Okay, I cheated a bit with this headline. Technically, this is called the William Jay Gaynor Memorial. But the men (and so far, it’s been all men) who have held what John Lindsay once called “the second-toughest job in America" have, more often than not, ended up nonentities to most New Yorkers several decades after their deaths.
So, I figured that giving his title in the headline might bring at least more recognition to William Jay Gaynor than he’s had in a while. I myself knew next to nothing about him when I saw this monument to him in Cadman Plaza Park, near the Brooklyn Bridge, and decided to photograph it back in October. I decided, at some point, that I would research his life and career. So much for good intentions.
Then, in November, I came across a New York Times article about Presidential aspirants who found their final resting place in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, and became interested in a hurry. Gaynor not only belonged to this group, but among an even smaller, more fortunate one: a politician who’d been shot—and survived. For a while, anyway.
The bust of Gaynor, little noticed these days, was created by Adolph Alexander Weinman. The German-born sculptor added, to each side, allegorical bas-reliefs representing law and strength on one side and knowledge and ease on the other. One side sounds like the attributes of someone dedicated to the life of the law; the other, a politician. If it sounds a bit incongruous, it wasn’t more so than the thought that Tammany Hall would nominate this reforming state supreme court justice, for Mayor.
According to H.L. Mencken, reviewing a biography of Gaynor in the February 1932 issue of his magazine, The American Mercury: “When he sat on the bench in Brooklyn he [Gaynor] tried to enforce it to the letter, to the natural scandal of his brethren of the ermine. Scarcely a day went by that he did not denounce the police for their tyrannies. He turned loose hundreds of prisoners, raged and roared from the bench, and wrote thousands of letters on the subject, many of them magnificent expositions of Jeffersonian doctrine. Unfortunately, his strange ideas alarmed the general run of respectable New Yorkers quite as much as they alarmed his fellow judges, and so he was always in hot water.”
A former Christian Brother, Gaynor would not interfere with citizens enjoying Sundays as they wished, whether going to saloons or playing baseball. But, to Tammany Hall’s post-election horror, he had a short way with patronage seekers, and a marvelous asperity that would surely come in handy nowadays in dealing with fake news. ("Dear Sir," he wrote one correspondent while in City Hall, “I care nothing for common rumor, and I guess you made up the rumor in this case yourself.")
In August 1910, just as he was about to depart for Europe on a vacation, Gaynor was shot by James Gallagher, who was angry over being fired from the Docks Department a few weeks earlier. The bullet, lodged in Gaynor's throat, was too dangerous to be removed, his doctors decided. Though the mayor recovered and returned to work, the stuck bullet left him subject to frequent, exhausting coughing spasms.
At the 1912 Democratic Convention, Gaynor was mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate, and actually received one vote on each of six ballots until the delegates finally turned to New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, the winner that fall.
The following year, with Tammany firmly rejecting him and a Republican-Fusion ticket supporting John Purroy Mitchell, Gaynor attempted to assemble his own coalition for a re-election bid. That September, exhausted from his efforts, he was on another vacation to Europe when he died. Thousands paid their final respects to him as his body lay in state on a bier in City Hall.
Only 19 years later, Mencken was already noting that Gaynor was “almost if not quite forgotten.” The memorial in Cadman Plaza ensures that the mayor never will be completely lost to curious visitors.