By Robert G. Fichenberg
The Greek poet/philosopher/playwright Euripides and Robert Paley lived 16 centuries apart, but Euripides could have had someone like Bob in mind when he wrote:
"When good men die, their goodness does not perish,
But lives though they are gone. As for the bad,
All that was theirs dies and is buried with them.”
Bob Paley was a good man and when he died much too early in 1974, his work was not completed, but his goodness did not perish, for it lives in collections of his remarkable photographic art, as well as in the hearts of his family, his friends, his newspaper colleagues and all others who came to know him. His good works live on, too, in the Albany community that he loved so much that he dared to point out its flaws as well as its uniqueness, using his camera as his tool.
Bob was one of a team of talented, dedicated photographers I was fortunate to inherit when I came to Albany from the Binghamton Press in 1957 to become managing editor of The Knickerbocker News, an afternoon newspaper in fierce competition with the morning and Sunday Times-Union.
“The Knick,” as it was fondly known by its staff and many of its readers, was then housed in a nondescript building situated on Beaver Street, just off State Street, in a grimy downtown area largely populated by gamblers, prostitutes and other hustlers, and referred to as “the Gut.” However, the shabby building was somewhat of a historical site, for a plaque in the lobby proclaimed it the birthplace of Bret Harte, a onetime newspaper colleague of Mark Twain and a popular author of stories about the American West in the early 19th Century. The Associated Press’s state capital bureau occupied a cramped, airless third-floor loft in “The Knick’s” building in a setting right out of a Charles Dickens novel. Just a few steps from the newspaper’s offices, however, was Keeler’s, then one of America’s finest restaurants and the favorite meeting-and-eating place of state political leaders and the city’s movers and shakers.
IT WAS THE beginning of an era of political and social turbulence and change in the United States. Three years previously the U.S. Supreme Court in its unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision, ordered the desegregation of public schools. Resistance followed. A week after I arrived in Albany, President Eisenhower ordered troops of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine black students as they entered Little Rock High School against the violence of a mob and the passive resistance of the governor, Orval Faubus. We ran an eight-column photo of the scene on Page One of The Knickerbocker News.
Dan O'Connell (center), Jimmy Williams (right)
Soon thereafter, the civil rights movement would be in full sway throughout the nation and particularly in the South. And within a few years the Vietnam War would rend the nation and create deep wounds. It would be a decade of protests, violence and political upheaval tearing at the democratic fabric of communities. But in Albany city and county, it was, from the political standpoint, as if all this was happening on another planet. The powerful O’Connell political machine continued to operate as if it were still back in the 1920s and ‘30s, when ward leaders were neighborhood chieftains, dissent was not tolerated and certain people were expected to “know their place.”
During this period, the Hearst Corporation purchased The Knickerbocker News, bringing both of Albany’s daily newspapers under single ownership, and The Knickerbocker News, with the full support of a courageous publisher, Gene Robb, began expanding its reportorial and editorial focus on Albany’s city and county governments, and the Democratic O’Connell political machine that ran them as a private fiefdom.
THE MACHINE WAS quick to retaliate and attempt to intimidate the newspaper, utilizing the same tactics O’Connell used in the early 1940s in thwarting investigations by Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who had been elected largely on his record as a crusading crime-fighting New York County district attorney. When Dewey launched a special grand jury probe of Albany County, Dan O’Connell had his henchmen open a county grand jury investigation of the Republican-dominated state legislature. GOP leaders, who feared indictments by a grand jury composed of loyal O’Connell Democrats and O’Connell’s hand-picked county DA, begged Dewey to back off and reach a compromise with O’Connell. Dewey, who as New York County district attorney had won national fame for his successful prosecution of major organized crime figures and had vowed during his gubernatorial campaign to put Dan O’Connell in jail within a year of his election, backed off his Albany investigation and reached a compromise with O’Connell’s emissaries. The agreement: You don’t investigate us and we won’t investigate you.
Thus, when The Knickerbocker News reported that a black man named Sam Clark was in St Peters Hospital with severe injuries after he reportedly had been beaten by Albany police when he tried to explain to them why he had parked his car in a no-parking zone, Mayor Erastus Corning asked the district attorney, John T. Garry II, to investigate. Garry complied, but it wasn’t the Albany police that Garry and the grand jury investigated. It was The Knickerbocker News. We were considered the troublemakers.
This pattern continued.
In 1963, Russell Broughton, a shy, soft-spoken telephone company executive, a former “Albany Methodist Man of the Year”, and service club member who suffered from a heart condition for which he had to carry a bottle of nitroglycerin pills wherever he went, was on his way to work when he stopped as he noticed Albany police beating and manhandling a young black man. When told to move, Broughton asked why the police were beating the young man. He was abruptly arrested, taken to a detention cell, fingerprinted and later lined up in front of the booking desk with other prisoners and handcuffed to the black prisoner with whom he had been arrested. He was charged with willfully and unlawfully interfering with the arresting officer. A lawyer, after a private meeting with the police justice, advised Broughton to sign a release promising not to sue the city if charges were dropped. Meanwhile the story got out and a typical Albany grand jury investigation began. To no one’s surprise, the focus was not on the police, but on Broughton, who somehow was cast as the defendant, and, of course, on the newspapers, for having embarrassed City Hall by reporting the story.
ONE OF THE most hilarious Albany county grand jury investigations, in retrospect, was District Attorney Garry’s probe of reports of votes being bought for $5 each. After newspaper reports of vote buying reached a crescendo, Mayor Corning gave a pretty fair imitation of actor Claude Rains playing Police Captain Renault in the film classic “Casablanca”, and declaring that he was “shocked! shocked!” to hear that there was gambling going on in Humphrey Bogart’s café. Corning asked DA Garry to investigate and Garry topped Corning by announcing with a straight face that he would prosecute “both the giver and the taker” of the bribes. This, of course, was absurd, and it effectively killed the investigation before it started, for no recipient of a $5 vote-buying bill was going testify against the giver, knowing that he or she would be punished along with the giver.
When a group of young black men, calling themselves the Brothers, organized to promote racial harmony and the treatment of all Albany residents with dignity, regardless of race, they were harassed by the machine.
A black South End social worker and activist named George Bunch quickly learned how wrong he was when he concluded that an unfortunate incident had been settled amicably when he apologized to the family of a 12-year-old girl he had impetuously slapped after she had called him a derogatory name when he had told her to leave Trinity Institute for causing a disturbance. The father was a city fireman – and remember: at that time no one was hired by the city without the machine’s approval. Bunch learned, and The Knickerbocker News reported, that the girl’s parents had sworn out a warrant for his arrest on a third degree assault charge. More shockingly, our newspaper reported that Mayor Corning had summoned the judge who was to hear the case to City Hall for a discussion, an unethical move on its face. Then, in a scene right out of Kafka, the judge sent Bunch to jail without bail pending a mental examination – an unheard of action considering the charge.
The machine’s influence even extended into the operations of charitable organizations, which learned that when they failed to toe the O’Connell machine line and dispense funds according to the machine’s wishes, their funding somehow soon was diverted, reduced or eliminated.
When I wrote an editorial declaring that Albany County grand juries were “whitewashing” politically sensitive cases, I was summoned before a grand jury to explain, which I did, citing examples. It was not a pleasant experience fielding hostile questions from a machine DA and a jury of 23 loyal O’Connell Democrats.
WHEN THE county’s scandalous purchasing practices attracted the attention of the State Investigation Commission (SIC) as the result of a series of investigative stories by the Albany newspapers, Carl Vergari, then chief investigator for the commission, asked me what I thought the O’Connell machine’s reaction would be. I told him that the county grand jury probably would investigate the commission. Vergari was stunned. But it wasn’t long before Albany grand jury subpoenas were issued for several members of Vergari’s staff. It was the old Dewey ploy.
During this period, publisher Gene Robb insisted on being subpoenaed by the grand juries that were subpoenaing his editors. On one occasion, Robb, who suffered from a serious heart ailment and had been ordered by his doctor to rest several times a day while at his office, sat for more than five hours on a hard bench in a hot and stuffy corridor outside the grand jury room before the DA finally called him into the grand jury room and, after a few perfunctory questions, dismissed him.
With the deaths of Dan O’Connell and Erastus Corning, the corrupt political machine that had run Albany for more than a half century gradually disintegrated and was replaced by a series of more responsive and forward-looking Democratic administrations.
Bob Paley did not live to see the transformation. During the era of the O’Connell machine’s domination of Albany, Bob Paley was deeply moved and concerned over what was transpiring in his community and his country. He had compassion long before the word was corrupted by political hacks who used it for campaign slogans. He expressed his compassion with his keen eye for detail and his camera --- not by distorting, editorializing, or “spinning,” but by portraying people and situations exactly as they were. The result was a portfolio of unforgettable and haunting photos.
Bob’s daughter Mary recently sent me a disk containing several dozen of her father’s typical photos and in seeing them again I remembered that this remarkable man was really a poet with a camera.
There were beautiful young Arbor Hill school graduates, proudly wearing their caps and gowns. There was a rollicking July 4th party in a largely Italian South Pearl Street neighborhood. There were the children of the working poor in the St. John’s day care center. There were the splendidly dressed young ladies of Holy Names Academy, marching to their graduation in a single column as straight as a West Point formation.
There were especially moving photos of migrant workers and their children, including a close-up of a worker old beyond his years; his lined and tired face, dull eyes, and calloused hands telling his story better than any words. A photo captioned “An uncle comes calling” shows an aged, bent black man climbing the steps to a migrant workers’ shack to the outstretched arms of his smiling nieces and nephews. It is a work of art.
Photos of inmates in overcrowded Letchworth Village, a state institution for the mentally retarded, included unbearable-to-look-at views of unsupervised small children in their disheveled and soiled uniforms, staring into space, and adults jammed into a crowded “recreation room” with obviously nothing to do but wait out their time.
THEN THERE WERE the civil rights warriors: the charismatic Olivia Rorie and personable Leon Van Dyke, leader of the Brothers; the flamboyant Sam McDowell, and the politicos --- Dan O’Connell in his trademark felt fedora, the ubiquitous Ryan brothers, the elegant Erastus Corning and ever-smiling Governor Nelson Rockefeller. A crowd scene at a Democratic County Committee meeting looked as if the participants had been recruited from Central Casting for a film version of the book, “The Last Hurrah,” a fictionalized novel about James Curley, Boston’s version of Dan O’Connell.
With what a Washington Post reporter called “his oily pompadour, curling lip and diminutive stature,” Alabama Governor George C. Wallace brought his presidential campaign and message of hate to Albany’s Capitol Park in 1968. A large group of SUNY students prepared a surprise for him. Bob Paley recorded the event in a series of memorable photos. Wallace’s trademark speech was a rant against gays, hippies, desegregation (which he described as a violation of states’ rights) and those he described sneeringly as “pointy-headed liberals.” When he arrived at Capitol Park, the SUNY students had broken up into several groups. One group waved signs saying, “Gays for Wallace”, another group held signs saying “Hippies for Wallace.” And a third group held a sign saying, “If You Liked Hitler, You’ll Love George Wallace.” Wallace was furious and one of his aides approached a state police officer to demand that the troopers eject the SUNY demonstrators. The troopers refused. This was not Alabama.
Among Bob Paley’s qualities was a puckish sense of humor, evidenced in a photo showing a group of nude female department store window dummies being unloaded from a truck on a North Pearl Street sidewalk, as several male passersby steal furtive glances.
In a culture and society in which many spend their lives in aimless pursuits of money, power, prestige, celebrity, or playing it safe, Bob Paley stood out. He made his craft a noble calling.
In his all-too-brief life, he made a difference.
No one could ask more.
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Bob Fichenberg was managing editor and later executive editor of The Knickerbocker News from 1957 to 1978, when he went to Washington DC to become Washington Bureau Chief of the Newhouse Newspapers. He lived in Alexandria, VA until he passed away at the age of 85 on June 4, 2005.