James R. McManus was born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1936 and recently died in 2019. For 54 years (from 1962 to 2016) he was the Democratic Party District Leader from the Hell’s Kitchen area. This was a position that his father Eugene E. McManus had held for 20 years before him.
Previously Eugene McManus’s great grand uncle, Thomas J. McManus, had held the position, since the formation of the McManus Democratic Club in 1892, when he defeated the prior District Leader George Washington Plunkitt, author of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics (1905).
Hell’s Kitchen before 1963
The mid-west side of Manhattan has been known as Hell Kitchen. It’s not an official name, but one used by most residents following settlement by Irish and German immigrants there in the late 19th century. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad ran its tracks up the West Side of Manhattan in the 1850s, contributing to the poverty in the residential neighborhood along the tracks. Consisting mostly of tenements into which immigrants were crowded, it was for many years considered one of the most notorious Irish slums in the City. By legend, the name Hell’s Kitchen was derived when a younger policeman patrolling the difficult area said to his older partner that
Thomas J. McManus established the McManus Club in 1893 and ascended to the role of Democratic Party District Leader and the area was largely controlled by McManus and the Club for the next 112 years, until 2019. Thomas J. McManus became one the most prominent and important district leaders in the city and a close associate of Al Smith.
In 1910, McManus met Frances Perkins, a young social worker at Hartley House on west 46th street, a protestant social welfare settlement house implacably opposed to Tammany Hall’s vision of social welfare. It was through her initial association with McManus, that Perkins met Tammany leader Charles Francis Murphy and his protégé in the New York State Legislature, Al Smith.
When Smith was elected Governor in 1918 he made Perkins one of his key aides on labor and social welfare policies. Smith’s progressive social policies led him to be the Democratic presidential nominee in the 1928 presidential election in which he was defeated by Herbert Hoover. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Smith’s hand picked successor and narrowly elected Governor, selected Perkins to be the first female New York State Labor Commissioner.
As Roosevelt’s key advisor on labor and and social welfare matters he named her the commissioner of the U.S. Department of Labor when he was elected President in 1932, the first woman ever to hold a cabinet position. In this position she designed most of the new deal social welfare policies, including Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, protections for unions, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Crops (CCC) employment programs, and is often considered the most important social welfare reformer of the 20th century.
After Roosevelt and Perkins left New York, Tammany Hall went somewhat into decline with the election of reform fusion Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and by the 1940s it was reputed that certain gangster elements, such as Frank Costello, began to have significant influence at Tammany. The McManus Club generally hung on as the predominant political force in the Hell’s Kitchen area, as the Thomas J. McManus was succeeded by his nephew Charles A. McManus, chair of the New York City Board of Alderman.
After Charles McManus, a cousin of Congressman Michael Kennedy took over, but the McManus family was able to regain control of the Club and the district leadership in 1942, when Eugene E. McManus, Jimmy McManus’s father, became the District Leader. In the early 1950s, a group led by Carmine DeSapio worked to clean-up Tammany Hall and purge it of its criminal elements. In 1954, De Sapio was instrumental in the election of Robert Wagner as Mayor and Averill Harriman as Governor. Eugene McManus was closely allied with DeSapio.
DeSapio was opposed in the late 1950s by a number of “reform” Democrats who objected to his “boss” rule of the Party. In 1960, a young lawyer named Ed Koch, working out of the Village Independent Democrats, defeated DeSapio in a hard fought race in his home district in Greenwich Village. This was particularly embarrassing since one of the innovations on which DeSapio had insisted was that the county leader be elected as a District Leader in his home district.
By 1961, the reform movement running against the “bossism” of DeSapio gained considerable steam when Mayor Wagner turned on his erstwhile allies and became the “reform” candidate for Mayor backed by a “reform” coalition largely of disgruntled former supporters of Adlai Stevenson, led by Eleanor Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman, who felt DeSapio had been less than enthusiastic in supporting the Party’s national candidate against the highly popular President Dwight Eisenhower. The result was that Tammany clubs throughout the city of New York suffered a devastating defeat and the Democratic Party, particularly in Manhattan, was taken over by the reformers who insisted on disbanding the prior “regular” Democratic mechanisms of power, essentially barring Tammany Hall from the New York City Democratic Party.
It was in this environment that Jimmy McManus, son of Eugene McManus, then leader of the staunchly “regular” McManus Democratic Club, came of age. A graduate of Power Memorial High School and Iona College, Jimmy McManus, unlike many of his contemporaries, was a traditionalist and dutiful son who wanted to work in the family business — Manhattan Democratic politics.
In his early 20s he became the key assistant to his father as District Leader dealing with organizational matters in running his family’s political club, which functioned as Tammany Hall political clubs had since Tammany was reorganized in the mid-1870s by “Honest” John Kelly. Under this structure, somewhat modeled by Kelly on the organization of the Catholic Church, the city was broken into districts.
In each district, there was a District Leader who was in charge of the Democratic Party’s operations in that district. The District Leader reported to the New York County Democratic Committee that elected the county leader, who generally selected the Party’s candidates, in consultation with the District Leader in each district. The responsibility of the District Leader was to select precinct captains and generally to see that the district turned out a significant vote for the Democratic Party on election day.
In this structure, the District Leader was in many ways the most important figure, as he was the liaison between the party leadership and the election district captains who presumably knew the needs of the voters in each district. From 1870 into the 1950s, when Tammany Hall generally controlled the major offices of city government (except for under LaGuardia in the 1930s), the district leaders were sometimes able to provide city jobs or other favors to needy constituents, or generally minister to their social and economic needs.
As Plunkitt described it, the role of the District Leader often went beyond politics or government jobs, but included having a club house open to people in the neighborhood, and holding social events such as bi-annual parties, at which the District Leader was expected to attend and entertain. In this way the Tammany clubs would provide a vehicle for immigrants to be integrated into the city’s social and political fabric. This approach was generally strongest in districts with poorer immigrants such as the largely Irish Hell’s Kitchen.
However, by the late 1950s, and particularly after the election of Robert Wagner as a “reform” Mayor in 1961, this structure was beginning to break down. Even though the McManus Club in Hell’s Kitchen was one of the most historic and strongest regular Tammany Hall clubs in the city, it was doubtful in 1962 that it would be able to withstand the wave of anti-Tammany sentiment sweeping through Manhattan, and most observers believed it would soon cease to be a force in city politics.
It was at this time that the health of Eugene McManus began to fail and many of the day-to-day duties of the District Leader fell to his son Jimmy. In 1962, Eugene McManus died suddenly of a heart attack. Jimmy, who was 26 at the time, sought to takeover the position of District Leader head the McManus Club. A number of the older leaders of the Club, such as its president Joe Maggio and later Appellate Division Justice Owen McGivern, thought Jim was too young, given the uncertain times the club was facing. Jim McManus was outvoted and along with Ed Koch, became instead one of the youngest members of the New York County Democratic Committee.
As the 1960s went on, the ascendancy of the reform movement over the old discredited Tammany Hall clubs, particularly in Manhattan outside of Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen, was almost complete. The regular clubs were cut off from virtually all possibilities of government patronage (partially by an expansion of civil service and merit hiring) and influence in government policy. In 1965, the photogenic Ivy League former East Side Congressman John Lindsay was elected Mayor over Comptroller Abraham Beame, the unexciting candidate of the regular Democratic Party.
Lindsay, who at the time was strongly supported by the city’s middle class, promised a vibrant administration that would sweep away the old vestiges of Tammany power and introduce more efficient modern management methods to city government with liberal social welfare policies in line with Lyndon B. Johnson’s aggressive civil rights and welfare policies (the Great Society programs). Needless to say, Lindsay’s election and administration did not bode well for Jimmy McManus and the McManus Democratic Club, which was one of the few remaining actively functioning regular Tammany Hall clubs in the City.
Jimmy McManus, Bella Abzug and the West Side Kids
In the late-1960s, however, as Carmine DeSapio had predicted to Jimmy McManus, the reform movement began to splinter. With the Johnson administration’s promotion of the Vietnam War, many Democrats, particularly students potentially affected by the draft, became bitter opponents of the war and the Johnson administration. A young group of students centered around the Stuyvesant High School debate team became politically active in providing campaign workers and organization to candidates opposed to the Vietnam War, including Councilman (later Congressman) Ted Weiss, along with Dick Morris, Jerry Nadler, Richard Gottfried, Richard Dresner and Joseph Mercurio. This group became known as the “West Side Kids” as many of them were under the then 21-year-old voting age.
This turn of political events began to play out in local elections in Manhattan. Leonard Farbstein was a regular Democrat whose congressional district included Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. He had a progressive record on social issues that had permitted him in his 14 years in Congress to fend off a number of challenges from reformers. In 1970 he was again challenged by reform opponents. Since Farbstein was a stanch supporter of Lyndon Johnson as well as the Vientam War, many strategists understood he would be facing a particularly difficult race.
The Tammany leadership (now only a fraction of its prior self) instructed Jimmy McManus to support Farbstein’s most radical challenger in the primary convention, Bella Abzug, in hopes that it would ultimately get Farbstein elected. Abzug was a flamboyant and outspoken woman who had headed women’s strike for peace and was known for her anti-war views.
The McManus Club fell in line, but much to the surprise of McManus and his compatriots in Tammany Hall, Abzug defeated Farbstein in the primary and became the Democratic nominee and was easily elected to Congress. At her victory party, Abzug, apparently not knowing that McManus had been carrying out a plan to defeat her, hailed McManus as a new generation of progressive district leaders. Later she and McManus became friends and political allies as Abzug became one of the most important anti-war Congresswomen in the Congress.
By 1972, political leaders on the West Side of Manhattan were jockeying for position as the 1972 presidential election approached. The reform groups had every hope of eliminating the McManus Democrats and Carmine DeSapio from the political scene.
Meanwhile the West Side Kids, who strongly supported anti-war candidate George McGovern, were insisting on having members of their own group. Many of the older leaders thought they should wait their turn. After all, the Kids designated public candidates – 23 year old Richard Gottfried, a part-time Columbia Law Student, and Jerry Nadler, a political anti-war activist and manager of an Off Track Betting office – were hardly likely to be the most credentialed and formidable candidates in the race.
However, it was at this time that a semi-secret political alliance was formed between the Kids, being led by nascent political strategist Dick Morris, and the McManus Democratic Club led by Jimmy McManus, that would have very long-term political consequences. It was agreed that the McManus Club would support Gottfried and Nadler for State Assembly and that the Kids would support McManus and the McManus Democratic Club to control the district leadership.
Although probably few of the traditional McManus Democrats, which mostly consisted of conservative (and unionized) longshoremen, truck drivers, and theater workers, had any great love for George McGovern or the anti-Vietnam War movement, they would accept McManus and the Club’s endorsement of McGovern out of deference to Jimmy and his late father. (Jimmy McManus himself was said to be disturbed by the number of his contemporaries from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood he saw returning in coffins from the Vietnam War).
Neither the McManus Club nor the Kids had a political organization that was likely to win the election. However, together they stood a fighting chance of overcoming the more established reform clubs arrayed against them. In one of the more interesting developments in New York political history the McManus Club became a headquarters for the McGovern effort. Dick Morris deliberately funneled McGovern volunteers from other areas of the City to the Club, which in addition to working for McGovern was also working for the election of Gottfried and Nadler. Long-haired student radicals worked side-by-side with conservative McManus Democrats.
As a result, both Gottfried and Nadler prevailed in their efforts to get elected to the New York State Assembly. The George McGovern campaign would also succeed in carrying New York State and McGovern would gain the Democratic party’s nomination only to be defeated by Richard Nixon in a landslide. However, the impact of the alliance between the West Side Kids and the McManus Club would have a much more long-lasting impact.
A number of the McGovern volunteers who the West Side kids had introduced to the McManus Club would come away with an entirely different point of view about Tammany Hall, who they had believed was bad for New York politics, and become active members of the club. Furthermore, many of the McManus Club regulars would come away with a greater respect for the idealistic anti-war student activists’ political skills.
Jimmy McManus would gain a reputation as one of the few Tammany Hall district leaders with whom the reformers could work. In 1972, at the age of 23, Dick Gottfried became one of the youngest members of the New York State Legislature and eventually one of longest-serving members of the State Assembly. Jerry Nadler would go on to hold the Congressional seat in the area that included the West Side of Manhattan, and in 2021 as the head of the Congressional Judiciary Committee would be a leader in the efforts to impeach President Donald Trump.
Jimmy McManus gained a reputation for being able to work with more radical reform Democrats and the McManus Club continued to hold the position of District Leader in Hell’s Kitchen until 2018 when his successors were defeated by the Hell’s Kitchen Democrats, an insurgent group.
This is part of a series about the life and times of James McManus, one of the last Tammany district leaders in New York City. You can read the entire series here.
Illustrations, from above: James McManus in 1972; a map showing the general area of Hell’s Kitchen; Ed Koch, Bella Abzug and Jimmy Carter; and George McGovern and John LIndsay in New York City in 1972.
Bernie McCann says
Another great story. I met Mayor Wagner in 1976 and had a very nice conversation with him. I knew both Richard Gottfried and Jerry Nadler while I was a lobbyist in Albany.
I also worked on the McGovern campaign.
Very interesting time in NY politics.