The Only Honest Man

My grandfather introduced the Charleston to Paris.  Or the  zipper. Maybe it was both.

  He paved the streets of Brooklyn and made a fortune mining for Alaskan gold.

            He kissed the Blarney Stone and the pope’s ring.

            But what made him proudest was the encomium bestowed on him by Judge Samuel Seabury during the 1932 corruption hearings that led to the downfall of Jimmy Walker, the flamboyant Tammany Hall Mayor of New York City. 

            “You sir, are the only honest man to come before this tribunal.” 

            As a child, I remember my grandfather often harking, like a beloved melody, to that compliment. In a long and colorful life, the judge’s praise was a high point when his integrity was affirmed at a time when scandal claimed so many around him.

            But that’s all I knew. Like most of his stories, told around the Sunday dinner table or when I visited him in the furnished room at the YMCA where he spent his final days, this was ancient history. Then a few years back, one of my brothers sent me pages 288-299 from  “Gentleman Jimmy Walker: Mayor of the Jazz Age,” a biography by George Walsh published in 1974.

            “Thought these might interest you,” Jeff’s scribbled note in the margin said. “There’ll never be another Billy Scanlan!!!”

            An image flashed before me. My silver-haired and mustachioed grandfather, at 85 still the very picture of a smooth operator, in a dark blue double-breasted suit, Fedora cocked at a jaunty angle, waving his polished hickory cane in the air, announcing to anyone in earshot, “There’ll never be another Billy Scanlan!”

            We called him Baba, the mangled pronunciation produced by his first grandchild, my brother, Jay. But to everyone else, he was Billy, and that signature phrase echoes in my head today, nearly 40 years after his death.

            Those photocopied pages my brother mailed me told a different story about the only honest man to come before the Seabury commission.

            They would lead me, years later, to the fragile, typewritten transcript of the commission hearings, buried in the library of the New York State Bar Association in Manhattan. There in a yellowing three-ring binder, I found the truth about his hour on the witness stand.

            From there, the trail took me a few blocks away to the New York Public Library. For all his Irish cockiness, my grandfather wasn’t a famous man. I was amazed to see, under the canopy of a microfilm reader, that for two days in the spring of May 1932, Baba was front-page news on every one of the city’s newspapers, from the scrappy Daily News to the staid New York Times.

            On those balmy spring afternoons, my grandfather, an obscure but well-connected salesman, whose friendship with Jimmy Walker had paid off with lucrative commissions on the sale of city equipment, became a linchpin in the government’s case against the Tammany Hall political machine and the songwriting Irish-American playboy pol who epitomized the light and dark sides of the Roaring Twenties.

            These documents, along with private records I managed to secure, and the reporter’s chief investigative tool—legwork—would help me recreate and rewrite a hidden and sordid chapter in my family’s past. My research would lead to a discovery that taught me just how bitterly the sins of our fathers are visited upon their sons and the sons yet to come, forcing me to consider my own personal history in ways I could never have imagined. Ultimately, the story of my grandfather’s rise and fall set me on a search to understand political corruption as a means of posing the single question that I wanted my grandfather to answer: Why?

            Unable to do so, I relied on the journalistic paradigm that guides reporting and writing. Five simple words: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? I wanted to learn the history of political corruption, its scope, and the cultural, political and economic reasons that made it possible. Most of all, I wanted to understand the psychology behind decisions made by people, like my grandfather, who chose graft over an honest living, how they justified it and deluded themselves about its destructive impact on civic and family life.


            Wednesday May 18, 1932 was a beautiful day in New York City. The forecast called for fair and warmer temperatures and a light northerly breeze to carry the aromas of spring. By 3 p.m. when my grandfather took the stand at the County Courthouse on Foley Square, it was 67 degrees in Manhattan.

By all accounts, he didn’t come across well, displaying none of the braggadocio that was his trademark with his grandchildren.           

            “Scanlan is pompous and middle-aged, an old friend of the Walker family,” the Herald-Tribune’s man on the scene reported. “He used to share an office with Charles F. Murphy Jr., but in these days of depression, he carries his office in his hat and gets a good many of his telephone calls at Cortland 7-1000, the Mayor’s office number. But however at home he may feel at City Hall, he was the most miserable witness that has faced Mr. Seabury in a long time.”

            Reading this description nearly 70 years after it saw print, I cringe. How must his 17-year-old son, my father, then a student at a pricey Catholic prep school in Connecticut, reacted to this portrait drawn by an anonymous reporter with an eye and ear for the telling detail and a flair for character assassination, justified or not.

            In the summer of 1974 I spent an afternoon in a federal courtroom in Washington D.C., I was a young newspaper reporter on a busman’s holiday, observing a trial of one of the Watergate defendants.  What I remember about that day was the way the prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, later described as “the attack dog–an in-your-face, take-no-prisoners type” lawyer cross-examined the witness on the stand.  I can’t remember if he actually paced the courtroom as he spoke, but it seemed that with each question he came close and closer to the nervous man on the stand.  It was fascinating to watch, like a panther stalking his prey. 

            That performance comes to mind as I sit at my desk, my grandfather’s testimony and the newspaper accounts that reported it in excruciating detail spread out around me.

            Back then, it was Seabury who zeroed in on a curious coincidence uncovered during the paper chase conducted by his investigators: Two days after my grandfather earned a $10,000 commission on the sale of dustless street cleaning machines to the city, a check for $6,000 drawn on his account landed in a special bank account controlled by the mayor’s personal accountant. Walker’s accountant, a man named Russell T. Sherwood, had responded to the commission’s subpoenas by moving to Mexico.

            My grandfather told Seabury he couldn’t help. He had recently burned his checkbook, he said, along with all of his other financial records after moving to a new home. That explanation didn’t set well with Seabury, a 57-year-old reformer whose great-great grandfather had been the first Episcopal bishop in the United States. Again, the view from the Herald-Tribune:

            “Seabury rode Scanlan unmercifully in cross-examination, making fun of his story of the destroyed vouchers. The inquisitor’s voice was eloquent with sarcasm and Scanlan fidgeted nervously but stuck to his story.”

            “Well,” Seabury said, “where was this bonfire made?”

            “Out in my backyard,” Baba said.

             “Out in the backyard?”

            “Yes sir.”

             “Anyone else present?”

             “I guess my wife and boys might have seen the conflagration.” (This response struck me as odd, since my father was an only child.)

              “That is all? No special ceremony?”

            The courtroom erupted in laughter. The chairman gaveled order.

             “Oh no.”

             Assemblyman Cuvillier, a Walker partisan, objected, but the chairman let Seabury continue.

            “You just touched a match to it?”

            “Yes sir.”

             “Didn’t take long before they were all consumed?”

             “I did it by degrees”

             “You had to touch more than one match to them?”

            “Several times.  Each package that I destroyed I naturally had to put a match to.”

            Again, Assembly Cuvillier protested. “He said it was destroyed by fire, and I don’t see what difference it makes whether he used one match or a thousand matches.” 

            Ignoring him, Seabury pressed on. “How long did it take?” My grandfather looked on as Walker’s defender tried to halt the attack.  

             “He is perfectly frank and honest about the transaction,” Cuvillier said.

            Across the space of nearly 70 years, the prosecutor’s curt reply, caught by the court reporter, shook the foundations of every story Baba had ever told me: the tales of his prospecting days in Alaska; his golden days as a Gotham contractor with friends in high places; his career in vaudeville, his roster of famous friends from Mayor Walker to the prizefighter Gene Tunney, and Judge Seabury’s withering description of Baba’s honesty.

             “I submit,” Seabury told the commission, “there is no justification for that statement what ever, that this man has been perfectly honest and frank.”
 

            A week later, sitting in the same witness chair, Jimmy Walker couldn’t think of any reason why my grandfather should have deposited $6,000 of the ten grand commission he’d earned on the street sweeper sale to his accountant’s bank account. He’d never given Scanlan “nor anyone else” any help to get a city contract.

            The head of the city’s public works department informed the commission that not only were the machines my grandfather sold the city not dustless; they were also useless as street sweepers. But what must have hurt Baba more was the way “Gentlemen Jimmy” characterized their relationship.

            “Do you know William J. Scanlan?” Seabury asked.

            “Slightly,” the mayor shrugged. “I very seldom saw him.”
 

            Three months later, on June 10, 1933, my father graduated from Canterbury Prep. Far from the weakest student – his final class ranking was 8th in a class of 17 – there seems little doubt, as I study my father’s high school report card, provided by the school’s alumni office, that something had gone terribly wrong.

            In English, Latin and French, his best subjects, his grades nose dived from middle and high Bs in 1930, his freshman year to a dispiriting collection of low Ds,  and just barely, Cs by his senior year. There may have been other reasons, but I can’t help but notice that his poor performance in school dovetailed with the period that legions of New York City newspapers were painting his own father as a Tammany Hall grafter.

            The following fall, while his classmates were enrolling at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, my father entered Georgetown University, then a respectable Catholic school but nothing near the Ivy League halls that Canterbury proudly prepared their students—among them, Sargent Shriver, who played football and basketball with Dad, and later served as the first director of the Peace Corps, and, briefly, John F. Kennedy—to occupy. It didn’t really matter. With the death of the Tammany Hall golden goose, my grandfather could no longer afford to pay tuition, and my father was forced to withdraw before completing his freshman year. He never went back.

            Now unemployed, my grandfather needed his son to support him and his wife. Apparently, Baba retained enough pull in some circles to find his son employment after my father was forced to leave college—selling nylons to department stories.

 (This essay appeared originally in the Spring 2001 issue of River Teeth, a Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and was selected as a “Notable Essay of 2002” in Best American Essays edited by Stephen Jay Gould and Robert Atwan. )

Photography by Alexander Mils, courtesy of unsplash.com

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