Al Smith: Hero of the Cities (A Political Portrait Drawing on the Papers of Frances Perkins)

Plunkett Lake Press
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Al Smith (1873-1944) was born and grew up in New York’s Lower East Side slums and got his start in politics under Tammany Hall sponsorship. Frances Perkins was a New Englander, a trained social worker who became a public figure when Smith appointed her to the New York State Industrial Commission. They shared a concern for working people and a love for the Empire State, which Smith served as governor for four precedent-breaking terms between 1919 and 1928 after serving in the New York State Assembly between 1904 and 1915 as a member and later as Speaker.

Smith considered himself an Assemblyman. His record as governor is based on the solid understanding of politics he acquired in those years. It was also fostered by his encounter, at a decisive stage, with a group of reformers and social workers, including Belle Moskowitz who became his chief political strategist. Smith’s own great contribution was to show how reform could be made practicable.

As governor, Smith fought a running battle with an obstructive legislature; he was able to reorganize New York State’s sprawling executive departments, protect women and children in industry, strengthen workmen’s compensation laws and shorten their working hours, stop the handouts of state resources to private companies, and expand recreational areas for the benefit of the public. He cut taxes while building hospitals, schools and low-cost housing developments. When the legislature balked, he appealed to the people on radio, and they responded with avalanches of letters and telegrams to their representatives. The dauntless spirit with which he battled his adversaries earned him the title “The fighting Governor.”

After his defeat for the Presidency in 1928, Smith was able to hand on to his successor — a comparatively inexperienced politician named Franklin D. Roosevelt — a working state government and a blueprint for social reform which Roosevelt would put to good use.

At the time of her death in 1965 Frances Perkins was working on a book about Al Smith as she knew him. Her notes, the few chapters she had written, and the oral history she recorded for Columbia University were turned over to Matthew and Hannah Josephson, who used them and their own exhaustive research to write this biography.

“The Josephsons, both authors in their own right... were invited to complete the unfinished biography of Smith that Frances Perkins left behind at her death in 1965. Finding only a rather bare start, they ended up writing it ‘90%’ themselves... The sections on Smith’s early years provide a delightful picture of the Old East Side and a thriving Tammany Hall... A happily executed portrait of an eminent and engaging American.” — Kirkus Reviews

“The most thorough study yet available of Smith’s career, and one that also pays considerable attention to Frances Perkins’ contributions to reform during the Progressive period and during Smith’s gubernatorial administrations... [a] useful biography of Al Smith.” — Joel A. Tarr, The American Historical Review

“The book reflects the warmth and vigour of its subject... The book’s principal contribution is its emphasis on Smith’s tremendous effectiveness both as a party leader and as a reformer. His quarter-century of almost continuous success was founded on exceptional memory, intense application, a sharp wit and shrewd appeals to the people. His enduring monuments are his reform of the state administration, his fight against the utilities, and his work in housing, conservation and social reform.” — Michael Simpson, History

“The Josephsons’ political portrait is of a man who was at one and the same time an ambitious and successful politician who could skillfully manipulate the party system, reward friends and punish enemies, hold personal grudges, yet temper his actions with genuine humanistic concern for the welfare of the first- and second-generation immigrants for whom he was both spokesman and symbol.” — John L. Shover, The Pacific Northwest Quarterly

“The Josephsons’ biography is... comprehensive, providing careful and discerning detail about Smith’s life and career.” — William W. Bremer, The Wisconsin Magazine of History

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About the author

Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish immigrants from Romania and Russia, Matthew Josephson (1899-1978) graduated with an A.B. from Columbia University in 1920 and worked briefly as a reporter for the Newark Ledger. As an expatriate in Paris in the 1920s “to win a year or two of freedom and give all my time to writing,” he was associate editor of Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts (1922–24), befriended leading surrealists like Paul Éluard, André Breton, Louis Aragon and Max Ernst and was an editor at the magazine transition (1928–29). After returning to America, Josephson worked on Wall Street before joining the editorial staff of The New Republic. He contributed regularly to The NationThe New Yorker, and the Saturday Evening Post.

His first book was a biography of Émile Zola, Zola and His Time: The History of His Martial Career in Letters (1928). Interested in 19th-century French literature, he also wrote the biographies Victor Hugo (1942) and Stendhal (1946). His books about American economic history include The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901 (1934), which chronicles the lives of late 19th century barons of industry like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, Edison: A Biography (1959) and The Money Lords: The Great Finance Capitalists, 1925–1950 (1972). Josephson wrote two memoirs, Life Among the Surrealists (1962) and Infidel in the Temple (1967), and with his wife Hannah, a biography of Al Smith. He was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1948.

Born in New York City, Hannah Josephson, née Geffen (1900-1976) studied at Hunter College and at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She married Matthew Josephson in 1920 and started working as a journalist. In 1949 she became librarian, editor of publications, publicity director and director of manuscript exhibition for the American Academy of Arts and Letters until her retirement in 1965.

Together with Malcolm Cowley, Hannah Josephson published Aragon: Poet of the Resistance. Her own books include The Golden Threads about women workers in the textile mills of Massachusetts between 1822 and 1850. With her husband she wrote Al Smith: Hero of the Cities which received the Van Wyck Brooks Award of the University of Bridgeport. Her last book was Jeanette Rankin: First Lady in Congress. Josephson also translated several books including Louis Aragon’s The Century Was Young, Philippe Soupault’s Age of Assassins and Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute.

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Additional Information

Plunkett Lake Press
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Published on
Oct 28, 2019
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Biography & Autobiography / Political
Political Science / American Government / Executive Branch
Political Science / American Government / State
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