26. THE BIG PARKIE The day after Election Day I was sitting idly in my Cloisters office wondering if I should go to the Wadsworth Atheneum. The phone rang and it was a lawyer who was very close to the Mayor-elect.
"Could you be in John’s office tomorrow at 4:30?"
"He wants to thank you for all your good work."
"I’ll be there."
I got there a bit early and was ushered into Lindsay’s office. He was sprawling back in his chair working two phones with his feet on the desk. He motioned for me to sit on a large couch and tossed something that I snatched out of the air. It was a kid’s stocking cap and was stiff on one side.
Lindsay put down one phone, covered the other with his palm and said, "It’s a kid’s cap; that stiff part is dried blood. He smacked his head in a playground. He’s okay now. You advocated safety surfacing in all the playgrounds, right? I want you to be my Parks Commissioner and put them there. Okay?"
I could barely speak. I had just casually been asked to head one of the biggest agencies in the city.
"I’ve got to think," I mumbled,
"Think quick. I want to announce you soon, but for political reasons I’m appointing Bob Lowry as Fire Commissioner first -- he’s black."
I stumbled out of the office dazed and wandered to the end of the hall to a window overlooking the Pan Am Building. All I could think of was that I was merely a junior curator with little experience in handling huge projects. I knew how enormous the Parks Department was. The frightening statistics of the city’s parks flitted through my mind as I stood there stunned: 34,000 acres of land, eleven thousand employees, an expense budget of thirty-two million, a capital budget of twenty-two million, a powerful union, twenty decrepit swimming pools, fifteen golf courses, 750 playgrounds, 100 bocce courts, dozens of tennis courts, constant vandalism, muggings, murders and rapes and God knows what other crimes. How would I get the extra money the parks so desperately needed? Where would I find my staff? Who were all those creative architects I’d spouted about? What creative programs would I initiate?
I felt very small and vulnerable.
Suddenly the lights in the glowing windows of the Pan Am Building went out from top to the bottom. Then the lights in the hotel went out, then the rest of the city, then the whole Northeast. It was the great blackout of New York City of the ninth of November 1965. I chuckled to myself that it was a sign for me, something cataclysmic like being asked to run the city’s mammoth parks system.
The lawyer who had invited me to meet Lindsay came out of his office with a flashlight. We picked up Gene Becker and the three of us started walking north on Lexington Avenue towards my home. The dark city was exceptionally calm. Traffic was flowing slowly but smoothly. Citizens had stationed themselves at every traffic light and were controlling the cars. Others were helping people get out of subway stations. There was little crime, no looting even in the slum districts, for New Yorkers had risen to the challenge wondrously.
"Take it, Tommy, take it," Becker begged when I told him of the wondrous offer.
"I have to ask Nancy."
When I made it home, I could see a lovely array of candles burning throughout the apartment. The dining room was full of people who had decided that walking up one flight to our second floor apartment to have a couple of drinks was better than walking up to their own higher floors elsewhere. I imparted the startling news to Nancy, but she shook her head and said, "Let’s talk later. Now, get to the deli and the market across the street fast and buy all the candles and flashlight batteries you can and some pasta and pepperoni and beer and, if the liquor store’s still open, gin."
I got as much of the list as I could and around two in the morning when our guests had gone, I said again, "Lindsay’s asked me to be his Parks and Recreation Commissioner -- the whole thing! What should I do?"
"Take it, of course."
Several days later Nancy was asked to become a member of the committee on drug addiction and eventually helped the Lindsay people pick the city’s first drug "czar" and in time became a founding trustee of Phoenix House, one of the premier rehabilitation centers in America. She is still active in it.
Still scared about the size of the job, I procrastinated. At the same time how could I not do it? People were always bitching that politicians didn’t do things and were constantly sounding off, "if only I were in office. . . ." In a couple of days of fretting I decided I had to become the powerful Parks Commissioner of New York City for the simple reason that I had been such a big mouth about the parks system and had promised it could be brought to life.
The day I had made up my mind Bob Price called me at home, sounding irked. "Did your father work for Bill Buckley?"
Oh, oh, the deal was off.
"As finance chairman," I answered.
"We’ll not hold it against you, Tom, now will you, for Christ’s sake, say yes or no on this? I wanna point out to you that you get twenty-five thou a year and a car and driver seven days a week."
"Okay, in that case, I’ll take it."
"Gotcha’," he laughed.
When I informed Rorimer, he accused me of having been secretive, of having plotted to leave the museum for a long time (I then knew he’d heard of the Hartford business), called me a turncoat and said that I was stupid to enter the short-lived game of city politics.
Pissed off, I struck back hard by pointing out that I had been a good curator for years, finding incredible pieces, taking risks, publishing my discoveries promptly, exhibiting them in a professional manner. Hell, I thought I had been the best curator the museum had ever had. I reminded him that as Commissioner of Parks I would be the museum’s landlord. I pointed out that he had several major renovations awaiting approval at Parks and he needed my friendship for that alone. We parted "friends." As soon as I could, I had my staff cut through the ponderous twenty-seven steps for city approvals on Rorimer’s construction permit at the north end of the museum for a new receiving entrance.
As ex-officio trustee, I attended board meetings of every city cultural institution at least once -- there were nine of them -- and never missed a board meeting at the Met. I loved it when the trustees tried to butter me up. Two months earlier they hardly knew my name. Mario Procaccino, the president of the City Council, also an ex-officio trustee, had no idea I’d been a curator and when I’d mention something curatorial in a board meeting, he’d look at me and give me a broad wink as if to say, "Show them we city bums know a thing or two."
At the end of one board meeting Rorimer asked board president Roland Redmond if I, even as a mere city ex-officio, could be invited to a rump session of the Acquisitions Committee. Procaccino shot me another huge wink. It was a meeting to approve the purchase of that Auvergne twelfth century Madonna I had arranged to be smuggled out of France.
A year later I was there at another board meeting when President Roland Redmond humiliated Rorimer by trying to turn down his proposed gift to the museum of contemporary Mosan enamel. Jim had received one (as had I) from a dealer as a Christmas card. Redmond claimed that Rorimer had been "dangerously conflicted" to have accepted a gift from a dealer and that its acceptance by the museum would sanction that unethical act. The trustees quickly voted approval, but the damage was done. I could see the veins on Jim’s forehead bulge.
At meeting’s end he dragged me into his office and railed at the many indignities and humiliations Redmond had laid upon him over the years. I was concerned about his agitated state of mind and how poorly he looked and told him so. "He’s out of it now, Jim. Don’t even think of that idiot any more. He’s just a blowhard." But he kept on complaining and I could see he was wounded, desperately so.
That same night James Rorimer died of a cerebral hemorrhage. I suspected that Redmond’s unconscionable action helped trigger the attack.
I had suggested to Lindsay that my appointment be announced at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park and the spacious dining room was jammed when the Mayor-elect introduced me to a throng of park-lovers and members of the press. I gave a short speech extolling the dedication of John Lindsay to the parks movement and praised the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted, which I vowed to respect. I promised a virtual Renaissance of parks equal to the Olmsted epoch in every Borough. "Parks are the lungs of the city and I shall see to it that they are clean and beautiful once again."
After the brief ceremony, Gabe Pressman, the city correspondent for ABC TV and a respected voice in the news, drew me, Nancy and my daughter aside.
"See that rowboat?"
There was a cluster of rentable boats about to be stored for the winter.
"If you guys get in one and row out a little, you’ll be on the front page of every newspaper in the nation not to speak of every TV newscast tonight."
Pressman was right. There has never before or since been such a news splash about a Parks Commissioner in American history.
That act changed me instantly. It was like coming to after the milk-punch drunk at Princeton or being slugged in the gut my first hour in the Marine Corps. I realized instantly that image was everything in politics. Becoming a symbol, a brand, was more important than ideas or accomplishments. The rule was, I realized, keep in the news, become a memorable symbol by rowing a Parks boat or riding a bicycle or playing golf or swimming in a Parks Department pool or picking up litter like a regular Parkie or playing some game with a bunch of kids. I hired a rabid parks devotee and accomplished P.R. ace, Mary Nichols, a columnist on the Village Voice, who soon transformed me from an unknown curator of obscure art into the beloved Big Parkie. Her campaign was so successful that I began to be called, not Thomas P. F. Hoving, but Thomas "Publicity Forever" Hoving, "The Clown Prince of Fun City." I just loved it. And, worse, I began to believe in my genius.
Lindsay refused to take time off after the campaign and formed a transition government at the Roosevelt Hotel. I shared a suite with Peter Ashkenazy and Julie Chelminski.
In my first week a thin, agitated, young man burst into my office.
"Hoving, have I got the idea for you! My name’s Ron Delsener, I’m in the music business, booking Rock and Roll and Folk and Jazz, yeah, everything. Here’s this great idea. You know the Wollman skating rink? That one in Central Park. What am I saying? Of course you do, well, I have this idea to make a stage and seats there for concerts of the top stars, in the summer when there’s, ha! no ice-skaters, see -- no ice -- in July and August -- and I’ll sign up this beer company -- Budweiser -- I have top contacts there -- and they want to plug a new low-diet beer and I’ll ask for dough -- how much do you think I should ask -- to fund the stage and seats and a summer season of performers like Judy Collins and Mongo Santamaria and other greats in pop and folk to play, say, for low admission, maybe a buck?"
"If you can get the money, I’ll build the stage and the seats." I said.
"I’ll be back at five today with the cash."
Peter and I had a laugh about the electrified young Mr. Delsener, figuring we’d never see him again. For days we’d been were getting people coming in with less nutty ideas. Our jaws dropped when Delsener came in at five o’clock sharp flaunting a registered check to the Parks Department for $95,000 from Schaefer Beer. Budweiser had passed and always regretted it.
Ron Delsener delivered big-time. We had two evening shows three to four times a week in July and August with some big name in pop performing. The concerts became the talk of the music industry and the press was overwhelmingly positive. Only the wealthy in Fifth Avenue abodes across from the rink got irked and because of their complaints the concerts lasted only two seasons, moving thereafter to a pier on the West side.
At one concert Judy Collins dedicated a song to me -- about me. I loved it -- I believe that the Schaefer concerts were one significant reason why New York didn’t burn like so many other cities throughout the country that dangerous summer of 1966. I had outlined a plan to Lindsay to create "bread and circuses" to keep the incendiary parts of the city cooled down. Part of my plan was to hire the information officers of the most powerful Hispanic and Black gangs as my special advisors for the summer with a decent rate of pay and serious responsibilities. The kids really worked and they helped immeasurably in keeping New York quiet. Lindsay gave me public credit for helping to keep the city calm.
When I had gotten home the evening after my appointment ceremony at the Boat House, I found six large cardboard boxes filled with press releases from the early 1930s to the present. They were a "gift" from Bob Moses. The accompanying letter invited me to his World’s Fair offices in Flushing Meadow to talk with him. He came right out and said he was furious that I had written in the white paper that the Parks Department, and not him, should plan what should be in Flushing Meadow Park after the fair was over.
The next morning I called Moses’ office, said I’d come and asked for directions on how to get there by subway. His secretary didn’t know but said he’d get back to me. He called back and in a surly tone told me that the boss was sending a car to my apartment at nine the next day. When I saw the car I laughed; it was a battered old wreck with one front fender hanging down like a dog’s ear. In the back seat I could see the road racing by through a hole in the floorboards. It was the "Subway-guy" car.
When I got there, I was asked to wait. I could see Moses in his throne-like chair seated before a round table with a microphone set in the center, as if he would address planet earth at any moment. In ten minutes I was told I could go in. Screw this bully, I thought and pretended I had some vital business to do on the phone. I kept him waiting for eleven minutes.
His chair was on wheels and mine was not, so as he began to wheel around rapidly, firing off dictat after dictat, I got up and paced as he wheeled. That disturbed him, as I hoped it might.
He blustered for ten minutes.
"I read that disgraceful paper you wrote for the Mayor and it’s a cockamamie dream.
"Vest pocket parks’ll be vandalized in a day.
"Your idea of having teams rehabilitate a playground in a day is Tomfoolery.
"Local people can’t be clients; they’re too dumb.
"Burn into your memory, if you have one, some of my commandments: No one’s gonna sue you for good works. Dig a hole, who’ll fill it? If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?"
I put up my hand up and hit him. "Mr. Moses, you did a lot for the parks many years ago but you never gave a damn about getting sufficient money for maintenance or recreation. After your marvelous Jones Beach you didn’t give a damn about good design. Since then the designs of playgrounds are closer to prison compounds than places for fun."
He sighed. "I am just a ’vox clamantis humilus in deserto’." I recognized at once he was quoting John the Baptist, ’I am only a humble voice crying out in the wilderness.’
Calling his Latin bluff I spat out, "Sicut Moyses exaltari serpento in deserto." I remembered it from one of the scrolls on my Bury Saint Edmunds cross.
"How’s that?" His jaw literally dropped.
"Deuteronomy 28:66, and it means roughly, ’Bob Moses raised a brazen serpent in the desert’ -- and that desert is the Fair and the parks with their cookie-cut-out, hand-me-down designs far from the genius of Jones Beach. Ever since your great days you have refused to let go of Parks and have never clued in to the fact that ’times, they are ’a’changin’,’ and that the parks are a mess. Yes, I do attribute the decline to you. Now, why don’t you shut up and let me do my job?"
"You are one impudent young man!" he roared.
"You bet. So were you when you were my age. Now let’s work together."
"Do you insist that the Parks Department design my Flushing Meadow?"
"It’s not yours; it’s the peoples’. The Parks Department will design it -- but you will have every opportunity to vet that design. I know I have threatened to demolish that huge, ugly Unisphere, that sculpture of the globe -- the US Steel monument -- but I’ll hold off on that if you agree to cooperate."
"Hmm. Anything you need from me?"
"Yes. First, I’d like that Buckminister Fuller Geodesic dome, the one that was over the display of the Michelangelo Pieta at the fair. I think it would make a perfect covering for the Queens Zoo aviary."
"I’ll have that done right away. You know, my boy I’m not such an ogre."
I had to chuckle when I saw that the car assigned to drive me back to Manhattan was a limo with Bob’s private plates -- NY 2000 -- instead of the wreck I had arrived in.
I had to chase the pieces of the Geodesic dome for months as Moses’ minions spirited them from one hiding place to another. I finally seized it in a Triborough warehouse and used a small fleet of my trucks to take it away.
He would blast me over some issue and the Daily News would front-page the criticism. I would fire back and the next day would invariably get a call from Big Bob saying something like, "Yours was pretty good; what did you think of mine?"
He loved playing the publicity game and he knew I loved playing back. I found him alert, amusing, crafty, self-centered and often unprincipled. His mind was sharp despite what Pulitzer Prize winning author, Robert Caro, wrongly said about him as being mentally hazy at the time. Moses wasn’t hazy; he was simply ‘Big-loud-mouthed-know-it-all Bob.’ The world wasn’t just his oyster; hell, he thought he’d created it.
One snowy evening in February, Moses, Nancy and I attended some parks function in Staten Island and afterwards went for dinner at the Brooklyn Heights residence of Grande Dame Helen James. She was a dedicated parks lover and had two connecting townhouses overlooking the famous Brooklyn Heights Esplanade. Big Bob drove Nancy and me in his limo across the Verrazano Bridge, which was surrounded by an almost other-worldly aureole of drifting light snow, captured magically in the great searchlights.
"I created this, you know," he intoned.
"The bridge or Mother Nature?" Nancy asked.
When we got to the James’ mansions he led me out on the terrace and pointed to the Esplanade. "Were it not for my struggles, that thing would never have been built."
Helen James said sharply, "Bob, what nonsense! You know without my struggles -- against you -- the Esplanade would never have existed." Of course, she was right.
He then waved a hand towards a small, triangular vacant plot of land at the north end of the Esplanade and said, "That’s about the size of a vest-pocket park, right? Well, it’s Triborough property and tomorrow I’ll hand it over to you at Parks."
Did a tear come to my eye?
If it had, it dried up the next morning when I learned from the Parks property official that "Big Bob" had "given" the plot away at least three times. We never did acquire it. Yet, "Big Bob" did allow me to develop one vest-pocket park at 20th Street and 11th Avenue on Triborough land with Triborough moneys.
Lindsay’s swearing-in on the steps of City Hall was an especially emotional moment for me since it meant my life had changed unalterably. I had put curatorial joys and triumphs completely out of my mind. I have never looked back when something was over. I was now the Big Parkie and intended to remain so until Lindsay left office. I was bursting with confidence and had no lingering doubts about my ability to deal with the huge hassle of the department. I hired Arthur Rosenblatt to be my architectural consultant.
Because of the impending strike of Mike Quill’s Transit Union every commissioner was ordered by Lindsay to be on the job with his or her aides just after the stroke of midnight. Thus, I pounded on the door of the Arsenal building at 12:01 in the morning on January 1, 1966, accompanied by Chelminski and Ashkenazy. The poor Parkie who opened up the double doors almost passed out when he saw me and heard me say, "I’m Thomas Hoving, your new Commissioner. Let us in. A new day has dawned."
Peter noticed right away that there were lots of lights on in the basement of the building.
"What’s down there and who’s down there?" I asked the Parkie.
"The central files."
We surprised some ten employees who were furiously shredding. I put a halt to that and took down the name of each shredder. Later, I had the corporation council interrogate each one and we were able to stitch together sufficient questionable activity to fire a few.
We stayed in the Arsenal that Saturday and part of Sunday peeking into every office and cubbyhole. The building was one of only two structures built before Olmsted designed the park and is the place where his drawings for the Greensward Plan are preserved. The red brick Arsenal, designed to look like a medieval fortress with eight battlements was opened in 1851 as a munitions supply depot for the National Guard. It was sited so that it had a clear view to the South and was near enough to the railroad so troops could quickly embark to hot points.
My office, room 305, was adjacent to the pool in Central Park’s Zoo where seals played and barked. How lovely it was to hear the animals while I worked! Another office on the East side of the Arsenal, identical to mine, was reserved for the executive officer, then a crusty Irish minion of Bob Moses, an engineer who was said to speak daily with Big Bob. Between the two offices was a spacious conference room with broad windows looking south on to the Monkey House of the zoo. The large room had been, naturally, Bob Moses’ office.
By nine that first Monday morning I walked through the building and greeted every employee from filing clerk to the engineers and secretaries. As soon as the transit strike was over I ordered the executive officer to round up cars and take the top management team with me to every Borough headquarters and greet the employees there. The employees were stunned to see me and later I learned that few of them had ever shaken Newbold Morris’ hand in his eight years. In the first three months I managed to visit the majority of facilities in all boroughs and have a brief chat with many of the men and women of the entire sprawling department. On my daily rounds I would make a point of talking to as many Parkies and recreational workers as I could.
The first Tuesday the top crew was at hand for our first departmental executive committee -- to be held thereafter every Tuesday at eight. The executive officer had never deemed it important to have such a meeting. The first meeting had its amusing moments. The veterans faced a youthful Commissioner who seemed to know every detail of the system. They tried to trick me a number of times by talking about tiny details about some project in an obscure park. Julie would hand me the particulars that she and Peter Ashkenazy had researched for the White Paper. I would then quote even more miniscule details. It took four meetings for them to come over to my side. The executive officer soon left and went to work for Moses.
One evening not long after the transit strike while I was having a spaghetti supper at home with Nancy and Trea, Lindsay’s office called -- there was an emergency. John had pledged a community group in Brooklyn that he’d come to their first meeting after the election -- if he won -- and speak to them if they had delivered the district to him. But he was tied up. If City Hall sent a limo, would I get out there at once and speak on his behalf? The people had been waiting a half hour.
I grabbed my unfinished dinner, called a member of the press to say that I was going onto a difficult situation and asked if he wanted to see how the Lindsay guys handled it. He arrived before I did. That audience was bristling until I came down the side aisle of the auditorium holding aloft a tray with my dinner. They laughed like hell as I finished my spaghetti at the podium and explained why John had bowed out. I finished off the last strands as I was talking and then launched into a stirring summary of the Lindsay goals and hopes including a detailed analysis of the parks in their district and what and when we were going to start cleaning things up. I got a small ovation, many questions, and the next day complimentary press.
As my press grew and became more laudatory, largely thanks to Mary Nichols, my PR hotshot, John Lindsay’s became more critical. The transit strike had slapped him down and, secretly, I thought he deserved it. During the transition I had tried, vainly, to make the point that despite Mike Quill’s insolence towards him, the Mayor-elect ought to have ceaseless talks with him. The transit union chief had taken to using the broadest possible Irish accent (I figured he went to Berlitz to brush it up) and would refer contemptuously to Lindsay as Mr. "Lindsley" and sound off with the likes of, "Mr. Lindsley is cutting off the motor men’s hands so they cannot put them on the handles of the throttles."
I pleaded that John take him to some Irish Pub and talk to him anyway because nothing would be worse for his image now and in the future than a protracted strike. Since I was merely the Parks and Recreation commissioner I wasn’t listened to. Lindsay never recovered from his miscues during the strike and that saddened me because, otherwise, he was a courageous and hard-driving administrator and leader. Without him, the city would most certainly have burned like so many others in that violent summer of 1966.
I became known to his inner circle as a maverick and even a turncoat. I spent a good deal of time at City Hall across the hall in the City Council offices talking to opposition councilmen, making note of their desires and delivering as much as I could. I tried to repair every bocce court in Italian districts, every basketball court and hoop in black neighborhoods and every swimming pool in Hispanic areas. I kept a detailed inventory of what we had done and where and always vigorously reminded the politicians what they had gained for their constituents from me.
I made an ally of each member of the all-powerful Board of Estimate and delivered goods and services to them as well. My campaign was so effective that Parks was the only agency that got its capital budget request increased.
As I have described in the opening chapter, I met the parks police under my command and instituted the nutty operation of dumping dead bodies -- killed somewhere else than the parks -- into other police precincts. The crime rates in large parks fell drastically.
After that the morale of "my" police soared to unprecedented levels. Even more so when they learned I was not about to bring charges against any officer without a cooling-off period and a careful examination of all the facts. I had been strolling through Prospect Park with Robert Makla, the individual I had appointed as curator of the park, who was a Park Slope lawyer and a parks "fiend," as he described himself, when we came across a squat building that I didn’t know existed. Makla told me it was the maintenance house for an ancient graveyard.
We entered without knocking and surprised three police officers from Prospect Park’s precinct lounging in front of a TV. They had fitted out the old structure with an air-conditioner, two refrigerators, one exclusively for beer, and comfortable loungers and overstuffed chairs. (A luxurious version of my maid’s room at the Hotchkiss School.) I had to laugh when I saw a large photograph of me pasted up on a wall and was pleased it was not being used a dart board. I told the officers icily that they had to get rid of everything by the end of the week and stand extra duty for a month. If they agreed to that then I would not enter their transgressions into the official record. They agreed and two of the three subsequently were promoted to higher ranks. I guess I was the catalyst that day for their future lives.
In February I had made a strong plea to people from Governor Rockefeller’s office and the Port Authority to knock down their World’s Fair pavilions. The state’s was a spindly, buck-toothed cheapo structure that the then-ultra-chic architect Philip Johnson had concocted. The thing was a five-story roof with what looked like dinosaur teeth hanging over an empty exhibition area and an elevator that no longer functioned. Rockefeller’s people curtly turned me down. The old wreck of a lousy design is still out there today rusting away and becoming ever more dangerous by the day.
The executive director of the powerful Port Authority, Guy Tozzoli, went out of his way to humiliate me. He invited me to a fancy luncheon in the restaurant of the ugly flat-topped Fair structure and spent the greater part of an hour informing me that that I had no legal right -- or power -- to ask the authority to do anything, even to remove a Port-o-San. There was nothing I could do and the ugly building remained as a second-rate restaurant. He never addressed me once as Commissioner and I boiled, but kept my outward cool. I made a pledge to myself to pay the guy back, something I usually don’t bother with, for I’ve seldom been vindictive for very long.
And by God, I didn’t have long to wait. In the spring Mr. Tozzoli requested a personal meeting at the Arsenal to discuss an issue of vital importance to us both. I was having a sandwich at my desk and the windows were open so I could hear the seals barking boisterously as they had their lunch. Tozzoli, a tanned and sleek, smooth-talking man was clearly upset at the informality of my office. Young staffers kept poking their faces into the open doors with a quick question. Several times I ducked out of the office and left Tozzoli there alone sitting on a chair on the wall near my immense desk, which I had found in the basement of City Hall. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s when he’d been Police Commissioner.
At last I allowed him to get to his point.
"Commissioner Hoving. . . ." When he used my title I then knew he must be desperate. "Do you have any idea what a ’hush’ park is?"
I glanced at my watch. "Perfectly. Mr. Tozzoli. ’Hush’ parks are at LaGuardia and JFK airports at runway ends so that developers cannot build houses too near the runways and burst the ears of the unfortunates who might be suckered into buying them. Parks is technically in charge of and has to pay for the cleaning of these ’hush’ parks, which the public cannot enter, or use. Why do you ask?"
"We want to add another runway extension at JFK and want you to map as a hush park the area that I have had my people draw up in this chart."
"No way," I started to get up.
"But this is serious, Commissioner."
"Sorry, I have other more crucial priorities."
"I am pleading here."
"Maybe, Guy, on one condition."
"We are prepared to do anything within reason."
I lifted an eyebrow.
He tried a chuckle, which came out like a rasping breath. "Maybe even without reason."
I suddenly felt a little sorry for him. "Oh, I’ll make it reasonable. I guess it’s too late to demolish that pavilion."
He grimaced and I smiled broadly. "When was the last time you drove your limo through or choppered over one of these ’hush’ parks?"
"I’d recommend it. They are disgusting, filled with car wrecks, hundreds of old mattresses and all sort of crap. If you at Port Authority expense clean out every piece of garbage no matter how big or small from our existing ’hush’ parks and I approve of the work -- visiting the sites with you in your chopper to make sure you did the job right -- then I’ll sign your permission. I know I have no, how did you phrase it before when I wanted your crappy pavilion out of the way? -- ’Hoving, you have no legal right to ask me to demolish the building’ -- But. . . ."
"I agree to pay all costs," he said before I could continue -- it sounded like a moan.
The work was done and we saved a large amount of money. Later on I castigated myself to my wife, "What an idiot! To go out of my way to put him down -- like he did me -- was childish and petty. I should have taken the high road and that would have truly humiliated him. Will I ever grow up?"
An Indian chap dashed into my office one morning trailed by two frantic assistants, every one holding the frames and shells of some fanciful kites.
"Commissioner, I protest! I have just been apprehended for flying kites in the Great Meadow. In India we have an ancient tradition for kiting -- especially the fighting kites. They are beautiful and we wanted to show the children in the Park the beauty of kiting."
I handed the task of finding what was up to Julie Chelminski and before long she found out that a restriction did exist but had been initiated a year after the Park opened in 1864 -- kites made the horses rear. I waived the law and when I pitched its removal from the books I said to the City Council, "We have observed carefully, gentlemen, and have found no Chevies, Fords or Buicks shying and rearing." The restriction was removed and I got the appropriate good press.
It is amazing what the press will do when they think they’re on to a cute story following some minor celebrity. I could barely move without my actions being recorded on camera. I was strolling through a ravaged playground with New York Timesman Ralph Blumenthal where the roof of a comfort station had been burned. There had been a spate of such burnings. Looking at the brick structure I suddenly understood why the roofs were so easy to get to. The buildings had been designed so that on the corners the red bricks formed a convenient ladder anyone could scamper up. I climbed up and a photograph of my derring-do was published the next day. Once these ladders were bricked over we never had the problem again.
I got to be so good at generating stories that I decided to push the envelope a bit sometimes. After a meeting with the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce at the opening of the beach in May, I was walking with some of the group along the beach when a stunning blonde Miss Coney Island, garbed in a raincoat approached me, threw it off and displayed her lush charms in a leopard-skin bikini. She grabbed my arms and started pulling me into the water. I loved it. Cameras clicked like a barrage.
At the subsequent meeting with the Chamber one of the officials bet me twenty bucks that I couldn’t get a front-page story in the New York Times the next day. I called the paper and outlined from the top of my head a massive comprehensive plan for the future development of Coney Island. The New York Times published a serious story on the plan. And the photo of me grinning at saucy Miss Coney hit the front page of the Daily News. Nothing like a beauteous young woman and a hot "Commish" to garner the publicity!
I even made the cover of Town & Country in my official Parks Department bright red raincoat. TV seemed mesmerized by a Commissioner who commuted to work and from park to park on a Honda motorcycle emblazoned with two chrome maple leaves inscribed Department of Parks.
Of course I did many things without any press. I assembled the SWAT team of Parkies, carpenters, painters and iron-workers to invade vandalized playgrounds and in one day clean and fix everything busted. If the vandals came back, we’d come back and do it again. On the third assault, the vandals either gave up or were disciplined by the community leaders, for everyone knew who was making the mischief. I made it a point to swim in every pool before the season started to see if everything was okay; and played every golf course -- badly, as usual. One evening, attending the Joseph Papp Shakespeare Theater in Central Park, at some crucial moment in the play, jackhammers started to hammer loudly in the nearby transverse drive. I slipped out of my seat, climbed down the steep wooded banks of the road, met the workers and persuaded them to halt the construction until the play was over. One of them recognized me and said, "Hey, I’d stop this only for the Clown Prince of Fun City." He even asked for my autograph.
During my tenure I made countless speeches to numerous community groups and planning boards and to various parks groups across the country. I visited Mexico City to see the splendid Chapultapec Park -- the first public park in history -- and even went to Japan on the inaugural flight of Japan Airlines to see what ideas I could incorporate into the department from Japan’s legendary parks. I became entranced with the work of the architect Kenzo Tange and asked if he might think of creating a master plan for a great sports park in Flushing Meadow. I also discovered some fascinating adventure playgrounds; one was replicated in the Bronx.
When I returned from that junket, I was assailed by a TV investigative reporter with the question, "Isn’t there a conflict of interest here taking free passage from Japan Airlines?" I answered tartly, "There would be if Japan Air was trying to land on our parks system."
By the end of my first two months I realized that we were failing to organize our work properly. I had heard that there was a whiz at administrator in the office of the Manhattan Borough President Constance Baker Motley. His name was Henry Stern, an excessively thin, young man with a shock of black hair falling across a broad forehead. He had the habit of lowering his head as he expounded on some subject and at the end of the peroration his face would be virtually in his lap.
I talked to Motley about recruiting him and she was frank. "I hate to see him go, but, clearly, he’d be better off in your crazy department. He’ll bring order into your happenings. Stern signed up as my executive director and made an immediate difference. He instituted a tickler system that organized all incoming and outgoing mail and phone calls. I had the departmental carpenters build a three-dimensional tickler behind my Teddy Roosevelt desk with special boxes for specific issues and programs.
Henry gave invaluable advice on one potential encroachment. In the White Paper I had condemned an encroachment plugged by the commissioner of Marine and Aviation. He was planning to take a stretch of land under his control at the top of Riverside Park and hand it over to a developer for a tall residential tower that would block the stunning view across the Hudson River from The Cloisters. But since the commissioner was a member of the Liberal party, which had helped Lindsay win the race, he had not been replaced. The developer had hired an architect and was about to start construction. Stern’s advice was to immediately map the plot of land as a park. I had the power to do it if the Borough president co-signed the mapping. Connie Motley followed Stern’s wish and signed with enthusiasm.
I thought that was the end of it until several days later when I was leaving the Arsenal, a process server handed me an order to appear in court -- the developer was suing me for fifty million dollars for trying to block his project. I freaked, after all I had never been sued for anything, much less fifty big million dollars. I raced to the offices of the Corporation Council in the looming Municipal building and was handed over to a grizzled character with the unlit stub of a cigar planted in his teeth. He -- and possibly the cigar butt -- had been there since Fiorello LaGuardia.
"’Commish,’ I tell you, a guy sues for fifty ‘mil, don’ worry about it; guy sues for five, start to worry about it; guy sues for one million, get outta’ town."
"Help me," I bleated.
"Gimme two days."
He called back on schedule. "You’re clear, ‘Commish,’ the guy has dropped the suit and will pay a small amount for our paperwork and stuff."
"What the hell happened?"
"A little research revealed this guy had once had a little problem with an alleged child molestation issue which I pointed out might not look so good in the New York Times or wherever."
My most important and far-reaching accomplishment in Parks came by chance. One spring Sunday I attended a meeting in the Guggenheim Museum auditorium on parks problems with the full complement of parks lovers (and Parks Department haters) in full cry. At the end of the session, a chap with a white beard leaped to his feet and really went after me. I recounted to Nancy what he said that evening.
"He thundered, ‘My name is Richard Edes Harrison and I make maps and trouble for bureaucrats like you Commissioner. If you want to really make a contribution in the history of parks why don’t you wipe out -- I mean bulldoze away -- all the park roads and drives and return them to sand or gravel or, better, grass, which is the way they originally were. Today they are dangerous speedways -- commuters’ alleys -- and the pollution billowing from the tens of thousands of cars every month is killing the trees. Olmsted didn’t design the park drives for automotive traffic or any serious traffic. He placed the transverse roads below grade for that. Commissioner, make history, get rid of the park drives!’"
Once I got to my office -- we worked seven days a week during my tenure -- I called for Henry Stern. "Is there anything in the city charter about my powers over roads in parks or regulating traffic or anything like that?"
He returned shortly and told me that in the most recent charter of 1961 the regulation of all traffic had been given to the Traffic Commissioner, but the Parks Commissioner retained control over the height of curb lines and the design of all entrances to all parks,
"That means I could put up police barricades at all entrances on, say, a Sunday and Commissioner Barnes would have nothing to say?"
"He’d say a lot, but, yes, he could not stop you from cutting off access to the parks."
The next weekend I closed all drives in Central Park from six until nine in the morning. I got out whatever rusting, old bikes I had in my apartment, called friends who managed to rustle up a bunch of bikes and, along with some park lovers, biked around the park. Mary Nichols rounded up a crowd of newspaper and TV reporters and we managed to make the little group look like a human sea of happy bikers. We got nationwide press about closing the drives.
Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes bellowed, "If this unauthorized act is allowed to continue, there will be traffic jams from Maine to the tip of Florida."
He appealed to Mayor Lindsay to halt the experiment, but John gave me his approval to widen the program. In a short time I closed the great parks all weekend long and then in the summer on weekdays from ten until four. Today, special lanes have been carved out so that bikers can go safely all throughout the year and, of course, my weekend and summer closings still stand. The idea took off and throughout the United States, Europe and Japan there are similar closings.
In three months my horticulturalists informed me that the blighted sides of trees facing the drive had started to thrive again.
Closing the drives was quintessential "parks are for the people" and has been called was the single most monumental -- and inexpensive -- change in recreation since Frederick Law Olmsted. I think it was one of the most significant things I ever did in my entire life. The idea swept across the country and today is a small but glowing gem of the responsible environment movement.
Brooke Astor came into my life once again. She had decided to use a major chunk off her million-dollar Astor Foundation (I privately called it the "Tango Foundation") to construct adventure playgrounds in underprivileged parts of town.
Playground architect Paul Freedberg had designed for her a clutch of contemporary playgrounds in a large housing development down on Avenues A and B and the east side. His rusticated pyramids, intricate tunnels and imaginative climbing equipment were the opposite of the Bob Moses’ cookie cutouts. The inhabitants applauded them. I attended the opening where Brooke gave an amazing performance. In English and then in flawless Spanish she launched into a rousing and amusing speech about the horrors of city and state bureaucracy, which she had overcome to deliver the radiant parklets.
The press singled me out for several interviews and I was photographed bouncing around on Freedberg’s equipment. I apologized to Brooke for hogging the publicity but she laughed and said I needed it to bring attention to the city’s parks whereas she got her thrills by spending money for the right causes. And spend she did, giving me the then awesome sum of $2.5 million in the year and a quarter I was Big Parkie -- today that would be something like ten times the amount.
Although Brooke forgave me for hogging the cameras and reporters at her grand opening, Bill Paley, the chairman of CBS, didn’t when he thought I had stepped on his toes.
I had written in the White Paper that Lindsay intended to sign up the landscape architecture firm of Zion and Breen to design some small permanent parks in upscale neighborhoods. These were not to be temporary vest-pocket parks thrown up in vacant or abandoned lots in the slums. Paley had signed up Zion and Breen to design a vest-pocket park at the site of my old teen-age haunt, the Stork Club at 53rd Street between Madison and Fifth. I was frequently asked about the park by the press and I was enthusiastic. Paley, an egotistical man, had some minion order me to come to see him in his lavish offices in the CBS building known as Black Rock.
Paley was a well-tanned, beefy-faced, elderly cherub with an arrogant tongue.
"I’d appreciate it, Commissioner, if you don’t horn in on the credit I deserve for this little oasis in the center of the city."
"That’s utter blather," I said. Talking frankly even to the rich and powerful never fazed me. He’d never been addressed like that in his life and looked as if he were going to explode. "The record states clearly -- even on your network, if you care to review it -- that I have had nothing but sweet words for your project. I have never claimed it as my idea. Frankly, I have too many ideas of my own to steal one of yours and, anyway, I know for a fact that it was Zion’s idea not yours."
I turned to go and he came around from his desk, grasped my elbow and told me to sit. "Please!"
He then did a manly thing; he said he had been misinformed and wanted my forgiveness, which I immediately gave. We became "friends." Yet, I became far closer to his beauteous wife, "Babe." Nancy and I would gather with other luminaries of the moment in her apartment and dish city gossip. Babe was gay and witty and kind.
The vest-pocket park program progressed smoothly and we built three on a busted old street in Harlem at 124th Street and Third Avenue and they were still in business in 2007. Several others in Brooklyn and the Bronx have been serving their communities ever since 1967. The then most popular New Yorker Magazine cartoonist, Charles Addams, lampooned the vest-pocket park in a very gentle way. His cartoon showed a passer-by looking down quizzically at a tiny parklet filled with three-inch tall people sitting on three-inch tall benches reading tiny newspapers. When he sent it to me I was thrilled.
One of the lots Lindsay had singled out for a vest-pocket park was at Willis Avenue and 138th Street at the end of the Willis Avenue Bridge. With the cooperation of the Building department, Sanitation and Highways I went in there and in a day and a half cleaned it up, threw asphalt over it, laid down safety surfacing, set up basketball hoops, benches -- the whole nine yards. I was there sweeping the last specks of dust off as John and some administration buddies were tossing a football around. A Herald Tribune reporter interviewed me and said he’d be writing a piece stating that Lindsay was playing in Bobby Kennedy’s turf and playing football at that -- the Kennedy "thing."
I knew I was in for it. Because some days before, the site had come up in conversation with a very powerful man -- Bobby Kennedy. Senator Bobby had picked me up in his limo and driven me to the Arsenal. That week I was being followed by a reporter and several cameramen from Life magazine -- a week in the busy and glorious life of New York’s Clown Prince of Fun City.
Kennedy was a strikingly handsome man, pulsating with such vitality that a magnetic aura seemed to surround him. I’ll never forget his first words to me when I climbed into his limo, "Ah, Commissioner Hoving, you certainly seem to have made many enemies in a very short time in New York." He was referring to my troubles with the union.
"Who’s talking," I blurted out and he roared with laughter.
Bobby was literally besieged by parks workers as we went through the Arsenal; many employees were not able to suppress tears. In the conference room he showed me the plans and drawings of a full-blown park his architect John Warneke had designed for the Willis Avenue plot I was fixing up. His design was overly ambitious for the small plot and included a pool and a softball field with grandstands. I told him I thought it would cost too much to maintain.
I neglected to mention that at that very moment our building crews were making a "John Lindsay Vest-Pocket Park." Bobby was furious when the Herald Tribune published what we had done. One of Bobby’s hatchet men, Dick Goodwin, lowered the boom on me and ranted on about my "betrayal" of the senator in making the temporary park for Lindsay and for one of my disrespectful quotes. I apologized and told him to tell the Senator that I’d been stupid in wanting only my boss to get credit. Bobby called minutes later and told me "You are okay in my book. By the way I liked your quote although Dick didn’t." The quote -- actually not very funny -- was, "I think the Senator’s park should be in the shape of a football."
Later on, at an all-day parks conference at the Waldorf-Astoria I was on the panel along with Bobby. He was to speak after me, but he rushed in at the last moment and begged to go first. He whispered in my ear, "God, what can I say? I’m utterly unprepared. Ah, could you give me your speech. I’ll be forever in your debt."
I had to laugh. The chutzpah! But that was typical Bobby. What could I do? I was really impressed how slick his delivery was and he that didn’t read it word for word -- it was like some Tele-Prompter for him. He got a great hand. So did I, for an entirely different set of remarks.
It was from my time in the Parks Department that my tongue became deliciously sharp and always blunt. I made a remark in a TV interview that pigeons were "rats with feathers" and got two thousand letters calling me a louse or worse.
Delighted with my by-now famed outspokenness, I couldn’t hold my tongue when it came to Columbia University’s proposed Community-Columbia Gymnasium. In the White Paper and in newspaper interviews about encroachment, I had condemned the gym, pointing out that not only would it utterly destroy a huge rock escarpment in Morningside Park but also that the space allocated to the public was in the basement and was a paltry percentage of the overall facility. In interviews I vowed to bring a halt to the disgusting project.
The President of the University, the quintessentially stuffy Dr. Grayson Kirk, came to the Arsenal to complain. At first I was conciliatory and suggested we negotiate appropriate hours for the African-American community to use the Olympic-sized swimming pool upstairs. He actually chortled and bubbled away like Sidney Greenstreet did in the Maltese Falcon, saying to my face, "Never! The law is on our side."
That got me. As if power and wealth and hotshot lawyers and connections could own the law. I knew, of course, that Bob Moses had blessed the deal and that his poodle, Newbold Morris, had panted along. And, of course, I knew that they had already garnered all the proper approvals from Parks. There was, actually, nothing I could do to stop it.
I gave him my innocent look -- that’s when I can appear suddenly like a choirboy -- and silkily observed, "Would you agree with me that safety is paramount in such a large and complex building?"
He nodded. What could he do?
"Then, you’ll understand if I have my specialists re-study the electrical drawings to see that your young men will be utterly safe. With our personnel shortages, this might take, say, four to seven months."
Kirk all but choked. "You can’t stop us by stalling. I tell you again, the law is on our side."
"There are other ways to stop bad things than the courts," I said with my innocent look.
How to stop Columbia came me to me while I was having a martini with my wife, who howled with laughter with what I had in mind. Why not wait for a lovely spring day (when the press choppers could take great photos) and my Parkies and community volunteers would string out toilet paper on the entire footprint of the proposed gymnasium? That way everybody could get an idea of the mammoth size of the ziggurat-sized structure and how it would cut the semi-wilderness park in half. Percy Sutton and Assemblyman Basil Patterson begged to participate.
The toilet caper hit big and we got nationwide press. But Kirk continued to fight hard for my official approval, which I knew I had to give sooner rather than later. The trustees of the university hired my cousin, John Hoving, who was then a Washington lobbyist and eventual chief aide to Hubert Humphrey, to persuade me to back off. I laughed.
Luckily for me about the same time Grayson Kirk stepped into a quagmire of troubles -- Mark Rudd and his band of SDS "reformers" took over his office and riots surged through the campus. The distinguished president handled the situation indecisively. Then he hinted that for revenues Columbia might build a high-rise on the beloved Rockefeller Center skating rink, which the university owned. He followed that blunder by using university funds to buy for investment major rights to the Strickman filter, the "perfect" cigarette filter, an outlandish bulbous affair that made a smoker look like someone playing a gaseous Carioca. In 1968 Kirk was eased out and the offending gymnasium was never built. Eventually the university was forced to pay for the rehabilitation of the rocky escarpment.
I had used toilet paper to grab attention twice in my life; once to get canned from Exeter and once to save a great city park forever and I didn’t know which was more lunatic or fun.
I was especially sensitive to sprucing up and building the parks in black communities, as I had claimed Lindsay would do in the White Paper. A community group in Harlem had been waiting for years for historic Mount Morris Park in Harlem to be rebuilt. I met with the leaders, Hilda Stokely, who spoke brutally and truthfully and her sidekick, tall, rangy Mel Patrick, who acted like he was an arch conspirator, glancing his eyes right and left every other moment as if to catch a glimpse of someone sneaking up on him. Mel was the publisher of a free magazine supported primarily by a large number of liquor ads.
They had been pushing the Parks Department for twelve years to build a swimming pool and bathhouse in the center of the rocky park. But all Bob Moses and Newbold Morris (the park had been named after a member of his family) would agree to was a wading pool.
"Two feet deep on the shallow and two feet deep on the deep end. As if we Negroes can only wade for fear of getting our Afros wet," Patrick complained.
I had decided with Arthur Rosenblatt that we would give the community a luxurious pool with a deep end and all the fittings. I asked him to say a few words.
"I won’t bore you with the money details, but the commissioner believes he can get together the money for a real pool. Before coming up here, we looked at a few pools built in recent years and have a decent idea of the scale and the costs. The commissioner even has the architect in mind. We took the liberty to call him before we came and he’s available and willing. It’s Percy Iffel of Iffel and Johnson, a black architectural firm. This will be the first time in the history of Parks that a black is hired as architect to design anything."
"Whadda’ ’ya’ mean, shackling us with some Negro?" Mel Patrick burst out. "Can’t we have some ’chic’ and trendy white folk’s architect? We’re gonna sue!"
I was goggle-eyed. Then Patrick, Hilda and the community representatives all but fell on the floor in laughter.
"Just ribbing you," Mel Patrick chortled.
The swimming pool with a nine-foot deep end came in on time and only slightly over budget. The opening party was fully wetted with gifts from Mel Patrick’s liquor advertisers. Some years later the park was renamed for one of Harlem’s more eccentric citizens, Marcus Garvey. And a friendship grew between Hilda, Mel and the Hovings.
Rosenblatt had a knack for hiring the best firm for each job. He got Philip Johnson to design the striking North River sewage disposal plant at 125th Street and the Hudson River with broad, muscular arches reflecting those above the West Side drive. On the roof of the immense building he created a series of recreational facilities ranging from ball fields to running tracks, all illuminated like Yankee Stadium. At first Harlem citizens spurned the place, saying that it stank physically, but in a few years when the odor problems were eliminated, they cherished it.
Arthur burst into my office one afternoon and told me we had to create a line in the capital budget for a swimming pool in Brooklyn -- at Marcy Street and Tompkins Avenue -- which the locals had been waiting for almost as long as Hilda and Mel had for the one in Mount Morris Park. Moses had dreamed of putting in an Olympic-sized pool but Newbold Morris had failed to follow up on its construction.
Without telling me, Arthur had seeded a question with a member of the audience at the Tompkins street community meeting. "What we need here, Commissioner, is something like the legendary Miami Beach Hotel pools. Dream a little. I’ll bet you’ve stayed in the ’Roney Plasma’ and the ’Fountain Blue’ and others. You know, Olympic sized pools, elegant lighting, cabanas, refreshment kiosks. Can’t we get something like that?"
"Hey, I’d like to make that happen," I told him. "but this is, after all, the Parks Department. Only the Miami architect Morris Lapidus could deliver what you’re asking and he ain’t gonna be working any day soon for the Parks Department."
A nattily dressed tanned man -- 42 short portly -- emerged from the back of the stage and joined me at the podium. I had no idea who he was.
"Pardon me, Honorable Commissioner," he said. "I can. I happen to be the real Morris Lapidus and, you bet I designed all those Miami Beach palaces. I grew up three blocks from here and here I will design a swimming pool, lighting and incredible facilities that will make my Fontainebleau and Roney Plaza Hotels look outdated. This community deserves the best and I shall deliver it. And I won’t ask for a fee, either. I’m not going to charge the neighborhood I adored. I, Morris Lapidus, pledge this to you."
I laughed and pulled some paper from my pocket and said, "Sign here!"
And did Lapidus deliver! As the 2007 Parks Department web site proclaimed, "The pool can accommodate up to 920 bathers and measures 230 feet by 100 feet. It is complemented by a spray pool, a baby pool, bleachers and a bathhouse. There are pipe sculptures for climbing, which are incorporated into the design of the bathhouse, a large mushroom sculpture, and a flagpole with a yardarm."
Lapidus corrected all the mistakes made in other parks pools -- he put in a welded steel three-piece basin rather than leaky cement; he made all equipment easily reachable through a series of large sliding doors on street level; and he created sensational and vandal-proof lighting (designed by the master illuminator, Abe Fedder) by putting the floodlights on steel poles so lofty that vandals could never reach them. In addition, he covered the surface of the walls of the clubhouse, cabanas and boundaries with a substance that resisted spray paint. The filtration system was made strong enough to vaporize the heavy influx of Band-Aids that choked the older filtration systems in all other pools.
Today, Lapidus’ pool, now known as the Kosciuszko Pool for the Revolutionary War hero, is still the gem of the neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Morris Lapidus won a number of prizes for it and it became his passport into the inner-sanctum of the somewhat intolerant architectural community.
I was a bear when it came to encroachments and canceled half a dozen outlandish projects on the books, including the Adele Levy Memorial playground on that stretch of Riverside park where I’d seen the obsessed sledders and an expensive and garish bridge over York Avenue to the UN building in honor of Dag Hammarskjold. Every time I blocked something, I caught hell, but it was worth it.
The worst drubbing I got was at the hands of Huntington Hartford, the wealthy, dissolute, quirky and blissfully self-destructive art collector. Lawrence Durrell Stone had designed for him an inflated two-story restaurant with his usual clichéd flourishes at the corner of Central Park and 59th Street inside part of a peaceful bird sanctuary. The project had many opponents, including my father and the Fifth Avenue Association. But Commissioner Newbold Morris had pressed forward and the working drawings had been accepted and bids were about to be received.
I stopped the bids and Hunt threatened suit. He held a press conference in which he hinted that my father had secretly enabled my appointment with his friend John Lindsay in exchange for my canceling his restaurant. A gaggle of TV reporters rushed to my office.
"What about the charges that you canceled the Hartford restaurant because of a secret deal between Lindsay and your father?" one asked me.
"I kind of doubt it," I said, "My father was the finance chairman of Bill Buckley’s erstwhile run for mayor."
Hunt asked for a debate on radio and I agreed. I was arrogant, know-it-all and rude -- I suffer fools badly. Hunt was charming and funny and he knocked my socks off. The audience weighed in by criticizing me nonstop. It was one of the few times that my image as the Clown Prince of Fun City was tarnished. Still, I blocked his ridiculous restaurant.
If I didn’t favor a permanent restaurant like Hartford’s, I did want temporary ones throughout the parks and I created one at the charming Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. Rosenblatt had hired a colleague who came up with a design of two colorful large kiosks, chairs and tables under giant umbrellas. There was to be a kitchen hidden away in the closed-off tunnel beneath the Bethesda steps. We raised the moneys to build the complex from the Astor Foundation but had a bit of trouble getting a top-flight restaurateur to run the project. Restaurant Associates had submitted a bid to extend its contract running the popular Tavern on the Green at the Sheep Meadow, so I called the CEO, Joseph Baum, into my office for a little chat. I put it to him bluntly, either he would take over the running of the Bethesda Pavilion or forget any hope of extending his permit at the lucrative Tavern on the Green.
"I could sue, you know."
I shot back with a "Big Bob" quote, "No one sues for good works."
Joe barked a sharp laugh and said, "Consider it done, even if I lose my shirt."
The Bethesda deal made a decent amount of cash for both Restaurant Associates and the Parks Department and became the talk of the town for several summers. Joe paid me back in an unusual way. I had once gotten bitchy when at his Four Seasons restaurant I had ordered half a dozen oysters and had been served only five. The week I left office there was a lunch at the Four Seasons for me and I was lifted to heaven when the entire meal was nothing but oysters ranging from tangy Chesapeakes to juicy Prince Edward Island ones and even some from Australia.
What made me a household word was a misnomer. Phyllis Yampolski, an artist whom Nancy and I had met on our way over to Europe in 1956, asked if she could organize some outdoor events. One of her ideas was to take a series of six-foot-high blank canvasses, staple them together and stretch them out on poles over a hundred feet or so. Brushes and paint would be available for kids and grown-ups, too, to paint whatever they wanted. We put one up on the lawn near 79th Street with a squad of recreation Parkies supervising. PR ace Mary Nichols alerted the press and it was a splendid, all-day controlled riot of the visual arts resulting in a marvelously crazy canvas palimpsest. When dry, we cut it up and presented it to some of the artists. The caper was so successful that Yampolski recreated it in the other boroughs. ABC TV called it a "Happening." From then on anything I did that seemed unstructured and spontaneous was called a "Hoving Happening."
Alan Kaprow, the originator of the Happening in 1959, didn’t mind. His first performance, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, was shown at the Reuben Gallery on Fourth Avenue in New York. The event was a highly rehearsed production, but, somehow, the word "happening" was used to describe spontaneous and undirected art performances, something Kaprow never intended.
Another antic event dubbed a "happening" was a capture-the-flag game the size of Central Park for which some five hundred players showed up and snooped their way through the trees, rocks and brambles. Of course I played too and was photographed running around in my Marine Corps boots.
When the Goldman Band opened its season at the band shell in Central Park, I invited people to come in costumes of the Gay Nineties. Thirty five thousand folks showed up to stomp to the old-style music. And I also invited the city to come to Central and Prospect Parks for New Year’s Eve and together we out-drew 42nd Street, or at least so some press reports had it.
I didn’t initiate the Philharmonic concerts in parks but made them more popular and fashionable to attend. I reached out to pop music with the aid of producer Ron Delsener, who had organized the Schaeffer Music Festival at the Wollman Rink. Barbra Streisand performed to ecstatic crowds, as did the American idol of the moment, Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass. His concert day was rained out, as was his rain date. Alpert was preparing to leave town and I went to his lavish suite in the Essex House and introduced myself, went on bended knee and begged him to wait one more day. He looked at me partly in awe and partly in disgust and said, "Jesus, get up! I’ll wait just one day more. To think that a coupla’ years ago I couldn’t get a parking ticket in this town!" He told the story of my going down on a knee to the audience and they gave me a one hundred thousand person standing ovation.
I was responsible for the Beatles coming to Shea Stadium in the summer of 1966 and performing, if that’s what you can call it, to a jammed house of fifty-five thousand screaming fans. My police and the NYPD were concerned that the teenage crowd would get hysterical and try to rush the "fab four" on their stage erected over the pitchers’ mound. I had designed the stage with a large trapdoor easily accessible to the guys and a fireman’s pole so that if they had to, they could slide down to where I had parked an armored car with the back doors open and the engine running. The car could burst out the back of the stage and disappear into center field and away. The crowd, mostly young women -- all shrieking from the first chord -- did try to rush the stage, but the intrepid police managed to tackle enough of them to discourage the others.
I had taken my wife and daughter to the Mets’ locker room before the concert. All four Beatles leaped to their feet when I came in and rushed over to shake our hands and to thank me for the chance to play in the great stadium and for the cool security arrangements. My daughter didn’t wash her hand for a week. We have an amusing "historic" photograph of Trea and John on prominent display in our apartment.
Later on, when John Lennon was in immigration court fighting for his visa to live in the country, I testified on his behalf as a character witness and told the judge how genteel he had been. When the judge asked me to give an assessment of Lennon’s artistic stature I said, "If he were a painting, I’d hang him in the Metropolitan Museum." John got his papers and Yoko sent Nancy and me such a large array of white flowers that we could hardly get them in our elevator.
At Parks I frequently had flashes of inspiration, visions that could be made to happen. I heard in February 1967 that a major storm was on the way and might blanket the town with as much as two feet of snow. I called for the closure of the great parks "so that the kids can see the snow and use it like they did in the middle of the 19th century." It was like a Currier and Ives print of a rural countryside and the kids went nuts.
Just as the rehabilitation of Tompkins Square Park was finishing I saw a two-story mound of dirt about to be carted away. "Leave it," I said, seeing a bunch of kids already climbing and tumbling down in joy. I was told that it would cost us six thousand dollars. I shot back, "Hell, a sand box costs eight, leave it." It remained for several years and was then used for valuable fill elsewhere.
One happening was for the fine arts. I presented in Bryant Park exhibitions of contemporary sculpture, including those by Tony Smith. A different sort of art was the Oktoberfest I staged in Bryant Park with lots of free beer and German bands inside a structure of a sort that had never before been erected in the city, an inflatable air structure. The Buildings and Fire departments wanted to know how slowly the thing would collapse if all doors were opened or a huge hole were made in the fabric or if the blowers supporting it were disabled. We blew it up to full half-sausage shape and then opened every door and window and stopped the engine. It took three quarters of an hour to come down and then the structure received a permanent approval from the City Council. Today there are dozens around town providing housing for all sorts of activities.
My finest happening was an impulsive desire to thoroughly clean the 800-acre Central Park. The most popular host for children’s’ TV back then was a lanky, good-looking dark-haired impresario by the name of Sonny Fox. He fell in love with what I was doing and plugged such things as closing the parks and the happenings.
"What would you like to do best of all in Central Park," he asked.
"Get an army of kids armed with gloves and bags and whatever clean-up stuff is needed, and in a line shoulder to shoulder across the entire width of the park, starting at 59th Street and walking all the way to 110th Street picking up all the trash and bottle caps and gum and cigarette butts and newspaper and whatever. Sonny, I mean maybe hundreds of kids."
He announced the event on his program and little over a thousand kids plus their parents showed up. Sanitation trucks were on the drives and my Parkies were there to hoist the garbage bags into the trucks. The caper lasted six hours with time off for lunch. Some twenty Sanitation trucks were filled with detritus. The most unusual find was the rusting body of a 1940 taxicab found in the Harlem Meer. I presented its license plate to the proud finder.
"Lucky the cabbie’s bones weren’t inside," Sonny whispered to me. Now that would have been some happening."
I abused my position a couple of times. Once, I had my chauffeur drive me all the way to Philadelphia for some parks conference. I stayed with a friend and we stayed up all night drinking brandy and reminiscing. The next morning I was driven to another conference on Staten Island where my breath and barely concealed, liquor-odored hang-over must have shocked the other chaps on the dais.
My worst blunder was getting rid of Henry Stern, a man so devoted to me and my ideas that Edward Koch, then a city councilman and Henry’s closest friend, warned him, "You’re a moth to Hoving’s flame -- he doesn’t give a shit about you or anyone."
His demise came at the hands of Victor Gottbaum, the head of the all-powerful Local 37 Municipal Employees Union. Gottbaum, a burly, unkempt and thuggish-looking guy who always said, "Brother" or "Comrade" to the workers, was in reality a highly cultured intellectual who spoke impeccable French (he had been posted to Lebanon for several years) and normally listened to reason. But in the winter of 1966, Gottbaum, facing a hard, uphill struggle to become the national head of the union, put on his tough union-thug act.
At the lighting of the Christmas tree at City Hall, Gottbaum organized a demonstration at which several hundred Parkies interrupted the celebration by waving spotlights in the Mayor’s face and chanting un-Holiday-like slogans.
In the summer Gottbaum asked for an appointment and he was surly. "You gotta get rid of this Stern piece of crap or we’ll go on strike."
"What’s he done?"
"He’s worse than ’sneakers-Sam,’" he said, referring to the head of maintenance, Sam White, who had been known to sneak up on parks sites and spy on who was or was not on the job. Sam had stopped when I told him it was counterproductive. "Stern was seen coming out of a locker -- a locker for Pete’s sake -- in a swimming pool where he’d been for hours before opening, just to catch the few guys who were minutes late and he wrote them up and docked their pay. It’s up to the union to discipline slackers and we will."
I ordered Henry to back off. He looked puzzled, but said that wasn’t his style.
Gottbaum showed up several weeks later and claimed that Henry had been hiding himself in a thicket near a playground near 110th Street with binoculars writing down the late-arrivals and the early-departures.
This time I was furious and told Henry that he’d broken a promise and, with me, that was very bad. Again, he looked puzzled and distraught, but didn’t say much. A week later I demoted him to head a Planning Office and took away his executive duties. He was severely hurt he told me later. It was the month his father had suffered a stroke and had to enter a hospital and he had a case of the flu. Now, I am convinced that Gottbaum was lying; Stern had not been spying. Henry, a well-disciplined man, admitted to me that he thought he might crack up because of what I had so "unjustly" done.
I also came close to cracking myself up once or twice. The pressure to deliver the goods and constantly be on the PR stage took a toll. I found myself embroidering to community groups about schedules of completion or the appointment of Parkies or recreational workers in their playgrounds. Once I broke down in bitter tears walking home with Nancy and had to sit on a hydrant near our apartment for a long time before I could get control of myself.
I was becoming the most popular man in the city. Polls gave me a staggering 80 percent approval rating whereas the mayor was down to 33 percent. How could it be otherwise with a guy who held sway over fun and games? With the guy who quietly renewed the graceful flower gardens facing Mount Sinai hospital on upper Fifth Avenue and erected a billboard with a giant red rose on it dedicated to the kind staff? Or the guy who happily splashed water on a bunch of nosy reporters who were in a rowboat? Or who played bocce -- and deliberately lost -- in every rehabilitated court? Or who drove around the parks system on a flashy motorcycle.
Someone designed a green lapel pin with the words "HOVING LIVES" written on it and it was widely distributed throughout the city.
As my fame grew, I was growing less and less popular with Lindsay’s inner circle. I had refused to hire a number of people they demanded of me and I began to hear that the Mayor was growing more and more resentful of my good press and popularity. One of his minions even snarled at me, "Cool it down, you’re getting too much good press and we don’t like it and the Mayor doesn’t like it." Someone started the rumor that I would soon be ousted.
I was also gradually feeling that I was becoming tainted by politics. I’d seen a huge graffito on a wall of the Jefferson High School playground as I was driving down the East Side highway, "ALL POLITICIANS ARE JUST LIKE A WHORE." It was true and I was distressed that I was becoming one. Frankly, the entire political process was beginning to wear me down. I felt shabby and I was becoming guilty over how much I was enjoying the many perks of the job. Lindsay had elevated me to Administrator of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs with a $10,000 raise. The Daily News had written an editorial excoriating the extra pay and published a cartoon with me and my extra-long nose looking like an out-of-control rocket.
I was beginning to think it was time to look for something else to do. Hizzoner had me in for a late-evening chat and probed whether I would think about running in the forthcoming Republican primary for a shot at the Silk-Stocking District of which he had been congressman. "John, I’d never make it. I shoot off my mouth too much. You know, I always say what I think and that’s not palatable. Plus I don’t go to church. I’d be, as my dear Marine Corps Drill Instructor used to say, ’whale shit.’" He laughed but never stopped urging me to run for something.
A search committee was assembled to look worldwide for a worthy successor at the Metropolitan for the late James Rorimer. I kept a close eye on the art news to see what names were coming up. Mine never showed and I began to get irked. Not that I wanted the job -- I sincerely didn’t -- but, egotistically, I wanted to be on the list so I could turn the job down.
In the late fall of 1966, the ultra-sophisticated Theodore Rousseau, Jr., the chief curator of the European Paintings department, invited me to lunch at his table at the Veau d’Or. The reason was to tell me that the curatorial staff had voted me the best successor to Rorimer and Ted wanted to know if I had any interest at all. I said I was exceptionally happy as Clown Prince and was skeptical whether I "should or can go home again."
Brooke Astor phoned a day before Rorimer’s memorial service in the Fuentiduena Apse at The Cloisters and suggested I drive to the ceremony with her.
"Tommy, I want to impart some inside information. John Lindsay, whom you know I admire and have supported, is angered at your publicity and standing. Give a thought to making a change in your career and coming back to the museum as its chief."
I was flabbergasted.
I asked Lindsay directly if he wanted me to leave the administration as we drove away from the ceremony. He looked at me as if I had lost it and blurted out, "What the hell is this? You’re my right hand man."
He meant it.
The subtle pressure from the Met continued. In January Joseph Noble, the acting director of the museum and Henry Fisher, the curator of Egyptian Art, came to my office and begged my support in grabbing for the museum an entire ancient temple, the Temple of Dendur, a gift to America from Egypt in thanks for our economic support. The stones of the Augustan-period structure were stored on an island in the Nile after having been painstakingly taken apart lest the waters of the new Aswan Dam inundate them. President Lyndon Johnson had formed a commission to hear all applicants for the temple. Cities with Egyptian names like Memphis, Tennessee and Cairo, Illinois, were in the running as was, of course, the Smithsonian in Washington. Noble and Fisher wanted to use capital moneys the Parks Department normally gave the museum to bring the stones to New York and erect the temple at the museum. I told them that although I thought the temple was very late in date and thus second-rate, I would support the try and would place three million into the Parks capital budget.
My name appeared once on the list of those in contention for the coveted directorship and then mysteriously fell off the list. In a surprise move, the head of the museum’s search committee, Daniel Davison, whom I knew from various sailing adventures, called to ask if I would, as landlord and ex-officio trustee, give the group a few pointers on what I thought a new director might do.
I had Henry Stern prepare a dossier of facts on the museum which included the rumor that the State Commissioner of Human Rights, Eleanor Holmes Norton, was angling to bring suit against the trustees for decades of discrimination against women employees.
I swept into a room in the Upper East Side gentleman’s club, the Union League, and in one outrageous hour hit them between the eyes. I was sassy and confrontational about my old haunt and told them about what Norton might do and what Victor Gottbaum might do trying to launch a curators’ union and advised them to get rid of half the aging trustees but, most of all to bring the place to life. Essentially, I pitched the idea that they ought to hire a crazy Mr. Fun to make the joint jitterbug.
I had no idea that the president, Arthur Houghton, the patrician of the family that controlled Corning glass and Steuben, thought precisely the same thing. If anything, Arthur harbored even nuttier ideas about a complete change in the stodgy, gray institution than I was winging. He had insisted upon a total rewriting of the constitution and by-laws to enable radical modernization of every aspect of the place and told friends, "We’ve had a ’Republican’ administration for years and now need a ’Democratic’ one."
I also didn’t know that to Houghton I was the "Democrat."
A few days after my search committee meeting, he invited me to his luxurious townhouse situated in a gorgeous park at Sutton Place to ask just one question about my presentation. He handed me a double martini (he was a bit swozzled when I arrived) and after chitchat surprised the hell out of me by demanding, not asking, that I become the seventh director.
I surprised the hell out of myself by instantly saying, "Why not?"
Nancy was shocked and berated me hotly for accepting, "We’ll have to bow and scrape to these awful stuffy society types. What a mistake!"
John Lindsay also thought it was a blunder and said, "Why go back to that dusty, dry old place when you can have a glowing political career? You are my right hand, Tom, please don’t leave."
I was dismayed and embarrassed -- I also knew I’d made a stupid mistake -- but how could I get out of it?
"Well, knowing you, Hoving," Lindsay said mournfully, "at least you’ll make those mummies dance."
The distinguished and academic August Heckscher, who had been a special consultant on the arts to President Kennedy and a member of the New York State Council on the Arts, succeeded me. I thought he was too old and too conservative but one of my newly found patrons, Stephen Spurrier, the husband of Audrey Mellon, assured me he’d be behind the scenes making things jump.
Asked what I thought the new commissioner should do, I said, "Have fun, be fun."This is chapter 26 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.