Why I Was Glad to Be Born an Irish-American in Jersey City


Mr. Fleming is the author of The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. His latest book, from which this article was drawn, is Mysteries of My Father. He is a member of the corporate board of HNN.

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I was seven years old the first time I met Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City. My father, Teddy Fleming, and I were on our way home from the opening day of the baseball season at Roosevelt Stadium, where the Jersey Giants played. Suddenly my father steered me around several puddles in the parking lot and we headed toward a big black limousine where a tall man in a derby hat was opening the rear door.

"Mayor," my father said, I'd like you to meet my son." Frank Hague glared down at me as if he had just caught me scalping box seat tickets. He looked about eight feet tall. I put out my small hand and the mayor mashed it into a pulp. "Your old man is a hell of a guy," he growled. By time I was ten I was a complete convert to the Hague organization's politics. It was based on one of the great but seldom stated political principles of our republic -- us against them. I was for us, the Irish-Catholics and their Italian, Slovak, Greek, Polish, Hungarian and Jewish allies, against the Protestant Republicans beyond the borders of Hudson County. These WASPs were out to drive us all back to the kind of poverty my father and Frank Hague had experienced in their downtown turn-of-the-century youth. The Flemings lived in a tenement with no running water, no heat, and one toilet in the back yard for fifty or seventy five adults and children. My father's mother strained her heart and died young, lugging buckets of water up four flights of stairs every day.

To get a job, you frequently had to deny you were a Catholic, even though the map of Ireland or Italy was on your face. One of the worst offenders was a watch factory which happened to be next door to my father's tenement. Posted at the door was a high-collared clerk who asked each job applicant: "Protestant or Catholic?"

If you said Catholic, he sneered: "No work today." You can imagine how angry this made people. The Irish-Americans took it especially hard because for them it was a replay of the kind of treatment they'd received from the English Protestants in Ireland for two hundred years. Frank Hague took over Jersey City in 1917 and suddenly no one was humiliating Catholics anymore. Few historians have grasped just how original and how daring Hague was. He's been lumped as just another boss. He wasn't. His predecessors in Jersey City played ball with the WASPS, like bosses everywhere else in the country. They went along with the wonderful Republican policy of never taxing a railroad or a corporation if they could help it.

Hague decided to do it without the WASPS. He didn't take a nickel from them. He funded himself and the organization with three percent of every salary on the city and county payroll. He made the railroads pay taxes on the 25 percent of Jersey City they owned. Hague took Jersey City and then the whole state of New Jersey away from the WASPs. In the 1920s, when Democrats could not elect anyone outside the Solid South, thanks to the wrecking job Woodrow Wilson did on the party, Hague elected two governors and two senators.

As a kid, I hung around our house on election nights, when a huge party was always in progress. I heard stories that never got in the newspapers. One was about my godfather, Billy Black, who worked in the tax department in City Hall.

One day Hague called him into the mayor's office and gave him a suitcase and a list of people to visit in New York -- bankers, brokers, Tammany politicians. With each stop the suitcase got lighter. When Billy came back to City Hall, he handed the suitcase to the mayor and asked: "What the hell was in that thing?"

"Money, you idiot," Hague said. That was when I learned the Irish-Americans had a tradition that was not entirely respectable. But stories like the one about the watch factory explained it for me. They didn't excuse it. But for an embryo historian, an explanation was more important than an excuse. Nerve and clout were the key words in the Hague organization. Clout worked in all sorts of ways. Teddy Fleming got up in the middle of the night to get people out of jail or kept them out for everything from being drunk and disorderly to embezzlement. The mantra was: "He's a good Democrat." That did everything from fixing speeding tickets to adjusting tax rates. Wives came to him to stop their husbands from beating them up. The sick needed help to get into the hospitals.

But the big item was jobs. This was the Great Depression. Night after night, Teddy Fleming was down there in the Sixth Ward clubhouse listening to pleas for jobs. They didn't have grandiose illusions about the people they were dealing with. About two days after Teddy Fleming became the Sixth Ward leader in 1933, Monsignor Joseph Meehan, the pastor of All Saints Parish, summoned him to the rectory. A slab of a man, he'd been pastor when Teddy Fleming graduated from All Saints Parochial School in 1902. The Mons, as everyone called Meehan, poured them both some Bourbon and said: "So you're going to work hard for these people?"

"Isn't that what it's all about?" Teddy Fleming asked. "Let me tell you something," the Mons said. "Jesus Christ himself couldn't keep these people happy." It was a tough world. But politics made it a slightly better world. The organization made people feel there was someone around who cared about them. I can remember going to ward rallies and hearing my father say: "You are my people. Any time you need something, come to me. I'll do what I can to help."

One night I saw the quality of Teddy Fleming's leadership in our own living room. I answered the doorbell and confronted a small snubnosed man in a velvet collared coat that had seen better days. He asked to speak to my father. I said I would see if he was home. My father was upstairs in his bedroom, dressing to spend the evening at the Sixth Ward clubhouse, as usual. When I told him the man's name, he frowned. "He's the son of the guy that owned the old watch factory," he said. "They went bankrupt a couple of years ago. I bet he's looking for a job."

My father went downstairs. I hung over the second floor railing above the stairwell, expecting to hear a parable of Irish-American vengeance acted out. Here was my father's chance to even the score for the hundreds, even thousands of humiliations this man's father had inflicted on the Catholics of Jersey City.

I was totally disappointed. Teddy Fleming greeted the man courteously and they discussed where he might find work. My father finally decided his training as an accountant might win him a slot at the Internal Revenue offices in Newark. He promised to put in a word for him at City Hall.

Stunned, I asked my father why he hadn't made the ruined Protestant scion crawl. Had he forgotten what they made the Irish do at the watch factory? My father looked at me with mild disapproval. "That happened a long time ago," he said. "That fellow didn't have anything to do with it." I was chastened and impressed. I puzzled about it for years. What motivated him? It wasn't religion. He seldom went to church. I now think it was a sense of pride and responsibility that came from leadership. This penniless man lived in the Sixth Ward. He was one of Teddy Fleming's people no matter what his father and grandfather may have done.

That story remains in my mind as an example of what Democratic Party politics was all about in those days. Sure it was also about nerve and clout and the kick you got out of being a big shot. But above and beyond and beneath these things was a sense of solidarity that travelled up and down. Travelling up it was loyalty. Down it was caring, though they seldom called it that. They didn't wear their hearts on the sleeves. But they were proud of how good they were at their jobs. Every vote counted, which meant everyone had access to your clout.

Maybe that's the main reason I'm glad I was born Irish-American in Jersey City. I learned to appreciate the importance of politics in people's lives and in the life of the country. At least as important to me, personally, I learned to agree with Frank Hague's estimate of my father. Teddy Fleming was a hell of a guy.

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Charles Rogers Ortiz - 6/24/2005

Greetings to HNN's distinguished historian, Mr. Thomas Fleming. I have written an email to you for an idea on a documentary which I would like to shoot abroad. The project must be well defined and approved by the foreign government which I'm proposing it to. We spoke before when I was in college, as your book - THE ILLUSION OF VICTORY - was instrumental in the editing process after my film's initial shooting.