Volume 74, Number 15 | August 11 - 17 , 2004



Memories of Carmine De Sapio, last boss of Tammany

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager image provided by Herman Gerson

Carol Greitzer and Ed Koch on primary election night 1963, after defeating Carmine De Sapio and his running mate in the district leader race.

Carmine De Sapio had long since faded from the political scene when he died last Tues., July 27, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, at the age of 95. But for some, memories of the last leader of the fabled Tammany Hall — who was a lifelong Villager — still remain fresh.

Doris Diether, a veteran member of Community Board 2, remembers a “couple of little run-ins” she had with De Sapio around 1960, back when she was a tenant activist and he was still a Democratic district leader. His office, the Tamawa Club, was on Seventh Ave. S. on the second floor above the current Actors’ Playhouse, where productions unimagined in Tammany’s day — “Naked Boys Singing” and “The Marijuana-Logues” — have been playing recently.

“I was working for Save the Village at the time, working with some tenants on MacDougal St., to save their apartments. That was his territory,” Diether recalled. “One night I went walking up with six Italian women to his office — and they tried to stop us from going in. They saw us walking in. It was like an all-male club.”

But Diether said she wasn’t afraid, especially being backed up by the six angry, no-nonsense women, in addition, one of whose sons was allegedly a big Mafia figure in the Village. The landlord was trying to force them out by claiming the building wasn’t safe and that major renovations couldn’t be done with tenants in place, according to Diether.

“I said, ‘These are your constituents. What are you doing for them?’ ” the activist said she asked De Sapio. “He hemmed and hawed a bit, and he had a twitch in one eye when he got nervous. He said, ‘We have this lawyer that’s working on the cases for us.’ And I said, ‘I know he is — because I get all the cases he louses up!’

“The Italian tenants got the message that he wasn’t going to do anything, and we left,” she said. “We saved the building.”

Carol Greitzer was the running mate of first James Lanigan and then Ed Koch in the Village Independent Democrats’ historic district leader victories over De Sapio in the early 1960s that ousted him from power. Greitzer had come to the Village in 1954.

“I was president of the club in 1960, when we ran the first campaign against him,” she said. “I wrote a lot of the campaign literature; we focused on women and how they were just figureheads in his machine.”

Greitzer remembers one interaction with De Sapio. “He offered to shake my hand in Washington Sq. Park and I had scissors in my hands or something. He sort of stuck his hand out. I said, ‘Watch out, I’ve got scissors in my hand!’ I didn’t mean it really in a hostile way. I did not want to have an incident where I was stabbing him.

“Ed Koch had just refused to shake his hand on a news show, I think it was Gabe Pressman,” Greitzer said. “De Sapio had accused him of getting votes from the grave and Koch said, ‘Now you want to shake my hand?’

“The ’61 campaign was the really exciting one,” Greitzer remembered of V.I.D.’s first district leadership win. “Adlai Stevenson was there that night. And we had lots of newspapers then, so we got a lot of coverage.”

Greitzer noted that she and her husband, Josh Vogel, had been walking down Hudson St. past the White Horse Tavern the other day and she had flashed back to V.I.D.’s election party there after their win in the 1960 state committee race. Sarah Kovner, a club member, had made brownies for the celebration.

“We were probably having beer and brownies,” Greitzer said.

While public relations guru Howard Rubenstein’s interactions with the Tammany leader weren’t extensive, they made a lasting impression. In 1961, Rubenstein was doing P.R. for Arthur Levitt, whom De Sapio and the other New York City Democratic county bosses were running for mayor against Robert Wagner, who had broken with his former backer, De Sapio.

“Levitt was selected by the bosses to go against Wagner, who got religion. Wagner ran a ‘Beat the Bosses’ campaign,” Rubenstein said.

He recalled a few meetings with the five county bosses. No one in the room smoked, since De Sapio, who had sensitive eyes, couldn’t tolerate it.

“I was a kid,” Rubenstein remembered. “De Sapio was the epitome of county bosses. He ran the show. They all deferred to him. He was sort of deceptive in a way — quiet, a gentleman. He was different than the politicians that I knew of that time — blustery.” Nevertheless, De Sapio was a crook, Rubenstein said.

Though he wasn’t part of the Tammany machine by any means, the late Tony Dapolito, known as “the mayor of Greenwich Village,” and De Sapio were friends. When Dapolito was in the Village Nursing Home recovering from a stroke, De Sapio’s phone calls were a comfort to him.

“He was very caring when Tony was sick,” recalled Frances Dapolito, his widow. “I mean very caring. He called him every day. In terms of politics, Tony was his own man. But the respect was always there. A lot of respect.”

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