Originally appeared in Life on February 7, 1938
Photographs by Margaret Bourke-White
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2004
Jersey City, N. J., is an industrial and shipping centre of 3120,000 population sprawled on the west bank of the Hudson River and New York Bay. Since 1917 it has been run by a mayor named Frank Hague who is also the Democratic boss of New Jersey and member of the Democratic National Committee.
Long Mayor Hague's prime talking point in attracting new industries to his city has been its freedom from labor troubles. When the C.I.O. sent some 40 circular-passers swarming into Jersey City one day last November, the mayor's large, vigorous and vigilant police force jailed a few for breaking his law against distributing printed matter without his permission and ran the others out of town. The C.I.O. could find no Jersey City hall-owner who dared rent it a place for a mass meeting. A battle of headlines has been raging ever since.
Mayor Hague, backed by his political henchmen, Chamber of Commerce and veterans, has been bawling "Red Communists!" at the C.I.O. and its supporters. The C.I.O. has been roaring back "Fascist!" and "Dictator" at Hague. Out of the tumult, the Mayor of Jersey City has suddenly burgeoned big and menacing on the political horizon of America. Boss Hague at 62 is tall, lean, fit and, as may be seen in the portrait, the owner of one of the most imperious and arrogant faces in the world. A born leader since his boyhood days in Jersey City's toughest slums, he is still loud, profane and ungrammatical, but he dresses with conservative elegance. He likes horse racing and prize fights, goes on frequent jaunts to Miami, Saratoga, Europe, consorts with the top-notch Democrats of the nation who know they need his support to carry Jersey. A devout Irish Catholic, he neither drinks nor smokes, permits no houses of prostitution in the city where he says, with no one to dispute him, "I am the Law!"
Hague rules Jersey City by the oldtime boss methods of fear, force and favor. His is the most powerful local political machine left in the U. S. He differs from the conventional boss in only two ways: 1) He has chosen to hold office, though putting his puppets in the Governor's chair, in Congress and on the bench. 2) As the long-secure ruler of a city 95% composed of humble working folk, he is more blatant and brazen than most in asserting his dominance, in defying his critics, in smashing his enemies and in enjoying the financial rewards of power.
But he lacks the imagination, the ambition and the rabble-rousing eloquence of a Hitler or a Huey Long. Hague's real peers - Tweed, Croker, Vare, Sulhvan, Ruef - are dead. The day of his kind is almost done. He is not a portent but a relic, not the First of the Dictators but the Last of the Bosses.
As such, he may be only a museum piece so far as the nation at large is concerned. But to the 320,000 citizens of Jersey City he is, as may be seen on the following pages, a grim, living omnipresent reality.
When the New York Post recently began printing a muckraking series of articles about Hague, its cir culation in Hague's domain jumped 6,000 overnight. Jersey citizens did not need to he told about their staggering tax burden. In his 20-year regime Hague has doubled the city's real-estate assessments, tripled its tax rate. The Post cites the case of a small German tailor who in 1918 paid $126 in taxes on a shop-home assessed at $7,300. Last year, though the neighbor hood has declined, the tailor's property was assessed at $16,,200 and his taxes were $726. Hague has also increased the city's debt 500%.
Though his salary as mayor is only $6,520 per year, Boss Hague lives luxuriously, has acquired a large personal fortune. But even when his refusal to answer questions got him arrested for contempt of New Jersey's Legislature during an investigation in 1928, he has steadfastly declined to specify the sources of his wealth. In 1930 he paid $60,000 to settle income-tax troubles with the Federal Government.