by Vincent J. Cannato
July 15, 2001
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Lindsay is the product of a phenomenon peculiarly untimely, at least in literature: a white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, upwardly-mobile family.
A Political Portrait, 1970
There was little in John Lindsay's background that suggested a political career in New York City. Young men from Yale usually carved out careers for themselves on the upper floors of the city's skyscrapers as lawyers or bankers and raised families in some suburban enclave. When they entered the political arena it was usually to donate money. By contrast, those who ran for office typically came from more modest backgrounds, armed with diplomas from City College or St. John's University in Queens. Mayor Robert Wagner was an exception;he graduated from Yale; but he had the hangdog look that seemed typical of politicians representing the workingmen and women of New York City. Wagner's persona, though belying a shrewd intelligence, put him at home among the city's traditional Democratic clubhouse politicians and helped the average New Yorker to identify with him.
In contrast, everything about Lindsay seemed patrician. Six feet four, he looked rich and acted rich. In fact, though, Lindsay's family came from a humble background, and contrary to popular myths about the city's WASPs, he was not descended from old-stock blue-bloods, nor did he come from the money families of Gilded Age businessmen like the Rockefellers or Vanderbilts. He did not know financial security as defined by New York society. He would have been considered wealthy in Kansas City or Cleveland, but in New York he was, in monetary terms, only middle class.
Lindsay's grandfather was a brick manufacturer named John James Lindsay who emigrated to the United States after his brick kiln on the Isle of Wight failed in 1884. He settled in New York and worked at the National Bank of Commerce, where he never rose above the rank of clerk. His son, George, attended New York University Law School at night while working as a clerk on Wall Street during the day. After earning his law degree, George Lindsay became an investment banker. Along the way he married Florence Eleanor Vliet, the daughter of a successful contractor in Newark, New Jersey. Vliet, descended from an old Dutch family that helped settle colonial New Jersey, had graduated from Wellesley College and gone to New York to attend drama school. She toured with a traveling acting company and even acted once with Edward G. Robinson. Although she gave up her thespian aspirations to marry George Lindsay, she bestowed the love of the theater on her son John.
George and Florence Lindsay began their married life in an apartment on West End Avenue in the Eighties, a thoroughfare nestled between Broadway and Riverside Drive on Manhattan's Upper West Side that was home to many in the city's respectable professional class. Eventually, the Lindsays had four sons and a daughter. The third and fourth children, John Vliet Lindsay and his twin brother, David, were born on November 24, 1921. As George Lindsay prospered in his banking career, the family moved across Central Park to the more fashionable Park Avenue. Later in his career, George Lindsay became president of American Swiss Corporation, an international banking firm affiliated with Credit Suisse in Zurich, and his name was an established entry in the Social Register.
All of the Lindsay children attended the best schools. John went to Buckley in Manhattan before prepping at St. Paul's, in Concord, New Hampshire. He then became a member of the class of 1944 at Yale, where he rowed crew and was elected to Scroll and Key. (David Lindsay also attended Yale; he was selected for the more prestigious Skull and Bones, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.) As was the case for many of his generation, Lindsay's education imbued him with a sense of the importance of public service. When World War II dimmed the importance of traditional academic and social pursuits, John Lindsay graduated early, in 1943, and received a commission in the U.S. Navy. Soon, in the summer of 1943, he saw action in the Mediterranean during the invasion of Sicily. As a gunnery officer aboard the destroyer USS Swanson, he called in the ship's artillery strikes from the beach. After nine months in the European Theater, the Swanson spent the next two years in the Pacific in the fleet that supported the landings on Biak, Hollandia, and the Admiralty Islands. Later, the Swanson took part in the invasion of the Philippines. After three years at sea, Lieutenant Lindsay left the service in March 1946 as executive officer of the Swanson .
Like most other combat veterans, Lindsay rarely spoke of his war experiences, but these experiences undoubtedly left their mark. Lindsay later wrote: "The war played a part in my entering politics, as it did with other veterans.... Consciously or unconsciously, there is no doubt that three years of active service in the Navy contributed to my decision. Postwar frustrations, the restless strivings to find direction and moorings, led me toward government service." Initially, Lindsay's postwar frustrations led him to spend a few months as a ski bum in the West and two unhappy months in a training program as a bank clerk in Manhattan. The aimlessness ended with his enrollment in Yale Law School in 1946. Graduating in 1948, ahead of schedule, he finished an undistinguished eightieth out of a class of one hundred. In 1949, he married Mary Anne Harrison of Greenwich, Connecticut, whom he met at the wedding of Nancy Bush, the daughter of Connecticut's Senator Prescott Bush. John was an usher and Mary a bridesmaid. A Vassar graduate, Mary counted as distant relations two U.S. presidents, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. After a Greenwich wedding, the twenty-seven-year-old John and twenty-two-year-old Mary moved into Stuyvesant Town, a huge, middle-class, partially subsidized apartment complex on the eastern edge of Manhattan between Fourteenth and Twentieth Streets.
Lindsay began his law career at the firm of Webster, Sheffield, Fleischmann, Hitchcock & Chrystie, founded by the venerable Bethuel Webster, a reform-minded Republican who became one of Lindsay's mentors. John's older brother, George, had graduated a year before from Yale Law School and was working for the firm of Debevoise, Plimpton, McLean. His twin brother, David, graduated a year after John and followed his brothers by taking a position at another big firm, Davis, Polk, Wardwell, Sunderland & Kiendl. The youngest brother, Robert, became a successful banker. But politics was more important to John than the law and this set him apart not only from his brothers but from others in his social set. As one family friend said in 1966, John and Mary "could so easily have turned into bloodless Long Island types like everybody else they knew." But they chose not to.
Lindsay's politics were inherited, as was the case for many of his generation and class. Well into the second half of the twentieth century the Republican Party was predominantly the party of white Northern Protestants: penny-pinching New England Yankees, small-town Midwesterners, and urban WASPs who saw themselves on the front lines defending American democracy from immigrant hordes and the urban Democratic machines that represented them. As an adult, Lindsay took a critical look at his political inheritance. "It seemed to me," Lindsay concluded, "that it was important that this was the party of the individual, as I saw it, and as I still see it. It's the party of Lincoln, of civil rights, the protection of the person and his liberties against the majority, even against big business or the federal bureaucracy." As a teenager Lindsay once visited Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at City Hall, where the "Little Flower" impressed upon young Lindsay the anti-Tammany, good-government values of reform Republicanism. Lindsay's parents were Republicans, though George had voted for Al Smith for president in 1928 out of a sense of local pride. It would have been peculiar if John Lindsay had not become a Republican.
As a young lawyer at Webster, Sheffield, he began giving street-corner speeches on behalf of Republican candidates in the 1950 midterm elections. Increasingly immersed in local politics, he and his brother David helped found Youth for Eisenhower in 1951. By that summer, Lindsay was vice president of the New York Young Republicans and went to Paris to urge the popular General Eisenhower to run for president. Lindsay later spent much time volunteering on the 1952 Eisenhower campaign. After the election, he became president of the New York Young Republicans. The pull of politics increasingly outweighed the benefits of his life as an attorney in private practice. According to the journalist Roger Starr, Lindsay entered politics "not because he represented a constituency trying to change American life for its benefit, or to prevent its being changed to its detriment, but because he liked the competition, the feeling that in politics he could sense his movement forward even without compromising his `deep-rooted beliefs.'" Lindsay was lured into politics not by the desire to control other people's lives or to have access to the numerous perquisites power confers, but because it offered an escape from the dull, if comfortable, life of a Wall Street lawyer and allowed his beliefs and ideals, rather than material acquisitions, to define his life. Certainly, success was almost guaranteed to young Lindsay; but he wanted to make it his own kind of success, on his own terms.
Public service soon beckoned. When Lindsay's friend Charles Metzner left his position as executive assistant to Attorney General Herbert Brownell in the Eisenhower administration, he recommended Lindsay for the job. Starting at the Department of Justice in 1955, Lindsay worked on civil liberties cases and the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and on immigration issues, traveling to Austria and Germany to handle the Hungarian refugees fleeing from the 1956 Soviet invasion. In Brownell, an Establishment Republican stalwart, Lindsay found another mentor. In Lindsay, the young, ambitious attorney, Brownell found not only an able lawyer but also a possible Republican star in the traditional mold of Eastern Republicanism. Brownell suggested that Lindsay return to his practice in New York and run for Congress in 1958. By this time, John and Mary had three daughters, Katherine, Margaret, and Anne. Any decision to run for office would inevitably lead him away from his young family. Urging against such a run was his father, who warned him of the financial dangers of politics and told him he could accomplish more as a respected member of the bar. "If a person wants to go into public life," George Lindsay told his son, "he should first become established and financially successful. Then, if he still feels the urge, he can try to become secretary of State, if he can afford it." The self-made man warned his son of the dangers of patrician dreams.
The Seventeenth Congressional District, on the East Side of Manhattan, provided an ideal opportunity for the thirty-six-year-old Lindsay. Congressman Frederic (Fritz) Coudert was a six-term conservative Republican whose grandfather had founded the respected law firm Coudert Brothers. To win his seat, Coudert had defeated the incumbent, the liberal Republican Joseph Baldwin, in the 1946 primary. Coudert was backed by the New York County Republican club, led by a conservative, Tom Curran. The young liberal John Lindsay had volunteered on Baldwin's campaign while still in law school, having been impressed by a speech the congressman gave to Lindsay's class at St. Paul's on the value of public service.
The Seventeenth District had long been known as the Silk Stocking District, a term popularized by Theodore Roosevelt. The Silk Stocking District used to embody what Michael Barone, the editor of the Almanac of American Politics , terms "Herald Tribune Republicanism," named for the newspaper once owned by John Hay Whitney and preferred by the residents of the district. Home to the city's upper-class Protestant elite, the Silk Stocking District once stood for a genteel, though partisan, Republican politics that was generally conservative on economic issues and contemptuous of the urban masses and their political machines, but strong on issues of conservation, civil liberties, and civil rights. The district's cosmopolitan nature led to its support for a strong internationalist foreign policy.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the Silk Stocking District was represented by some famous names. Herbert Claiborne Pell Jr., descended from the family that lent its name to Pelham, New York, and the father of the future Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, represented the district as a Democrat from 1918 to 1920. Bruce Barton, the founder of the advertising firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne (BBD&O) and the author of the best-selling book The Man Nobody Knows, represented the district as a Republican from 1937 to 1940. His opposition to Roosevelt's domestic and foreign policies earned him inclusion in Roosevelt's famous denunciation of the Republican trio of "Martin, Barton, and Fish" (the other two being the Congressmen Joseph Martin and Hamilton Fish.)
The Seventeenth District achieved great fame owing to the wealth and power of its constituents as well as the fact that within its borders lay the institutions that define New York as a world-class international city, from the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan to bohemian Greenwich Village. During this time, the district was home to many of the nation's best-known cultural and communications institutions: the United Nations, the Empire State Building, Radio City Hall, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Madison Avenue, NBC, CBS, the New York Times , the Daily News , the Herald Tribune , Lincoln Center, Times Square, the Garment District, the Theater District, Broadway, New York University, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney, Frick, and Guggenheim Museums. In addition, the Silk Stocking's congressman represented New York's rich and powerful living at Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, and Sutton Place addresses, including politicians such as Governor Nelson Rockefeller; the 1948 Republican presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey; former New York Governor Averill Harriman; state Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz; and Senator Jacob Javits.
A great transformation in the district began in the 1950s. As Coudert observed in the early 1960s, "When you come down Park Avenue through the great mass of office buildings, those were once apartment buildings housing Republican voters. There isn't a voter on Park Avenue now below 61st Street." As Midtown office buildings pushed north into previously residential sections of the East Side, large, modern apartment buildings were being built throughout the Upper East Side, especially east of Lexington Avenue, replacing aging tenements. Into these buildings moved thousands of well-educated, professional, mostly single young men and women. By the early 1960s, the Silk Socking district contained the greatest concentration of single Americans of any district in the nation.
The era of "Herald Tribune Republicanism" ended when the New York Herald Tribune folded in 1966. The new paper of choice for Silk Stocking residents became the Democratic New York Times. As the countercultural revolution swept the nation during the 1960s, liberal politics became fashionable. Insurgent Greenwich Village Democrat Ed Koch, an early opponent of the Vietnam War, became the district's congressman in 1968. Politically, some residents became concerned with symbolic issues like support for the Black Panthers and the boycott of California grapes, or with issues of personal freedom like feminism, abortion, sexual liberation, civil liberties, and gay rights. Tom Wolfe spoofed the combination of nostalgie de la boue and traditional upper-class snobbery as "radical chic." His essay of that name was a satirical portrait of a fund-raiser Leonard Bernstein and his wife gave for the Black Panthers in their thirteen-room East Side penthouse duplex in January 1970. According to Barone, the change in the politics and composition of the district from "Herald Tribune Republicanism: to "radical chic" represented "a significant revolution in New York City politics, one made even more notable by the counter-revolution that has occurred in the rest of the city. Indeed it can be said that greening here set the stage for the making of the Silent Majority in the middle-class neighborhoods of the outer boroughs."
The early signs of change in the Seventeenth District came during Coudert's reelection campaigns in 1954 and 1956. In the off-year election of 1954, Coudert won by a mere 314 votes against Tony Akers, a young Democratic war hero. Two years later, running on Eisenhower's coattails, Coudert managed to defeat Akers in a rematch by almost 2,500 votes. But Coudert received 20,000 fewer votes in the Silk Stocking District than did Eisenhower. So, inspired by Coudert's apparent weakness, John Lindsay declared his intention in April 1958 to challenge Coudert for the Republican nomination for Congress.
Supporting Lindsay in his congressional bid was his mentor, Herbert Brownell, former Congressman Bruce Barton, Mrs. Wendell Willkie (the widow of the 1940 Republican presidential candidate), and Franklin Roosevelt's lone Republican son, John. When Coudert announced he would not seek reelection, the Republican regulars chose Elliot Goodwin. Like Lindsay, he was an Ivy Leaguer (Harvard), a World War II Navy veteran, and a lawyer. They even attended the same church: St. James' Episcopal on Madison Avenue. Lindsay, displaying a tenacious street campaigning style he would later utilize as mayor, defeated Goodwin in the August primary by a little over 2,000 votes. In the general election, Lindsay bested Akers by nearly 8,000 votes, leading the Times to call Lindsay "one of the bright hopes of the Republican Party." In the increasingly Democratic Silk Stocking District, John Lindsay represented a bridge between the old patrician Silk Stocking Republicanism and the new cultural liberalism.
Johnson also ordered a particularly significant study of the riots to be commissioned, which has led to the emergence of some of the most dangerous theories since the rise of Adolf Hitler.
-- Spatial Deconstruction, by Yolanda Ward
-- Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl
Lindsay's congressional tenure got off to a rocky start. By tradition, freshmen congressmen did not challenge statements made on the House floor by senior members. But John Lindsay quickly signaled to his fellow congressmen he would not play by traditional rules. In late January 1959, Congressman Noah Mason, an eleven-term Republican from downstate Illinois, gave a speech criticizing the activism of Earl Warren's Supreme Court. After several congressmen spoke in agreement with Mason, Lindsay rose to defend the Warren Court as "one of the great courts of our country" and ended by proclaiming his belief in "the theory that the Constitution is a living and growing document."
Lindsay quickly made a name for himself in his first two terms as a staunch defender of civil liberties and as something of a maverick, often casting lone votes against popular measures. In September 1959, the Pennsylvania Democrat Kathryn Granaham introduced a bill that would have extended the power of the postmaster general to impound obscene mail. The bill also would have shifted to the sender of the mail the burden of disproving charges of obscenity. The Justice Department's report of the bill labeled it unconstitutional. When Lindsay read the report, he became angry. In the House debate, Lindsay pointedly asked Granaham why Congress should pass her bill if the Justice Department believed it to be unconstitutional. At this, Speaker Sam Rayburn gaveled Lindsay into silence and took the floor himself in defense of the bill. Speaker after speaker spoke in favor of the bill. On a voice vote, Lindsay was the sole voice opposing the Granaham bill.
Excerpted from The Ungovernable City by Vincent J. Cannato. Copyright 2001 by Vincent J. Cannato. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.