Interview with Pearl Max
Interview with Pearl Max
Interview Date: January 23, 1992

Camera Rolls: 313:15-18
Sound Rolls: 313:08-09
Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression .
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with Pearl Max , 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.

*
INTERVIEW
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[camera roll 315:15][sound roll 315:08][slate marker visible on screen]
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QUESTION 1
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

OK. Can you tell me about LaGuardia's last days in Congress as a Republican working with Democrats to sponsor some of that legislation?

PEARL MAX:

Well, LaGuardia
** was a Republican, and he was a Republican really in the sense that he, that was the party that elected him, under which he was entering politics or participating in politics. And that didn't bother him, though, because when there was legislation that he felt was desirable or useful, he sponsored it, whether it was sponsored by other Democrats or by Republicans. And he was one of the people who was most conscious in Congress at that time of the need for legislation to deal with human problems and for the federal government to deal with human problems. And so he was very eager to promote bills and to introduce bills that would improve labor conditions, that would improve housing, that would improve economic conditions. And I think that was characteristic of him all through his life.
**

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QUESTION 2
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Can you tell me your story about when you lost your money in the bank?

PEARL MAX:

Well, my husband and I had recently been married, and we put our checking account and what savings we had into one bank, the Bank of the United States. And there were rumors that were difficulties in the banks, and particularly in that bank, but we were so confident that that was a stable bank run by reputable people that we stayed there. And then one day, to our horror, we learned that the bank had closed and that we couldn't get our money. And it meant a terrific shock to me and to my husband, to all of us who had money there. And it was a, a terrible time, because you, you felt as though the bottom had dropped out of your life. And I guess the thing that bothered me most was the fact that there had been no notice, there had been no feeling that we should do anything about it in advance. Perhaps other people had that notice. We didn't, and many other depositors didn't. And at that time there was no insurance by the federal government. There was no means by which other banks could, could help if they didn't want to. And they didn't want to. And many people felt that the reason the other banks didn't want to was because that was a minority bank. It was owned by and run by Jewish stockholders and by a Jewish president. And, at that time, most of the banks were strictly Protestant, a few Catholic, but not very many, and there was a, a ruling clique, I shouldn't say clique, but domination by most of the banks in the city about who should own banks. And the bank was closed. And it wasn't until later, after it was taken over by what would be called a liquidator today, that they began to sell some of the assets of the bank and to provide some of the money for the depositors. And eventually we did receive every dollar that was deposited, because the bank was liquid, entire, did have enough assets, but it wasn't liquid, it didn't have cash flow. [laughs]

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QUESTION 3
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

What did you think about...

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Susan, can you take that napkin, please?

SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Oh, can I take this? Thank you. What did you think about Roosevelt's idea to call a bank holiday?

PEARL MAX:

Well, it was a, a necessity at the time. New York had declared a bank holiday for the banks in New York, but Roosevelt followed it up with a bank holiday for the national government and throughout the country.
** And that gave the banks time to mobilize its resources, to see how it could, how they could actually pay back some of the money that had been deposited, and, if not, set up some sort of liquidation process so that banks could continue to operate. And it was a salvation, because it meant the, the avoidance of utter chaos in the way in which people could find their money, hold and get some money, and continue to live if they needed the money, and most of us did.

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QUESTION 4
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

How did you feel about FDR?

PEARL MAX:

Well, I was an, an ardent supporter of FDR, and I got everybody that I knew to vote for him, although it didn't take much persuasion in those days among the people that I knew. And there were some complaints that was a patrician, and that he really didn't care too much about ordinary people, but we, we felt that wasn't true. And when he came into office, I think he showed that he, that wasn't true, and that he really wanted to have a broad social policy that met the needs of the people of the country. And I don't think he was a follower of the trickle-down theory. I think he was primarily a person who was convinced that there was poverty in the country, need in the country, and he wanted to do something to help.
** And his fireside chat, chat on one third of the people unhoused, unfed, and something else, was something which I think he felt very keenly.

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QUESTION 5
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

What, what was it like to hear him on the radio in his chats?

PEARL MAX:

Oh, wonderful. He had a marvelous voice, and he, he really was able to convey the thoughts and the feelings that he had, and that people themselves felt, in a way that very few other public speakers had. And his, he spoke in a very cultured tone, and measured words, but beautifully.

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QUESTION 6
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Yesterday, you told me about men, homeless men, in different pockets of the city, the Bowery, and Hoovervilles, the flathouses. Can you tell me a little bit about that again?

PEARL MAX:

Well, there were homeless in those days. And most of them, almost all of them, were men. There were homeless families, too, but they were generally taken care of by their own relatives or friends, or if they were immigrants, by people who had come from the same town or in the same area of the country from which they had come. And as a result, the emphasis was on finding and housing for people who have families. And the, the homeless were pretty much out of sight, and were not spread around the city, or spread into the suburbs or any place else. There were some in the suburbs, too, but they were hidden. They were not visible. Sometimes they were on freight trains or in subway tunnels. At that time, there were very few subway tunnels, but, compared to, to other times later on. But, you didn't see them as much, and people therefore didn't know about them. There was no television, and therefore people had no way of seeing them, unless they actually went into the few of the areas of the city where homeless people lived. And on the Bowery, in Manhattan, and in some places in downtown Brooklyn, and Queens at that time was a suburb in terms of the city itself, and the Bronx did have subways, so it had more apartment houses, and was more of a city area. But again, most of the homeless people that we knew about, and I lived in Manhattan, were in the lower part of Manhattan, and were not spread around the country, not the rest of the city.

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QUESTION 7
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Can you tell me about Tammany?

[production discussion]

[cut] [slate marker visible on screen] [change to camera roll 313:16]
PEARL MAX:

Tammany Hall was in charge of the city
** for many years before LaGuardia came. And the city had become so accustomed to corruption that it was hopeless to try and get anything done without paying in some way or in some form for what you got. Bus franchises, for example, were given out to people who paid large sums of money to city officials.
** And small things, contracts, jobs, were given out to people who either paid for them in cash in the form of bribes, or else, in terms of jobs for, in city agencies, they had to work in the political campaigns, and ring doorbells, and ask people to come out and vote, and vote for the Tammany officials, and that was the return which they had to give for the job that they got. There was civil service, but it was not a very, what shall I say, it was not a very effective civil service. It could be flouted in various ways, and there were many provisional employees who were not civil service. So that you had a vast reservoir of booty which Tammany dispensed and used for its own purposes. By, by that I mean that the leaders of Tammany used the money for his or her own purposes. And most of the leaders, almost all the leaders, were men. So that was the situation when LaGuardia came in. And it was an easy situation to resolve, because in order to get Tammany out, you had to ring doorbells, you had to have an organization that would ring doorbells, and you had to have an organization that got to people individually to tell them how to change things and what they might be able to do if they elected LaGuardia. And that meant that the fusion groups, the people who were interested in working together to oust Tammany, had to get together, and had to work together for that purpose.

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QUESTION 8
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Can you talk a little bit about the mayoral campaign? Can you tell me about...?

PEARL MAX:

Well, what happened in the mayoral campaign was that all kinds of groups got together. There was Judge Seabury, who was the person who had exposed a good deal of the corruption, and sought indictments and impeachments for city officials. He was a representative of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant group. And then there were the groups of immigrants who were banded together in loose confederations of their own community, or their own ethnic group, or their own religious group. And they were the people who joined in. And there were, of course, the religious organizations. And most of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish organizations were very much interested in the change. Since Tammany was dominated primarily by Catholics, some of the Catholic groups were a little hesitant. But, by and large, there was tremendous amount of cooperation among all the groups in the city, and that's how they managed to elect LaGuardia.

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QUESTION 9
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

How about LaGuardia's campaign style, the ways he would go into different communities? Can you describe that?

PEARL MAX:

Well, LaGuardia was a very earthly campaigner. He came into a group, and he was part of the group, in, in a few minutes. And if it was a Jewish group, he spoke Yiddish. And if it was an, an Italian group, of course he spoke Italian
** since he was of Italian origin. And if it was a Hispanic group, well there weren't too many Hispanic people in those days, because they hadn't, the mass immigration of Hispanic hadn't begun yet, but in, in blue-collar workers, he wore a blue collar when he went there. He, he was able to really make people feel that he was, he knew them and he wanted to help them, and he felt that government could help them, and in a way that didn't involve payment of bribes and corruption of various other kinds. And as a result of that, he won the election, in spite of what had been considered before very serious doubts that he could win, since he was not an orthodox candidate. He was very unorthodox. And many Republicans didn't like him because of his social views, but most of the Republicans did. They, they, too, had felt the need for change, and they were willing to go along with his eccentric views to bring about that change.

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QUESTION 10
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Can you tell me about the difference in campaigns between how Tammany ran their campaign for mayor, versus how LaGuardia ran his campaign?

PEARL MAX:

Well, Tammany ran its campaign primarily through the local captains of the districts. They did run a city-wide campaign, too, but most of the emphasis was getting out the vote of people who would vote for their candidates. And the way in which you did that was to have people ring the bell of all the people who lived in an apartment house, or ring the bell of all the people who lived in a row house, and actually talk with the people who lived there and try to persuade them. And they were very effective in that, because it was a human touch that they needed very, very greatly in order to be able to prevail. And for many years that had been the way in which it was done. Of course, in those days, there was no television, and there was radio, but it, it wasn't used as much in campaigning as it is today. And the, it, it seems that before the days of LaGuardia, that was regarded as the acceptable way to get elected.

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QUESTION 11
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

OK. Mayor LaGuardia is elected. He takes office. What does New York City like? What is the New York City that he encounters when he takes office?

PEARL MAX:

Well, New York City was hit by the Depression in those days when LaGuardia took office, and they had, there was a great deal of misery, and there was a great deal of difficulty. The, one way that's been very well publicized, and that's very well known, was that people sold apples for five cents a piece of the street. And there were many of them. And there were other people who took all kinds of jobs, regardless, in order to be able to get somewhere. My husband had a, a, someone who came to him, and told him that his son, who had just graduated as a lawyer, couldn't get a job. And the man said that he found a lawyer whom he paid to give his son a job, and the lawyer in turn gave the payment to the son as salary, so that there was no bribe, but it was, it was a transfer of payments which the son didn't know about, but which served its purpose in making him feel that he had a job and he could work and he could do something.

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QUESTION 12
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

How about the economic situation in terms of bankrupt state banks not being willing to lend new York City money? Can you talk about that a bit?

PEARL MAX:

When LaGuardia came in, the city was in a budget crisis, as it generally is each year when the budget is made. But that year was particularly bad because the city couldn't balance its budget. And there was a law which said that the city had to balance its budget. And they decided that the only thing that they could do was to try and get, borrow money from the banks. And the banks wouldn't lend money unless the city pledged itself to reduce its expenditures so that its anticipated revenues...

[wild audio]
PEARL MAX:

...the money that would be coming in from taxes next year would equal the proposed expenditures. And the deficit at that time was $30,000,000.

SUSAN J. LEVENE:

I'm sorry. We ran out of film.

PEARL MAX:

OK.

[cut]
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QUESTION 13
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SUSAN J. LEVENE:

OK, the situation in New York? The economic situation in New York?

PEARL MAX:

The relief situation and the economic situation in New York was pretty bad. As far as the city was concerned, the city couldn't get money from the banks, and the banks insisted that LaGuardia cut the budget by $30,000,000. There was a big deficit, 30,000,000 was a lot of money in those days. And the only thing he could do, he said, was to make cuts in every area that he could. And he went at it the way mayors generally go at it, by trying to cut excess jobs, not fill vacancies, cut salaries. And he didn't have to right to cut salaries without approval of the legislature, and so he went to the legislature in order to get such approval. And it was not easy, because the city employees were affected, and they naturally opposed it. But it was something which they, the legislature felt, and the mayor felt, and the governor felt had to be done, and that was done. And the net result was that they did cut the $30,000,000 from the budget, and they were able to get the banks to resume giving loans to the city, and they went ahead, after that, on that basis. But it was a very difficult time for the city, and one which led to a great deal of difficulty in the provision of city services.

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QUESTION 14
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Can you tell me about how when you were offered a job by LaGuardia and the salary situation?

PEARL MAX:

Well, I was offered a job by Mayor LaGuardia as Secretary of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. And at that time, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment passed on the budget and actually was supposed to make the budget. It had passed on all contracts, and had a staff available for the preparation of contracts and the supervision of contracts. It had a retirement system for city employees. And as secretary, I would be the person who would be in charge of those activities. And the mayor asked me to, if I would be willing to take the job, and I talked about it and said I would, and I asked about the salary. Well, the salary had been for the previous Tammany appointee $12,000 a year, but the mayor thought that that was absolutely outrageous, and he suggest a salary of $7,000 a year. Well, I felt that that was a substantial cut in salary, but I was making much less than that in the job that I left, and I felt that the job itself was a very challenging one, and I accepted it.

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QUESTION 15
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Can you tell me about charities having reached their limit on what they could provide?

PEARL MAX:

There was no public outdoor relief in New York City in the early 1930s, and, as a result, the private charitable organizations had to deal with the people who needed help. And they had soup kitchens for people who were hungry. They tried to provide as much shelter for people as they could, but that wasn't very much, and most families had to live with their friends, or with their relatives, or with their mothers or fathers or grandfathers in order to be able to live at all. And as a result of that, the charitable organizations felt very strongly that they had to have more money. And they organized a committee of socialites and public-spirited people, mostly women, who raised $2,000,000 to actually provide for help for the needy. Now, the $2,000,000 helped, it wasn't, but they found that it wasn't, wasn't nearly enough, and they were the ones who started pressuring the city and the legislature to have legislation passed in Albany which would provide public outdoor relief for people who needed help. And that was how and why the first relief set-up was passed by the legislature and function began to function in the city.

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QUESTION 16
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

OK. You told me that before LaGuardia people did not expect much from government. Can you tell me how LaGuardia changed that?

PEARL MAX:

Well, before LaGuardia, and also before the Depression, people didn't expect much from government, because the federal government hadn't provided for individual needs as such except in very rare cases. But if they needed help, they got it either from charitable organizations, or from religious groups, or from ethnic groups from which they, they, in which they knew people. And there was a strong ethnic community in those days of people who came from a, a particular town in Poland, or a particular region in Russia, or in Austria-Hungary, and you had a very strong feeling that they were your friends, they were people whom you could go to if you needed help. And that is the way people actually lived who didn't have any means of subsistence because they couldn't get a job during the Depression. And that worked to some degree, but certainly not to the degree in which it enabled people to really get what they needed. But many of them found that they could use that as temporary help, and they took all kinds of jobs, anything they could get, no matter how small it was. The people who sold the apples on the street for a nickel were everywhere.

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QUESTION 17
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

How did LaGuardia change that?

PEARL MAX:

LaGuardia changed it by pointing out that government could help and had a responsibility to help. And not only in the field of relief, but also in the field of housing for people who didn't have enough money to pay for the rents of private housing. He did it in the field of health, health clinics for children. And the, the set-up was such that people were very grateful for the fact that government was really beginning to give them a sense of well-being, of being part of the community, of being able to function, and perhaps improve their lives in the community.

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QUESTION 18
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Can you describe, for you, the sense of excitement, being part of this new reform administration?

PEARL MAX:

It was very exciting to be part of the new reform administration. For one thing, LaGuardia was an exciting person to, to work with. And for another thing, the things which he espoused, and which he was doing, and which he wanted, were things that I felt were very much to the benefit of the community.
** And as a result, not only I but the people around me, who worked with me, felt the same way. And civil service groups that had been there before and had been sort of apathetic, and sort of doing their job and going home and that's it, they, too, began to feel that sense. And I found that the civil service staff in my office, when they were asked to do something, they did it. And if it meant staying late, they stayed late. If it meant coming in early, they came in early. They, some of them went without lunch. They, they worked together in a way that they felt was rewarding, and of course it was rewarding to the city.

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QUESTION 19
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

You told me that LaGuardia brought women into his administration for the first time. Can you tell me about that?

PEARL MAX:

Well, there hadn't been many women in city government prior to LaGuardia. There were women in secretarial positions and in clerical positions and as matrons and things of that sort, but not much else. And what LaGuardia did was to recognize the fact that there was talent in women that wasn't being utilized. And he brought in people to top level jobs that were women. And some of his closest advisors were women. Rosalie Loew Whitney was a lawyer in Brooklyn who was one of the people he admired very much and respected very much, and he used her for many of the areas that he felt needed attention. And he appointed me, he appointed various other women to top posts. Edith Spivack, who was one of the people appointed to the Workmen's Compensation Bureau. And the result was we felt as though we were a part of a, a total community working for the city. We never felt that we were women. And we weren't as conscious of the fact that we were women...

[wild audio]
PEARL MAX:

...as women are in later years. And that made a big difference.

[production discussion]

[cut] [slate marker visible on screen] [change to camera roll 313:18] [change to sound roll 313:09]
PEARL MAX:

Well, LaGuardia was a man of strong convictions. And he felt strongly about people as well as about issues. And when he became angry he really became angry. And he wouldn't speak to me for three months, because he felt I should discharge one of the people in my office who he felt had lied and therefore should be dismissed. And I investigated and found no evidence of the fact that the man had lied, and that other people felt he had told the truth and testified to that, and so I refused to fire him. And so he didn't talk with me for three months, until he pardoned a policeman who had been accused of something and not convicted, and he decided to call him in and put him on the radio and say that he should be exonerated. And so I went to him and I had asked him, "If you pardoned the policeman, don't you think it's time I deserved a pardon, too?" And so he laughed and he said, "Forget it." [laughs]

SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Thanks. I'm sorry. [laughs]

PEARL MAX:

I forgot.

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QUESTION 20
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Can you also tell me about, about LaGuardia being a person of very strong convictions, who, if he didn't like something, he would say so in no uncertain terms?

PEARL MAX:

Well, LaGuardia felt strongly about issues and also about people. And there was one time when he told, sent a telegram to Franklin Roosevelt in which he called a man whom Roosevelt had appointed, let's see, a boastful tyrant, a, I can't remember the words, but that telegram is simply wonderful. Braggadocio, wonderful to his superiors, but a ruffian to his understaff. And the words that he used were about as strong as anybody could use. And the fact that Roosevelt was the president, and that he had to go to the president for a number of things that, and work very closely with the president, didn't make any difference. He, he, he sent that telegram.

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QUESTION 21
SUSAN J. LEVENE:

How did LaGuardia and Roosevelt feel about each other?

PEARL MAX:

Well, I think it was a mutual respect for the others' views, but a very great difference in personality. And I think that LaGuardia, well, I can't speak for LaGuardia, but my intuition tells me that he felt that Roosevelt was sometimes a patrician who didn't understand the needs of the community. And, in turn, Roosevelt felt that LaGuardia was just talking off the cuff, and was really pushing much too hard for things that he didn't really know about. I don't know. I, I'm just guessing there. But they worked together, and they worked together very well. The major disappointment that LaGuardia had was that he was not able to get an appointment in the United States Army in World War II. And I think he felt very strongly about that.

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QUESTION 22
INTERVIEWER:

A couple questions about Bob Moses. We talked about how...

CAMERA CREW MEMBER:

Stop for a second.

[cut] [slate marker visible on screen]
PEARL MAX:

Well, LaGuardia was able to get a great deal of money from the federal government for, from the Public Works Administration of Harold Ickes, and the Works Progress Administration that was run by various people and various times. And one of the ways that he did it was to be prepared with actual plans. When he went down and said he wanted to build a highway, he had plans ready to show where the highway would be built, and where it would go, and how wide it would be, and things of that sort. Whereas many other mayors came to Washington, said they wanted to build a highway on XY street, but they didn't have the plans with them. And that made a big difference in Washington. And LaGuardia actually got,
** I think, more money from the Public Works Administration than any other city in the country,
** and more than probably most of them all together, because they did a have a way of getting specific plans that the government was able to see and undertake and finance.
** And the last, one of the last appropriations Ickes made in the Public Works Administration was to rebuild three college campuses in New York City, Brooklyn, Hunter, and Hunter College in the Bronx.

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QUESTION 23
INTERVIEWER:

How did Bob Moses physically change the face of the city?

PEARL MAX:

When the city... In the 1920s and the early 1930s, the city was largely a subway city, in that there was very little motor traffic. Those were really the early days of the automobile and the truck. And the result was that the city streets were becoming increasingly clogged when the cars began to proliferate in the 1920s and the, and the early 30s. And the traffic jams became enormous. And what Bob Moses did was to really transform the city from a grid structure that had been planned way back in the early colonial days into a structure which was surrounded by highways and parkways and made use of the possible areas of expansion in the outlying districts of the Bronx, and Queens, and Brooklyn, and which also brought into the, the compass of the community the suburbs, because Moses had been the president of the State Council of Parks, and therefore could plan for the state parkways, which fed into the city system. And the result of that was an enormous rise in housing in outlying areas that had previously been unserved by the subway system. And it, it made, it changed the face of the city. Not only highways, but parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, housing, any kind of physical structure, bridges, tunnels, those were the things which really had their beginning in the Bob Moses office or in the administration which followed.

[cut]
PEARL MAX:

Well, Bob Moses was a marvelous administrator, and a person who could get things done and build things. But he was also a person who was very, very tyrannical, and who wanted things done the way in which he proposed, and who rode roughshod over opposition whenever he felt that he could. Now, sometimes, he knew that he couldn't, and then he was more careful. But in individual conversations he was wonderful. He was a very nice person, very friendly, and all of that, but when it came to those who had opinions that differed from his, or whose views he differed with in one way or another, he was quite impatient, to but it mildly.

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QUESTION 24
INTERVIEWER:

And he brought people to do blueprints and things like that when he had ideas for bridges and things?

PEARL MAX:

I'm sorry.

SUSAN J. LEVENE:

Blueprints and...

PEARL MAX:

Well, when he, when he came down to city hall, when Bob Moses came down to city hall with proposals, he had not only the blueprints that came with it, but he had his staff there who could answer any conceivable question that anybody put to him about the details of the project. And the borough presidents, in those days, on the Board of Estimate were very critical of proposals that went to the other boroughs, and felt that their own boroughs were being short-changed. And he told them that he's going to come in next week or next month with three proposals for the borough of Brooklyn, or five proposals for the borough of Queens, whatever it was, and was able to sort of mollify opposition by including the needs of other places besides Manhattan. And the same thing was true with local projects. He fought bitterly with some of the people who opposed his playgrounds, wanted to put playground in places that they felt he shouldn't, and...

[phone rings]
PEARL MAX:

...that happened.

[production discussion]

[cut]
[end of interview]