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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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