Al Smith was born December 30, 1873. He was a four time Governor of New York State (when gubernatorial terms were 2 years) and spent almost 25 years (1905 – 1928) in Albany in the Assembly and Executive Mansion.
Al was a fixture in Albany – one of his favorite bars was down on Fourth Ave., just north of S. Pearl and legend has it that he often walked down from the Mansion to the Catholic Union building on Eagle, would strip down to his undershirt and play basketball in the gym. An old timer told me Al knew every speakeasy in the Albany during Prohibition. He was so inextricably linked with the City that his daughter was married from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, rather than from St. Patrick’s in NYC.
FDR called him “The Happy Warrior” of the political battlefield. He was as progressive as they come (until FDR came along.. they had a falling out – Smith supported Alf Landon in 1936- but the quarrel was patched up in ’41.) He was fervently anti-Prohibition. He was the first Catholic to run for President in 1928 and soundly trounced by Herbert Hoover.
Al was majority leader of the NYS Assembly when the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in NYC in 1911, resulting in 146 deaths. Many of the girls killed in the fire lived in his District. He visited their families in their tenements; he went to the morgue where he met survivors identifying bodies. Back in the Legislature he pushed through new workplace standards that served as a model for the country
Because Al represented diversity and the great messy melting pot that is New York City, he was vilified and hated by a certain section of the electorate, especially the Ku Klux Klan, during his 1928 presidential campaign. A critic once said he represented “card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism”. The song “The Sidewalks of New York” was Al’s theme song.
In an odd way, he was a wee bit responsible for what happened in the South Mall. Robert Moses (“The Power Broker”) was a trusted Smith advisor, who accrued enormous political power and skill under Smith. And it was Moses who set the precedent for demolition of buildings and displacement of people on an epic scale in NYS, which Rocky did in Albany. (BTW Rocky was not a Moses fan- he clearly wanted to be the “Master Builder”.. and put Moses out to pasture in 1962) I sometimes wonder what would have happened with the South Mall if Moses had stayed on.
Al Smith fun fact… he oversaw the construction in 1930 and 1931 of the Empire State Building after he left office.
Al passed away in 1944.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor