Wagner, Robert Ferdinand

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Wagner, Robert Ferdinand

(b. 20 April 1910 in New York City; d. 12 February 1991 in New York City), lawyer, diplomat, and liberal Democratic politician who served three terms as mayor of New York City.

Wagner was the only child of Margaret McTague and Robert Ferdinand Wagner, who served in the United States Senate from 1927 to 1949 and advocated for the creation of the Social Security system and the passage of landmark labor laws. His mother died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident when he was only nine years old, so “Young Bob” often accompanied his father to political events and grew up in an atmosphere of liberal Democratic politics.

After the death of his illustrious father in May 1953, Wagner dropped the “junior” from his name. His elder son, who also became prominent in New York City politics, then became known as Robert F. Wagner, Jr.

As a boy Wagner made numerous trips to Europe, especially to Germany where his father was born. After attending prestigious private schools in New York and Connecticut, Wagner entered Yale and graduated in 1933. After postgraduate work at the Harvard Business School and the School of International Relations in Geneva, Switzerland, he attended Yale University Law School, earning his LL.B. in 1937.

In 1937 he won the New York State Assembly seat once held by his father. In the assembly, Wagner sponsored public housing programs, sought to establish compulsory health insurance, and worked to improve labor relations. He was twice reelected, but after the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941, Wagner resigned to join the army air corps. He served in the Eighth Bomber Command and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Meanwhile, on 14 February 1942 Wagner married Susan Edwards of Greenwich, Connecticut, at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The couple had two sons.

After his discharge in 1945 Wagner served in a variety of appointed positions in New York City’s government. When his father resigned from the Senate in 1949, Wagner announced his interest in succeeding him, but he did not get his party’s nomination in a special election to fill the seat. Instead, he ran successfully for the borough presidency of Manhattan, a position he held until December 1953. While in that office Wagner again sought the Democratic nomination for his father’s old Senate seat but lost the primary election in August 1952. However, in September 1953 Wagner won the New York City Democratic nomination for mayor and went on to defeat his Republican opponent in November.

In January 1954 Wagner entered the office he would hold for three four-year terms, a feat achieved by only two other men: Fiorello La Guardia before him and Edward I. Koch after him. However, his tenure (1954-1965) came at a time when the city was undergoing major demographic change. Many members of the white middle class were moving to nearby suburbs, while increasing numbers of poor Puerto Ricans and southern blacks were moving to the city. Thus, Wagner was mayor during a period of tremendous social and economic change.

During his mayoralty, Wagner recognized the right of city employees to form unions and bargain collectively, thereby setting a pattern for municipal labor unions throughout the country. He secured the building of thousands of units of public housing, including many for middle-income families. He helped develop the nation’s first municipal law outlawing discrimination in housing based on race (Sharkey-Brown-Isaacs Law of 1957).

However, the influx of poorer people in need of social services led to a rapid increase in the city’s expenditures, which began to outpace revenues. Rather than raise taxes, Mayor Wagner resorted to borrowing, saying “a good loan is better than a bad tax.” Thus, say his critics, were sown the seeds of New York City’s fiscal crisis of the early 1970s. But Wagner’s efforts to respond to problems arising from the change in the city’s ethnic and racial composition perhaps enabled New York to escape the kind of devastating race riots that tore apart Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, New Jersey, during the 1960s, though racial strife did occur in Harlem and Brooklyn in July 1964.

Meanwhile, in 1956, Wagner made another bid for the United States Senate, gaining his party’s nomination but losing the general election to his Republican opponent, Jacob K. Javits. Wagner easily won reelection as mayor in 1957, but four years later he lost the support of the regular Democratic “bosses” of the city’s five boroughs. However, he easily defeated their candidate in the party primary and went on to win the general election of 1961. Wagner’s victory has been credited with permanently breaking the power of “Tammany Hall”—the old municipal Democratic party machine.

Wagner’s first wife died on 2 March 1964. He married his second wife, Barbara Joan Cavanagh, on 26 July 1965. The couple, who had no children, separated in December 1969 and divorced in June 1971. Wagner, a Roman Catholic, secured a church annulment.

After declining to seek a fourth term as mayor, he entered a law partnership in 1966. From May 1968 to March 1969 he was the U.S. ambassador to Spain. After returning to the United States he announced his candidacy for mayor, but was defeated in the Democratic primary in June.

Wagner continued to practice law. On 30 January 1975 he was married for a third time to Phyllis Fraser Cerf, the widow of Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of the Random House book publishing company. They had no children. In March 1977 the New York State Senate confirmed him as a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and in June he became the agency’s vice chairman.

From 1978 to 1980 Wagner was President Jimmy Carter’s special envoy to the Vatican, with which the United States had only informal diplomatic ties. In that capacity he arranged a June 1980 meeting between President Carter and Pope John Paul II and helped plan the pope’s 1981 U.S. tour. In 1983 he was appointed to another term as commissioner of the Port Authority and continued as its vice chairman.

Wagner, who had been suffering from bladder cancer, died of heart failure at his home in Manhattan. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York.

Wagner’s legacy to the cultural life of New York City was immense. Not only was he instrumental in preserving Carnegie Hall, the city’s premier venue for classical music, he played a major role in the creation of Lincoln Center, the home of the city’s foremost performing arts institutions, including the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. He also helped bring the 1964 World’s Fair to Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York.

In the political realm, Wagner deserves credit for taking a leading role in bringing about the final demise of the old Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall. As Sam Roberts put it in the New York Times on 14 February 1991, Wagner’s victory in 1961 “redefined the mayoralty and established its preeminence over the party.”

Wagner’s personal papers are in the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, in Long Island City. His official mayoral papers are in the New York City Department of Records and Information Services, Municipal Archives. A brief biographical sketch covering his early career may be found in Current Biography 1954. The Administration of Robert F. Wagner (1960), published by the Office of the Mayor, City of New York, gives an official view of the accomplishments of the Wagner administration from 1954 to 1960. Chris McNickle, To Be Mayor of New York; Ethnic Politics in the City (1993), provides an extensive discussion of Wagner’s mayoralty. Obituaries are in the New York Times, the Daily News, and the New York Post (all 13 Feb. 1991).

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Wagner, Robert Ferdinand

views updated May 14 2018


Robert Ferdinand Wagner served as a U.S. senator from New York from 1927 to 1949. Wagner was a strong believer in the social welfare state and sponsored many federal laws that have shaped U.S. law and society. In the 1930s he worked closely with President franklin d. roosevelt and helped to implement much of Roosevelt's new deal agenda.

Wagner was born on June 8, 1877, in Nastätten, Germany. With his family he immigrated to the United States in 1885, settling in a New York City tenement neighborhood. He graduated from City College in New York in 1898 and studied law at New York Law School, where he earned his degree in 1900.

Wagner was admitted to the New York bar in 1900 and practiced law on his own for a short time. He then abandoned his law practice to enter democratic party politics. Wagner worked his way up the party ladder and won a seat in the state legislature in 1904. In 1908 he was elected to the New York State Senate, where he soon established himself as a socially progressive leader, investigating industrial working conditions and introducing legislation that sought to use the power of government to improve the lives of blue-collar workers and the poor.

Wagner became a judge of the New York Supreme Court in 1919 but resigned in 1926 to run as the Democratic Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. He won the election and took office in 1927 during the heyday of the "Roaring Twenties." The U.S. economy was at its postwar zenith, and the republican party controlled Congress. Wagner introduced legislation to help organized labor and the unemployed, but his proposals were unsuccessful.

Wagner's political fortunes changed dramatically with the Great Depression of the 1930s

and the election of President Roosevelt in 1932. Like Wagner, Roosevelt believed that the federal government needed to play a larger role in the activities of the national economy and in the lives of U.S. citizens. Wagner helped draft and sponsor the national industrial recovery act (NIRA) of 1933 (48 Stat. 195), which established the national recovery administration to administer codes of fair practice within each industry. Under these codes, labor and management negotiated minimum wages, maximum hours, and fair trade practices for each industry. The Roosevelt administration sought to use these codes to stabilize production, raise prices, and protect labor and consumers. In schechter poultry corp. v. united states, 295 U.S. 495, 55 S. Ct. 837, 79 L. Ed. 1570 (1935), however, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the NIRA.

Wagner also sponsored the social security act (42 U.S.C.A. § 301 et seq.), the bedrock of U.S. social welfare law. He is best remembered for the wagner act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.). The Wagner Act recognized for the first time the right of workers to organize unions and to collectively bargain with employers. The statute also established the national labor relations board to enforce labor-management relations in the United States.

Wagner sponsored numerous New Deal programs, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the U.S. Housing Authority, which provided loans for low-cost public housing. When world war ii began, the country's attention shifted to international issues, and Wagner's social welfare agenda fell out of favor. He lobbied unsuccessfully for a national health care system and for antilynching legislation.

"It is simply absurd to say that an individual, one of 10,000 workers, is on an equality with his employer in bargaining for his wages."
—Robert F. Wagner

Wagner resigned from the Senate for health reasons in 1949. He died on May 5, 1953, in New York City. In 1954 his son, Robert F. Wagner Jr., was elected mayor of New York City and served until 1965.

Robert Ferdinand Wagner

views updated Jun 11 2018

Robert Ferdinand Wagner

Robert Ferdinand Wagner (1877-1953) was probably the most effective legislative leader in the history of the U.S. Senate and one of the principal architects of modern American political liberalism.

Robert F. Wagner was born in Nastätten, Germany, on June 8, 1877, into a staunch Lutheran family, the youngest of nine children. In 1886 the family emigrated to New York City. Robert was unable to speak English when he entered school, but he proved a diligent student. He sold newspapers and worked as a grooery boy to supplement the family's income. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1898, a Phi Beta Kappa. Two years later he graduated from the New York Law School and gained admittance to the state bar.

Attracted to politics, Wagner associated himself with the Democratic Tammany Hall machine. In 1904 he won election to the New York Assembly and 4 years later to the Senate, becoming Democratic floor leader. He helped push through legislation pertaining to workmen's compensation and other social welfare measures.

In 1926, after eight years as a member of the New York Supreme Court, Wagner won election to the U.S. Senate. He was reelected three times. He became chairman of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee in 1931; 2 years later, after the election of Franklin Roosevelt and solid Democratic majorities, Wagner moved to the center of the liberal reform movement. He drafted the crucial National Industrial Recovery Act, and in 1933-1934 he chaired the new National Labor Board. During the remainder of the 1930s Wagner authored and sponsored a long list of far-reaching social legislation. In 1935 his career reached its pinnacle with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act—commonly called the Wagner Act—which committed the Federal government to protecting and encouraging unions.

Wagner was a loyal supporter of Roosevelt's policies. During World War II Wagner's main concern was warbred inflation. In the Employment Act of 1946 he helped bring about Federal responsibility for maintaining a healthy economy, and at his urging Congress significantly expanded social security coverage and benefits.

Wagner gave up his Senate seat in 1949. He died in New York City on May 4, 1953. His son, Robert Wagner, Jr., was mayor of New York City from 1954 to 1965.

Further Reading

J. Joseph Huthmacher gives a full account of Wagner's public career in Senator Robert F. Wagner and the Rise of Urban Liberalism (1968). Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt (3 vols., 1957-1960), shows Wagner to be a central figure in the development of the New Deal, as does William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940 (1963). Wagner's work in labor and housing legislation is treated by Harry A. Millis and Emily Clark Brown, From the Wagner Act to Taft-Hartley (1950), and by Timothy L. McDonnel, The Wagner Housing Act (1957). For Wagner's later employment legislation see Stephen K. Bailey, Congress Makes a Law: The Story behind the Employment Act of 1946 (1950). □

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