Even though he isn’t as well known as other elected officials. former New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. earned an enduring legacy. He served three terms during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Both his father and his eldest son were also appointed to different political positions during their lifetimes. Wagner Jr. was born in Manhattan on April 20,1910 to U.S. Senator Robert Ferdinand Wagner and Margaret Marie (McTague) Wagner. Robert graduated from Taft School and Yale University. After his college graduation in 1933, he attended Harvard Business School and attended classes at the Graduate School of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. The younger Wagner received his law degree in 1937 from Yale Law School.
His first political experience was participating in the New York State Assembly, which is the lower house of New York’s state legislature. Wagner Jr. was a member of the state assembly and represented New York’s 16th District from 1938 to 1942. Robert resigned in 1942 to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He returned to New York City after the conflict and accepted the position of City Tax Commissioner. Wagner was later named the Commissioner of Housing and Buildings and the City Planning Commission’s chairman for the city. Robert was elected the Borough President of Manhattan in 1950 and held that office until 1953.
Wagner Jr. was nominated as the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City in 1953. His nomination was rather controversial at the time. It started a rift between Carmine DeSapio, who was the head of the New York Democratic political organization Tammamy Hall at the time and Eleanor Roosevelt, who supported Wagner’s candidacy. Robert won the election and took office in January 1954.
Robert accomplished many significant tasks during his mayoral term. The City University of New York school system was developed, collective bargaining was ensured for city workers and public schools and housing developments were constructed under his leadership. Wagner’s administration also prevented housing discrimination according to people’s race, religion or ethnic background.
Wagner sought ways to improve his city and to attract more visitors and residents. Shakespeare productions began in Central Park during his term and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was created during his time in office. After the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left the state in 1957 (and relocated to Los Angeles and San Francisco, California respectively), he assembled a committee to evaluate whether or not the city could support another Major League Baseball team. The group was later awarded a franchise that would become the New York Mets.
Robert Wagner Jr. decided to run for Senate in 1956, but lost the race to Republican candidate Jacob K. Javits. Robert sided with the Tammamy Hall political organization until 1961. That year, he opted to break ties with the group and still won the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City. It signified a reduced influence by large political groups in city offices.
Wagner Jr. approved the law that allowed for the development of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. He was also when the first Penn Station was torn down in 1963. The railroad station was scheduled for demolition after years of decreased ridership due to the popularity of highway and air travel. Penn Station’s train station and head house were scheduled to be removed, but the Grand Central Terminal was saved thanks to the city’s landmarks preservation act.
Not everything that Robert did as mayor was praised. The mayor’s office was traditionally open to welcoming dignitaries from other nations. However, Wagner did not comply with President Eisenhower’s request to meet with and provide a ticker-tape parade for King Saud of Saudi Arabia. The foreign leader had been invited to the country by the president to work on a peaceful solution for the Suez crisis in 1957. Robert was a devoted Roman Catholic, and felt that the king’s anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments were “a crude appeal to the prejudices of the hyphenated voters.” Wagner also created a stir in the early 1960’s when he approved a plan to shut down all of the gay bars in 1960. He allowed undercover police officers to induce gay men into committing crimes which they could be arrested for. He also took away the bars’ liquor licenses. All of this was done because the mayor was concerned about the city’s image as they were preparing to host the 1964 World’s Fair. These incidents brought plenty of scrutiny and complaints from Wagner’s critics and contemporaries.
Wagner chose not to run for mayor when his term ended in 1965, and returned to his law practice at Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg and Casey.. He did make attempts for a fourth term as mayor in 1969 and 1973, but lost in the Democratic primary each time. Robert was the U.S. Ambassador to Spain from June 1968 through March 1969. President Jimmy Carter appointed Wagner Jr. as his Vatican representative in 1978. He stayed in that position until 1981.
Robert was married three times. His first marriage was to Susan Edwards. Together they raised two sons, Robert Ferdinand Wagner III and Duncan Wagner. Susan passed away in 1964 after battling lung cancer. Wagner Jr. greatly missed his wife, who had always liked traveling with him and meeting new people, even though she had very little interest in politics. His second marriage was to Barbara Cavanaugh in 1965. That union ended in divorce in 1971. Four years later, Robert married again, this time to to Phyllis Fraser, who had been the widow of Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf.
Wagner passed away on February 12, 1991 from heart failure. He had been hospitalized for bladder cancer treatment before his death. Robert’s body was buried at Calvary Cemetery in the residential community of Maspeth in Queens. His body was laid to rest next to his parents and first wife.
New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service was named for the late New York City Mayor. He was also honored posthumously by Long Island City’s Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology and Battery Park City’s Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park. His photos, papers and other items of historical significance are contained at the arts and technology school’s La Guardia and Warner Archives and at the New York City Municipal Archives in Manhattan’s Surrogate Courthouse.
Wagner Jr. is frequently compared to his father, who was a Democratic U.S Senator for 22 years. Both Wagners are admired by fellow politicians, usually for very different reasons. They each had their own unique leadership styles. Robert Wagner Jr. learned from his father and other peers but made his own decisions on what policies to support or oppose. He was a controversial figure at times, but it’s impossible to ignore the many positive contributions that he made for his home town.
Photo 2 – New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library. “Grand Concourse Dedication: Mayor Wagner, speaking; (l-r) Commissioner Zurmuhlen; Mr. John Mackenzie Cory, Chief of the Circulation Department; Mr. Samuel P. Tolesano, Secretary to Borough President Lyons” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 10, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-e59b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99