Thursday, August 8, 2013

Don't Join the Army Son

No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke
And chromium steel.

When I turned 18 and became eligible for the draft, my grandmother who was aloof to say the least looked me in the eye and said: "Don't join the Army, son. They'll use you for cannon fodder."

Never mind Tammany Hall. The most powerful political constituencies in New York City were women's clubs like the Catholic Daughters of America. St. Patrick's Cathedral was built by the pennies and nickels of Irish servant women. The Jesuits' opulent St. Ignatius Loyola Church at Carnegie Hill was built by and for Catholic women whose mothers may have been cleaning women, but whose fathers had been wildly successfully in the iron business and played poker with JP Morgan and Andy Carnegie. (Carnegie was a Gaelic speaker, by the way) The Sacred Heart sisters educated the daughters of the most successful. After Otto Kahn died the elegant sisters set up shop in his mansion, Palazzo Della Cancellaria style (
Papal Chancellery). The Kennedys and Mara (as in football Giants) weren’t even on the social radar for women like my grandmother. If they were acknowledged at all, it was: Kennedy the rum runner, Mara the bookmaker.

The women's political power rested on three pillars: votes, money, and the prestige of the Union army. Ellen Ewing Sherman was Queen Bee in the New York City after the Civil War. She was as ardent a Catholic as they come. How could Mrs. Astor refuse an invitation or request to donate to Irish relief from the wife of General William Tecumseh Sherman? The general resided in New York City after the Civil War until his death in 1891. These days the New York Times feigns complete bewilderment when it’s accused of being anti-Catholic. What totally and permanently pissed off New York’s Catholic women was The Times stationing a reporter outside the door of the Sherman house while the general was dying. Incredibly they were on the lookout for the comings and goings of Catholic priests. When they caught one, The Times published the “sordid” revelation that the great general had been given the last rites of the Catholic Church (certainly against his will), creating a minor scandal. Sherman’s brother had to publicly explain to The Times that, although Sherman wasn’t a Catholic Christian (just baptized and married so), Catholic sacraments were welcomed by the general because they greatly comforted his family. 

The women had their own priorities. It wasn't accepting "gratuities" that ended my grandfather's good friend Jimmy Walker's political career. It was taking up with showgirl Betty Compton and publicly leaving and divorcing his wife that was the end of Jimmy. In the category of strange but true, you’ll find Representative Joseph Gavagan addressing the Catholic Daughters of America on why the Bible had to be kept out of the public schools: the King James Bible is a Protestant plot to seduce Catholic children. Crazy as it sounds this was a hot topic for Catholic women in the 1930s because even into the 1960s the old Irish were telling stories about per-Civil War New York when the city nearly went up in flames over whose Bible, if any, would be taught in the public schools.

While many New Yorkers like to march with the original Fighting Irish, the 69th New York Infantry (aka, the Irish Brigade), my grandmother and her friends wouldn't have been caught dead anywhere near a St. Patrick's Day parade. When she was a young girl, the old pirate Dan Sickles still hopped up and down 5th Avenue, a living testament to the horrors of war. Sickles, who'd been married to the “natural” daughter of Mozart's librettist by Archbishop Hughes, had had his leg blown off by a cannonball at Gettysburg leading the city's famous Excelsior Brigade.  Sickles life playbook was Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte farce about soldiers and fiancĂ© swapping. After philanderer Sickles shot his wife’s lover, his attorney Thomas Meagher, ’48 rebel and Irish Brigade commander, got him acquitted of murder based on a plea of temporary insanity.   Sickles, in the end, didn't leave his wife and remained within the Pale.   His funeral at St. Patrick's was attended by thousands.
My grandmother came of age when even more of the Fighting Irish were maimed and died, in what was a savage, bewildering, utterly pointless First World War. Two generations later and yet another war, the  child who nestled against her bosom in a taxi on a rainy night ride up 5th Avenue was ready to be drafted. Would Tiffany mosaics and the Carrara marble of St. Ignatius Loyola Church be of any comfort when she was wearing black again?
In 1969 anti-war demonstrations led by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) broke out at Holy Cross College, the Massachusetts outpost of New York’s Irish. Black students led by Supreme Court Justice to-be Clarence Thomas staged a walkout. Charles Horgan who was the head of the Holy Cross trustees told the college president he’d support him in whatever decision he made regarding disciplining the black students and the SDS. Horgan was also the law partner of Felix Muldoon, the Democratic lieutenant who'd told Flynn to back Roosevelt in 1932: "we need a Dutchman not a Catholic [Smith] to deliver our message." Muldoon was the husband of my grandmother's friend from her schoolgirl days with the Sacred Heart sisters, the formidable (ferocious) Agnes Muldoon. Two birds were on Horgan's shoulder when he was advising the college president on how to deal with Thomas. He didn't need to tell the Holy Cross president what they were. 
#1. "We've worked long and hard to pry the Black vote out of the Republican grasp. Don't screw this up."
#2. "The friends of Agnes Muldoon want to send a message about the war. Your SDS aren't the only ones who want to use the Blacks to deliver it. For God's sake save me from Agnes Muldoon!"