Volume 77 / Number 48 - April 30 - May 6, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since
1933

Celebrating 75 years:

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Left: A front-page drawing from The Villager showing Carmine DeSapio at the Tamawa Club declaring victory after the ’58 election. Right: William Honan.

Honan changed game from ‘backgammon’ to politics

By Lincoln Anderson

In the late 1950s, The Villager, which had always prided itself on being the area’s genteel and “neighborly neighborhood newspaper,” took on a sharper edge under new editor William Honan, for the first time endorsing political candidates.

Honan, The Villager’s editor from 1957-1960, was 26 and had just gotten out of the Army when he joined the paper.

Under its new direction, The Villager embraced the new Reform Democratic movement and the overthrow of the old Tammany Hall machine politics, endorsing in a front-page editorial Charles E. McGuinness and Gwendoline Worth, the Reform candidates from the Village Independent Democrats club, over Carmine DeSapio, the Tammany boss, and Elsie Gleason Mattura, the incumbent district leaders.

“The paper had never endorsed candidates before ’58. We broke with that tradition,” Honan recalled in a 2003 phone interview.

A 2,500-word, full-page editorial on the paper’s back page detailed the case for the Reform candidates and against DeSapio. Essentially, the editorial stated, while DeSapio was trying to pass himself as a reformer, he was still an old-line machine politician, more interested in providing patronage jobs and Christmas turkeys to supporters than really addressing the community’s needs, not really a district leader but a “district dispenser” as The Villager put it.

Meanwhile, The Villager’s editorial said, V.I.D. was a younger, more vital club, open and democratic, that was tackling tough local problems like the growing narcotics problem, head on.

The Villager’s stance in the race was news in itself. A small box on page one, “The Villager on TV,” noted, “A spokesman for The Villager, explaining its editorial position, will appear on Mike Wallace’s “News Beat” tonight at 6:30, Channel 13.”

DeSapio won by what The Villager in its headline called a “Razor Margin,” 4,857 to 4,271. Yet, the paper correctly ascertained in its editorial that it was “the last hurrah” for DeSapio and Tammany. A note apologized to readers for lack of prompt delivery due to a press breakdown and “the high-handed interference of political partisans.”

“In its early days, The Villager never would have taken a position like that,” Honan noted. “They were playing footsy with the powers that be. There were pages of notes at the old Grosvenor Hotel and about widows playing backgammon, and who won the backgammon game was considered news.

“Everybody said all the advertisers would desert us, we’re doing a terrible thing,” he recalled.

But the paper prospered.

It hadn’t taken Honan long to get a bead on the local political scene.

“He turned out to be corrupt — and we figured that out right away,” Honan said of DeSapio.

Honan said a judge offered to bribe The Villager — in support for DeSapio the paper would be supplied with legal notices, like those found in the back of this newspaper.

“That was worth several thousand dollars a week — significant bucks,” Honan recalled.

The Tammany leader was eventually convicted and served time in jail for bribery.

Meanwhile, new people were moving into the traditionally Italian neighborhood known back then as “Little Italy,” adding to the mix and bringing changes.

“All of the arts were flourishing, as well as politics,” Honan said. “It was becoming a vital neighborhood as it was in the early years of the Village. As the Bryans aged so did the paper — and it needed to be revitalized.”

During Honan’s tenure the big issue was fighting Robert Moses’ plan to build a major road through Washington Square Park and the community’s wish to close the park to traffic. Again, The Villager published a front-page editorial. Thanks to the persistence of a united community and The Villager’s coverage and editorials, the road project was defeated and the park closed to cars.

“We called it the ‘counter-automotive revolution,’ ” Honan remembered.

Honan went on to a distinguished career as a correspondent and editor for the Times. He has written several groundbreaking books, including “Visions of Infamy: The Untold Story of How Journalist Hector C. Bywater Devised the Plans That Led to Pearl Harbor” and “Treasure Hunt,” on the Nazis looting of the Quedlinburg art hoard.

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