The Mayor of Sarcastic, Witty and Candid Letters

John V. Lindsay often delivered homespun advice to ordinary constituents, and Edward I. Koch claims to have answered every letter or e-mail he has received. But a century ago, few elected officials were more prolific or perspicacious in their correspondence than William J. Gaynor, who became New York City’s mayor 103 years ago on Tuesday, and served until 1913.

A biographer, Lately Thomas, wrote that Mayor Gaynor’s “means of communicating with the mass of the people were two: the daily newspapers and the United States mails,” and that he spent a considerable amount of his workdays personally answering his constituents. One critic even complained that the mayor, who wrote thousands of his letters in office, conducted “government by epistle.”

In sheer numbers, probably no mayor except Mr. Koch came close. And Mayor Gaynor’s letters were distinguished by frequent references to philosophers and other learned figures whom he had encountered during his early religious training.

His candor, sagacity, vigorous defense of civil liberties and fierce independence (and his scrapping of the East River bridge tolls) endeared him to his constituents. In 1910, his shooting by a fired city employee prompted such an outpouring of sympathy that he was briefly mentioned for governor and even president. (Mayor Gaynor died three years later of complications from the wound.)

A former seminary student and State Supreme Court justice, he was nominated for mayor by the regular Democratic organization, but governed independently and was described as a liberal with libertarian leanings.

His inauguration as mayor on Jan. 1, 1910, was his first visit to City Hall. From then on, he routinely walked across the Brooklyn Bridge between his office and his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He often coupled common sense with Greek philosophy, which, he wrote, “seemed to astonish the whole journalistic fraternity in New York City.”

No less a cynic than H.L. Mencken pronounced Mayor Gaynor a “great political philosopher and a great soul” who “began an heroic but vain effort to give New York decent government.”

The mayor dictated his letters, many of which survive as typed copies in the municipal archives. No subject was too small; he once delivered a lengthy exposition on how to boil an egg.

Mayor Gaynor dismissed critics with sarcasm. Accusing a Republican politician of lying, he wrote, “Suppose you pray every morning for a while for God to direct you to tell the truth, and see what fruits it will bear.”

When Charles M. Frey, an erudite rat catcher, complained that his livelihood was threatened by repeated calls to jury duty, the mayor suggested that rat catchers be exempt, cautioning, though, that “so many exemptions have already been passed by the Legislature that there seems to be only the rat catchers and a few other people left to serve on juries.”

To a solicitation for a $10 contribution from the Anti-Saloon League, Gaynor wrote: “If I gave money in response to all the similar demands that are made on me, I should be bankrupt in short order.”

When a Christian minister asked for a license to preach conversion in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the mayor responded, “Did not we Christians get much or the most of what we have from the Jews?’’

When city aldermen proposed banning the Socialist’s red flag, Gaynor lectured, “They chose the color red for their emblem, not to signify that they favor violence or the shedding of blood, as the unintelligent suppose and as actions of those in official authority often lead people to believe, but for the purposes of typifying the common brotherhood of all men of all nations through the same red blood which flows through the veins of all.’’

Constituents frequently groused about noise. To one who was irked by the cries of newsboys, Gaynor wrote, “A whole lot of people have been hollering at me of late, but they do not disturb me, and much less does the hollering of the little newsboys disturb me.”

To another who worked in the Flatiron Building near a church presided over by his nemesis, the Rev. Charles H. Parkhurst, and who complained that the clock on the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower chimed 40 times an hour, he wrote: “But really, does the clock make as much noise as Dr. Parkhurst does? You know we all have to bear with something, and I am willing to do my share of it.”

When a Manhattan lawyer demanded that piano playing and singing be banned at night, especially during the summer when people open their windows, the mayor advised: “I hereby authorize you to carry out all of these reforms. It may be that you will first have to get elected to the Legislature, and pass laws therefor, for you know this is a government of laws, and not of men.”

He championed children’s street games, advising one young man who wrote him, “If you show this letter to the policeman, I think he will let you play with a soft rubber ball on 101st Street between Lexington and Park Avenues if you ask him and if you are careful not to hit other people.”

To a correspondent who grumbled that aldermen were extorting a fee to preside over marriages, he wrote, “if I had time I would marry you all for nothing.”

His reply to a Chicago woman reads like advice to the lovelorn: “You are looking for happiness in the wrong direction. I do not think there is any man living who would suit you. If you want to be really happy for the rest of your life, work for the happiness of others, and forget yourself.”

Gaynor was not easily impressed. Responding to a book by the pastor of a Park Slope church, he wrote that the Emancipation Proclamation “had to be almost extorted” from President Abraham Lincoln, “and the Russian emperor had done the like not long before.”

Of George Washington, Gaynor wrote that he was “of warm blood and prone to passion,” that he was “even known to have sworn like a trooper at times,” that his “face was pitted” and that he “was not the equal in knowledge of history, economics and government of the men who surrounded him.”

Many of the letters were answered the same day they were received. Form letters were dismissed. Anonymous ones were often answered in the press. “You are evidently a dishonest scamp, but I acknowledge the receipt of all letters,” he wrote one correspondent.

And to the National Publicity Bureau, which asked what message he would deliver to readers of the group’s 3,000-member newspapers, the mayor replied, “I would say to them to be very careful about believing all they see in the newspapers.”

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