The Harvard Club, Frances Perkins and Al Gore 1-14-10

The Harvard Club, Frances Perkins and Al Gore

January 14, 2010

Richard J. Garfunkel


The Harvard Club is located on the north side of 44th Street just off 5th Avenue. It’s a wonderful place with a lovely bar and great meeting rooms. Originally a few sons of the future Harvard Club met down on Astor Place and frequently at Delmonico’s Restaurant, but its membership started to grow dramatically and by 1886 it had reached 431. It needed more and more room and in early 1887 it signed a lease for a four story brownstone at 11 West 22nd Street. The membership converted it into a club house, a restaurant, offices and ten bedrooms.


The success of the new location increased its membership 25% in one year, and the Club started to look for a new location in the 40’s where other clubs had located. It wasn’t long before the trustees found its current location at 27-9 West 44th Street and hired the famous Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White to design their new clubhouse which was opened in 1894. By the way, McKim’s partner was the equally famous and notorious Stanford White, who was shot to death by millionaire Harry K. Thaw in a dispute involving the lovely Evelyn Nesbit. Ms. Nesbit was the young wife of Thaw, and was reported to be deeply involved with White when she was 16 and he was close to thrice her age. But the shooting was years later in 1906 at a party thrown by White at the Madison Square Garden’s Roof Garden. The Harvard Club is a wonderful place, with the look of a late 19th Century hunting lodge. It has an impressive great hall, a comfortable bar and sitting area, and a spacious dining room. My first visit there in the early 1970’s was as a dinner guest of my sister Kaaren and her husband Charles Hale, who was a graduate of the Harvard Business School. The first floor has pictures of all of Harvard’s presidents, and a number of its illustrious graduates. Back then I looked vainly for a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but for the life of me, I could not find it until I went downstairs to the restrooms. There it hung in a corner. Was I shocked but not really surprised? No! Thankfully times have changed, and it now is in a prominent place in the dining room with portraits of Jack Kennedy, his illustrious fifth cousin Teddy Roosevelt and others.  


Tonight the Frances Perkins Center, named after FDR’s famous Secretary of Labor and the nation’s first woman to serve in the Cabinet of the United States, co-sponsored, with Mount Holyoke College, Frances Perkin’s alma mater, (Class of 1902, MA from Columbia in 1910), The Harvard Club, The Roosevelt Institute, the Friends of Columbia Libraries, and the Women’s City Club, a celebration of her life and the creation of Social Security, seventy-five years ago. The first panel discussion was hosted by my friend Chris Breiseth, formerly the President of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, (FERI), featured author Kirstin Downey, Adam Cohen of the NY Times and Larry DeWitt of the Social Security Administration. The second panel was moderated by Susan Feiner with Nancy Altman, Maya Rockymoore, and Professor Eric Kingson. The life and times of Frances Perkins and her impact, regarding the creation of Social Security and how the entitlement program works, was discussed in depth. The thrust of the evening was to oppose a new commission, headed by United States Senators Conrad and Gregg, which upon further analysis seems to be a threat to Social Security as we know it. The life of Frances Perkins has been well chronicled by one of the guest panelists, Kirstin Downey, formerly of the Washington Post, who wrote, The Woman Behind the New Deal, the Life of France Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and his Moral Conscience.  Ms. Perkins, who started a long career first in the settlement houses of New York, witnessed the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaste fire and tragedy that claimed over 160 young women’s lives. Early in her career she needed the help and got it from Tammany Hall’s Big Tom McManus who was in charge of NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen. Ironically Linda and I were working on a New Democratic Coalition (NDC) screening committee of candidates for District Leader at the New Yorker Hotel. We were in our early 20’s and one of the first candidates that we interviewed was James McManus, the incumbent District Leader, and heir to the McManus politic dynasty who actually wanted a “reform” endorsement. How the mighty had fallen since Charles Murphy and the last Tiger of Tammany, Carmine De Sapio, ruled the Democratic machine.


Perkins rose up the ladder in government with the ascension of Al Smith as governor and her appointment to New York State’s Industrial Commission. As one of the leading women in the Democratic Party, along with Eleanor Roosevelt and Molly Dewson, Frances Perkins, who had worked with Theodore Roosevelt, became the state’s Labor Commissioner when Franklin Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York in 1928. She would later follow FDR to Washington and enter the cabinet of as Secretary of Labor and the nation’s first woman member. She stated that she came to Washington with the purpose, “To work for G-d, FDR, and the millions of forgotten plain workingmen.” She became the moral conscience behind the New Deal, and is credited with being the driving force behind many of the New Deal’s labor reforms, and the creation of Social Security.

At Al Smith's funeral in 1944 two of his former Tammany Hall political cronies were overheard to speculate on why Smith had become a social crusader. One of them summed the matter up this way: “I'll tell you. Al Smith read a book. That book was a person, and her name was Frances Perkins. She told him all these things and he believed her.”

After FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, Ms. Perkins finally resigned after serving over twelve years in one of the most difficult and pressure-packed positions in American history. She was appointed to the US Civil Service Commission by the new president, Harry S Truman and served there until 1952 and the end of his 2nd term. In her later life, she began to teach and finally wound up in the late 1950’s at Cornell’s School of Labor Relations at the invitation of Professor Maurice Neufeld. Without a real home of her own, and with the encouragement and initiation of the young Chris Breiseth, who is our host tonight, she took up residence at Cornell University’s Telluride House. It was the beginning of a marvelous opportunity for both Perkins and a terrific contribution for Cornell. Some of her early friends at the Telluride House were, of course Chris, Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz.


After the panel discussions ended, we broke for an hour of drinks and finger food. To the amazement and delight of all, Vice President Al Gore strode into the reception. He was mobbed by everyone, and I got a chance to say hello, have him sign a Frances Perkins stamped first day cover, get photographed, and invite him to be a guest my radio shoe, The Advocates. The Vice-president looked great. He was tan, much slimmer and quite charming. He was there because his daughter, Karenna Gore Shiff, the author of Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America, is the co-producer with Catherine Gorman, who was also there, of a documentary on the life of Frances Perkins.


The evening ended with some more talk about the future risks that the Social Security system faces and the showing of the not quite finished Gore-Gorman documentary about the life of Frances Perkins. It was a fascinating five hours of information, great talk and wonderful memories of two titans of the 20th Century, Frances Perkins, and her unequaled mentor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *