One candidate was the incumbent, owner of a glittering resumé featuring roles in the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman administrations and a veteran of two tries for the Presidency, most recently with former President Truman’s overt backing. The other candidate, 17 years younger, was an electoral neophyte but a past holder of positions in the FDR, Truman and Eisenhower administrations.
One was the angular man in the back of the famous Yalta Summit photo taken in the dying days of the Second World War, an ear-whispering counselor to power and man of gravitas – a “wise man” role he would continue to play into his 90s. The other was a broad-shouldered bundle of energy and wide interests, a brash self-promoter who never met an issue he didn’t want to study, a public policy challenge he didn’t yearn to tackle.
One candidate was the scion of a late 19th Century robber baron.
So was the other.
Both were heirs to great wealth who had been in the public eye all their lives. And 60 years ago this November, they faced off in the New York gubernatorial election in what was then impressively dubbed The Battle of the Millionaires.
William Averell Harriman (nicknamed “Ave” to rhyme with cave) was born in 1891, son of financier and railroad tycoon Edward Henry “E.H.” Harriman. Ave’s life of public service would encompass much of the 20 th century, including stints as Secretary of Commerce and ambassador to both the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Yet the title he bore most proudly was “Governor,” his only elective office, won over Senator Irving Ives in 1954 by a margin of just 11,000 votes out of more than 5 million cast.
As he prepared for re-election in early 1958, the 66-year-old Democrat could point to a list of accomplishments that included mental health care reform, increased state aid to education, programs to help the aged, and creation of the Mitchell-Lama program providing private financing for middle-income housing. He also expected opposition from a host of Republicans eager to retake an office that their party had held for three terms under Thomas E. Dewey. These hopefuls included former Congressman and Republican National Chair Leonard Hall, State Senate Majority Leader Walter Mahoney, and State Assembly Speaker Oswald Heck.
Then a dark horse emerged.
Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, due to turn 50 in July, had never before run for public office. The grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller and Republican Senator and power broker Nelson W. Aldrich, he grew up in unimaginable privilege, yet possessed a prodigious drive for accomplishment. In his 20s, he held a variety of senior roles in family-owned businesses including the massive Rockefeller Center office complex; succeeded his mother as the first treasurer of the Museum of Modern Art, and talked his way into appointment as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs under FDR. Subsequent Washington, D.C. roles included assistant secretary of state for American republic affairs (1944), chairman of the International Development Advisory Board under Truman (1950) and, under Eisenhower, among other roles, chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization and undersecretary of the new Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Rockefeller soon shifted his attention back to his home state and in September 1956, with Gov. Harriman’s assent, was named chairman of a Temporary State Commission on the Constitutional Convention. In 1957, voters rejected having a constitutional convention, and Harriman vetoed a bill to continue the temporary commission. But Heck and Mahoney, unwittingly keeping their soon-to-be rival in the public eye, engineered Rockefeller’s April 1958 appointment as chairman of a Joint Legislative Committee on Constitutional Revision (too, at the annual Legislative Correspondents Association dinner in March, Harriman had for some reason publicly given Rockefeller standing as his most likely rival).
Rockefeller played coy, denying he was a candidate, and put staff to work studying a potential campaign. On June 30, with maneuvering for delegates already well underway, he formally entered the race; by mid-July Len Hall was characterizing as “utterly ridiculous and misleading” a wire service report that Rockefeller already had enough delegates to secure the nomination at the August state GOP convention in Rochester. Come late July, Rockefeller led in pledged delegates, with Mahoney second and Hall third. By mid-August, Hall and Heck had quit the race and Hall’s native Suffolk County had swung its delegates to Rockefeller, whose nomination was formalized at the state GOP convention at the Rochester War Memorial on Aug. 25. He immediately moved to the attack, using baseball terms to assail the Harriman Administration’s record of, “No hits, no runs, but my what errors.”
Meanwhile on the Democratic side, Harriman had no opposition for re-nomination at the Democratic state convention that same day in Buffalo. Organizers cut short a floor demonstration after Harriman’s name was placed in nomination so he could start his acceptance speech at 9:30 pm “to meet radio and television schedules,” the New York Times reported. TV was starting to matter in politics, even at the state level.
Behind the scenes and away from the public smiles, however, was a festering months-long backroom battle over who ran the state Democratic party. For months, Harriman had dithered over who he favored for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Irving Ives. Those whose names were floated included former Postmaster General James Farley, New York Mayor Robert Wagner, and former Air Force secretary Thomas Finletter. As Godfrey Hodgson wrote in his biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a young Harriman aide, “on that question the party fell apart disastrously.” Another aide, Philip Kaiser, later lamented that Harriman had “delayed dealing with the one issue that should have been settled before the party convention.”
At the root of Harriman’s indecision was a delicate balancing act between the reform or New Deal wing of the Democratic party and the age-old urban machine wing. Emblematic of this schism was former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s blood-feud with Tammany hall boss Carmine DeSapio dating at least to 1954, when DeSapio had pressured her son Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. to stand aside for Harriman’s run for governor and instead try for attorney general. Harriman had won but FDR Jr. had lost, and Eleanor vowed to take revenge on DeSapio.
Now, Harriman was leaning toward supporting Finletter (earlier he had also surfaced the name of little-known industrialist and former Atomic Energy Commission member Thomas E. Murray, who was even older than himself). DeSapio favored Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan (some suggested as a means of removing a strong prosecutor from DeSapio’s backyard). The popular Wagner was a compromise candidate, but Harriman had proved resistant, and the Mayor felt obligated to fulfill a pledge made during his re-election the previous year to serve out his term – as well as being insulted by the Governor’s lack of support. It all came to a head in Buffalo. Wagner left town. And DeSapio rammed Hogan’s nomination through. Harriman appeared indecisive, weak and bossed. DeSapio had handed the Republicans a huge gift.
More than a decade later, Harriman told an interviewer, “we had a row at the Convention due to certain people double-crossing me and others deceiving me, and which I didn’t handle very well. The morning after the Convention I told my press secretary we’d lost a million votes the day before, and we would have to try to get them back.” Life magazine’s coverage blared, “DeSapio Gives Ave a Beating: Tammany chief humiliates Harriman over a candidate for Senate.” His second wife, the chain-smoking art collector Marie Norton Whitney Harriman, put it more bluntly: “Yeah, they gave ole Ave a real Philadelphia rat-fucking.”
Harriman, an experienced national and international figure steeped in power, was down but not out. The race was on: a 70-day sprint across 62 counties and 55,000 square miles. The prize: leadership of the nation’s most populous state. Notably, occupancy of the governor’s mansion on Eagle Street in Albany was seen as a stepping stone to the Presidency – or at a minimum to a Presidential nomination.
Four governors (Van Buren, Cleveland, and Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt) had become president, and as recently as 1944, an incumbent New York governor, Dewey, had faced off against a predecessor in FDR. In a picture-splashed 25-page look at the race in Life magazine that September, Theodore H. White dug into “what appears to be the greatest pitting of fortune against fortune in the history of the republic.” He noted the national evolution in attitudes toward the rich since the “malefactors of great wealth” days of the candidates’ youth, and profiled the two men. Rockefeller, he wrote, “sparkles at the age of 50 like an ever-youthful ever-restless fountain of inquisitive energy…. His step bouncing, his handshake ever-ready, he is what the politicians call a smiler – meaning that he is happy to be with people, and shows it.” By contrast he depicted Harriman as “the last verdant tall timber of the New Deal” who “carries about him constantly, at home or in a crowd, an air of awkward loneliness.”
For a successful incumbent with enviable name recognition and two presidential tries behind him, Harriman carried a heavy burden into September. Leo Egan of the Times wrote that a “feeling that Governor Harriman has slipped politically in the past month appeared to be widespread among Democratic political workers” due to the DeSapio-Hogan fracas at the convention and Harriman’s choice of an anti-machine former New York City police commissioner to replace Hogan should he be elected.
But If Harriman thought the selection would undo the damage Boss DeSapio had done to him, he was sorely mistaken. “What should have been a walk-in has become a horse race because of our own mistakes,” an unnamed Democratic district leader told Egan.
The wounded, patrician Harriman couldn’t match the Standard Oil heir’s common touch; crisscrossing New York State in a Buick driven alternately by his son Steven and his running mate, Malcolm Wilson, Rockefeller literally ate it up.
As political reporter Warren Moscow wrote in his definitive biography of DeSapio, “it was Rockefeller who stole the show. His first campaign for governor was his best-run, most splendid performance. He was then an exceptionally vigorous fifty-year-old who acted as though every moment on the stump, every tour through the hustings, was what he had been waiting for all his luxurious life. With his gesture of draping an arm around the nearest well-wisher and saying, ‘H’are ya, fella?’ Rockefeller looked particularly warm in contrast with the stiffer, more formal Harriman. ‘Rocky,’ as he was immediately dubbed, ate hot dogs on the Coney Island boardwalk, consumed blintzes on the Lower East Side, chewed pizza with the Italians, turning what had been an occasional accommodation to group habits into a permanent campaign ritual.”
Rockefeller’s crack staff also formed committees targeting specific ethnic groups, and the candidate wowed a crowd in Spanish Harlem by ad-libbing for 20 minutes in Spanish, and enlisted Count Basie to play at another Harlem rally. The Rockefeller checkbook underwrote TV and newspaper ads; biographer Richard Norton Smith pegged his spending at $1.8 million vs. $1.1 million for Harriman.
Wilson was also a secret weapon – during his 20 years in the assembly the lawyer from Yonkers had built up an encyclopedic knowledge of local Republican power brokers across the state, the more conservative of whom were reassured by the traditionalist Wilson’s vouching for the liberal political newcomer Rockefeller.
For all of Rockefeller’s magnetism and the sense of fun that rubbed off on grizzled veteran campaign reporters (by contrast, Gannett News Service’s Jack Germond grumbled 40 years later about the multimillionaire Harriman collecting a two-thirds empty scotch bottle from reporters on his plane upon landing), Harriman was running for re-election – and no New York governor seeking a second term had been defeated since Nathan Miller in 1922. Too, the nation was in the grip of a major economic recession in the sixth year of Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, setting the stage for massive Democratic gains nationally. Harriman reeled from the normally Democratic New York Times’ Oct. 15 endorsement of his opponent – editorial support by major newspapers carried much greater weight in those days – but he soldiered on, and the then-liberal afternoon tabloid New York Post tiptoed toward endorsing the Governor on Oct. 30 after Rockefeller, who had avoided appearing with Vice President and 1960 Presidential front-runner Richard Nixon, publicly shared breakfast with Nixon at Nixon’s Waldorf Towers suite. The paper, owned by heiress Dorothy Schiff, wondered whether “Rockefeller is ready and eager to do battle with the powerful right wing of his party… We cannot support a candidate by pretending we know what he thinks when he doesn’t say it aloud… We favor Harriman’s reelection.”
Then the wheels came off.
Late that evening, after a long day of campaigning and attending the annual Alfred E. Smith Dinner, Harriman sat in on Barry Gray’s late-night talk show on WMCA. Rambling, he all but accused Rockefeller of being in the pocket of the oil interests on Middle East policy and appeasing Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser in his 1956 seizure of the Suez Canal.
Schiff, described by Rockefeller biographer Cary Reich as “a veritable high priestess of the cult of liberalism,” took notice. After a weekend to mull how she might respond, she appeared at the Post’s offices on Monday, Nov. 3, just 24 hours before the election, and dictated a one-paragraph personally signed statement to run on the front page of the mass-circulation paper’s final evening edition.
Denouncing Harriman’s “snide insinuations” and “demagoguery,” she brought the hammer down on her old Long Island Gold Coast neighbor, saying, “… when the head of the ticket repeats such libels, he should be punished by the voters. If you agree with me, do not vote for Averell Harriman tomorrow.”
When the votes were counted, Rockefeller had defeated Harriman by 573,000 votes, or roughly 55% to 45%. Harriman garnered roughly the same number of votes he had received in ’54, but Rockefeller had increased the Republican vote total by nearly 600,000. Harriman won New York City, but by only about 300,000 votes vs. 700,000 in 1954 – not a large enough margin to overcome Rockefeller’s upstate and suburban landslide.
For Harriman, it was the end of his electoral career and his dreams of the Presidency. For Rockefeller, it was the first of an unprecedented four terms in Albany and the beginning of a bad case of what Theodore H. White dubbed, “Presidentitis.” Blocked by Nixon and Barry Goldwater, Rockefeller only made it to the White House in 1974 – as Gerald R. Ford’s appointed vice president, dying of a heart attack under amorous circumstances in 1979. For his part, Harriman after 1958 returned to a world where he was in all probability more comfortable: as an adviser, appointee and negotiator in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, hosting Georgetown soirees with his third wife, Pamela, and, as late as 1983, meeting with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. He died in 1986 at age 94.
Today, millionaires and billionaires running for public office barely raise an eyebrow. But 60 years ago in New York, when two famous multimillionaires joined in battle over the Governor’s Mansion, it was new and an evolutionary sign that great wealth was no bar to public office.
Photos, from above: The Yalta Conference, Crimea, February 1945; and Nelson Rockefeller.