HNN Series: My Life as a Historian ... THOMAS FLEMING


Mr. Fleming is the author of more than forty books including, most recently, The New Dealer's War. He is a member of the board of directors of History News Network.

Some pundit once remarked that for most Americans, history was what happened to other people. I don't agree with that contention for both personal and philosophical reasons. In fact, it would not be much of an exaggeration to say I have devoted my writing life to exploding the idea.

To a surprising degree, encounters with history have shaped my life. My first encounter took place in a parking lot outside Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, when I was seven years old. My father steered me around three or four puddles to introduce me to a tall well-dressed man in the process of getting into a Cadillac limousine.

"Mayor," he said."I'd like you to meet my son."

I held out my small hand. Frank Hague mashed it in a stevedore's grip and glared at me as if he had just caught me scalping box seat tickets."Your old man is a hell of a guy," he said.

For those who don't remember him, Frank Hague was a combination of Boss Tweed and Carlo Gambino. He ran Jersey City and the state of New Jersey from 1917 to 1949. If you objected to the way he ordered the body politic, the safest thing to do was leave the state--and probably the country. My father was one of his right-hand men.

As I grew older, I hung around the house on election night and listened to my father and his friends swap stories about City Hall--stories that never got into the newspapers.

My godfather, for instance--the Catholic, not the Mafia variety--used to work in the tax department at City Hall. Uncle Billy, as I called him, was a very nice man, a devout mass-goer, who hated to think negative thoughts about anyone or anything. One day Mayor Hague handed him a large suitcase and told him to get on the Hudson Tube to New York City and go to a certain brokerage house, then to a certain bank and then to another brokerage house, where he was to give the suitcase to certain gentlemen. With each stop the suitcase got noticeably lighter.

Billy returned to City Hall and handed the empty suitcase to the Mayor."What the hell was in that thing?" he asked.

"Money, you idiot," Hague growled.

Thus I encountered one of the basic experiences of being an Irish American--the awareness that we had a political tradition that was not entirely admirable. It took quite a lot of time for me to realize it was also a basic American experience--this clash between ideal--in my case inculcated by nuns and Jesuits--and hard realities.

Some Jesuits, moral snobs, made my life miserable by portraying the members of the Hague Organization as declasse gangsters, on a par with the Mafia. I was troubled by this judgment; it clashed with the mixture of admiration and boyish awe I felt toward my father, a war hero, former baseball star, professional boxer and no nonsense leader of the polyglot Sixth Ward.

The Hague organization collapsed just as I was graduating from college. For those involved, it made the fall of the Roman Empire seem trifling. Barbarians at the gates? Forget it. We had Republican prosecutors!

As I pondered the political wreckage, I began to wonder where this Irish-American political tradition had come from. I started remembering my father's stories of growing up poor and Irish in Jersey City.

It was not a pleasant experience. His father could not read or write. He worked as a laborer for Standard Oil. They lived next door to a sweatshop where kids painted faces on watches. The pay was fifty cents a day. To get a job, each day my father and his friends had to stand in front of a high collared clerk who asked:"Protestant or Catholic?" If you said Catholic, the clerk said:"No work today." If you denied your religion--every single member of the work force was Irish-Catholic--you got a job.

Stories like that helped me understand the suitcase that traveled from City Hall to Wall Street. They didn't excuse it. But for a budding historian, an explanation was a lot more important than an excuse.

I did more than listen to midnight stories. I plunged into Irish literature and history to find out where this clash between the Irish Catholics and the Protestants began. My favorite writer was the Kerry poet, Egan O'Rahilly, who lived between 1670 and 1726, and saw Ireland's dark night of the soul begin after their crushing defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Here is O'Rahilly addressing one of the new English gentry:

That my old bitter heart was pierced in this black gloom.
That foreign devils have made my land a tomb
That the sun that was Munster's glory has gone down
Has made me a beggar before you, Valentine Brown
That royal Cashel is bare of house and guest
That Brian's turreted home is the otter's nest
That the kings of the land have neither land nor crown
Has made me a beggar before you, Valentine Brown.

I followed the famine-decimated Irish to America in other books, notably George Potter's To the Golden Door. Gradually, I realized I had participated in a significant historical experience, the rise of a defeated humiliated people to American power and wealth through political organizations in cities as diverse as Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Kansas City. It was a phenomenon that produced presidential candidates such as Al Smith and presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman, who owed his political start to Boss Tom Pendergast of Kansas City.

I wrote a cycle of novels about the collapse of my father's world. In Rulers of the City, the fourth book of this series, the new mayor of my fictional city is a son of one of the ex-ward leaders, Ben O'Connor. Ben was a thinly disguised portrait of my father, who was the main character of the first book. Tormented by a busing crisis similar to the one that demoralized Boston, the mayor longs for the solidarity of the old organization. But in a closing scene, he changes his mind.

In one of my most intense personal experiences as a writer, my fictional mayor gets out his father's papers. They help him remember how many hours Ben O'Connor spent helping the people in his ward survive the Great Depression. He recalls the times he heard his father say at ward rallies:"You are my people! Never forget that! Anything you need, anything you want, come to me and I'll try to get it."

I had my father's papers beside me on the desk while I was writing this scene. Those were my personal memories I was putting on the page. But it didn't end in a sentimental apostrophe to the good old days, in the style of Edwin O'Connor's The Last Hurrah. Instead, the fictional mayor, who is married to a liberal Protestant wife, concludes that the only thing worth preserving from the old organization was their sense of caring. The rest of it, the handshakes and the handouts, the organization or the Catholic Church devouring the souls of bright young men, the world where all the answers were written in advance in the Baltimore Catechism and the okay from City Hall--they were well rid of it.

History had liberated me from a past that was no longer relevant. I was ready to explore the American side of my hyphenated psyche. I'm still doing it.

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mary edwards - 7/4/2003

My great Grandfather, several times removed was Bailey Anderson. He fought in the American Revolution and I want to write a book in novel form on his and his father John Anderson. What books are there that would help me get started?