Camera Rolls: 313:09-13, 313:01
Sound Rolls: 313:05-07
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ralph Fasanella , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 23, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Ralph, I'd like to begin with the Henry Ford [junk ?] you told me downstairs?
Well, 1930s, you know, all the people, especially work-people, had a sense of humor about Henry Ford. Remember, Henry Ford would go around and give dimes out, and this guy's a billionaire, and everybody's oh, this guy's something else, they all knew him as a miserable old man that only gave dimes out, but anyway, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] let me tell you a story about Henry Ford, I could tell it. So you know I've got my hand going over here on the lever, I've got my hand going on over there, I'm shaking my leg with a pedal over here, I've got another pedal, I'm going this way, four things rolling all over, I say "Put a broom up my ass, I'll sweep the floor for you." That was the kind of things that worked for Henry Ford, real speed up. And that's his introduction to America.
Can you tell me what New York City was like, particularly for you, in the early part of the Depression? Before Roosevelt was inaugurated?
Well, for me, you've got to remember I was always a [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , I was always a rebel, but it was really a gray, gray city, awful. I, I don't know, for some reason or other, I always was in trouble, always fighting, always looking to fight, to fight, to fight. But I would look around and see, the Depression was an unbelievable story. It was so gray that if you rode the subway, nobody would smile, nobody would talk, all their heads down. You got out at a subway station, a guy, man about forty-five or fifty selling apples, all over the street, people selling apples, selling to each other. That came through Herbert Hoover, he said, you can get out of the Depression, buy an apple. There was no food in the 30s, just unbelievable story again, you didn't visit people 'cause you were afraid they didn't have the food to give you. So the Depression was, in many ways, oh I don't know, there were no jobs. And one, then we had a big wholesale job, was shoveling snow, and everybody would pray, let it snow, let it snow, 'cause if there was snow, you'd be able to shovel snow in the streets. Gave you fifty cents an hour, you got four bucks a day, and everybody was looking for a snow job, and looking for snow. Course you got paid a couple months later, but that was the only work you ever did. I remember the snow, and I had one pair of shoes- I also had one pair of shoes- and one day a little sun came out, cleaning the snow, my feet, my shoes got wet. So, I had to go to a dance that night, I had patent leather shoes, suede shoes. Nobody knew it would have to be wet from the daytime, you couldn't have another pair, only one pair of shoes, and you used that for everything. That's how I went, I had suede shoes, though wet shoes, I had no other shoes to wear.
So how did people survive there, no jobs, no food, how did people survive?
Well, you know, my mother had,
we're eight in the family, got a couple of pounds of macaroni and we ate macaroni and we ate macaroni, and we had one meatball, we had to divide it up. We really went around hungry, had headaches from not eating.
** You—well, how can I tell you, you were hungry, I remember, you know, going downtown and looking for jobs, I'd get thirty-five cents, forty-cents, and I'd buy a pretzel or two, ten cents coffee and you could buy a newspaper, and then you were broke. And hey, listen, could you stop a minute, where's that piece of paper I had all—
OK. Well, the other thing about the Great Depression, I forgot to mention, that, my God, people jumping off roofs no matter what they did, people just lost their fortune come the Depression, and I remember at 23rd Street, flatiron building, walking along the street and some guy jumps out a window, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] blood. Very common way of people committing suicide in the 30s, just unbelievable, it happened to so many people that the papers wouldn't even want to report it. In fact, they had a song, "Gloomy Sunday," and it made people kill themselves, and finally it wasn't allowed on the radio, took it off the air, "Gloomy Sundays." Just, you know, made you so blue you couldn't stand it. And then the other thing I think people kind of forget—where is it, it's west of that highway now in Riverside Drive, Hooverville, shanty town, they had old shanties along there, people got tinderbox and they made, and everybody want[sic] along the waterfront. The other thing you saw if you went into the Armories and the big public buildings, lines of hundreds of people lined up waiting for a cup of coffee, a cup of coffee. So really the whole period was so depressing, you know, you went downtown and you looked, you saw a line, you know, an employment guy's getting a cup of coffee. Anytime you got near a public building people'd form lines. There was a kind of unrest about it, an unrest about it. There were—you know, the American people at that time, especially in New York City were immigrants, were never quite sure, can we say anything against the city, the state? I remember, for European people to look at this government of theirs who have no social consciousness. They looked at the government of the cities and Washington, like, they were like the kings, oh [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , so they didn't say anything, but you got this little radical group that began to say, listen we got to get some people, we got to march to City Hall. I [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] been fortunate, fortunate, that's the way I am, I got in on one of the early marches to City Hall. Went there for jobs and welfare, we demanded jobs and we wanted welfare. So the whole, that was the whole thing of the 30s.
Can you tell me a little more about Hooverville, who was there, how many people were there, how people felt, how they lived?
Oh my God, there were hundreds of people, hundreds of people along Riverside Drive, now it's the Westside Highway. They got tin and cardboard boxes, and a whole batch of people lined up there, and they had community soup, they had big bowls of water, with maybe grab a can of tomatoes thrown in. It was poverty land, and the paper didn't want to show it, but every now and then they had to put it in, too obvious, too many people. The whole Westside Highway was Hooverville, you know.
Now, who were these people, were they immigrants, were they blacks, were they Puerto Rican?
Mostly were working people of New York City, immigrant, immigrant, no, yes, half and half. The young people always were reluctant to, the younger people always were reluctant to get into fighting mood because fight and you're fighting against your government, and they were kind of reluctant, but the European people who had some experience with governments, they knew you had the right to protest. But the younger people didn't have that, they didn't feel that way, that came on later on [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] protest, they didn't get on, though I'm sure there were blacks, all kinds of people there.
Now, if this is the winter of '32, you have Hooverville, the bread lines, the soup lines, and whatnot, the banks, Roosevelt closes the banks, the banks are still continuing to fail. Do you remember that, and did you lose, or did your family lose money in the bank?
No, most of them didn't have money in the bank, but I sure remember the shock, an awful shock, you went and all these banks were out of business. I remember, in my neighborhood they had lines and lines up in the Bronx and in Manhattan up in the [Samview ?] area you had tremendous lines of people who had lost their money in the banks. Again, you know, the banks had a big, a big effect on people, but I also, you've got to remember, not many working people had money in the banks, and if they did [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] in the mattress, they didn't trust banks anyway, what the hell they going to do with banks, they don't know what a bank is. That was a part of, that bank business, that bank holiday business, frightened everybody.
Now, at that time were you, and you family, and the people in your community, really questioning the future of this country?
Well, my family did, and a bit of my mother—
I need you to say "my family did question," or '"y family had doubts about the future," you know, you've got to include that.
Yeah, yeah, my family had doubts about the future, what was happening. My mother was a socially-minded woman, and I was the young kid. I was the radical going downtown, going to City Hall, I'm going to Union Square, I'm going to look for a job in the employment agency, there was an agency for jobs on Lafayette Street. There were thousands of people there, lining up, trying to get into the office. I think it could only hold two people, a thousand people outside. And all these guys already begin to agitate, making speeches, you know, and I'd come home and say 'Damn it, you know, I went down there and a guy talked about unemployed [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] unions, and they were saying, we got to work short days and they've got to provide jobs.' My brother and sister looked at me like what the hell this guy comin' from, 'cause they lived in the Bronx, I was the cosmopolitan boy, I went downtown, took the subway, they stayed in the Bronx, they were rural provincial. So I came in with all the radical ideas in New York City. What were radical ideas, guys talking about what has to be done with America, what has to be done with the city? They went to Union Square with fifteen-hundred soap boxes, everybody's making a speech, we've got to change the world, we've got to do this, we've got to do that. This was an education for me, so we got involved in people, and this also was the young people who had some schooling and knew about law and rights of democracy and they wanted things done, and they would get up on the box and explain different philosophies, oh, from Karl Marx to Jesus Christ, they talked about everything, all these young guys very sharp, very bright, and they were saying we could do something about this world of ours, you know, we could make the changes. But we have to understand, and they all said, 'Man, one day we'll know for sure, capitalism doesn't work, and they attacked capitalism.
Ralph, you were going to tell me about FDR's inauguration, where you were, what you remember, how you felt.
Well, when Roosevelt got elected, Roosevelt came in, my God, it was the new day for us. All of us had this tremendous respect for Roosevelt, first of all he was the first guy with a little hope. You know, Roosevelt said the thing, you know, be careful, fear's the only thing you have to be, if we didn't have any fear we can [sic] do things. He had a regular slogan, I forget the slogan about fear. And people began to get up [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] because, you know, Roosevelt came in and he painted a nice picture for America, we're going to get out of the Depression and we're going to live, and life isn't going to be so miserable and not so great. Then he started the NRA and a lot of different things, but you know what was happening at the same time? The radicals were being organized, the left-wingers being organized, and they're pushing, they're demanding things of Roosevelt because at that time, he talked and he didn't deliver stuff fast.
OK, but tell me more about the inauguration, where you were, how you felt, did you listen to it on the radio? Tell me a little bit more about—
Oh sure, I think I listened, I don't think I was there, but I listened to it, and I remember, the guy was shot at that thing, the guy from Chicago, [Mayes Sempke?], he was killed at that thing in Washington. They had all these photographs of Roosevelt coming there, and you know, everybody looked at those pictures, like the World Series, or something. A new President got in, because they couldn't stand Hoover. They hated Hoover, oh everybody, the word that came out about Hoover, make your hair turn upside down.
Let's stop for a minute.
We were talking about FDR's inauguration.
Well, when Roosevelt was elected it was like a new day came, everybody thought "God has arrived." Especially people over fifty and sixty, you know, they're getting on in years, and they just saw this man, this savior, going to save their lives. I think his talks sound like they were receiving Communion, they would listen to him. In fact, I'll tell you what it was like, when Roosevelt would go to speak on a radio later on, everybody would go like we've got to listen to Roosevelt, we've got to listen to the President, like going to see the World Series game, going to a fight, everybody went home and started to listen to Roosevelt, because Roosevelt, he was just an inspiring man, he kind of knew history and he kind of knew working mans [sic], and so he was able to put out, and give the American people a kind of way out, what they were looking for, because the days of Hooverville, the gray days, and awful days, and demonstrations, you never got a damn thing out of Hoover. When Roosevelt came in, it was like you got a shot in the arm, wonderful feeling, that a new President came in.
Now we talked about this a little bit, but tell me more about the banking crisis and people, people were actually-
Well, you know, the banking crisis—I lived in a neighborhood up around, in the East Bronx, and when a bank went out of business they had lines blocks long, and everybody was frightened about the banks, the banks, the banks, you had these lines, and lines, and lines, I think [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] lines of welfare people, lines of demonstration, lines of banks, all kinds of lines. It was kind of a strange period of American history. I would like to do some, well, I did something, I would have liked to do more about it, because it, I'm always, well, I'm always trying to tell people, "Let's not forget yesterday."
Now, you talked about it a little bit more, but we were talking about his inauguration speech, but the fireside chats, tell me more about that. Before, you told me that it was like this guy who comes right into your living room, right into your kitchen, like he's just sitting there talking to you. Tell me more about that, how you felt, kindly repeat that story for me.
Well, I liked what he was saying, but remember, I was beginning to be a radical, I'd been thinking about capitalism and socialism, though, so I was a little different than the rest of the guys, I was saying can this guy deliver, can he deliver, can he deliver? I began to question Roosevelt, I was a questioning type, like most young people are always questioning, what's he going to do, another politician, another politician. Young people, they're always cynical and they want answers immediately. The old people waiting for a handout, they say, thank God this guy came about.
You felt that this guy came and he was going to save the people, and a tremendous feeling for him, oh, all the people they could kiss his toenails. That's how much they loved this guy.
** He had a certain amount of respect, and when Roosevelt spoke, you felt [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] this guy speaking, I mean he talked "my friends," like he's talking to you, and he made you understand. He made contact with the human race and they loved him for that, because Hoover did not talk to people. In fact, most politicians then didn't know how to talk to people. Roosevelt, in a way, was like a boy-wonder that came into politics. I've never heard a guy talk like that. Where the hell this guy's coming from.
So he used radio better and different, had it ever been used before?
Oh he made use of it, yeah, yeah, yeah. He really tapped radio and he had his fireside chats and I told you, nobody was on the streets that night. Everybody was running, oh, I've got to [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . Amazing how this guy caught the imagination of the American people.
Now he gets into office and he begins direct relief, different than what Hoover did, Hoover didn't do anything. So how did people feel about this "direct relief"?
Well, they wanted the relief. They wanted food cans and a lot of other things. But then there were other groups, no, we want jobs, jobs, so the concern came they wanted jobs. And you know, they didn't buy Roosevelt for relief. They didn't want canned food, they didn't want stamps, they wanted jobs, and I think they forced Roosevelt into a position. He had to reconsider what he had to do, and I think he began to start the WPA works administration, project administration. Now you begin to see building of the roads, building of the streets, clearing up the waterfronts, started a project up in Harlem, called LaGuardia, housing, you know. Start to repair all the highways and byways, you know, and the major streets in America.
OK, so, it really wasn't the WPA, it was the PWA and CWA first, WPA was like, a little later, and we have to be careful to get these things in the right order chronologically as we tell this history. But his jobs programs, the CWA and the PWA, people actually started getting jobs. Do you remember people that got these jobs, how they felt, I mean did they talk about them?
Oh sure, they all had jobs. But I think, you know, they're making job [untintelligible] jobs, you went to the employment office and you were signing for, well, you went there to apply for a job, and people got jobs at these agencies, and it was only when they got into construction that his program had some effect. Now, they had a couple of housing projects they started on, I think on the lower east-side, then in Harlem, and then they start fixing bridges, I think later on they start doing the Triborough Bridge, it was a big thing. And then I think they went to Worcester County and began to build, I guess you're [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Park where you see all the beautiful masonry, the work that the Italians who were building the roads, they set the stone, you know, for the first time they were given recognition for the skill they had. In a way he was also, man was going to work, you know, he came out of 1929, this is 1932 three years later,
through the Roosevelt administration a man went to work he began to get the recognition of himself, he began to feel better, inwardly. So he could walk up, he wouldn't stoop, before he was stooped down, they'd walk around really depressed. Roosevelt gave this guy a new set of hopes, and that kind of changed the ballgame a bit,
** but also at that same time, you've got to remember, people's movements were beginning to emerge, people, checking up, hey listen, what do we got to do? Some people came from Europe had some ideas that you could start movements, and the movements began to develop, the Employed Council [sic], and every neighborhood you went, if people were kicked out of their house because they didn't pay rent, they had ten, fifteen people pick up their furniture and bring it right back. I used to work with a black guy, he'd say, "Ralph," he said, "you've got to remember, every time these people came and took our furniture out we had twenty people to bring the furniture in, so we didn't worry about them, they did their job, the Marshal came, he said this was a disposses paper, and five minutes later, everybody from the street carried the furniture from the house right into the house." And they never failed, you know, 'cause now the people are getting militant, getting militant. And this begins to be a new trend in America, militancy, militancy. And the people begin to accept in a way, they begin to fight, because they can see the hope that Roosevelt gave—there's a sun, the world's going to be there. But these emerging leftist radicals, all different groups, begin to march up there and demand different things. This was the beginning of movements.
Now, you said that there was this black guy that you worked with—
Now, we were talking about FDR. He gets into the office, and one of the first things he does is the NRA. Do you remember the NRA?
Yeah, the National Recovery Act, sure, remember that.
Tell me about the—
And he had, a fellow by the name of Johnson head of [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] [coughs]. The National Recovery Act was trying to regulate prices and wages, I believe, and it made a lot of noise, but I think that it didn't favor the small guy. The big guys would take the cream, a lot of criticism, and I think they had to drop the NRA. But it hung around for a couple of years, it had the golden eagle, no matter where you saw, NRA, NRA, NRA, and it didn't work. It didn't deliver, and people began to get a little cynical about it. They saw the usual stuff, the high guys were grabbing part of the action and they left nothing for the people at the bottom, so that petered out, and it began—
And it began to attack, Johnson was his name, Joe Johnson, kind of called him a low dictator fascist. Who's this guy coming around telling us what to do?
Now, but at the beginning, when you had the large parade in New York, the largest parade in New York City history, you know, with the flag, the eagle, and people are marching. Do you remember the parade, and if so, do remember how people felt about the NRA at the beginning?
Well, remember, when Roosevelt came in, it was a new day. Everything Roosevelt did was monumental, it wasn't—
Ralph, you were going to tell me about the NRA [National Recovery Act].
Well, you know, the NRA [National Recovery Act] was like the repeal of beer, everybody had a sign, NRA, NRA, NRA, and they had this big parade, and it covered an awful lot of writing, every newspaper. It had this big slogan, NRA, and the world was going to be better, and it made a lot of noise and everybody got all the department stores in all the windows and all the factories had these signs, they—these labels, NRA, NRA, for the National Recovery Act. It was part of the thing that Roosevelt was instilling in the American people, some hope, you begin hoping. They thought this guy was trying something, and a lot of people had a lot of respect for him. And I think the thing that the wisest people were the militants. They said, now wait a while, we'll go along with it, but let's build our own organization. So they began to do things, and they began to be critical, not much of Roosevelt, of Johnson. They didn't want to attack Roosevelt, he was too popular to attack, you know, and so they used Johnson at the NRA and said, this guy's taking care of the bosses. Johnson was an Army man, he said things in an Army way and didn't understand people. Remember the Army in this country never reflected democratic feeling. Nobody liked the Army, in fact, the guys who went into the Army were considered bums, and on the other hand, the Army people knew that. The Army had nothing to do with common folks. They didn't buy that story about the Army.
Now, in '32, when Roosevelt wins, LaGuardia loses, Congressman LaGuardia. Were people upset by his loss, people from your community?
Oh sure, you know, LaGuardia, I think, lost by a fluke accident. He ran on the Republican ticket, and a fellow by the name of Lanzetta ran on the Democratic ticket, he just wanted, he come up to—
Can you start from the beginning again, and look at Dante?
Yeah. Well, LaGuardia lost by a fluke. He ran as a Republican and a guy ran on the Democratic ticket, fellow by the name of Lanzetta, and he took LaGuardia's place. In fact, the Italians used to make some joke, they used to have stories about this mopey Lanzetta, how the hell did he get in? And he got in on this landslide, it had nothing to do with the Roosevelt administration, had no thinking, he was a politician that didn't make sense, and the people realized, and they felt sorry that they lost LaGuardia and most people talked about it. LaGuardia began to build a reputation, not only as an Italian but as a fighter, that's what LaGuardia was noted for, he was a fighter, and people like fighters, you know. Like Roosevelt came over as a courageous man, he was a fighter and was going to take on the big banks and the big industries, going to give the people a break. That, so, you know, the feeling they had, I had the same feeling too, you know, that expression, you know, fighting is the way to get things done.
Now, LaGuardia fought Tammany for years and years, as a congressman and after he became mayor also. How did you and your community feel about them?
Well, we knew they were the bosses, and we knew they could fix a ticket for you when your kids got in jail, or came Thanksgiving or Christmas they'd give you a sack of potatoes, but those were the contempt, underneath them, and the only guy that took on Tammany Hall was LaGuardia. And LaGuardia had a little pitchy voice, you know, "I'm going to get you guys, who do you think you are anyway?" Everybody liked LaGuardia because he was taking on the politicians, and he got up on the air, and he said
"Eh, I'll get you guy, you Tammany Hall politician, you're not going to be the ward-head, you're not going to run the city, we're going to run the city, the people are going to run the city."
** And [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] was a fighter, he was a guy, you know, a little short guy and he'd come up there and talk, and he'd got a way with the working people, they loved him because he had a sense of humor, and every now and then he'd throw in Italian and every now and then he'd throw in Jewish, and he understood Tammany Hall and the Irish politician. If anybody was hated in New York city at that time, was Tammany Hall, you know, Tammany Hall, if you had a grocery store a cop would come in and take this, if you had a peddler store, you'd take an apple, you go into a restaurant they'd eat for nothing. Arrogant, arrogant, arrogant,
** they pushed the people around, they had the goddamn stick, that's all it was, stick, stick, stick. It was LaGuardia that eliminated the police stick. It was LaGuardia who brought black people onto the city force. A new day was coming, and you felt that way, you know, a wonderful feeling of LaGuardia. And then, you know, he was the guy that got on the air and would tell a little story with the funny sheets, and he was a guy, remember, LaGuardia was a cultured guy, you know. He knew what politics was about, he knew the social movements, he understood the social movements, he understood Socialism, Communism, what Russia was. The Irish politician in Tammany Hall was a guy from the block, he took care of numbers and he killed petty grievances, and he helped you out in a petty way. But LaGuardia began to give something significant as being a mayor, the intellect now was beginning to arrive, which later on Roosevelt hired, the brain trust. Now you begin to find out people are running the city, people of culture, who have a worldview and understand what this world's all about.
What did it mean to you, the fact that LaGuardia was an Italian immigrant, and he wanted to make—
Well, you got to remember, I liked him as an Italian, you know, you've got to be proud of that, but I think, I think what we liked most about him was he was ready to take the machine on. He was a fighter, and that impressed everybody. Because
remember, the people at that time were called downtrodden, they had no leads, they had no hope. So you had two new guys come into the picture, Roosevelt and LaGuardia, and they stayed with the American a long, long time, the image of Roosevelt and the image of LaGuardia.
** In fact, you know, the only way they down-graded these guys, the right-wingers or maybe you could call them fascists, whatever they were, began to downgrade Roosevelt and LaGuardia, opposition was being formed. But so many positive things came out of these two people, you couldn't down them, that's all.
When he won, as mayor, did that make you feel, like, included, or proud of the American political process?
It was the beginning of it, you know, because I think, when LaGuardia got elected, you began to think in terms of farm-labor, you begin to think, you remember the Congressman would raise questions about the American people, unemployment, surety, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] people, he was a socially-minded guy in the House. Now when he came into the city, now you thought the city was going to be resolved, because remember, New York City was run by Tammany Hall, all the clubs had all the power. If you wanted something done you had to go to the club, the club, the club, the club, and you had guys standing on the corner that worked for Tammany Hall. You gave them agreements, you know, you'd have to have something wrong with your apartment, water wasn't running, they had no heat. You went to see the guy in the club and the guy in the club would talk to the landlord and he'd resolve your problems. So this was a beginning, that LaGuardia began to eliminate, put the inspectors on, you know, and had the inspectors watch in the grocery store, at the grocery store and the food market wasn't harassed by the police, always grafting, always [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , taking things. They were the wise guys, they were the wise guys, you know.
And these are basically, Tammany's basically Irish—
Yeah, yeah, oh my God, you know, the business of the Irish running the city was unbelievable, that the, I think the Italians, they became—
Ralph, you were going to tell me about the Irish control of Tammany and the city of New York.
Well, you know, the facts of life were that the Italian people, because Tammany Hall was the police department, of course they were the state, the oppressor, and all the Italians, you know, he'd never be anti-someone, but he'd be anti-Irish, 'cause the Irish had all the jobs, they gots [sic] all the city, they spoke the language. And not only the Italians, all the other nationalities, the Jewish people disliked them, because no matter where you went you [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] by an Irish cop. In fact you had a little song, "Irish prick, Irish mick," and they always talked about the Irish, the Irish, the Irish. In fact, when I was a kid I lived in the Village, kids would go up on the roof and throw cement sacks on the Irish cops. And this guy standing on the corner, you'd see him pass by he'd whack your ass with a stick. When you saw the cop come out at night he'd say, get the hell out of here, go home. They were really patrolling the streets. While they were patrolling the streets they were on the take, they were taking, always taking. Graft was unbelievable. They just took from everybody. In fact, in some of the speakeasy days, when a speakeasy went out of business because of the police department, everybody went in there, he's like, I can't afford to pay every cop twenty bucks, twenty bucks, twenty bucks, twenty bucks. They went out of business. You know, the minute the speakeasies, if they did go broke they had, it was due to the police department knocked them broke, the state come, but mostly it was the local politic knocked them broke.
Now, all this changed when LaGuardia won?
Oh, that was the end of that business, yeah, LaGuardia brought in a new day. I think he, in fact I think he got a [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , even different than Roosevelt, because LaGuardia, a lot of people worked for LaGuardia, a lot of people, the club leaders, a lot of people came from Harlem, they came from democratic clubs, they knew what was going on, they knew the leader, and now LaGuardia was, the clubs were being fed out of City Hall by LaGuardia, not graft, but you got, LaGuardia got things done. Tickets, and small-time petty guys, number men, they didn't all stop with LaGuardia, remember, you know, the gamblers and the wise guys, barked, LaGuardia says 'I'm going to get rid of you wise guys', but you know something, he didn't get rid of wise guys because they're part of the society, you can't have society without having gangsters, it's the corruption of society, and so the gangsters stayed there. They jumped on the road and didn't know how to get out of the way, but, and they weren't going to let LaGuardia knock them out of the ballgame, they cleaned it up a bit, you don't think the wise guys who are in the hoods are going to let any mayor get out of the way, they, nah, they're very shrewd, they maneuvered, but he would make these great speeches, everybody loved him for that, you know, 'I'm going to take these Irishmen on, this Tammany Hall group, they go, hey you guys', he didn't sound Italian but they loved him because he said that, you know, it was a great thing to hear a guy taking on this big hulk of Tammany Hall machine, it had been in business for hundreds of years, unbelievable.
Do you remember him fighting the gangsters and smashing the—
The slot machine, yeah, well, he was also a great actor. The little flower was a really great actor. He did a lot of things well. He was a great, well let's see, he did nice things and he kind of had a, well, you know, they gave him the name of little flower. LaGuardia was a guy of the people, little guy came in and did things and, you had a sense he knew how to handle the politicians. He wasn't dogmatic, he wasn't playing the dictator of New York City. [coughs] He was expressing the opinion of a lot of small people and they liked him for that reason, you know.
Tell me about the slot machine, I need to have you—
Well, you know, these slot machines were run by the gangsters, a lot of petty gangsters, and they had these things all over the place and you played this machine, you put a nickel and dime in, a quarter, and you got your money. Every now and then LaGuardia would grab about twenty slot machines and the would come there and take pictures and they'd have LaGuardia with an axe, breaking the machines down, you know? Of course, the next day the machines were back in the same store, don't worry about it, he took it away on a Monday and the newspaper came, get it all back, and this is the way it works. If you think they're going to eliminate speakeasies and the slot machines, you're eliminating gangs, you've got to know how this thing works, and you got to be able to be philosophical about—you can't be idealistic about it. You can't say "Ah, dammit, you've got to get rid of racketeers," you know? Just because people look at him and, who's this idealistic, stupid man, you know?
But now, he was also in favor of and called for the repeal of Prohibition.
Oh yeah, yeah.
Tell me about that.
Well, you know, in those days we had speakeasies all over. Speakeasies, the word comes from when you go into places you can't make too much noise, speak easy, speak low, and it got the label speakeasy. And everybody knew where a speakeasy was, you saw a curtain in front of the store, and like no name, and these were the speakeasies, you went in and you got a home brew, you got beer. Every now and then Prohibition agents would come and raid the place, I guess that's 'cause they didn't, they didn't, the guy didn't pay a graft, because usually these places were covered. Everything was covered, you know, it's, you know, the laws are made for these politicians to make money and take care of the wise guys. Every neighborhood had a speakeasy and went in there. We had a couple in my neighborhood, and they had home brew in this one, they didn't have tap beer. You went in there, and I forget the bottle, thirty-five cents you have frankfurters and nice rye bread and cheese and all that kind of business. A lot of working men came twelve o'clock would pull their trucks up at the side and go into the speakeasy, and it was the people's club in a way.
Now, Roosevelt starts his PWA, and CWA programs and whatnot, but everyone didn't get jobs, you know? Particularly, in many instances, black people. Can you tell me about that, I mean, do you know anyone that got these jobs so far?
I know people that got in the WPA, but I got to tell you, and I think that I've said it before, New York City people were isolated from the blacks, the blacks lived in Harlem, and the electrical [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] line, the cut-off went into Harlem and didn't go any other place. The people in the Bronx, and I think in Brooklyn too, and Lower Manhattan, didn't know the black people. Now, you did find some black people operating an elevator in a building, which was also a so-called lowest job, but it was a job. We didn't understand it, later on white guys went for the job. So many of these buildings you went into, the elevators were on a piece of cable, up and down. That was my first, well, I had other types in reform school, I met some black kids, in my neighborhood. I got to tell you, talk about my neighborhood, I was out of reform school and I brought a kid in the neighborhood, and they used to call—we had a little team in the neighborhood—and we brought this guy, Jennings, he was a pitcher. Everybody [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] they got that team, that black guy, he's something else. He was so good in the 1930s, I met him later on and I said "How the hell come you aren't playing in the big leagues," he said "Hey stupid, don't you know I'm black?" I didn't know they weren't allowed to play. You—I knew him, but he came into my neighborhood, 1926, 1927, stayed at my house. Unheard of. Unheard of, a black guy in a white neighborhood. It was 1926, 1927, but he stayed with us, but later on he said, "Look, I can't play, I'm too good," he went up to Macombs[?] Park and played with the black teams, up in Harlem and 51st Street, and in that area. But the blacks at that time, you know, it was only through the CIO and the work-lines that the blacks got space in America. It was the left-wing that brought the blacks into the picture of America. You didn't get it out of the movements that were around. Now, LaGuardia knew something about the blacks, he was understanding of the blacks. I think he was a friend of the guy, oh I forget that guy's name, not Kennedy[?], not Philips, it was another guy, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] or something—well, even before Randolph there was another guy that LaGuardia knew. LaGuardia [coughs] was a socially-minded person, so he knew the word "negro," which not many people didn't know [sic], you know. They called them blacks and niggers and all that kind of garbage. LaGuardia was a very cultured guy, you know, remember, LaGuardia was one of the few mayors in America was a cultured man, understood different problems, knew what Puerto Ricans were.
So then, did things change for black New Yorkers when LaGuardia became mayor?
Oh sure, the first thing, the police department, you found black cops. Especially in Harlem, the white cops would use that goddamned stick all day, and they were given special orders, take your stick away. So in a way, the black people saw something in LaGuardia, and I think, I believe he was liked by the black people. Now I remember, when the riots took place in Harlem, we walked into it. We were socially-minded kids, and, for some reason, they understand people, they looked at us and oh, these kids are all right they didn't know us. That's because we had an understanding to, remember, I had begun to go to the demonstrations downtown, we saw blacks in the demonstrations. The CIO opened up another new world to the American people. It opened up the Amalgamated, it opened up the IGW, it began to flourish, and a breath of fresh air's now comin' into America, taking place in the city, jobs—
Ralph, in the pre-interview you talked to me about racism and discrimination in some of these New Deal programs. Can you talk to me about that now? In particular, the fact that you had to know someone to get one of these jobs?
Yeah, you know, I think in any system, no matter where you go, while you read in the paper that jobs are open, but you got to go through the clubs, the clubs still had control, and it seems that way, then, and now too. What you read in the papers always makes a good story, but you have to go meet the right people, who give you a card, tell you to go and see so-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so, then they give you a job. Now, the only thing I knew, like a lot of us knew, you know, the only thing that I knew in the 30s, to be honest about it, I heard about the Humanity Club, and I heard about the Jazz Club, and I heard about the music that was going on.
One of your most famous paintings is the painting of the Triborough Bridge. Tell me what you felt and why you made that painting.
Well, the painting of New York City. Geez, I walked the City all over. I lived it. I drove it. Through the Depression I never even had a buck, and I kind of know New York City pretty well, I had the fortune in my life but being poor, and being poor you walk all over, and you're searching all over. I got involved in all the Boroughs, the five Boroughs, though Staten Island I didn't know and Queens a bit, but Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx I knew very well, and I think because of being on [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] driving trucks, and living in different boroughs, mainly because my father and I [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] buildings, and people, and then driving truck gave me an overview of the entire city, and which I had to go over the 59th Street bridge, and I had to go over the Triborough Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge. So I was a kid that saw a lot of things, and a kid with an eye that looked at things, I don't know why, that's what it was. When my father took [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] back in 1921, 1922, put me on top of the, he'd pick up wastepaper, and I would go with him and I would see different people, and then he had a route in Brooklyn, brought me in contact with the Jewish people, and then in [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] I got involved with this young boy, we were young kids, Jennings, and while I was in the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] I saw black ball players Lincoln Giants, [Backarack Jets?], Homestead Grays. I saw all these guys play. Then I got up in the different areas up in the Bronx. I saw Italian people, different neighborhoods. I'm trying to tell you what makes me paint and how I could do a painting like New York City, it's a very complex painting, but if you stand near that painting, let alone breathe air on it, it breathes. I could take it to a Puerto Rican neighborhood, an Italian neighborhood, Irish neighborhood, black neighborhood, you got all these neighborhoods and you can feel these people, because I've been through these places, and I only paint what I can feel. And I been [sic] through all the neighborhoods, and now too, I've been to East Harlem, West Harlem, in fact I delivered meat in West Harlem. And I'm giving you the story of how bad the world was, since we're talking about the Depression. When we drove a truck through Harlem, we had to look in the store window because they were going to steal meat, you know, we're a hungry world, I think we constantly forget where we came out of. People were hungry, not only blacks were hungry, everybody was hungry, and so when you deliver a truck no matter where you were you got to watch out, because someone was going to steal the meat, steal the groceries. I remember the story one time of a cop up in the Bronx, he pinched a guy, the guy broke into a store, the guy said, "Hey, listen, hey man, I've got six kids, I've got to feed them." The cop said, "Bring me to your house." The guy went there, he had six kids, he said, "Get the hell up there, I'm not going to make a pinch." So you found the hunger, unbelievable story. I lived in the 1930s in Winbridge[?], a couple of streets, mixed neighborhood, Jesus Christ Almighty I'll tell you that, on this particular street I met a guy the other day [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] thinks blacks and whites to live on this one block, you know. They was all together. Why? Because they lived in poverty, they played baseball, football. Poverty brings people together, struggle really brings people together. When you get struggle, you don't see color, you don't see race, you get together, you do. And that's why [coughs] I have a lot of my paintings, lest we forget, and that's why [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] [coughs], if you have struggle, something good comes out of it. I think this is what we're always talking about, two things I talk about: lest we forget, and we got to struggle. My father had a different saying, he said, "Listen, Son, got to own up your ass. You got to sweat. I'm an immigrant, I got to sweat, I got six kids and every day I got to get up and work this fucking horse and wagon. And an Irish cop comes along and gives me a ticket. What do you think about that Irish son-of-a-bitch? He gives me a ticket, that's what it's all about." So an immigrant is being oppressed by the state apparatus, which is the Irish, he can't speak the goddamn language, he walks into—my mother walks into a shop, she's a button-hole maker, so she brings in the union talk to me, and through the union speaking to you, you have the socialists talking to you. And the funny thing about Italian immigrant, the word 'social' was foreign to them. But the whole question of [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] in the times of history gave me an eye-opening, gave me a worldview. Since then, I'm in trouble but I keep looking all over this world, and without this worldview your lost, the world will become monotonous, and that's why it's nice to, when I look at some of the programs, these certain things going on, I get excited. I think the thing that I got out of this country of mine, and it is my country, I came out with a tremendous feeling for jazz, and I got it out of that goddamn music, and then baseball, and organizing. This is my life. That's why I painted New York, that's why, that's, a guy offered me one time four hundred thousand dollars in Boston, he says "Listen, Ralph, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] you're painting New York City, come paint Boston, for it I give you four hundred thousand. I can make a hundred, we can make you half a million dollars, we can sell your prints." I say, "Know something? I'd like to come to Boston, but I spent fifty years in New York City, that's why I'm able to paint. I can't come two weeks and paint Boston, what do you think I am?" Doesn't work.
Let me ask you one more question about LaGuardia.
In 1932 there were two laughing stories, one was the guy who ran for mayor, O'Brien, and everybody knew he was a muddle-head and just the wrong guy to run for being the mayor, and every time—
If you could begin again and tell me, in 1933, was the election.
In 1933, when they ran a guy by the name of O'Dwyer, O'Brien ran for Tammany Hall, and [coughs] he just was a too tentative, a fumbler, and everybody made jokes about this mopey who was the mayor of New York City. He was talked about the same way the Brooklyn Dodgers were talked about. The Brooklyn Dodgers were called the bums. Everybody talked about the Dodgers, they didn't know how to catch a ball. I remember Babe Herman would run the wrong way and they would drop this game and that game. So you had two laughing jokes in New York City, one was the Brooklyn Dodger Bums, and one was this mayor that ran, and everybody laughed at the joke, you know, the humor that the got to live to with this world of ours, it was kind of fun. Then they had this other guy that, McKee, he was a new saint, "Honest Joe McKee," I think they called him. He took mayor Walker's position. Mayor Walker was a dapper young guy [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] City Hall these days, he had a little door on the side and he'd come out sort of back. He went in through the front, and he had a little apartment downstairs where he had a bottle of whiskey, he had a chick, he had a bar-room, he had everything for himself. That was the mayor. He had a little room there, no one knew he was going out through the back door. He was a dapper guy, very sharp guy, very bright, of course, I liked the mayor [coughs]. I know he was a crook but he did something for Tom Mooney, he helped out Tom Mooney, the labor guy from the West Coast. He made an appeal, he helped Tom Mooney's mother, mother Moon, she was a wonderful woman, you know. And then LaGuardia got into the picture, and
LaGuardia, he topped it off, because LaGuardia came in and he said
** "I'm going to get rid of these politicians, you know, we're not going to have this wise guy mayor Walker, you know, and all these politicians." So he, you know, the whole thing, with all his crudeness and coldness, people went to parties and they'd take off on the mayor, they'd take off on O'Brien, McKee, the Honest, I think they had a label, Honest Key, they made a key, that he was the honest mayor, he was forgotten, nice guy, like some Lindsey[?]. But I think those were the standing jokes of the 1930s, the little humor they were able to put into this Great Depression, and the Great Depression was really a Great Depression, but out of it came the wonderful CIO, and America got singing for many, many years after that, so out of the bad stuff good came.
Can you tell me, what's LaGuardia's legacy, can you tell me—
Well, you know the, through Roosevelt we put in the Wagner Act. The Wagner Act made it legal for us to organize, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] [coughs]. So when you went to a plant where I worked as an organizer, we'd say, "We got this law over here, this Wagner Act giving us the legal right to organize," and the employer had to deal with us collectively, we got a group, we got a majority of the people that voted, you had to sit down and sign a contract. And now we found, for the first time in history, the working people getting the OK from the government to organize, before you had to sweat it out, there were no labor laws, but besides that—
Well, the fact that the Wagner Act Act came through the government, which I think was [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , it gave the right to work to organize into a union, and the bosses had to deal with us. We got the majority of the people, they voted, we had the cards and we went in, and all the employers had to sit down and deal with you, had to sign a contract. This was the first time the American people thought the government was on their side, there had never been an agency that said you could do the right to organize, because you, you organize on your own before, there were no agencies, no government, no laws in America concerning labor other than the eight-hour-day, that was a health law, not labor laws, so in a way this gave the American worker the right to organize, it opened the doors for us, but as I knew a guy who organized in 1930, he said, hey listen, he said, you've got the Wagner Act Act here, you've got Roosevelt on your side, but you know who's going to organize here, you. Remember, the laws [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] but you've got to organize, you've got to get off you, you know, and get going, and that's the way you have to organize.
How did you feel about John L. Lewis, and do you remember him on the radio?
Oh my God, John Lewis was my god. There are two people, three people, well, two people, John L. Lewis and FDR, who I feel sorry I didn't shake their hands. Both times I was in their company, I was overwhelmed by both of them because, those are my heroes. I got 'bout four or five heroes, John L. Lewis, Roosevelt, Harry Bridges, and King. Maybe another guy or two, but these are my heroes, Roosevelt, John Lewis, King, Harry Bridges, and I guess I can say Marcantonio, I got five heroes. These five heroes that stay in my life. Without any heroes with integrity and a pair of balls, I'd never make this world, because you got to have that. If you have that courage you can make the world, if you have no courage, you're a dropout.
Do you remember hearing John L. Lewis speak on the radio?
I heard John Lewis a [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] time, I liked him. He was a guy that, you know, he got up to you, and he told you off, you know, John Lewis, the wartime, the miners out, and have a strike. I think, the most respected labor leader in this country was John L. Lewis. You go to a coal mine in America, and oh, that guy Lewis, he took the government down, he fought Roosevelt, he was afraid of nobody. People in America like fighters, all over the world they love fighters, and Lewis was a fighter, you know, when Lewis got involved in the auto workers' strike, and what's his name again...
When the auto-workers went on strike there was a sit-down in Detroit, and the mayor, the governor of Detroit was—my God, I just, I just had his name right in front of me, ah, what's his—
Murphy, that's it, Murphy was the governor, and he was going to pull the troops in, you know, going to take the sit-down out, the workers in the plant, and John L. Lewis went to see him and he said, listen you Murphy, don't you know what's going on to this capitalist system? This capitalist system, if I'm not mistaken, the British killed your grandfather, hey man, you're not going to do this, who are you, you got to remember who you are. They're the working class there, and the working class wasn't taken care of by the British Empire, OK? And that was a great thing Lewis did, he saved the miners.
How did you guys feel about the American Federation of Labor?
Well, they were fat-cats. It was CIO and the militant organizations that went out and organized, and remember that the AFL came out of a craft union, it came out of deal [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , do a good day's work, you get a good day's pay, never told the worker you can never beat the capitalist system as long as they run the shops, so we, from where I'm coming from, we used to call the AFL 'class collaborators'. That make sense for you with this program? And the CIO, well, they didn't believe in socialism, they fought for the workers' rights, and they broke the big, you know, they broke Ford, they broke General Motors, Chrysler, they were taking on the big wheels. And they took on the big newspapers, they took everybody on, so the CIO- the CIO really got into mass industries. The AFL, they've been organized since God knows when, they sat on their fannies and the CIO came along and became a militant organization. They did a fabulous job.
Ah, do you remember hearing about the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago?
I sure did, but you know, I was in Spain then, with the Lincoln, I was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and I got some, some photographs of it. In fact, I'm thinking of trying make a painting of that scene.
What was the role of the Communist Party in the CIO in the 1930s?
Well, the role of the Communist Party, in the 1930s played a big role, the "Jimmy Higgins." They were the ones that went to a plant where nobody would go and they gave their leaflets out, they knocked on doors, they were the ones who made approaches to black people, talked to the black people, talked to the minority people, talked to the Czech people. The Communist Party in a way was an immigrant's party at that time, you'd talk to all the immigrants, so when the CIO began to form throughout the country, the immigrant Americans, the immigrant people of America, had attachment to the insurance company, the fraternal outlook, and they had branches all over the country, they had a branch of the Italians, the Jews, the blacks, the whites, the Italians, the Greeks, all groups. So when the CIO began to organize, they went to the IWO and [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , look, we know a guy in this town, this apartment, that apartment, this apartment, this house, that house. It was, you know, the beginning, the formation came out of the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , they had, what was it they had, the organization, they had the trade union, liberty league, let's see, trade union unity league, which was an arm of the Communist Party, and they were organized, of course they were accused of being dualism, but yet, they did it. And John Lewis would hire anybody, don't tell John Lewis you were a Communist, he'd know you were a Communist, but don't tell him that, he'd hire you and [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . And if you wanted to de-organize, the only [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] were the Communists, they carried the ball.
Some people say that the Communist Party in this country was controlled by orders from Moscow? How do you feel about that?
No, they were influenced, they looked at, the mother-church was Russia, but it wasn't controlled by them. The, they were, there was a sharp enough guy like Foster, a lot of guys understood. Were they dogmatic, oh yeah, but the Communists, the Russians had their own headaches. But there were sharper guys in the CIO knew what to do, I say they did a big job, they made a lot of blunders, but what the hell. [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] built two, three million people, that wasn't too bad.
Final question, why did labor activists join the Communist Party?
Why did labor activists join the Communist Party? Well, the Communist Party had a philosophy about surplus profit. Taught you the economic game, remember we live in a world of economics, we call it the free market, we're talking about economics. How do you understand anything, how come you worked for forty years in a shop, because you're broke. And how come, you know, you don't have insurance, you don't have many things, and the Communist Party, through its teaching, through its schools it had, it was trying to explain to you surplus profit, and also showing you the social force, the classes. You know, I've been thinking about the American people, they're wonderful, but they're kind of one-dimensioned, they think all you got to know is baseball and what kind of whiskey and what kind of car, they never talk about economics, they don't realize that there's a big crap-game going on and they control it. We are the players, we are the suckers. They run the ballgame, they're the cutters, and they're the owners, and we're the players, and we're the players [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] behind the eight ball, we haven't got it. Until we become socially-minded, or we become worldview-minded, then we can make some headways, because in this period of history, we've got two and three jobs. In the CIO you only had one job and you made a living.
One meatball, thank you brother, one meatball, have another, one meatball, thank you brother, you gets no bread with one meatball. That's it.
OK, that's it.