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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 125

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This is the grave of Robert Wagner, Jr.

Born in 1910 to the famed senator Robert Wagner, young Bob graduated from Yale in 1933 and Yale Law in 1937. He followed his father into the family business, being elected to the New York State Assembly in 1938. He served there until 1942, when he resigned to join the Army Air Corps. When he returned to New York after the war’s conclusion, instead of going back into the Assembly, he became heavily involved in municipal politics. Wagner became the City Tax Commissioner, Commissioner of Housing and Buildings, and Chairman of the City Planning Commission. In 1950, he became Manhattan’s Borough President. Of course Wagner wanted higher office. He then became New York’s mayor in 1953. This was a reform candidacy. Despite his family’s long and deep involvement in New York politics, New York City’s Democratic Party was still Tammany controlled. Tammany head Carmine DeSapio disliked Wagner. But Wagner won anyway, with a great deal of help from major liberals such as Eleanor Roosevelt. He governed as a liberal as well, doing much to integrate the city’s government. He founded City University of New York. Wagner, rightfully given his lineage, signed a law to allow the city’s public employees to collectively bargain contracts. He barred housing discrimination as well, although meaningful enforcement of that principle remains elusive to the present. He helped bring the Mets to New York after the Dodgers and Giants left. He was central to creating Shakespeare in the Park and the Lincoln Center. Certainly on a lot of issues he was wishy-washy and unions sometimes found him frustrating, but in the larger trajectory of mayors of major American cities, Wagner is certainly among the most important.

He ran for the Senate in 1956. But he lost to Jacob Javits by a 53-47 margin. Instead, he redoubled on being mayor, running successfully for reelection in 1957 and 1961. He remained a liberal and pushed forward his agenda, but also unfortunately had the prejudices of far too many of that era. Among them was homophobia and in the run-up to the 1964 World’s Fair, which he went far to produce, he ordered the closing of all the city’s gay bars so that New York, already a mecca for gay men particularly, would not have a bad reputation or bad media.

In 1965, Wagner decided to not run for a 4th term as mayor. Lyndon Johnson named him Ambassador to Spain in 1968, which he left after Nixon took office the next year. In 1969, he wanted to run for mayor again, but he lost the Democratic primary to Mario Procaccino, who got defeated by John Lindsay running on a Liberal ticket. Wagner toyed with running again in 1973, this time as a Republican, but did not. Jimmy Carter named him Ambassador to the Vatican in 1978. Wagner died in 1991 of bladder cancer. He was 80 years old.

Robert Wagner, Jr. is buried Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York, next to his father’s grave.

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  • Karen

    It is only because I have followed you for nearly ten years and, during that time, you have established a firm reputation as trustworthy that I believe that “Carmine deSapio” is a real person and not the name of a a minor character from “The Sopranos.”

    • N__B

      De Sapio was the last real Tammany boss. Tammany had already fallen so far that a bronxer like him could seize the job, but the last fight between “reform” Ds and Tammany ended up destroying the machine’s power. Amazingly enough, one of the “reform” leaders was a young Ed Koch.

      I’m using scare quotes on reform because, you know, not really.

      ETA: De Sapio wrote an autobiography titled, really, “You’re the Boss.”

    • I’m waiting for Eric to find an opportunity to mention Cartha DeLoach.

    • Joe Paulson

      Has his own Wikipedia page and everything. Buried in the same cemetery.

    • AB

      When I was a kid, Carmine DeSapio lived across the street from us in the then-new Brevoort apartments. He would emerge looking disreputable in sunglasses (when Mrs. Kennedy wore them it was considered a louche but DeSapio had his look). BTW: unlike the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center is anarthrous.

    • I live in Providence, so this doesn’t even phase me anymore.

  • cpinva

    when did he find the time to act, with all that other stuff going on?

    i’ll see myself out………………………..

    • CaptServo

      That Robert Wagner used to come to a restaurant I worked at in college. Nice guy. I never could get the nerve to ask him who I should call if I had been injured in an auto accident.

    • solidcitizen

      I was going to do a bit about his turn in Austin Powers. Always read the comments before posting.

  • Bruce Vail

    When I was a kid reporter in NYC in the early ’80s there would be DeSapio sightings now and then. He kept a low profile after his jail term and never tried a comeback, but always seemed to be hanging around the edges. He didn’t look like a Tammany boss, he looked like the guy next door. Without the signature dark glasses nobody would have recognized him.

  • Joe Paulson

    Along with John Paul Stevens, one of the better people born on Hitler’s birthday.

  • Mike Schilling

    What, nothing about Natalie Wood?

  • Hypersphrericalcow

    Wagner became the City Tax Commissioner, Commissioner of Housing and Buildings, and Chairman of the City Planning Commission

    Did he ever get into feuds with Robert Moses? From those titles, it seems like they would have run into each other.

    • Erik Loomis

      I don’t know much about Wagner really, but I was curious about this as well. A bit of research (not much to be fair) didn’t suggest so.

    • N__B

      I believe the answer is that Moses didn’t deign to talk to city officials lower than the mayor, so Wagner didn’t have issues with him until he became mayor. I may be wrong.

  • gwen

    Neither he nor Officer Krupke did anything to stop the West Side riots of 1961.

  • HugeEuge

    My father used to refer to him as Bookie Bob. To say he “founded City University” is a bit misleading given that it was an extension of the longstanding City College. Wagner certainly had some good points, but one of the bad ones was his use of long term debt (bonds) for the purpose of paying for current operating expenses. Balanced budgets are not the Holy Grail but municipal deficit spending can (did) get out of hand quickly.

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