Robert F. Wagner Jr.

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Robert F. Wagner Jr.
Wagner greets the Little Rock Nine (1958)
Personal Representative of the President to the Holy See
In office
November 28, 1978 – January 16, 1981
PresidentJimmy Carter
Preceded byDavid Walters
Succeeded byWilliam A. Wilson
United States Ambassador to Spain
In office
June 24, 1968 – March 7, 1969
PresidentLyndon B. Johnson
Richard Nixon
Preceded byFrank E. McKinney
Succeeded byRobert C. Hill
102nd Mayor of New York City
In office
January 1, 1954 – December 31, 1965
Preceded byVincent R. Impellitteri
Succeeded byJohn Lindsay
14th President of the United States Conference of Mayors
In office
Preceded byJohn Hynes
Succeeded byNorris Poulson
17th Borough President of Manhattan
In office
January 1, 1950 – December 31, 1953
Preceded byHugo Rogers
Succeeded byHulan Jack
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the 16th New York County district
In office
January 1, 1938 – January 13, 1942
Preceded byWilliam Schwartz
Succeeded byJohn P. Morrissey
Personal details
Robert Ferdinand Wagner II

(1910-04-20)April 20, 1910
New York City, U.S.
DiedFebruary 12, 1991(1991-02-12) (aged 80)
New York City, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Susan Edwards
(m. 1942; died 1964)
Barbara Cavanagh
(m. 1965; div. 1971)
(m. 1975)
Children2, including Robert III
RelativesRobert F. Wagner (father)

Robert Ferdinand Wagner II (April 20, 1910 – February 12, 1991) was an American diplomat and politician who served three terms as the mayor of New York City from 1954 through 1965. When running for his third term, he broke with the Tammany Hall leadership, ending the clubhouse's reign in city politics. He also served as United States Ambassador to Spain and in a number of other offices.

Early life and career[edit]

Wagner was born in Yorkville, Manhattan, the son of Margaret Marie (McTague) and German-born United States Senator Robert Ferdinand Wagner. He attended Taft School and graduated from Yale University in 1933, where he was on the business staff of campus humor magazine The Yale Record and became a member of Scroll and Key (as was John Lindsay, his successor as mayor). He attended Harvard Business School and the Graduate School of International Studies in Geneva. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1937.[1]

Wagner was a member of the New York State Assembly (New York Co., 16th D.) in 1938, 1939–40 and 1941–42. He resigned his seat on January 13, 1942, and joined the Army Air Corps to fight in World War II, where he served as an intelligence officer.[2] Wagner held the rank of lieutenant colonel with the 19th Tactical Air Command and was awarded a Bronze Star Medal.[3] After the war, he served as City Tax Commissioner, Commissioner of Housing and Buildings, and Chairman of the City Planning Commission. He was Borough President of Manhattan from 1950 to 1953. He also served as delegate to numerous Democratic conventions, and was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1956.[2]


Although New York City Comptroller Lazarus Joseph usually sided in the New York City Board of Estimate with Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri during the latter's term in office, Joseph supported Wagner for the Democratic nomination for mayor in the 1953 primary election, calling Wagner a "sure winner."[4]

His nomination and election as New York City mayor in 1953 caused a rift in the Democratic Party, and instigated a long-standing feud between Eleanor Roosevelt and Carmine DeSapio, Boss of Tammany Hall. Mrs. Roosevelt was a Wagner supporter, and DeSapio offered only reluctant support to Wagner until 1961, when Wagner ran for a third term on an anti-Tammany platform, which eventually helped end DeSapio's leadership.

During Wagner's tenure as New York City's mayor, he built public housing and schools, created the City University of New York system, established the right of collective bargaining for city employees, and barred housing discrimination based on race, creed, or color. He was the first mayor to hire significant numbers of people of color in city government. His administration also saw the development of Lincoln Center and brought Shakespeare to Central Park. In the fall of 1957 after the Dodgers and Giants left New York City he appointed a commission to determine whether New York City could host another National League baseball team, eventually leading to the Mets franchise being awarded to New York City.[2]

During his years in office, the city experienced the visit of a number of notables from around the world. In January, 1957, President Eisenhower invited King Saud to the United States to discuss strategies for resolving the Suez crisis. Wagner refused Eisenhower's request of a ticker tape parade for the King and even refused to greet him formally, stating that the Muslim ruler was anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic, all of which was "a crude appeal to the prejudices of the hyphenated voters."[5] He did greet Queen Elizabeth II later in 1957. He also rearranged his schedule to meet with the Little Rock Nine and give them a tour of New York City Hall.[6]

In 1956, Wagner ran on the Democratic and Liberal tickets for U.S. Senator from New York, but was defeated by Republican Jacob K. Javits.[2] In 1957 and 1958, Wagner served as president of the United States Conference of Mayors.[7]

Like his father, Wagner was aligned with Tammany Hall for much of his career. However, when he sought a third term in 1961, Wagner broke with Carmine DeSapio and won the Democratic primary anyway, beginning the decline of machine politics in New York City.[2]

By the early 1960s, Wagner became concerned about the image of New York City in preparation for the 1964 World's Fair and began a controversial campaign to rid New York City of gay bars. The city revoked the bars' liquor licenses and used undercover police officers to entrap as many homosexual men as possible.[8]

In February 1962, Wagner quit the New York Athletic Club because it barred African Americans and Jews from becoming members.[9]

The New York Preservation Archive Project described Wagner's contribution to preservation as "complex." While he saved Carnegie Hall from demolition in 1960, he was also mayor at the time of the controversial demolition of the original Penn Station, which began on October 28, 1963. In 1965, he signed the law that created the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.[10]

In 1965, Wagner decided not to run for a fourth term as mayor. Four years later, however, he ran for mayor again, but lost the Democratic primary. In 1973, he talked with the city's five Republican county chairmen about running for Mayor as a Republican, but these negotiations collapsed.[1]

A 1993 survey of historians, political scientists and urban experts conducted by Melvin G. Holli of the University of Illinois at Chicago ranked Wagner as the seventeenth-best American big-city mayor to have served between the years 1820 and 1993.[11]


After deciding not to run for a fourth term in 1965, Wagner served as ambassador to Spain from June 1968 to March 1969. In that year, he decided to run for a fourth term but was soundly beaten by Mario Procaccino in the Democratic primary. He also made a brief run four years later, but withdrew before the primary took place. In 1978 he was appointed by Jimmy Carter to be his representative to the Vatican, where the College of Cardinals had recently elected John Paul II.[2]

Personal life[edit]

Wagner was a Roman Catholic.[2]

Wagner's first wife was Susan Edwards, by whom he had two sons, Robert Ferdinand Wagner III and Duncan. Susan Wagner died of lung cancer in 1964. By all accounts, the two had a very happy marriage, and although Susan was not particularly fond of politics, she enjoyed traveling with her husband and meeting many famous people. Susan was described as optimistic, cheerful, kind, and always happy. According to his friends, Mayor Wagner was "lonely and depressed" after the death of his first wife.[1]

He married Barbara Cavanagh in 1965. They divorced in 1971. Wagner married Phyllis Fraser, widow of Bennett Cerf, in 1975. They lived together until his death in 1991. Her five-floor townhouse at 132 East 62nd Street, designed by Denning & Fourcade, "was so magnetic that the statesman moved in."[12]

Death and legacy[edit]

He died in Manhattan of heart failure in 1991, aged 80, while he was being treated for bladder cancer.[1] His funeral mass was offered by Cardinal William Wakefield Baum at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and he was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens. "Mr. Wagner was buried beside the graves of his father, United States Senator Robert F. Wagner, and mother, Margaret, and first wife, Susan Edwards Wagner, and not far from the grave of New York's Governor Al Smith."[13]

The Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University is named in his honor, as is the Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park in Battery Park City and the Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology in Long Island City.

Wagner's papers, photographs, artifacts and other materials are housed at the New York City Municipal Archives and at La Guardia and Wagner Archives.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Clarity, James F. (February 13, 1981). "Robert Wagner, 80, Pivotal New York Mayor, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved March 17, 2010. Robert Ferdinand Wagner, who oversaw a vivid transformation of the city's politics and even its personality in three terms as Mayor, died early yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 80 years old. The police and emergency medical technicians were summoned at 3:30 am to his town house on East 62d Street, where the ailing former Mayor was pronounced dead of heart failure. He had been suffering from bladder cancer.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Backes, Aaron D. (January 10, 2021). "Robert F. Wagner Jr. - History Of New York City Mayors". Retrieved February 9, 2022.
  3. ^ "Air Force Award Cards (Bronze Star): Trace, Clyde - Watzig, Francis". U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. May 20, 1945. Retrieved March 30, 2024.
  4. ^ "JOSEPH TO SUPPORT WAGNER IN PRIMARY AS A 'SURE' WINNER; Controller Says Impellitteri Could Not Carry the City in General Election MAYOR VOICES CONFIDENCE Halley Accepts Bid to Talks on Balking Vote Frauds but Blaikie Rejects It JOSEPH TO SUPPORT WAGNER IN VOTING" (PDF). The New York Times.
  5. ^ * Bailey, Thomas A (1980). A Diplomatic History of the American People, Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 0-13-214726-2, pp. 5.
  6. ^ "The Little Rock Nine". Retrieved February 3, 2021.
  7. ^ "Leadership". The United States Conference of Mayors. November 23, 2016. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
  8. ^ * Carter, David (2004). Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-34269-1, pp. 29–37.
  9. ^ Hunt, Richard P. (February 10, 1962). "Mayor Quits Club Over Bias Charge; He Notes Allegations That the New York A.C. Bars Negroes and Jews Accused by 2 Groups Wagner Quits New York A.C. After Hearing Charge of Bias Rules on Entry Attorney General Quit". The New York Times. Retrieved November 30, 2015.
  10. ^ "Robert F. Wagner, Jr. |". Retrieved February 9, 2022.
  11. ^ Holli, Melvin G. (1999). The American Mayor. University Park: PSU Press. ISBN 0-271-01876-3.
  12. ^ Max Abelson (February 12, 2007). "Wendy's Warren". The New York Observer. Archived from the original on March 16, 2008. Retrieved September 27, 2007.
  13. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (February 17, 1991). "Mourners Recall Wagner as Man Of Subtle Grace". The New York Times. Retrieved January 2, 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Flanagan, Richard M. Robert Wagner and the Rise of New York City's Plebiscitary Mayoralty: The Tamer of the Tammany Tiger (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
  • Morris, Charles R. The cost of good intentions: New York City and the liberal experiment, 1960–1975 (1981).
  • Sayre, Wallace S. and Herbert Kaufman, Governing New York City: Politics in the Metropolis (1965) 782pp
  • Taylor, Clarence. "Robert Wagner, Milton Galamison and the Challenge to New York City Liberalism." Afro-Americans in New York Life and History (2007) 31#2 pp: 121.
  • John C. Walker,The Harlem Fox: J. Raymond Jones at Tammany 1920:1970, New York: State University New York Press, 1989.

External links[edit]

New York State Assembly
Preceded by New York State Assembly, New York County 16th District
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Borough President of Manhattan
Succeeded by
Preceded by Mayor of New York City
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic Nominee for U.S. Senate from New York (Class 3)
Succeeded by
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by U.S. Ambassador to Spain
Succeeded by