The Old Days

By Cook, James | American Heritage, October 1995 | Go to article overview

The Old Days


Cook, James, American Heritage


He looked just as you always remembered him. There was that trim, dapper stance, the black hair sleek against the head, the signature black mustache. Unmistakably Thomas E. Dewey. The man who couldn't lose the 1948 presidential election and nonetheless did. He was dressed severely in a dark striped suit, a bit more formally than any of the other guests on the yacht, the Forbes Highlander. But after all, he was a public eminence, somewhat grayer, older than he was when he was shaking up the rackets during my childhood or, later, when he was governor of New York and then running for the Presidency of the United States: in 1944 against Franklin Roosevelt and in 1948 against Harry Truman.

I seem to remember that he carried a cane that day, perhaps as much for show as for any need of it. He was in his early sixties by then but was as vigorous looking as ever. His wife was with him, a pretty, rather wan-looking woman with reddish hair now streaked with gray. They seated themselves in a protected corner of the yacht by the rail and stayed there most of the day, holding court with the other guests rather than wandering about and exploring the boat as everyone else did.

The year was sometime in the mid-sixties, and the occasion was a day-long trip up the Hudson River to a fall football game at West Point, an excursion that in those days Forbes magazine conducted on most weekends during the season when there were home games. It was an exclusive and somehow memorable event, one that the executive guests and their wives were flattered to have been invited to, especially since it seemed a family affair her than some sort of promotion, with the Forbes children dressed in kilts and playing bagpipes to lend a note of Scottish thrift to what was otherwise a luxurious occasion.

My wife and I were there because I worked for the magazine, and the others because they represented the magazine's constituency. The guest list included the heads of some of the country's largest and most powerful corporations, and afterward we would recount the incidents of that afternoon in corporate terms - what Mr. and Mrs. Rockwell Manufacturing said to Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Aircraft, or what Mrs. Kimberly-Clark said to Mr. General Telephone: "Well, if junior wants his own plane, I suppose we'll have to let him have one." That sort of thing.

The Deweys were always the Deweys, though maybe he would be called "Governor." He spoke in that famous deep and rich and beautifully modulated voice, and recounted in measured tones the considerable achievements of his tenure as governor of New York. Most conspicuously, there was the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson, under whose erratically curved span The Highlander passed that morning. It was an accomplishment Dewey ranked with the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway, which, as it happened, crossed the bridge on its five-hundred-mile route from New York to Buffalo. The bridge was located where it was, Dewey explained, for sheerly political reasons - thirty miles north of the City of New York and just beyond the jurisdiction of the New York Port Authority and the formidable highways czar Robert Moses.

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