Mrs. Astor's Horse
by Stanley Walker
Frederick A. Stokes, New York, 1935
IT is probable that New York City will never again be as amusing, as full of unexpected belly laughs, as replete with startling spectacles, as during the administration of James J. Walker as Mayor. Certainly one of the grandest sights of those days, the City Hall reception for distinguished visitors, is seen no more, at least not in its perfect flower.
These affairs were held in the plaza in front of City Hall and on the steps leading to the entrance of that distinguished old building. Jimmy was always in the center of the picture, and seemed to enjoy it. The visitor might be really distinguished, somewhat notorious, or merely in tow of an alert press agent. All sorts of persons were thus honored-kings, prime ministers, Olympic swimming champions, channel swimmers and stars of the radio, motion pictures and the stage.
The fact that it apparently made little difference whether the guest being honored was the Prime Minister of England or a butcher's daughter who swam the English Channel, each receiving the same sort of reception, finally led to sneers from critics that New York was deficient in dignity and taste. Thus, in November, 1931, when Dino Grandi, Italian Foreign Minister, came to the United States on an important mission, the State Department officials in Washington decided not to expose him to a New York reception. instead they took him off a steamship down the bay, ferried him over to New Jersey and put him on a train for Washington. Later he was permitted to come back for a city reception.
Details of these receptions were arranged by the Mayor's Committee on Reception to Distinguished Guests, which was formed during the administration of Mayor John Francis Hylan, known to admirers as "Red Mike," who later became a Justice of Children's Court and sometimes decided cases after having recourse to astrology. As soon as the World War ended a succession of prominent foreigners headed for America. Hylan appointed the late Rodman Wanamaker chairman of the welcoming committee. The handsome Grover Whalen, sometimes called "The Black Hussar," who was then Commissioner of Plant and Structures, carried out most of the arrangements. These early affairs were all right, in their way, but were generally perfunctory, lacking both the glamour and the jolly horseplay of the receptions held after Walker became Mayor. Indeed, it is probable that Hylan, who had little imagination, was never quite the same after visiting the Hearst ranch in California. He returned from that hegira muttering about "a thousand cows on a thousand hills," a spectacle which appeared to have floored him.
The keynote of the speeches at the receptions was the glory of New York City. They were usually extremely boastful, and caused resentment both in the United States and abroad. For example, Mr. Whalen, in announcing the jubilee celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of Greater New York (the consolidation of the five boroughs), in April, 1922, referred to New York as "the largest, richest, most populous and the finest city that the earth has ever known."
The first really big reception in the grand manner was on August 27, 1926, in honor of Gertrude Ederle, daughter of Henry ("Pop") Ederle, an estimable Amsterdam Avenue butcher and sausage maker. A few weeks before, Miss Ederle had made better time swimming the English Channel than the five men who previously had crossed it. Grover Whalen headed the group which went down the bay on the Macom, the city's official "yacht," to take her off the Berengaria and bring her to the Battery for the parade up lower Broadway to City Hall.
Down the bay two airplanes circled the Berengaria, two hydroplanes skimmed along the water, and a harbor full of tugs, excursion steamers, cutters, launches, motor boats and sail boats joined in the welcome. Those having whistles tied them down. The din was terrific. The Fire Department band was on another city boat, the Riverside. Forty-two Ederle relatives were on the Macom and the Riverside.
Massed at the Battery when Trudy landed was a crowd of 15,000. Police charged the crowd with horses to protect the heroine from souvenir hunters who grabbed at her. Several worshipers were knocked down. Two policemen on the running boards of the Ederle automobile had to push their feet against the chests of so me of the mob as the car moved up Broadway. Ticker tape, telephone books and old records were tossed from the windows along Broadway. On later occasions not only this sort of debris but toilet paper as well was thrown upon visiting notables.
Back of the automobile bearing Trudy came a posse of Boy Scouts, representatives from German societies, delegations from the Amsterdam Avenue section, and the New York State Association of Butchers. Six persons were hurt painfully when a fence broke in City Hall Park, and a seventh, a girl, complained that a policeman's horse had stepped on her.
Grover Whalen had kissed Trudy when he met her down the bay. Mayor Walker, waiting at City Hall, was jokingly threatening to do likewise. In welcoming her the Mayor said:
"When history records the great crossings, they will speak of Moses crossing the Red Sea, Cćsar crossing the Rubicon and Washington crossing the Delaware, but frankly, your crossing of the British Channel must take its place alongside of these.
"Of course," went on Jimmy, "the whole world has its eyes on you. I guess that is no exaggeration, but as the whole world is willing to pay you homage, you are after all just a New York City girl and an Amsterdam Avenue girl and that means more to us in New York City than anything that has ever been visited upon us."
When the party emerged from City Hall the crowd made another rush. A policeman had to pick u p Trudy and carry her back to the hall, where she remained for thirty minutes until the crowd had thinned out.
Up in Amsterdam Avenue there was a rousing neighborhood celebration, with much bunting and speechmaking. Late that evening things became a bit thick for the swimmer. She collapsed. But that was not the end. Later the Mayor's Committee gave her a dinner at the Commodore at which Walker, Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett and Major General Charles P. Summer all were among the speakers. In the following February Miss Ederle was guest at a dinner of the Retail Meat Dealers of Detroit, where she was extolled as a good example of what meat-eating will do for one. Miss Ederle herself was a sensible enough girl. In 1927, commenting upon Lindbergh's flight to Paris, she said:
"What I did of course does not compare with Captain Lindbergh's remarkable feat. Mine was nothing much more than a sporting proposition while his will be a help to humanity through the advancement of commercial aviation."
Prince Ludovic Spada Potenziani, Governor of Rome, was received at City Hall in May, 1928. He had received Mayor Walker and his party when the Mayor toured Europe the year before. The Prince brought over a statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf. This work of art remained on public view in the rotunda of City Hall until F. H. LaGuardia, of Italian des cent, became Mayor in 1934.
Following the City Hall reception Prince Potenziani was guest at a luncheon at the Advertising Club. There Hector Fuller, the Mayor's official scroll writer, presented to the Prince a de luxe edition of "Abroad With Mayor Walker," a curious volume which Fuller had written at the end of the Mayor's famous trip to Europe.
Hector Fuller, a former Indianapolis newspaper man, and at times a great press agent, drew European attention to New York's receptions by several slips of the tongue. In addition to writing and reading the scrolls, he used to act as master of ceremonies and in a sonorous voice announce the arrival in the aldermanic chamber of distinguished guests. In announcing Pierre Laval, then Premier of France, who was accompanied by Paul Claudel, French Ambassador, Fuller intoned:
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, permit me to present Prime Minister Paul Claudel of France."
Earlier, on the occasion of the reception of Ramsay MacDonald at City Hall, Mr. Fuller was so carried away by the occasion that he announced the gentle MacDonald as "Prime Minister of the United States." Sir Esme Howard, British Ambassador, who was standing nearby, tried to correct Fuller by saying in a stage whisper, "Britain, old boy, Britain."
Fuller also introduced Queen Marie of Rumania as "Her Imperial Highness." The late New York World took him to task rather sharply, pointing out that Roumania was not an empire.
In later years, when Fuller was broke, along with many of the other hangers-on of the Walker administration, he disclosed that the scroll idea started with the first reception to Capt. George Fried, commanding the steamship Roosevelt, who rescued a crew of the British freighter Antinoe in 1926. Fuller, a British subject, was an imposing-looking man even when penniless and past seventy. He said of his great days a short time be fore he died:
"I was always a sucker for scrolls. It was my idea originally. Captain Fried was to be welcomed and we didn't know what to do to make it special. I was on the reception committee. William H. Woodin, later Secretary of the Treasury, was chairman. That was before Whalen was chairman. We were all sitting around wondering what to do about Captain Fried.
"'I've got it,' I yelled, and everybody looked at me. 'Give him a scroll,' " I said.
"'Hector,' said Jimmy Walker, 'that's a swell idea.' And it was. I wrote the scroll right then and there. It was engraved and embossed and it cost $2,100, but what the hell! Listen, those scrolls gave the people what they wanted, didn't they? It was a good show, wasn't it? Do you remember Gertrude Ederle? The crowds? The enthusiasm? And Queen Marie! My God, what a welcome!"
Fuller, who always appeared at such functions attired in striped trousers, spats and cutaway, said the scrolls were not hard to write and that he had written about 100 of them. One who disagreed with Fuller's estimate of his excellence as a scroll writer was the City Comptroller, General Charles W. Berry, who on one occasion rejected some of the bills of the reception committee and said the scrolls were "written in bad English." To the last Fuller prized a letter from Prime Minister MacDonald in answer to a letter from Fuller apologizing for his slip at the reception. The letter from MacDonald said: I think that the comments made upon the delightfully human slip you made show a great lack of humor and an in ability to appreciate the position in which you found yourself. It was the sort of slip of the tongue that every one of us has committed again and again when we found ourselves in stirring conditions, and so far from detracting from the efficient way you performed your duty, it only put a touch of delightfulness into the whole affair which enhanced its uniqueness."
Later, some unkind person suggested that the real reason the State Department didn't want Dino Grandi welcomed in New York was that Hector Fuller would be sure to confuse him with Mahatma Gandhi. Fuller was proud to the end, but a little worried. Late one afternoon in 1934 he went to a newspaper office to visit an editor whom he had known. He was nervous, but still carried his stick. His clothes were neat, his Homburg hat jaunty, his yellow gloves as clean as the day he bought them. He asked the editor for $5, and got it. That night the editor had to go to Washington. He picked up the New York papers the next morning and was shocked to see Fuller's picture on the first page. The great scroll writer had left the newspaper office, gone to his little apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, and turned on the gas. The police found him dead. His room was strewn with mementoes of the gaudy, devil-may-care days which seemed so long ago and so unreal.
Perhaps the most important reception in the era of Mayor Hylan was for King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium in October, 1919. They arrived on the transport George Washington and were welcomed at the pier by Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall and representatives of the State and Navy departments. They proceeded to the Waldorf-Astoria and passed the day sightseeing. The next day, according to the plans of the Mayor's committee, Rodman Wanamaker, chairman, they were to "officially arrive," board a warship at Thirty-fourth Street, and be taken down to Pier A at the Battery to start the ride to City Hall. King Albert, however, balked at boarding the warship. He and his family were taken to the Battery in Mr. Wanamaker's yacht, Noma. On the parade up Broadway he appeared greatly amused by the local habit of throwing things from windows, a practice which was then in its infancy.
Mayor Hylan made the welcoming speech at City Hall. Mr. Wanamaker draped a silk American flag about the shoulders of the King, and the silk flag of the City of New York about the Queen's shoulders. 'Everything went off fairly well. Emerging out upon the steps of City Hall, the King and Queen and Prince Leopold (later King), faced the photographers. It was there that a historic roorback started. Mrs. Hylan, in replying to some remark of Queen Elizabeth's, was reported to have said: "You said a mouthful, Queen." Mrs. Hylan was entirely innocent of this remark, though it was repeated as truth for many years.
The royal party then toured America. The Mayor of Milwaukee declared he would not invite the King to stop there, concluding his remarks with the words, "to hell with the King." However, the King drove a locomotive ten miles in Ohio, saw steel made in Pittsburgh, and accepted a blanket from Pete Prince, tribal judge of the Navajo Indians in New Mexico, and had an ice cream soda in Santa Barbara, California.
The reception for Captain Fried in 1926, at which the brave seaman received the scroll which Hector Fuller had dashed off, was historic largely because it marked the first appearance of a phrase which later was to be used over and over by Mayor Walker. That was his statement that New York was "the most cosmopolitan city in the world."
The visit of Queen Marie of Roumania in 1926 probably was more fun than any of the others. On October 15 the Queen, while on the Leviathan en route to New York, sent a wireless that she desired to continue up the bay on the Leviathan instead of being taken off by the "yacht" Macom. She thought the view of the skyline would be better from the Leviathan. Mr. Whalen, who was running the show, insisted on the Macom, pointing out that the program had been fixed and was "official." Marie agreed to take the ride on the Macom.
The Queen was landed at the Battery by Grover Whalen on October 18. It had been raining and the crowd was not as noisy as might have been expected. One of the army of photographers, because of the grayness of the skies, had put a double portion of flashlight powder in the "gun." When he set it off it sounded like a volley from a dozen Capone shotguns. The Queen flinched, winced and ducked, but Mr. Whalen managed to get her to City Hall, where Jimmy Walker was waiting.
Loudspeakers of the municipal radio station WNYC had been rigged up outside the Hall so that the crowds in the park and the streets could hear what was being said in the aldermanic chamber. As the procession approached City Hall steps a radio announcer inside the building did his stuff.
"Here comes the Queen now," his voice roared out of the loudspeakers just as the Queen was getting out of the automobile. The Queen smiled wanly and appeared confused. "The Queen is smiling," blared the announcer. Once inside the hall, she was received by Mayor Walker and Hector Fuller. They gave her a gold medal of the city, the key to the city and a vividly decorated scroll. Jimmy said in his speech:
"We have thousands of Roumanian stock in this world city, in this the most cosmopolitan city of the world, and today . . . may I not beg to assure you that the Roumamans have made as fine citizens as this country has within its borders? They have done much for the building of the city of New York."
(Walker was always glad to say the same thing about Turks, Syrians, West Indians Armenians, Greeks, Serbs, Croats or Basques.)
Mayor Walker then climbed into the automobile with Queen Marie and sat beside her on the ride up to the Pennsylvania Station, where she was to take a train to Washington. On the way there was a lull in which, for a moment, neither of these extremely articulate persons had anything to say. A voice came from the crowd: "What's the matter, Jimmy? Can't you make her?" At another point there came a sudden gust of wind, and Jimmy leaned over and tucked a robe around the Queen's ankles. Another voice called out: "Pretty soft, Jimmy!" Both the Mayor and the Queen laughed at this sally.
Some of the crowds at the station were doubtful that the woman with Jimmy really was the Queen, and demanded loudly, "Well, where's her crown?" But they were easily mollified and the Queen departed. The fuss made over the Queen in New York and other parts of the United States caused much comment abroad. For example, Sir John Foster Fraser wrote in Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard in London that "the United States should buy a King." He pointed out that 150 Americans had canceled their passages on other ships to go on the Leviathan so that they could be on the same ship with the Queen. Sir John went on: "Americans are nice people and do not repress their feelings like decadent Europeans. The Americans must really get a King and Queen of their own. They will never be happy until they do." An editorial in the same paper stated:
"We have not yet heard that by some marvel of engineering the Statue of Liberty has been made to curtsy as Marie passes but nothing else seems lacking to show how dearly a republic can adore a regular royal Queen."
The reaction of the United States was described as an acute "royal spasm." It was recalled by old-timers that when the late King Edward visited the United
States as the Prince of Wales, New York women stormed his dressing room and bottled the water with which he washed his hands. The editorial writer went on to call Americans "the richest and least responsible people in the world" who were "all dressed up and no place to go."
The train on which the Queen started West was elaborate in the extreme. In addition to three Pullman sleepers for lesser members of the entourage, it included the private car of Daniel Willard, president of the Baltimore & Ohio; the dining car Martha Washington, frequently used to entertain the President and Mrs. Coolidge on their trips; the private car of Howard Elliott, chairman of the Northern Pacific, and the observation-salon car used on the North Coast Limited, crack train of the Northern Pacific from Chicago to Seattle. A powerful searchlight on the roof of the observation car enabled the Queen to see any of the Western scenery she cared to at night.
On the trip the Queen received a lawn mower and an ice machine as souvenirs. The city of Piqua, Ohio, gave her a silver shovel for use in her garden. Indianapolis wanted to give her a gold key but decided that the $25 remaining in the city treasury could not be used for such a purpose. In Seattle a paroled convict who posed as a Roumanian prevailed upon the Queen to attend a theatrical benefit he was giving for Roumanian children. This fellow pocketed $900, half the proceeds, out of which he paid back $45 he had borrowed to promote the benefit. He also paid the rent of his dinner clothes. At one stop the Queen was offered a cough drop, and, according to a newspaper report, took it just like an American would."
While the train was in the Northwest a society woman of that region clamored to get aboard. The party was already having its trouble with Sam Hill, the nervous Northwestern host of the Queen, and with Loie Fuller, dancer friend of the Queen who was accompanying the party. The society woman was denied a place.
"But I shall join the party," she shouted. "She is my guest."
Again she was told it was impossible. Then she cried: "Didn't I put up $100,000 to finance this tour?" Nevertheless, she didn't get on the train. There were other troubles. Sam Hill threatened to slap the face of Major Stanley Washburn, special aide of the Queen. Hill left the train at Seattle. Loie Fuller, fed up, quit the train at Denver on the way back East. J. B. Ayres, representative of the Ford Motor Company, was put off the train after he had been credited with making statements that Henry Ford was not only supplying the automobiles used at various stops but was lending money for current expenses. Later, in New York, Ayres was reinstated in the party at the re quest of Princess Ileana. Mr. Hill also rejoined the group in New York. At the end of the trip the Queen, remarking that she had "met a lot of lovely Mayors," went on:
"This time America has seen me. Next time I intend to see America. I had to do as the officials told me. If they said I should climb on top of a house I might say, 'But it is windy, I would rather be in the garden,' but I climbed on top of the house just the same. You see, I am a good soldier."
Something of the Queen's apparent feeling about American pomp was shared by the City Council of Minneapolis. An alderman introduced a resolution calling upon all members of the council to wear silk hats, morning coats and canes in honor of the Queen. He was howled down. One member described the Queen as "an international gold-digger bumming her way across the United States." He added that "Roumania is only about the size of Duluth, anyway."
Most of the New York welcomings, large and small, followed the same general pattern, but each had its little peculiarities. Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd was received three times: after his flight over the North Pole; with Clarence Chamberlin in a combined celebration to mark their almost simultaneous flights across the Atlantic, and again after his first trip to the Antarctic.
In general, if a guest belonged to the upper flight of achievement there was the parade up Broadway from the Battery amid the shower of ticker tape, telephone books and old paper. At City Hall, no matter what the occasion, Jimmy Walker did his stuff with the grace of an accomplished actor. Most of the receptions were held at noon or a little afterward, because it was easy then to draw a crowd of thousands of persons in downtown New York who were out for lunch.
Sometimes Jimmy was late for a reception. He was half an hour late when he received General Umberto Nobile in 1926. He explained that an injured knee was giving him trouble, and added: "There is a saying around town that if Mayor Walker is an hour late he is on time." On another occasion he kept Maria Jeritza, Lucrezia Bori and other Metropolitan Opera stars, who were on some charitable mission in which Jimmy was said to be interested, waiting for an hour. Jeritza didn't like it, but Jimmy's wisecracks soon put everybody in good humor.
Paul Whiteman, back from a trip to Europe, was received in July, 1926. Before entering the Hall he stopped by the pool around the statue of Civic Virtue and tossed coins to the boys splashing there. Gene Tunney was received in the fall of 1926 after he had won the heavyweight championship from Jack Dempsey in Philadelphia. In December of that year it was announced that, because of the heavy pressure of official business, guests would not be received except on Tuesdays and Fridays. This rule was not long observed. Later the Mayor welcomed same soccer players from Montevideo, Uruguay. In receiving the American Olympic skating team, back from St. Moritz, Switzerland, the Mayor remarked, "I had a skate on once myself." Another guest was Jimmy McLarnin, then a contender for the lightweight championship. Walter Hagen was received after he had won the British open golf championship. Later Bobby Jones, after winning both the British open and amateur golf championships, was received with the whole works-fireboats squirting water, bands playing, falling ticker tape and toilet paper, and music and speeches at City Hall. At the reception in 1930 for Major James H. Doolittle, aviator, it was noted that seven members of the Sanitation Department Band were in pink shirt sleeves. To correct this sloppiness, the band was ordered to appear in gaudy uniforms of blue, white and orange. There was a terrible crush at the Hall in 193 I when the Mayor presented loving cups to Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith and other performers who had won popularity contests sponsored by a tabloid newspaper. Four women fainted from the heat.
The Mayor was surprised in 1927 when thirty-five Blackfeet Indians visited City Hall to make him Chief Many Rider. Jimmy was assured by Chief Little Dog of the Blackfeet that Many Rider was "a famous warrior and horse-stealer of our tribe a hundred years ago." The Mayor was almost, but not quite, nonplused one day when a 200-pound Swiss cheese was carried into City Hall with the compliments of the officials of Berne, Switzerland. Jimmy turned to an aide and said: "Go out and get me a cracker." The aide replied that there were no crackers, only the Mayor of Lancaster, England, waiting outside to be received. The two Mayors had their pictures taken with the cheese.
The Mayor enjoyed receiving Andrew Joseph ('Bossy") Gillis, the Mayor of Newburyport, Mass., in 1928. Later he welcomed Raffaele Maiullari, a Bronx ice man who couldn't read or write but who had distinguished himself by going around the world in twenty-seven and a half days.
It was along in May, 1931, when the tomtoms of doom were already being heard for the Walker regime, that criticism began to be heard of the reception system. The New York Board of Trade, after thinking things over, adopted a resolution opposing the dumping of ticker tape and whatnot on the heads of visitors. Said the board: "It is a poor tribute to a great person to empty a waste basket over him." The board called upon business men to cooperate "in adopting a more suitable and dignified method of welcoming distinguished guests." The board even went so far as to suggest that some of the receptions had not been "in good taste." Robert de Beauplau, writing of New York receptions in L'Illustration, told of what he had seen in America. He said:
"The soul of a crowd is in large measure the soul of a race. Here one saw the American people replete with a facility of juvenile admiration, with a collective and docile infatuation for any one who can boast of having accomplished something."
The New York World, in one of its sarcastic editorials, once complained, when several weeks had elapsed without a reception:
"The time has come for a return to the good old days. We move you, Mr. Police Commissioner, that within the week, some visitor to these shares be given a rousing welcome and we don't care who he is. Let him be chosen at random from the lists of the Bremen, the Berengaria, the Aquitania or any reputable ship; let him be honored for whatever he has done, or if it turns out that he has done nothing, let him be honored for that. Whoever he is, let there be soldiers, boy scouts, representatives of fraternal organizations formed into a mammoth parade. Let there be cheers, wisecracks, pot hats, white spats, gardenias: above all, let there be music."
The first actual rebuff to the city welcoming committee was in June, 1929. Owen D. Young, Thomas W. Lamont and Thomas N. Perkins, the American delegation returning from the Paris conference to settle the German war debt, radioed and pleaded to be excused from a formal welcome. The city was also miffed, but not seriously, when President Coolidge insisted that Colonel Lindbergh land first at Washington after his flight to Paris. When the city once got its hands on Lindbergh it did itself proud. It was the largest of all celebrations, and one of the few that was largely spontaneous.
The Prince of Wales, on his visits in 1919 and 1924, got off with little embarrassment. On the first trip he called on President Wilson in Washington, then was received at City Hall by Mayor Hylan, called by Rodman Wanamaker «John Faithful Hylan." On the second visit the Prince traveled incognito and remained pretty much on Long Island, at the estate of James A. Burden at Syosset. He may have heard of his grandfather and the women who collected water.
It was great fun while it lasted. It cost vast sums of money. The picture changed rather rapidly. Mayor Walker retired to Dorking, England. Grover Whalen is still around town, better dressed than ever, and talked of as the next Mayor. Christy Bohnsack, who did much of the actual work on the receptions, is working for the municipal radio station. The Sanitation Department Band has been abolished and its members set to following the horses. Hector Fuller is in heaven, writing pink scrolls a mile wide with a celestial paint gun. Today, when the suggestion is made to Mayor LaGuardia that the city kick up its official heels in welcoming someone, the reply is more likely than not to be a simple, contemptuous "Nuts!"