Frank D. Waterman's Run for Mayor: New York City, 1925

[The PENnant 1995]

One might be forgiven for thinking that the story of Waterman's rise is the story of one man, Lewis Edson Waterman – apocryphal tales of ink spots on insurance contracts and all. Yet when L.E. died in 1901, Waterman's glory years were still to come. It was Frank D. Waterman (1869-1938), L.E.'s nephew and designated successor, who was to lead the firm to international dominance through the following decades.(1)

While browsing The New York Times Index some time back, I discovered that FDW had also made a foray into politics in the mid-'20s. In 1925 he ran as the Republican candidate for Mayor of New York City, but was thoroughly trounced by the infamous James J. "Jimmy" Walker, who had upset the incumbent Mayor John F. Hylan for the Democratic nomination. Walker's reign was to mark the apogee of Tammany power and corruption, and the campaign was rough and tumble throughout. Waterman, who had been a vocal critic of Tammany's mismanagement of municipal affairs – the expansion of the subways was a particularly hot issue – soon found himself the target of repeated accusations of hostility to labor, discriminatory hiring practices, and anti-Semitism.

It is not always easy to evaluate such charges working solely from the pages of The Times. A labor historian might be able to tell us whether FDW really did break up the Pen Grinders' Union, as the Socialist mayoral candidate Norman Thomas claimed. FDW sidestepped the charge, maintaining that Waterman's salaries were typical of the industry, and that there had never been any labor "controversy" save some opposition to the employment of women at the beginning of WW1 (24 Oct 1925, 3:2-6).(2)

Other accusations prompted prolonged give and take, leaving us with more to go on. FDW and Mayor Hylan had been at odds for some time over expansion and management of the subways; FDW was chairman of a pro-expansion advocacy group, The Citizens' Committee of One Thousand. In August of 1923, Mayor Hylan went ad hominem. He distributed to the press copies of a letter on Waterman stationery, dated some 25 years before. It informed the recipient that the firm would give him a job interview the next day, on condition that he be Protestant (15 Aug 1923, 19:6). FDW responded promptly, calling the letter a fake and releasing a tally of Waterman employees demonstrating that the majority were not Protestant. According the this tally, 106 of the office workers were Catholic, 94 Protestant, and 8 Jewish. Of the factory workers, 448 were Catholic, 355 Protestant, and 32 Jewish. Furthermore, only 15% of the employees of Waterman's Canadian subsidiary were Protestant, and there was but one Protestant in Waterman's Paris branch (22 Aug 1923, 17:6). Many of FDW's Catholic and Jewish employees also rallied to his support, signing petitions affirming that Waterman did not discriminate in employment.

Whether or not the letter was a fake, its date placed it before FDW's tenure as chief executive. Evidence of discrimination at Waterman a generation before, perhaps; evidence of continuing discrimination, no. As a smear, it was a rather weak effort, but it seemed to hit a nerve. With no new evidence and heedless of FDW's reply, Hylan and his team continued to paint FDW as a bigot over the following months (30 Mar 1924, 8:1). The allegations dogged FDW as he began his run for Mayor; though he repeated his rebuttal on several occasions, Tammany's operatives kept repeating the same charges (1 Sep 1925, 3:2; 3 Sept, 5:1; 20 Oct, 4:2). By this time Walker had defeated Hylan for the Democratic nomination.

Up to this point, the mudslinging doesn't seem to have been terribly successful. Tammany, at least, didn't think so, for at the end of October, only days before the election, they released another letter, this one more recent (31 Oct 1925, 1:5; printed in full in The Morning Telegraph). The letter bore the signature of William M. Kimball, manager of the Fountain Inn of Eustis, Florida – a hotel owned by FDW and his family – and it explicitly informed the recipient, a Miss Esther Rabinowitz (c/o Lauer), that "patronage of members of the Hebrew persuasion was not solicited." FDW immediately denounced the letter as a "Tammany frame-up," revealing that no Esther Rabinowitz lived at the address to which the letter had been sent, but that one Bertha Lauer did – a stenographer on the personal staff of Joseph Johnson, Commissioner of Public Works and Tammany Director of Publicity for the Walker campaign (1 Nov 1925, 27:1). In response, the Walker campaign released yet more letters: a query from one John F. Keating, who had written to the Fountain Inn, with the inflammatory statement: "My understanding is that the hotel does not admit as guests any of the obnoxious element, and that one can there find himself among our own," and a return letter with an assuring response, signed by the intrepid manager Kimball (2 Nov 1925, 4:2). This correspondence, too, bore signs of irregularity, for Keating, once located, denied any knowledge of it. On the eve of the election, Harold Aron, Waterman Campaign Chairman, called for a Federal inquiry into the whole matter (3 Nov 1925, 2:5). The situation was further confused by the disappearance of Kimball, accompanied by rumors of his presence in New York. Odds on Walker were running 15-1, with no takers for Waterman.

FDW lost in a landslide, and as the city's attention moved on to other things, the flap over the letters faded away. Two last articles appeared later in the month. The first took note of a report that FDW's pre-election claim to have fired Kimball (a claim not carried in The Times before the election) was a sham, and that Kimball was only on leave and would return to work (17 Nov 1925, 15:2). The second reported that FDW had indeed discharged Kimball, who had finally severed all ties with the Inn (24 Nov 1925, 15:3).

Why did FDW fire Kimball? The inescapable conclusion is that Kimball did write the fateful letters after all. Neither he nor the Waterman campaign ever denied their authenticity, and though FDW expostulated against a "Tammany frame-up", the only letters explicitly questioned were those that prompted Kimball's replies. Doubtless Tammany was behind those letters; what mattered, however, was what they had revealed.

It is likely that FDW never appreciated the political consequences of owning a hotel which excluded Jews.  In most parts of the country it would have been no handicap, but New York, a city of immigrants, saw things differently.  Certainly FDW was not much of a politician, and though I have focussed on the bigotry issue, there were a hundred other issues guaranteeing that Walker would have trounced FDW regardless. Walker was the man who promised everything to everybody; FDW was the man who refused to kiss his wife for the press photographers after leaving the voting booth. Jimmy Walker went on to infamy, and FDW returned to the business of pens. The Fountain Inn was later given to the Lake County (Florida) Medical Association to be transformed into a hospital, which operates as the Waterman Hospital to this day.

NB: All references in the text are to the New York Times, by date, page, and column(s).


Notes: Back to Main Text

1. FDW had already shown his initiative by taking a booth at the Chicago World's Fair of 1892; according to the biography in the 1939 memorial pamphlet (available through the PCA's Reference Library), there were but 26 Waterman employees when FDW became president of the firm, as opposed to 1043 US employees in 1923 (see above) and some 2000 in 1938.

2. Nearly fifteen years later, Consumer Reports rated Waterman's labor relations rather highly. This tells us little, however, about Waterman in the 'teens and '20s. Further research is called for, beginning at the New York Public Library and New York University's special collection of labor movement documents.


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Copyright 1999  David Nishimura. All rights reserved.