Irwin Steingut

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Irwin Steingut
107th Speaker of the New York State Assembly
In office
January 2, 1935 – December 31, 1935
Governor Herbert H. Lehman
Preceded by Joseph A. McGinnies
Succeeded by Irving McNeil Ives
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the 18th district
In office
Preceded by Theodore Stitt
Succeeded by Stanley Steingut
Personal details
Born (1893-10-19)October 19, 1893
Lower East Side New York, New York
Died September 26, 1952(1952-09-26) (aged 58)
Brooklyn, New York
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Rea Kaufmann
Children June Eleanor
Alma mater Dwight School
St. John's College, School of Law
Profession Insurance
Religion Judaism

Irwin Steingut (October 19, 1893 New York, New York - September 26, 1952 Brooklyn, New York) was an American lawyer, businessman and politician. At the time of his death he had served as a member of the New York Assembly longer than anyone in history. Early in his career he teamed with Brooklyn boss John H. McCooey, who turned Brooklyn into a solidly Democratic power base and dominated its politics for a quarter of a century until his death in 1934. Steingut thereafter became the de facto leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Throughout almost all of his legislative career Republicans held a majority in the New York Assembly, and much of that time Steingut was the Minority Leader. In 1935 for the one year the Democrats had the majority, Steingut was Speaker of the Assembly.

Steingut stoutly defended the Democratic party machine in Brooklyn and when consistent with the Brooklyn machine's interests also Tammany. He faced spirited primary opposition several times by independent Democrats but never lost a race. He was a key legislative ally of both Governors Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Herbert H. Lehman and considered his roles in the passage of unemployment relief under the former and the creation of Brooklyn College his greatest legislative achievements.

His son, Stanley Steingut filled his Assembly seat at his death and would go on to become Speaker 40 years after Irwin Steingut held the gavel. Brooklyn sent either Irwin or Stanley Steingut to the New York Assembly for an uninterrupted period of 56 years.


Family and education[edit]

Irwin Steingut was born on October 19, 1893[1][2] (not 1891, as in Schlegel[3]), on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the first of two sons to Simon and Lena Steingut. His mother, formerly Lena Wolbach, was born in Kiev, then in the Russian Empire. Simon Steingut was born on December 24, 1856, in Hamburg, one of three sons of Joseph Steingut, a banker who founded the banking house of Steingut & Son. He emigrated to the United States, sometime before 1881, where he took up residence in the portion of New York’s Lower East Side known as Klein Deutschland (little Germany).[3] Simon Steingut obtained a position as a Tammany Hall captain and as a result an auctioneer. Eventually he developed a real estate and insurance business as a broker and investor, building a successful firm, S. Steingut Company, first on Second Avenue, later at 47 West 42 Street, Manhattan.[4] He was more famous, however, for his activities as a minor political operative and neighborhood fixer, begun when he opened an office at 31 Second Avenue in 1888,[5] activities in which he engaged as an informally elected community "little mayor" for over a quarter of a century, for which he was referred to as the "Mayor of Second Avenue."[4]

Irwin Steingut’s obituary[1] says that he “moved to Brooklyn as a young man and was educated in the public schools there.” The move was in fact away from his father and involved the turbulent relations between his parents, which resulted in their eventual divorce amid much ridicule in the press. Simon Steingut had been marreid earlier to a woman named Mary. The divorce decree in 1881 prohibited Simon (although not Mary) from remarrying until she died. After Lena Woldach gave birth to Irwin, Simon obtained a modification of the decree from Judge Miles Beach. He then married Lena on April 10, 1894.[6]

Within two years Lena Steingut had engaged a lawyer to seek support from Simon pending divorce. Steingut agreed but objected to the allegations of cruelty, telling all that his wife (at six feet, almost 14 inches taller than him) regularly beat him.[7] A reconciliation occurred and the couple had another son, Edward (born April 20, 1900; he would go on to Commercial High School in Brooklyn[3]). But at a high society ball in 1901, Simon had a jealous outburst. Lena retaliated by hiring detectives who eventually discovered Simon’s relations with a singer (“Blond Cora” Brown) who Lena sued for $100,000 and then instituted divorce proceedings on May 22, 1902.[8] Testimony was taken beginning of 1903, before Justice Hall.[9] The Sun claimed that the action was a “shock” to the East Side, which looked on their marriage as a “model.”[10] The divorce decree became absolute on April 16.[11] Like the earlier one, it also prohibited Steingut from remarrying, but he claimed he would remarry in New Jersey.[8] Four months later, just as he was about to fulfill his promise by marrying an “actress” with “a position at the Metropolitan Opera,” he learned that his divorced wife would still have a dower interest in any real estate he purchased. He vowed that he would take it upon himself to have this law changed.[12] Divorce reform would be a legislative goal for his son Irwin as well.

After Simon’s death, the fact that Irwin's parents divorced was almost never mentioned, not even in the obituary of his mother, who is referred to there as the widow of Simon Steingut.[13] But it would come up again in 1945 when Irwin Steingut faced his most serious investigation into possible corruption.

In Brooklyn Irwin Steingut attended and graduated from Public School 19,[3] then at the corner of South Second Street and Keap Avenue in Brooklyn.[14] After public school he attended the Dwight School, on West Forty-Third Street in Manhattan.[3][15] More than a decade later, while he was in the Assembly, he studied law at St. John's College, School of Law[1][2] graduating in 1929.[16] Irwin Steingut never practiced law, however.

Irwin was reluctant to follow his father's political career and after graduating law school became a reporter for Associated Press. After a year working in journalism, Irwin entered his father's real estate and insurance business on Forty-Second Street, which became S. Steingut & Son. Within a year he married Rea Kaufmann, daughter of Israel and Sophia Kaufman.[17]

Political apprenticeship[edit]

Simon Steingut and Tammany Hall[edit]

Simon Steingut's role as "Mayor of Second Avenue" was as one of 35 to 40 ethnic community leaders on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, who provided liaisons between government (and other institutions and persons of influene) and insular ethnic groups, usually made up of new immigrants or first generation Americans too ignorant or timid to deal with authority.[18] Local "mayors" would help distribute patronage and favors, provide a means of access for new immigrants to government and party machines, and enforce party or political club discipline.[5] The East Side mayors organized themselves into a group called "The East Side Mayors Association," which included both Democrat and Republican "mayors," each providing uncompensated services to his constituents. The "mayor" could then expect personal loyalty at the ballot box. Since the total voting pool from these three dozen fiefdoms amounted to seventy-six thousand, the mayors could expect handsome patronage or other favors from the victors for whom they delivered votes.[18] It was yet another means by which Tammany Hall was part of the political fabric of the city.[5]

Simon Steingut, "Mayor of Second Avenue"

"Mayors" had no influence on party policy, and in many cases organized relief or benefits outside of government or party structure. They often used their own funds to help those in need. Constituents sought a wide range of services from mayors, one of the most common was to adjudicate local disputes. Often "mayors" would provide legal advice or unauthorized representation. Simon Steingut himself was twice prosecuted for unauthorized practice of law. In one case, he argued that he was merely exercising the normal duties of a notary public. The case was dismissed on the condition he take down the Law Office sign which Steingut claimed was put in his office by old tenant.[19] In 1915 Simon was convicted of unauthorized practice of law at the beginning of a major sweep, in which "hundreds" of unlicensed lawyers were under surveillance. Steingut was sentenced to 30 days in jail, but his supporters raised the $250 fine in lieu of imprisonment.[20]

The services these little mayors undertook ranged from explaining government, legal or business usages to constituents to intervening with institutions like banks to providing holiday food of winter coal for the poor.[18] Simon Steingut made it a practice to distribute Christmas baskets to the poor of Second Avenue, and even on his death bed he instructed his son Irwin to distribute the usual number of baskets.[4]

Simon Steingut was a loyal Tammany soldier, and only one time acting contrary to Tammany interests. That time was just before the divorce from Lena, and Steingut exacted revenge from the highly connected Harburger clan (which included Tammany politicians and officials) by arranging for the sale of the building which contained the Tammany clubhouse for the Harburger 10th district. Evicting the Tammany Club was Steingut's retaliation for Leopold Harburger acting as Lena's counsel.[10] But Tammany was above such petty squabbles, and Steingut was back in its good graces and rewarded with the commission for acquiring property for a new theatre to be built on Second Avenue between Fourttenth and Twenty-Third Street. The $350,000 real estate transaction was for a syndicate led by Timothy ("Tim") Sullivan and included other Tammany politicians.[21]

Working for his father in a business so intimately connected with the favors of Tammany Hall, Irwin Steingut had to become involved in Tammany political work. But Simon also introduced his son to electoral politics of sorts. Simon himself never ran for government office. (He once announced his candidacy for Alderman of the 10th ward in 1911, but decided against it.[22]) But each year he went before his constituents and stood for election at Ike Hirschborn's saloon at First Street and Second Avenue, and for 30 consecutive years he was elected "Mayor."[22] Only in 1911 did he come dangerously close to losing. It was then that the new courthouse was built at the beginning of Second Avenue, and no one apprised Steingut of the decision. Since the court was attached to Joe Levy, the "Duke of Essex Street," the implication was that the powers were throwing their weight behind Levy, Steingut's archrival.[23] That year Levy came within five votes,[4] the closest he would ever get until 1918 when he defeated Steingut outright the year before Steingut's death. But in 1911 Steingut could show he strength again. In May it was announced that Steingut would sail to Europe to attend (at the invitation of one Steingut would not reveal) the coronation of King George V (as well as obtain the $5,000 inheritance his father left him). A lavish parade was planned to escort him to the Hoboken piers on June 8, with police escort, attended by other Little Mayors, but more importantly by Tim Sullivan and step-brother Larry Mulligan as well as a variety of Tammany judges and politicians.[24] When Simon arrived at Hirschorn's, dressed in silk hat and morning clothes on June 4, Levy was ready to argue that Steingut was forfeiting his "office" by so long an absence. The crowd suggested that Irwin Steingut be elected temporary mayor, and in the ensuing voting he bested Levy by a 44 vote majority.[25] The rebuff to Levy vindicated Simon's years of service, and provided a launching pad for Irwin's later electoral career. Irwin's association with his father now got him noticed by both the press (the Tribune, for example, would note his presence at the following year's election by calling him a "slick young feller"[26]) and Tammany (at the large funeral of the Republican leader of the 8th Assembly District, Irwin was mentioned between Thomas H. Smith, secretary of Tammany and Samuel Gompers[27]). When Simon Steingut eventually died in 1919, he had impressed Irwin and most observers with his deep commitment for the community and especially the poor,[22] a perspective that Irwin would not lose during his long legislative career.

On the death of his father, Irwin became the principal of S. Steingut & Son.[15] The firm stopped transacting in real estate but continued in the insurance business, as a "dealer."[16]

John McCooey and the Madison Club of Brooklyn[edit]

After his father's death, irwin Steingut's move back to Brooklyn, which would become his political base for the next three decades, was facilitated by Tammany Leader Charles Murphy, who introduced Steingut to John H. McCooey, the political boss of Brooklyn.[28] The introduction proved the most fortuitous event in Steingut's life, for McCooey would become his mentor, sponsor and eventually closest friend.

McCooey was a self-made man, having taken on the role of head of a family (of a widow and six children) at the age of 13 when his father died in an accident. For seven years he worked at the shipbuilding firm his father did in Chester, Pennsylvania, all the while teaching himself mechanical engineering. At 20 he moved to New York eventually obtaining a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a job in the suffrage of the local political machine. In 1878 he obtained a position in the Post Office. Although he would master all aspects of the service and be promoted to a more lucrative postmaster position, he was cashiered for political reasons when the Republicans regained control.[29] He threw in with the local Brooklyn Democratic organization (for which he had been acting as a district leader) and obtained a post as deputy treasurer of King's County. Through his association with Patrick H. McCarren, he obtained the position as secretary of the Civil Service Commission (located in Manhattan) in the new consolidated City of New York. He worked his way to chairmanship, all the while acquainting himself with men and ways of Tammany. In the early days of consolidation there was considerable hostility between Brooklyn democrats and Tammany, but McCooey remained friendly with Tammany (while siding with Brooklyn). McCarren became head of the Brooklyn party, and was eventually squeezed out of state party affairs by Charles Murphy, who not only controlled Tammany but had dominating influence over the state party.[30] McCooey was selected by the Brooklyn party's executive committee as a caretaker chairman until the conflicting factions of Brooklyn democrats could settle on a leader.[31]

McCooey's personal political base was the 18th Assembly District, which in 1910 comprised Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Prospect Park, Windsor Terrace and parts of Kensington, Midwood and Flatlands.[32] McCooey moved whenever necessary to stay within the district. His personal political club was the Madison Club, an organization he founded with four others in 1905.[33] Before Steingut's arrival, notwithstanding the efforts of the Madison Club, Democrats were rarely successful in sending a representative to Albany. In the 13 elections between 1908 and 1920 the Democrats only won twice.

(l to r) W.B. Vause, Irwin Steingut, John J. Campbell, John H. McCooey, W.A. Hyman in 1922.

Steingut family tradition has it that his place on the 1921 ticket for assemblyman was secured when his mother-in-law, Sophia Kaufman, and his own mother, Lena Steingut, approached McCooey and asked "Why not run a Jew for Assemblyman?" McCooey is supposed to have said that it was a "good thought."[34] The fact was, however, that although McCooey himself was of Irish descent and connected with all important Brooklyn Irish associations and although the Irish district often nominated an Irish-American, the Madison Club twice before 1921 had secured the nomination of Jews for the Assembly race (Edward Baruch in 1910[35] and Jacob Friedman in 1917[36]). It is likely that Tammany's recommendation was more persuasive. In any event, the Madison Club ran Irwin Steingut for Assembly in 1921. Steingut beat his Republican opponent (Mortimer J. Wohl, also Jewish) 46% to 38%, with the Socialist candidate receiving 14%. The votes were 10,267, 8,537 and 3,143, respectively (and less than 300 to the Farmer-Labor and Prohibition candidates).[37]


He was a member of the New York State Assembly (Kings Co., 18th D.) in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939–40, 1941–42, 1943–44, 1945–46, 1947–48, 1949–50 and 1951–52; and was Minority Leader from 1930 to 1934, Speaker in 1935, and again Minority Leader from 1936 to 1952.

He was a delegate to the 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1948 Democratic National Conventions. He was a member of the New York State Democratic Committee in 1936 and 1948.

Wife and children[edit]

On June 12, 1914, he married Rea Kaufmann (b. June 12, 1893 NYC). They had two children: June Eleanor (b. August 12, 1917)[17] and Speaker Stanley Steingut (1920–1989).


  1. ^ a b c "Assemblyman Steingut Dies at 58". New York Times. September 27, 1952. p. 1. Retrieved June 20, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "Steingut, Minority Leader, Dies at 58". Brooklyn Eagle. September 27, 1952. p. 2. Retrieved June 23, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Schlegel, Carl Wilhelm, Schlegel's German-American Families in America (New York: American HIstorical Society: 1916-1918), Volume 3 ("Schlegel"), p. 110.
  4. ^ a b c d "‘Mayor of Second Avenue‘ Dies". New York Times. March 12, 1919. Retrieved June 17, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c Krase, Jerome & Charles LaCerra, Ethnicity and Machine Politics (Lanham, Md: University Press of America: c1991) ("Krase & LaCerra"), p. 78.
  6. ^ "Simon Steingut Weds Again". New York Press. April [11], 1894. Retrieved June 23, 2013. 
  7. ^ "Steingut Wife Gone". [New York] World. July 19, 1896. Retrieved June 23, 2013. 
  8. ^ a b "Steingut Happy, If Divorced". [New York] Sun. September 5, 1903. p. 12. Retrieved June 20, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Courts Ready to Reopen". New York Times. January 4, 1903. Retrieved June 21, 2013. 
  10. ^ a b "Mayor Steingut's Wife Sues". [New York] Sun. January 2, 1903. Retrieved June 20, 2013. 
  11. ^ "Divorced from Steingut". [New York] Sun. April 17, 1903. Retrieved June 21, 2013. 
  12. ^ "'Mayor’ Demands New Divorce Laws". New York Herald. November 25, 1903. p. 5. Retrieved June 23, 2013. 
  13. ^ "Mrs. Simon Steingut". New York Times. June 24, 1957. Retrieved June 21, 2013. 
  14. ^ Real Estate Record and Bullders’ Guide, Volume 71 (New York: F.W. Dodge Corp: 1903), p. 857.
  15. ^ a b Malcolm, James (ed.), New York Red Book (Albany: J.B. Lyon: 1922), pp. 132-33
  16. ^ a b Mosher, Clinton L. (January 19, 1930). "McCooey Wins Assembly Rule for Steingut". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. p. 1. Retrieved July 1, 2013. 
  17. ^ a b Schlegel, p. 111.
  18. ^ a b c "How Our 'Little Mayors' Help Run the City". New York Times. March 5, 1905. Retrieved June 19, 2013. 
  19. ^ Krase & LaCerra, pp. 79-80, citing New York Times, January 23, 1901, p. 3.
  20. ^ "Seven Men Held as Bogus Lawyers". New York Times. October 20, 1915. Retrieved June 22, 2013. 
  21. ^ "For a New Theatre in Second Avenue". [New York] Morning Telegraph. January 26, 1903. p. 7. Retrieved June 23, 2013. 
  22. ^ a b c "Former 'Mayor of Second Ave.' Dead". [New York] Sun. March 12, 1919. p. 14. Retrieved June 23, 2013. 
  23. ^ "East Side Barons at Outs, and War Impends". New York Herald. February 7, 1911. p. 13. Retrieved June 23, 2013. 
  24. ^ "Mayor of Second Avenue to Rival George V. at Coronation". [New York] Evening Telegram. May 22, 1911. p. 6. Retrieved June 24, 2013. 
  25. ^ "Second Av. Mayor Going to Coronation". New York Times. June 5, 1911. Retrieved June 24, 2013. 
  26. ^ "Steingut; He's Won It". New-York Tribune. December 23, 1912. p. 5. Retrieved June 25, 2013. 
  27. ^ "Funeral of Chas. S. Adler". [New York] Sun. April 10, 1911. p. 7. Retrieved June 20, 2013. 
  28. ^ Krase & LaCerra, p. 81
  29. ^ Mosher, Clinton L. (January 22, 1934). "Death Ends the Career of Best Known Old School Democratic Leader in the U.S.". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. p. 3. Retrieved June 27, 2013. 
  30. ^ "McCooey Noted for Ability in Accumulating Patronage". New York Sun. January 22, 1934. p. 3. Retrieved June 29, 2013. 
  31. ^ "Brooklyn Gossip: Sad Days for McCooey". New-York Daily Tribune. January 23, 1910. p. 4. Retrieved June 29, 2013. 
  32. ^ Krase & LaCerra, p. 253.
  33. ^ Krase & LaCerra, p. 28.
  34. ^ Krase & LaCerra, p. 81.
  35. ^ "NY Assembly 41 [1910]". Our Campaigns.  Accessed June 29, 2013
  36. ^ "NY Assembly 41 [1917]". Our Campaigns.  Accessed June 29, 2013
  37. ^ "NY Assembly 41 [1921]". Our Campaigns.  Accessed June 29, 2013. See also "Assembly". Brooklyn Standard Union. November 9, 1921. p. 4. Retrieved 2013. 
New York Assembly
Preceded by
Theodore Stitt
New York State Assembly
Kings County, 18th District

Succeeded by
Stanley Steingut
Political offices
Preceded by
Peter J. Hamill
Minority Leader in the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Irving Ives
Preceded by
Joseph A. McGinnies
Speaker of the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Irving Ives
Preceded by
Irving Ives
Minority Leader in the New York State Assembly
Succeeded by
Eugene F. Bannigan