the city's charity commission wrote that "men come to us hungry with hollow cheeks. ... It is terrible, terrible." The city's mayor, William Havemeyer, a banker who owned a sizable chunk of the Long Island Rail Road, told a gathering of poor men that they ought to be saving their money rather than going "to the beer shops and theaters every night." The mayor would not order construction of public works or raise taxes to support relief. The jobless had only themselves to blame, he said. They had gone on strike and agitated for better working conditions. Did they expect the rich, who "by thrift and industry had built up their houses," to bail them out?


Excerpted from "Frank & Al"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Terry Golway.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: River Families
Chapter Two: Fathers, Mother, and Sons
Chapter Three: Young Men in a Hurry
Chapter Four: Albany
Chapter Five: Leadership
Chapter Six: Fire
Chapter Seven: Changing Times
Chapter Eight: Bridge Building
Chapter Nine: Defeat
Chapter Ten: Resurrection
Chapter Eleven: The Darn Liquor Question
Chapter Twelve: The Happy Warrior
Chapter Thirteen: Uncivil War
Chapter Fourteen: The Challenge of a New America
Chapter Fifteen: Confronting Old America
Chapter Sixteen: Frank or Al
Chapter Seventeen: Frank vs. Al
Chapter Eighteen: Peace

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